on 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.
on February 17, 2012
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.
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)
on December 19, 2014
This is a frustrating book. Like all of Owen's books, it is very clear and well-written. It's interesting and thought-provoking. And, although it would be an exaggeration to say that everything in it is wrong, it is nonetheless true that a lot that is in it is wrong, and a lot of what isn't wrong is misleading.
Much of the book is about the "rebound" of energy efficiency: if you use energy more efficiently --- if you get more productivity from it per unit --- then you tend to use more units. So energy efficiency improvements lead to less energy reduction than a naive calculation would suggest. This is a real effect, and in some highly energy-intensive industries it can be large. Also, if you save money on energy then you will spend it on something else, and that something else will also consume energy. These effects are real but not all that big on average: at the scale of the entire economy, averaged over all industries, rebound is around 8%. So if you improve productivity per unit energy by 20%, you don't cut energy use by 20%, you cut it by about 18.5%. Energy efficiency experts and economists have looked at it a lot of ways and they all get rebound of somewhere in that neighborhood. David Owen "knows" the experts are wrong, and he gives some examples to prove it...and they're utter nonsense. In one especially risible instance, Owen suggests that driving less energy-efficient cars would save energy: "If the only motor vehicles available today were 1920 Model Ts, how many miles do you think you'd drive each year, and how far do you think you'd live from where you work"? Owen is right that people would drive a lot less in these circumstances...but he's entirely wrong about the reason. People would drive a lot less because the Model T is loud, has uncomfortable seats, no air conditioning, no stereo system, has a lousy suspension, has poor acceleration and low top speed, etc. In fact, the Model T got about 20 mpg, which is not that bad compared to a lot of cars for sale today. Ridiculously, Owen blames all of the extra driving solely on an increase in fuel efficiency. Unfortunately the book is riddled with such nonsense.
on 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.)
on June 26, 2012
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.
on 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.
We want to think that more is less: more efficient vehicles lead to less oil consumption. But Owen shows that less is more: less waste leads to more consumption by making consumption cheaper. This affects everything in our lives: more efficient light bulbs lead to more electrification, public transportation options get some people out of cars and make it easier for the drivers to drive more, efficient furnaces make it easier to heat bigger homes, and so on.
In this well-written and persuasive book, Owen argues that the only real solution lies before us: consume less. Produce less. Innovate less. Replace less.
As he recognizes, this strategy would lower living standards and end our economy's path of ever-greater-growth. That doesn't make them wrong, in fact, it probably makes them right. As this suggests, the arguments in this book are game-changers. If taken seriously they would transform our environment and our way of life. So of course they will be ignored.
As Owen himself asks (page 237), "The question is whether we could ever feel sufficiently threatened by our own appetites to voluntarily embrace anything so boring. How appealing would `green' seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets, not more?"
"The Conundrum" is a fascinating read. This slim book (or Kindle download in my case) packs more common sense that most and possibly all of our global political leaders.
The essence of the argument put forward by the author, David Owen, is that we have simply failed to address the environmental problems that sit before us. Furthermore, our attempts to address the problems have had no impact. This is mainly because, although our collective hearts are in the right place, we are simply unwilling to make the really hard decisions that may require less consumption rather than just buying a hybrid car and thinking that we are making a difference.
Consider an example. A trip from New York to Australia by air on a per passenger basis uses more fuel than the average resident on earth will use for all purposes in a year. Many people will see the answer as being more fuel-efficient planes. Sounds reasonable. But planes have been getting more efficient (and quieter) for decades. The problem is that this efficiency feeds through into greater consumption within the economy and, thus, more green house gases. The only true solution at this stage is to actually reduce overall consumption and no one is recommending that this path be taken.
We should also not be bamboozled by the promise of various green friendly power alternatives. In fact, to the nearest whole number, the percentage of global power generated by wind, solar and geothermal combined is zero. Yes, zero!
I could keep going. Owen is a breath of fresh air in a debate that has become dominated by self-important promoters of special interests. However, Owen is not denying the seriousness of the problem before us. He is simply trying to look at the problem from a proper perspective. More power to him.
A great read!
on March 29, 2012
There's an old Mr. Spock quote from Star Trek that applies here: "Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want." Trying to undo generations of expanding energy use is going to be very difficult, especially since many of the 'fixes' we've attempted in the past actually end up doing the opposite of what we expect.
Owen hits the nail on the head when he says a lot of it has to do with our unwillingness to change our habits of prosperity. When gas mileage on cars goes up, we drive more and buy bigger cars. We invent electric cars that use energy that comes from coal-burning plants, which we want to close down. We buy high-efficiency light bulbs and save energy and then buy more appliances that use energy. We say we want less in the landfills, but we need to have the latest and greatest smart phone or tablet and don't buy things that will last. We make lavish plans to change things that we then, ourselves, end-run because we don't want to change the way we live. There are numerous examples of this, and since most folks who follow the conventional environmental wisdom aren't really going to like hearing much of this, going through the many, many examples allows them to finally see the recurring patterns.
We love to focus on recycling and switching out light bulbs, and unplugging computers, or feeling smug because we bought a hybrid, but these actions will not help enough to make any difference. They just feel good. I think everyone who says they want to change the way we treat our environment needs to read this book. If real change is to happen, we need to fix what goes on between our ears.