In The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse (Riverhead), author and New Yorker staff writer David Owen sounds a wake-up call for everyone who thinks they’re solving the problems of climate change and resource depletion by eating local, buying more fuel-efficient cars, and fitting their house with compact fluorescents.
So how far off the mark is the current state of the Green movement?
Well, this book is about the unintended consequences, the fact that often, even when we act with the best of intentions, the results are often at cross-purposes with our goals. One of the greatest difficulties is turning energy efficiency into reductions in energy use. There’s a great deal of the excitement about energy efficiency, which is the [U.S.] Department of Energy’s main strategy for dealing with things like climate change and dependence on foreign oil and energy consumption. But if you look historically, turning efficiency improvements into reduced consumption is not as easy as it seems it ought to be. The unintended consequence is that, as we get better at doing things, we do more of those things. In the history of civilization, you see steady increases in energy efficiency, yet even greater increases in energy consumption.
Is there anyone out there getting it right?
When we’re talking about energy and climate we’re talking about problems that can only be addressed on a global scale, but it’s one of these problems that, the more you think about, the more discouraging it is. The [Keystone XL] pipeline from Alberta that’s so controversial, American environmentalists have viewed [its indefinite delay] as a great victory, but that oil will be consumed someplace.
I think there are lots of ways to get it right, but none of us—including me—are doing them. They’re just not popular. One thing we saw at the beginning of 2008 was a significant drop, worldwide, in energy consumption and in the output of manmade greenhouse gases. But it wasn’t because the world had suddenly attained green consciousness, it was because the price of oil had gotten very high and the economy had collapsed. When those things happen, people scale back their energy consumption. The difficulty is figuring out how to make reductions in consumption without seeing the kind of misery we’ve seen around the world in the past couple of years.
Does that mean I can stop sorting my recyclables?
I think most of the things we do are to make us feel better about our consumption [rather than reduce it]. We buy a new car, or a different appliance, or we eat better tasting tomatoes grown by local farmers, but all these things don’t really have any effect on the big picture, and in many ways they actually do harm.
Locavorism is a good example. Usually, when consumers insist on eating only food grown within a short distance, energy consumption for that food goes up. Of all the energy that goes into the production of food, transportation is the smallest piece, and food preparation is one of the largest. Home preparation makes up about 25 percent of the energy expended on what we eat. We would do better starting there.
So what needs to happen to turn these problems around?
If an asteroid were coming toward earth and the nations of the world needed to pull together to stop it, people would readily do that. It’s much more difficult when the danger is non-specific and spread out over a large period of time, when there is never really an identifiable crisis moment, an endpoint before which you have to do something. I’m not sure we’ll ever reach that kind of threshold. Here it is in 2012, you go to an environmental conference and, if there were no newspapers with the date on them lying around, you wouldn’t always have an easy time guessing which decade the conversation is taking place in. We’re still talking about the same things we were 10, 15, 20, 25 years ago.
There’s an idea that technological innovation will solve all these difficulties for us. What we don’t think about is that problems innovate too—and they usually have better funding than the solutions do.