April 23, 2013
Faced with the rapidly approaching end of cheap and easily accessible possible tools, the first falling domino in a scenario that includes a world population well beyond the earth’s carrying capacity and the perils of global climate change, civilization as we know it is at risk. Many experts, including most environmentalists, argue for greater efficiency in our use of natural resources, especially coal, natural gas, and oil. If our products are designed to be more energy-efficient, so the thinking goes, our environmental impact will be reduced and our fossil fuels will last longer.
Environmentalist Steve Hallett argues that this thinking is fundamentally flawed. In fact, more efficiency actually leads to more consumption, faster depletion of resources, and ultimately more stress on the planet. More efficient cars may save some gasoline, but they encourage more driving, which increases the demand for steel, tires, and roads. More efficient refrigeration would seem to save electricity, but we tend to use the efficiency gain to make bigger fridges. Though we are now “saving” electricity by the terawatt, our overall consumption in homes, refrigerated shipping containers, and big-box retail has nonetheless increased dramatically. This is the efficiency trap.
How do we avoid it? Hallett suggests that we focus on protecting natural resources, ecosystems, and social systems by making them more resilient. We should work to decentralize energy-delivery services to give homes and communities some measure of independence or building a more sustainable food system that addresses the vulnerabilities of the current supply chain. Efficiency has its place in specific areas, such as recycling and home insulation, but it will not work as a long-term approach to our energy dilemma.
Recognizing the shortcomings to how we currently address the dilemma of dwindling resources is a necessary first step toward the establishment of sound environmental policy. The Efficiency Trap will forever change the way you look at the related problems of economic growth, peak oil, and climate change, as well as your role in crafting a lasting solution.
Steve Hallett is the author (with John Wright) of Life without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future, as well as numerous journal articles. He is an associate professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue University.