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Who Turned Out the Lights? - Green Book Reviews on Eco-Libris blog


Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis by Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson

Reviewed by: Dr. Patrick E. Meyer, Principal at Meyer Energy Research Consulting.

Despite the tremendous level of discussion among politicians, writers, analysts, and the media regarding alternative energy, climate change, and sustainability, the majority of Americans do not fully understand the issues at hand. Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, in their new book Who Turned Out the Lights?: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis (Retail $16.99, Harper Collins Publishers, October 2009, paperback, 368 pages, ISBN: 978-0-06-171564-8), attempt to explain to the masses energy and environmental issues whose discussion has now become commonplace, but issues that may be misunderstood by the general populace. Issues such as peak oil, clean coal, natural gas, the safety of nuclear power, the availability of hydroelectric resources and geothermal hot spots, the smart grid and reliability of the electricity infrastructure, the food versus fuel debate, and green collar jobs are discussed in detail.

Bittle and Johnson, also authors of Where Does the Money Go?: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis , are not energy experts. Due to their lack of specialized expertise in energy and environment, the authors' presentation method is not technical—in fact, far from it. Bittle and Johnson splice their work with references to pop culture, rock music, primetime cartoons, and blockbuster movies. Offering these references allow Bittle and Johnson to provide a piece of work which should easily cater to the masses, allowing those not yet versed in the realm of energy and climate change to catch up to speed on these critical issues.

Immediately Bittle and Johnson identify the goals of their book: the authors seek to explain the basics and present options but not make recommendations. Further, the purpose of their book is to shed light on the overall readiness of the US to act on energy and environmental issues, to show how decisions today can have huge implications down the road, and to demonstrate the time-sensitiveness of these issues (that is, that these issues change all the time). Bittle and Johnson do this by focusing on broad public questions rather than individual ones. They warn that they do not seek to refight the climate change debate—that fight has been carried out elsewhere. As the authors state: “the purpose of Who Turned Out the Lights? is to stop, take a deep breath, back up a bit, and go back to the basics” (p. xvi).

Bittle and Johnson write on the subject of energy and environment because they know that many Americans are still confused about these issues, despite that everyone from John McCain and President Obama to Sheryl Crow and Paris Hilton have spoken publicly about the need for an energy revolution. To convey their message, the authors write from the point of view of a non-academic, non-industry specialist, non-governmental bystander.

The theme of the book is one of foundational exploration of a vast subject area normally complex and confusing. Tackling complex issues such as carbon sequestration and the food versus fuel debate, Bittle and Johnson explain what these developments mean for you and me, not necessarily providing the technical details of how things work, but showing how things unfold in the real world and why we should care.

The authors' thesis is primarily that energy and environmental issues are not necessarily as complex as some would lead you to believe. Although the authors take a non-biased stance, they show it is undeniable that issues of energy and environment cannot be ignored if development, economic fortitude, and societal well-being are goals of the nation and world. It is obvious that the authors agree that the time to act is now and that waiting will only prolong the inevitable and worsen the overall negative impacts of fossil fuel consumption and reliance on foreign sources of energy.

Through exposition the authors explain tough subject areas and analyze the status of industries, technologies, and social movements to present the subject in a clarifying manner. The authors present the facts about the energy and environmental debate clearly and impartially.

Who Turned Out the Lights? fits wonderfully into the general field of energy and environmental debate. While politicians and the media have carried on relatively high-level discourse on issues such as biofuel development, nuclear power expansion, and constructing an advanced 21 st century electricity grid, many Americans' understanding of these issues has been left behind. As Al Gore did in 2006 with An Inconvenient Truth , Bittle and Johnson similarly show that these issues are not as complex as some would have you believe. Yet where Gore scared us all a little with his excellently conceived discussion of the devastating impact humanity has had on Earth, Bittle and Johnson remain neutral, providing the facts only and leaving the debate open for discussion.

Even a reader who is scientifically knowledgeable in the energy and environmental field will surely take away valuable information from this book. But technically-trained readers may criticize Bittle and Johnson's colloquial writing style. For example, the scientific community may question the technical merit of the work when the authors refer to hurricanes Katrina and Rita as acts of God rather than severe weather anomalies partly caused by climate change. Furthermore, economists would likely be insulted when the authors argue that global economic recessions and rebounds are all part of “that weird old supply and demand thing” (p. 31).

The bottom line, as shown by the authors, is that most Americans admit to caring about the environment but at the same time most Americans don't want to spend money to help the environment. For example, as presented by Bittle and Johnson, more than seven in ten people reject the idea of mandating $4-per-gallon gas prices to encourage alternative energy. Nearly six in ten, 58 percent, say they are strongly opposed. Plus, more than half oppose increasing gas taxes no matter how the tax was portrayed, whether as a boon to energy independence, an antidote for climate change, or a source of funds for repairing roads or bridges. While they do not bluntly admit so, it seems as if the authors are a least a little frustrated by the notion that most Americans won't support anything that costs them any extra money, even if it means polluting less and encouraging renewable energy development.

Who Turned Out the Lights? is recommended for those knowledgeable in energy and environmental issues, or those who know absolutely nothing in the subject area. For readers that are newcomers to the field, Bittle and Johnson provide a refreshing and grounded approach spliced with references to pop culture and things we all encounter in daily life. For those who have prior knowledge of alternative energy, fossil energy, climate change, and the politics of the energy arena, Bittle and Johnson provide a recap of these issues from a perspective not often found in academia, industry, or politics—that is, unbiased, bipartisan, and real.

Bittle and Johnson's work is interesting, accurate, and objective. Commonly citing reports from the Energy Information Administration, The World Bank, the Congressional Research Service, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and countless other prominent organizations, the authors present a slew of critically pertinent information. The book is undoubtedly thorough, covering oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear power, wind power, solar power, geothermal energy, biomass energy, energy efficiency, electricity generation, vehicular transportation, and social impacts such as the development of green-collar jobs.

The end of the book is primarily a call to action. The authors argue that changing light bulbs is simply not enough—we all have to make more small changes that add up to big revolutionary movements. We as a nation, argue Bittle and Johnson, cannot continue to make the same decisions we've made in the past. And one piece of legislation won't solve the problem—waves of legislation must be passed to have a great enough impact to make a real difference. While Bittle and Johnson show that moving away from fossil fuels is a possibility, they don't shy from forcing upon the readers a reality check: fossil fuels usage isn't going to stop overnight. A reader of the book will walk away with new and significant foundational knowledge which will allow for participation in the battle for clean energy and a sustainable environment.

Author Bio

Dr. Patrick E. Meyer is Principal at Meyer Energy Research Consulting , Newark, Delaware and Research Associate at Energy and Environmental Research Associates, LLC., Pittsford, New York. Holding a Ph.D. in Energy and Environmental Policy from the University of Delaware, Meyer specializes in alternative energy, electricity, and fuel technology policy analysis; global sustainable energy systems; and energy and environmental systems modeling and analysis. Meyer has authored more than 25 editorial articles for IEEE-USA's Today's Engineer and serves as the publication's Energy, Environment & Sustainability Editor .

A shorter version of this book review is available on Eco-Libris blog.

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