Illustration by Matthew Billington
David Owen has a formula: first, write provocative articles in The New Yorker magazine with a clever but superficial core argument. Second, wait for everyone to react and respond with research, history and facts. Third, upcycle the article into a book, which everyone will buy to see how he digs himself out of the contradictions in the articles.
It worked with the Green Metropolis, and we are back with The Conundrum. It is subtitled “How scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse,” and is pitched with the provocative “Hybrid cars, fast trains, compact fluorescent light bulbs, solar panels, carbon offsets: Everything you’ve been told about living green is wrong.” Except it isn’t, and in the end, Owen even acknowledges the fact. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to provoke.
The core of this book is adapted from Owen’s article “The Efficiency Dilemma” from the Dec. 20, 2010, issue of The New Yorker. Owen is primarily a magazine writer, so one shouldn’t be surprised if a book he writes seems more like a collection of word bites designed to feed the trolls of TV news media. He attacks the local and organic food movement. He argues transit can be bad for the environment. He suggests traffic congestion is good and high speed rail is bad. Natural gas or burning trash won’t help. Oh, solar isn’t green either, in his view. Each is an interesting nugget from a professional contrarian, with bits of truth in every one of them; nothing is perfect. It’s a nice game he plays.
It is not until well over halfway through the book that Owen gets to his main thesis, that “increased efficiency is not the answer.” He cites the Jevons paradox, which posits that the cheaper something is to run, the more of it we use. Surprise! It is a popular meme, used by many to suggest that changing to energy-efficient light bulbs is useless because people will just leave them on longer. It has also been called the “rebound” or “backfire” effect. It is real; one can find many examples of it in action, from giant LED billboards to monster homes to the existence of SUVs. Owen quotes a concise definition of it from researcher Harry Saunders: “With fixed real energy price, energy efficiency gains will increase energy consumption above where it would be without these gains.”
And that is where the whole argument breaks down, with those first five words: “with fixed real energy price.” This is because prices are not fixed; they are rising, and are going to keep rising. Owen acknowledges the relationship of pricing and consumption, writing that “we know how to make people consume less: charge them more.”
And with that, poor William Stanley Jevons and Owen’s main thesis that “increased efficiency is not the answer” is left by the side of the road, made completely irrelevant. For, in a world of increasing energy costs, people are in fact voting with their wallets and becoming seriously efficient. They are moving downtown, buying smaller cars (or getting rid of them altogether) and riding bikes. Conveniently, none of this is mentioned in the book. But the fact is, more people are “living smaller, closer and driving less,” which is exactly what Owen prescribed in the Green Metropolis.
In the excellent last chapter of The Conundrum, Owen finally does get off his contrarian pedestal to list all things at the centre of environmental discussions today: “Dense, efficient, intelligently organized cities are the future of the human race,” he writes. “Global environmental enemy No. 1 is the automobile, no matter what it runs on.” Meanwhile, “the David MacKay mantra ‘little changes can make a big difference’ is bunkum when applied to climate change and power.”
In the end, Owen does a creditable job of describing the scope of the challenges we face and the complexities of dealing with them. Really, with a bit of work by a good editor who was determined to keep the author on topic and address the thesis laid out in the subtitle, there might be enough content here to make a good article in The New Yorker.
Oh wait, he’s already done that.