Power Trip: The Story of America's Love Affair with Energy

Author Amanda Little talks about America's energy addiction and how it can be cured.

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    Author Amanda Little says it was an unhappy surprise when she came face-to-face with the question of her own energy dependence.
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It’s easy to point the finger at the government and wealthy oil tycoons. But the truth is, when it comes to irresponsible energy consumption, we’re all to blame.

Journalist Amanda Little spent 10 years criticizing the US government for failing to promote energy alternatives. But when Little studied her personal consumption patterns, she began to realize how reliant she was on these same elements. She wore clothing made of synthetic plastic, took notes with petroleum-derived ink, and ate cereal made from whole grains that had been treated with oil-derived fertilizers.

I recently had the chance to talk with Little about her new book Power Trip: The Story of America's Love Affair with Energy.

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What have we learned from this year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

My concerns have intensified because I’m not so sure that we’ve absorbed the lessons of that disaster. We suffer from a delusion, a myth, that we can live energy-lavish lifestyles without experiencing any negative effects. The BP oil spill punctured that myth. We saw these wrenching images that suddenly exposed to us the risks of extreme oil drilling. [But] my concern is that we are already forgetting.

You tell us why America needs to kick its addiction to fossil fuels. But how should individuals modify their behavior to do it?

Certainly the single greatest impact we can have on oil consumption would be to opt for an energy-efficient [hybrid or electric] car, or as efficient a car as possible. Now that’s not economically available to a lot of us, but we can never underestimate the importance of carpooling, public transit, bike riding. Seventy percent of Americans commute to work every day in an automobile, alone, and only roughly 9 percent use public transit in any meaningful way. It’s shocking. We consume 75 percent more oil per day per capita than the people of Japan and about double [that of people in] Europe. These are our industrial competitors and they live very comfortable, technologically advanced lifestyles. Making our homes more efficient and reducing our fuel use for transportation are the two biggies.

You say that fossil fuels are everywhere in our lives – in everything from plastics to transportation to the food we consume. What surprised you most?

When I looked at my own life I found that virtually everything in my midst was there because of oil or coal or natural gas. It was sort of bittersweet. On the one hand it was terrifying to see that there was virtually nothing in my life, not even the contact lenses in my eyes, that wasn’t there because of fossil fuels and wasn’t dependent on them. It was also kind of miraculous. I thought, “Wow, I’ve been criticizing oil and coal and natural gas for so long and in fact it’s the source of so many creature comforts and essential things in my life.” It’s miraculous that these substances can be transformed into plastics and food, that our entire military is propped up by fossil fuels. In some cases high-end plastics are actually a huge environmental benefit. Plastic components on cars now make cars lighter, so that they require less fuel. Sophisticated plastics can be part of a clean-energy economy.

Here is the age-old question: Can individuals really make an impact, or is it up to politicians and big-business leaders?

I think there’s sort of a false dichotomy. We hear it a lot, that things like switching to energy-saving light bulbs are just a drop in the bucket. But to me they’re important because it’s about a shifting of consciousness. When we start making changes in our own lives, however incremental they might be, it changes the way we relate to politics. When we demonstrate these efficiencies in our lives, we can say, “Hey, we’re doing it in our own homes, why can’t we do this at a government level?”

In Lenoir City, Tenn., and post-Katrina New Orleans, architects have engineered “zero-energy” homes that produce as much energy as they consume and cost less than $150,000. Why can’t all buildings function this way?

The answer is they can, and they should. There’s no excuse for not raising the bar on our building standards. The payback is so immediate. It’s shockingly easy to reduce your home energy bill with very little initial investment. It’s criminal that we’re not expecting this of all building owners in this country.

What does our future look like if we don’t lessen our dependence on fossil fuels?

I think it’s really simple: It’s going to cost us. This extraordinary lack of efficiency in our economy is just going to become more and more expensive. The cost of transportation and warming our homes is going to spike. The problem is that it means we’re at a disadvantage in the global economy. All of our competitors’ economies will be much more robust and resilient when energy is more expensive because they’re already used to it. We’re going to play catch-up.

Why should we be optimistic?

We are extremely effective innovators. The architects of our current fossil-fuel energy landscapes were some of the people we still celebrate as the greatest inventors of all time. [These include] Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and, in the political world, FDR and Eisenhower. They were largely really smart, innovative people who responded to what was then a really good thing – an abundance of cheap oil and coal. Now we’re dealing with the hidden consequences, the environmental and political costs. I am incredibly optimistic that the same ingenuity that got us into this mess is going to get us out of it.

Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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