Koerth-Baker

Energy and Progressives

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2011


I’m going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it’s a really effective introduction to contemporary energy issues. Maggie Koerth-Baker makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about. This is not a book of academic Environmental History. But it’s about energy, and it has a historical element. And I like my EnvHist reading to be about more than just the academic literature, and I’d especially like them to be relevant to current issues.


That said, I think that in addition to the story of how the power grid got to be the way it is, the other interesting historical element in Koerth-Baker’s account is the Progressive idea she seems to channel that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism from a hundred years ago -- not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they’ve taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.


The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between “what the activists thought the public believed” and what has actually inspired people to change their energy behaviors in the past (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it’s a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding
actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they’re alarmed about global warming? Should we?


“Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more),” Koerth-Baker says. “Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn’t done much to solve our energy problems” (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn’t spread too evenly across the population. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it’s probably important to think about.


One of Koerth-Baker’s big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time discussing, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it’s difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. That seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources removed demand from the grid, they’d be self-balancing. That’s a way to implement alternative power sources Koerth-Baker fails to adequately explore.


Rural America didn’t get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: “it’s not the planet that needs saving. It’s our way of life. More important, I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share” (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we “won’t get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis” (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn’t exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.


Energy isn’t obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it’s hard to see in spite of being all around us. “People don’t make a choice between ‘undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company’ and ‘go without a DVR,’” she says. “They simply decide how they’d prefer to watch TV and don’t have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to” (because they’re always on, DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: “Conservation says, ‘Don’t do it.’ Efficiency says, ‘Do it better.’ That’s a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we—human beings, that is—have been, where we’re going, and what we’re afraid of,” she says (pp. 143-144). Koerth-Baker can’t seem to get to the point of admitting that things can’t go on as they have – can’t acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So she’s left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


“You have to give people insights, not data,” she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, “There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family—free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security—I don’t know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he’d have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well” (p. 144). Okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had were the two she mentions. That’s anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big
systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the effects and externalities of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.


At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says “A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy—like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone” (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn’t another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Or even asking a local, and relying on some of that informal
MÄ“tis knowledge James Scott was talking about in Seeing Like a State? Wouldn’t that be the best way to do efficiency and conservation?