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We want to save the planet, really we do. We just don’t know how.

Book Review: Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

When Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis landed on my desk, I thought I would put it aside to read some day during a long weekend. But once I picked it up, the engaging writing had me reading through these critical issues. The book helps sort out the practical consequences of our energy usage, where fossil fuels fit in our lives, and why the energy crisis is very real, with time running out.

Authors Bittle and Johnson have an easy way with language, recognizing the energy debate is just as ferocious as some weighty issues that are closer to home: “Does eating local produce and using cloth diapers really save energy or not, and is it enough to matter?” Their goal it to assure us that, yes, what we do does matter, but that the issue is much, much larger than using smart lightbulbs or bicycles to curtail our energy consumption.

The three primary factors that affect emissions are: population growth, income per capita and intensity of emissions. These are the things that drive a country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The authors’ research shows the U.S. emissions intensity from 2002 to 2006 fell about two percent per year, so an optimist would say we are on the right track.

Many agree that with the new Washington administration the country is finally serious about solving the problem and ready to act. But if not soon, and not substantially, “we could pull the rug out from under the economy and leave our children living in a world that bears little resemblance to the one we know now.”

Who Turned Out the Lights? argues our goal should be not energy independence for the U.S. We don’t have enough oil to pump to allow independence from other countries when we hold about 2.4 percent of the world’s oil reserves and the Middle East has over 60 percent.

The increasing world population, and increasing quest for oil indicate the cost of energy will continue to rise. Since the U.S. must rely heavily on imported oil, sometimes from unfriendly countries, we are creating risks to the Earth, to the U.S. economy, and creating an over-dependence on foreign countries.

We want to know what can be done to continue a safe, reliable energy consumption. What we need, the authors say, is “a state-by-state, power-plant by power-plant, business-by-business, car-by-car, house-by-house rethink.”

Americans represent five percent of the world’s population, yet, with our way of life, we are using 22% of the world’s energy. So, no matter how you measure it, there is indeed a crisis. Nathan Lewis, a CalTech professor states that since today’s energy decisions take 20 years to begin to flow, there is no tomorrow, because by that time whatever decisions we’ve made today will be cast in stone.

This well-researched and accessible book includes a chronicle of American energy usage since the Pennsylvania oil rush of 1859. With the highly readable text and an appendix with thorough resources, there’s no excuse for not being a well-informed person.

It is a massive job to explain the energy industry, sort out the arguments for both sides, and draw the conclusions that will influence change. While the authors note there are thousands of ways to begin solving the crisis, you can begin by following the practical issues discussed in the headlines every day: issues such as more drilling in the U.S., cap and trade, gasoline prices, and requirements for renewable emissions.

We can’t individually solve the energy crisis, but by reading Who Turned Out the Lights? we can take responsibility to develop a hyper-alert informed awareness of the problems and best solutions, before the lights go out.

Review based on ARC copy, final manuscript subject to change.

About Helen Gallagher

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