The Fallacy of Greening


The blogosphere has been humming for the past week or so with responses to an article about energy efficiency published in the WSJ. David Owen, author of a book and other articles on the subject, argues that energy efficiency is not going to move the world toward solving our environmental dilemma, particularly climate change. His context is what he calls the “conundrum” of energy efficiency, the growth of energy use blamed on the availability of capital freed up to consume more in other ways. In this article, he has expanded the playing field to include product switching, the consumption of supposedly less damaging alternatives. Energy-efficient products fit his description. This is what he says:

If only all big problems could be tackled with product substitution. We’re consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another. My car’s a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong water heater? I’ll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I’ll replace them. The challenge arises when consumption itself is at issue. The world faces a long list of environmental challenges, yet most so-called solutions are either irrelevant or make the real problems worse. That’s the conundrum facing anyone who yearns for “sustainability.”

His work has drawn criticism from many who study consumer behavior and also advocates of energy efficiency. He has thrown a bunch of different and disparate issues and theories together and, not surprisingly, he has opened himself up to these critics. Count me among them, but not for the same reasons as most have offered. One thread is that [relatively affluent] people believe they are saving the world when they purchase a “green” product.

A favorite trick of people who consider themselves friends of the environment is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity. A new car, a solar-powered swimming-pool heater, a 200-mile-an-hour train that makes intercity travel more pleasant and less expensive, better-tasting tomatoes—these are the sacrifices we’re prepared to make for the future of the planet.

He is among many who have observed this behavior. Consumption is driven by many factors, a few of which are cultural and complement or overshadow the mysterious inner set of needs that psychologists and economists talk about. They show up as individual consumption transactions, but are responding to social pressures and norms. Sure, as Owen writes, it would be great if all those buying greener goods would understand that their actions do little compared to the overall amount of their consumption. They not likely to do so without change in the cultural beliefs and normal practices. Nike’s prescription, “Just do it.” is grossly ineffective to counter our societal addiction to consumption.

Owen has argued in his book and also earlier in the New Yorker that buying goods that are greener because they are more energy efficient than those they replace will not lead to lower environmental loads. He invokes an ancient (in the course of modern economics) theory originally developed by an English economist, William Stanley Jevons, who argued that the invention of coal-burning engines, far more efficient than the wood-fueled machines they were replacing, would increase the use of coal rather than decrease it, as efficiency alone should do.

The basis of his argument is that efficiency generally comes with reduced costs, thereby creating capital available for investment elsewhere. And at his time of rapid industrialization, the capital would be used to expand production, requiring, in turn, more fuel to power the new factories. The Jevons paradox, as this has come to be called, fit the circumstances of his period, but has been questioned as fitting the world of today. But, in any case, I don’t think this is the important point in the “conundrum” of Owen work.

The more serious barrier to reducing the load on the world is capitalism itself, at least in the form we and many other developed nations practice. Growth is built into the system at the core. The freer the market, the more growth should occur. The maximum possible would come when no funds from the market is taken out by government taxation, but that is not the case anywhere today, although to listen to the Republican candidates, it should be. The degree of growth in stable periods is determined by policy-makers listening to a variety of economists, who generally get it wrong. Politically viable growth rates strive for rates of 4-5 percent. Rapidly expanding economies, like Chine, shoot for much higher rates.

It is these policies that largely correlate with growth in material consumption. The drivers for growth are largely political, but related to the use of material-based indicators like GNP as a measure of the way the economy is actually performing. Improved material and energy efficiencies lag behind these rates of growth, so simple algebra tells you that, unless standard measures of economic growth are curtailed, switching to greener products will not get us any closer to a safe level of consumption. In many parts of the world, consumption dropped during the recession during which growth was flat or negative. It is too soon to judge what is happening as the global economy begins to recover, but early indications are that consumption will follow. Without a radical change in economic accounting systems and measures of well-being, the two trends must track one another.

By pointing to the patterns he does, Owen and others lead us away from more fundamental problems. Advocates of efficiency also miss the point. It is better to produce goods more efficiently, all other things being equal, but they are never equal. Populations continue to grow. Rapid technological innovation provides strong incentives to buy the latest device and “lose” the current one, unless you have children waiting in line. My observations in the relatively affluent and technically sophisticated area where I live are that kids get the latest devices only a short time after the parents do.

But the real problem lies even deeper. It comes from our modern way of thinking about ourselves. With so much science and technology at hand, we seek “mechanical” means to solve virtually all problems, large and small. And it follows that we need to have the things to do the job or go to places that have them. Our inner consumer is never satisfied. And if we do find satisfaction, the voices of the market are loudly trying to convince us that we aren’t really satisfied. I know by experience as I have a few techie areas where I occasionally get the latest thing, but I am definitely finding less and less “need” to consume.

To address this core, our society, especially the already affluent, will have to change their habits radically. We will have to learn to find satisfaction through relationships between other human beings and the non-human rest of the world, rather than through transactions in the marketplace. Just buying the green products won’t suffice. It is always a good idea to reduce unsustainability, but making sure that what you are doing actually does that. That’s Owen’s concern. Even if we are successful in reducing unsustainability significantly through forms of greening, we will not have addressed the underlying causes of our ill Planet. Taking an aspirin every morning will not cure cancer.

Instead of the superficial justifications that many of those who buy green profess, we must recover the fundamental human grounding of care. If and when we do, we should start to care for ourselves, other human beings and the non-human world as a natural everyday habit, with both the tools we have but also through building strong relationships that nurture the actor and the world simultaneously. Then we may be able to reverse the unsustainable path we are certainly on and begin to produce flourishing, the quality central to sustainability. We are, to be blunt, counting angels on the head of a pin when we niggle over the issues as Owen is doing, and so are all the many experts arguing with him They are wasting time and cyberspace bandwidth.