Amanda Little Takes a Power Trip Across America (Exclusive Interview)

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images: Harper Collins Publishers

If you've ever come to TreeHugger and after perusing posts for a while just wondered to yourself "How did we get ourselves into this environmental mess in the United States," then Amanda Little's new book Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells, Our Ride to the Renewable Future is definitely worth a read. Little gives a well-written, engaging account of how cheap and abundant energy is the long-running constructive theme in the US' rise to world dominance.

But this really isn't about a book review -- just, trust me, it's a worthwhile read; and even know-it-all greenies will get some new info out it --TreeHugger recently had a chance to talk with Little. We covered the change in communication style that a move from New York to Nashville brought about, how to speak with people new to the green way of thinking, peak oil, and more:TreeHugger: You're in Nashville now. How has that influenced your perspective on the green movement or your writing in general?

Amanda Little: My move to Nashville is, without question, the best thing to ever happen to my career, even though I feared it would be the worst... instead I developed a really diverse group of friends who, for the first time in my life, thought and looked at things very differently than I do. I realized how narrow my world was in New York, because everyone was concerned about global warming, flipped off Hummers, was vegan, and took yoga.

I came down here, it was 2004, and I was suddenly thrust into this group of friends, many of whom either voted for Bush or didn't vote at all. Which was an equally unthinkable thing.

That was the most shocking and difficult thing, at first, to challenge myself to talk with people about an issue that I cared so much about and to have to leave my anger and emotions aside, and have conversations that were friendly and understanding and respectful and thoughtful...that didn't have all the shrill, preachy, liberal, polemical, conversational style that I was used to.

TH: How did that change in conversational style occur?

AL: Instead of saying, "How could you possibly live the life you're living and have a conscience?" Instead of approaching the topic with judgement, [I approached] the topic as a form of story-telling.

The problem was that the very fact of global warming, or the fact of energy dependence, the fact of the relevance of energy in our lives, had not been laid down, it had not been made apparent to a lot of friends, neighbors, and people in my community.

TH: It was as much of an educational mission as anything else?

AL: Exactly. It's educational versus judgmental in the approach.

What may seem redundant in Power Trip to a lot of TreeHugger readers or Grist readers is, I think, missing in the public debate around energy... Which is a lot of the backstory: Why is this important? What does it mean to us? How did we get here? Why are there finite energy resources? Let's see that; let's understand that and the extremes to get this stuff. How did we grow this appetite for oil and energy in the first place? What's good about it and what's bad about it.

TH: Once you start educating people, we'll use peak oil as the example, how do you get people to believe a Matthew Simmons versus a Daniel Yergin? Here are two people with eminent credentials but are saying entirely opposite things...

AL: ...That was actually part of it, saying exactly that. There are radically different perceptions of the situation. Nobody knows for sure. In fact the very ambiguity of it is what's fascinating. We don't know how much is left. There's so much obscurity in the information. The people that we're buying the oil from, we can't even trust their data.

There's that approach. Then there's one that says there's a range of predictions: Some are saying peak already happened; some are saying its going to be in ten or twenty or forty years. Others are saying it'll never happen...the people who say 'we'll just keep getting better and better technology and just suck [oil] out from the farthest reaches of the planet.' But that becomes irrelevant.

Peak oil is an important discussion but the discussion shouldn't begin and end there. When you look at the reality of global warming, of national security, and economic volatility, then peak oil is sort of a moot discussion. You have to address it and saying 'here is a range of different opinions, but does it matter when how real and immediate and urgent the problems of climate, economic volatility and geopolitical conflict are.'

People ask me that all the time, 'are we running out of oil?' The problem isn't running out of oil, it's running out of the ability to increase our supply of oil. Then people go, "Oh! It's not that we're running out of oil. It's just going to become vastly more expensive, every year."

These are the missing links in the debate and the public understanding.

That was the purpose of chapter one. The purpose of going on the [offshore oil drilling] rig--which is one of the most extreme rigs on the planet, where they're going six miles below sea level with a drill--was to say 'maybe we're increasing our oil reserves...but what is extraordinary is the extremes we go to get those resources.'

It's an act of extraordinary technological daring to insert a straw 30,000' in the ground to get this stuff. It's riddled with risk. It's riddled with expense. So even if oil may be there, is this a fruitless search, in so many other ways? If it takes that much [effort] aren't we better off putting our money somewhere else?

TH: How do you communicate the absurdity of it to, say, someone who works in the tar sands? Or someone who's a coal miner in West Virginia? People who are really in a hard place. This is their lives. This is all they've known, for better or worse. How do you communicate, "We want to take you along on this green future. We're not attacking you directly"?

AL: That's the most important question to ask, bar none. That needs to be asked, not only by every environmental reader and activist, but every politician, at this time of so much partisan bickering. In politics and activism, there's just this shrill, angry style of communication that makes it very very hard to have any kin of interchange at all.

The communication stops before it begins when you lead with anger and judgment. The way that I would say how to communicate is: To listen, to ask questions, to reserve judgment until you ask you're supposed opponent to tell his or her story. Why do you do this? How do you do this? What's involved? Are you concerned about the obsolescence of you career? Are you concerned that environmental problems are going to prohibit the further use of coal and oil?

Once they've shared their knowledge it's easier for you to say "I don't understand why you put a drill 30,000' into the ground, when you could take those billions and billions of dollars and put them into wind, solar, electric cars...all these future industries that are going to going to be so much more enduring."

Often the debate precedes the exchange of information and ideas. Then you just spin off the rails.


Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells, Our Ride to the Renewable Future is now available from your favorite online or local bookseller.

Renewable Energy
Mapping the Alternative Energy Potential of the United States
92% of Americans Want Solar Power... Now!
Peak Oil
If Peak Oil is Now or in 2030, We're Still Woefully Unprepared
Jeff Rubin: Peak Oil Will Make Our World a Whole Lot Smaller
The Climate Bill is Already Killing Coal Plants
Pro-Coal Thugs Crash Peaceful Anti-Coal Event in West Virginia

Amanda Little Takes a Power Trip Across America (Exclusive Interview)
If you've ever come to TreeHugger and after perusing posts for a while just wondered to yourself "How did we get ourselves into this environmental mess in the United States," then Amanda Little's new book Power Trip:

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