Book of the Week: A 'Conundrum' from a curmudgeon

“Thought-provoking” is what some are calling David Owen’s new book, The Conundrum, which is about how scientific innovation and energy efficiency aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Good choice of words. Because the more I read and thought, the more provoked I became.


Owen disses everything, it seems.

He starts with consumption, and I’m certainly with him there. He’s talking to a friend about sustainability, and the friend doesn’t want to think about it. He says, “Forget all that. Just tell me what to buy.”

Of course, buying stuff isn’t the answer. At least not for the environment.

But then Owen takes off on just about everything else. Here's a hint, the subtitle of the book is "How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse."

The New Yorker writer extraordinaire does so in a most engaging way, of course. When it comes to the wealth of the modern world, he notes that “our comforts seem so familiar to us that we seldom pause to be astonished by them. ... You’d think that not having bubonic plague would be enough to put most of us in a cheerful mood — but, no, we want a hot tub, too.” I burst out laughing at that one.

And he contends that “modern life is mainly the product of our steadily growing talent for usefully setting things on fire — wood, coal, oil, natural gas.” Nicely put.

But then he gets so grumpy!

Public transportation is bad because it allows people live farther out from the cities where they work.

Water conservation in the desert is bad because it allows more people to live there.

Getting better mileage in our cars is bad because then we just drive more. (Oh, great. This is all that SUV-drivers need to hear.)

Household solar power is bad because we need big flat roofs to put it on — suggesting a wasteful living space inside — instead of a nicely compact and densely-populated highrise.

Engineering is bad because, while it reduces our need for fossil fuel, it also comes up with fancy ways to extract still more of it.

Making more efficient refrigerators is bad because we just get bigger ones. Or, in the case of his parents, we stick the old one in the basement.

And a whole lot more.

Eeek. Why don’t we all just go dive into a pool of petroleum and end the misery?

Not even local food, gaining more cachet by the pound, passes Owen’s muster. “How far you live from your grocery store is of far greater environmental significance than how far you live from the places your food is grown,” he contends. And where the food was grown is less important than “how it was grown, what was sprayed on it while it was growing” … and so on.

My brain kept arguing with Owen. I kept saying, “But what about … ?”

In the case of the fridge in the basement, you can’t blame it on the technology. You have to confront the lack of consumer awareness.

You can’t just toss out solar power because it needs a big roof. You should design better solar power.

True, making more efficient bulbs may lead to more light in a world that is already doused with light pollution, but that doesn’t HAVE to be the case. And it’s not the bulb’s fault.

Frequently, as I harrumphed along, I wanted supporting evidence in the form of academic studies … or at least footnotes that, although I would probably never look at them, would at least assuage me by suggesting that such evidence existed.

I think I made friends with Owen in the end, however. (He did make me laugh when he noted that the small solar lights so many people put in their yards are actually wasteful because they go in place where people wouldn’t have put lights in the first place.) I think I'll keep this on my bookshelf, and I suspect I'll refer to it often.

This is because, after all, he really did make me think. The points he raises are valid, I have to admit. And they’re important ones to make. We don’t hear this stuff often.

It’s just that, to me, they’re not the end of the story. They’re somewhere in the middle. Or maybe even close to the beginning. And I think he would agree.

At its simplest, he says, we need to live smaller, live closer, drive less — all points he explored in his previous book, Green Metropolis.

Green jobs are fine, but we need to eliminate brown jobs.

And we need to agree on an equitable, workable way to hike energy prices to make SURE we use less.

Now he’s talking!

But he ends with a final backhand that made me cringe. It seemed defeatist. I think interest begins with individual action. Only later does it extend to bigger, wider, better thoughts.

Owen isn’t having it. “It’s easy for wealthy people to look busy on energy, climate and the environment: all we have to do is drive a hybrid, eat local food … remember to unplug our cell-phone chargers, and divide our trash into two piles. What’s proven impossible, at least so far, is to commit to taking steps that would actually make a large, permanent difference on a global scale.

“Do we honestly care?” he asks. “That’s the conundrum.”

I wonder what the answer will be.

The paperback original from Riverhead Books was published Feb. 7. It is 261 pages and costs $14.