Today's Guest Blog comes from Amanda Little author ofPower Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—Our Ride to the Renewable Futurewho hopes her new approach and writing style can invigorate new interest in America's energy future.
Most books about energy should be classified, along with Valerian and Excedrin PM, as over-the-counter sleeping aids.
If they’re not wonky or technical, they’re gloomy and depressing.
That may help explain why so many Americans are asleep at the wheel as we barrel toward a radical and imminent shift in our energy landscape – toward the U-turn leading to our post-petroleum future.
In the interest of rounding that turn with our eyes open, I’ve tried to come up with a non-drowsy version of the story – a wonk-free, big-picture, solutions-oriented story that maps out America’s energy past, present and future in simple terms and full color.
It wasn’t hard to do.
Nothing – nothing – has had a greater impact on American culture, ecology, commerce, and politics than our epic and troubled love affair with fossil fuels. This is, without exaggeration, the most important story of our time. Far from tedious, it’s the stuff of soap operas (remember “Dallas”?). It’s a tale of scheming villains and inspired inventors; of wars lost and won; of political corruption and cultural coups; of technological barriers and breakthroughs; of barren lands and bumper crops; of ecological peril and preservation. It’s a quintessentially American story–one of luxury, greed, ambition, innovation, and white-knuckle progress.
It’s also for me a personal story.
I’ve covered the environment beat for more than a decade—in particular, tracking, questioning, and often criticizing the oil and energy industries– only to have arrived at the shocking (however obvious) realization that I, too, have been and continue to be a passionate lover of petroleum, coal and natural gas—an enthusiastic consumer of gasoline, airplane rides, email, recorded music, glossy magazines, synthetic fabrics, FedEx, fast food, and so on.
I began to see that I had no real understanding of the magnitude of our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels, and my own participation in it — that I was guilty of the same, peculiarly American mix of willful ignorance, arrogance and relentless optimism that I’d been blaming others for. The only way to really understand our energy crisis, I realized, was to travel into the heart of it.
I set out on a cross-country power trip to explore strange and surprising frontiers of America’s energy landscape, venturing from an ultra-deep Gulf of Mexico oil rig to the cornfields of Kansas, from the Pentagon’s fuel-logistics division to the Talladega Superspeedway, from the operating room of a silicone breast implant into my home kitchen, from New York City’s electrical grid to laboratories creating the innovations of the clean-energy future.
Along the way, I discovered just how oil permeates our daily lives—from the shine on glossy magazine covers to life-saving pharmaceuticals to the food we eat.
Energy, I came to realize, is everything. It grows our crops, fights our wars, makes our plastic and medicines, warms our homes, moves our products and vehicles, and animates our cities.
I moved on to the logical next question — how did we develop this insatiable appetite for fossil fuels?
We can’t innovate our way out of this problem until we understand how it came to be.
- California Utility Wants to Buy More Solar Power
I took a tour through history to pinpoint pivotal moments in America’s energy addiction: the meeting in J.P. Morgan’s office in 1897 when Thomas Edison switched on the world’s first power plant, the Spindletop gusher in 1901 that threw open the era of cheap American oil, FDR's encounter with a Saudi king that set the stage for our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, General Motors’ decision (dating back to the 1950s) to sell big, tricked-out gas guzzlers rather than small, efficient cars. What I discovered was that oil and coal built the American superpower - even as they posed political and environmental dangers to the nation and the world.
History, I realized, teaches us that we can solve our energy crisis — that the same American ingenuity that got us into this mess will get us out of it.
Amanda Little is the author of Power Trip and has published widely on the environment, energy and technology for more than a decade.
She wrote “Muckracker,” a long-running syndicated weekly column on Salon.com and Grist.org, and “Code Green,” a monthly column on green innovations for Outside magazine, where she was a contributing editor.
Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wired, New York, Men’s Journal and the Washington Post.
She is the recipient of the Jane Bagley Lehman Award for excellence in environmental journalism. Amanda Little lives with her husband and daughter in Nashville, Tennessee.