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Category — The Conundrum (Owen)

The Conundrum – by David Owen (Jevons’ “rebound effect” enters the New Yorker mainstream)

Whether it is a new fuel efficiency standard for cars, bans on incandescent light-bulbs, or those commercials touting businesses’ commitment to lowering their carbon footprint, the idea that we can reduce carbon emissions by using energy more efficiently is a mantra of our age.

In fact, energy efficiency is considered to be so important that it is sometimes said to be a “fifth fuel” along with coal, petroleum, nuclear, and “alternative” energy. And who can forget Amory Lovins’s term negawatt in this regard?

But as New Yorker staff writer David Owen details in his new book The Conundrum, the idea that we can reduce our energy use by buying the right products is based on flawed economic reasoning.


Improving efficiency and related conservation are not unique to energy but all resources. They are part of the natural, self-interested capitalist process. Resource economist Erich Zimmermann noted back in 1933:

Today the conservation movement is led by sober business men and is based on the cold calculations of the engineers. Conservation, no longer viewed as a political issue, has become a business proposition…. The old school looked on conservation as a governmental function; the new school believes in entrusting it to the hands of business men and engineers.

The energy conservation movement of our era begin during the 1970s energy crisis, when oil and natural gas price controls in the United States spawned the energy crisis. [1] Since then, energy efficiency has had a life of its own in the public discourse and in government capitals. [Read more →]

May 2, 2012   9 Comments