David Owen of The New Yorker explains in his 2012 book The Conundrum how scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse. I scanned through a handful of Amazon reviews of the book, and was less than thrilled to note that some reviewers thought Owen provided no solutions or actions we could take to resolve the problems at hand. Not so; it’s just that the actions we can take are ones extremely unpalatable to those of us who only know the First World meme of “more for me, and cheaper to boot”. When all factors are taken into account, even green energy solutions can only further encourage consumption of finite energy and natural resources.
Plenty of people, whether overtly or naively, rely on the scientific community to develop the perpetual motion machine, or other free energy system that magically produces greater output than input, with no nasty side effects at either end of its life cycle. As Owen explains, however, as the efficiency of each battery or fuel-powered device approaches unity, we tend to take that as an excuse to use them more often, or purchase more of them, which results in a positive feedback pattern that only quickens the pace of our total energy use.
Rather than making things more energy efficient, Owen argues, there is something to be said for inefficiency. Traffic calming measures, like widened lanes, allow for improved traffic flow only briefly as driver behaviours quickly shift to fill the gaps, while improvements to public transit encourage use only so long as individual drivers think of transit as the more convenient option. As another example, improvements in air-conditioning and refrigeration have led to a proliferation of both, so much so that we no longer understand how to survive without them; the population of the American South exploded as air-conditioning became more efficient, and so did its energy use patterns.
When the use of energy is explicit as an immediate cost to the user, they adjust their behaviour accordingly. For example, while Americans scream bloody murder when fuel prices jump from 0.50 to 0.51 times the typical European rate, they also become much more careful about their driving and home heating habits. The instant prices drop, such conservation ceases. From an environmental perspective, cheap fuel is the enemy, not the saviour. While it is a politically suicidal stance, higher prices for fuels are truly effective ways to change our habits.
The automobile did more to define urban planning in North America than anything else in its history. Cars made suburbia possible, with its large, well-lit and air-conditioned houses in sparsely populated areas. Many of us don’t even consider walking 15 minutes to the local supermarket for a pair of socks, when the car allows us to be there and back in those same 15 minutes. Without the car, American life would be nothing like it is now. Owen even claims that the greatest environmental benefit of electric cars is not that they don’t run on fossil fuels (though they still do, via electrical utilities) but that they are restricted to a relatively short driving range.
The least energy intensive state is, perhaps surprisingly, New York, and that due almost entirely to New York City, Manhattan in particular. Due to its history and naturally constrained location with its two massive rivers on either side, Manhattan has the highest population density in the country. Few people own cars; cost-effective public transit is possible; almost everything, from entertainment to groceries, is accessible on foot; and tiny apartment dwellings are not only inherently less energy intensive, but also encourage less physical waste as consumers are acutely aware of the available space to put it all.
The cultural meme of eternally increasing consumption, of the disposable society, can only change if we actually want to. The Roman Emperor Augustus set limits on the expansion of his empire, and it will take visionary leadership to do the same in communities worldwide. Energy use must either be made less convenient, or less necessary than it is now. Improvements in technological efficiency will not change that fact.