A Paradox Grows into a Conundrum

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ConundrumIn his 2011 book Conundrum, David Owen asks a fundamental question–can we commit to doing what is necessary to really Achieving Sustainability? Are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices, to reduce our consumption as both individuals and societies on a massive scale?

As his subtitle points out Owen is really asking these questions about energy and its impact on our climate not so much about Sustainability overall. But as climate change is the single biggest barrier to Achieving Sustainability and energy (in all its forms, from transportation to heating) is by far the biggest contributor to anthropogenic emissions1)This flowchart shows how 2/3 of our emissions comes from using fossil fuels for energy. his choice of focus is well selected. Energy is indeed a powerful force, whose unlocking has Owen notes made us richer than any emperor or king. We can cross the globe in a minute, buy apples in the winter from Chile and live in the middle of deserts many miles from where we work every day.

What are not the solutions? Just read the sub-title

The main thrust of this book is that scientific innovation, efficiency, nor good intentions are going to get us out of this mess. He is rightfully critical of the idea of “consuming” our way to Sustainability, as though shopping at Farmer’s markets (after driving 20 miles to get there) or buying fair trade clothes are sufficient to solve our Sustainability challenges. Indeed Owen wonders if many of these actions may actually make things worse. As I talked about previously, Owen judges a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if this consumption can be multiplied by 9 billion.

Science is not evil but innovation seldom behaves the way we think we want it to.
If you hang around the Sustainability crowd long you will find a lot of techno-optimists who believe we are only one or two inventions away from Achieving Sustainability. But the weight of history suggests that technology itself is at best a neutral arbiter for Sustainability, sometimes improving things, sometimes making things worse and more often than not generating a cascade of unexpected effects (both good and bad). Owen makes an excellent case that Achieving Sustainability requires difficult social solutions not new technologies.2)Which is why Erin Redman made the argument that Sustainability Science research must be focused on society/people

Jevons’ Conundrum

The title of this book is most deeply rooted in a paradox first described by the British economist William Stanley Jevons nearly 150 years ago. Basically the idea is that some or all of efficiency gains will inevitably be wiped out by increased consumption. Often termed 'rebound' today, the extent to which this effect is important is hotly debated which Owen covers in some detail.3)This is certainly a topic we will dedicate 1+ posts to in the near future. But more importantly to Owen, he believes Jevons' Paradox is a fundamental phenomenon of modern society--we increase our resource/energy efficiency in one area and either use it more directly (e.g. gains in efficient refrigerators, being swallowed by them growing larger) or more perniciously, it enables us to consume more in indirect (e.g. efficient lighting has multiplied the number of screens in our lives) or in unrelated ways (e.g. using electricity savings to buy a plane ticket).

Ultimately, Owen concludes we need to impose societal wide constraints on our energy use and then deploy efficient technologies to meet those constraints, otherwise energy use and its climate impacts will never make the necessary decline.

3 Things I Liked

    William Stanley Jevons
  1. Introducing me to Jevons: While I had previously heard about the 'rebound' effect I had not heard of this 19th century bearded Briton. At a minimum we need to be skeptical about claims that a widget that is 20% more efficient will really end up reducing energy use by 20% but I think we also need to take seriously the potential for efficiency gains to be wiped out mostly or even entirely when viewed across entire systems.
  2. Can't Rely on Technology for Sustainability: Conundrum gave me an increased appreciation for potential limits of technological innovations for Sustainability. For example, Google's driverless cars have recently made the news as potential Sustainability boons from eliminating the need for parking lots to ending car ownership. But while reading this book I realized that I currently limit my driving in large part because I hate driving. If Google freed me from having to be behind the wheel (especially if I could do other things), I would be much more likely to get in a car-potentially meaning an increase in my driving footprint.
  3. Calling for Sacrifice: Many people, particularly techno-optimists, make claims that all it will take is a few small changes, or new technologies,4)For perhaps the most optimistic recent take on the future potential of technology, Abundance: the future is better than you think or easy policies and we can Achieving Sustainability. Owen is straightforward that a climate neutral society will need to be quite radically different than what we are used to today. But it won't be technology that will ultimately get us there, it will be social solutions.

3 Things I Didn't Like

  1. Reliance on Stories: With his background in journalism, it is no surprise that Owen relies heavily on stories, quotes from people and anecdotes to make his points. Data which is included tends to be random and scattered, such as a couple facts comparing food choices.
  2. No Flow: Owen did a good job of keeping Conundrum from growing long and repetitive as is the norm but the chapters often felt disjointed and sometimes even random. And even keeping it short, Owen was unable to avoid being quite repetitive at times.
  3. Hypocrisy: But by far the most annoying aspect of the book was his calling repeatedly for the need for hard choices, sacrifice and limiting our consumption, while being quite clear that he was not up to it himself. In one example he notes that being a vegetarian is the single best thing an individual can do but shrugs his shoulders at his failed attempt to "classify bacon as a vegetable." His actions (like flying to Australia) seemed to have given him cause to reflect but not to change anything in his own life.5)Contrast this with Chris Sandbrook who reflects on the varying success of converting his awareness of a problem into action in his own life.

Aaron's Approbation

If you have never heard of Jevon's Paradox, pick up this book, you'll be through it in no time. In particular Owen distills some solid lessons and I leave you with three which I haven't already mentioned:

  • Energy is too cheap
  • We need to live denser
  • Cars are the prime problem

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This flowchart shows how 2/3 of our emissions comes from using fossil fuels for energy.
2. Which is why Erin Redman made the argument that Sustainability Science research must be focused on society/people
3. This is certainly a topic we will dedicate 1+ posts to in the near future.
4. For perhaps the most optimistic recent take on the future potential of technology, Abundance: the future is better than you think
5. Contrast this with Chris Sandbrook who reflects on the varying success of converting his awareness of a problem into action in his own life.
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