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The Conundrum Paperback – Feb 7 2012

3.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Original edition (Feb. 7 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594485615
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485619
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.3 x 18 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 181 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #8,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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 MP3 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.

Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa27cdf24) out of 5 stars 43 reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27da8d0) out of 5 stars Refreshingly Honest Feb. 13 2012
By J. Ruscio - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27da924) out of 5 stars Read it because it's thought-provoking, but recognize that it's wrong. Dec 19 2014
By Phillip Price - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is a frustrating book. Like all of Owen's books, it is very clear and well-written. It's interesting and thought-provoking. And, although it would be an exaggeration to say that everything in it is wrong, it is nonetheless true that a lot that is in it is wrong, and a lot of what isn't wrong is misleading.

Much of the book is about the "rebound" of energy efficiency: if you use energy more efficiently --- if you get more productivity from it per unit --- then you tend to use more units. So energy efficiency improvements lead to less energy reduction than a naive calculation would suggest. This is a real effect, and in some highly energy-intensive industries it can be large. Also, if you save money on energy then you will spend it on something else, and that something else will also consume energy. These effects are real but not all that big on average: at the scale of the entire economy, averaged over all industries, rebound is around 8%. So if you improve productivity per unit energy by 20%, you don't cut energy use by 20%, you cut it by about 18.5%. Energy efficiency experts and economists have looked at it a lot of ways and they all get rebound of somewhere in that neighborhood. David Owen "knows" the experts are wrong, and he gives some examples to prove it...and they're utter nonsense. In one especially risible instance, Owen suggests that driving less energy-efficient cars would save energy: "If the only motor vehicles available today were 1920 Model Ts, how many miles do you think you'd drive each year, and how far do you think you'd live from where you work"? Owen is right that people would drive a lot less in these circumstances...but he's entirely wrong about the reason. People would drive a lot less because the Model T is loud, has uncomfortable seats, no air conditioning, no stereo system, has a lousy suspension, has poor acceleration and low top speed, etc. In fact, the Model T got about 20 mpg, which is not that bad compared to a lot of cars for sale today. Ridiculously, Owen blames all of the extra driving solely on an increase in fuel efficiency. Unfortunately the book is riddled with such nonsense.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27dad5c) out of 5 stars Thought provoking on a paradigm shift level Feb. 17 2012
By Adam - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27dd138) out of 5 stars Cross-purposes April 19 2012
By Stephen T. Hopkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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)
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27dd21c) out of 5 stars Useful for promoting debate and discussion June 2 2012
By David Reid - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.)