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"The Efficiency Trap"—How Promoting Efficiency Means Sustaining a Broken System

Author Steve Hallett says efficiency drives consumption, not conservation; instead of sustaining the systems in place, humanity should mimic the natural world.

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This first efficiency trap is relatively easy to understand, but it can be tantalizingly difficult to unlock. Most people I talk to tend to think that they are in control of this particular trap. The new Prius owner claims that she doesn’t drive more just because she has a more fuel-efficient car: well, maybe just a tad more. The neighbor who recently added new insulation to his house assures me that he keeps the thermostat at the same temperature as before: well, maybe just a tad higher.

Unlocking this first efficiency trap requires us to use efficiency measures strictly as conservation measures, and this is more difficult than it would seem: but it can be done. One of the best examples of a potentially valuable efficiency improvement is in home heating. Highly efficient furnaces have had the effect of enabling us to build bigger, flimsier houses because the costs of wasted energy are no longer prohibitive. This is a classic efficiency trap, and we consume prodigious amounts of energy in huge, poorly insulated houses as a result. There are those, however, who, despite the fact that they may own a small, well-insulated home, still choose the most efficient heating system. This is conservation. The key, of course, is to think not of the proportion of energy that will be saved by an efficient technology but of the total amount of energy that will be used. What’s even more important than the energy saved, however, is the fact that it may still be possible to find a way to heat the home when fuel prices rise.

The second efficiency trap is much more difficult to see. This trap convinces us that efficiency will enable us to better control and strengthen complex systems. In most cases, alas, the very contrary is the truth.

Cellular systems, ecosystems, and civilizations are, at base, thermodynamic systems. Energy flows through systems in cascades, from layer to layer, driving all their transformations from one state to another: sunlight to plant, plant to animal, and animal to microbe, for example, or coal to steam, steam to turbine, and turbine to electricity. The system uses energy, eventually releasing it as useless heat. In the requirement for an energy input and the establishment of an energy cascade, all systems are the same, but there is one vital difference between natural systems and human systems: natural systems receive a fixed energy input that never varies.1 If we could set a strict limit on energy use, we could build a human system that is just as stable as an ecosystem.

This would seem to be a prescription for the abandonment of progress, but it is not. Fixed energy limits have not limited the progress of nature. And they need not limit the progress of society. The fixed energy limits of the biosphere have not curtailed progress. They have done the exact opposite. They have created balanced, sustained, competitive systems in which responsiveness to the environment is essential not only through long-term, renewing collapses, but also through short-term, regulating feedbacks. Fixed limits have spurred the radiation of life into increasingly complex niches and led to its flourishing diversity. Life has blossomed into the myriad forms we see, each life-form finding a place in a great energy cascade. Life has—quite unwittingly—evolved the most stunningly efficient systems, and so here is the great irony. Efficiency can be a devastating trap, but a sustained energy supply not only unlocks the efficiency trap; it also unleashes efficiency to build not peril and overshoot, but diversity and beauty.

We seem to be condemned to crash and burn after each flurry of growth and development, and our modern world seems to be following history’s familiar path. We harness energy and resources from the environment in increasing volumes, with ever-increasing efficiency, and we apply them to build a society that becomes bigger, more complex, more extractive, and more polluting. As we struggle to keep growing into a shrinking future we redouble our efforts to increase our efficiency, but in vain. The trend lines meet and then cross. Society’s growing demands exceed the environment’s ability to supply, and we collapse. But through the millennia, as we have continually experimented with systems of civilization, repeating the same, tired old playbook of rise and fall, systems that display all the secrets of sustainability have endured alongside us. We have, in fact, lived within these systems, as a part of them, and we’ve used them to power our own—yet we still haven’t noticed.