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

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