As Grist unveils a new look and updated mission, we are checking in with notable figures working for a more just and sustainable future.
Saul Griffith churns out inventions: wind turbines on kites, tiny electric vehicles, and inflatable robots. For this prowess, he received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2007.
Then, one day, he happened to see a chart that transformed him from an inventor into a policy wonk. It was an early version of this diagram, originally developed in 1973 for Democratic Congressman Melvin Price of Illinois, in response to his request for a chart that “in less than an hour, could give an extremely busy person an understanding of the size and complexity of our national energy dilemma.” Since then, the government has filled in more details and updated it regularly. Griffith became obsessed with this chart: It contained, he believed, every single thing that Americans would need to replace — from giant coal plants down to the smallest gas-powered grill — to meet the challenge of stopping climate change.
Last year Griffith started a policy shop called Rewiring America and has a book due out in October, Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future. Rewiring America’s first publication “Mobilizing for a Zero Carbon America,” came out last July and laid out a blueprint for decarbonizing the U.S. by 2035, creating 25 million jobs in every U.S. zip code in the process, and saving the average American household $2,000 per year in energy costs. It drew support from progressive activists, like the Sunrise Movement, as well as moderate Washington, D.C. think tanks like the Niskanen Center.
But recently, as his metamorphosis from inventor to policy wonk has come to full fruition, Griffith has begun to worry that success in reversing climate change will sacrifice the parts of nature that made him into an environmentalist in the first place.
Grist asked Griffith to explore these heavy topics. and if he sees the current moment as a departure from the environmental thinking of the past. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: You officially became a policy wonk last year, and shortly after, the United States elected a president that’s talking the talk about a massive mobilization to decarbonize the country. If we think of this as an inflection point, what do you see?
A: It’s funny, I recently picked up a National Geographic from 1978 to show my children how the world has changed. I flipped to an article on the pros and cons of nuclear energy, with (energy policy expert and founder of the sustainability-focused Rocky Mountain Institute) Amory Lovins and a couple other people on one side describing efficiency as the answer, and then all of the technocrats for nuclear on the other side. Zero has changed in that conversation in 42 years.
We did Energy Star appliances and debated whether or not we accept the compromises of nuclear power. And the efficiencies were all great, but we outpaced it with population growth and letting our cars get fatter and safer and faster. And our homes got bigger. And efficiency was easily parodied because efficiency was your eccentric aunt or uncle wearing an overly thick woolen sweater and recycling almost obsessively.