Your Prius Won't Save You

In his new book, The Conundrum, David Owen pierces the magical thinking that has repackaged high-end luxury goods, such as hybrid cars, as virtuous and the idea that we can consume our way out of trouble.

We have a problem. Faced by the challenge of climate change, we have collectively responded by developing and purchasing ever more efficient phones, cars and homes. But, historically, our drive for efficiency in all things - from the wheel to the cotton gin to the iPhone - has just created new avenues for using our devices.

In an interview with Matthew Van Dusen of Txchnologist, Owen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, delves into the thesis for his book: the only way we can forestall, much less avert, disaster is to consume less.

Thanks to Matthew Van Dusen

Full Story: Your Prius Won't Save You: Questions for David Owen, Author of The Conundrum



Irvin Dawid's picture

Your Prius Will Save You....somewhat

Technology is part of the solution, as is conservation.
Technology allows greater efficiency - doing the same with less resources, in this case, driving the same distance consuming much less gas than driving many conventional vehicles.

Consume less? Absolutely.
Consume smarter, you bet!

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA


The important thing is to remember the framework:

I = P x A x T

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Where T allows more resource exploitation. As long as any term on the right side continues to increase, our impact will increase, especially the P, A.



IPAT Revisited

"As long as any term on the right side continues to increase, our impact will increase"

Not quite true. I think the one realistic hope we have for the first half of this century is that T will improve rapidly enough to reduce GHG intensity by maybe 90% by 2050, more than balancing the growth in P and A.

During the second half of the century, we can hope that:

P: Population will stop increasing.

A: Affluence will increase more slowly, as people worldwide reduce their work hours.

T: Technology will continue to reduce GHG intensity rapidly enough to outweigh the increase in affluence.

As anyone knows who has read my writing about economic growth, I think people would be better off if growth stopped at about half the United States' current per capita GDP. If we lived in a world populated by sages and philosophers, then this could happen.

Since we live in the real world and have to deal with practical economic policies, the best we can do is slow economic growth by promoting shorter work hours and "downshifting." We will have to compensate for increasing affluence with a series of cap-and-trade systems that promote better technology.

If anyone knows of practical economic policies that can stop the increase in affluence after people have become economically comfortable, I would be very happy to hear them.

I have written about the subject at length (currently working on another book about it), and the best I can come up with is practical policies that slow the increase in affluence after people have become economically comfortable.

(To be clear, I think it is possible for Americans to start working shorter hours, downshifting, and slowing the growth of our affluence immediately. But I don't think it will have a big impact on growth of the world's affluence until China, India, and other developing nations become economically comfortable and can do the same.)

Charles Siegel

Sustainability indicators.

I hope you are right Charles. Maybe population will stabilize at a level that is about 2.5 times sustainability. Then, hopefully people will suddenly change their basic nature and somehow stop striving to have more. And hopefully people can change their basic nature and start thinking about their impact. If those unlikely things occur, we'll have made a good start.

But I fully agree that there is a good chance we'll all be working fewer hours.



Work Time, Human Nature and the Environment

"hopefully people will suddenly change their basic nature and somehow stop striving to have more."

Actually, I think it is American policy since the end of World War II that is unnatural. From the beginning of the industrial revolution until the depression, the US consistently took advantage of economic progress both to increase output and to reduce work hours. European countries are still doing the same thing.

I have put up a graph comparing work hours since 1950 in US and a couple of European countries at so you can see what I am talking about.

I think basic human nature does strive to have more - but that includes more free time as well as more income.

Needless to say, the world will have a much better chance of avoiding ecological collapse if China, India, and other developing nations follow the European model after they become economically comfortable, using further increases in productivity for both more output and more free time, rather than following the post-war American model and using all increases in productivity for more output without increasing free time at all.

This clearly is a realistic possibility, since Western Europe is already doing it.

(Incidentally, this blog post is an excerpt from the book I am working on, which I expect will be published in about a year.)
Charles Siegel

Striving to have more.

Charles, what I meant was who wants to be poorer? The vast majority of people on the planet don't want to do with less or have something taken away from them. It is simply human nature. Apologies for not being clear.

And increasing the wealth of the BRIC nations to come close to Euro or N Am wealth is a recipe for disaster - we already are in overshoot. We already are not sustainable. Increasing the rate of resource degradation does not make things better, unless 'better' means 'shorter wait to ecosystem collapse'.



Striving to Have More - Europe and US

The Germans have reduced their work hours dramatically in the last 60 years. That doesn't mean that they want to be poorer or to have something taken away from them. It means they have gotten richer more slowly than they would have if they had not shortened their hours.

I know that we are already not sustainable. We need to increase resource efficiency and to reduce CO2 emissions dramatically. We need at least a four-fold increase in resource efficiency and at very least a 50% reduction of the world's absolute GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid collapse.

But I am thinking about practical policies. I think it is practical for the US and other developed nations to slow the growth of A immediately by adopting work-time choice (like Germany). I think it is practical for the BRIC nations to slow their growth after they have reached some level of economic comfort.

Do you have any practical policy that will convince China and India to stop their growth while they are still poor?

As you say, "who wants to be poorer?" And I would add, who in the developing world wants to remain poor, when they see affluent western nations around them who are not willing to become any poorer?

So, in terms of dealing with the A of the IPAT equation, the one practical policy I see is to follow the German model rather than the American model of work time - which makes for more satisfying lives as well as for less environmental impact.

Apart from that, the only practical policy is to adopt global cap-and-trade systems that prevent us from crossing thresholds that cause ecological collapse - which is what we clearly need now to deal with global warming. They will work primarily by affecting T.

If the world did adopt effective cap-and-trade programs to keep us within ecological limits, then by definition, they would prevent ecological collapse.

If you disagree, what policies would you adopt instead?

Charles Siegel

Aldo Leopold and Policies.

If you disagree, what policies would you adopt instead?

"Having an ecological education means living in a world of wounds".

I would phase in jacking up of prices to true costs to be fully implemented in 20 years. I would let everyone on the planet know what was happening, and educate for and provide birth control paying for it by ending all fossil fuel and ag subsidies, ending TIF and so on.

I don't know how I'd pay to move people off marginal land, ending HMID, jacking up gas prices, cheaper housing, food equity, etc. No idea beyond those for a soft landing, I can formulate policy for regional-scale heat island amelioration, tree canopy, stormwater, etc. But that scale is above my pay grade.

That is: the problem is waaaaaay too big for me. I just try to ensure the problem remains at the forefront for smarter people to think about.



The Big Problems

I agree with all the points you make here. But I am also trying to think about that way-too-big problem, IPAT on a global scale.

As far as I can see, there are policies that will slow the growth of A globally, but not policies that will stop it.

This is a change in my thinking. In the past, I always thought it was necessary to end growth of P and A as well as improving T. In the book I am now writing, I am focusing on practical policies, and the best I can see for this century is 1) slowing the growth of A, and 2) adopting cap-and-trade system that keep the world economy from exceeding ecological limits, largely by stimulating investment in better T.

Thanks for your thoughts on the issue.

Charles Siegel

The big scale.

“If one were to write a survey of all the instances in the history of civilization when societies accepted difficult medicine in order to spare their descendants worse pain in the future, it would make a very short book.” -- William DeBuys in A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011)

Best of luck on your book, Charles.



Sacrifice or the Good Life

Dano, we both read climateprogress.

It is true that cap-and-trade is a hard sell politically because it expects this generation to make sacrifices (albeit small ones) for the sake of future generations. Yet a cap-and-trade for GHG emissions almost became law in 2009; it would have become law if the Senate did not require a 60 vote supermajority. I know that we both support cap-and-trade, despite the difficulties.

What I am trying to add to the discussion is policies that make life better rather than requiring sacrifice.

One example is choice of work hours, as in the Netherlands and Germany. People would only choose to work shorter hours if they thought it made their lives better. And they could have a significant impact on GHG emissions by making their lives better: if the US had European work hours, it would reduce our emissions by about 20%. It is very important which work-time model the developing nations follow, the European or US.

Another example is the New Urbanism. Their developments require less land and less VMT than conventional suburbs, but they are better places to live. People who move to Celebration or Kentlands do not feel like they are making a sacrifice for the environment.

I think the environmental movement would be much more effective politically if it replaced its current message - we have to make sacrifices to prevent total collapse - with a more optimistic view of the possible future - we can have a better way of life and prevent collapse.

That is what I am trying to say in the book I am working on.

Charles Siegel

Less is More!

I think the environmental movement would be much more effective politically if it replaced its current message - we have to make sacrifices to prevent total collapse - with a more optimistic view of the possible future - we can have a better way of life and prevent collapse.

Yes. That is what Breakthrough is trying to do (poorly), Charles, and too bad their messaging is making them look bad IMHO (in addition to having some of their folks advocating doing little or nothing as things get worse).

Nevertheless, I agree that we are going to have to figure out how to get the publics galvanized and motivated to do more with less, as we are running out of resources already, and it will get worse as our numbers increase. Would that we had some leadership somewhere that was willing to get started.

We need to transition to closing the loop on waste and efficiency and into a post-growth mode. I see zero political leaders on this planet even hinting at such. Maybe the 1% hoarding all the wealth is a good test run for what's coming...



pedestrian-oriented development better than any "green" car

Reducing the distances people have to travel between their destinations and providing alternate means to do so (walking, bicycling, transit) is far better than any "green" car idea.

No matter how efficient, "green" cars are, they simply perpetuate the automobile-centric landscapes that discourage alternate forms of transit, particularly walking and pedestrian-oriented environments.

The real issue isn't the "efficiency" of the vehicle, but the big picture: the overall system of transit and mobility -- how can it be made to work better and more efficiently? Fortunately, there is a large body of knowledge and practices that have shown how to reduce energy consumption for transportation by locating places where people live close to where they work and providing means other than personal vehicle travel to reach those destinations.

David Owen and the Rebound Effect

In this interview, Owen comes off as being just plain dumb. Consider this quotation:

"How good would the human race being at leaving several centuries worth of coal in the ground while we shiver in our solar powered, very small houses."

This is the sort of caricature of the environmentalist position that I would expect from Rush Limbaugh.

A study by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that, if we reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2050, it would reduce the country's GDP in 2050 by 3% - meaning that it would take us until 2052 to reach the income level that we would otherwise have in 2050. Even with very strict measures to deal with global warming, our income in 2050 would still be much higher than our current income level, and we certainly would not be shivering in very small houses.

The interview has no science and no numbers behind Owen's talk about the rebound effect, just personal anecdotes. Look at for some numbers, and you will see that the rebound effect is usually relatively small compared with the savings from energy efficiency. For example:

"for transport, the Rebound effect from fuel efficiency improvements in the US is estimated to be around 10.7% based on the data covering the period 1997-2001 (Small and Dender 2007). This still leaves a net savings of 70-90% that can buck the trend of energy use per capita."


"the New Yorker’s accounting is off. The reporter refers to a friend’s newly remodeled kitchen with enormous side-by-side refrigerators as an example of Rebound, suggesting that this is representative of the greater public. It is unlikely that this friend can afford double Sub Zero’s because he scrimped for many years prior on a super-efficient refrigerator and light bulbs. That wealthier people may refrigerate more food is interesting, but there is no evidence that it correlates to efficient technologies and conservation strategies. ... between 2001-05 ... the total electricity feeding the growing refrigerator use declined by 3.3%, and on per capita and per household basis the decrease was nearly 7% (Table-1). In effect energy efficiency gains, which averaged 3.6% per year since 1990, was sufficient to cut total electricity consumed by refrigerators in US households."

It is hard enough to deal with global warming. We don't need ignorant journalists making it even harder by spreading ill-informed pessimism.

Charles Siegel

Jevons paradox, nay.

I also thought that this poor man doesn't have a firm grasp of many things, and thought the same thing about the Jevons paradox when he was prattling on about things he's only reported on. Nonetheless, the underlying issue here is that rich societies with many people going about their daily lives without thinking is not sustainable.



Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.

Stay thirsty, urbanists

These sturdy water bottles are eco-friendly and perfect for urbanists on the go.

Brand new! Urban Grid City Collection

Each city has its own unique story. Commemorate where you came from or where you want to go.