David Owen’s The Conundrum is a deeply unsettling book, in the best sense of the word. It confirms the persistent doubt that we can’t recycle and re-use our way our of the environmental crisis — and that it’s going to be much more painful and difficult than we want to think about.
The flood of green products makes it possible, with a moderate amount of care, to think that I’ve reduced my environmental footprint. Recycled paper, high mileage car, fluorescent bulbs — surely these make a difference, don’t they? Even as I feel complacent lugging my paper to the recycling bin, I knew that I could do more. But it’s deeper than that.
Owen comes along to tell me that increased recycling makes the environmental problem worse. How could that be?
Most of our environmental actions just look at one part of the behavioral loop: I receive a message to recycle paper and bottles, and I follow through with the recycling. Overall, we can track the metric tons of plastic, glass, paper and metal and see that recycling is on the rise. So we are satisfied with believing that the environment is improved.
But what impact does our recycling have on our behavior as consumers? Owen claims — with a lot of data to back up his view — that our consumption increases. If I recycle my plastic bottles, I am likely to feel okay about using them. With my environmental conscience assuaged, I am not reluctant to buy disposable bottles, or to eager pay a little more for glass over plastic. Multiply this choice by millions of recyclers and you can see why plastic bottle waste has sky-rocketed even as our water bottles gather dust on the shelf.
Get 50 miles to the gallon in a Prius? Those miles seem cheap; when the car is quiet it seems like no fuel is burned at all. The end result? People drive more miles, and the excess travel more than makes up for the improved mileage. According to Owen, the global carbon footprint has only decreased once, in 2009 — when a global recession and high oil prices were the driving force.
These are just a few of the surprising perspectives in The Conundrum. It’s changed my thinking — made me realize what I always knew deep in my heart. The only way to really have an environmental impact is the first R in the environmental slogan, the one we rarely talk about: REDUCE. I suspect you will also find it intriguing and challenging.