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The Conundrum Paperback – Feb 7 2012
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"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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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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