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Boing Boing Editor Makes Energy Policy an Illuminating Read

Science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker on her new book and whether there's hope for us yet.

| Sat May 5, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Maggie Koerth-Baker
Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us

Boing Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker has built a career out of demystifying complicated science and technology issues. With her recent book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, she set herself the gargantuan task of explaining the evolution and potential fates of American energy system—from our wood-stove days to the smart grid. It was commenters on Boing Boing, the popular little-bit-of-everything blog, who woke her up to the need for such a book. "The same bits of confusion would come up over and over again—people wouldn't understand how electricity worked and so on. There were a lot of little things that made it clear that even Boing Boing's well-educated, science-geekery population doesn't know the context behind a lot of the news they're reading." Nor do pols, in her experience: "Most of Congress doesn't understand any more about science than your mom."

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So she aimed her book at people who "might not even know that this is something interesting." And successfully so: Before the Lights Go Out, written in a jaunty, conversational tone, isn't the book for people seeking in-depth information about a particular topic, but it's a great introduction to this immensely complicated realm. While her own interest in energy is driven largely by concern about climate change, Koerth-Baker says her research helped her realize that others are concerned about it for different reasons: national security, cost savings, self-sufficiency. "I wanted to be able to do more to reach out to the kinds of people who are often overlooked or assumed to be inherently against these things."

She also didn't want to repeat well-trod green-tech stories. "I wanted it to be focusing on people who aren't usually the focus," Koerth-Baker says. "I want to cover these undercovered, underreported communities, and I really made an effort to go look for those things." She pored over local newspapers, pursued connections through friends and family members, and tracked down off-the-beaten-track tales of unlikely green energy champions. Courtesy WileyWiley

Accordingly, wonkish explanations of how batteries store energy and stats on how many BTUs we use each year are leavened with stories of people—like Bernice Dallas, a middle-class African-American woman and first-time homeowner who lives in a passive house in Urbana, Illinois—and initiatives like the Climate and Energy Project, a Kansas-based organization that seeks to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to talk about climate and energy issues. Beyond climate hawks, the CEP includes less obvious constituencies, including "hardline conservatives who thought climate change was a socialist plot" but who cared about energy for national security reasons, and Christians interested in Creation Care—which Koerth-Baker describes as the idea that "your Heavenly Father wants you to clean up after yourself."

To engage people of such disparate perspectives requires a departure from the shock-and-awe tactics practiced by some energy writers, Koerth-Baker thinks. With David Owen's recent book, The Conundrum, for instance, "I felt that there were so many chunks where we were saying the same thing but in really different ways. That kind of controversial, everything-you-think-you-know-is-wrong perspective gets attention but it isn't a good way to talk to people about stuff—if it's not perfect, it's terrible, so you start ruling out everything until there's nothing left." Instead, she argues, we need to "start thinking about doing things that are better than what's happening now. Look at the unintended consequences that could be out there, try to figure out which thing has the least problems. I think there's a way to talk to people about this that doesn't make them feel like they just have to go off and wait for the world to end."

And that's a tall order, she acknowledges: "All this stuff becomes so overwhelming that people just want to give it up." While Koerth-Baker hopes to help people understand the challenges we face, she's realistic about the limitations of solving energy problems through education alone. "It's not a good thing that people don't think about energy at all, but you can't expect everyone to become experts in it; you can't expect everyone to know everything."

So how can we make it easier to be thoughtful about our energy choices? Koerth-Baker is bullish on technologies that seek to embed information in our daily lives in a way that's easy to understand. When you bring out numbers, she says, people's "brains shut down"— visual graphics are more powerful and memorable. For example, Koerth-Baker points to ideas like an energy orb that changes colors to let consumers know how expensive electricity is at any given moment.

We also need "ways to build in that information without needing a news hook," she says. "One of the reasons we think more about transportation is because you're always out there filling up your gas tank." (Though of course, that's not a silver bullet either—you can fill up your tank while grumbling—erroneously—about how the president is responsible for high gas prices.)To that end, Koerth-Baker concludes her book on a hopeful note, avowing that we can solve our problems so long as we can muster the willpower. Then again, willpower is itself a scarce commodity, so what to do?

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