Book Review: The Conundrum

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. by David Owen. He eloquently calls out our lip service and feeble attempts at “saving” our environment. This is a great read, short but sweet and to the point, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in sustainability issues but does not take themselves too seriously. The basic premise is that efficiency doesn’t improve our environmental situation, as we have always improved efficiency.

“One of the least meaningful and most overused words in the English language is ‘sustainability’.”

So what is the solution? Because so many effects are not directly linked to the cause, we will not take action until the Cuyahoga River is on fire, literally–this is not a judgement, just an observation. (See my post on how Cuba had to go oil-free practically overnight, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Movie Review: The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil)

“…attempting a truly large project is the only way to honestly access the actual obstacles to supplanting fossil fuels. Hype, huckersterism, and faulty arithmetic are easy to conceal when the focus is suburban rooftops.”

Owen discusses the problem with more efficient cars. A bigger issue than tailpipe emissions is arguably the infrastructure that focuses on moving cars, not people, and is completely dictated by the needs of the car and the large firetruck.

This is an awkward link (to the Google book), but a great illustration: A Tampa, FL, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit campaign in 2001, showing how much space cars take up, compared to how much space those same people would take up on a bus.

He closes with this:

“Those of us who are ‘enlightened’ on environmental issues earnestly wish for the world to consume and emit less-a radical transformation that we expect our own standard of living to survive.”

Most people who talk a good game about environmentalism (myself included) are the largest offenders. Authors wrack up frequent flier miles going on book tours to preach their cause, in the meantime most of the world does not travel, and less wealthy Americans save up to take a vacation or two a year.

Fun fact: Americans spend more on garbage bags than almost half the world’s countries spend on everything.

Reading this book may make you feel discouraged about any feeble environmental efforts that are actually controllable. Without a massive cultural action (like Wal-Mart customers demanding hormone-free milk), the illusion of control is a phenomenon that only begins to explain much of the neuroses of our time. Owen refers to the feeling of satisfaction we get when taking out the recycling, but only 10% of waste is post-consumer. This does not mean that we should not recycle, just that we have to check our smugness and hypocrisy if we really want to face our environmental issues.