Why technology and energy efficiency will not save the planet

Greener than a Prius?

Let’s play a quick game of word association! I say ‘green car,’ you think:

a) Prius
b) Chevy Volt
c) Nissan Leaf
d) Model-T

David Owen, author of  The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, would go with D. His theory is that technological advances, including the ones that increase efficiency, actually tend to increase consumption. And also, good intentions don’t count for much. Case in point: New York City has a lower per capita impact than Portland because of high density living (shared utilities, no yards, less space = less stuff, really good, highly used public transportation). Your average NYC dweller might not care about vermicomposting, but probably has a lower impact than a treehugger living in suburban California. Feel-good vibes or not, the bottom line matters.

Let’s go back to the car thing for a minute. So, we have it on pretty good evidence that two things that effectively reduce driving are fuel prices and inconvenience (traffic, lack of parking). Getting a hybrid actually reduces your fuel price and, if you’re in an area where hybrids can use the carpool lane, makes it more convenient to drive.  Does getting a hybrid encourage you to drive more and offset your saved emissions? Or alternately, does the money you save get spent pursuing some other form of consumption? Same thing for air conditioning, solar power, EnergyStar televisions…If our technology is getting more efficient all the time, why are our emissions not heading satisfactorily south?

It’s a provocative question. David Owen suggests that looking to technology to save us might just be ass-backwards. For example, he thinks that a car that would cut down on emissions far more effectively than a Prius would be the following:

Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.

In other words, something kinda like a Model-T. Paired with today’s gas prices. And with most of the lanes on our highways closed and parking lots turned into high density housing. If this were the only car available, would you drive it? Or would you start looking for ways to live, work, and play closer to home? (This, more than just the emissions, is why cars make such a difference in our lives.) What if Australia were still a two year journey with 50% mortality away? Would you not cross it (and all other far away locations) off the list for your next holiday?

Neither galloping technological advances nor efficiency provides an incentive to reduce energy useQuite the opposite. Owen suggests that we need, if not mandated energy inefficiency that acts as a deterrent to the whole high-consumption structure of western civilization, then at least energy efficiency combined with enforced caps on how much we can use.

One problem is that the environmental movement emphasizes making small, voluntary changes. At the same time, technological advance makes it cheaper and easier for us to consume more, so it often comes down to individual willpower. Do I have the willpower to never fly for another holiday? Do I have the willpower to not drive my car, to not hit the button that turns on the AC on a hot day, to not take hot showers, to not use the electricity my condo is wired with, to not upgrade my 5 year old phone, to not replace my laptop? Even knowing the high environmental impact of each of these activities, I don’t think I do — at least not all the time. But a century or less ago, people did without these things and still had fulfilling, interesting lives. The more technology lowers the price of admission for all of these things, the more they start seeming like necessities rather than luxuries, the more the energy we use on them feels like a necessary expenditure.

One other interesting idea in Conundrum is how good intentions aren’t enough. It’s easy for us to point a finger at corporations for the planetary damage they cause, but how willing are we to make the type of big, infrastructure changes in our own lives that would make an effective difference? I’m not talking about changing a light bulb; I’m talking about the stuff that really matters personally and on a gut level: where we live, what we eat, how many children we have. Owen argues persuasively that high density living is the lowest impact option, while moving out to the country is essentially extending suburban sprawl. How ready am I to give up my dream of a cabin in the woods for the sake of being greener? I’m not.  Given how huffy people become when anyone suggests adopting a primarily vegan diet or having fewer kids, I’m skeptical that we will voluntarily make these types of changes on a species level.

No one likes to talk about sacrifice, and I don’t think self-sacrifice is going to be effective on the scale we need anyway. But something’s going to give eventually if we don’t want to live on a dead planet: maybe our free market economy, maybe our personal freedom to make unsustainable choices.

I guess my question is: at what point will sustainability become more important than my individual freedom to screw up the planet to the fullest extent of my financial limits? Would you support restrictions that sharply limited the amount of water, electricity, gasoline, and other resources you (and everyone else) could use — all in the name of sustainability?

Photo by Bill McChesney

24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/29/2012 at 23:07

    This is an EXCELLENT post, and I think I may have to read that book. I have long thought that if the fate of the planet depends on individual “consumers” somehow wading through the sea of information and mis-information, and then miraculously making “the right” decisions, our goose is cooked. And if the “right” decisions only get us in deeper… then what?

    It seems to me that the ONLY way that this problem could possibly be solved would be if the cost of using resources actually reflected the reality of what that resource use means for the planet. Of course, when you really think about that, it becomes a horrifying picture of the “haves” vs. the “have-nots,” but I’m not too sure that we’re terribly far from that as it is.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that expecting people to somehow “conserve” when they have no real motivation (other than do-gooder points) to do so, is a loosing game. Somehow I think we need an entirely new paradigm, but I don’t really know what it is, and I’m afraid that the people profiting from the status quo are going to do everything in their power to make sure that things stay exactly the way that they are.


    • Posted by Rosa on 04/30/2012 at 06:43

      I’m with you on cost being the way to control things – and we can easily raise costs just by not giving away so much public resources and passing regulations that put cleanup costs on polluters/users.

      The haves vs. have-nots come in any system – when you have a political system that puts in rationing for whatever reason, you get cheaters who have political power (like in the USSR when it was around) or money (US & UK in WWII rationing systems) or both. Right now we have haves who use resources, and have-nots who live with the consequences.


      • Hi Rosa,

        I agree that externalities should be factored into cost and passed on to responsible party. However…would that ever really pass in a democracy? Could we really come together and have a majority say, “Yes! We want to pay more for gas / electricity / food / commodities!” Would the powerful corporate influences on our government ever allow that to happen? I’m doubtful that this will happen until we are in an actual crisis.


        • Totally agree with this post and thread, and no, I don’t see either party putting this into effect. It would be political suicide and getting re-elected seems to be the number one concern of most politicians.


        • Posted by Rosa on 04/30/2012 at 19:37

          Parts of it can happen – we could stop the unilateral giveaways from the Forest Service, BLS, Dept of Interior, either all at once or with small changes (like mandating “market rate” for grazing land leases.) Lots of those are only regionally popular, but administered at the national level.

          The other way to do this is through the courts, rather than legislatively – or a combination, where laws that grant immunity to extractive industries could be challenged and THEN the court cases fought.

          There are powers on both sides – someone’s paying for medical costs for kids with asthma. Sic the health insurance companies on the coal companies and see who wins.


          • I really like your ideas and optimism, but who is ‘we’? I’d like to think that the government and courts will do the right thing, but we’ve seen so much evidence to the contrary.

            Corporation vs corporation — now that’s something I’d buy tickets to see. 🙂

          • Posted by Rosa on 05/04/2012 at 16:51

            we = voters, taxpayer, the owners of all these public lands, air, and water. Most of the court cases and regulations get 0 public attention, but there are mechanisms in place for public oversight.

    • Hi Cat,

      I was planning to post this later, but you might like a recent TED talk by Paul Gilding called The Earth is Full. He doesn’t think we’re likely to take action until we’re deep in acute crisis, and at that point, we’ll either save ourselves or go down. I don’t really care for this scenario because I expect we’ll have lost most of what I think is worth saving. It’s funny that I’m now thinking that we’ll have to wait for economic collapse before things will really get better.


      • Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/30/2012 at 13:14

        Thanks Jennifer, I’ll check it out, although I fear it might add to my already cynical and fatalistic outlook! 🙂


  2. Posted by Sarah on 04/30/2012 at 00:14

    What’s really huffy is when you delete people’s comments because you don’t like what they have to say and close topics for commentary. Must have really hit the nail on the head, ouch. Dead planet indeed, love the open and uncensored forum for dialogue. But then you’ll probably delete this too. Congrats!


    • Hi Sarah,

      Your responses made it clear that an actual, rational conversation based on the exchange of ideas was impossible. I gave you ample space to share your thoughts and upon finding that I wanted very much to say something unkind in my response to you, I chose to close it instead. This is my space and my blog. Thanks for reading!


  3. Posted by Paola on 04/30/2012 at 05:55

    Brilliant! I must find the book and read it now. Thanks!


    • Hi Paola,

      I’d love to know what you think. The book seems a little light on proof for Owen’s interesting ideas, and I don’t really care for his section on why local food is not green (criticizing rooftop gardens? that seems a little low), but there are certainly some ideas worth thinking about it.


  4. Would I support sharp restrictions to nonrenewable resources? Well, it wouldn’t be my ideal, obviously, but at some point what other choice will we have? Whether this is done by mandate or by increasing costs I think it’s the only way real reduction in use will happen. I mean, I’m inclined to want to be more green, but I haven’t made any major sacrifices. I still have a car, eat meat, etc. It’s hard to make further changes when I don’t see others doing so and it’s not really going to make a dent anyway.

    I don’t have a lot of faith that we will save ourselves before it’s too late.


    • Hi Candi,

      Yeah, I doubt we’ll choose to impose restrictions on ourselves (even if we have really good, long-sighted reasons to) until we have no other choice. It is hard to do things out of a sense of self-sacrifice, and it’s unrealistic to expect that environmental concerns will motivate people to do things they really don’t want to do. I don’t think there are any circumstances under which I would voluntarily move to an area of denser population.

      I read an interview with E.O. Wilson today on Grist. When asked if he thought we were doomed, he said, “No, I hope.” That’s my attitude, too. I can’t confidently say no, but I don’t want to say yes, either.


  5. Posted by Andrea on 05/01/2012 at 06:22

    It’s a perception issue, right? Most people believe none of the important resources will run out in their lifetime, or I guess in the lifetime of their children (and that’s about as far as their foresight goes). It’s really hard to restrict things that people think are in abundance. However, no matter what the big picture is, it’s always a good idea to make it harder to do things that we don’t want people to be doing, whether that means making them more expensive, more inconvenient, or whatever. It’s funny how we first thing of rewarding the good stuff and forget that it goes hand in hand with punishing the bad stuff. We’ll only see real change if we do both.


    • Hi Andrea,

      It probably is partly a perception issue…but I think it’s also a failure of rationality and long term thinking — I think we use these resources because they’re there and they make our lives easier or more comfortable. I agree that not expecting humans to behave rationally and instead dangling carrots for good behavior and dispensing slaps on the wrist for poor behavior is going to be key. I guess the question always comes down to this: who is going to make us play nice? The government doesn’t seem likely to do it. We the people don’t seem likely to do it. I sincerely doubt any beings of light or deities are going to step in. So…then who?


  6. You are so wonderfully provocative, Jennifer. It’s fascinating to know that a NYC dweller is likely to have less impact than a country or suburban dweller like me. Your questions are challenging. Very few of us are keen on restrictions. I am beginning to think about living off the grid. But again, are these small steps futile in light of the larger picture?


    • Hi Sandra,

      Haha, thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment! These aren’t my ideas; they’re David Owen’s. I often find that books are a lot more thoughtful and thought provoking than internet articles, so I try to share what I find interesting.

      I think it’s great you’re considering living off the grid. If I had to choose between having a lower impact through moving to the city or to getting off the grid — even if the former were ‘greener,’ I’d still pick the latter. My sanity matters, too. I don’t want to discount small steps; I think we all start with those and they help to increase our awareness of how our lives impact the rest of the Earth. Doing these things feels like a matter of behaving ethically for me; I don’t do them because I expect to make a significant difference through, say, using reusable bags. However, I’d also say that we need to be keeping an eye on the bigger picture instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of ways we could inch our personal lives towards sustainability. In my opinion, issues like ocean acidification and biodiversity loss and ecological collapse deserve more attention than purely human concerns.


  7. Posted by bretlove on 05/04/2012 at 06:02

    Really great post, and David offers some seriously thought-provoking ideas. I’m especially intrigued by this one:

    “Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.”

    We work from home, so the only time we usually drive is to pick up my daughter from school or go to the airport when we travel. But on one trip we took, where we had a “Red Bug” electric vehicle the whole time we were on an island, we drove even less due to the fact that 1) it was cold, 2) it was VERY slow (max speed 22mph) and 3) it was fully electric and ate up the juice quickly.

    I think he may be onto something here: Technology + convenience= consumption. Seems like simple math to me.


    • Hi Bretlove,

      If you read Conundrum, I’d love to know what you think. The ideas in it are indeed provocative, and many run counter to prevailing green trends. If my only driving option were a Red Bug, I’m sure I’d choose to walk, bike, or take public transportation for everything I could. But the convenience factor of my car…yeah, the self control not to use it just isn’t always there.

      Your equation reminds me a little of something James Lovelock has said. To paraphrase, “There has been all too much growth already. What we need is a sustainable retreat.” I don’t think he was talking specifically about technology, but maybe the way forward involves looking back.


  8. Posted by ben on 05/22/2012 at 07:19

    If we could find a way that we can live without harming the environment, yet consuming all we desire, then that is a win-win situation. Innovation brings us a step closer to this ideal living. With each step progress is made. I agree that hybrid cars might encourage more driving. However if you are going to drive anyway why not do so with less harm to the environment. If everything we do could be sustainable, then we would not need to worry about consumption. Visit my post on The Importance of Sustainability


    • Hi Ben,

      I agree that technology can mitigate some of our impact, but your phrase ‘consuming all we desire’ sends shivers up my spine. The problem is both that technology encourages us to consume more by making things that we used to see as luxuries necessities (such as cell phones, air conditioning, refrigerators, cars…) and that our rates of consumption keep going up — as does our population. On a finite planet, there’s just no way that we can continue to increase our consumption and population while reducing the impact we have on the environment. The point about the hybrid vs. the model-T is that the more unpleasant and expensive driving is, the more we’ll look for better options. If hybrids weren’t available and gas shot up to $10 a gallon, you can bet I and a lot of other people would be looking at bikes, which have a much lower impact than even the most efficient hybrid.

      I’m not against technological innovation. I think it’s the path we’re headed down (no one wants to voluntarily cut out things that make our lives easier and more pleasant), and it’s certainly more exciting than making fundamental changes to our behavior. However, I think technological innovation has to be paired with consumption limits in order to effectively cut down our total emissions. I recommend reading The Conundrum if you’d like the longer form of this argument. 🙂


  9. Posted by franktkraemer37 on 04/29/2017 at 16:15

    I think we are seeing the benefits of sustainable development everywhere. It’s not the question if, but when our planet becomes 100% green. As it is the planet is warming at a rapid rate and fossil fuel lovers hanging dearly on their gas-powered toys. In the same token, I cannot see having my water and electricity restricted to a certain amount.
    Interestingly in Germany, they have some sort of restrictions such as how much garbage you can put out on a weekly basis. However denying climate science is, in my opinion, the greatest mistake we can do. Visit my post on climate Policy: http://coolmomentum.com/reckless-climate-policy-poses-nightmare/


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