Powering the Dream

With this stimulating, surprising, meticulously researched book, Alexis Madrigal confers on the green technology movement the valuable gift of historical perspective, a roadmap of past failures and triumphs that can help our society today to form a sensible prospectus for our future survival and escape from eco-apocalypse. Digging deep into the record of alternate energy schemes and projects extending as far back as the 1830s, Madrigal lays down a saga of visionary inventors, enthusiastic or fickle citizens, millionaire robber-baron investors, self-serving charlatans, far-seeing or short-sighted bureaucrats, hardy pioneers, altruistic saviors, and starry-eyed philosophers, all of whom played a part at one time or another in striving to deliver new and improved sources of power to the species and liberate us from drudgery–while hopefully getting rich in the meantime.

Madrigal begins with a profile of the nearly forgotten John Etzler, nineteenth-century dreamer and utopian, responsible for the birth of communes up and down the USA.  As with all his mini-biographies, Madrigal nails the essence of the man with a few swift strokes, conjuring up a vivid portrait of Etzler and his concepts. Madrigal uses Etzler’s case to emphasize the equal importance of memes and technology: no advances ever occur without both software and hardware.

From Etzler, it’s a veritable wild steampunk cascade of one forgotten nonpareil personage and invention after another.  Pneumatic clocks in Paris! Wave-power machines in San Francisco! The Electrobat auto empire! Madrigal’s glee in presenting these historical oddities is evident and contagious. But so is his serious goal of sensitizing us to similar follies and missed opportunities in the current era.

When Madrigal reaches the recent past–the Carter administration, for instance–he proves just as adept at charting contentious historical processes that are still ongoing. “The 1970s were a fulcrum on which American society turned from one vision of the future to another.” His depiction of alternate histories–what if the Reagan administration had not killed various solar and bio-fuel programs?–is inventive and convincing. Madrigal is particularly intent on demolishing clichés and dead assumptions. For instance: “The truth is that the most important technological work done to capture solar energy during the 1970s didn’t come from the tool freaks [Stewart Brand and company]. Instead, an oil company funded the research that enabled photovoltaic cells to get radically cheaper.” In Madrigal’s eminently sane view, only by overturning ideological cant can we make any progress toward solving our problems.

This entertaining, illuminating volume is akin to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, a secret, esoteric and potent lineage of the environmentally friendly power movement, charting the heretofore hidden currents in the ocean of history which continue to determine how we set our sails in the present, and what strange shores we might reach in the future.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.