Book Review: The Conundrum

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

By definition, a conundrum is a difficult and complicated problem with no satisfactory answer. David Owen couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate title for his book. One would think that because everyone is more environmentally aware we would be well on our way to solving our problems. We recycle, turn off lights when we leave a room, and study the Energy Guide labels when purchasing new appliances. That all makes a difference, right?

Maybe not, when the topic is energy and climate. The problem, it seems, is us. We are a nation of consumers. As consumers, we love gadgets. We upgrade to new models of cell phones not because the old one no longer works. We’ve learned to think about where our food comes from and are told we should try to eat local but, according to this book, transportation comprises the smallest share of all the energy used in the production and processing of food. Even the Internet is a huge consumer of energy. Think about what it takes to maintain Web pages and everybody’s e-mails and photographs. Most of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels.

Once an efficiency problem is solved, it tends to make us consume more. Fuel efficient cars mean more drivers. More cars lead to more roads and more roads mean more suburbs which leads to more energy use. If you add more lanes to a highway to solve a congestion problem, you soon attract more drivers and the congestion the lanes were built to solve returns.

To solve our problems, global changes are needed— the kind of changes that involve sacrifice. According to the author, Americans consume more than 25% of the world’s coal, oil, and natural gas. Does anyone want to think about changing their standard of living? Would we still want to be environmentally conscious if it meant buying less stuff, driving less, and living smaller? It could be we know how to solve our environmental problems, but just don’t like the solutions.

Business, Science and Technology Department
Central Library