Before the Lights Go Out: Maggie's energy book is thoughtful, timely, necessary

By Cory Doctorow

Boing Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker's debut book comes out today. It's called Before the Lights Go Out, and I was lucky enough to get to read an early copy back in January. If you read Boing Boing, you already know about Maggie's wonderful ability to make scientific subjects accessible without sacrificing nuance -- and without sucking the excitement out of pop-science headlines by insisting "I think you'll find it's not quite like that" nor reducing the topic to a pap of "on the other hand"-style "balance" that leaves you with the impression that nothing ever happens.

But as fun as it is to read Maggie at blog-post length, it's a genuine delight to read her focused, at book length, on a subject of serious importance. Before the Lights Go Out is a comprehensive look at "sustainable energy" -- that is, what sources of energy are likely to keep us warm, comfortable and fed in our dotage, and into the lives of our children and grandchildren? This is a very hard and very important question, so gigantic that it's hard to know where to begin.

But Maggie nails the science-writer's trick of starting with the first guy who ever bought a power-plant from Thomas Edison: HJ Rogers, a Appleton, WI millionaire who met an Edison salesman on a fishing trip and decided on the spot to electrify his hometown. This moment from the dawn of electrification, the moment at which someone who wasn't a supergenius set out to tame, use and sell electricity, is the turning point in the America's relationship to energy, the moment at which the nation irrevocably committed consuming the fossils of long-dead microanimals and ancient trees to secure its future.

From there, Before the Lights Go Out unspools with a fascinating effortlessness, as Maggie presents the science, engineering, politics and personality behind the grid as we know it, and all the different ways that the grid might change in the future. Koerth-Baker's energy snapshot encompasses super-energy-efficient midwestern houses that can be heated all winter long with a single candle; homespun, small town efforts to reduce devastating riverbank soil erosion by planting native grasses on riverbanks, providing local farmers with a "third crop" that can be turned into ethanol; the high-pressure world of energy controllers who manage today's grid; and the promise and peril of smart houses that let remote parties trigger events that pause and restart your major appliances to keep the grid going.

All the way, Maggie keeps reminding us that none of this stuff is, in and of itself, sustainable. None of it will keep the world turning over. Not coal, not nukes, not solar, not wind. But some combination of various systems, various compromises and improvements and treaties between mutual belligerents, taken together, hold out the promise of a world where we and our descendants continue to enjoy comfort and prosperity. This isn't a book about turning down the thermostat in the winter and putting on a sweater: it's a book about making houses that are better, that warm the rooms where people are and keep the heat in, and, in the process, cost us all less, reduce the pressure to secure oil through military adventurism, and begin to curb our atmospheric CO2 addiction.

This is an optimistic book. Not a book that says it'll all come out all right, but rather a book that says that it might come out all right. It's about a world that is better than this one, because it's a world where we figure out how to enjoy ourselves without killing ourselves and poisoning our unborn descendants. It's a book we need to read.

Before the Lights Go Out

Published 5:43 am Thu, Mar 29, 2012

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

11 Responses to “Before the Lights Go Out: Maggie's energy book is thoughtful, timely, necessary”

  1. relentless says:

    Saying the man who bought the first power station from Edison was not a ‘supergenius’ is both factually incorrect and dangerous. Choosing to invest in technology at its infancy is no easier and no less important than inventing new technologies.

    The world has plenty of Thomas Edison ‘supergeniuses’ and far too few investor ‘supergeniuses’ to bring their inventions to the masses. Edison made it possible to see the light of electricity, but without someone willing to take considerable financial risk by buying the ‘first’ power plant, nobody would have bought the second one… and his grand invention would never have seen the light of day.

    • digi_owl says:

       I think the guy did it on more of a “would it be cool if” whim then some “this is something that will change the world!” insight.

    • PeterBensley says:

      I think you’ll find the problem isn’t a shortage of people willing to take financial risks to invest in new technology, but rather the fact that only a small minority of those people are incredibly rich.

      But please don’t let me keep you from your deification of the wealthy.

  2. steve849 says:

    I’d think even more would get the important messages in this book if it had a Kindle price of less than $14.99. 

  3. digi_owl says:

    And the core message about sustainability will always be that there is not a one size fits all cure-all in this.

  4. t3kna2007 says:

    Yay Maggie!  This is a big day.  Here’s the whole Internet doing the wave for you:

    .o.o|o|/o/.o.

    W00t!

  5. penguinchris says:

    Congratulations Maggie, and I’m really looking forward to reading it – only had a chance to read the intro so far. 

    Though I have a lot of books, when I received this in the mail from Amazon a couple days ago I started thinking – I believe this is actually the first time I’ve bought a hardcover new release.

  6. surfthis says:

    Just got mine today. Looking forward to reading Maggie’s excellent writing!! 

  7. dan says:

    Read the first couple of chapters while biking this AM.  It’s a small thing, but what I especially like so far is the Midwest-ness of it.  How often does a mainstream book locate itself so deliberately in the flyover?  I lived in MPLS for about 20 years, and am currently working on selling a home in New England so I can get back to the North Woods.  So it’s fun and somehow sort-of calming to get sensible science and policy ideas from the center of the US.

  8. lighthouse10 says:

    A lot of energy saving presumptions are misleading, particularly when it comes to using electricity and lighting.

    So in this case, as an example, effectively the same Coal gets burned at nighttime, regardless of whether lights are on or off:
    http://freedomlightbulb.blogspot.com/p/deception-behind-banning-light-bulbs.html#coal

    As seen and referenced, it is also just one of the many false arguments behind the banning of simple cheap incandescent light bulbs

    • PeterBensley says:

      That’s a specious argument. Yes, using less energy won’t save fuel if you’re running the same capacity of base load power stations, but if you use less energy you can get by with fewer base load stations, or (in the case of reducing nighttime power usage) moving capacity from base load to intermediate/peak load.

      The argument simply isn’t constructed in the interests of accuracy, but because someone is grumpy because he has to go to slightly more effort to buy incandescent lightbulbs.