The Prius Driver’s Conundrum

For a singularly grim, if fiercely literary, assessment of the earth’s environmental fate, the grizzled wisdom of Cormac McCarthy is always there to deliver the dark pronouncement that we’re flat-out doomed. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” explains the judge in McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. “[B]ut in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” Darkness, in essence, will fall at the very moment when we think we’re out-of-our-mind brilliant. 

(Photo: Photodisc)

Brilliance in conventional environmentalism has thus far been embodied by the caricature of hybrid-driving solar evangelists with soft spots for local farms, grass-fed beef, and re-useable shopping bags adorned with inscriptions of ecological virtue. Such popular solutions to our environmental quandary come not only with the eager endorsement of a progressive political establishment, but with the added appeal of basic pragmatism. Drive a more fuel-efficient car, eat locally, seek energy-efficient light fixtures, and vote “yes!” for public transit initiatives — such ideas simply make sense. And thus they’ve become the nuts-and-bolts of modern environmentalism.

David Owen sees the matter differently. In his incisive and doggedly counter-intuitive new book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, Owen gently dismantles the foundation of standard environmental behavior with a series of succinctly turned arguments that, in addition to being presented with considerable wit and self-deprecation, lead us to the conclusion that ecological salvation will ultimately be found in tightly packed cities where mobility is minimized, living space is constrained, and the myriad gadgetry designed to reduce the individual carbon footprint is rendered obsolete by sheer virtue of human density. In essence, the opposite of the way Americans typically live.

The original ecological sin of ceaseless suburban sprawl is hard to shake. It means that, as Owen writes, “when we do attempt to do the right thing we often choose plans that make the underlying problems worse.” Take initiatives to build mass-transit systems as a helpful response to a city’s chronic traffic jams. Not necessarily a bad idea, Owen notes. But here’s the catch: such systems backfire “if the new trains and buses merely clear space on highway lanes for those who would prefer to drive — a group that, historically, has included almost everyone with access to a car.” If mass transit is going to work in places such as Austin or Portland, it “has to be backed up by something that impels complementary reductions in-car use–say, the physical elimination of traffic lanes, or the conversion of existing roadways into bike or bus lanes, ideally with higher fuel taxes, parking fees, and tolls.” Can you imagine any public official advocating such measures in a meaningful way? Hence the conundrum. 

Owen’s critique resonates far beyond the United States. Driven by the premise that “new power demand in any form begets new power demand in every form,” his concerns are equally relevant for the developing world — places that, swept up in the vortex of globalization, will gradually witness millions move toward western-styled consumption and, in turn, western-styled rates of energy usage.

A roof solar panel, in a tribal village in Bangladesh. (Photo: Magalie L'Abbé)

It’s in this context that Owen’s take on solar energy in Bangladesh is especially interesting. He freely acknowledges the “desirable results” produced by an increased living standard for underprivileged Bangladesh citizens with access to solar power. At the same time, he forthrightly observes how “increased income inevitably means increased consumption and increased consumption means increased energy use in all forms.” Owen quotes Ethan Goffman, who asks, “As these clean energy sources come online, won’t a world of voraciously expanding consumption be tempted to use even more energy, continuing to tap fossil fuels to their maximum along with the new sources?” The escape hatch to this bind, according to Owen, is “larger reductions in consumption by the world’s more fortunate citizens.”  If the prospect of the global elite reducing consumption so that traditionally impoverished peoples can expand their previously pre-industrial endeavors sounds unrealistic, well, you’ve further appreciated the depth of Owen’s conundrum.

Whether at home or abroad, the fact remains that more and more of us are developing an environmental ethic around the idea that “consumption itself has environmental value if the energy using devices it depends upon are ‘green.’” It’s been deemed “the Prius Fallacy.”  According to Owen, the fallacy leads to “rebound creep,” thereby resulting in the very opposite of what the technology was billed to accomplish in the first place: reduce energy usage. Rebound creep could happen with a Prius in any number of ways: you might use the money you’ve saved on gas to buy a ticket to the opera, located in another city; you might draw upon the virtue you’ve banked by purchasing a Prius to justify not riding your bike to Whole Foods when it rains; you might decide to drive to the gym during rush hour because Terry Gross is on, and your Prius is a quiet place to sit and be left alone. No matter the scenario, the end result is that the supposedly ameliorative form of consumption — the hybrid — leads not to greater efficiency, but to easier, more comfortable, and greater rates of energy usage.

In one way or another, Owen’s arguments (he also touches on water usage, lighting, wind energy, building codes, among other issues) are rooted in the work of a nineteenth-century economist named William Stanley Jevons. Jevons set the world on fire with the claim that (italics his) “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is true.” Jevons’s critics were legion then, and the arguments they advanced apply equally well to The Conundrum now. As Amory Lovins wrote in response to Owen’s 2010 New Yorker piece on Jevons’s paradox: “Rebound effects are small for three reasons: no matter how efficient your house or washing machine becomes, you won’t heat your house to sauna temperatures, or rewash clean clothes; [and] you can’t find an efficient appliance’s savings in your un-itemized electric bill.”

All good points. But the real value of Owen’s book lies not in a nit-picking debate about the legitimacy of Jevons’ thesis — interesting as that might be — but rather in reminding environmentally conscientious consumers how easily virtuous intentions can be trumped by negative and unexpected outcomes. 

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  1. Joe says:

    Makes a lot of sense. Especially to those of us who have ever bought a bag of low-fat potato chips, or a carton of reduced-fat ice cream.

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  2. SofieG says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. Mike B says:

    One of the greatest advantages to increasing world standards of living is that once you give people a comfortable life and women reproductive security, they tend to stop having so many kids (or any kids at all). People preferring to play World of Warcraft over running around on Valentines Day trying to get laid is what will ultimately save our planet.

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Sarah C. says:

      Mike B ,
      While I, too, am a proponent of women’s reproductive security, high fertility rates are not the only factor in over consumption. China, for example, has a declining birth rate but energy consumption per capita is rising exponentially. I am not saying people should continue to procreate like it’s 1699 — I am saying the answer is not that simple. In terms of energy consumption people in countries with high standards of living are the ones contributing to overpopulation.
      If you are interested, check out Google’s “energy use per capita” public data graph. The discrepancies between North America and European countries are huge, let alone undeveloped regions (which have notoriously higher birth rates).

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  4. Bart says:

    I for one want to see the real numbers on the cost of energy to charge and recharge the batteries on a Prius, not to mention the cost of maintenance over the lifespan of the vehicle. The commercial that starts out showing people firing up smoky gasoline fired engines to run hair dryers and computers and other appliances actually makes the case that they DON’T show – the power required to charge the electric car also leaves a negative environmental impact – but they don’t show us that in the commercial.

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    • James says:

      The cost of the energy used to charge the batteries on a conventional (that is, not plug-in) Prius or other hybrid is basically zero: it’s energy that’d otherwise be used to heat up the brake linings when stopping.

      As for the rest, those real numbers (or very reliable estimates) are readily available. The problem is that some people just plain refuse to accept them, because they have emotional (and perhaps economic) investments in a fallacious worldview. As Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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      • J says:

        1. See “first law of thermodynamics”.

        2. Related: The Prius uses regenerative braking, but the battery is primarily charged by the engine, not the brakes. And getting regenerative braking at all requires some driver finesse (maybe attention is a better word) and traffic that will permit the necessary braking technique.

        3. The Prius is a very popular car where I live, and based on the way I see them driven, I doubt there’s much regen braking going on. I’m not saying the feature is useless, just that drivers need a lot more info on how to make it work.

        There are some other puzzling stereotypes in the article about environmentalists and conservationists. First, most I know definitely don’t regard locavorism as good for the environment, primarily due to the disproportionately huge unit energy use in transportation. If you live in Sacramento, locavorism is great for the environment (of course everybody in Sacto is a locavore by default…). If you live in NYC, it definitely isn’t.

        Also, you eat grass fed beef because you want to be (relatively) kind to animals, not because it’s better for the environment (it’s not). If you want to protect the environment, quit eating meat.

        I agree the idea that wealthy nations are going to reduce their standard of living until it intersects that of developing nations is too preposterous to waste any time on. The most likely path to success will be allowing the developing parts of the world to increase energy consumption until they’re prosperous enough that families become smaller and per capita energy use begins to decline, while seeking other, cleaner sources of energy such as , yes, nuclear. In that vein, we also need to overcome the tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the better. There is, at this point, no perfectly clean energy source – even solar mostly replaces one type of pollution with another – but there are much cleaner ones than what we use now, at least for some applications. Let’s use them.

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    • Greg says:

      You bring up a good point, particularly for plug-in hybrids in places where the grid is coal. But there is a much better argument against the alleged environmentalism of alternative technology vehicles.

      One aspect of electric cars that is not mentioned frequently is that the environmental costs of production are abhorrent. Every Prius contains about 500 pounds of Nickel that is mined in Ontario, shipped to Germany for processing, shipped to China for further processing (that isn’t allowed anywhere else because of its environmental costs), to Japan for manufacturing, and then to America for sale. Opening more nickel mines in Mongolia and Kazakhstan could cut the western half of this circumnavigation off, but environmentalists are opposing that.

      By contrast, the Ford F-150 is made in a plant with a green roof, using materials mostly sourced from the United States. The end result? Until both cars get to 150,000 miles, the F-150 (with a V6) has actually emitted less carbon than the Prius.

      I consider myself an environmentalist, and I don’t work for Ford, or drive a truck. In my opinion, the greenest cars on the road are modern diesel engines, like the Volkswagen TDI.

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      • Cory says:

        Not to mention all the rare-earth elements in the batteries.

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      • James says:

        “Every Prius contains about 500 pounds of Nickel that is mined in Ontario…”

        Sorry, but this is a blatant lie, from a long ago debunked anti-hybrid propaganda piece. For one thing, the entire battery pack in the (current model) Prius only weighs a shade under 120 lbs.

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      • pawnman says:

        People who try to compare the plug-in hybrids use of coal to the carbon emitted by burning gasoline always neglect the carbon released in generating the gasoline from crude oil.

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  5. James says:

    It seems that the basic fallacies here are first, that an ever-expanding human population (or even a static population at anything like current levels) is in any way sustainable in the long term; and second, that there will always be a reason for people to live crammed together in those human equivalents of cattle feedlots known as cities.

    Historically cities have been a means of shortening communication & travel time, but today many of us no longer need to be in a particular physical location to make a living. (In the last few years, I’ve worked on projects as far apart as San Jose and Switzerland, without leaving my home in northern Nevada.) Most of us won’t need to drive our Prius (or our Tesla) except for recreation, and if we live near recreational opportunities we’ll need to do much less driving than the poor urbanites who must drive (or fly) to escape their cages.

    As for Jevon’s Paradox as applied to driving, this assumes that the cost of gasoline is the limiting factor in the amount of driving we do, and for most of us this simply isn’t the case. The cost of fuel is trivial: the real limit is the amount of time we’re willing to spend behind the wheel. I can cite myself as evidence: in the last decade, despite having owned a Honda Insight (still the most fuel-efficient IC-engined car) since 2004, my annual mileage has gone from about 15K miles to roughly half that, because an ever-increasing fraction of my “travel” is done by electrons.

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    • Justin Cidertrades says:


      an ever-expanding human population (or even a static

      By utilizing the Chinese Tradition of *one child per couple* we could cut the World Population in half for each generation, 28 years. In 20 generations, 560 years we could drop population by a factor of 2^20. With present population of 2^33 after 560 years we could reach 2^33 / 2^20 or 2^13, 8,192 people. This would then be sustainable planet.

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  6. Lenny Timons says:

    As the recent purchaser of a Honda Insight hybrid, I can acknowledge, however rare my case may be, that my energy consumption has gone way down. This is directly related to the car educating me about my fuel consumption and the way it using game strategy to convince you to consume less.

    It works in two ways. The first is the many forms of feed back the car gives you while driving, all designed to get you to use less fuel. Driving slower, accelerating less, etc.

    In the second, you are encouraged to increase your mileage per tankful of fuel, which means incorporating longer term energy saving strategies.

    What one notices is that very short, local trips wreck havoc on your overall fuel efficiency and the only way around it is to avoid those trips. So I’ve wound up walking to the store whenever I can carry my purchases, and it’s really improved my fuel economy. I never once walked to the store before I had a hybrid. Once the weather is better, I plan to add biking to my retinue to increase the distance I can avoid using the car.

    So while I agree most drivers will use the guilt saving excuses of driving a hybrid to actually drive more, sensitive consumers could easily be trained, by their car, to do the opposite.

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    • AK says:

      Factor in the human and energy cost of your trip to the emergency room, the subsequent rehab, and the possible life-long disability when you are injured (perhaps by a car) riding your bike. As a former recreational long-distance cyclist who commuted by bike to work for decades in Washington, DC, New York City, Boulder, CO, and San Francisco, I have now decided that urban biking is the most dangerous form of transportation — except perhaps by roller-blade — and I used to commute 10 miles daily in city traffic on roller-blades as well.

      If you drive your F-350 pickup 1 mile to 7-11 for a Big Gulp every day for ten years, but avoid the brain-damaging fall from your bike in the rain, are you better off? (I’ll let someone else calculate the carbon-footprint consequences of the bike accident…)

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  7. Travis says:

    This is a good article, but I don’t think it’s really “counter” to the environmental movement at all. The issue of more urban living, for example, is something that many environmentalists have been harping on for a long time.

    Ultimately, there needs to be an incentive to cut consumption, rather than just to shift it around. I.E. why give a tax rebate for people to buy more efficient cars, but ignore those who go without cars altogether?

    I can’t get on board with EVERYTHING the author writes, I think that there is something to be said about types of consumption. While people have been shown to drive more when fuel is cheaper, that doesn’t mean it applies to everything. When it comes to heating your home, for example, it would be presumable that savings on heating and powering your home could go in other directions which aren’t directly energy consumption, such as food.

    But there is still a note of truth in the article, and I fear that it’s too entrenched in how attattched we are to our style of living and suburban sprawl, which is not sustainable from either a monetary-tax-base standpoint, or environmental standpoint. The greatest gains for environmental movements will be when the environmental and economic interests are in line, and in many cases they are, particularly when one consideres externalities of personal behavior. Unfortunately, environmentalism has been labeled as singularly “expensive” if not “unnecessary” by much of those on the other side of the fence, and getting past that label is difficult if not impossible at this point. (And things like Prius’ and Volts don’t help combat the stereotype, that’s for sure.)

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  8. lemmy caution says:

    “Rebound creep” with Prius cars seems pretty unlikely. People mainly limit their car trips based on trip time rather than gasoline cost.

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    • Lawrence says:

      Also, hybrids and electrics use almost no energy while standing still, so the example of listening to Fresh Air on the way to the gym at rush hour causing you to use more gas per mile is false. Stop-and-go is actually quite efficient for a car with regenerative braking.

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      • Joe says:

        Sorry to be pedantic, but it’s only efficient relative to a non-hybrid car, in absolute terms you’re still using more energy accelerating and decelerating than by driving at a constant speed.

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