An Interview (and book giveaway) with Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor at BoingBoing, has just published an amazing new book called Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, about the very hard choices we face in powering our lives without doing ourselves in. It’s adroitly written with wonderful research behind it and some very warm, yet no-nonsense Midwestern charm, as she ties many of the problems our society is facing with personal stories from growing up and living in and around the real farmvilles. We're going to give away TWO autographed copies of the book at the end of the interview, so be sure to read it thoroughly to better your chances of scoring one of them. Believe me: This is a book you want on your shelves, packed with insight into, perhaps, the biggest problem facing the modern world.  

Q: Throughout the book, I found myself becoming incredibly depressed about the future and then, alternately, incredibly optimistic about it. Is this sort of how you felt, both in the research and writing of the book? I mean, talk of doomsday scenarios due to global warming and massive energy shortages can’t be too uplifting to study, yet the realm of possibilities surrounding alternative energy are way exciting to think about, especially as you get further into them. You even write in the book: “I have to admit that when I think about all of the coordination, education, and nonpartisan (not only bipartisan) decision making that needs to happen, I get the urge to go back to bed and hide under the covers.” Have you been on an emotional roller coaster these past couple years working on the book?

A: Oh, definitely. Or, rather, I’m not sure I’d call it an emotional roller coaster, because it’s not linear like that. It’s more like an emotional scrambler. I’d find myself collecting all this information--knowing that every possible solution was going to have downsides and risks, and that the risk of doing nothing were even worse--and then kind of had to sift through it all and figure out a way to talk about it that emphasized both sides of that coin. And that’s hard. There are lots of times when you feel both deflated and optimistic at once. And it really goes against the dominant narratives on energy: Which are either that we don’t need to change anything, or that we need to change and that those changes are inherently ideal things that will have no risks or downsides whatsoever. Both perspectives are wrong.

Q: In the intro, you write: “This is a book about what we’ll have to deal with and the changes that will have to happen, because we really have no other choice.” What does the choice to do nothing result in?

A: The choice to do nothing will result in change. The choice to do nothing is risky, riskier I think than trying to do something even if that something is flawed and imperfect. I can’t emphasize this enough. We have aging infrastructure that wasn’t built in any ideal way to begin with. We have climate change playing out in front of our faces. We have limited supplies of fossil fuels so that, even the stuff we have lots of still--natural gas and coal--are projected to only be enough for 100 or 200 years. (And that’s at current levels of demand. And if you don’t change anything, then demand always goes up.) All those things are happening, whether we ignore them or not. As they play out, they will force changes to the way we use energy, the way we make it, and the way we live. They will force us to spend lots and lots of money. So what we have isn’t a choice between spending a ton of money or not, between changing or not. It’s a choice between different kinds of changes. Do we want the kind of change where we spend money upfront to save it in the long run and have some control over how we address these issues? Or do we want the kind of changes that just happen to us, whether we like them or not, and cost us dearly down the road? I know my answer.

Q: With regard to energy solutions in the future, you write: “Nobody gets everything he or she wants.” Of all the interested parties, who gets most of what s/he wants and who gets the short end of the stick?

A: Depends on the specific thing. There’s not an overall answer to that, because the parties, and what they want, shift and morph depending on what aspects of this you’re looking at. And there is tons of room for reasonable people to disagree and to have to compromise. To give you some big-picture examples of the kind of compromises I’m talking about: If we take action on this, we’re probably going to have energy that is, at least somewhat, more expensive than it is right now. And we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that so it doesn’t excessively burden the poor. At the same time, if we take action on this--even if we have all the political willpower you could want--we aren’t going to get completely off of fossil fuels. Not in my lifetime, anyway. When I talk about “short term” changes, I’m talking about stuff that happens over 30 or 40 years. That’s the timescale infrastructure works on. You have to change the infrastructure, you can’t just add wind and solar power to what’s already there. So that’s going to take time. And money. And that means we can’t just shut down all our nuclear power and coal power anytime soon. Not if we also want to have reliable electricity supply.

Q:  Talking about our individual efforts to attack the problems (putting solar panels on our roofs, driving hybrids, recycling, etc.) you write: “you can’t do this yourself. Coordinating lots of different solutions on the level of systems, as fast as we possibly can is something that requires a group effort directed by policy, not volunteerism.” So why should we even bother recycling if it doesn’t really make a dent in the big picture?

A: Because it’s a little more complicated than that. One of the things I tried to point out in the book is that policies are important, systems are important. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit around waiting for politicians to act. I think that most of us would agree that we should act out our values. I recycle because I think recycling is important. On my own, I don’t really matter much. The world is not going to end if I miss a week. And it’s not going to be saved if I recycle 10x better than my neighbors. But I recycle, because I believe that it’s important to reduce waste and to reuse what we can. Here’s why I think systems are important, though. It’s easy for me to recycle. Minneapolis has curb-side recycling. Every other week, I just stick the bags out there and somebody takes care of it. That’s not the case in a lot of places in America. In fact, I was just talking to some friends in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where most of the city has curb-side recycling, but the neighborhood they live in--which is poor and pretty rough--doesn’t. Their neighbors don’t recycle. I do recycle. That’s not because I’m a better person. It’s because recycling is easy for me, and it’s really, really hard for someone who doesn’t have curb-side recycling, and maybe doesn’t even have reliable personal transportation to drive to a recycling center with all their stuff. That’s why systems matter. Obviously, big changes are made up of individuals making small changes. But the systems and the policy influence who can make those small changes, how easy it is to make those small changes, and what those small changes cost you. Individual decisions don’t matter at all, except as a way to play you personal beliefs. BUT, if you can aggregate those individual decisions, enable huge groups of people to do small changes all at once, then what individuals do does matter. Policy is what makes your choices really powerful. It’s not bottom-up, or top-down. It’s both. Bottom-up influences top-down. Top-down enables more bottom-up.

Q: Throughout the book, you take little trips to different parts of the country to research energy solutions, BETA programs and various tests in the sector. Of all the trips, which was your favorite? Why?

A: Oh, man. “What’s your favorite?” is always the hardest question anyone can ask about anything. I think the trip that made the biggest impact on me was the one I took to Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville. That was a really eye-opening trip. Partly because it brought me face-to-face with how much work the military is doing on efficiency, conservation, and alternative generation. But partly, it was because that trip really drove home for me how important systems and infrastructure really are, and put the relationship between policy and personal choice into context for me. In the book, I talk about driving by the Station’s new energy efficient aircraft hanger, and seeing how they didn’t need to have electric lights on in the hanger bays because the inside was painted white, so that light from outside could reflect off the walls and keep the space feeling bright and comfortable for the people working there.

And then we drove past an old aircraft hanger, where the interior was painted a dingy beige. That building had tons of electric lights on and it still felt dark. So a simple paint job made it easy for a lot of people to choose to use less energy. In fact, it made using less energy a better option than using more. That was the trip that really helped me start to understand that energy isn’t just sources, it’s systems.

Q: One of the things I loved about the book was how you wove your own personal family history and stories into the narrative, which clearly help us understand why you’re so interested in this subject. The book has a wonderful, local, homespun feel to it - very Bill Bryson, yet the version of him that married the Freakonomics guys. This excerpt is a perfect example:

In the winter, my thermostat is programmed to make sure that my house is warm before I get up. I spend, at most, twenty minutes a year making sure that happens—just enough time to pay my bills every month and turn the boiler on or off with the season. Contrast that to my paternal grandparents’ old house, which was heated with a wood stove. To make sure the house was warm in the morning, my Grandpa had to chop wood every week—after first either cutting down a tree of his own or buying wood from someone else and hauling it home. There was no such thing as waking up to an already-warm house. Whoever got up first, either Grammy or Grandpa, had to bring in chopped wood from the back porch and get the fire going. They had to keep it going throughout the day. There were ashes to haul every day, and a stovepipe to clean. When they moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating, my Grammy was ecstatic. By all of the accounts I’ve read, that’s how most of our ancestors responded to the new convenience of centralized energy generation. If the energy is made by someone else, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the benefits. Yet you do lose a certain amount of control. If my Grandpa’s stove burned through all of the wood he’d put in it, he could go chop some more wood. If I wake up some morning and my gas or electric service isn’t operating, then I have to put in a call to the utility and find someplace more comfortable to spend my day.

Before you started working on the book, did you know you’d be writing a lot about your own, personal experiences, and your hometown and other towns you’ve lived in or did that sort of evolve naturally as a logical narrative to help make your points and deliver the story? And how does your very real family feel about appearing in book of this nature?

A: I didn’t know that I was going to talk about that going in. It’s something that kind of evolved as I tried to come up with ways to talk about energy and how it works in the context of real people. A writer can always fall back on the hypothetical “you”, but I don’t think that’s as relatable as we think it is. If I use the hypothetical you, you can say, “Well, that’s not something I would do.” And then, as the writer, I lose you. Or, if I use it too much, the hypothetical you just starts to feel clichéd. It loses its power to connect people to an issue. And then it’s worthless. I think that telling stories is a better way to help people think about an abstract concept like energy. Where I didn’t have stories from other people, I filled in the gaps with stories from my own life and my own family. As to how my family feels about it, I’ve honestly not talked to anyone about it much really. The stories that I used are real, and they’re personal, but they aren’t really personal information, if you know what I mean.

For instance, I used my Dad’s progression from a typewriter to a word processor to an internet-enabled computer as a way of describing smart grids. That’s not really divulging anything really private about my Dad. It’s just using him as a way to talk about what is now an almost universal experience in this country. He recently told me that he really loved the book, so I assume he was okay with that. Some of the most emotionally intimate stuff was really about my grandparents, and I couldn’t run that by them. By the time the book was going through edits and the text was being finalized, all of my grandparents had passed away. My Grammy died in February of 2011. My maternal Grandfather, who also comes up in the book, died in August of the same year. So, to me, those stories have also become kind of a memorial, a way of honoring these people who I love and sharing my memories of them with the rest of the world.

Q: Lastly, what are you working on next? Besides the wonderful blog posts on BB, what’s your next big project?

A: I’m really excited about getting back to being able to do some long-form stories, both on BoingBoing and in magazines. I’ve got a ton of ideas that have been pretty much on hold because of the book and it’s going to be great to be able to finally tackle them. One thing I’m really interested in right now is the future of agriculture. In particular, how we’re adapting the plants we grow for food to meet the challenges of climate change. There’s some really cool work being done, for instance, where researchers are breeding food crops with ancient, wild plants that are related to them. Those wild plants are, essentially, weeds. And weeds are really tough, they can survive stuff that domesticated crops can’t. So what the scientists are trying to do is breed some of that toughness into our food plants without losing the traits that make the food plants good for feeding so many people.

Want to win an autographed copy of Maggie's new book? Answer the following questions correctly in the comments below and also tell us why YOU deserve to win! We'll pick two winners at random and pop the book in the mail to you!

1. Which research trip made the biggest impact on Maggie while working on the book?

2. When was Maggie's Grammy "ecstatic?"

3. Why do you deserve a copy of Maggie's new book?  

See also: More articles by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

1. Florida Air Station

2. When she got central electric heating.

3. I am from the midwest and am teaching my kids about making smart energy choices. This book will help!
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1. Maggie's trip to the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville had the biggest impact. At least, she thinks that's the one. She is less than definitive on the point. However, she provide compelling evidence for why that trip would have the biggest impact. For that reason, and the absence of a viable alternative, I submit it as the most likely candidate. Unless, of course, the questioner is gaming the system by using that most abhorrent of writing gimmicks, withheld information.

2. Grammy was ecstatic when she and Grandpa moved into a retirement townhouse that had central heating. That answers the when but not the why. From contextual clues, one can infer that the why was gathered round the central heating. But as I'm perhaps too fond of observing, correlation is not causation. Not having actually asked why, you probably don't care and are perfectly happy with just the when, as asked; but even in that case, I can only offer the contextual clue of the when and not the when as pinned to a conveniently graduated, near universally accepted timeline.

3. I deserve a copy of Maggie's new book, if for no other reason than word count. Rather than expound here, where the exam implies an essay question, I believe the surprising word count of my answers to the copy and paste questions is book reward worthy. QED
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1) The trip to Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville.

2) When she moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating.

3) I am really interested in this topic, and like getting different points of view on it. Also, it seems like she has written a book I could share with my family that they could actually understand - We could finally have informed debate on the subject, not just arguing! (Plus, I just had to fix my car - I won't have any money for books for months :( And I really want to read it now!)
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1. The Naval Air Station at Jacksonville FL
2. Her Grammy was ecstatic when she moved to the retirement townhouse where the heat was electric and she did not have to deal with wood/woodburning stove (that would make me ecstatic too!)
3. I don't know if I 'deserve' the book but I would very much like to receive it and share it with my family members who are very interested in how we can make a difference in how we use energy and what we can do to turn the tide. Personally I would like to read about how this affects her on a personal level.
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