Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse
© 2012 David Owen
If only all big problems could be tackled with product substitution. We're consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another. My car's a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong water heater? I'll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I'll replace them. The challenge arises when consumption itself is at issue. The world faces a long list of environmental challenges, yet most so-called solutions are either irrelevant or make the real problems worse. That's the conundrum facing anyone who yearns for "sustainability."
Green is in, but what if we’re doing it wrong – and our earnest attempts to be environmentally responsible are backfiring on us? Such is David Owen’s proposal in The Conundrum, in which he asserts that typical approaches to sustainability are only aggravating the problem, and confronts the reader with the possibility that we already know the most effective way to keep the climate crisis in check…the only question is our will to do it. That’s the conundrum.
Owen turned conventional environmental thinking on its head with his The Green Metropolis, which took an economical approach and asserted that cities were the most environmentally prudent technology on earth, for they allow each human being to use as little energy as possible. Cities are part of the solution, but here Owen is more concerned with driving home the extent of the problem. In the past we have been concerned with using energy more efficiently, but this only allows us to use more energy. The price of gas is an obvious example: when prices are high, we drive less. We have an incentive to do so. When prices are low, however, we drive more. Attempts to make our current lifestyle Green are doomed to failure, because the living patterns of the first world in the 21st century are fundamentally energy intensive. The "little things" like using better lightbulbs or recycling cans can't overcome the fact that society as a whole has become utterly wasteful.* Even our attempts to free ourselves from using dirty ol’ fossil fuels only maintain the pattern: solar power plants might use renewable fuel, but the physical construction of the plants systems requires intensive processing of scarce resources. Ultimately, he argues, the solution to our energy and climate problems is simple: use less energy.
While he doesn’t elaborate on what that entails (having already pointed out the resiliency of cities in a prior book), readers must take a long, hard look at their own lives to see where waste has made itself a habit. Extravagance has become the norm in the west, where today’s gas station make more use of refrigeration units than the grocery stores of the 1960s. Waste inherent in the built environment: because we have air-conditioning, for instance, we've stopped bothering to build homes that can mitigate. Our windows are to look out of, not to provide ventilation. Our shutters are plastic decor, not functional.
It remains to be seen if we will make the hard choices. Eventually we will have to: reality will leave us no alternative. I'd tend to recommend The Green Metropolis over this; it makes the same point in a broader context and proposes some solutions.
- David Owen on the Infrastructure Blog
- Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay (Cars are "enemy #1".)
- Too Much Magic, James Howard Kunstler
- The Green Metropolis, David Owen
- "It's Too Easy Being Green: the Prius Fallacy", an excerpt from the book.
- The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov
- - Symphony of Science has finally included Isaac Asimov in one of its videos, and appropriately it's called "Our Biggest Challenge", its subject being the climate crisis. (It's also far more optimistic in regards to technology than Owen and Kunstler.)
* Not that this means you should stop bothering. Conventional lightbulbs wasted over 90% of their energy as heat, so if you stick to using them you're only getting a dime of value for every dollar you send to the electric company, and not even that much if you take into account the increased expenditures for air cooling to compensate for all that heat...