Sunday, 1 July 2012

THE CONUNDRUM: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse by DAVID OWEN

THE CONUNDRUM: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse
By DAVID OWEN, Riverhead Books, 2011, 261 pages, $19.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

David Owen, writer for The New Yorker and international speaker on green issues, caused something of a stir when in Australia recently.  All so-called ‘sustainability’ solutions to the earth’s climate woes, he told ABC radio, are “irrelevant or make the problems worse”.  Owen expands on his green heresy in The Conundrum.

The green conundrums in his sights include the clearly fake green - natural gas is a toxic greenhouse doona, not a ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised future whilst bio-fuels such as corn-based ethanol exacerbate world hunger by colonising prime agricultural land.  The plausibly problematic are also teased out - recycling allows the conscience-free generation of more waste, he says, noting that the US “spends more on garbage bags than almost half the world’s countries spend on everything”, whilst ‘food miles’ (where food is grown) is less important environmentally than how it is grown and what was sprayed on it.

Energy efficiency  is a conundrum candidate, too, argues Owen, because increased efficiency leads to increased total energy consumption. Better energy efficiency for refrigeration, for example, encourages acquisition of the second fridge, the bar-fridge and the stand-alone freezer, thereby consuming more total energy to chill stuff and, whilst the five-star whitegood may use less electricity, the energy ‘embedded’ in the mining for, and manufacturing of, the greener machine is far greater than its ‘end-use’ energy saving.

Increased fuel efficiency for the car (“global environmental Enemy No. 1”) has the perverse effect of encouraging more driving by making it less expensive.  A ‘green’ car requires as much car infrastructure and car-based urban sprawl (both energy consumption multipliers) as a petrol-fuelled car.  More public transport simply clears congested roads for those who like to drive (“almost everyone with access to a car”).

More efficient high speed train travel also has a green downside, Owen argues, because the time-saving advantages of very fast trains boosts their patronage, thus wiping out the main environmental benefit of trains over airplanes namely that train travel is slower and therefore less people want to train it than plane it.  The environmental problem with all ‘green mobility’ (fuel efficiency, hybrids, fast trains, “jets that fly on vegetable oil”) is that it makes travel cheaper and more convenient and therefore encourages more of us to do more of it.

Paradox also bedevils “solar evangelists”, says Owen.  The diffuseness, and diurnal rising and setting, of the sun makes it hard to capture enough sunlight to meet base-load electricity requirements, whilst the construction of large-acreage solar-thermal energy plants, which concentrate and store solar energy, are stymied by environmental-aesthetic objections.

Owen may sound like a Green-baiting, climate change denialists’ dream, but he sincerely believes that “decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels is a pressing global need”.  We need, Owen says, to embrace the principle of less - “less fossil fuel, less carbon, less water, less waste, less habitat destruction, less population stress”.  His solution is dramatic cuts in energy use because “energy consumption itself is the issue”, not better use of cleaner energy.

Such energy austerity, argues Owen, will need a “revolution in human behaviour” and this behavioural change will require more than just a supreme effort of will.  Less driving, for example, must involve government policies such as re-purposing existing car lanes for bike or bus travel, as well as higher petrol taxes, parking fees and other costs of driving.  Advocating energy efficiency and green technology may feel enlightened, he says, but it “involves no political risk” compared to stern energy-cutting measures which do call for sacrifice (energy taxes, pricing carbon, etc.).

In his quest to be contrarian at all costs, however, Owen strains logic and fact, counterposing two strategies which should be complementary – both decreases in some energy-wasteful consumption and increased use of green energy.  Some activities, such as flying and the private motor car, as Owen eloquently argues, would seem to have little future in an environmentally sustainable world but renewable energy surely substitutes for fossil fuel use without enhancing greater carbon-based energy use (renewables are feared by fossil fuel corporations for the very reason that free, clean inexhaustible sources of energy threaten the polluting business model of the coal and oil bosses).

Owen argues, correctly, that no single renewable energy source can get us to a de-carbonised future but no one (except climate change denialists) is saying that solar alone, or wind alone, or tidal/wave alone, or geo-thermal alone can do it all.  A suite of renewables is required, and Owen’s statement that no credible renewable energy blueprint exists is wrong (‘Beyond Zero Emissions’ in Australia has done the detailed scientific and technical work of just such a plan for Australia).

In backing the one-trick pony of energy consumption cuts, Owen also distracts from the political task required to get to a green future.  He dismisses as politically impractical such policies as mass public transport, a renewable energy ‘Manhattan project’, eliminating fossil fuel industry subsidies, etc. but identifying the obstacle to such policies is vital to overcoming what makes them seem ‘impractical’.  That capitalism blocks the way means that governments, which have the resources and powers to drive change through investment and strong regulation, need to be politically challenged rather than surrendered to. 

Whilst Owen is prepared to question basic capitalist economic faith (“economic growth, fuelled by energy consumption and natural resources, is not sustainable” and thus we “can’t grow our way out of energy, climate, resource, pollution, poverty and global equity problems”), his diagnosis that the problem lies with “over-consumption” and “acquisitive longing” for material goods misses the real problem – over-production by capitalists engaged in the cut-throat struggle to out-compete their rivals in the making and selling of ever more stuff to grow their capital and boost their short-term profit returns.

In the end, Owen, despite his best intentions, winds up in a tangled knot of his own green conundrums.  His negativism is such that when he claims that the carbon footprint of heavy investment in green technology to solve the world’s greenhouse ills would outweigh the existing carbon footprint of fossil fuels, it seems that he has disappeared up his own conundrum.

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