The Conundrum: A thought-provoking book bogged down by contrarianism

While reading the first few chapters of The Conundrum —David Owen's book about energy, resource consumption, and conflicting values in American life—I kept running into moments where I wanted to yell out, "Preach it!"

By the end of the book, though, I was treading water, just waiting for Owen to finish telling me why everything is pointless so I could wander off and wait for the inevitable heat death of the universe in peace.

Between the bang and the whimper is a book that I think needs to be read, but with a caveat. The Conundrum is a very contrarian book. Contrarianism presents itself as the smartest, most honest version of reality. But that isn't always the truth. On an emotional level, a contrarian perspective feels authoritative. It says, "This is what THEY tell you, but they're wrong!" The trouble is, while the contrarian viewpoint usually does point out important details that need to be discussed, it is often just as myopic as the perspective it's trying to upend. You can't assume it represents the big picture.

After spending two years immersed in energy and climate science, I feel comfortable saying that the message on those issues could use a dose of contrarianism. But the dose makes the poison. Apply too much contrarianism, as Owen does, and you go from making people question themselves to making them give up.

Here's what I like about The Conundrum: It calls out well-meaning people on bullshit they probably didn't even realize they were buying into.

Energy and emissions are not intuitive things. Environmentalism—as it's understood in the public sphere—is partly about cultural identity, not just scientific facts. That combination creates, well, conundrums ... where people think they are doing the right thing but are, in fact, doing exactly the opposite.

A good example of this that Owen brings up: Density and the scale of communities. A desire to protect the planet has long been knotted up with a penchant for "simpler" times. But the people who use the least energy in the United States are not small-town hippies in Montana. Instead, it's the island of Manhattan that offers the lowest impact lifestyle. If you want to be green, you should be pushing for denser cities.

This is not something that everybody understands and accepts. Even people who think of themselves as strong environmentalists. I ran into it just a couple of months ago during a debate over a proposed development project in my neighborhood. Somebody needs to be injecting information like this into the public consciousness.

Here's what I don't like about The Conundrum: It offers no solutions, only problems. In fact, there were several points in the book where it felt like Owen was studiously avoiding nuance so that the problems would feel bigger and more insurmountable than they actually are.

Case in point: The rebound effect. This is an interesting phenomenon involving energy efficiency. Turns out, when you are able to do the same work for less energy, you save money. When you save money, you tend to use it, often in ways that result in energy consumption. In the end, you never really see the full amount of energy savings you thought you were going to get.

The rebound effect is real. It's part of why America has been able to become more wealthy over the past 40 years. In that respect, rebound is a good thing. The problem comes when you're trying to use energy efficiency to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions.

Owen makes all these points, which need to be made. People like Amory Lovins have been denying the existence and/or importance of rebound effect for far too long and it needs to be taken seriously. The problem is that The Conundrum leaves out anything that might be construed as good news.

We've only really been studying rebound effect in a real-world, empirical way for 10 or 15 years. There is a lot we don't know. We know that direct rebound—rebound that happens in the same sector of the economy as the energy savings happened in—is relatively small. Say you buy a Prius, and because of that you drive more miles than you did before in your old car. With that kind of rebound effect, you're likely to lose between 10% and 30% of the energy savings that you gained.

The confusing part is economy-wide rebound effects—how what happens in one sector of the economy affects everything else. I buy a Prius and save some gas money. The total fossil fuel emissions for my state go up the next year. Did that have anything to do with the purchase of several thousand Prii? This is some chaos butterfly shit and legitimate researchers are still arguing about how much our energy efficiency gains we are likely to lose at an economy-wide level. So far, nobody can really say, "Everything we gain is lost." But that's the message Owen presents.

Likewise, he pretty much breezes past the tool that could help us get the negative environmental side-effects of rebound under control. I researched this subject for my book on energy, Before the Lights Go Out. I spoke extensively with several of the economists who are studying rebound, including a few people that Owen quotes in The Conundrum. All of those people told me that putting a price on carbon is how you get around this problem. Think about it: Rebound isn't inherently a bad thing, just the impact it has on emissions and fossil fuel use. Put a price on carbon, and you incentivize people to take the money they saved through energy efficiency and spend it in ways that aren't environmentally counter-productive—on more energy efficiency, for instance, or on things that were made using cleaner energy.

Owen barely mentions that, and the reader is left with the impression that rebound effect will, inevitably, completely negate any efficiency benefit and there's nothing we can do to stop it. The reader is left feeling like there's really no point to investing in energy efficiency.

Ultimately, that's the tone the entire book takes on—as Owen presents good ideas, tears them down, and never talks about the context. Yes, electric cars require batteries that come with their own pollution problems. But that isn't something scientists have ignored. Studies have shown that the full lifecycle footprint of an electric car, even accounting for the battery, is better for the environment than the full lifecycle footprint of a gasoline powered car.

Better is better. It's silly to cling to the stuff that sucks just because nobody has yet come up with an alternative that has no downsides whatsoever. Owen doesn't say that's what you should do. But the tone of his book, and the way he addresses these very real problems, leaves you with that message, all the same.

I think you should read The Conundrum. All of us need a wake-up call sometimes, where we stop and think about the ways in which our cultures and our professed values often conflict. But The Conundrum is a narrow perspective. It's giving you some important information, but it's not giving you all the information. Don't get the two confused.

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

Image: better energy, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from lisa-parker's photostream


  1. “Contrarianism presents itself as the smartest, most honest version of reality. But that isn’t always the truth. ”

    Preach it!

  2. Totally unrelated and possibly mean-spirited nitpick follows.  MAGGIE DO NOT READ.

    Sorry but it’s all I could think about when reading the article:

    Heat Death?

    I’m likely just behind the times in the constant flip flop between The Big Crunch and the Cold Whimper, but doesn’t the fact that galaxies are ACCELERATING away from one another pretty much mean Heat Death  is _Right Out_?

      1. Huh…I read the first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia article to confirm my general understanding, but didn’t get to the part where both scenarios are considered heat death.  I’d only heard it in connection with perpetual expansion.

        In a “closed” universe that undergoes recollapse, a heat death is expected to occur, with the universe approaching arbitrarily high temperature and maximal entropy as the end of the collapse approaches.

        Anyway, as you can tell, I worry about it a lot.

        1. Don’t worry too much… the Bostrom simulation will likely be shut down before then.

          Wouldn’t you change the channel if there was nothing but evaporating black holes so dispersed that they are islands in a timeless sea?

      2. Yeah, I know.  I was ashamed to even post it, but it was all I could think about.

        Apparently I HAVE been out of the loop, as well.  I’ve never heard Heat Death refer to anything but Death by Heat, not Death of Heat.

  3.  I sure hope Cap and Trade goes into place.  I don’t know if it will do much good though.  

    I have_ personally_ heard the head of TCEQ (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) tell a group of attendees at a Clean Air conference that he would be fighting against Cap and Trade the whole way, and if Washington still got it through, he’d make sure it was as toothless as possible.

    Because all of us representing refineries, electric utilities, etc need to be protected like a delicate wildflower, regardless of the effects it has on the world.

    How horrid that the man in charge of regulating us is willing to publicly and explicitly state that he is on our side.

    1. ” . . . the head of TCEQ (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) . . .”

      I mean . . . sheesh . . . I don’t even . . .

      Does Texas hire environmental officials based on how many hippies they’ve run over while driving around Austin?

  4. “Prii”.  Well, authority has spoken.  But I’ll still say priopodes…just to be contrarian.

      1.  ” Prius” is third declension neuter nominative singular so the plural in Latin would be “Priora” but Toyota  apparently put it to a public vote and decided the plural should be “Prii”. All explained here.

        1. The last thing anyone wants is a car named after a legendarily normal town in Illinois.

  5. I can’t stand when people use the rebound effect to dismiss energy-saving ideas.
    It’s like telling someone about a coffee shop that costs half as much as their current place, and they say “Oh but then I’ll just use the money to buy a bagel, so I save nothing!”
    Ok, except: a) you don’t have to buy the bagel, that’s on you and b) you get a bagel!

    1. I agree. The rebound effect probably costs a significant amount of the benefits, but in pretty much all cases, the majority of the benefit will be kept.

      I know I’m less conscientious about turning off lights since I moved to CFL, and I even leave the stairwell light on all night when I have elderly relatives visiting. However, leaving a few lights on for a bit longer probably means that I only save 70% of my lighting electricity use instead of the theoretical 80%. That’s still a damn good saving.

      1. The rebound effect is one aspect of a bigger issue. We cannot continue our lifestyle of consumption and hope to avoid environmental collapse. Time is short. Carbon trading is like trying to prevent the Titanic from sinking by bailing with a bucket. If we are not making changes in our lifestyle that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, we might as well give up. Sorry to be contrary, but here is an answer. Stop consuming more than can be replenished in the same amount of time it takes to consume.

        1. If we are not making changes in our lifestyle that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, we might as well give up.

          Switching to sustainable energy isn’t very painful for anyone except the greedy fossil fuel corporatists at the top.  There’s plenty of sustainable things we can do that are quite painless and often very enjoyable and incredibly healthy (physically, mentally and some might say spiritually)

          As far a mass consumption goes, I agree…

          For those poor souls who attribute shit they buy/consume with their own “happiness” and self-worth?  Reducing consumption could be very painful for these people.

          But, then again… crushing an empty, soulless vacuum of blind consumerism will be good for them (and everyone else) in the long run once they re-acclimate themselves to actual human values/feelings again… and realize there’s incredibly better things you can do with your life than consume shit constantly.

        2. If we are not making changes in our lifestyle that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, we might as well give up.

          You don’t know what everyone else’s lifestyle is like, so that’s not a reasonable statement.

          Furthermore, I categorically refuse to acknowledge the possibility of giving up.  Such ideas are self-defeating.

  6. “Studies have shown that the full lifecycle footprint of an electric car, even accounting for the battery, is better for the environment than the full lifecycle footprint of a gasoline powered car.”

    Unless of course your electric car is of a similar size to your petrol (gasoline) car, and your electricity comes almost entirely from coal, much of it brown.

    Sorry Australia, China, large parts of the US and UK (I’m sure I’ve missed places!) better clean up your energy before you all start buying electric vehicles. Just buy small, light, and efficient vehicles.

    1. Actually, we’re talking about comparably sized cars. And there’s only a very small handful of states in the US that get so much of their electricity from coal as to not have electric cars be better. So more like, sorry West Virginia. 

      This is coming from Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET program, which does lifecycle analysis of vehicles and fuels. 

      1. Thank you, Maggie!  @boingboing-66bd939ad7010829ab65a6aaf28c9a96:disqus was sounding very “authoritative” there but was tellingly lacking any links to facts/sources.

        1. Sorry Maggie and Cowicide, I was at work when I posted that, so I lacked the time to grab sources. Here’s a couple:

          an electric car today would generate about 30 per cent more emissions than a petrol-fuelled car of similar dimensions if the electricity had the average emissions intensity of the Australian grids. It would generate about 85 per cent less emissions than the equivalent petrol car if it drew its power from the average supplies to Tasmania. It would generate about 60 per cent more emissions than the equivalent petrol car if it drew its power from the average supplies to Victoria

          The Garnaut Climate Change Review: Page 519, paragraph 3. (admittedly written by an economist, but one that is pushing for big reforms in Australia).

          China provides a useful case study because of the large number of EVs (in 2009, 100 million EVs) and because of government policies aimed at increasing the number of EVs. Unique aspects of China include the large population and coalheavy electricity system. Our findings show that replacing gasoline cars with e-cars will result in increased CO2 from combustion emissions and all-cause mortality risk from primary PM2.5 in most cities. Health risks attributable to other pollutants, including secondary PM2.5, are uncertain. Lightweight EV’s such as e-bikes can have environmental and health benefits because of their energy efficiency. Chinese policy makers should carefully proceed with deployment of plug-in vehicles and consider aggressive improvements in the power sector to realize anticipated gains in emissions and health.

          Electric Vehicles in China: Emissions and Health Impacts Shuguang, Et Al (2012). 
          This one is behind a paywall, but the link above takes you to the abstract.

          Admittedly I’m struggling to find evidence for the US. Perhaps the US electricity grid is cleaner than I assume. Australia unfortunately burns a huge amount of brown coal, which is considerably dirtier than black coal,  which might explain the difference.

          My main point believe is true: small, efficient (petrol/gas/electric/whatever) are still a better environmental choice than bigger equivalents. When the average car occupancy is 1.4 passengers, why drive around with over a ton of metal to carry 3 empty seats? I get that a lot of people have families and need to carry more than 2 people enough to need a bigger car (although virtually no-one needs an SUV), but in Australia and the US there are a lot of two+ car households. Time for the primary car to get halved in size and weight, keep the 5 seater in the driveway.

          1. The Garnaut Climate Change Review quote. I checked it out in their PDF. They said the source for their data is (maybe) the DCC for the figure with the text? But it’s not really clear. What is their source for this info and where’s the specific study/paper/link to said data? Sorry, but I’m not seeing anything to back that up whatsoever. I’m not impressed until I see some actual empirical evidence. Can you provide that?

            Perhaps the US electricity grid is cleaner

            Than China? Yes, by leaps and bounds. Almost 70 percent of all of China’s electricity generation comes from dirty coal power plants with environmental regulations that are pretty much non-existant. The United States is only about half of that and has extremely better regulations compared to China.

            My main point believe is true: small, efficient (petrol/gas/electric/whatever) are still a better environmental choice than bigger equivalents

            No really, it depends on the region. Driving an electric car in the Pacific Northwest that uses lots of hydropower trumps emissions from a gasoline powered car, for example. In some areas, they come out to be about even, but overall, the electric car wins because of sustainable electric energy sources throughout the country and it’s only getting better as batteries get lighter and last longer and more sustainable electricity is generated.

          2. @Cowicide:disqus Cleaner than Australia. I’m aware of how filthy China’s power generation is because a huge amount of the coal they burn comes from the ground of Australia. Bucket loads of filthy coal and Australia just keeps digging it out, burning it and selling it. Hell there’s Government funding on the table right now to build a “clean brown coal” power plant in Victoria, despite the fact the very same Government has promised no new coal power plants and has introduced a carbon tax!

            If you take the evidence I gave of China at face value, then I can point out some comparisons with Australia. Black Coal makes up about 53.8% of our electricity generation. Brown coal makes up about 22.5%. That’s more than China’s 70%. Gas 15.9%. A piddly 7% by renewable sources. Thankfully (by my thinking at least) we don’t use any nuclear, although we export a huge amount of uranium.

            Sources: One & Two (they’re not bonafide scientific journals, but they’re not facts argued about either).

            In Victoria (the state I’m from) 85% is generated by brown coal. The main source of which is one of the dirtiest power plants left running in the developed world, Hazelwood. I’ve read that this last report has been ‘discredited’ but I’ve never actually read nor found any name or link to the source that supposedly discredits it. 

            I’ve also spent a bit more time and found the report that claimed there would be no environmental advantage to using fully electric vehicles in the UK. In the process though I’ve discovered its from 1994 (the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution), and thankfully the updated version does indeed claim that switching to electric vehicles is better for the environment. That was also from 1997, so it seems indeed I’m well and truly out of date with the UK data.

            My main point believe is true: small, efficient (petrol/gas/electric/whatever) are still a better environmental choice than bigger equivalents

            i.e. even if you’re operating on 100% renewable energy, you’re still better off with a smaller lighter electric car, than a larger electric car. Not only will it either charge faster and/or go further on a single charge, but less energy would have gone into building it, and hopefully battery waste will be less. 

            Large cars inherently are inefficient. For every Kg of person and luggage carried you’re usually carrying about 15 times more car. (Assuming 1.4 people at 80kg pp and a generous 30kg of luggage and a car of 2000kg which is a rough average weight. Lots of rounding done).

            Better still, when possible catch mass transit (which is my area of study/and passion).

            Whilst I’m clearly wrong on the situation in the UK and US, I’m still confident that I’m right about Australia and China.

        2. Also for some reason when I edited my post above the links to @boingboing-7160c7db52df96e5fe196a6c9ce73f83:disqus and @Cowicide:disqus ‘s profiles disappeared. Instead it just had the names with an @ symbol in front.

Comments are closed.