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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.

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 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.


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.