Book Review: The Conundrum by David Owen

Driving a Prius is wrong, and other inconvenient truths

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

By David Owen
Riverhead Books; 261 pp; $14


Nothing singes the psyche of an eco-conscious do-gooder quite like being rebuked by another eco-conscious do-gooder. In The Conundrum, which catalogs the hypocrisies and paradoxes of living green, the scolder is David Owen. His progressive bona fides are robust. In the 1970s, Owen moved with his new wife to Manhattan, a place he has described as a “utopian environmentalist community” because without a clothes dryer, a car, or even a lawn, their ecological footprint was minuscule. He writes frequently about the environment for the New Yorker, once arguing in its pages that an upside to the global economic crisis was that it decreased emissions. That he also writes for Golf Digest is confusing if not disqualifying.

The tough-love upbraiding in The Conundrum seems mostly directed at hybrid-driving, energy- efficient-lightbulb-screwing locavores convinced that such practices will set the world on a path to green salvation. Owen’s book brings deflating news: Most supposedly sustainable products and eco-living strategies are, he writes, “irrelevant or make the real problems worse.”

Owen’s logic is backed up by an economic principle known as the “rebound effect”: Advances in energy efficiency lower the cost of a given activity, which causes people to engage in that activity more, canceling out not only savings but also environmental benefits. Owen keeps a 1940s aluminum beer can on his desk. It weighs five times more than today’s can of Bud Light. Efficiency gains made beer cans cheaper to produce, transport, and dispose of. The cost of popping a brew declined so that more people can do it, using up more aluminum, not less.

It doesn’t take long for him to establish the Prius Fallacy: “a belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.” Owen cites statistics showing that as government officials have moved to increase automobile fuel efficiency, our gas consumption has gone up, not down. We simply drive more miles as a species. He also disses HOV lanes, traffic-control systems, and even smartphone apps for finding a parking spot as “counterproductive from an environmental point of view because they make drivers even happier with cars than they were already.”

The Conundrum is littered with other dilemmas. Air conditioners are more efficient and cheap; ergo, more homes are now air-conditioned. The more affordable lightbulbs get, the more they’re left on. Airplanes are more energy-efficient and faster than at any point in history, and therefore cheaper to fly longer distances. Owen is unafraid of questioning even that most sacred principle of guilt-free green living: eating local, organic food. Well-meaning consumers will drive minivans long distances to buy small quantities of organic food at urban farmers markets supplied by growers who make the schlep in trucks loaded at farms well beyond the suburbs. “If all the world’s groceries traveled from farm to fork in minivans, two bags at a time, we’d have exhausted many of the world’s resources long ago,” the author writes.

Owen’s short book is a contrarian page-turner and can be read in a few hours, making its ecological impact small. Even the most conscientious Whole Foods shopper will see his supposedly small footprint grow. Problems arise as Owen’s book progresses from description to prescription; the solutions offered, while ingenious, are unrealistic.

A stay-the-course, hope-for-the-best strategy is ludicrous to Owen. Instead, he’d like humans to live closer together and holds up New York City as a model. The metropolis is dense, living spaces are restricted, public transportation is (mostly) convenient, and car ownership is low. More important, he says, populations and governments should embrace strategies that effectively force reduced consumption of the planet’s natural resources. He would like us, metaphorically and perhaps actually, to drive Model T’s.

“If the only motor vehicles available today were 1920 Model T’s,” Owen writes, “how many miles do you think you’d drive each year, and how far do you think you’d live from work?” He wants to impose energy frugality by increasing fuel taxes and capping consumption. “Efficiency initiatives make no sense as an environmental strategy,” he writes, “unless they’re preceded—and more than negated—by measures that force major cuts in total energy use.”

Owen is right: The planet would be better off if we cut highway lanes and jacked up electricity rates. But he fails to answer the real conundrum: how to reverse humanity’s relentless pursuit of comfort.

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