Amanda Little slides her lanky frame into a dark wooden booth at Fido in Hillsboro Village, her long brown hair pulled back in a Saturday-morning ponytail. A native of Washington, D.C., and a longtime New Yorker, Little, dressed in green sneakers, skinny jeans and a muted blue-gray sweater, fits in surprisingly well with the early-morning coffee shop crowd of young moms and soccer dads.
Becoming a Nashvillian wasn't something Little, the author of the new book Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—Our Ride to the Renewable Future, had ever considered. "I hadn't even been south of Washington until I was 26," she says.
At the time, Little, 35, was a successful Manhattan journalist. She started at a web magazine called Feed straight out of college and went on to cover technology and energy issues for Vanity Fair, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lived in Brooklyn and worked in Midtown, living the Big Apple media dream.
Along the way she began developing an idea for a book about American energy dependence. "The book I was going to write was an exposé, a manifesto," she says, full of invective about greedy oil barons and short-sighted SUV drivers.
But when her musician boyfriend (and now husband) moved to Nashville for a job, she began visiting on weekends, then for weeks at a time. It was tough. To many Northeastern cosmopolitan liberals, Nashville is not quite the belly of the beast, but it's close.
"It was a slow and reluctant transition," she says. "It was right before the 2004 election, and I felt a lot of animosity, having been inside that bubble of liberal political fervor. I was going to antiwar rallies and got really fired up about the failures of the Bush administration."
That animosity faded, though, as Little settled in Nashville and started to work on her book. As she talked to locals—not just interview subjects, but neighbors, friends of friends, local politicians—she began to see a more nuanced story, and she realized that preachiness was exactly the wrong way to talk about energy consumption in America. Soon she was recasting her entire proposal.
"It became an exercise in putting aside my own politics and just listening to people," she says, gesturing broadly with her hands as her eggs and toast grow cold. "My shift in perspective was from the standpoint of an analyst and critic to one of a storyteller."
Being outside the bubble made all the difference. Unlike New York, in Nashville, Little found the complete spectrum of public opinion, from far left to far right, but most importantly the vast in-between—the "America" that lies at the heart of the book, and the America she had to understand to make it a success.
It's a lesson she learned again when interviewing Barack Obama for a 2004 Rolling Stone article; at the time the future president had just won the Illinois Senate race—in part thanks to millions of Bush voters who crossed party lines to support him.
"I asked him how he had managed to share 1 million voters with George W. Bush, and he said, 'Politics is storytelling. You can't lead with criticism. Just tell a story.' That really resonated with me," she says.
The resulting book is a compelling hybrid of science, history, policy and personal narrative—"I tell people it's a cross between Eat, Pray, Love and Guns, Germs and Steel," Little says.
Power Trip is actually two books, linked together. One book tells the story of how America came to depend so heavily on petroleum-based products, everything from motor oil to fertilizer to breast implants, in just over a century.
It's not a new story, but Little renders it fresh and compelling by mixing first-person reporting—the first chapter has her hanging out on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico—with breezy, readable overviews of the science and history behind it.
Like the best journalists, Little has an uncanny ability to reduce complex issues into terms that any layperson could understand without losing important details in the process. Take these two paragraphs:
Another study from the University of Chicago concluded that Americans actually emit more greenhouse gases from eating than we do from driving—when you combine the carbon dioxide emissions from the fossil fuels that go into our farming practices with the methane and other planet-warming pollutants routinely released from farms and feedlots.
It took me a while to digest these facts and numbers, but eventually they led me to one hair-raising realization about our current dependence on fossil fuels: Americans eat oil.
Little starts with literary Ambien—"Another study from the University of Chicago"—but, instead of hitting readers with meaningless statistics, she quickly boils the findings into a provocative three-word summary that communicates more meaning than a lengthy academic study ever could.
"She's a terrific reporter, someone who really gets to know her sources and writes exceptionally well," says Wired senior editor Nicholas Thompson, who worked with Little on a 2007 piece she wrote for his magazine. "She has an exuberant, very large presence that becomes apparent the second you meet her."
The second book inside Power Trip is a personal one, which relates Little's own accounting for her anti-environment sins. Except that in Little's telling, these aren't sins. Halfway through the book she relates her discovery of the "20,000 mile salad" she prepared one night for her family.
Being a salad, this should have been a low-impact, eco-friendly meal. Yet once Little noticed where the produce came from—lettuce from California, avocados from Mexico, olive oil from Italy—she realized that her salad wasn't so friendly after all, having used up hundreds of gallons of gasoline to get to her plate. "My organic salad suddenly looked like a globetrotting energy boondoggle," she writes.
But what else could she do? Buying "organic" is already expensive and time-consuming (and who knows what some companies mean by "organic," anyway). And even if she spent all her dollars at Whole Foods, Little would still be driving to and from the store.
Looking at her own resource consumption made her realize that castigating "energy hogs" was unfair and even hypocritical. "I used to flip off SUV drivers," she says. "But my own energy footprint is Goliath."
Instead, what comes through in Power Trip is a nuanced, very personal understanding of the alluring lifestyle presented by cheap fossil fuels and the difficulty of moving away from it. "Before we examine our abuse of energy resources, we have to understand our use of them," she says.
Balancing the two books, Little says, was the toughest part of the project. "It was hard to get the message just right," she says. "If it's too much about a personal search, it would read too fast. If it was all about energy policy, it would read too slow."
The result reads like a high-wire act. Little likes to pepper her chapters with cute, punning titles—"Chain of Fuels," "Silicone Valleys," "On With the Wind"—and yet somehow it all manages to work, probably because there is a human earnestness behind the voice. The puns aren't there to lighten up the prose; they're just a natural part of her endearing storytelling style.
The two strands are obviously linked—through her first-person reporting Little gradually exposes herself to her readers, while through her personal narrative she manages to sneak in telling details about energy dependence. "I wanted to go and see what energy addiction looks like—whether at the Pentagon or a NASCAR race—and to tell a human story about it," she says.
The daughter of a corporate lawyer father and a psychoanalyst mother, Little grew up with two brothers in northwest Washington, D.C. The youngest of the three, she soaked up her parents' hard-charging, high-achievement personalities.
"The family was long on the Protestant work ethic," says her oldest brother, Rufus. "Our parents are both intensely hardworking people, and that rubbed off. Amanda is extremely persistent and driven."
Little followed both siblings to Brown University, where she graduated in 1996 with a degree in literature and a vague but strong interest in journalism. It was a good time to enter the field. In the mid-1990s the Internet was all upside for newspapers and magazines; it meant advertising revenue and more readers, and not yet bloggers and declining subscriptions. Everyone was hiring, while new ventures—including an army of web magazines—were opening their doors every week.
Rufus Griscom, the oldest of the three siblings, was at the center of the revolution. A former editor at a small publishing house, he was in the process of founding Nerve.com, one of the first prominent web-based magazines (and one of the few still thriving).
Griscom encouraged his sister to follow his lead, and soon she was the first employee at Feed, a general-interest site that, until its demise in the 2001 recession, helped define the new era of web journalism. "Rufus is the reason I got involved in new media," Little says. "It would never have occurred to me to go work at Feed without his encouragement."
Little quickly developed a name for herself as a thorough and deeply knowledgeable writer on the tech industry. "I think Amanda has made a point in her career of deciding not to be a dilettante," says Griscom. "At an early age she knew she wanted to earn her stripes."
Little soon jumped to the Village Voice, where she covered the burgeoning New York technology world, known locally as Silicon Alley. Unfortunately, she wasn't alone—there's nothing New Yorkers like more than talking about themselves, and that's doubly true for New York media. "By 1999 it was a very populated field," she says understatedly.
Little started casting around for a new beat. Around that same time, her other brother, Bronson, gave her a copy of Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins. Bronson Griscom is an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, and he was excited by the book's premise that the next industrial revolution will be in green technology. (He was unavailable for this piece because he was on a field trip in Borneo.)
For the budding technology writer, the book made switching to environmental reporting an obvious choice: After all, technology is a central part of the energy question—technology gave us the oil economy, and so technology will have to be part of the solution that moves us beyond it.
Two more events marked Little's change in tack. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was biking across the Brooklyn Bridge when she saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Two years later, she was caught in the middle of the 2003 Northeast blackout.
"I began to see the significance of the energy issue taking on bigger and more dimensional proportions," she says. "The role of energy and climate change became a human story. I began to see the human implications of a resource usually measured in megawatts, barrels of oil and CO2 emissions."
In the meantime, Little had decided to follow her boyfriend, Carter Little, a musician and composer, to Nashville. Not that it was easy. As for many transplants, the good-natured ease of Nashville life caught her by surprise.
"My first reaction was suspicion," she says. "Why is everyone so friendly? What do they want from me? It was so foreign to me, the notion that people just help each other out. New York is one of the friendliest places in the world, but you don't experience the communal intimacy that you do in Nashville."
The Littles married and settled in Hillsboro Village, and they soon had a daughter, Aria. All the while, Little was digging into Nashville life, especially the parks; a few years ago she joined the board of Friends of Radnor Lake.
And she kept writing—even more, she says, than she did in New York. She wrote a weekly column for Salon.com called "Muckraker," about the energy industry, along with a monthly column for Outside magazine about leaders in the environmental movement.
"It was so surprising," she says. "I get so much more done here than in New York, or any other place where you have a concentration of stimuli. In New York you spend so much energy trying not to experience things. The quietness of life here is like a new energy resource for me."
Little sold her book proposal in 2006 and immediately went to work. She knew a lot of the science and policy already; the hard part was coming up with the narrative to frame everything. And so Little, often with baby Aria in tow, started traveling to see the people and places that would make the story come alive.
"My first effort, to penetrate the oil world, was tough," she says. "People would see my columns and say, 'Who would want to bring an environment writer into the pearly gates of the oil industry?' "
Fortunately, Little could draw on her background—and connections—as a tech writer. "Like any other industry it's a community," she says, "and a lot of the challenge was convincing them I could put aside my environmental-activist perspective and listen to learn from people whose perspectives were different from mine."
It must have worked, because Power Trip is full of stories reported from usually off-limit locations like the bowels of the Pentagon and the deck of an oil rig. The places come alive; Little has a knack for the odd but telling detail. When she helicopters out to the rig, she notes that none of the crew go swimming because "this is shark territory." And her interviewees are rarely just names and titles; she builds them into characters—she relates, for example, how an MIT logistics expert named Edgar Blanco ends each sentence with "Yes!," as in, "This is a very complex problem to model and dissect. Yes!"
Little is equally adept with compelling historical asides. In her chapter on plastics, she gives a three-page history of Tupperware as the original ubiquitous plastic houseware. It's a fascinating story: Who knew that Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware (and one of the first to develop applications for lightweight polyethylene), was a self-taught engineer—but that his success was built largely on the marketing genius of Brownie Wise, a part-time door-to-door saleswoman who developed the idea of Tupperware parties to demonstrate and sell the product?
These stories lead readers to the book's last chapters, in which Little switches from the past and present to the future. The picture Little paints isn't so much anti-petroleum as it is smart petroleum. "This resource that I thought was a bad word, like napalm, in fact is a resource that's a feedstock for chemotherapy, medicine, lightweight auto bodies, critical applications if we're going to use less fuel," she says. "Burning coal for energy is like burning 14th century antiques for a camp fire."
Little's concluding tour, through meetings with reformed oil tycoons and electric-car entrepreneurs, allows her to end the book on a note of surprising optimism. "I realized that if American ingenuity got us into all this, it can get us out," she says. "But it took me four years to learn how to tell that story." Four years—and a move to the Music City.