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The Conundrum [Paperback]

David Owen
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 7 2012 9781594485619 978-1594485619 Original

The Conundrum is a mind-changing manifesto about the environment, efficiency and the real path to sustainability.

Hybrid cars, fast trains, compact florescent light bulbs, solar panels, carbon offsets: Everything you've been told about living green is wrong. The quest for a breakthrough battery or a 100 mpg car are dangerous fantasies. We are consumers, and we like to consume green and efficiently. But David Owen argues that our best intentions are still at cross purposes to our true goal - living sustainably and caring for our environment and the future of the planet. Efficiency, once considered the holy grail of our environmental problems, turns out to be part of the problem. Efforts to improve efficiency and increase sustainable development only exacerbate the problems they are meant to solve, more than negating the environmental gains. We have little trouble turning increases in efficiency into increases in consumption.

David Owen's The Conundrum is an elegant nonfiction narrative filled with fascinating information and anecdotes takes you through the history of energy and the quest for efficiency. This is a book about the environment that will change how you look at the world. We should not be waiting for some geniuses to invent our way out of the energy and economic crisis we're in. We already have the technology and knowledge we need to live sustainably. But will we do it?

That is the conundrum.

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Product Description


"After Green Metropolis, a revelatory exposition of why urban life is 'green,' Owen---brisk, funny, elucidating, and blunt---illuminates a wide spectrum of environmental misperceptions in this even more paradox-laden inquiry." ---Booklist Starred Review --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

About the Author

David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a dozen books. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman, and their two children.

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Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A whining account of everything we do wrong! April 28 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Let me preface my comments by stating that I'm an engineer involved in improving the energy efficiency of buildings. I'm neither a tree-hugging environmentalist nor a fervent industrialist. I believe I'm a pragmatic person interested in "doing more good than harm" to our environment, our economy and our place in history. Okay, I may be a bit of a fence sitter!

The subtitle of Mr. Owen's book is a fair synopsis of the book. There is little in the way of proposed solutions to the author's perception of our environmental problems. There's no shortage of description of how bad we are at just about everything we do under the guise of "greening" our approach to energy harvesting and use. I had to fight to finish the book because of the author's whining narrative!

I take no issue with much of Mr Owen's research -- there are no blaring errors in fact. However, I do take issue with the author's casual dismissal of quoted expert opinions and his leaning towards the negative implications of everything we've done and will likely do to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and our extravagant lifestyle (in so far as energy use goes).

I specifically take issue with Mr. Owen's insistance that we stop trying to improve the efficiency of our energy-using systems because it leads to higher energy use. The phenomenon is real enough but it's prevalence, importance and order-of-magnitude is overstated. The quest for "efficiencies" in our social, economic and technological (western) world is too ingrained to dislodge by any amount of wordsmithing and guilt casting.

I am a strong believer in our ability to adapt and survive (and perhaps even prosper in some parts of the world). Things (i.e, environment, energy situation, etc.) will, no doubt, get much worse before "real" action is taken and, in some cases, we'll be too late but I do believe that we can and will make things better.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Learned things I never knew Sept. 6 2013
By Regina
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book because I needed it for an assignment. There are many things that I have learned and it also made me realize that some of the things that I previously believed are actually wrong (is efficiency good or bad?) and he uses many examples to back up his work. However his sources are questionable.
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5.0 out of 5 stars a real eye-openener Dec 18 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A must read for any environmentalist still filled with false beliefs about what we generally think it means to green living. Himself filled with the humility of his own failings and attempts at lowering his personal carbon footprint, the author shoves an all-showing mirror in our collective faces so wee can better see for ourselves all the fallacies we keep coming up with to try and makes us believe we do good, when we actually simply make matters worse, way worse. This concise compilation is an pleasant read, and mixes in some well needed comic relief with all the hard choices each and everyone of us should really be making instead, but would rather not (get rid of the car and walk) in order to slow down the decay we collectively bring on our only home, our little blue planet. Our precious personal freedoms of vehicular mobility, leisure and luxuries that come with our consumption based economies are all in the cross hairs.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly Honest Feb. 13 2012
By J. Ruscio - Published on
David Owen writes clearly, concisely, and insightfully about environmental challenges and the inadequacy of most proposed remedies. Owen explains the direction in which a society would have to move to become truly "green" (think NYC, not Vermont) and he also candidly admits that most people--including him and his wife--do not choose to live in those ways. Mainstream environmental beliefs and practices are examined, and Owen argues that many are either less helpful than widely believed or counterproductive. Research is complemented by anecdotes, including personal revelations that underscore Owen's appreciation for the difficulties involved in attempting to persuade (or coerce) people into making significant lifestyle changes, let alone genuine sacrifices. Though short on practical solutions, this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in considering the complexities encountered when confronting environmental challenges to do good rather than merely to feel good.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cross-purposes April 19 2012
By Stephen T. Hopkins - Published on
If you're pretty smug about the ways in which you're green: recycling, locavore, hybrid, etc., be sure to avoid reading David Owen's book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. Owen's basic premise is that we turn efficiencies into increased consumption and thereby make our problems worse. These usage changes don't lead to sustainability. The conundrum entails our inability, thus far, to commit to taking steps that would actually make a lasting difference on a global scale. According to Owen, we need to find ways globally to live smaller, closer to each other, and to drive less. Readers who enjoy gathering a broader perspective on issues are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking on a paradigm shift level Feb. 17 2012
By Adam - Published on
David Owen does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the logical errors people choose to make regarding their energy use. He discusses the full-spectrum of decisions all the way from an individual's daily drive to work all the way to the grand plans of governments to make "green" transportation networks and cities.

Each of the chapters presents a different approach to the same fundamental problem: energy efficiency is not a means to reduce overall energy use. He takes a scientific approach using data and examples from the real world, and adds in his unique humor and anecdotes to make the painful truth easier to digest.

It's definitely worth a read and serious consideration, but if you choose to pick it up, be willing to be objective because it challenges some of the basic assumptions and beliefs of average Americans.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fine message, but too repetitive June 26 2012
By Oliver - Published on
The net effect of increasing the mileage efficiencies of our cars is that we drive them more, and we end up polluting even more (per person) than when driving was more costly or more difficult. The situation is similar for many products, notably air conditioners. By making them cheaper, every has them and people forget how to handle the heat without one.

This book expands these and a few other ideas over some 250 pages. As expected, there is some story telling, and they're told fairly well, but they just aren't that interesting. This book would make a great 10 page article or essay, and hopefully it will some day become one.

It's probably better to get this from the library and read just a few chapters.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful for promoting debate and discussion June 2 2012
By David Reid - Published on
This book is a broad critique of environmentalism, in particular the idea that increased efficiency is a solution to environmental ills. Owen's argument is based around Jevons Paradox, which is described in the book as "Promoting energy efficiency without doing anything to constrain overall energy consumption will not cause overall energy consumption to fall." Owen gives examples such as how increased efficiency of cars simply leads to people driving further and also acts as an enabler of greater consumption.

Owen promotes the idea that residents of densely populated cities use less energy. This was the subject of another book he wrote, Green Metropolis (which I have not read). While there is certainly some truth to this argument it conveniently ignores how cities shift their demands for food production, waste disposal and other things elsewhere. This also highlights the weak point of this book -- it largely consists of the author asserting his opinions without engaging in detailed research. References and endnotes are conspicuously absent from the book.

Despite this weakness the book does challenge many of the key tenets of environmentalism. It is useful for encouraging much needed debate and discussion. There is still a large amount of truth in its arguments even if it lacks references.

(Originally published at David reads books.)
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