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

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