Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Importance of Less

In a nutshell, the author proposes that making something more efficiently lowers its cost, and when cost is lowered, more of the thing is used.  The unintended consequence is that making cars, appliances, transistors, manufacturing, etc. more efficient allows us to drive more, air condition our homes, have more sophisticated gadgets, and in general buy more stuff.  

In the best case we might expect the increase in consumption to be balanced out by the increase in efficiency.  But even if this were true, a growing population means that overall consumption increases. Moreover, as products become more affordable, they become accessible to the developing world population, further increasing growth in consumption.  And when products cost less in the developed world, they are more likely to be thrown away.  Finally, even when we have enough, we want more.  For example, the average house in the US is twice as large today as the average size in 1950, despite a decline in family sizes.  

The overall message of the book is that there is no magic technology bullet that will solve this problem.  The ultimate answer is to use less, period.

While a valuable read, a challenge I had with this book is that it could be organized better.  It has 34 chapters and tends to bounce around from topic to topic, as if it were written as a series of articles.  

An overview of some of the interesting themes:

The answer is not to buy more efficient stuff 
Efficiency drives more consumption:
  • More efficient planes lead to more air travel 
  • More efficient engines leads to more car (and more cars).  The Ford model T, manufactured between 1908 and 1927, had a fuel economy between 13 and 21 miles per gallon, similar to today's cars.  Of course today's cars are vastly safer, more luxurious, and can travel at much higher speeds.  All of which leads to tolerance for more driving and longer commutes.
  • More efficient roads and public transit leads to less congestion and more cars rushing in to fill the empty space
  • More efficient parking in cities leads to less use of public transit

The answer is not to eat locally grown food
How far you live from your grocery store is of far greater environmental significance than how far you live from the places where your food is grown, because moving small amounts of food from the grocery store to your home is inefficient in comparison to moving food in bulk from the farm to the grocery store.

The answer is not more efficient energy production
The human race currently consumes energy at an average rate of 16 terawatts - the equivalent of 160 billion light bulbs burning all the time.  Capping atmospheric CO2 at 450  parts per million - 15% higher than today and consistent with a 2 degree C rise in global temperature - would require freezing global energy consumption at current levels despite a projected increase in global population from 7 to 9 billion people.  It would also require replacing 13 of the 16 terawatts with the equivalent of all of the following:
  • 100 square meters of solar cells, 50 square meters of solar thermal reflectors, and one olympic-sized swimming pool of algae for biofuel, every second for the next 25 years.  
  • One 300 foot diameter wind turbine every five minutes
  • One 100 megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours
  • One 3 gigawatt nuclear power plant every week

The answer is to change how we live
We need to live smaller, live closer, and drive less.  The most sustainable lifestyle is a high density urban environment like Manhattan.  This unfortunately goes against many of our cultural visions of utopia as a cocoon of high quality belongings in a bucolic setting.  

How to get there: Frugality First
Herman E. Daley, an ecological economist and professor emeritus at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, writes that "frugality first induces efficiency second;  efficiency first dissipates itself by making frugality appear less necessary.  Frugality [e.g. artificially increasing energy's scarcity through caps or taxes] keeps the economy at a sustainable scale; efficiency of allocation [i.e. artificially increasing energy's abundance] helps us live better at any scale, but does not help us set the scale itself.

A better title for the book might be:  "Frugality First: The Importance of Less."  But who would want to buy that?

1 comment:

  1. I recommend a thoughtful reading of "Political Will, Political Won't" by Paul Chefurka. Scroll down to the entry for January 20, 2012.