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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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The following are excerpts from Steve Hallett's new book, "The Efficiency Trap: Finding a Better Way to Achieve a Sustainable Energy Future," (Prometheus Books, 2013).

Resilliance: Beyond Sustainability

The term sustainability has been overused in recent years, and its value has been diminished as a result. Sustainability is the ability to be sustained; to remain intact indefinitely, but the term has been applied so broadly and carelessly that it now seems acceptable to call almost anything sustainable so long as it appears to deliver some kind of environmental improvement. A building that uses a proportion of its energy from renewable sources or has been retrofitted to higher insulation standards is likely to be called a sustainable building. A farm that uses reduced volumes of synthetic fertilizer or pesticides is likely to be called a sustainable farm. Any number of changes could be counted as sustainability improvements even though they do not necessarily ensure sustainability in the strict sense: the long-term survival of the system.

This problem with the term is fairly obvious, especially in advertising. A quick search on Amazon.com will find you (in addition to books by Steve Hallett) sustainable jewelry, a sustainable “slippery when wet” sign, sustainable eye shadow, sustainable skateboard wheels, and sustainable pet toys. I also searched “sustainable sex toys” (just for research, you understand) and came across a few interesting things (the phthalate-free phallus had me giggling for hours). Stefanie Weiss’s Eco-Sex: Go Green beneath the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable, looks like a must-read. I don’t mean to be disparaging about these products. I imagine they are probably better for the environment than the “unsustainable” ones, but they demonstrate how the term has been diluted.

But there is a much more important question about sustainability (real sustainability, that is): Is sustainability actually what we want? What are we trying to sustain? Are we trying to sustain the world as it is? There are certainly things that we would like to sustain, such as our soils and our freshwater supplies, but sustain this modern world? I don’t think that’s a desirable goal because it implies that we should try to sustain this modern throughput economy. No system that consumes the volumes of resources that we consume and dumps the volumes of waste that we dump can ever be remotely sustainable. Attempting to sustain this system represents a vain attempt to keep in a steady state something that is not even close to being in equilibrium. We cannot sustain this model of civilization and we should not even try. The longer we succeed in keeping it alive, the more damage it will cause and the more dramatic its eventual release will be.

This, then, is our most pervasive efficiency trap. By promoting efficiency as a means of keeping this system alive we merely deepen the environmental trauma that we are causing. If failure—release, collapse—of the system is inevitable at this late stage of its maturation, resilience is much more important than sustainability. Sustainability might have paid dividends half a century ago, before we reached this stage of brittleness, and it could pay dividends in the future, as we attempt to rebuild, but the emphasis today should be not on preventing collapse but on preparing for it.

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Epilogue: The Key Than Unlocks The Efficiency Trap

Efficiency sets two pervasive and counterintuitive traps. The first trap is to convince us that we have found a way of conserving without abandoning progress and growth. We earnestly adopt a more efficient machine that can do the same work with less energy and save us time or money. But more efficient technologies drive progress, and the time and money we have saved is soon used for more consumption. Perhaps we use the more efficient machine more, or for additional tasks, or perhaps we spend the saved time and money consuming something else. Efficiency and conservation are not the same things. Efficiency promises to enhance conservation, but it actually drives consumption.

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.

A bristlecone pine in the Colorado Rockies was recently dated at five thousand years old. Its seed germinated when the first classic civilizations were being established along the great rivers of China, India, the Middle East, and North Africa. The ancient Britons were building Stonehenge. The horse had not yet been domesticated in Eurasia, although it had recently been sent into extinction in North America. And this is a single tree: just one individual on a shifting, moving, adapting landscape of ecosystems that have never failed.

Human systems resemble natural systems in many ways, but they have never emulated natural systems in the most important regard: they have never solved the sustainability puzzle. Human systems always bring about their own demise while natural systems never do. Natural systems are swatted aside by continental drift and glaciations, to be sure, but they do not destroy themselves. They hold the key that unlocks the efficiency trap. They are able to adapt to the changing times without failing, and they do so in two ways. First, they can swap out their complement of species from a diverse collection, and second, the species themselves evolve.

The huge ice sheets of the last ice age finally left the Midwest about fourteen thousand years ago. Ice a mile thick covered the landscape as far south as Indianapolis. The ecosystems to the south of the ice sheets were similar to today’s Arctic tundra, and south of those were the boreal forests. As the ice retreated and the earth warmed, the boreal forests marched back north.

Published with permission from Prometheus Books. 

Steve Hallett is the author of The Efficiency Trap; Finding a Better way to Achieve a Sustainable Energy Future.