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The Fascinating Narrative of Serious Ecological Problem

Abstract

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse is a short mind-changing book that was written by an American contributor David Owen. This provocative manifest focuses on the ecological problems of the present time, wrong tries of people to save energy and to protect the environment and gives advices for living sustainably. The author describes the principles of consumer society and discusses the dilemmas of ecology and eco-consciousness. The focal point of this book is that the pertinacious ambitions of humanity for comfort lead to disastrous effects on the environment, but people have an opportunity to avoid these impacts. This essay will summarize the main points of the book The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse and try to link up the book’s argument to the issue of ecological sustainability. The Owen’s book demonstrates a new view of the actual problem of environmental protection.

The Fascinating Narrative of Serious Ecological Problem

The author of the book The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse David Owen writes articles for the weekly magazine The New Yorker. Besides, he is an editor and writer at Golf Digest and an author of several books. It should be emphasized here that Owen is the member of the top list “The 50 Funniest American Writers”. It is worth noting that The Conundrum is based on one of the Owen’s articles for The New Yorker from Dec. 20, 2010 which is called “The Efficiency Dilemma”.

As an experienced contributor, David Owen writes elegant, short and simple in publicistic style. He states facts and arguments briefly, gives interesting thought-provoking information and builds a context. The book is well larded with jokes. This journalistic style allows the readers easy understand and consider the problem and put a question to themselves how they live and how they should move on.

According to Owen, such widely known “so-called solutions” for eco-living as hybrid driving, energy-saving lamps, high-speed trains, solar batteries and carbon sequestration are “irrelevant or make the real problems worse” (Owen 2012) in practice. All these modern energy-efficient technologies are only fictitious methods for caring for the environment and future of the Earth. Author`s presentation is based on an economic principle which is called “rebound effect” (Owen 2012): new energy-saving technologies cost lower but they allow people to use them more. Therefore, it is not only uneconomic but unfavorable ecologically. The fact is that the improvement of efficiency leads to expansion of consumption. This fact lies at the centre of The Conundrum.

The author’s idea of “rebound effect” may be proved with some examples from the book. As for driving, statistical data demonstrate that increase of fuel efficiency has brought about increase of gas consumption. It is clear that drivers have an opportunity to drive more paying less. Therefore, the author underlines that, “a belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive” (Owen 2012). As Owen writes, “even if drivers don’t spend their savings on more driving they will certainly spend them on goods or activities that involve energy consumption in some other form” or “those drivers shred the money and add it to a compost heap” (Owen 2012). Even such inventions as “traffic-control systems or different smartphone apps for drivers are counterproductive from an environmental point of view because they make drivers even happier with cars than they were already” (Owen 2012). The thing is that sometimes the “rebound effect” can be large enough to exceed the primary efficiency from energy saving. As a proof of his statement, the author quotes the words of Harry Saunders, an expert on rebound and energy efficiency, “With fixed real energy price, energy efficiency gains will increase energy consumption above where it would be without these gains” (Owen 2012). Energy prices are not fixed and they show an upward tendency. Owen sees the interrelation between price formation and consumption, so he writes that, “we know how to make people consume less: charge them more” (Owen 2012).

The main point of The Conundrum is that the human striving to usage of safe technologies for environment is misguided. As an example, the use of energy saving bulbs is not efficient because people usually do not use them less, besides they leave them switched on longer. People often use air conditioners which are more efficient, but meanwhile they are cheaper and thus more people can get these appliances for their houses. Needless to say that travelling by plane is energy-efficient and at the same time faster than any other types of transport. But it is cheaper to fly and people choose this way of travelling more often and cover longer distances by planes. Doubtless, people do it from the best of motives, they believe, that they do right saving energy and protecting environment but it is only misbelief.

Fortunately, David Owen does not only describe the problem, but gives his prescription and offers the readers his living strategy. He tries to persuade people to change their mind and their lifestyle significantly, turn their outlook on life around. He presents full line of practical solutions from daily advices for individuals to large government projects.

According to the author's opinion, humanity should not wait for new scientists’ inventions for environmental protection, it must save its planet itself. In a similar vein, people should live sustainably without using modern technologies for that. And the only right solution for such living is the capital reduction of consumption.

It seems that the author’s strategy is unreal for contemporary society. He offers to curtail movement of humans around the city through living closer to each other and thereby, to reduce the amount of cars. He wants the government and people adopt a strategy that really lowers consumption of the Earth`s environmental resources. Owen suggests to raise fuel taxes, and moreover, to cut the consumption. He writes in The Conundrum, “Efficiency initiatives make no sense as an environmental strategy, unless they’re preceded – and more than negated – by measures that force major cuts in total energy use” (Owen 2012).

The author is absolutely right. It is no doubt that the Earth would be cleaner if its population reduces the amount of their driving trips and governments make people pay more for electricity and fuel, but the conundrum is how to turn the humanity to this view and to grapple with human’s stubborn aiming for comfort. No modern eco-technologies will be able to get through this. Renewable energy sources will not help to save energy. For example, if iPhone operates on the solar panel, the steady demand for new models will motivate producers to create and put new gadgets on the market using different resources, which includes rare metals. Owen writes about the Kindle and iPad, “Lots and lots of brilliant people are working very hard, right now, to turn those products into landfill”, and asks one of the most remarkable questions of the book, “How appealing would 'green' seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets – not more? (Owen 2012)”.

Therefore, David Owen reminds the readers the copybook maxims about living ‘green’. People really know them, but do not want to keep them, because it means to change their daily customs completely. Such changes frighten people and they prefer to hide behind false believes and actions. Doubtless, humans should reduce consumption. Foremost, people should drive less. Owen writes about the automobile “Global Environmental Enemy No. 1” and “a global generator of environmental harm” (Owen 2012). According to The Conundrum, the concept of economic development is “the equivalent of believing in perpetual-motion machines and Ponzi schemes” (Owen 2012). The author recognizes efficiency and innovation as the inherent components of contemporary life but he encourages a society to sustainable living.

Conclusion

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse is really a jolt of fresh air in the actual problem of environmental protection and sustainable living. The use of energy is necessary for contemporary life, it is of great significance for human prosperity and development, but environmental health and well-being of a society in the future is of great importance for humanity, too. It should be certainly remembered.

The book is full of hard serious questions but it is easy to read and is really interesting for everyone. This book is a surprise for someone who considers his or her lifestyle green and it is surely food for thoughts for somebody who wants to help the planet. Generally speaking, people should not wait for scientific invention of panacea for ecologic and economic crisis. The humanity must act itself, live sustainably having technology and using the current knowledge.

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