Anticipating all possible counter-arguments, Congressman Jerry McNerney and Martin Cheek attack our country’s impending energy crisis from every angle in Clean Energy Nation: Freeing America from the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels (AMACOM, 2011). From national security to agriculture to public health, the authors show how our reliance on falsely cheap fossil fuels is deeply woven into every aspect of our lives and why we must soon do the difficult, but crucial work of bringing that reliance to an end.
McNerney, a California congressman who holds a Ph.D. in engineering and mathematics, and Cheek, a science writer, open with brief lessons in geology and history to inform us about how oil, coal, and natural gas are physically created, how and when humans began using them, and their role in some of our greatest advancements. They set up a parallel between the actions of our Founding Fathers in fighting the tyranny of monarchic rule and what today’s political leaders must do in order to overcome fossil fuel’s tyrannical hold over our lives. It is now time to seek replacements for fossil fuels as the drawbacks to their use have come to outweigh their benefit. They make it clear that inaction is not an option. Not only is our continued increase in use (and the increase in developing nations as well) of non-renewable fuel sources contributing to the climate change that threatens our continued life on this planet, it’s just not sustainable. As we pass the peak of each fuel’s extraction we are crossing over into a time of increased scarcity, increased cost, and the political and social instability that accompany such a situation.
In the next section we are presented with explorations of how energy use affects eight sectors of our lives: good government, national security, the environment, the economy, transportation, agriculture, public health, and education. If you think that sustainable energy use doesn’t affect you, McNerney and Cheek show you that you’re wrong. Every moment of each of our days is shaped and powered by fossil fuels. The message of each of these chapters is the same: we will all benefit from change and the time for change is now. Especially relevant was the chapter on education. Whether to shift our system to clean energy shouldn’t even be a question, if our politicians and our electorate were making decisions based on science and fact. But, the gross misinformation campaigns that have been circulating for decades now and the inadequate math and science schooling that we all receive make it difficult for rational decisions to be made and for progress to be achieved. In part, this book serves the purpose of filling that education gap.
We close with a vision for the future. We are presented with a laundry list of clean energy options that have been successful in communities in our own country as well as other countries around the world. The authors know there is no silver bullet to solve this problem and they introduce us to a host of small and mid-sized regional solutions that, when combined, could provide salvation.
The strength here is the breadth of information, but it comes at the cost of its depth. Clearly there is much critical thought here and attempts are made to include it, but there just isn’t the space to do so adequately. For example, in the chapter on agriculture they suggest the possibility of farmers installing systems that would capture the methane from their animals’ waste in order to generate electricity. They completely fail to acknowledge that what they’re talking about here are factory farms, a system which in and of itself is unsustainable and that has its own set of environmental, ethical, and social issues. While a complete exploration of this topic is obviously outside the purview of this book, to suggest that we draw from one unsustainable environment-damaging system to replace another doesn’t seem to be a viable solution.
Easily readable and appropriate as a solid introduction to our modern energy crisis, McNerney and Cheek do a laudable job of organizing a great wealth of information into terms and examples that anyone can understand and relate to. Their call is to the public to put pressure on their congressional leaders and on politicians to have the political will to put the good of the country above their own personal gain. Let’s hope that this is the direction that we’re headed.