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A Waste of Energy?

As a concerned citizen, you try to do your part.  You’ve switched every light bulb in your house to those swirly compact fluorescents, you only buy produce grown within spitting distance of your kitchen table, and the closest thing to T.V. you watch is the fuel economy monitor in your Prius.  And for all those best efforts, you might just be making the environment worse.  Thanks.

In David Owen’s 2012 book The Conundrum, the New Yorker writer explores how innovation and increased energy efficiency can actually lead to greater usage of resources and exacerbate our current set of environmental concerns.  Take for instance the production and usage of artificial lighting, which today has become incredibly inexpensive.  An example the author provides is that we light vast, empty parking lots to a level of brightness “that you could deliver babies in.”  It would seem that switching to more efficient bulbs would be an environmentally conscientious decision.  But the problem is that we are lighting those parking lots at our current level of energy efficiency, so when a traditional light bulb is replaced with something like compact fluorescent and the price of electric luminance is decreased, there is less of a price incentive to turn out the light.  In fact, history proves we’ll simply install more lights.

Another example, and maybe the most outwardly obvious way a consumer can make an effort (and a statement) toward reducing their carbon footprint, is to buy a hybrid vehicle.  The manufacturers go so far as to slap a tiny leaf right on the trunk to show that the driver is a friend of the trees (as if other cars ran on wood).  But as it was with the light bulbs, increased efficiency makes driving a car more affordable and more appealing to use.  A truly eco-friendly car would have no climate control, would get two miles to the gallon, and would be perpetually stuck in traffic – or better yet, would be on blocks.

So it would seem that if efficiency isn’t helping, the least we could do is to transport people and things shorter distances, giving credence to the notion behind buying locally sourced products such as fruits and veggies.  But here, again, Owen contends that the logic is counterintuitive.  Buying from local farmers doesn’t reduce the carbon footprint because transportation represents the smallest share of energy in food production.  Furthermore, the small scale of local food production – driving small amounts of food across town to a local grocer or farmer’s market – is more energy expensive per pound of delivered nutrient than the massive international food shipping arrangements of most grocery chains.  And unless you walk to buy that handful of radishes, you might just be compounding the problem.

So what can we do to help?  As little as possible, apparently.

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