Reviewer Steve Werlin: Steve is a freelance writer and editor living in New Haven, Connecticut. He holds a PhD in Religion from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BA in Archaeology from Tufts University. Steve's reading and writing interests broadly cover religion, history, culture, archaeology, and the environment. Follow Steve's work here
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Author: David Owen
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Have you ever tried to drive the speed limit? I mean really try, adhering to those black numbers on the white, rectangular signs as the absolute upper limit of how fast your car will move. It’s pretty tough.
At the suggestion of David Owen in The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse (Riverhead Trade, 2012), I tried, for one week, to drive the speed limit.
Driving 25 mph along city streets through residential and commercial neighborhoods is vexing in morning rush hour, especially when you have a line of tail-gaters behind you and an impatient toddler in the back seat. The trek up to Boston last week was even more difficult, as I incurred the wrath of my fellow drivers in the form of the most well-known hand gesture on the Massachusetts roadways.
Obeying the speed limit and making life on the road generally miserable for others is just one of the many underlying and subtle messages of Owen’s latest book. More acutely, The Conundrum mounts an assault on our energy policies and personal lifestyle choices intended to alleviate our environmental problems. As a twist, it comes not from a hard nosed, climate-change denier, but from a liberal environmentalist.
Much of Owen’s book focuses on the “rebound effect,” an economics model whereby increases in efficiency correlate (ironically) with an overall increase of energy usage. The most illustrative example is the automobile: better fuel economies for cars over the past century have enabled more people to own and drive more cars farther distances. Thus the result is a “net loss” for the environment, despite any perceived noble intentions of hybrid manufacturers and consumers.
As Owen observes, cars have not only enabled “suburban sprawl,” but they’ve allowed us to turn even the most mundane practices, like going a mile down the road to the grocery store, into an energy-gobbling travesty. (No doubt most of us justify such wasteful practices by boasting that we bought a hybrid.) Moreover, on a broader scale, Owen locates public policy as the epicenter of such poor decision making, highlighting such strategies as constructing wider highways. As Owen opines, traffic congestion is not an environmental problem. “Traffic is.”
For anyone who has thought seriously about climate change, there’s no doubt Owen is correct in his message of energy conservation and the complexities of our environmental challenges. His overall point is not the most contentious aspect of the book. Rather, it is his approach that poses the biggest problem. My wife—herself a materials scientist who has addressed energy concerns in solar research and high frequency welding—noted that Owen’s strategy is merely to poke holes. He shows us what we’re doing wrong without providing a plan to get us out this “conundrum.”
Her criticism—coming from a scientist—is mostly accurate, though not entirely inexcusable. After all, Owen, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is a journalist. His job is to report, not to solve. In this respect, the author is doing exactly what he should: he’s showing us what’s going on and where the problems lie. Solving problems is the realm of scientists and, more emphatically, elected officials and policy makers.
But Owen in part turns the table on this mentality and emphasizes that all of us—the hypocrites en masse, including himself—should be addressing these problems through lifestyle changes. In the concluding chapter, the author presents a few interesting, albeit impractical, solutions. And this brings us back to driving the speed limit. One of his less politically unrealistic solutions is to lower (and enforce) the speed limits, thereby reversing the trend of the last half-century. The goal is to decrease the amount of fuel expended by the extremely inefficient—though admittedly gratifying—practice of high acceleration and gas-guzzling top-speeds. The bonus is that the extra time on the road would make driving—whether on city-streets or highways—less desirable and ultimately discourage people from engaging in one of the most environmentally irresponsible practices: car travel.
Did my little pseudo-experiment save me gas this week? Maybe. Did it increase my travel time at all? Not noticeably (even on the drive to Boston, surprisingly). Is it a good idea? Probably.
And it’s these “probably”s that are most troubling about the book. Owen is a skilled writer who presents his arguments in a straightforward, relatable, and convincing manner. Unfortunately, the writing style does not transfer well for those who share Owen’s critical eye. The occasional footnotes—typically to insert a witty aside—do little to supply referential support to the author’s arguments. In-text name-dropping and references to so-and-so’s article in such-and-such journal do not allow the reader to assess critically or even digest adequately the major points. The absence of an index makes the book virtually useless for future reference. (Who’s going to flip through 260 pages to find that name or book title that sounded interesting?) The clever chapter titles are often too indecipherable to be of much help either. The author and editors would have been wise to include even a short “select bibliography” or “further reading” to aid the curious reader who is ready to believe and raise up Owen’s banner but requires just a little more proof to push him onto the battle field.
Despite these criticisms, The Conundrum is a page-turner that warrants a quick read. It doesn’t so much solve problems as it does raise a critical red flag. And for that reason alone, any who consider their ideals to be in line with modern environmentalism should pick up a copy.
Follow Here To Purchase The Conundrum