Sustainability Corner: Can efficiency lead to overconsumption?

Johanna Poppel

Author David Owen discusses this topic at UMKC lecture

Are our sustainability efforts only hurting the environment? Are we “going green” all wrong?

David Owen visited the Student Union on Nov. 8 to discuss his latest book, “The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse,” as part of the Cockefair Lecture series.

Owen opened listeners’ minds to his latest discovery: a vicious cycle of how improvements in efficiency are actually fueling demand for more energy. He explained how energy consumption increases with wealth, and that consuming energy also leads to increased wealth. This shows how energy consumption has made the United States so prosperous, but has also made us the world’s largest energy consumer.

“We are just about five percent of the world’s population, but we consume 25 percent of the world’s energy,” Owen said. “If you don’t count countries, then the single largest energy consumer is the U.S. military.”

Owen used statistics to illustrate the military’s high level of energy consumption. The average solider in Afghanistan consumes 22 gallons of oil a day, seven times the rate of the average American, but 55 times the rate of the average Chinese.

“Half of all the U.S. Marines killed in Afghanistan and Iraq were killed supporting fuel transportation,” Owen said.

Owen also explained how the growth of U.S. energy consumption is outpacing population growth.

America’s politically neutral answer to the problem is to make energy-using machines more efficient.

“The United Nations has called it [efficiency] the most widely available untapped energy resource in the world,” Owen said.

Owen revealed that the true problem lies in the relationship between efficiency and consumption. Improved efficiency seems like the answer to our exceeding energy consumption, except it only drives our desire to consume more energy.

For example, the goal of faster internet connections was to save time spent online, but it has instead made us want to spend more time online by reducing connection lag, and thus consume more energy.

Owen shared a story he heard on NPR about the making of artificial snow, another example of how improved technology only increases our energy consumption.

Snow making machines used in ski resorts use a lot of energy and water, but as the machines became more efficient and affordable, the demand increased.

Ski resorts are now open longer, which increases the number of travellers, increasing energy demand. This problem also requires resorts to have such machines in order to stay in business.

The same goes for fuel-efficient cars. Consumers only want to drive more when they buy more fuel-efficient cars that save money at the pump. It gives consumers leverage to use more energy since they think that they are being more efficient and economical.

Owen also explains how our large supply of energy only leads to expected standards of the way we live. The widespread use of air conditioning in homes, offices and cars has led to less time spent outside during hot weather months. Consumers consider it unbearable to live without these luxuries.

It is time for us to start thinking about the reasons why we consume and not merely justify our actions with improved technologies.

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