Is Energy Literacy Our Biggest Challenge? Confessions of a Coal-Fired Pizza Addict

Not long ago I was in New York, and was surprised at the number of restaurants proudly proclaiming that they sold "coal-fired pizza." Having established that we were, indeed, talking about coal - not charcoal - I found myself outraged that folks could see burning coal in the center of the city, or anywhere for that matter, as a desirable selling point. I mean, what's wrong with wood? That outrage has been on my mind a lot lately, because as we watch the public fail to grasp the connection between personal oil dependency and environmental destruction, I've been reminded that I eat coal-fired pizza all the time. I just outsource the burning. As a pizza nut, I probably make pizza at least once every couple of weeks, maybe more. And I do so in a coal-fired oven. I just know that my coal is being burned at a powerstation a few hundred miles away. (A quick search on also reveals that my coal comes from mountaintop removal.)

Of course burning coal in a power station may have economies of scale and increased efficiency, compared to burning in individual pizza ovens (I don't have the math to prove that), but I am increasingly thinking there is something honest about burning the damned stuff yourself. Because it's really the disconnect between our actions and the consequences that is the heart of so many of our environmental and social problems. We burn fossil fuels, but our grand-kids will deal with the consequences. We buy clothes but we don't have to see the sweatshops. We turn on a light, but we have no idea how much energy went in to fueling that action.

So one of the most urgent challenges we face as environmentalists is not just promoting cleaner ways of doing things—but finding new and innovative ways to close the feedback loop. How do we connect the BP oil spill in people's minds with their own relationship to oil? How do we help people to understand that the food we eat has a direct and lasting impact on the world around us? And how do we get the concept across that every purchase has a myriad of consequences—either positive or negative7mdash;in places we may not be able to imagine.

From the aforementioned, to the BBC powering an entire home by bike—there are some interesting projects out there trying to bridge that gap between actions and consequences. One project is even promoting a spoof product called Monoxitube, which allows car drivers to breathe in the fumes they create.

Given the fact we know we can create massive amounts of energy with wind and solar, and there are huge gains to be had from energy efficiency, the problem is not only how do we make green energy—but how do we help people to understand how dirty the status quo is?

I'm open to ideas.