Amanda Little told an audience at Sweet Briar College Thursday evening that she began rethinking who is to blame for America’s energy crisis when she looked at her own desk. She took in the furniture, iPhone, computer — even the corn muffin — nearly all of it derived from petrochemicals in some way.
The byproducts of oil, coal and natural gas are everywhere in the things that make life good. It was an epiphany for a young activist, Prius-driving journalist who had been covering the environment for a decade. “I began to notice that I was a participant in this energy-hungry economy that I had been criticizing for so long,” Little said.
But she wondered how America developed such a glutinous appetite for energy, recognizing that U.S. consumption far outpaces that of other industrialized nations with equally comfortable lifestyles. She also wanted to know what we can do about it.
So she set out to explore the “extreme frontiers of our energy landscape,” she said, to better understand them, “without all the judgment, not wondering who’s wrong or right but truly what the role is of energy in America.”
Little chronicled her adventures in her 2009 book, “Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells — Our Ride to the Renewable Future.” It was released in paperback this fall with a new subtitle, “The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy.”
One stop on her journey was a deep-sea oil rig 200 miles off the Louisiana coast. Stepping onto the platform, her first sensation was an “apocalyptic trembling” — the rumbling of four huge thrusters that keep the free-floating rig on station over the well more than 7,500 below. Technology equal to rocket science keeps it from moving more than about six inches from the point of entry into the ocean floor, she said.
“I went there expecting to be just disgusted, repelled by what was happening,” Little said. “Here we were inserting a syringe into the deepest phase of the earth and instead I found myself dazzled by the sophisticated technology, the sheer audacity of this endeavor.”
Later, standing on the rig’s crown — the top of the hydraulic drill — after a lurching, harrowing ride squeezed into narrow elevator car with a man called “The Hammer,” Little began to think of these experiences as “exercises in shedding away the layers of assumption about our energy landscape, trying to put myself in the furthest reaches of this frontier that I’m trying to understand and see what I learn.”
She said a general theory emerged from her travels, which included visits to Kansas corn fields, the Pentagon and Talladega Superspeedway as well as clean-energy research labs and a green home development in New Orleans. America became a superpower because of its abundance of fossil fuels and the entrepreneurialism and innovations of those she calls the architects of the 20th century — men like J.D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Today we remember these heroes as just that, as the people that built us up and made us great. They were also the people that led us down the path of energy dependence,” she said.
Little argues the early abundance — in 1950 America was producing half the world’s oil, she said — created a myth of limitless resources. In some ways the country is still grappling with reality versus the myth, which she points out was perpetuated in popular culture through movies and TV.
But there is growing recognition of the consequences of our energy use on the environment, security and economy, especially among young people, she said. And she believes the same entrepreneurial spirit that created America’s greatness will save it.
The green economy is moving forward with dramatic investment growth in solar, wind and biofuels projected over the next decade, she said, noting job growth in these sectors is dramatically higher than traditional industries. The 21st-century investors and innovators who are fueling this growth are the new architects of the U.S. economy.
“We can reinvent our energy landscape and return again to this image of the powerful Uncle Sam who has revitalized the economy with great innovation and ingenuity,” Little said.