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How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse

by David Owen

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-561-9
Publisher: Riverhead

Americans talk a good game when it comes to environmental responsibility, but all we care about is the price of gas.

Is there any news in the observation that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Probably not, though New Yorker staffer Owen, who established his credentials as an environmental scold with Green Metropolis (2009), seems surprised and irritated to learn that there are trade-offs involved in trying to live responsibly in the world. Take those pesky Vermonters, for instance, who think of themselves as solid citizens on their back-to-the-land organic farms, but who drive 10 times more than urban New Yorkers. Or take the advocates of high-speed trains between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, who aren’t solving anything by encouraging Californians to travel faster on the way to whatever it is they’re up to. Owen—who holds New York City as a model for most things—thrives on the straw man: Put a solar panel array on your roof, he suggests, and you’ll start leaving your lights on throughout the day just because you have the illusion of free power for the burning. As for those customers on high-speed trains? Well, the minute they took their cars off the interstate, someone else, sensing the lessening in traffic, would come along to take their place. A little of this contrarian stuff goes a very long way. Owen does make useful points by encouraging us to reframe problems of the environment more precisely—urging, for instance, that the key to protecting wilderness is to make cities livable enough that people want to stay in them rather than out in the sticks and “not to encourage sprawl by treating cities as soul destroyers.” But that’s an old argument: Read Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford or J.B. Jackson for the particulars.

Readers seeking environmental snark will enjoy the book. Others, probably not.