The Efficiency Conundrum

I need more Power!It’s a bit like the dieter who buys a box of low-fat cookies and ends up eating the entire box in one sitting. So much for the diet.

A report released on Tuesday by CIBC World Markets Chief Economist Jeff Rubin states that despite the overall gains in energy efficiency since the 1970’s – 50% per unit of GDP from 1975 to 2005 – those gains have been spent, and then some, in more gadgets, bigger cars, larger houses, and more energy consumed. Total energy use in that time has actually risen by 40% Rubin says.

The conclusion is that energy efficiency alone is not a solution to climate change or dwindling sources of oil and must be combined with actual conservation. But will efficiency ever lead to conservation? Are we going against the grain of human nature to expect it to?

In their book The Bottomless Well, Peter Huber and Mark Mills think the idea of efficiency as a means to conservation is misguided. Not that efficiency is bad or shouldn’t be pursued, but that it is never a means to conservation; “energy efficiency leads to more consumption, not less”. The report by Rubin seems to bear out Huber and Mills’ assertion.

It is clear that efficiency is but a means to an end, but how to make the consumer understand – or care about –  this efficiency paradox is a sticky wicket.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to have one more cookie. After all, it’s low fat…

A pdf of the complete Rubin report is available here

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

7 responses

  1. You folks should know better.
    As students of Hunter Lovins, you seem to have forgotten
    that there are THREE principles of sustainability.
    The first, elegant efficiency, is merely a means
    to buy time to implement the second and third principles:
    biomimicry and managing for restoration and sustainability.
    Of COURSE efficiency isn’t enough.
    But it’s also not, as your article suggests, a means to achieving “conservation”
    (translation, “freezing in the dark.”)
    The “conservation” or “We don’t have enough to go around” mentality
    is what has hamstrung sustainability proponents for the last thirty years.
    What we need is NOT to achieve “conservation,” but rather,
    as Hunter Lovins is now saying, for example, we need to
    “unleash the new energy economy.”
    We don’t need conservation, we need abundant eloquent creativity,
    along the lines of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo project
    (and no, I do not mean to imply that nuclear power has anything to offer besides a 24,000 year legacy of radiation problems–
    what I mean to imply is that huge, culture-wide commitments to designing new, creative ways
    of providing affordable comfort for billions of people can achieve dramatic results).
    We need elegant, efficient abundance, not conservation.
    Walk your talk, folks!

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the great comment, which was exactly my intention in this post: to see what discussion might ensue, not, as I fear you may have construed, to put forth the idea that 3P isn’t “walking their talk”.
    I, in fact, completely agree with your comment and Lovins’ vision (and to a lesser degree, the viewpoint of Huber and Mills in “The Bottomless Well”). It is also similar to the idea put forth in a previous post here on 3P (Environmentalism is Dead posted on 11/8).
    The idea of a Manhattan or Apollo type project for “abundant eloquent creativity” isn’t new. Of course that is what we need. We aren’t there yet.
    In any case, don’t take it out on the entire community here, the post reflects my thoughts on the Rubin report mentioned and is my sole responsibility.
    -Tom Schueneman

  3. Well said, Tom. And thanks.
    But I do think the editorial community must bear some responsibility.
    By selecting and featuring articles such as this one–articles that explicitly
    or implicitly promote the old “freezing in the dark” mythology–
    they risk positioning 3P as “part of the problem” rather
    than “part of the solution.”
    Besides, most of the 3P folks are my former students; so now
    that I’m no longer teaching at Presidio School of Management,
    this is one of the few forums in which I can continue to call
    them to task ;-)
    Thanks again for your cogent comments.
    Paul Sheldon

  4. Thanks Paul – your point is well taken and I do appreciate your insight.
    It would never be my intention to portray this community – one for which I am very happy to have the opportunity to contribute – as stuck in the mentality of the problem instead of a vision and call for a sustainable future (there’s way to much of the former and not enough of the later IMHO.
    I can see how my focus on the Rubin report and subsequent comments could be construed as such.
    Even though I am not fortunate enough to have been one of your students, I’m glad you called me to task!

  5. Thanks Paul for your comments! And thanks Tom for a well articulated response. As you guys know, we’re evolving here and sometimes takes a little time to get things right-on. Discussion like this is what will make that happen. Maybe we can do a follow up post outlining the path to the new energy economy? Could wind up being a whole series of posts, really, and could provoke some very good discussion.

  6. “We need elegant, efficient abundance, not conservation.”
    Efficient Abundance? Isn’t that like saying it is ok to own a mansion as long as it is LEED Platinum? Give me a break, it was that type of thinking that got us here in the first place. I completely disagree with the “technology will save us” approach. Technology complicates and skews environmental damage from one place to another…wind turbines kill birds and bats, the sound scares off wildlife….solar panels take large amounts of resources and energy to create….biomass conversion technologies are limited by quantities of biomass available and energy to transport…..wave, water, and gulf stream powered projects negatively effect wildlife and have potential to polute the waters and slow the gulf stream…which no one can predict that outcome.
    If you start to imagine something as simple as everyone insulating their house, using efficient appliances, limiting their transportation, lowering their house temperature…..etc. Then we can start to abandon some of these Electrical and resource heavy creations of coal fired power plants and nuclear energy.
    You are correct to think that efficiency will not effect this in the future even Amory Lovins was wrong to predict how efficiency would curtail our energy use. The only difference between then and now is that industry and consumers may not have a choice.
    The simple and most effective means to positively effect our future is to educate everyone to be resource wise….not tell them that we need to just through our money at renewable energy technologies and “roll the dice” in hopes that a viable solution appears to save us.
    I would like to turn your analogy of low-fat cookies on its head…staple their stomach. If they can not fit the whole box of cookies in their stomach what then? It is going to take thinking about this problem from the bottom up and not the top down to create a solution that works. The bottom of course is nature and environmental health and the top of course is human progress. I think we all know which is more important.

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