Book Review – Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guide to the Energy Crisis

Who Turned Out the Lights? takes a balanced look at the pros and cons of all types of energy. Photo: © TebNad - Fotolia.com

Who Turned Out the Lights? takes a balanced look at the pros and cons of all types of energy. Photo: © TebNad - Fotolia.com

Blue Planet Green Living received an uncorrected, proof edition of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guide to the Energy Crisis, by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson. We were asked if we’d like to review it, and that is what this post is about. In tomorrow’s post, watch for “The Great Energy Debate Pop Quiz” by Bittle and Johnson. — Publisher


Since beginning work on Blue Planet Green Living, I have made it my personal goal to gather as much information about the environment as my brain can handle, to read as much as I can get my hands on. I’m not particularly selective of the topics, but consume whatever crosses my path, defining my area of knowledge by whatever Destiny and my computer provide me. The task of keeping up with this data flow is daunting. Perhaps you feel the same.

Being an environmentalist means I have to choose from a million aspects of concern, direction, and interest. Planet Earth is facing a flood of problems, too many for one writer to assimilate, even for one magazine. For me, there is too little time to read about all the daily assaults on our planet, let alone verify the data in print; seek out authorities on the subject; interview them; type, edit, and post their points of view.

Being a journalist, as well, compounds the problem. Now, it is just as important to seek the opposing opinions and compare conflicting scientific data. Every topic has many angles, often many points of view, and frequently, two polar-opposite conclusions.

The fact that I try to keep an open mind on these issues is exactly why I like this book. The writers, Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, have tried to present both sides of every energy issue, or at least, remain neutral in their presentation. The book gives “just the facts,” not opinions, and provides extensive end notes for the reader to verify all sources.

The following excerpt from the preface confirms the generally even-handed nature of the discussion the authors present:

For many of us, the nation’s energy debate has become an incomprehensible jumble, so the purpose of Who Turned Out the Lights? is to stop, take a deep breath, back up a bit, and go back to basics. we’ve written this book because we’re convinced that there are millions of Americans who are concerned about the energy issue and want to understand it better. Our aim is [to] explain the nuts and bolts in plain, solid, nonscientific, nontechnical English. We also believe that increasing numbers of Americans recognize that the country simply has to stop arguing about energy and start doing something about it. Our plan is to describe the chief options as understandably as we can and summarize different points of view about them. We’re not recommending solutions here. instead, we’re trying to offer enough perspective, context, and information so readers can stop relying on Hollywood stars and pundits for direction. We want to help you decide for yourself what path the United States should take.

The book tackles the single largest pollution source that exists today: energy. Whether it is for industrial, commercial, transportation or residential use, the production of the fuels, or the use of them, this book presents the many effects that carbon-based fuel is having on our country and our planet.

Topics discussed include positives and negatives about the use of —

The authors might have considered the detrimental effects of the mining process that gets the coal that Americans burn. Photo: © Jim Parkin - Fotolia.com

The authors might have considered the detrimental effects of the mining process that gets the coal that Americans burn. Photo: © Jim Parkin - Fotolia.com

•  coal: e.g., “On the positive side, coal is affordable, reliable, and the U.S. has plenty of it,” (Let me interject here that the good folks at Appalachian Voices dispute all three of these claims); but, “Burning coal produces sulfur and nitrogen oxide — chemicals that create smog and acid rain.”

• nuclear energy: e.g., “nuclear power is the hands-down winner when it comes to generating electricity without adding to global warming”; but, “some [nuclear waste] is so hazardous that it needs to be isolated for ten thousand to one million years”;

renewable energy: e.g., “Both wind and solar have two huge advantages … they don’t produce any greenhouse gases… [and] we’re not likely to run out of wind or sunshine anytime soon”; but, “even though you don’t have to pay for the ‘fuel,’ the initial capital costs are higher than coal or natural gas when they’re spread out over the life of the plant”);

oil: e.g., “Oil is also amazingly portable… efficient…[and] works so well that it’s knocked all the transportation alternatives out of the box”; but, “since we’re not making any more dinosaurs, we’re not creating any more oil. So at some point we’re going to run out.” Though briefly mentioned earlier in the book, I note here a giant omission in the chapter dedicated to oil: nary a drop of ink was spilled talking about the release of greenhouse gases from burning oil.

• and cars, homes, and more …

All of these are energy topics, and they all affect our environment.

In the chapter called “Flawed Ideas,” the writers discuss the possibility that, as a nation, we might not want to become completely energy independent. First of all, it is not possible, since even if we opened up all the potential oil fields, we would only produce 40% of what we are presently consuming. Second, we are not at war with Canada and Mexico, the two largest suppliers of our oil. Finally, if we produced all our own oil, this would eliminate competition, and prices would rise. Competition has its place.

One of the more interesting topics, in my opinion, was the discussion about the dollar amounts spent by lobbyists on both sides of the energy debate in 2008. The oil and natural gas industries spent $129 million to influence legislators, coal spent more than $100 million, the utility companies spent $157 million, while the total spent by all U.S. environmental groups was only $17 million. The writers did not complain or push for more environmental influence, they simply said, “That’s part and parcel of the way our democracy works.”

Offshore drilling provides a lot of oil for the U.S., but poses a serious environmental threat if a leak occurs. Photo: © Winston Lue - Fotolia.com

Offshore drilling provides a lot of oil for the U.S., but poses a serious environmental threat if a leak occurs. Photo: © Winston Lue - Fotolia.com

Here is how the writers describe their book in the section titled, “Pulling the Strands of the Problem Together”:

The first step is to pull the far-flung pieces of this debate together in one place. There’s the energy issue with its assorted disputes over OPEC, oil company profits, speculation in energy markets, and how to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. Then there’s the environmental debate on how to reduce the damage human beings do to the planet — global warming, carbon dioxide emissions, carbon footprints, pollution, that sort of thing. And finally, there is the economic fallout when the competition for energy heats up and supplies start getting tight….

These three issues — energy, environment, and the economy — all are intertwined, … and the country could get trapped … with all three problems coming to head at once.”

Although there’s much to recommend about this book, in my view, more attention could have been paid to the environmental effects of our choices of energy production. Where is the discussion of the environmental and health costs — not to mention the loss of natural beauty — of blowing up mountains to mine coal? Where is their concern for the horrible air pollution and health effects of mining the Tar Sands? What about the environmental costs of making the batteries that go into Priuses (and, yes, my wife and I drive Priuses)? These are just a few of the issues that troubled me by their absence.

Still, Who Turned Out the Lights? left me with a clearer view of the energy corner we are backing ourselves into. It’s well worth reading as a starting point, but don’t stop there. Check out some of the great environmental resources (like Appalachian Voices) to get a fuller picture.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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