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By David Owen
As described in his online biography, David Owen is the author of two books; “The Conundrum” and “Green Metropolis.” Owen is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker. He attended Colorado College and Harvard University. Owen is a prolific writer and expounds his ideas from magazine articles into popular books. Owen writes on a broad range of subjects from historical biographical pieces to rants and diatribes about fatherhood. Owen is married and lives in Connecticut and is the father of two children. His latest books, “The Conundrum” and “Green Metropolis,” are his first forays into the realm of environmentalism. In “The Conundrum,” Owen explores how green technologies and improvements in efficiency may lead to increased environmental burden.
I would call Owen a Jack of all trades. He writes on a large variety of topics and prefers to remain broad in his discussions, rather than drill down into detail. The Conundrum is a book that is broad in discussion, but shallow in detail. Among the many concepts that Owen uses, his one unifying theme is the idea that efficiency increases through technology usually precipitates an increase in consumption. His arguments are based in the broad economic principle of consumption; that the rational consumer will consume as much as possible to maximize happiness. Owen uses everyday examples to show that efficiency increases lead to a greater net energy consumption. I will detail one of these examples and include my own thoughts on the subject.
Beyond the principle of consumption, Owen relies on some fundamental assertions which are open to interpretation and which Owen treats as fact. Owen heavily relies on the concept of backfire effect which is an extreme case of rebound effect. Rebound effect, or more specifically the rebound effect of energy efficiency, is used to measure the true impact of increases in efficiency. For example, if a washing machine is redesigned to be 10% more electrically efficient, it would reduce its overall electrical consumption by 10% for the same amount of laundry saving the consumer money on utility bills. Often, these gains in efficiency are reduced by an increase in use by the consumer. If a consumer can wash the same amount of clothes for less money, they can wash more clothes for the same amount of money. As an example; a consumer could use their new 10% more efficient washing machine 6% more and still save 4% on their utility bill. This results in an overall 4% reduction in electricity usage by the owner. This can be described as a 60% rebound effect ((10-4)/10) as 60% of the energy savings are being used by the consumer. Backfire effect is when the rebound effect exceeds 100%, as in the consumer increases their washing machine use by more than 10%.
What Owen argues is that backfire effects are more significant than environmentalists would have you believe. I believe there is some truth to Owens’ claims, but I tend to disagree with the magnitude of the effects. Through my supporting research, I have found that most academics acknowledge that rebound effect on economic scales is very difficult to quantify as it is a result of many individual decisions and behaviors. In a study by the United Kingdom Energy Research Centre, Steve Sorrell writes:
However, the energy savings that are realised in practice generally fall short of these engineering estimates. One explanation is that improvements in energy efficiency encourage greater use of the services (for example heat or mobility) which energy helps to provide. Behavioural responses such as these have come to be known as the energy efficiency “rebound effect”. While rebound effects vary widely in size, in some cases they may be sufficiently large to lead to an overall increase in energy consumption - an outcome that has been termed ‘backfire’. There is some evidence to suggest that improvements in the energy efficiency of certain ‘pervasive’ technologies such as steam engines and electric motors have contributed to backfire in the past (Sorrell V).
To better illustrate the potential effects of rebound effect and backfire effect I will use two simplified illustrations drawn from the example above.
In the first example, rebound effect is at 60%. This means that the energy savings in general are outweighed by the increase in consumption of the good. Notice that the utility bill is decreased by 4% but not decreased by the full 10% because the consumer is using the machine 6% more. This drives the consumer budget line further outward.
Now I will show an example of the backfire effect, when the consumer uses more energy than they did before the efficiency increase. The rebound effect is calculated as in the example above but this time the rebound effect must be greater than 100%. If the new washing machine is 10% more efficient but the user increases their energy consumption by 14%, they will have a rebound effect of 104%. In short, they will be able to do 10% more laundry for free, but are so excited about the savings they justify an additional 4% on top of that.
We see here that the purple and green lines have switched places and that the owner of the new washing machine is using more energy than before. This could be due to a number of reasons but again, all the reasons are related to the individuals’ decision making. This is backfire effect and is the basic tenet of “The Conundrum.”
Backfire effect is a widely recognized economic phenomena and I agree with Owen that in some cases backfire effect will occur. However, I disagree with the amount of backfire effect that occurs in an economy and I also disagree that backfire effect is a primary means through which economies increase their consumption. I think a much more plausible reason is affordability; reducing costs of manufacturing products by increases in efficiency open that product to new consumers. In effect, more products and energy are consumed, but not directly because of efficiency improvements.
In my research, I have come across several articles that are critical of Owens’ approach. One such article is "The Conundrum: A Thought-provoking Book Bogged down by Contrarianism" written by Maggie Koerth-Baker. Koerth-Baker labels Owen as a contrarian, someone who presents themselves as the champion of an underdog voice, or the defender of reasoned analysis in the face of a largely popular idea. I agree with Koerth-Baker on this label.
However, I also agree with her praise of Owen for removing some of the rose-colored tint from greenwashed consumer products such as “natural” shampoos, any and all automobiles and “clean coal.” Owen does provide several great arguments that directly contradict the claimed environmental benefits of some practices that are assumed (or advertised) as eco-friendly. For this, we both thank him.
My largest complaint about this book is that Owen offers no real solutions. In one example, he describes the most environmentally friendly automobile as “… no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon” (Owen, 150). Owen admits that his examples are implausible in the extreme.
Owen writes an interesting book that challenges the reader to think critically of their consumer choices. I imagine someone after reading this book will reconsider some of their purchases or even change their minds altogether whether to buy a new Prius. That critical thinking is what I took away from this book and why I would recommend it for others to read.
Koerth-Baker, Maggie. "The Conundrum: A Thought-provoking Book Bogged down by Contrarianism." Boing Boing The Conundrum A Thoughtprovoking Book Bogged down By contrarianism Comments. Jason Weisberger, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
Owen, David. "David Owen." David Owen Biography. David Owen, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
Owen, David. The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. New York: Riverhead, 2012. Print.
Sankin, Aaron. "America's Greenest City: San Francisco Now Reuses 80 Percent Of Its Waste." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
Sorrell, Steve. The Rebound Effect: An Assessment of the Evidence for Economy-wide Energy Savings from Improved Energy Efficiency. Sussex: UK Energy Research Centre, 2007. Print.
The first problem is that he is not the type of person willing to live as a vegan without a car. While he seems to have a great awareness of what needs done, he doesn't manage to live in the manner he knows is necessary. That can make him a little hard to take serious at times.
Second, he has more problems than solutions. It is very clear that the NIMBYs which have stopped us from building more high density cities based on Subways and Elevators need to be broken. It is very clear that energy efficiency gains give us nothing if they do not come along with higher energy prices. However the pathways to make that happen are opaque.