Publisher: Riverhead Books
“Very few pieces of writing are capable of changing the way you think about the world. The Conundrum is one of them. And unlike many other such books, but like everything else David Owen has written, it is clear, funny, graceful, and concise.”
James Fallows, National Book Award–winning author of Postcards from Tomorrow’s Square
You wouldn’t expect one of The Fifty Funniest American Writers to write a book about one of the most serious subjects of our time. Nor would you expect someone who went undercover as a high school student and wrote an exposé on the SAT exams to also write prolifically on the subject of Golf. But David Owen is not a writer easily pigeon-holed. His interests are as broad as they are deep. In his latest book, The Conundrum, Owen challenges our thinking on what it means to be green, saying our efforts to improve efficiency and increase sustainable development only exacerbate the problems they are meant to solve.
Owen has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1991. Before joining The New Yorker, he was a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and, prior to that, a senior writer at Harper’s. He is also a contributing editor at Golf Digest. He is the author of more than a dozen books. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, who is also a writer and they have two adult children, also writers.
I’m thankful for the time he gave to explain the current environmental conundrum we face.
1. It has taken a decade for scientists to convince the public of the dangers of global warming and to warn of the radical changes necessary for a sustainable future. In Australia, some politicians still deny the reality of Global Warming and the need to limit carbon emissions. What would you say to them?
Scientists and other have been warning about global warming for more than a decade, actually. Yet in recent years the percentage of Americans who view climate change as a political priority has actually fallen—not to the bottom of the list, but close. Australians have generally been more forward-thinking on this issue, but in some ways their concern is an economic luxury. The Australian economy is in decent shape and the U.S. economy is not, and Australians have financed their environmental concern in part by doing things like selling huge quantities of Australian coal to China—where, needless to say, the Chinese don’t put it back in the ground. I don’t know how to explain the apathy of American voters. It’s certainly not a shortage of unsettling facts. My suspicion is that a growing number of intelligent people have thought it over, at least subconsciously, and decided that the potential global gains aren’t worth the certain personal sacrifices. If that’s the case, more warnings won’t accomplish anything positive.
2. I know nothing of science and have to trust what I'm told about the environment--how we have damaged it and how to limit our damage. An introduction for your book, The Conundrum, says, "Everything you've been told about living green is wrong." How can the average citizen, like me, know what information to trust for a green, sustainable future?
You shouldn’t necessarily trust me, either, of course. But I think we should all be generally suspicious, especially of approaches that seem easy or that consist primarily of substituting one product for another. It’s easy to look busy on a long list of environmental issues; it’s much harder to have an unambiguously positive impact. The measures that even environmentally enlightened Americans and Australians favor tend to be either ones that are cost-free and easy to implement (more recycling, different shopping bags) or that seem like lifestyle upgrades (a new car, a remodeled kitchen, better-tasting tomatoes). A good test of any activity or product that’s described as sustainable is to multiply it by 9 or 10 billion (the expected population of the world by midcentury) and see if it still seems green. This is not an easy test to pass.
3. Could you briefly explain how our efforts towards efficiency have exacerbated the problems they aim to solve?
It seems obvious that redesigning a machine to make it use less energy to perform the same amount of work should cause energy consumption to go down. In the long run, though, at the macroeconomic level, it has the opposite effect. Enthusiasts tend to talk about efficiency as though it were something we’d just invented—a promising new tool for addressing environmental problems. But it’s actually something we’ve been doing, quite successfully, ever since our species moved out of caves. Steady increases in efficiencies of all kinds have made us immeasurably wealthier, healthier, and more numerous, among other extraordinary benefits, but they have also created the environmental problems we’re wrestling with now. The main part of the Industrial Revolution was inaugurated by an increase in energy efficiency: James Watt’s invention of an improved steam engine. That technological breakthrough did not, in the long run (or even in the short run) cause overall energy consumption to fall. On the contrary. The problem with efficiency gains, from an environmental point of view, is that we reinvest them in additional consumption. As we get better at making things, we make more things. Worldwide, energy consumption is expected to at least double by mid-century. It’s growing faster than population, and it’s growing in every income category.
If total energy consumption is constrained in some way—by taxes, by legal caps, by rationing—then efficiency gains can enable people to live better without increasing their overall energy consumption. That’s what happens when the price of oil rises, or when economies implode. But we have no history of intentionally imposing limits like that—certainly not on a global scale.
4. What changes can the average family make to their routines to make the biggest positive impact on the environment?
Individual acts are insufficient—and if they’re guided by conventional thinking they’re often counterproductive. We learned in grade school that every little bit counts—every act of kindness, every penny saved, every vote cast, every beverage can retrieved from the trash. But, in truth, plausible solutions to the world’s present difficulties are measured only in billions and trillions. The British physicist David J. C. MacKay has written, “The mantra ‘Little changes can make a big difference’ is bunkum when applied to climate change and power.” The only relevant changes, he writes, are truly big ones. Those are the kind even caring individuals tend not to like. The real sacrifice required of each of us is to demand and support change by all. I have no idea how to do that. The vast majority of people will undoubtedly continue to act in accordance with whatever they believe to be their personal economic interest. So I guess the first responsibility for a concerned individual would be to demand public policies that change the economic incentives, almost all of which currently encourage ever-increasing consumption.
We don’t usually think of it this way, but the fundamental question is not “Are we willing to invest in renewable energy?” The fundamental question is “Are we, as a species, willing to leave some very large fraction of the world’s remaining fossil fuels in the ground forever?” The first question is easier to say yes to than the second one is. In fact, I would guess that, for the vast majority of humans, the honest answer to the second question is probably no.
5. If people heed the message of your book, what do you expect as the best case scenario for the future of our planet? 6. If we don't heed the warnings and make the necessary changes now, what do you fear as the worst case scenario for our planet?
Nobody has ever been much good at predicting the future, except by accident. I guess my hope would be that we find ways to work together, globally, to at least ameliorate the worst impacts of climate change—which will fall disproportionately on the world’s poorest people. I guess I could say that I’m cautiously optimistic about the chances that, in the future, we will deal with such issues no more disastrously than we deal with them today.
Here’s a thought problem: Imagine that the world, tomorrow, reaches a consensus on energy and climate and rapidly does whatever needs to be done to slash global consumption of fossil fuels and hold atmospheric greenhouse gases at their current level. Imagine, further, that those measures are immediately effective and that average global temperatures stabilize, glaciers stop melting, and sea level remains where it is. Such a worldwide feat, however accomplished, would necessarily involve huge, permanent reductions in consumption—but imagine, as well, that those sacrifices are willingly made and are distributed equitably, so that the largest burdens fall not on the poorest but on those who, historically, have gained the most from human profligacy.
Now imagine what might come next. How likely would the 9 or 10 billion human residents of the world be, in the absence of any signs of worsening climate stress, to permanently endure, decade after decade, the continuing sacrifices required to maintain the new status quo—the halted growth, the forgone consumption, the reduced mobility, the population control, the willing abandonment of vast known reserves of fossil fuels?
7. In terms of worldview, what do you believe?
The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve seen of other countries, the harder I’ve found it to believe that the world could ever be capable of united long-term action on almost any issue. If a life-annihilating asteroid were speeding toward the earth and the only possible way to prevent global extinction were to work together to find a solution, I think we would set aside personal, ideological, ethnic, religious, and national differences and find a solution. But climate, energy, and environmental degradation are much harder to deal with cooperatively, because the specific dangers are less obvious, less certain, and less evenly distributed among populations, and because the likely effectiveness of possible solutions is hard to assess. We’re better at dealing with acute problems than with chronic ones, both individually and collectively.
8. What do you doubt?
Conventional wisdom. Taking the other side of the easy bet is usually pretty safe, in almost any field.
9. What's in your 'too hard' basket?
At the moment, preventing myself from getting older.
10. David's Favourite
Book: There are too many for me to pick one, but a relevant book I’ve especially enjoyed recently is “Why We Get Fat,” by Gary Taubes. It’s not a diet book—although if you read it you’ll learn how to lose weight and keep it off. It’s a devastating examination of decades of self-deception and sloppy thinking by people who ought to know better, including scientists.
Motto: Environmental problems innovate, too—and, usually, they have better funding.
I've included a promotional video for The Conondrum at the end of the post, to give you a glimpse into the issues it raises. Let's not throw our hands in the air in despair, but keep educating and innovating and sharing information that will help us all live more responsibly.
Think. Write. Share.