I first met Joan Ogden in 1976, when I became part of a long-standing communal household called “The Place” in rural New Jersey. Already a resident, Ogden introduced herself as a “hippie guitar player who does physics on the side.” Actually my new housemate had a PhD in theoretical plasma physics from the University of Maryland and was doing postdoctoral research at Princeton University.

Living with Ogden improved both my social life — we threw great parties, and she took me to folk nightclubs — and my environmental consciousness. While I attended protests against nuclear weapons, she worked on developing alternative energy sources in her lab at Princeton. At home she used an old treadle sewing machine to make fabric-covered foam inserts for the windows to keep out the winter cold. She also installed a wood stove that heated our large, drafty farmhouse better than the open fireplace ever had.

After concluding that nuclear fusion — a less-contaminating source of nuclear power than the existing fission reactors — would not be feasible in her lifetime, Ogden shifted her attention to solar power, biofuels, and hydrogen. In 1985 she joined Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies as a research scientist, and she went on to work at the Princeton Environmental Institute. She later traveled to Jamaica, Barbados, and Brazil to explore how to make fuel from sugar cane. In her free time, Ogden recorded a CD and toured Eastern Europe with her “Balkan boogie” band, biked across France with her husband-to-be, and sailed around the Caribbean with her rock-and-roll band Hardly Tight.

Ogden has won awards for excellence in research and development from the U.S. Department of Energy, and teaching and public-service awards from the University of California. She has written many journal articles about alternative fuels and is coauthor of Solar Hydrogen: Moving beyond Fossil Fuels (World Resources Institute). She is now professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California at Davis, and codirector of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways program at the Institute of Transportation Studies.

Ogden lives with her husband and their two daughters in the Village Homes section of Davis, a twenty-five-year-old planned community devoted to environmental sustainability. The family bicycles to work, school, and the weekly organic farmers’ market.


380 - Joan Ogden


Kendall: Many people believe that General Motors and the other big carmakers have actually developed cars that use almost no gasoline, but they don’t produce them. Is that true?

Ogden: Yes and no. Could the manufacturers produce cars that are much more efficient than what we have now? Without a doubt. Some cars on the market now are already quite efficient — most notably smaller, lighter-weight cars with hybrid engines, which operate on a combination of gasoline and battery power and can get fifty or sixty miles to the gallon. And the carmakers could push that mileage even higher by making the cars more lightweight, more streamlined, with a little less power. So, yes, these technologies exist, and the cost to put them on the market is not that high. The reason Detroit doesn’t do it is that the carmakers think people want big cars — and, not incidentally, they make a lot more money selling an SUV than they do selling an efficient compact.

U.S. auto manufacturers turned their backs on hybrid technology in the early 1990s. They thought no one would want a hybrid car. The Japanese automakers, however, continued to develop it, and when they began offering hybrids in the U.S. around 2000, they found a ready market here — so ready, in fact, that for a while they couldn’t keep up with demand. It seems there are plenty of people who want to buy “green” cars. The fact that this technology is popular with some consumers has caused U.S. automakers to offer hybrid vehicles as well.

Now, if we had political leadership that told us that greater fuel efficiency was our societal duty as good world citizens, then driving an SUV might come to be as socially unacceptable as smoking is now.

Kendall: But because the car manufacturers make more money selling larger, less-efficient vehicles, they market those vehicles more aggressively.

Ogden: Yes, but it’s hard to determine to what extent the automakers have created the desire for bigger cars. I think that public opinion is shaped by more than advertising efforts. Think of cigarette smoking: the tobacco companies actually used to promote cigarettes as “good for you,” but once the evidence got out that smoking is unhealthy, they couldn’t do that anymore. Similarly, there’s evidence that burning too much gasoline is unhealthy for us and our planet. At some point, when the social mores change, companies have to change, too, to stay in business.

Kendall: You’ve said that hydrogen-fuel-cell cars are the next step after hybrids. What’s the difference between batteries and fuel cells?

Ogden: A battery is an electricity-storage device: you plug it in and fill it with electricity generated by some external source, such as a power plant or a car engine, which likely burns fuel in combustion. A fuel cell, on the other hand, makes electricity directly from fuel through a chemical reaction, without the need for pollution-causing combustion.

Hydrogen has huge potential. It’s the most abundant element in the universe. It’s not cheap to extract, but you can get it out of almost anything, including water, crops, and fossil fuels like natural gas. It can also be made by solar or wind power. Hydrogen storage is bulkier than gasoline but not as bulky as batteries. A hydrogen-fuel-cell system can use fuel very efficiently, with zero emissions; the only byproduct is non-polluting water. The technology has actually been around since the nineteenth century, but interest in it hasn’t been great until recently, because combustion technologies have dominated the energy system.

Kendall: If we end up making hydrogen from natural gas, how does that help us with global warming and decreasing oil supplies?

Ogden: Making hydrogen from natural gas isn’t ideal, but it would be better for the environment than burning gasoline. If you make hydrogen from natural gas and use it in a fuel-cell car, the greenhouse-gas emissions of the total process — from well to wheels — are about 10 to 40 percent less than those from a gasoline-powered hybrid car. And natural gas can be produced domestically, lessening to some extent our dependence on foreign oil.

But natural gas is a fossil fuel with supply constraints, so it should be seen as a transitional source of hydrogen, to be used only in the next few decades. Ultimately we’ll need to move to hydrogen made from renewable energy sources.

To get to a truly sustainable society, where we are running almost completely on renewable energy, will take a long time, but there is nothing technologically holding us back.

Kendall: Very simply, what do you mean by “renewable energy”?

Ogden: Renewable energy is any energy derived directly or indirectly from the sun or the earth. This includes solar energy; wind energy; hydropower; biomass, which is energy produced by photosynthesis in plants; geothermal, which is derived from the heat in geological formations; and energy drawn from the ocean’s tides, waves, and thermal gradients.

Kendall: People often think of hydrogen as volatile and explosive. Is it?

Ogden: All fuels pack a large amount of energy into a small space. This makes them useful — as well as dangerous. So safety is a necessary precondition for introducing any new fuel. Past studies have concluded that hydrogen has been handled with a good record in industrial settings, and could be made safe for consumer applications with proper engineering. One of the crucial tasks of ongoing hydrogen demonstration programs is assuring a level of safety comparable to that of today’s fuels.

Kendall: Where will consumers get hydrogen?

Ogden: The system might include large central plants, or neighborhood — or even household — production, as well as traditional filling stations. In 2004 I participated in a group convened by the California state government to make plans for a “hydrogen highway.” The idea was to build a network of fifty or more hydrogen refueling stations across the state, so that people who wanted to use hydrogen-powered vehicles would have somewhere to refuel. The project was put before the legislature, and now there is a request for concrete proposals to build the hydrogen stations. Certainly, putting fifty hydrogen-fueling stations in a state that has ten thousand or more gas stations isn’t going to remedy the air quality overnight, but it could play an important role in demonstrating the technology, and the project is going forward.

In theory, all of this country’s fuel demands could be met with hydrogen, but not in the immediate future. It will probably be another ten years before hydrogen cars are introduced into the marketplace. And it will take several decades more to build a hydrogen-based energy-supply system.

Kendall: Isn’t hydrogen production an inefficient and expensive process?

Ogden: Not when you compare it with other energy-conversion processes we use. When you make hydrogen from a source such as natural gas, about 70 to 80 percent of the primary energy ends up as hydrogen. Compare this to electrical power plants, where only 35 to 55 percent of the primary energy ends up as electricity. And hydrogen costs about as much to produce, in dollars per unit of energy, as gasoline today.

Electricity generation could be termed an “inefficient and expensive process,” too, but we use it because it produces something we want: a very clean and versatile form of energy.

Kendall: What do you make of President Bush’s call for development of the hydrogen-fuel-cell car?

Ogden: I think he saw it as a long-term goal that would stimulate U.S. industry and inventiveness without requiring him to do much in the near term. I don’t see it as a substitute for energy-efficiency standards, which the Bush administration has refused to implement.

Kendall: How do we know that other hydrogen proponents aren’t, like the president, just putting off taking action about global warming?

Ogden: You have to appreciate the long time frames inherent in changing an energy system. Hydrogen will take a while to develop but could eventually enable deep cuts in oil use and carbon emissions. Working on long-term energy technologies with a big payoff — like hydrogen, biofuels, and electric cars — is only part of the strategy. In the near term, we should push energy efficiency.

In contrast, the Bush-Cheney energy policy is oriented toward increasing supply through expanded oil exploration and drilling, and it gives short shrift to improving energy efficiency. The administration’s energy-policy document was developed essentially behind closed doors, without public comment, which is highly unusual. Clearly, the document was written to preserve the profits of energy producers, such as oil companies, whose representatives played a big part in its formulation. Although the document did mention renewable sources of energy and fuel efficiency, it did not stress near-term policies to conserve energy. There was nothing at all in it about increasing fuel-economy standards, which most analysts feel should be a first step.

In response to the Bush-Cheney document, groups from academia and industry stepped in and produced extensive reports and recommendations. One such group, a bipartisan panel called the National Commission on Energy Policy, came out in 2004 with a document called “Ending the Energy Stalemate.”

Kendall: Did the report have an impact?

Ogden: It did in that it gave people an authoritative document, signed by a collection of eminent people, to counter the Bush-Cheney policy.

In the meantime, many states, including California and some Northeastern states, have stepped into the breach with measures that are much more progressive than the federal recommendations: for instance, standards that require all major utilities to use more renewable energy each year.

Kendall: What about President Bush’s statement in his 2007 State of the Union address that he wants Americans to cut gasoline use by 20 percent in the next ten years?

Ogden: He also spoke about our “addiction” to oil and mentioned hydrogen and biofuels, but in terms of actual policy, he hasn’t followed through on those remarks. At the present time, the technology exists to bring the average mileage for all new cars up from twenty miles per gallon to thirty-five or forty miles per gallon, but there has been enormous opposition from the automotive industry to any attempt to regulate fuel-economy standards.

In the last twenty years, all technical innovation in automotive engines has gone into adding power. The average family sedan today has faster acceleration than the “muscle cars” of the past: twenty years ago, it used to take fourteen seconds to accelerate from zero to sixty miles per hour; today it generally takes less than ten seconds. And this is while cars have gotten bigger. One of my colleagues has estimated that if cars today had the same average size and performance of cars from the 1980s, we’d improve fuel economy by 25 percent.

Meanwhile, the car companies have sued California more than once for trying to pass regulations to reduce carbon emissions from cars. California wants the regulations because carbon in the atmosphere is a major cause of global warming. But the automakers argue that the state is really trying to regulate fuel-economy standards.

Kendall: What’s wrong with that?

Ogden: Fuel economy is supposed to be regulated only at the national level. The debate arises because there are only two ways to reduce the amount of carbon that emerges from your tailpipe. One is by fuel economy: the less gas you use, the less carbon comes out. The other is to switch to a fuel that produces less carbon. And since low-carbon fuels are not widely available, the automakers claim that California’s laws are, in effect, forcing them to improve fuel economy. It will be interesting to see if California’s laws stand.

Getting back to the federal level: There is currently a suppression of politically unacceptable views on energy. For example, scientists who work on global warming are being told not to talk to the press. The Environmental Protection Agency issues an annual report on air pollutants and their impact. A few years ago, when the draft of the report included greenhouse gases — the kind that contribute to global warming — the information was pulled by the Bush administration.

In addition, the U.S. government has refused to take a meaningful part in international agreements to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. Most energy analysts think this is a big mistake. In fact, even large oil companies like BP are asking the federal government to give them some ground rules. They want to know what the government plans to do in the long term. In many ways, oil companies appear more forward-thinking about energy than the federal government.

Kendall: Energy conservationists claim that oil companies fight anyone who tries to create renewable fuel sources, and that the government backs the oil companies, which, in turn, support Republican candidates. How accurate is this picture?

Ogden: It’s partly accurate. Oil companies are driven by the desire to make a profit and want to continue to supply transportation fuels. They also want to keep their market share, so they will fight anyone trying to create renewable fuel sources. That said, the oil companies are also large and diverse organizations, and each one has a branch dealing with developing renewable-energy technology. In fact, most solar-energy companies are owned by oil companies. Why? For one thing, the oil companies don’t want to be blindsided by new technology. Also, the oil companies are interested in the long-term outlook on energy use and supply. If they were convinced — say, by a change in buying trends — that consumers wanted renewable fuel, they would provide it. So, all in all, the oil companies are hedging their bets.

Kendall: What about diesel cars? They’re not as noisy and smelly as they used to be and can run on biodiesel fuel.

Ogden: Diesels are more efficient than gasoline cars and emit less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Diesels have been widely adopted in Europe, but not in the United States. In the U.S., air-pollution emission standards ignore carbon dioxide but are tough on particulates and nitrogen oxide, both of which are a problem with diesel engines. There are some promising technologies that could give us cleaner diesel engines, but they would come at a cost and are a few years off.

When I was a little kid and would visit relatives in Georgia, I saw segregated washrooms and drinking fountains. . . . And when I was applying to college in the late 1960s, many schools didn’t admit women. . . . I believe that prejudices about race and sex are more basic to the human psyche than the attachment to driving a large car. So that gives me hope.

Kendall: Is there existing technology that would enable us to create a sustainable energy economy in the U.S., or do we need to develop new technologies?

Ogden: We can get pretty far with existing technologies like energy conversion, wind, solar, and biomass, if we’re willing to invest in them. The U.S. is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy resources. And there should be more funding for improving the efficiency of cars, refrigerators, and other devices. These fixes don’t sound so sexy, but they add up to big reductions in energy use.

Some technologies — for example, a superefficient car — aren’t available “off the shelf” yet, but could easily be made. And you can buy items like compact-fluorescent light bulbs and superefficient refrigerators right now. You can insulate your house. Power companies can convert fuel into electricity more efficiently. We don’t need a set of scientific breakthroughs in order to conserve energy. If every American replaced one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent, we’d save enough energy annually to light 3 million homes for a year.

Kendall: But is it possible to build a sustainable energy economy when our capitalist economy requires unbounded growth?

Ogden: There are whole sections of libraries devoted to this question. I’m not a political economist, but my short answer is: I hope so, because we don’t have a good alternative.

To get to a truly sustainable society, where we are running almost completely on renewable energy, will take a long time, but there is nothing technologically holding us back. Our direct energy costs will be a little greater, because renewable fuels will be more expensive to produce, but our current fuel use produces a multitude of economic impacts that don’t show up in the price you pay at the gas pump. If you take into account all the indirect costs of energy production and use — such as air pollution, climate change, oil-supply wars, scarcity, and jolts to the economy every time we have an oil-price spike — then renewable energy looks a lot less expensive.

Kendall: Has anyone tried to calculate what average pump prices would be if indirect costs were factored in?

Ogden: The median estimate is several more dollars per gallon. But there’s contention about how to put a value on these indirect costs. For instance, a number of studies have attempted to estimate the healthcare costs of air pollution. Airborne particles can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems; they can cause cancers. The studies try to assign an economic value to all of that. Inevitably, the numbers are subjective — how do you put a price on human life? — but they should be taken into account in government policymaking.

On some level, it becomes a question of: Do we want this level of pollution or not? We’ve asked this type of question before. For instance, as a society we decided that environmental lead levels that made children ill were unacceptable, so lead was taken out of gasoline and house paints.

Kendall: So why haven’t we done this with other pollutants?

Ogden: We lack leaders willing to tackle these issues and suggest, for example, increasing gasoline taxes, which would encourage people to use less gas and could help offset some of the indirect costs of gasoline. But it’s political suicide to talk about raising gas prices, so most politicians refuse to do so, no matter how many energy analysts — including some in the government — say it’s the right thing to do.

Kendall: Who do you think could provide the necessary leadership on energy and the environment?

Ogden: The next president of the United States. But in the meantime, several states are leading the way, and groups like the National Commission on Energy Policy, nongovernmental organizations, and spokespeople like former vice-president Al Gore are making contributions. Even some religious leaders are speaking out.

It is going to take education and time to change societal attitudes, but I am optimistic, because I think back to the way things were when I was growing up about fifty years ago. We had problems then that, looking back, seem more intractable than changing the kind of cars we drive. Yet society changed.

When I was a little kid and would visit relatives in Georgia, I saw segregated washrooms and drinking fountains. That was the law in Southern states back then. Now it is impossible for my children even to conceive that such conditions existed in my lifetime. And when I was applying to college in the late 1960s, many schools didn’t admit women. It is incredible to my daughters that I was not allowed even to apply to Princeton or Harvard.

I believe that prejudices about race and sex are more basic to the human psyche than the attachment to driving a large car. So that gives me hope. Although we surely have not solved those problems, we have come a great distance. I think we can make similar shifts in values now.

Kendall: Isn’t the American cultural emphasis on individualism an obstacle to such a change? After all, it’s very “American” to value one’s personal rights over almost anything else.

Ogden: That’s true, but there have been many instances of Americans sacrificing to benefit the greater good, which of course benefits us all. You can’t have much fun or freedom as an individual during an environmental catastrophe! Some freedom-loving individualists might like to get in their SUVs and drive out of the city and get away from it all. But what if they got up to Lake Tahoe and found there was no snow? I think people will begin to make the connection between their energy choices and extreme climate events.

We need to redefine individualism. One reason people buy hybrids and other alternative-fuel cars is that they don’t want to be so dependent on oil — they want independence. Do American individualists like being held hostage by oil-rich foreign nations and instabilities in our oil supply? I don’t think so.

A big challenge to long-term change is the shortness of our political cycle, which tends to encourage short-term thinking. We elect a president every four years, but energy systems have a lifetime of decades or more. To make a big change in an energy system has historically taken fifty years, or even a hundred. The gas-powered engine was invented in 1862, but it was fifty years before automobiles were widely sold. The first car owners had to buy their gasoline in drums from kerosene refineries. Later, pharmacies and general stores sold it in five-gallon cans or even buckets. The filling station didn’t really take off until the 1920s.

Making the transition from oil to alternative fuels will take a lot longer than the political cycle, so moving toward a sustainable system has to become a societal value in the same way that cleaning up the air became one. The air in North America is much cleaner now than it was in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

Kendall: In Australia, where I currently live, there is scorn for people who waste water.

Ogden: In Davis, where I live, it isn’t considered civic-minded to buy food that is not locally produced. Once people are educated about something and have incorporated it into their value system, they will put pressure on others.

Kendall: Is there currently enough funding for energy research?

Ogden: No. In the information-technology, computer, and pharmaceutical industries, about 10 percent of profits are directed back into research and development. In the energy industry it is a fraction of 1 percent.

Despite the inadequate funding, there is still a lot of good work being done on renewable energy and energy efficiency. There is an idea called “carbon capture,” which involves capturing carbon dioxide from a power plant and then burying it underground. It remains to be seen whether this would work, but it might be a stopgap measure to control some of the emissions of fossil-fuel plants. Coal creates the most carbon dioxide and is also the most plentiful fuel currently in use. Carbon-capture technology could make coal-fired power plants less damaging to the environment.

Meanwhile, though, there are many things we can do to improve energy efficiency. We can start with measures like fuel-economy standards, gasoline taxes, and carbon taxes.

Kendall: How would a carbon tax work?

Ogden: A carbon tax is a tax on carbon emissions, which are a major cause of global warming. Cars emit a certain amount of carbon as a byproduct of burning gasoline, so a carbon tax would probably be added to the purchase price of the fuel.

Kendall: How would that help the environment?

Ogden: If the tax was high enough, it would discourage people from burning gasoline. They would want to drive cars that are more fuel-efficient, which emit less carbon.

Another way to regulate carbon emissions would be to legislate the amount of carbon in fuels. That would restrict us to using cleaner, lower-carbon fuels — including those derived from plants. The added benefit of plant-based fuels is that the crops consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which makes up for some of what gets emitted when the plant is later burned as fuel. And, of course, the federal government could also place higher efficiency standards on cars.

We could have a high-tech renaissance, another industrial revolution. Manufacturers who figure out how to make clean, efficient products that consumers want are going to make incredible profits. . . . It’s like electricity in 1900, or the automobile in the 1910s. That’s where we are now with regard to the next energy revolution.

Kendall: What sorts of sacrifices do you think Americans are prepared to make to reduce carbon emissions?

Ogden: I think with the right leadership, people will make certain sacrifices, but I don’t think we have to give up our cars, or freeze in the dark, or swelter without air conditioning. We do have to start taking sensible measures like making our homes far more energy efficient. There are already buildings in the world that have “net-zero energy use” — that is, they consume no more energy than they produce. They have efficient appliances; they are well insulated and well maintained; they have white instead of black roofs; and they might have some solar panels so they can make electricity to give back to the grid. And these houses don’t necessarily cost more. In fact, in some cases they cost less, because if you make your building efficient, then you don’t need a huge, hulking heating-and-cooling system, for example. So that’s the challenge, in my mind: to do things more efficiently and more intelligently. Then we can live within our current energy budget.

Kendall: What are the worst-case and best-case scenarios for the U.S.’s energy future?

Ogden: The worst-case scenario is that we continue to pay absolutely no attention to the problems that confront us until we get into a real energy-supply crunch, compounded by severe environmental problems due to climate change. This scenario could include people waiting in long lines for gas that costs ten dollars a gallon. It could include a curtailment of our ability to travel at will. Getting ourselves out of the energy hole we’re in is going to be a lot more unpleasant and a lot more expensive if we wait until there’s a crisis.

The best-case scenario is that we get leadership that helps us solve this problem before the crisis hits. That means we start to see the efficiency standards and carbon taxes and gasoline taxes I’ve talked about, and also the adoption of diverse energy sources. In the electrical-power sector we use all kinds of fuels to make electricity — nuclear, coal, hydroelectric dams — but in the transportation sector we are 97 percent dependent on oil. We need to change that.

I think the most likely scenario is some combination of the worst case and the best case. With the disasters that are piling up now, I think we actually will start moving in the right direction within a decade.

Kendall: You’re referring to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina?

Ogden: Yes, Katrina and other global-warming events. Also fuel-related crises such as the Iraq War, gasoline prices that top three dollars a gallon, rising air pollution, and increasing competition for resources around the world. All of these pressures, I think, are coming together.

Kendall: So it’s a question of how uncomfortable Americans have to get before we are willing to embrace change.

Ogden: Being uncomfortable is the negative motivation for change, but there’s also a positive motivation: Think of the wonderful future we could have with renewable energy sources and ultraefficiency. We could have a high-tech renaissance, another industrial revolution. Manufacturers who figure out how to make clean, efficient products that consumers want are going to make incredible profits. There is, no doubt, some bright nineteen-year-old somewhere who’s thinking about all this right now. What is she or he going to invent? It’s like electricity in 1900, or the automobile in the 1910s. That’s where we are now with regard to the next energy revolution.

Getting people excited about the future and the new technology can really help. The typical hybrid car is energy efficient and also very high-tech. You push a button to turn it on. Menus come up on the display screen, and as you drive it gives you a readout that tells you how much energy you are using. When you go down a hill, you see that you are not using energy — you are charging the batteries using the car’s momentum.

Green technology can appeal greatly to people. It’s the opposite of freezing in the dark; it’s being smart about how you use energy and using every last bit of it. And it’s not only good for the environment; it’s good for your finances. For example, if you now have a conventional car that gets twenty-five miles to the gallon, and you drive fifteen thousand miles a year, that means you buy about six hundred gallons of gas per year. Let’s say you buy a hybrid that gets fifty miles per gallon, so that you cut your annual gasoline use in half, to three hundred gallons. If your car lasts ten years, you save about three thousand gallons over the lifetime of the car. Now, if gasoline costs three dollars a gallon, that adds up to nine thousand dollars — about three times the difference between the cost of a hybrid and that of a comparable nonhybrid car. In this case, you more than make your money back, while significantly reducing your carbon emissions.

You can also decide to walk or bike, if that’s possible for you. I have to remember it’s easy for me, living in Davis, which has bike paths everywhere. I ride my bike three miles to work probably 95 percent of the time, because it’s easy, it’s faster than it would be to drive, it’s more pleasant, and it’s good exercise. My whole family commutes by bike. We need better bike paths in this country. When people don’t have to ride in the middle of traffic, they are much more likely to ride their bikes.

Kendall: What about someone who lives in an area without good bike paths or public transit, and drives an old clunker to a low-wage job? What sort of changes could that person make in his or her lifestyle?

Ogden: Some people’s choices are limited. That’s why we need the government to change the carbon content of the fuel available at the pump. There are lower-carbon fuels and even biofuels that can still be used in an old car. If we tighten up the regulations on what kind of fuel may be sold, eventually the fuels we use now will be replaced by something better without a lot of extra cost.

Any of us can make more-informed choices about what to buy. If products are shipped a long way, then the energy involved in their transport is significant. Where possible, choose to buy locally produced food. A vegetarian diet is less energy intensive than eating meat. You can turn the thermostat down. All these measures save money.

Finally, you can get politically involved. That’s probably the best thing in the near term, along with supporting the development of alternatives. Exhibiting political will is important; when the people want something, I think they eventually get it.

Kendall: What would you say to people who feel that the system can’t possibly change fast enough to avoid disaster?

Ogden: I guess I don’t see what other options we have besides working through the system to design a cleaner, more efficient future. When I started out, I was looking to blame the system for our energy mess, but the situation that we’re in has developed over a long time, and there is no single villain responsible for it.

Maybe we’re not making changes fast enough, but we are making progress. Our energy system is a huge, complicated construct that was built over a period of a hundred years. There is a tremendous amount of inertia in the system. But we can’t just walk away from it. It’s like a big ship: you have to nudge it a couple of degrees at a time and gradually bring it around.

Computer scientist Alan Kay says, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I think that’s true. Beyond thinking about what is wrong with the present system, we have to consider how we can make it better.