Metaphor and Obama’s Sputnik Analogy

There is a fascinating take in Miller-McCune on President Obama’s recent speech in which the President compared America’s flagging international competitiveness to the period in the 1950s when the Soviet Union managed to put the first satellite into space. Embarrassed, enraged, and more than a little threatened by the Soviet success, the U.S. poured resources into research and development and ended up first on the Moon. Nevertheless, the President’s analogy (analogy being a kind of extended metaphor) got stuck on the launching pad. “Beyond the growing evidence that America is not No. 1 in the key arenas likely to drive the world out of economic malaise, Obama’s Sputnik analogy may not make for a very good fit,” Emily Badger writes.

Badger points out that it was more than just wounded national pride that motivated America to win the “space race” (another competitive metaphor, by the way). Sputnik was an impressive technological achievement as well as a direct military threat. Some people even equated the 1957 Soviet launch to Pearl Harbor. Obama’s analogy isn’t right because today both the stakes and the threats are totally different. In the 1950s, the priority was to make something happen: Win the space race by putting a man on the Moon. Today, the priority is to prevent something from happening: Reduce carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change. Different problems require different metaphors if people are to be motivated to solve those problems.

In terms of the environmental challenge, some argue that the term “global warming” is far too mild, suggesting a relaxed and possibly pleasant condition rather than one that is urgent and potentially catastrophic. Instead, they suggest that terms like “climate crisis” or even “climate cancer” would be more accurate and more likely to motivate changes in behavior. The term “greenhouse gases” may also be outdated. Few people have any direct knowledge of greenhouses these days, just as few people are likely to get the Sputnik analogy, so we need a more relevant metaphor.

Instead of our “Sputnik moment,” how about this analogy: This is our “ecological sub-prime mortgage crisis moment.” The analogy fits. The environmental crisis is a crisis of our own making, just as the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession were. The environmental crisis also has many of the same causes as the sub-prime mortgage crisis; namely, greed, unsustainable spending (of natural resources), and a self-defeating focus on short-term gains rather than long-term returns. Happily, the outcome of the environmental crisis can be directly affected by what we do, just like the sub-prime mortgage crisis: Live within our means.

“This is our ecological sub-prime mortgage crisis moment” is hardly stirring rhetoric, but it does remind people that the challenges we face relate to inner rather than to outer space and it does bring the distant, abstract prospect of “global warming” firmly down to earth.

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.