Making the Case for Energy Literacy

July 9, 2012

By Bill Barnes, PhD, Associate Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at the University of Portland.  Second Nature awarded a posthumous Visionary Leadership Award to Ray Anderson during the 2012 Climate Leadership Awards at American University, June 21-22nd, 2012.

The first Industrial Revolution is flawed; it is not working; it is unsustainable; it is the mistake.  And we must move on to another, and better, Industrial Revolution, and get it right this time. -The late Ray Anderson, Founder of Interface Global, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer

Ray Anderson, Founder and CEO of Interface Global

The most refreshing thing about Ray Anderson was his transparency.  When he spoke as a representative of the business community, his sheer honesty and humility would typically astonish, bringing the audience to tears.  His main message was simple and powerful: we must change, and we can change. And he would typically build his case by detailing how Interface learned to continually monitor and improve the life cycle impacts of modular carpet, and how to make money doing it.

According to Anderson, increasing consumer awareness was the initial key to the conversion of Interface in the mid 1990s.

Customers – you and I – began questioning what Interface was doing to the environment and how it could be changed.

This is also the key to our 21st century climate challenge: demanding transparency, working to understand the true costs of our status quo behavior, and seizing the opportunities unleashed when we put it all on the table.

There is perhaps no greater opportunity than in the energy industries, given their current state and the impact they have on the climate. And yet the typical person in the U.S. today doesn’t think twice when they flip on a light switch or turn up the thermostat. How is your electricity produced, and what is the impact?  A 2001 National Environmental Education and Training Foundation study found that only 12 percent of Americans could pass a basic quiz on energy knowledge – questions like how most of our electricity is generated, and how clean our energy production is. Although this annual survey was discontinued, there is no reason to believe things have substantially changed in the past decade.A low energy IQ has a steep price. The “mother of all externalities” – emission of greenhouse gases – is not yet mentioned in the energy-sector equivalent of a surgeon general’s warning or a food nutrition label. We are on our own to understand what is happening, subject to the whims of our education and our many distractions. Without awareness built in through numerous channels relentless in their consistency and creativity, we keep on smoking (fossil fuels mostly).

Focus the Nation, a national energy leadership organization, and Ben Jervey, a former writer for Good Magazine, are aiming to help change this. With The WATT?: An Energy 101 Primer,* they have teamed up to produce a continually evolving resource that makes energy exciting – with clear and straightforward logical flow, easy to understand graphics, and a host of applications and ideas for more exploration. The results so far are promising and empowering, with students and others exposed to the first edition of the primer telling us they love this resource.

As awareness increases, the potential for positive real change also increases. Education sharpens the ask and helps to illuminate the challenges and pathways for progress, and yes, creates new jobs and business for all types of organizations. Greater energy literacy is inevitably coming; the science of climate and the depletion of nonrenewables will force our hand. It’s not a “whether” question, it’s a “when” question.

Why not get in front?  As students continue to graduate into an uncertain job market and into a political environment rife with disinformation, it behooves all of us to find new and creative ways to educate ourselves about energy and the true costs of our current economic arrangements. Putting it on the table is the right thing to do, and it will open up more opportunities than it will shut down.

It’s a pretty safe bet that Ray Anderson would agree.


Bill Barnes, PhD, is Associate Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. He is on the board of Focus the Nation.

Focus the Nation is the country’s premier clean energy leadership development organization and supports rising leaders in launching careers that accelerate the transition to clean energy in all fifty states. Since 2008, the organization has helped more 300,000 young people engage in direct dialogue with business and elected leaders around energy solutions.  For more information about Focus the Nation and “The Watt” visit

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