Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Conundrum by David Owen

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse
by David Owen

Published: Riverhead Books
Format: paperback
Copyright: 2011
Pages: 261
Genre: Nonfiction/Environmental
Source: personal copy

From the back cover "Hybrid cars, fast trains, compact florescent light bulbs, solar panels, carbon offsets: everything you've been told about being green is wrong. The quest for a breakthrough battery or a 100 mpg car is a dangerous fantasy. We are consumers, and we like to consume greenly and efficiently. But David Owen argues that our best intentions are still at cross-purposes to our true goal: living sustainably and caring for our environment and the future of the planet. Efficiency, once considered the holy grail of our environmental problems, turns out to be part of the problem - we have little trouble turning increases in efficiency into increases in consumption. 

David Owen's elegant narrative, filled with fascinating information and anecdotes takes, you through the history of energy and the quest for efficiency. He introduces the reader to some of the smartest people working on solving our energy problems. He details the arguments of efficiency's proponents and its antagonists - and in the process overturns most traditional wisdom about being green.

This is a book about the environment that will change how you look at the world. Scientific geniuses will not invent our way out of the energy and economic crisis we're in. We already have the technology and knowledge we need to live sustainably. But will we do it? That is the conundrum."

This small (literally it is only 5" x 7 1/8" x 9/16") book isn't quite the miracle that the cover description makes it sound like. The theme of the book is acutally quite simple, efficiency without conservation is a bad idea and quick fixes won't solve the problem. Each of the chapters explores a particular problem and some of the 'solutions' that have been proposed. One huge downside of the small size of the book is that there are NO REFERENCES! Normally this is a huge issue for me, but what I did last year was have a case studies class do a fact check of the book - they took statements and investigated their veracity. Turns out that the book is pretty solid in terms of the information presented, though some of his anecdotes are more solid than others.

The biggest contribution of the book is that it really does make you re-think what constitutes 'green.' The idea that New York City is the greenist community in the nation takes some getting used to, for example.  We had some good class discussions teasing out this idea - NYC residents have some of the lowest energy footprints because most of them don't own cars and use mass transit or walk instead, thus their carbon dioxide footprints are quite small per capita. Their homes are much smaller and more efficient (in terms of sharing infrastructure), and they purchase less (mostly because there isn't anyplace to put it in the average NYC apartment) so they are not as veracious of consumers as the average American. On the other hand - we worried quite a bit about how to supply everyone in the city with food. Someone has to live out in rural areas to grow food, right ?

The eat local conversation was also quite heated - yes, shipping food around the world is carbon intensive but growing crops in places where the climate is wrong for them (so you need to invest more in terms of water and energy resources) is actually worse (in terms of carbon footprint per 'piece' of food). As usual, the answer here is ... it's complicated and bumper-sticker sized approaches won't work.

So - if you are looking for answers, this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for a book that asks uncomfortable questions and can inspire some spirited discussions, this is a great candidate.

1 comment:

  1. Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

    An interesting take. I've seen some things questioning the "eat local" movement and it does seem like you have to be thoughtful to have the hoped-for impact on carbon footprint.


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