Book Review: The Conundrum

There is an old proverb that says: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to environmental destruction is no different.  Paved roads, after-all, only encourage more people to drive by making driving more pleasant.  In his book, The Conundrum, David Owen makes a compelling case that efficiency improvements and green technology will not only fail to cure our environmental woes, they may actually be making things worse.  Is it really possible, though, that most of the environmental do-goodery out there is actually making things worse?

First off, it’s interesting to note that Owen concedes many of the highly questionable assumptions that environmentalists desperately want others to accept, namely that global warming is real, that it matters, and that we can do something to stop or slow it down through our actions.  Unlike climate skeptics or agnostics (such as myself), Owen proceeds as if these assumptions are true.  Accordingly, his book is focused on the internal debate within the environmentalist community.

So how is it possible that efficiency improvements may actually make things worse?  The answer lies within the realm of economic logic.  Consider efficiency improvements in automobiles, which many environmentalists champion as the sorts of innovation that will solve our environmental woes.  Let’s suppose that instead of 30 mpg a new hybrid car gets 50 mpg (this number doesn’t actually matter, it’s the logic that is important).  If the number of miles every person drove was fixed, this indeed would provide a net improvement for the environment, but that’s resting on a weak assumption, i.e., that the number of miles people choose to drive is fixed.

As the logic of economics tell us, as the cost of driving a mile decreases, people will choose to drive more miles.  Generally speaking, a decrease in the price of a good or service will increase the quantity demanded.  Thus with a lower price for driving a mile, more miles will be demanded, which will cause people to buy more fuel. The resulting increase in the demand for fuel is known as the rebound effect.

Essentially this means (at least in many domains) that advances in energy efficiency will lower the cost of the activity, but this in turn will cause people to engage in that activity more.  At the end of the day, this often cancels out any savings, either financial or environmental.  When the rebound effect actually exceeds the savings, economists call it the Jevons paradox. In the book, Owen refers to this idea as The Prius Fallacy, which is “a belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.”

In one section of the book, Owen poses the following question (which is also the title of the chapter): “What Would a Truly Green Car Look Like?”  According to Owen it would have, “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.”  Again, this is because efficiencies and luxuries only encourage people to use them more by making the activity more pleasant.

I think soup kitchens serve as a great example when explaining this phenomenon.  If soup kitchens started serving delicious and quality food in an efficient manner, there would be a problem of people eating there who didn’t really need it, therefore they would likely need to be policed.  How do we as a society avoid wasting resources on policing places like soup kitchens?  The economists tool for making sure that only really poor people eat at soup kitchens is to make it inefficiently painful to get low quality food. Similarly, the same logic applies to making driving unpleasant.  Enough so, at least, to make mass transit, cycling, or walking relatively more appealing options.

Owen reminds us that: “One of our favorite green tricks is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity.”  To put this in the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s terms, this is also a form of conspicuous consumption I like to refer to as being conspicuously environmental.  It turns out that along with the pretensions in their air they create, the average Prius driving Boulderite or Portlander causes more harm to the environment than does your average Manahattanite. Living in a dense city, according to the evidence, is one of the best things you can do for the environment on an individual level.  At one point in the book, Owen lamented the fact (at least environmentally) that he and his wife moved away from Manhattan, a place which he has described as a “utopian environmentalist community”. On average, New York state residents have a far lesser carbon footprint per person than other state’s residents (largely thanks to NYC residents).

Much like the answer to our obesity woes, the general solution to our environmental problems is rather simple: consume less.  If that’s the case, then making some things more inefficient (not less) is the answer.  But nobody wants to hear that. Westerners (particularly Americans) want the cure-all pills, the crazy workouts, and the conspicuously environmental toys. How many people got rid of their iPad 2 because their iPad 3 no longer worked? As Owens puts it, “How appealing would “green” seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets — not more?”

In the end, Owen argues (pessimistic as it may be) that individual decisions like using canvas bags at the grocery store won’t actually make a difference.  Riding your bike to grocery store may make you feel better, but it isn’t going to save the world either. Because of the complexities of the economic system, the decision for an individual to voluntary consume less gas (thereby decreasing demand) will only make it cheaper for someone else (assuming the supply is the same).  Our best intentions to save humanity and the world often make things worse. As Owen argues, that’s part of the conundrum.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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4 Comments on “Book Review: The Conundrum”

  1. I haven’t read the book, so maybe it touches on this, but I am surprised that in the reviews I have read, and during Owens’s appearance on Econtalk, there is no mention of the role of price. Despite the complexity of the system, a price on carbon would carry the information that people need. Harford covered this point well in Adapt.

  2. David Lang says:

    Oh no! Climate agnostic?? That’s not good!

    We need more data. We need more people to care about this. It’s an imperative that we do everything possible to better understand how we’re affecting our world. Apathy is the real enemy here.

    In the words of Stewart Brand, “we are as Gods and have to get good at it.”

    I humbly invite you to join me as a climate possibilian.

    • Greg Linster says:

      @davidtlang:disqus, I’m totally open to the possibility that climate change is real (even the idea that humans are causing it).  However, here are a few questions I’ve been thinking about lately.

      1) Historically the earth has fluctuated in temperatures.  How do we know it’s bad this time?
      2) We are natural creatures who have a long evolutionary history.  If we did evolve the ability to alter our earth (arguably, we have) isn’t that just part of the natural process of evolution?  Isn’t it possible that we will adapt to and evolve with our new warmer environmental surroundings?

      • David Lang says:

        The earth has historically fluctuated, no question. The issue is the speed at which it’s fluctuated. There’s also never been 7 billion human beings on the planet, and we just don’t know what that means. And it’s not just climate, we need to understand (and make better, informed decisions about) our impact on natural systems. 

        I think too many people get lost in the argument: whether we know or don’t know. The fact is we need to know more – everyone can agree on that. We’ve got the technological capacity to know more, but apathy gets in the way.


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