An artist’s rendering of a full-scale implementation of NASA’s OMEGA technology, which uses algae to wastewater into biofuel.
NASA An artist’s rendering of a full-scale implementation of NASA’s OMEGA technology, which uses algae to wastewater into biofuel.

At a recent event in New York City, on the same day that the federal government shut down, a friend grabbed my shoulders, shook me, and cried, "What's wrong with your city?" I laughed, then we sat down and commiserated on the state of affairs in my hometown of Washington, D.C. According to Rana Foroohar of Time, shutdowns "shave 0.2 percentage points off GDP growth per week," which is an economic hit the United States can ill afford—certainly not at our current anemic growth rate of 2 percent. Alas, the shutdown, and the accompanying tap dance about raising the debt ceiling, were just the latest manifestations of the extreme dysfunction that has become the norm here in the nation’s capital.

I had taken the train up to New York for "The Future of Energy," a day-long conference organized by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and sponsored by Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope. Presenter after presenter shared ideas that could significantly help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. (Buildings alone account for 65 percent of electricity consumption and 36 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)

With so many great minds and fine ideas on display, the conference had a surprise side-effect: It kept reminding me of the opportunities being lost as our elected representatives lurch from one manufactured crisis to another, with barely a moment to spare for the genuine problems that our nation faces.

A case in point: Jonathan Trent, the project scientist for NASA's Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae initiative, also known as OMEGA, presented his scalable, sustainable, and financially viable system for the cultivation of biofuel. Conventional biofuels are made from corn and other agricultural products, potentially causing increased global demand for them and raising prices in local food markets. (This was a major cause, along with unchecked Wall Street speculation, of the food riots that swept dozens of poorer countries in 2007–08.) OMEGA, by contrast, makes fuel from algae that grows in wastewater. So basically, your poop could power a jet engine.

While Trent's preliminary research benefited from $10 million in government funding, now he is being forced to look abroad for the opportunity to implement the technology: "I'm not too optimistic about this happening in the U.S. anytime soon," he says. The political support simply isn't there, despite decades of rhetoric about the necessity of U.S. energy independence.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, opened the conference by taking the broad view. A specialist in third-world markets, Sachs shifted his attention homeward when he concluded that the U.S. itself is faltering: "Not a day passes without more evidence of a prolonged jobs crisis; a growing inequality of income, wealth, and power; the corruption of national politics; and the lack of long-term planning on critical issues, such as the budget, energy policy, and education," he writes in his 2011 book The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Random House).

The failure to act on OMEGA biofuel exemplifies an absence of strategic thinking on the national scale. "Why don't we plan an energy policy when it is so manifestly evident that we need one?" Sachs writes. "Here, too, corporate power is the key reason." Not to mention willing politicians. Consider that the oil and gas industry spent $15 million on campaign contributions and $140 million on lobbying in 2012. That kind of money buys considerable resistance to change. Even environmentalists, blinkered by NIMBYism, are blocking low-carbon solutions such as solar and wind power—and, yes, algae biofuel. A more sustainable future will require accommodations by us all.