Why is it that our efforts to reduce energy use are profoundly increasing our carbon footprint? Watch the video below.
The latest edition of the Vancouver Courier arrived landed on our front yard on Friday afternoon, tightly bound by an elastic. Peeling the rubber band off, I dutifully shook the usual assortment of pizza shop and grocery store flyers into our kitchen recycling receptacle. One 8-page insert caught my attention for a moment, because of its exhalations toward sustainability. This little piece of newsprint urged me to Live Green and to honour Mother Earth. Inside was the obligatory snapshot of St. David Suzuki, and an advertisement for a sale on eco-friendly paint products.
The Live Green insert earnestly advised me on the benefits of electric cars, in the same fashion as Suzuki has extolled green living through his media empire. By changing the water heater we use at home, or by installing triple pane windows, me and my fellow city dwellers can somehow atone for our sins of consumption. It's been referred to as The Prius Fallacy: a belief that switching to an ostensibly more benign form of consumption turns consumption itself into a boon for the environment.
More likely what we're experiencing is the Jevons Paradox, a theory which argues that by increasing the energy efficiency of anything, we only end up consuming more of it. We just keep plugging things into the wall expecting that they'll be recharged, or that they'll serve us, while we don't realize that turbines whir even harder in BC's hinterlands to keep up with our demands.
One person has made a name for himself lately for pointing out that lowering our environmental footprint involves more symbolism than fact. David Owen is a writer for the New Yorker who recently visited Vancouver in support of Green Metropolis, a celebrated book that argued that the planet's ecology is most easily preserved by those who dwell in dense urban centres like Manhattan. He's got a new book titled The Conundrum – also receiving raves – which is accompanied by an excellent promotional video that summarizes the problem we face by trying to be green. I highly recommend that you watch the following video in its entirety:
Owen in person does not preach green living, nor does he have much time for the 100-Mile Diet. He's a confessed former New York City apartment dweller who's moved to the exurbs of Connecticut, into a big house that's a 20-minute drive from the nearest shopping centre. He admits that there are rooms in his house that he only sees when it's time to vacuum them. He takes pains to explain that his family's carbon footprint is exponentially larger than when he and his wife lived in a two-bedroom flat in Manhattan.
On the subject of locavorism, or eating local, he's merciless. He argues that global food production is more fuel-efficient and therefore more sustainable. Owen thinks that organic farming is no more healthy than most conventional agriculture using best practices. He would also argue that farmed salmon are inherently better for our oceans and for the people who eat them.
David Owen is a debunker, and a smart one at that. Publisher's Weekly describes The Conundrum in the following blurb:
"New Yorker staff writer Owen (Green Metropolis) takes a penetrating look at the earth’s shrinking and misappropriated resources and the delusion underlying our solutions to these problems. In the process, he persuades us that the serious environmental problems that humanity faces won’t be fixed by scientists and engineers, but by our behavioural changes, namely consuming less. Owen’s latest becomes a declaration against the massive greenwashing campaigns of the past decade and the presentation of scientific data that lets us ignore questions we already know the answers to and don’t like."
The Conundrum earned many positive comments from readers, including from a woman who describes herself as a "concerned consumer":
A very sobering, not to say depressing, book. Turns out my sacred cows in that department had hooves of clay… Humbling as it all is, I prefer to see the issues as clearly as possible and his argument makes a lot of sense. Apparently the more efficiently we use limited energy resources the more we use them altogether – and the faster their use spreads.
While it remains well-meaning, Earth Day has devolved into an occasion to buy more stuff to make us feel good about ourselves. As a result, Earth Day itself might not be that good for our environment. What would be good for the planet is a candid conversation about real ways to consume less energy that go beyond switching your lightbulbs.
So what will you do, if anything at all, to acknowledge Earth Day?
See previous City Caucus related posts, including several on the "symbolism" of environmental marketing by Daniel Fontaine:
- Why Manhattan is the Greenest City in North America
- Toronto's 5 cent plastic bag tax is "symbolic environmentalism"
- Symbolic environmentalism no match to better planned cities
- Symbolic environmentalism alive and well in Metro Vancouver
– post by Mike