Steve Hallett (West Lafayette, IN) 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.
The Efficiency Trap: Finding a Better Way to Achieve a Sustainable Energy Futureby Steve Hallett
One of the key tenets of the environmental movement is the need for greater efficiency in our use of dwindling natural resources, especially coal, natural gas, and oil. If our products are designed to be more energy efficient, so the thinking goes, our environmental impacts will be reduced and our fossil fuels will last longer. In this surprising new look at
One of the key tenets of the environmental movement is the need for greater efficiency in our use of dwindling natural resources, especially coal, natural gas, and oil. If our products are designed to be more energy efficient, so the thinking goes, our environmental impacts will be reduced and our fossil fuels will last longer. In this surprising new look at sustainability and conservation, environmentalist Steve Hallett argues that this thinking is fundamentally flawed. In fact, based on the example of coal use throughout the Industrial Revolution, more efficiency leads to more consumption, faster depletion of resources, and ultimately more stress on the planet. This is the efficiency trap.
How do we avoid this trap? Hallett suggests that we focus on protecting natural resources, ecosystems, and social systems by making them more resilient. Knowing that we have reached limits to growth, we should work to decentralize energy-delivery services to give homes and communities some measure of independence. We can also build more sustainable food systems by diversifying the food-production landscape to address the vulnerabilities of the current supply chain.
Efficiency does have 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. Yet recognizing the inevitable limits to our growth and the shortcomings of our current approach to addressing our dwindling resources is a necessary first step toward the establishment of sound environmental policy.
This realistic appraisal of current environmental thinking will challenge environmentalists and industrialists alike.
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There are many academic authors who write to impress their peers rather than communicate effectively with a broader audience. Fortunately, Steve Hallett is not among them. What makes The Efficiency Trap interesting and informative is his use of a wide variety of examples from both history and nature to explain how our efforts to slow down consumption by maximizing efficiency simply have not worked and are, in fact, a trap leading us down the wrong path. He offers several suggestions for building resilience in order to withstand the negative impacts of a changing (even collapsing) energy system. His suggestions sound reasonable enough, but large city dwellers and the rural poor, lacking either authority or resources, may find them difficult to implement. There is some inconsistent and confusing use of terminology, specifically the terms sustainable development (used twice and later labelled an oxymoron) and sustainability (both rejected and embraced). Overall, however, the main message is clear enough and there are some terrific insights in this book. We have to give the author credit for seeing what is now more obvious to the rest of us with hindsight: improving efficiency is not the way to alter a complex system. Improving efficiency is basically a numbers approach, and a better number usually does not significantly change the way a complex system works.