April 14, 2015

Uncommon Interview: Journalist Steve LeVine talks latest book

Steve LeVine is the Washington correspondent for Quartz and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he teaches energy and security. LeVine was a foreign correspondent for 18 years, writing for such major publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His work has covered numerous historic events, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea oil boom, and wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

His latest book, The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World, examines advances in lithium ion battery technology and the geopolitics of technology. In writing The Powerhouse, LeVine was granted unprecedented access to Argonne National Laboratory, which is co-managed by the University of Chicago.

Chicago Maroon: You write for Quartz, a digitally native news outlet that describes itself as “intelligent journalism built primarily for the devices closest at hand: tablets and mobile phones.” How would you describe your relationship to “new media” and what is the future of journalism in relation to “new media?”

Steve LeVine: Nobody knows what the future of journalism is….There will come a time when we’ll grow tired of “junk” or of “McDonald’s journalism.” People will eventually want salads and intellectually healthy writing. The days of going online and spouting your opinion about something after having read a story or two are going to grow thin. Similarly, the days of readers being interested in simply reading the reporting and the opinions of people who share their own opinions are also going to grow thin. Quality journalism emerges when you’ve gone out, discovered something original, done a bunch of research, and then presented it in a really interesting way—in whatever form that is.

CM: In 1995, you were wounded in Chechnya while reporting for The New York Times and Newsweek magazine. Have the dangers and risks associated with being a foreign correspondent ever made you reconsider the career?

SL: No. I didn’t go into journalism for the danger, and I didn’t stick with it to do dangerous things. I just covered the story wherever I was…. I do think, however, that...there are mistakes that are made by people who have the wrong idea about how to cover dangerous places. For example, with war, there’s this impression that to get the story, you should go to the frontline. Well, that’s not usually where the story is. Wars don’t happen on one set the way that it happens now, there are a hundred different skirmishes all over the place, and sometimes it involves intimidation, threats, fighting, or simply sitting in on several guys talking in a room. But because it’s so disparate and because it is often unclear as to what on earth is going on, a lot of war reporting is instead hanging out with the folks who live there to discover the human story.

My own encounter, when I was wounded, was a fluke thing…it was at a roadblock going into an election. We were going from one town to another, and there was a fighter who decided to fire off his rocket. When he did it, myself and a couple people I was standing with got the backlash.

CM: You spent two years at Argonne National Laboratory examining the efforts of researchers to create battery technology that have the potential to impact energy systems, climate change, and geopolitical relationships. Based on your time there, do you think there are enough young people invested in the field of battery technology?

SL: The mainstream way of thinking is that we don’t have enough young people in STEM, and based on what I’ve been told, this is not an accurate conclusion….We don’t need quantity, but quality in the sciences. We need young folks, especially someone who can invent the super battery.... In the lab I stayed in, it was mostly comprised of foreign-born scientists. We need inspired Americans; smart men and women. There were very few women in the lab that I resided in—in fact, there was only one in that lab, which was disappointing, especially as the father of two girls.   

CM: During both of your talks at Google and at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, you mentioned that there would eventually come a turning point in which today’s youth would become disillusioned with the idea of burning fossil fuels. What do you think will stimulate this turning point in the youth’s ethical attitude towards the environment?

SL: I think that the trigger for this turning point is the emergence of more available and affordable hybrid cars and electric cars. A generation will soon emerge that believes that there is something unprincipled and wrong with having a gas engine car…. I personally point to the year 2018 as the turning point because it is when these electric cars will come onto the market, such as Tesla with its Model 3, GM with its Volt, or even Apple and Google with their respective models.