Book Review: The Conundrum

I just finished reading The Conundrum by David Owen.  A little repetitive and a little preaching to the choir.  But it did back up some of my beliefs and get me thinking about others.  Overall, I would recommend flipping through it and reading the last few chapters.

The main message of the book is: increasing efficiency is going to kill us.  If we can get more out of a fixed amount of energy, then we will use the same amount of energy and just do more with it.  And then we’ll get greedy and do even more, using more energy.  Increased efficiency means increased consumption.  We need to use less.  We need to make very radical changes very quickly.  And that won’t happen.

The book points out some seeming contradictions that will have me reading more.  In particular, Owen draws from James McWilliams’ Just Food:

Of all the energy expended in the production and processing of food, transportation represents the smallest share.  […] Grass-fed lamb imported to London from New Zealand has a quarter of the energy footprint of grain-fed lamb raised locally, in England; Brazilian apple juice shipped ten thousand miles to Germany represents a smaller expenditure of energy, overall, than the same product grown and processed locally. (p. 75)

That doesn’t mean I’ll eschew my largely local diet.  But it will get me to read McWilliams’ book.

In Chapter 21: The Importance of Less, Owen gives one example where increased efficiency that did not result in increased consumption.  In the 70s, NYC began requiring more efficient plumbing and water use fell and stayed down.  Water is not metered in NYC, so residents did not gain any benefit from this, even though the city did.  (An argument for socialism?)  They had no reason or need to increase their water consumption as they had nothing regulating their consumption.  Humorously and darkly, Owen says:

Even if we reach a point where our own activity in some category seems “saturate” — say, because we’ve fully paid over the country and can’t think of anywhere else to drive […] — any additional efficiency gains will still serve to increase our wealth and will therefore still serve to increase our wealth and will therefore give us the means to increase our consumption in other ways. [p. 140]

Later, he points out that the most environmental car would be the Model T (which happens to have the same gas mileage as a modern SUV) because it is so uncomfortable that no one would want to drive it very far.  So, my hatred of motor vehicles is backed up.  But my love for the internet is not, pointing out that the energy and carbon footprints of the internet are double that of air travel.

With a big dig at my energy systems friends, I’m hoping to get their opinion on Owen’s opinion that energy research has been at best useless, and at worst counterproductive because, for those who engage in it:

[For] “creative, out-of-the-box, transformational” energy research […] most of the potential returns take the form not of long-term operating profits but of grants, subsidies, research stipends, small-scale speculative investments, and tax breaks, or of profits from selling interim products of questionable environmental value, such as solar panels for suburban houses or algae-based cooking oil.  The federal government, green-minded venture capitalists, and global energy companies that are concerned about their public image will never lack for interesting-sounding places to throw their money — better battery chargers for cars, improved power supplies for tablet computers, smartphone apps for monitoring electricity use — but small investments like those are too diffuse to have a noticeable impact on the world’s real problems, which are measured in hundreds of billions of dollars and on which progress is constrained less by a shortage of cleverness than by a lack of public will.  Meanwhile, the one truly concerted American investment in renewables — corn-based ethanol — has, by all reliable accounts, actually worsened the nation’s energy and climate predicament, while pushing up food prices both here and abroad.  [p. 222]

In the last chapter, Owen rather depressingly points out the good and the bad of our favorite targets: hydroelectric, nuclear power, gasoline, compact flourescents, solar panels, and wind power.  He reinforces his favorite target and summarizes much of my motivation for this site:

Global Environmental Enemy No. 1 is the automobile, no matter what it runs on.  The ecological advantage of electric cars — to the extent that there is one — is not that they’re ultimately powered by coal, natural gas, uranium, rather than by oil; it’s that their range is limited, so they can’t be easily driven long distances. [p. 248]

But you can’t solve that with trains, according to Owen, pointing out that China’s recent drive to build an enormous rail network is not to reduce energy use, but to increase it, to stimulate consumption of all things, everywhere, to improve the economy. He reminds us that while we should consider our personal choices, that “every little bit” doesn’t count and that big changes are the only relevant ones.

It’s not a bad read, but not a wholly engaging on either.  And the academic in me reminds me to take his arguments, supplied without any suitable references, with a grain of salt.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Conundrum

  1. John Roullier

    I hadn’t heard the the internet has a larger carbon footprint than the airline business, but without looking at specifics hige numbers use the internet daily or all day where as they don’t fly everyday. I am of the mindset that technology will NOT be able to solve the energy crisis or future food production. We must consume less and it begins with the individual not someone else, or some other country until one gets their house in order they can’t expect someone else to do it.

  2. Pingback: Less is more and a broken bicycle | Car-Free Corvallis

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