Do we really know what to do about the environment?

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I've been reading "The Conundrum," a book about how increased energy efficiency can hurt, rather than benefit, the environment. The author, David Owen, writes that increased efficiency reduces costs fostering greater production, purchasing and, thus, more carbon emissions. He claims, "in truth, though, we already know what we need to do .... We just don't like the answers."

Owen states that more energy efficient cars encourage driving, but we know it is better to drive less. More energy efficient appliances are cheaper, so we buy more and bigger appliances. He argues that we imagine we can "decouple" energy consumption from economic activity, but in reality we must engage in less economic activity since all economic activity requires energy. A healthy world demands less traveling, purchasing of disposable items and new electronic devices, or clothes in the latest styles. Owen writes that because we won't accept those behavioral changes, especially when few others are, we continue on, and content ourselves with doing it a little more efficiently.

This book is full of provocative ideas and important insights, but it is only a partial answer. First, who does "we" refer to? The author is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. If by "we" he means the typical New Yorker reader, he's probably not so far off. If he means people like me, politically liberal or left, economically comfortable, with advanced degrees and professional careers, he's still pretty close to the target.

But that "we" doesn't represent that many people; there are now more than seven billion of us on the planet. "We" does not refer to the 1.2 billion people the United Nations reports are inadequately fed. They don't lead energy-profligate lives, and it is morally repugnant for us, who do, not to take them into account. In fact, excess consumption is not a problem for the majority of the world's population. I don't know the exact percentage, but I suspect the author's "we" comprise no more than a few percent of the globe's people.

And while the affluent relative few should consume less, our rate of consumption is not at the root of the problem either. Whenever I see a massive C5-A cargo jet from the nearby Air National Guard base practicing maneuvers I grind my teeth because it is spewing more CO2 into the atmosphere in one afternoon than I will in my lifetime. The U.S. military-industrial complex "protects" our national interests all over the world. This enables our five percent of the world's population to use 40 percent of its annual energy output. Our military has a carbon footprint that dwarfs that of all New Yorker readers many times over. More than 50 of the world's 100 largest financial entities are not nations, but multinational corporations. Their relentless brainwashing to convince everyone to use as much of their products as possible contributes hugely to our environmental problems.

I don't mean to let myself off the hook. The comfortable among us need to take stock of our behavior, and cut back. If we don't, we are fiddling while Rome burns. But individuals opting out of hyper-consumption alone will not save us from environmental armageddon. We face an institutional challenge, so changing our economic and military system is essential to any solution.

This article originally appeared at the author's blog.

Image: One of the winners of the children's poster contest "Energy Saving and Energy Efficiency," held at the initiative of the European Union and the United Nations Development Program, April-May 2012, in Ukraine. United Nations Development Program (CC)

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