Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Global Myths: Exploring Primitive, Pagan, Sacred, and Scientific Mythologies

Book Review: The Global Myths: Exploring Primitive, Pagan, Sacred, and Scientific Mythologies – by Alexander Eliot (Penguin, 1994) 

This was mostly a fun and fascinating read with analysis of mythology intermingled with stories and biographical accounts of people. The introduction by Jonathan Young compares Eliot to Joseph Campbell and indeed he was praised by Campbell as a masterful storyteller. Eliot tells stories, some according to known depictions but others considerably enhanced and some entirely spun to make points.

Eliot dismisses overly dogmatic analyses of myths. He admits that myths can be frustrating to the rational mind and “inhospitable to the inhibited.” He suggests approaching the ‘mythic dimension’ or ‘mythosphere,’ as one would approach a love affair – with all the daring and uncertainty. 

The first story is of Thor who found himself among giants. He proclaimed his ability to out-wrestle anyone. An elderly female giant grabbed him by the throat until he surrendered. The daughter giant then sought to help him heal by giving him a horn of mead but he was unable to drain the mead which kept refilling and soon passed out. He woke up on a lonely moor wondering if he had been dreaming but he had a bad hangover. He asked Odin about his experience but Odin could only say that the giants were a tough lot and hard to figure out. Eliot then recalls his own experience in northern Norway of unexpectedly encountering a wild reindeer herd that ran right through where he was standing.

Myth and religion co-evolve with our quest to find meaning in life, and death. Myth and dogma seem to overlap and co-evolve as well, guiding our actions and reactions. He notes that psychology has clarified that myth does indeed affect us. Myth also often defies codification and analysis so psychological theories are limited. I think the work of James Hillman may have led him to a similar conclusion. Heroes, characters, ideals, and metaphors give us morphic and anthropomorphic “forms” with which we can identify. Psyche and identity seem intertwined. It is perhaps the subjectivity of individual experience, the phenomenology of experience that makes myth hard to codify. We chase our own tales! (he says, as Aesop might say). The Ancient Greeks assigned both life and death to the hero Herakles. After his death as a human he was reborn among the immortal gods. Myth can envelope such contradictions. 

He mentions the two biggest sources of classical myth in our times: Bullfinch and Edith Hamilton. He notes Bullfinch’s efforts to make myth more suitable for children. Since then classical myth has merged with myths of other societies as well as with psychology, sociology, and ethnology. 

He mentions camping for a few months in Hopi and Navaho territory when he was young where he encountered and interacted with them in their own domain. This helped him break out of his own cultural bubble as well as develop an appreciation for their myths and culture.  

He says there is no ‘true myth’ nor ‘mythic truth.’ The ‘mythosphere’ dwells within, in the human mind. The mind is fluid, inclusive, and inconclusive, he says, and thus can accommodate myth. We participate in the mythosphere. We all help construct myth to some degree. Myth often houses contradictions. It is one way we deal with contradictions and competing ideas. He sees it a bit like the wave/particle duality of light in quantum mechanics. 

Apart from personal myths and fairy tales he sees four kinds of myths: the main two are primitive and pagan myths. Less prominent and rarely thought of as mythic are the scientific and sacred myths, those centered around scientific ideas and the contemporary religious ideas. He likes to compare them to the four winds.

Regarding primitive myth he says it involves humans in nature and likes a definition given by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, “The re-arising of primordial reality in narrative form.” Eliot sees it as unanalytical, intuitive, and bold. 

Primitive myth is sourced and kept by shamans and medicine people. Primitive myth derives from oral traditions and is best presented that way, he says. It is way to connect to ancestors. Here he tells the Navaho story of Bead Woman’s two sons, part of a rarely performed ceremony called Bead Woman Way.

Pagan myth in his classification is mostly classical Greek and Roman myth.

“Pagan myth generally concerns ironic and tragicomic interactions between human and divine beings.” 

It concerns human nature more so than nature. Greek and Roman cultures were fairly patriarchal. Here he tells the story of Amphitryon and his hound Laelaps, who meets his strange fate when in pursuit of a fox vixen. 

Sacred myth stems from the major religions. He recalls William Blake who noted that ancient poets animated all of nature and such notions were later exploited by priesthoods to enslave people to dogma. Dogmatists seem to hold that only their own dogmatic scenarios are divinely inspired and thus “real.” Eliot sees no clear dividing line between divine revelation and human inspiration.

“Religionists say, in effect: “God told me; this is how it is.” Scientists argue: “The relevant data arrayed itself before me and showed me; this is how it is.” 

Science also has technology to back it up. It is void of the emotion of religion. Karl Popper noted that science too is dependent on precedent so that it is often fallible. Thomas Kuhn noted that science is paradigmatic, that it is often girded by these “temporary allegorical umbrellas of shared belief.” Truth and/or falsehood in science often implies – being true or false within the context of the currently prevailing paradigm. 

“Scientific myths are valid while they last, very nearly as influential as religious ones… These four myth-types {primitive, pagan, sacred, and scientific}, along with fairy tales and personal myths constitute a luminous although self-contradictory miracle: namely, the mythosphere – thousands of years in the making – as it exists today in my psyche and yours.”

In Part 2 he explores the ‘Labyrinthine Ways’ of knowledge. He first explores a few mythic explanations about how fetishes and statues get empowered. Between and among stories he explores some of the many myths involving twins. Even considering the psychological aspects of mythology he suggests Freud and Jung as mythopoeic twins! Freud saw the sex-drive as prime motivator. Our childhood wishes could become an Oedipus complex, said he. Jung pronounced Freud’s work as incomplete. The “unconconsious” of Freud, he said, was incomplete and so he theorized the notion of a “collective unconscious,” made up of universal anthropomorphic forms, or Archetypes, such as Anima, Animus, Shadow, Wise Old Man, and Cosmic Mother. Mythology was fertile ground for both Freud and Jung. However, Eliot notes, we should be little wary of them:

“They were jealously ambitious mythmaker-poets, disguised as doctors in white tunics.”

He analyzes the Legend of Io who wandered as a cow/cow goddess. Zeus is callous, Hera cruel, and Prometheus obsessed. Zeus/Jupiter/Dzeus-pater likely came from conquering Indo-European tribes from the north and ruled the Mediterranean for over a millennium, possibly replacing goddess-based agricultural cults. The Hellenes, he notes, never developed hierarchical priesthoods like the Egyptians. Prometheus is a provocateur responsible for the fate of humans not unlike the biblical Eve, many have noted. Knowledge was the bane of both Eve and Prometheus. Eliot suggests that intellectual knowledge and ‘know-how’ splits the psyche by favoring intellect over instinct. 

By Roman times belief in the gods had changed form somewhat with different styles of belief. The emperor was seen as a divine king. Christianity grew in importance with its war between good and evil. By the Middle Ages to know was to know Latin and by the Renaissance knowledge of Greek and Greek knowledge was revived. 

He tells the story of Semele and Zeus, with Hera’s discovery of the tryst, the immolation of Semele, and the birth of Dionysus. He sees Zeus here as representing the patriarchal Dorian invaders, Semele as the agricultural goddess-based indigenous people, and Dionysus as the new, the bringer of wine which had both a maddening and civilizing affect. Perhaps coincidentally writing became widespread in Ancient Greece at the same time the Dionysian cults spread. As Nietzsche so eloquently put it, Dionysianism led to the arts of drama and tragedy and they did it, said Aristotle, ‘by inducing heavy doses of pity and terror. Dionysus is dangerous, says Eliot. Below he gives his own rendering of lines from Euripedes’ play Hippolytus:

Whatever far-off world exists
dearer to man than life itself
darkness keeps it in her arms
and shrouds it in a cloud.

No one has found a way beyond
What lies beneath is unrevealed
Adrift upon a glittering stream,
We sigh for some nameless thing.

It is perhaps simple acknowledgement of the frustrating yet intriguing nature of mystery itself and our longing for meaning.

Also coincident with the spread of Dionysian cults was a contrasting movement toward purely rational thought begun by the pre-Socratic philosophers, here called by Eliot, the ‘bold cosmologists.’ It was Thales who essentially said that the invention of deities was not necessary to explain nature. Thales is often seen as a founder of speculative science. His student Anaximander and Anaximander’s student Aniximenes continued this lineage of speculative science albeit with differing conclusions. Further in the lineage came Xenophanes who noted that the gods of different peoples always looked like their people. Next in line was the enigmatic Heraclitus who also disparaged the poet Hesiod. His declaration that “Everything is in flux, and nothing is at rest” predates the Buddha’s declaration that all that is composed is impermanent. Finally, there was Empedocles, who offered yet another version of reality. After him there would be Socrates, Plato, and the myriad offshoots of dialectic philosophical inquiry. This, says Eliot, is not only the beginning history of science, but also of scientific myth. By downplaying the relevance and importance of the gods and their stories they made a new paradigm, and new narrative, of speculative science with its corresponding stories.

He tells a story of Empedocles teaching in Athens when an 11-year old ‘brat’ named Socrates asks him a question. I am unsure if the story is from text, lore, or if Eliot spun it. He says that Nietzsche failed to appreciate the pre-Socratic philosophers, but then he quotes Nietzsche saying they are dangerous poets just as he is. Nietzsche did say that we have been molded, or even trapped by rational Greek thought. The Greek scientists like Euclid, Archimedes, Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras seem to represent another branch of scientific myth, which Eliot acknowledges, is less evident to many than other forms of myth.

He tells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. He sees it as representative of “the eternal conflict between the analytical and creative aspects of human consciousness.” Theseus is the analytical/objective aspect and the Minotaur is the creative/subjective aspect. Ariadne’s thread is the memory device that defies the forgetfulness magic of the labyrinth. Ariadne is the restorative element of the psyche. A healthy psyche has these two aspects in balance, says Eliot.

Next he muses about Cleopatra and the nexus of myth and history. At this time Roman aristocrats followed two main rival Hellenic philosophies: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Epicurus recommended a reclusive style of controlled hedonism while Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, recommended a hardcore style of introspection said to be derived from the real Socrates rather than the one from Plato’s dialogues. Cleopatra probably died a Stoic. Marcus Aureleus was a Stoic as were several of the early Christian martyrs. Eliot notes Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Prologue to a History of Philosophy, where he states the usefulness of philosophical pluralism:

“The impossibility of comprehending the whole universe from any single position justifies the existence of a variety of fundamental conceptions – which thus prove inevitable.”

Eliot thinks it is the same with the study of myth – that it can and should be approached and studied from multiple perspectives. He says that imaginative participation in reality is a necessity of nature.

Next he describes the nine-day recitation of the stories and songs of the Navaho Mountain Chant, an occasional ceremony for healing. In a key part of the ceremony two painted dancers appear to swallow their arrows but it is an illusion as the hollow shafts are simply telescoped together. However, the illusion can be effective for the person(s) being healed, to increase their belief and thus the placebo effect. Such techniques are fairly common in shamanistic societies. Deception thus can be used for ill or for good.

He explores the strong connection between art and myth, from Paleolithic cave paintings to Renaissance and later nostalgic depictions of classical mythology scenes. The Paleolithic artists, he thinks, were closely connected to the animal kingdom and were aided by visions of their art perhaps enhanced by flickering tallow-lamp firelight in the deep dark caves. The ability to depict in visual artistic form things that were idealized. Art could tell stories and art could heal. It need not be permanent, like the Navaho sand paintings. The Ancient Greeks document, describe, and praise the works of several great painters whose works did not survive. Zeuxis was one such painter and his depiction of centaurs with the torso and above as men and below the body of a horse was said to be so well done as to restore belief in their existence which had declined. It was the artist that had the ability to shape myth. He praises the sublime art of Michelangelo and notes that there is pagan-mythic esotericism within.

He tells a story of Perseus returned with wealth and his bride Andromeda and being summoned to King Dectes to explain, be stripped of his wealth, and punished. Having his basket with the head of Medusa the king’s court ends up turned to stone. Eliot calls Perseus the patron saint of poets. With the imaginative wings of Hermes, the inner invisibility helmet of Hades, and the mirroring shield of Athena, he found his heroic destiny. Here he quotes Socrates:

“The experience of poets is akin to that of seers and prophets, who offer many fine utterances without understanding a word of what they say!”

Socrates spoke of “ancient strife between philosophy and poetry” and sought the banishing of the Muse. Such rhetoric aided his own forced demise. Plato, from whom the stories of Socrates derive, thought that poets should be censored and re-interpreted by the philosophers. The Renaissance would oddly enough revive pagan myth and interpret it in Neoplatonic fashion. Says Eliot:

“Classical philosophical values are not what sparked the Renaissance. The resurgence of deathless poetic instinct did that.”

The mythic poets were Ovid, Hesiod, and Homer, with Virgil coming up a distant fourth, according to Eliot.

He tells a story of the famed Greek playwright Aeschylus:

 “What intrigues me most about Aeschylus is his ability to seize history in his right hand, legend in his left, and bring the two in concert. No poet, not even Shakespeare, has done that better.”

The early historians, Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus, began the process of untangling myth and legend from the study of the past (although Mircea Eliade demonstrates that it was both the Hebrews and their alphabetic writing - which was an unparalleled recording device - that really began the process).

He also mentions that the 300 B.C. Sicilian-Greek Euhemerus published a now lost history that asserted that myth is nothing more than natural history enhanced with legend through the mechanisms of oral re-tellings. We now know that this euhemerism is true of much of myth and legend. Euhemerist assumptions have also led to scientific discoveries such as the excavation of Troy and the migration paths of Native American tribes. He mentions the euhemerism of Robert Graves who favored historical and anthropological interpretations of myth over Jungian psychological interpretations. He also wrote of the White Goddess, of the goddess-based agricultural societies that the patriarchal Indo-European Zeus-based conquerers overran and replaced. Yet she is not dead but occasionally reappears as the muse of poets. Of course, one of the most emphatic classical depictions of this universal goddess of nature was provided by Lucius Apuleius’s comical story, The Golden Ass, where he as the protagonist penetrates the initiated mysteries of the goddess inadvertently and unbeknownst to others after being magically transformed into an ass.

Other aspects of myth are intertwined with the sky. Several classical mythic figures were transformed into constellations and astrological interpretations of myth abound in many cultures. Some can be quite fascinating and perhaps derive from the Hermetic axiom: as above, so below – an idea older than Hermeticism that is intuitive in some sense. The gods live on high mountains and in the heavens and we mirror what happens there in some sense.

This book is divided into four parts: 1) myth/truth or the mythosphere as actual (The House of Four Winds); 2) how myth works (The Labyrinthine Ways); the mysteries of myth-shaping (The World Reborn); and 4) morality and compassion (From Eternity to Here).

Eliot adds to Socrates’s famous quote – “the unexamined life is not worth living” by countering with “the unlived life is not worth examining.” Another scholar, Theodor Gomperz in 1896, said pretty much the same as Nietzsche, that we inherited our intellectual history from Greece. They themselves inherited ideas not only from the Dorian invaders and the indigenous people but also from Afro-Asiatic cultures: Egypt, Phoenicia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. Eliot notes that our cultural heritage is not bounded but global in scope.

He tells the story of Aesop and his accidental demise at the hands of the young Delphic oracle maiden Phemonoe. Aesop was around mid-6th century B.C. as were the pre-Socratics, and Pythagoras, Sappho, and the Thracian magician Salmoxis. Aesop is credited with ‘inventing’ the form of the fable. Later around the time of Jesus the Roman poet Phaedrus committed 150 fables to verse. In the 2nd century C.E. the Syrian Valerius Babrius also wrote these tales down. In the 15th century it was the British translator and publisher William Caxton who first rendered Aesop’s tales in English. Although they have since been approached as children’s literature the tales are enduring. Eliot compares them to the Jataka tales of the Buddha and the Islamic Turkish ‘Tales of the Hodja’ all three of which he says he read to his kids. Aesop’s tales explore social realities through fantasy, often with animal forms.

He observes that Chinese myth like Greek myth delights in irony. He thinks it is because both cultures were philosophically inclined. He tells the tale of the Jade Emperor’s mother, who fills in for him answering prayers but soon realizes that the prayers of some counteract and contradict the prayers of others. When he returns he teaches her to moderate and adjust the boons. He tells the story of Li Pin and his magic piglet and another story of lost love by the poet Po Chu-i. Both stories are about men who lived a year and a day married to the Dragon King’s beautiful daughter.

It was said that as Socrates waited in prison for his death he occupied himself by turning some of Aesop’s fables to verse. Plato’s Dialogues and the reminiscences of him from Xenophon are the only textual sources for Socrates life. Eliot tells of Socrates’ fascinating dream of his long dead lover Aspasia.

Eliot also spent a year practicing Zen meditation in Japan with teacher Maseo Abe. He asked his teacher what he thought of a statue replica of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ at the Kyoto Museum of Art. The teacher said teasingly “pursuing illusion.” Eliot considers the difference between noting thoughts without following them as in meditative contemplation and following trains of thought as in science and speculative philosophy. He considers that both are important although the East and West emphasize differently. He compares the philosophical stances of Plato and Chuang Tzu and throws in a story of Manu and Vishnu’s incarnation as a fish. Plato’s outlook was fueled by reason, Chuang Tzu’s by intuition.

He tells the story of Psyche and Eros and their daughter Concord – of how Psyche inadvertently drove away her lover and went to his mother Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite set tasks for her and Eros reunites with his love. Eros loves Psyche, the human soul and in the story she finds the courage and skill to complete the tasks.

The last story involves the Biblical story of God creating Adam in his image, as both male and female. He gives an explanation from The Zohar, by Moses de Leon, who says that a true holy image must be composed of a union of male and female elements.

Eliot tells the tales skillfully and yet concisely with a story teller’s flair. He is easy to read. He offers unusual ways to explore the uniqueness of myth. Delightful and thought-provoking book.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse

Book Review: The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse – by David Owen (Riverhead Books, 2011)

This was an interesting book that brings out some useful ideas worth considering. However, I do not agree with all or even many of Owen’s conclusions about efficiency. While several may have been true in the past they need not hold for the future if humans approach the subject with more savvy. This is a book about pitfalls and conundrums in our quest to be green and sustainable. He is able to make good arguments in some cases for things that are considered green that in reality are not so much. The book is well titled as conundrums pop up all over – mostly of how to not increase demand while increasing efficiency and reducing carbon/pollution. 

He starts out with the hypocrisy of high-carbon footprint environmentalists, including himself, who travel around the world in jets giving talks about how to be green. While technology can be helpful for saving energy and emissions it can also do just the opposite by making things like long-distance travel and energy-consuming communications technology cheaper and more accessible. That is part of the conundrum. Technology alone won’t help. Human behavior also needs to change and when technology incentivizes more consumption that is a form of ‘backfire.’ 

He mentions the global recession of 2008 combined with the then high price of oil led to reductions of carbon footprints, suggesting that higher energy prices would force us to reduce. However, with the advent of fracking and shale gas beginning in earnest around 2010 the reductions continued through today even with low energy prices. In that respect technology did reduce emissions considerably in the U.S. due mainly to gas replacing coal in power plants. 

The fuel of our consumerism he notes is indeed cheap energy, combustion: “Heat is energy, and energy is leverage.” He seems to suggest that we need expensive energy in order to reduce emissions but I say that will hurt the poor and hurting the poor is not in anyone’s interest. He is right to note that energy is indeed the source of our prosperity.

He explores the popular concepts of ‘decoupling’ and ‘decarbonization.’ He thinks that decoupling, of economic growth from carbon emissions, is illusory. One example is that U.S. economic growth and lower carbon emissions was a result of exporting manufacturing to China where carbon emissions continued to rise. While this is/was true, since then there actually has been some real decoupling not related to exporting. He cites Danish researcher Jorgen S. Norgard who said that energy decoupling is “largely a statistical delusion.” However, as an example electricity demand in the U.S. has plateaued for some time now and is perhaps on a slight decline, despite economic growth. This is due not only to efficiency gains in power generation but also efficiency gains in products – so-called end-user efficiency. 

We produce more finished goods with less raw materials though our optimized efficient use of the resources. However, Owen emphasizes that the cheaper and more accessible energy and other resources become the more we consume them. Sure this is true to a point and he mentions the cheap goods produced by China. However, it would be hard to argue that the Chinese and other developing countries do not have the right to access better standards of living and basic material necessities.
He compares innovation on clean energy to innovation to produce fossil fuels cheaper. While one might argue that better technology to get natural gas slows down adoption of renewable energy, it may be more important to society that it also provides cheaper energy. While making energy expensive and inaccessible may reduce carbon emissions it would also make life hard on many people. He states that inexpensive natural gas via fracking and horizontal drilling has damaged wind and solar but in balance I don’t think that is the case at all. Others including me see it more as complementary and giving time for renewables to develop economically and functionally. He talks about the unintended consequences of technology, mentioning specifically the development of CFCs and their replacement by less impactful but still impactful HFCs as refrigerants – but these days HFCs are also being replaced by things like butane which have far less global warming potential.  

He states that the greenest community in the U.S. is New York City. A major reason for this is that it has vast use of public transportation, with half of the subway stops in the country. Over 50% of households there do not even own a car. Walking is a primary means of transportation. It is by far the most densely populated U.S. city and density naturally begets efficiency. People there have less space to accumulate things and they generate less trash per capita than most. Globally, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and the older sections of European capitals have the best density and low-car use advantages. He calls these advantages ‘intelligent density.’ He questions Forbes’ 2007 declaration of Vermont as the greenest state. It has low population, no public transit, and higher than average per capita car use. The population of parts of New York City far exceeds the populations of many spacious rural states. He notes, however, that these parts of New York like Manhattan and the Bronx have to suffer far lower per capita representation in the U.S. Senate (in many cases less than 5% of the representation of the states). The author grew up in a big house with a big yard but then lived in Manhattan with his family, deciding in 1985 to move to the country to escape the negative aspects of the city including: noise, smog, lack of nature, and bad smells. But he notes that it was an ecological disaster as the family’s carbon footprint and energy use soared. The solution, he says, is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less. He notes that automobile dependence is highest in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. He notes that not all public transit systems are economic, efficient, and lead to less per capita energy use. He cites Phoenix as an example.

Living smaller, living closer, and driving less all involve population density. The lower energy use and carbon footprints of dense populations is structural and also unconscious. It is built in. He states that GM should now be considered a Chinese company since they sell more vehicles in China than anywhere else. He sees moving to the country as even worse than urban sprawl as the rural sprawl often involves more travel than the urban form. Suburban sprawl can be densified to good effect, he suggests. He also notes that retirees can benefit from densified urban areas.

Next he states that oil is worse than coal. Oil and its derivatives, mainly gasoline, is the primary transport fuel. He states that even though cars only account for 1/3 of fossil fuel use they enable us to use up more energy in a traveling consumptive lifestyle – da yeah so what? Cars amplify consumption. I am not sure what his point is here. Should we outlaw driving? Consumption? He seems to suggest that in order to curb driving and consumption we would need to make driving more expensive, less convenient, and generally making us unhappy with driving. Good luck with that. We could also curb population by sterilizing people. Basically his argument is that as long as things that are considered non-green are convenient and cheap there will be no curbing of them.

In a discussion of walkability he notes that density encourages it and that distance to a grocery store is a factor. Higher population density also leads to better prices and selection at the local grocery store. Interestingly, he refutes the benefits of “locavorism” where local food is favored and shortest distance to food sources is venerated. He notes that more energy may be expended per unit of food by far in some situations where people drive small amounts to farmer’s markets than efficiently packed large trucks travelling long distances. He draws from a book called Just Food, by James E. McWilliams who says, “we’d be better off focusing on what happens to our food after we buy it than on its place of origin.” Home canning and maple syrup making are examples of energy intensive processes. Even organic farming has bigger environmental and energy footprints than are often expected due to agricultural sprawl and lower-yielding and less efficient operations. These days there are some great innovations happening in greenhouse gardening. He also cites strong evidence that becoming a vegetarian really reduces one’s impact, although he states it is not going so well for him. They say 80% of farmland is devoted to meat production. Food and non-food crops are best grown on the best land rather than on land that is the shortest distance to market. Bottom line is that the energy and carbon arguments for locavorism are very often flawed. 

Traffic congestion is explored. First a pic shows four lanes of cars packed on a one-way filling the road. Second pic shows occupants of those vehicles sitting in the road – a bafflingly small amount of people. We drive way more car than human by weight. While public transit may often relieve congestion and waste emissions it can also backfire if more drivers appear when there is less congestion. Eliminating lanes is never popular. Traffic congestion can actually slow suburban sprawl especially since it lengthens commuting times. Conversely, cutting travel times by adding lanes or bypasses can increase sprawl. How to discourage driving while not significantly adding too much to congestion is yet another conundrum:

“The ideal automobile strategy would be to steadily remove driving lanes while maintaining congestion at levels that drivers find vexing, thereby giving them an ongoing incentive to embrace alternatives.”

In exploring public transit he first explores China with its growing amount of roads and drivers and traffic snarls. He mentions ideas like the straddling bus that is on tracks but goes over cars. It would not replace them so its appeal is also its flaw. He says public transit that actually displaces drivers would be greener but would infuriate drivers. 

High-speed rail is explored. He notes that for it to be an environmental advantage it requires a certain amount of regular passengers and that is not always the case. He notes that if long-distance travel becomes cheaper more people will do it, again a conundrum. He notes that Europe in general has more efficient transport than the U.S. but this is mainly because destinations are more clustered and distances are typically shorter. High-speed rail can also increase the appeal of more long-distance commuting. He notes what he calls the “Prius Fallacy,” that having a more efficient means of transport merely makes one think one is being more efficient while in reality one tends to drive more. This did not apply to me when I bought a Prius since I was required to drive long-distance to work and to external job sites and meetings. I do not believe I drove any more, I just drove cheaper with my required and typical driving. The ability to drive cheaper did not increase demand for driving. In that sense, which applies in many cases, his arguments about more availability and less expense leading to increased demand are not substantiated in many cases.

In the same vein he goes on to suggest that increased fuel mileage standards will simply increase demand for driving. That may be true to a point – for people who had been driving less because of the expense. He mentions the work of former Dept. of Energy head Stephen Chu and efficiency guru Amory Lovins. Owen looks toward historical reactions to efficiency to make his point that increased efficiency tends to increase demand significantly. I think this is misleading. In the past things like refrigeration became basic needs. As refrigerators finally became more efficient I don’t think people are trending toward more and bigger refrigerators overall but maybe some are. 

Next he goes through the 19th century story of William Stanley Jevons from his 1865 book, The Coal Question, where Jevons concluded that more efficient use of a resource inevitably leads to more consumption. Jevons believed this to be a fundamental economic and behavioral truth and Owen seems to echo that. This has become known as the ‘Jevons Effect’ or the ‘Jevons Paradox.’ I don’t see it that way as I think there is a limit to how much efficiency affects consumption. If there is a basic need for the increased consumption it will tend to happen. If it is more superfluous, say some sort of luxury, then the effect will be less, and if mindful social habit and effort is exerted toward decreased consumption then the effect will be even less. These days, Jevons effects are called “rebounds.” He mentions American researcher Harry D. Saunders, who in a 1992 paper stated, 

“With fixed real energy price energy efficiency gains will increase energy consumption above where it would be without these gains.” Although energy prices are rarely fixed I think this effect has not occurred in the American electricity market in the last 10 years. In 2011 Saunders stated, “Rebound effects are subtle and complex…. The complex and varied phenomena known collectively as ‘rebound effects’ mean that we cannot expect that improving the energy efficiency of steel production by 30%, for example, will yield a simple and direct 30% reduction in the energy consumed by the steel sector, let alone the economy as a whole. Just as economists expect that gains in labor productivity will contribute to greater employment overall, not less, gains in energy productivity (a.k.a. energy efficiency) are not likely to be taken up simply as direct reductions in energy demand overall.” 

I can agree with that – that rebound effects exist and will occur – but I think the net benefit of increased efficiency is still quite clear. That is also the conclusion of efficiency experts. One expert, Lee Schipper, noted that the most useful comparison is not between consumption before and after efficiency gains but between ‘with efficiency gains’ and without them. Amory Lovins also noted that there are clear and logical limits to rebound effects so that in most cases the effects will remain small, even trivial. Saunders disagrees with Lovins and says that it is not lower energy costs but profit-maximization and consumer welfare-maximization that lead to different energy use trajectories. I think he is saying that new technologies tend to find new ways to expend more energy as energy becomes cheaper. One possible recent example is information and communications tech where ease of smart phone functions and the advent of cloud storage has vastly increased energy consumption. Thus while end-use efficiency may lead to less energy use, the additional products and services that provide and support new products often tend to add to overall energy use. Saunders sees rebound more as ‘chain reaction.’ End-use energy use only accounts for about one-third of energy used so that energy used to produce goods and services (which makes up two-thirds) always needs to be considered. He next considers advances in refrigeration technology that enabled a vast increase in refrigeration capacity in markets and homes. The bottom line I think is that in a full impact analysis rebound is often not trivial at all but can be very significant. Even so I think the fact that electric use in the U.S. has plateaued and even declined a bit is clear evidence that the overall net effects of increased efficiency are quite real. Saunders seems to conclude that efficiency gains will always lead to increased energy consumption and that is clearly not the case overall. This he calls ‘backfire’ – a rebound in energy demand greater than 100%. His argument is basically that as energy becomes more productive then ultimately more will be used – again refuted by overall electricity demand in the U.S.

Next he considers air conditioning, pointing to data that shows that as A/C became 28% more efficient between 1993 and 2005 while energy consumption from A/C use rose 37%. He gives the ‘technology makes us lazy’ argument. Some people have even proposed that many of us have become physically addicted to air conditioning. He also notes Breakthrough Institute’s Jesse Jenkins noted that efficiency improvements may also produce “frontier effects” which “result when efficiency gains unlock whole new areas of the production possibility frontier, leading to potentially vast new markets, or even whole new industries for energy services.” Owens notes that,

“Despite what Amory Lovins and other efficiency mavens have repeatedly claimed, the drop in unit energy consumption and the rise in global energy consumption are not unrelated.”

He concedes that frontier effects can go both ways – toward more or less energy use – but the overall effect historically has been toward more.

Finally, he makes the pertinent statement, “Not all efficiency gains stimulate consumption.” Requirements for more efficient plumbing fixtures in New York City led to less water use, partially because New Yorkers are not big water users in any case. Then he states that efficiency gains increase wealth which offers more opportunities for increased consumption. While that may be true we have a clear need for the global poor to gain wealth and for people to have basic needs and conveniences regardless of the gains in energy use. Increasing costs and decreasing convenience may seem a good strategy for reducing emissions but it won’t work. It is simply a form of forced austerity.  Owen says that only ‘bottom-up’ studies of rebound are possible due to the complexity and those underreport rebound by significant amounts. Schipper points out that “because we can extract vastly more economic benefit from a ton of coal than nineteenth-century Britons did, efficiency gains now have much less power to stimulate consumption.” Ecological economist Blake Alcott counters with a similar argument in favor of Jevons effects. Owen notes that American electricity production grew 66% between 1984 and 2005. However, it has clearly stagnated since 2008. Efficiency gains have been applied far more since 2008 than previously. According to Owen trying to address our energy and climate problems with efficiency gains and other “soft-path” strategies and turning that into reduced consumption is a trick we have yet to figure out. 

Driving and the concept of a green car is next explored. Even though we now get vastly more mpg we still tend to drive a lot. Making driving easier makes us drive more, says Owen, but it seems to me there is a limit to that. Owen seems to suggest that a Green Big Brother austerity approach of forced inefficiency can lower impacts but frankly it is so not feasible as to sound absurd. It’s simply not a real choice, especially with the uncertainties of the effects of climate change. He notes that increasing fuel economy has the same effect as reducing the price of gasoline. He points out that advocating for efficiency involves no political risk as opposed to advocating for sacrifices like a carbon tax. 

Ecological economist Herman Daly says we should ‘impose frugality’ before we promote efficiency as efficiency without frugality is more likely to lead to more rebound and increased consumption. I think maybe that there is indeed the key. Owen notes that Keynes dismissed Jevons’ arguments while still admiring his prose. 

He next examines the impact of new supplies of fracked natural gas. He notes gas as the least impactful and lowest carbon-emitting hydrocarbon but also mentions the potential for spills from the vastly increased wastewater volumes. He acknowledges many of the benefits. He also notes that low natural gas prices make producing tar sands oil cheaper as well. He notes also that cheap natural gas makes renewables less attractive. He considers that an increasing price for natural gas will make coal more attractive in the future. That is not likely to happen in the U.S. in the near or mid-term.
Next he examines cheap, efficient lighting. Much lighting is unnecessary, he notes, and making it cheaper makes unnecessary lighting more ubiquitous. Artificial lighting affects wildlife and insects in mostly negative ways. There is also the effects of artificial lighting on our circadian rhythms, also mostly negative. He does not mention that swapping incandescent and fluorescent lighting for compact fluorescents and now much improved LED lighting has been and continues to be a major factor in reducing electricity consumption.

Next he takes on water conservation. He cites Las Vegas. The city managed to cut per capita water use to below average but that he says encourages more sprawl and more population. Using water more efficiently is never as useful as simply using less water. Las Vegas’s recycled water for irrigation tends to be high in salts and eventually will require treatment. Owen compares the problem to that of the Green Revolution which was stellar at first but later problems developed such as aquifers draining, salt concentration due to irrigation, decreasing soil fertility, and increasing population.

Next is burning trash. He points out the city of Kristianstad, Sweden, which derives energy and heat not from fossil fuels but from burning trash, biomass. They import much of the waste which shows that biomass (and biogas) resources are simply inadequate as a large scale energy source. Biogas from anaerobic digestion is cleaner than burning trash and its use will continue to climb especially since it also mitigates methane venting. Biomass derived from forestry industry waste is only locally sustainable and also a limited resource. Bottom-line is that solid biomass as an energy source is limited in availability, pollutes and adds carbon slightly more than coal per unit of energy produced, and is quite unpopular. Biogas is better but quite limited.
Next he takes on solar energy:

“Most suburban owners of solar panels could put a sign in their front yard saying, ‘My neighbors pay my electric bills!’” 

He emphasizes the limits to solar: cost, unreliability, intermittency, difficulty in scaling, and difficulty with grid integration (need for storage). Solar installations have some environmental effects such as the large thermo-solar utility plants affecting desert tortoises. Solar panel production makes some toxic waste. 

He goes on to mention the considerable environmental effects of hydropower. One problem with utility-scale solar, wind, and hydro is that the best resources are often far from where the power is needed most so that long inefficient transmission lines are required. Here he reiterates probably the main theme from this book, the main conundrum: 

“From an environmental perspective, cheap energy is a problem, no matter what the source.”

He is right from one perspective, however annoying, but that is certainly not the only perspective.
He spends two whole chapters on wind energy, particularly kite wind devices which might one day harness more powerful upper level winds being developed by a company backed by Google. That was 7 years ago so I have my doubts about feasibility and so does Owen. 

This leads to the next chapter titled, ‘The Discouraging Economics of Innovation.’ Here he continues to explore renewable energy prototypes and innovations. While Bill Gates thinks we can throw billions at renewable energy research and come up with significant results, others are not so sure. Even if there are technical successes those then have to become economic successes in order to be adopted. Just because we are throwing large amounts of money at things does not mean we are on the verge of real breakthroughs. He mentions also the biggest American investment in renewables – corn-based ethanol – which is pretty much a disaster by all accounts. Decarbonization is likely a problem we will be struggling with for some time despite enhanced focus on it and despite the very real concerns of climate scientists. 

He explores smart grid technology a bit where energy flows both ways and power-hogging appliances can be automatically switched off during peak energy demand times. However, the gadgetry uses some energy as well and costs money to buy. There will, however, likely be significant energy saving results of smart grid tech, strategic energy storage, and distributed energy resources. He ponders that if we rented our phones and appliances they would be built to last much longer and ‘planned obsolescence’ and continuous upgrades would no longer be as profitable. 

The conundrum is equivalent to our ‘climate-and-energy dilemma.’ Owen favors the solution – ‘consume less.’ I think in general that is happening here in affluent countries in individual, industrial, and utility scales as overall consumption and demand has confirmed somewhat. However, it is not likely to drop much further – there are limitations – even with continued focus on efficiency and energy waste reduction. The conundrum is unlikely to go away any time soon. He thinks that the problem for us is that energy is too cheap. Good luck telling that to the poor among us. Promoting efficiency without constraining consumption is doomed to fail, he says. He states that permanent year-over-year economic growth is not sustainable. Good luck telling that to business people and politicians. “Income disparity is a global generator of environmental harm.” It tends to increase consumption through the luxury goods of the wealthy. Having the poor leveraged by excessive borrowing also hurts the economy. He notes that what we drive matters less than how much we drive. Miles is the problem not miles per gallon, he emphasizes. Despite renewable energy ‘hype, hucksterism, and faulty arithmetic,’ he still thinks we need to make bigger efforts with the renewable technologies currently available. Urban living has proven to reduce population as well as be green by way of density so continued migration of the population to cities should decrease per capita energy use. He suggests strongly enforced speed limits to also force better gas mileage, as in Australia, apparently. Good luck with that.

Owen’s book here is indeed annoying but in many ways necessarily so. Many are quite na├»ve and unrealistic about these problems and need a dose of the harsh realities we all face here. Owen delivers the harsh realities and so we see some of our challenges with more focus.