A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Conundrum

conundrum-cover-110612There are basically two kinds of books about what’s happening to our planet: One lays out the grim facts but also offers a to-do list of how each of us can take action to help repair the damage. The other, less optimistically, basically explains why there really isn’t anything realistic we can do about it at this stage.

(There’s the third kind that simply denies that anything is wrong, but that’s really not worth discussing here.)

The first, or more optimistic, kind are written by such passionate advocates and knowledgeable scientists as Bill McKibben, Paul Gilding and Mark Hertsgaard. McKibben, for one, is tireless in his efforts to protect the planet, and is currently leading a campaign to start treating the oil companies the same way as we (eventually) came to treat the tobacco companies. He has no illusions about what’s happening to the planet, and he’s fully aware that we’ve already gone over the tipping point. But he’s also committed to taking action to stop things getting even worse than is already inevitable, and to getting as many of us as possible involved in doing that, too. To criticize this book for not offering solutions is like complaining that the crew of The Titanic haven’t told us what we can do to help keep the ship afloat.

In the second category are the true pessimists. Their books tend to be a little less popular because they point out that while there are certainly things we could theoretically do about the situation, the evidence is that we’re simply not going to do them. These books are written by people who aren’t primarily climate experts, but focus more on human psychology, sociology and anthropology. And they come to one simple, inevitable conclusion: We’re screwed.

One such book is The Conundrum by David Owen, who writes for the New Yorker and is the author of several books about the environment. Many of the people who have reviewed The Conundrum criticize Owen for not offering up the usual platter of solutions. One such reviewer, for example, admits that what he says makes sense, but says she just can’t accept the obvious conclusion:

“By the end of the book, though, I was treading water, just waiting for Owen to finish telling me why everything is pointless so I could wander off and wait for the inevitable heat death of the universe in peace … Apply too much contrarianism, as Owen does, and you go from making people question themselves to making them give up. … Here’s what I don’t like about The Conundrum: It offers no solutions, only problems.”

But to criticize a book like this for not offering solutions is a bit like complaining that the crew of The Titanic haven’t told us what we can do to help keep the ship afloat.

Not that The Conundrum is simply a litany of futility. But it does spells out the conundrum we face as a species, and it’s hard to conclude that we’re psychologically equipped as humans to take the kind of action that would be required. Owen quotes Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at M.I.T. as saying:

“The fact is that we’re crappy environmentalists. I started worrying about energy thirty years ago, but I haven’t changed my lifestyle at all. Environmentalism is in our hearts, but not in our actions. Where we get confused is when we think that what’s in our hearts takes care of the problem, when in fact it only takes care of what’s on our consciences.”


And Owen continues:

It’s easy for wealthy people to look busy on energy, climate, and the environment: all we have to do is drive a hybrid, eat local food (while granting ourselves exemptions for anything we like to eat that doesn’t grow where we live), remember to unplug our cell-phone chargers, and divide our trash into two piles. What’s proven impossible, at least so far, is to commit to taking steps that would actually make a large, permanent difference on a global scale. Do we honestly care? That’s the conundrum.

Then he asks:

How likely would the nine billion human residents of the world be, in the absence of any signs of worsening climate stress, to permanently endure, decade after decade, the continuing sacrifices required to maintain the new status quo—the halted growth, the forgone consumption, the reduced mobility, the population control, the willing abandonment of vast known reserves of fossil fuels?

david-owen-110612We like to think that by buying a hybrid car or some solar panels, we’re making a difference. Owen calls this the Prius Fallacy: “a belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.” The only thing that would really make a difference, he points out, would be to stop driving.

The new “green” alternatives aren’t really doing anything to cut back on our consumption of energy. Rather, as with most forms of “progress”, they enable more people to become consumers, and we all end up simply consuming more energy than ever. Writing about communities that have access, for example, to hydroelectric power, Owen says:

Access to cheap electricity doesn’t solve environmental problems; it amplifies them, by relieving the economic pressures that, if left in place, would force consumers to make real, lasting, environmentally beneficial reductions in consumption.

Paradoxically, he argues, the “greenest” city in the United States is Manhattan, where most people are forced to live in small apartments that are energy efficient in that they’re insulated by the apartments above and below them. And most of the people also walk or take public transport rather than driving a car.

All in all, we’re very good at self-deception:

One of our favorite green tricks is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity. A new car, a solar-powered swimming-pool heater, a 200-mile an hour train that makes intercity travel more pleasant and less expensive, better-tasting tomatoes— these are the sacrifices we’re prepared to make for the future of civilization, along with various punitive economic policies aimed at the Chinese. Our capacity for self-deception can be breathtaking.

Owen doesn’t offer any solutions beyond the obvious – namely the ones we all already know but prefer to forget. We already know that there are far too many of us on this planet, and that in the last couple of centuries we’ve developed an entirely unsustainable way of life, premised on burning vast quantities of fossil fuel and generating heat and gases that are radically changing the planet with floods, droughts, extremes of heat and cold. The question now: Why are we the way we are? Is there any way for us to stop being that way?

We already know that we’re wiping out forest life and ocean life and creating a Sixth Great Extinction of Species. Yet, as we’ve now proved beyond doubt, we’re incapable of action.

We already know all this and more. So discussing, yet again, all the things we could do about it would, in fact, be the true exercise in futility. That’s the conundrum.

Owen doesn’t try to start probing the conundrums of the human mind. But after reading his book, you know that that’s where the discussion should really be going now: Why are we the way we are? Is there any way for us to stop being that way?

The trouble is, once we start to open up that box of tricks, we’ll discover that under each layer of denial (of which the most superficial is the easily recognizable kind of climate change denial that’s conveniently laughable in its absurdity), lie ever deeper layers of denial as to our own true nature.

As Albert Camus wrote (per a brief post earlier post this week): “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”