Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology was not what I expected. It was better, and more meaningful, than that.
Let me explain. I'd heard little bits and pieces about this book long before it was bound together inside a cover. I'm working on my own book about the future of energy right now, and I'd chatted with Alexis Madrigal, Atlantic.com Tech editor and Powering the Dream's author, about our shared thoughts on energy technologies, energy culture, and the way our respective books were shaping up.
From those conversations, I'd been looking forward to an in-depth history of things. I expected to learn about the electric motors that drove some early automobiles ... about the tinkering farmers and eccentric engineers who turned the windmill from a kludgy product of desperation into a well-designed machine ... about the first attempts to capture the power of the sun for useful work, and why would-be the solar revolution of the 1970s never happened. And Powering the Dream does cover all that stuff. And more. There's plenty here to keep Makers enthralled.
But, ultimately, the history of things is just trivia. And it's only really part of what this book is about. The stuff that actually matters—why you really ought to read Powering the Dream—is Madrigal's take on the history of ideas.
When you study the history of alternative energy technology in this country, you don't just learn about science and engineering. You learn about people and culture. You learn about ideologies, and dreams, and what Americans think it means to be an American.
When it comes to energy, what we have created, and how we have used the tools that already exist, has depended more on our ideas and beliefs about what energy ought to be than on the physical limitations of what can and cannot be done.
This is the story that Powering the Dream is really all about.
Madrigal finds this thread running through American dreams about "natural" energy. It's especially prevalent in the way some Americans have latched onto solar power as the one ideal energy source, not because of its technological merits, but because it offers an opportunity to disconnect from the rest of their fellow citizens—to play energy cowboy in an imagined (if not even creepily longed-for) post-apocalypse, where they don't need anybody and definitely don't need the messy shared systems of modern society.
And Madrigal spots the same story happening behind the scenes of the rise of nuclear energy. In this case, researchers raised during America's developmental heyday assumed that the the future would only bring more of what they'd already seen—astronomical year-over-year increases in the amount of energy Americans consume. Their belief that bigger was not just better, but nigh-on inevitable, informed a loop of self-reinforcing ideas that led many scientists to push nuclear power as our only hope for the future long before the technology itself was mature or economical.
Even our use of fossil fuels has been influenced by belief. In the mid-19th century, America's first oil boom in Pennsylvania convinced the nation that Providence had handed us an endless supply of almost-magical substance, a super-transportable, super-dense source of energy that could grant riches like Midas. When the the Pennsylvania oil wells ran dry, everyone was chastened. Momentarily. Then oil turned up in Texas and California, and the dream of limitless black gold took over once again. Even today, after America's oil demand has come to outstrip what our natural resources are capable of supplying and the weight of evidence points to a coming day when the world's oil supplies will peak and then fall, there are still plenty of people clinging to the idea that we will (must!) have all the oil we want, for ever and ever.
Energy isn't just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be. Sometimes, that fact leads us to make good decisions. Sometimes, it leads us into horrible mistakes. More often, we get a little of both at the same time. But we can't plan out the future of energy without taking a good, hard look how our beliefs and cultural ideas have created its past. We have to come to terms with the fact that our decisions about energy aren't guided by pure economics or pure science, and never have been. If we ignore that, then we're doomed to keep making sloppy choices, or become frozen in a standoff of ideologies disguised as fact—and neither is something we can afford to do right now.
Human society—American society—is reflected in the infrastructures it builds, Madrigal writes. Powering the Dream is a book that makes that fact abundantly clear.
Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the author. That said, I receive a lot of free review copies of books. I only tell you about the ones I think you really need to read.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.