Superbug Summer Books: BEFORE THE LIGHTS GO OUT

When my book “Superbug” came out two years ago, I found myself talking a lot about the international epidemic of antibiotic resistance, how it incrementally crept up on us, and how it became overwhelming to confront. I often found myself comparing antibiotic resistance to climate change, a similarly “slow drip” problem that took a long time to build — and that now feels so complex that anyone who wants to contribute to putting the brakes on can feel as though it’s not possible for any one person to effect change.

Around the time I started writing “Superbug,” I met Maggie Koerth-Baker, now the science editor of BoingBoing; we were in the same writers’ circles in Minneapolis, and we got to be friends. Not long afterward, she started work on a book. (Disclosure: I read and commented on some early drafts.) “Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us” (Wiley) has been out since March, and it’s a fantastic read: breezy and clever and at the same time sober, thoughtful and thorough about the complexity of energy generation in the United States, the roadblocks to change, and the possibility of doing things differently.

One of the things I like most about the book — and here’s where climate change comes in — is that Maggie explores how many reasons people have for responding to the energy crisis, and makes clear that people don’t have to believe in the “big idea” of a crisis before they are willing to take action to defuse it. She starts the book, in fact, with a vignette of a man who flatly declares, “Climate change is a lie,” and yet drives a hybrid car and uses only CFL bulbs. That seemed to me an important insight that could be carried over to antibiotic resistance, agriculture — any number of big, tangled policy questions.

For the second entry in Superbug Summer Books, I asked Maggie some questions by phone about “Before the Lights Go Out.”

Maryn at SUPERBUG: I’ve never asked you why you wanted to write a book about energy.

Maggie at LightsOut: It really started with my husband, who is an engineer and figures out how to make buildings as energy efficient as possible for the least amount of money. He kept coming home, talking about issues with the way that energy and energy efficiency work — things that were completely basic information to him but that his clients didn’t understand very well. I saw this huge disconnect between what energy experts know about energy, and what all the people making decisions about energy know. The experts understand all this information to the point that they don’t even remember that they need to tell people about it — but politicians, homeowners, commercial-building owners know nothing and no one’s telling them.

MM: The knowledge gap you’re describing could be true for any technical subject, and especially for any disputed technical subject.

MKB: It’s specialized information, but it’s specialized information that is really important to your life. The gap forms because you learn a set amount of science in school, and then science keeps moving even after you’ve stopped going to class. And there’s no place to get continuing education after you leave school, to make sure that you know this stuff that is important to your life.

MM: When I talk to people about my topics — about antibiotic resistance and changing healthcare and agriculture — I perceive that they’re discouraged. They feel that anything they might do to address these enormous problems, which took such a while to accumulate, is so vanishingly small that they might as well just not try. The energy crisis seems similar. So what do you say to people?

MKB: I struggle with this. I went into this book thinking, “Oh, everybody can make a difference,” and by the end of the research I was less confident about that. I still think it is important for us to individually change the way that we use energy, because that’s important to what you personally think of as the norm, and what you teach your children. Making those kind of changes will affect the way that we look at the future of energy, and there’s also some good evidence that we can influence the choices of people around us by the choices that we make.

But at the same time, it is systems where we have problems, more than individuals. I think that one of the biggest things that people can do is make systems a priority. Not just on the abstract national level, who you vote for as president, but on the local level. Things as simple as how your neighborhood commission views zoning can have a huge impact on how everybody in your city uses energy.

MM: That sense of an individual being hostage to a system resonates with me. I think of how little choice I have over my transportation, moving from Minneapolis where everyone biked all the time, to here in Atlanta where you need a car even to get to the metro.

MKB: Your choices really depend on what access to infrastructure you have. I can walk out my front door, get on the No. 6 bus, and go pretty much anywhere in the city I want to go. I have great bicycle trail access. Because of that, my husband and I have one car that we share and during the summer, we don’t even need to drive it all that much. But in Kansas City where my family is from, that infrastructure doesn’t exist. There’s a couple of bike trails, but they don’t go anywhere, they’re for scenic exercise purposes. There are buses, but they only really operate to take people from the suburbs to downtown and back, and they stop outside of rush hour. It’s arrogant to tell them, “You should make the same kind of choices I make,” because to make those choices, they have to have infrastructure change first.

MM: Something that troubles me, and it’s true for food too, is the difficulty of confronting the race and class issues in these systems. In the South, until recently, public transit wasn’t a priority for the moneyed classes because it was the thing that poor people used. In the Midwest, alternative energy has a hippie-leftist tinge that makes suburban conservatives distrust it.

MKB: To reach different cultural tribes, you have to talk to people in their own language. I don’t think we do that often enough. I really like what I learned from the Climate and Energy Project in Kansas. They found that even people who were adamantly opposed to any idea that climate change was happening, still cared about energy change, but for different reasons.  They liked wind power because it represented independence. Or they were farmers and they wanted to mess around with new technologies they could try out on their own farms. The group opened lines of communication through churches about “creation care,” basically that your Heavenly Father wants you to pick up after yourself. They talked to unions; they talked to people about saving money. If you want to get around class barriers, you have to find out what people who are not exactly like you care about, instead of expecting them to adopt your concerns.

MM: But building cross-cutting constituencies takes time, which is difficult when people feel  it’s an EMERGENCY RIGHT NOW. So is there anything to be said, or any lessons to draw, about what’s a reasonable pace of change?

MKB: When we talk about changing energy infrastructure, what’s it going to take to get us off of fossil fuels completely, we’re not talking about my lifetime. There’s just so many things that have to change. Our electrical infrastructure evolved alongside coal and natural gas, and it works best with those things for that reason. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t change it; that means we’re dealing with the legacy of what we thought was the right decision 70 years ago. If you think what it’s going to take to get everybody in electric cars, it takes a couple of decades to turn over the entire US auto fleet. So even if everybody in the entire world buys an electrical car for their next car, it’s still going to take 20 years.

So I don’t see any way that we can just shut down all our coal and nuclear right now and still function as a society. There has to be some room to talk about how we can make those things work better for us in the short term. We have to use some of these really crappy sources of energy for the foreseeable future. We can work towards using less and less over time, but we’re not going to get rid of them anytime soon. So how do we make decisions about the risk they pose? What risks are we willing to live with more than others?

This is the second in an intermittent series I’m running this summer about books I like and think you should take a look at. Some of the books will be directly related to this blog’s core topics. Others, I just think are cool. You can find my picks at #SBSBooks.



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