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The Conundrum [Paperback]

David Owen
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 7, 2012 9781594485619 978-1594485619 Original

The Conundrum is a mind-changing manifesto about the environment, efficiency and the real path to sustainability.

Hybrid cars, fast trains, compact florescent light bulbs, solar panels, carbon offsets: Everything you've been told about living green is wrong. The quest for a breakthrough battery or a 100 mpg car are dangerous fantasies. We are consumers, and we like to consume green and efficiently. But David Owen argues that our best intentions are still at cross purposes to our true goal - living sustainably and caring for our environment and the future of the planet. Efficiency, once considered the holy grail of our environmental problems, turns out to be part of the problem. Efforts to improve efficiency and increase sustainable development only exacerbate the problems they are meant to solve, more than negating the environmental gains. We have little trouble turning increases in efficiency into increases in consumption.

David Owen's The Conundrum is an elegant nonfiction narrative filled with fascinating information and anecdotes takes you through the history of energy and the quest for efficiency. This is a book about the environment that will change how you look at the world. We should not be waiting for some geniuses to invent our way out of the energy and economic crisis we're in. We already have the technology and knowledge we need to live sustainably. But will we do it?

That is the conundrum.

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Editorial Reviews


"After Green Metropolis, a revelatory exposition of why urban life is 'green,' Owen---brisk, funny, elucidating, and blunt---illuminates a wide spectrum of environmental misperceptions in this even more paradox-laden inquiry." ---Booklist Starred Review --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

About the Author

David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a dozen books. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman, and their two children.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade; Original edition (February 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781594485619
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485619
  • ASIN: 1594485615
  • Product Dimensions: 7.1 x 5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #104,324 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing editor of Golf Digest, and he is the author of a dozen books. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman. Learn more at or (if you're a golfer) at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly Honest February 13, 2012
David Owen writes clearly, concisely, and insightfully about environmental challenges and the inadequacy of most proposed remedies. Owen explains the direction in which a society would have to move to become truly "green" (think NYC, not Vermont) and he also candidly admits that most people--including him and his wife--do not choose to live in those ways. Mainstream environmental beliefs and practices are examined, and Owen argues that many are either less helpful than widely believed or counterproductive. Research is complemented by anecdotes, including personal revelations that underscore Owen's appreciation for the difficulties involved in attempting to persuade (or coerce) people into making significant lifestyle changes, let alone genuine sacrifices. Though short on practical solutions, this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in considering the complexities encountered when confronting environmental challenges to do good rather than merely to feel good.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cross-purposes April 19, 2012
If you're pretty smug about the ways in which you're green: recycling, locavore, hybrid, etc., be sure to avoid reading David Owen's book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. Owen's basic premise is that we turn efficiencies into increased consumption and thereby make our problems worse. These usage changes don't lead to sustainability. The conundrum entails our inability, thus far, to commit to taking steps that would actually make a lasting difference on a global scale. According to Owen, we need to find ways globally to live smaller, closer to each other, and to drive less. Readers who enjoy gathering a broader perspective on issues are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking on a paradigm shift level February 17, 2012
By Adam
David Owen does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the logical errors people choose to make regarding their energy use. He discusses the full-spectrum of decisions all the way from an individual's daily drive to work all the way to the grand plans of governments to make "green" transportation networks and cities.

Each of the chapters presents a different approach to the same fundamental problem: energy efficiency is not a means to reduce overall energy use. He takes a scientific approach using data and examples from the real world, and adds in his unique humor and anecdotes to make the painful truth easier to digest.

It's definitely worth a read and serious consideration, but if you choose to pick it up, be willing to be objective because it challenges some of the basic assumptions and beliefs of average Americans.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fine message, but too repetitive June 26, 2012
By Oliver
The net effect of increasing the mileage efficiencies of our cars is that we drive them more, and we end up polluting even more (per person) than when driving was more costly or more difficult. The situation is similar for many products, notably air conditioners. By making them cheaper, every has them and people forget how to handle the heat without one.

This book expands these and a few other ideas over some 250 pages. As expected, there is some story telling, and they're told fairly well, but they just aren't that interesting. This book would make a great 10 page article or essay, and hopefully it will some day become one.

It's probably better to get this from the library and read just a few chapters.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful for promoting debate and discussion June 2, 2012
This book is a broad critique of environmentalism, in particular the idea that increased efficiency is a solution to environmental ills. Owen's argument is based around Jevons Paradox, which is described in the book as "Promoting energy efficiency without doing anything to constrain overall energy consumption will not cause overall energy consumption to fall." Owen gives examples such as how increased efficiency of cars simply leads to people driving further and also acts as an enabler of greater consumption.

Owen promotes the idea that residents of densely populated cities use less energy. This was the subject of another book he wrote, Green Metropolis (which I have not read). While there is certainly some truth to this argument it conveniently ignores how cities shift their demands for food production, waste disposal and other things elsewhere. This also highlights the weak point of this book -- it largely consists of the author asserting his opinions without engaging in detailed research. References and endnotes are conspicuously absent from the book.

Despite this weakness the book does challenge many of the key tenets of environmentalism. It is useful for encouraging much needed debate and discussion. There is still a large amount of truth in its arguments even if it lacks references.

(Originally published at David reads books.)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tells the truth, hope we can handle it March 23, 2012
The Conundrum is one of the best books of the year. Owen, sincerely concerned about the environment, nonetheless punctures a number of popular environmental myths. Natural gas will not solve our carbon problem, eating organic food is not that beneficial, and (perhaps his main focus)energy efficiency does not equal less energy use. At a price of less than $9, this book is well worth buying.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good message but too much of the same March 15, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Very sensible idea concerning the real challenges of making meaningful changes toward a green society. However what would have been a great short essay makes for a boring repetitive 270 pages book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars NYC greenest place in US?!
Yes, it is--as Mr. Owen so eloquently explains. This tight and succinct book will clarify for you the energy issues that are so urgently before us. He offers real solutions, too. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Philip W. Tatler
3.0 out of 5 stars Alright book
Thought the story would be a little more interesting. Same thing was repeated a lot. But still an overall good book
Published 2 months ago by Itcel Arevalo
5.0 out of 5 stars Owen is alway the most thoughtful, delightfully ironic investigators
Once again - opens up and stimulates my thoughts in directions I would never have imagined.

This is the 3rd of his books I've read. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Kibotoo
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, succinct and hits the nail on the head.
After having read many books on climate change I found this book to be the only one that really seems to acknowledge any hope of a meaningful way to abate this pressing issue. Read more
Published 9 months ago by gary william griffin
5.0 out of 5 stars Power ful argument for counterintuitive conclusion
This book is clearly written and well argued. Great case for a counterintuitive conclusions, that increase in energy efficiency across a broad line of product can lead, and has... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Richard Mckenzie
4.0 out of 5 stars Solution: Every person must reduce their energy consumption
This is an interesting book exposing all aspects of energy. The author presents how energy efficiency is merely a stepping stone to more energy consumption. Read more
Published 12 months ago by MSE fanatic
5.0 out of 5 stars What will our grand child do
Consumerism is killing our planet and we are not giving it a thought. This book makes the reader aware of what the relentless push to have bigger, better and cheaper is doing to... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Shaun Burgess
5.0 out of 5 stars Owen nails that energy efficiency faces real-world challenges
In this book and his article in The New Yorker, David Owen nails that energy efficiency faces real-world challenges that are too often and too easily dismissed. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Steve Mitnick
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking
Owen raises a great point not often discussed in environmental circles: the more efficient we become, the more our wasteful habits seem "free. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Jeanne
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting ideas
Some very interesting analysis on what actually causes our environmental problems, why we seemingly won't fix them, and why our attempts often make things worse. Read more
Published 17 months ago by benrhughes
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