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The (technology) efficiency paradox

  • Published on August 24, 2022

Too much of a good thing can kill you! In this article, Dr. Lewis Akenji of Hot or Cool Institute talks about the case of green technology which clearly demonstrates the limits of (resource and energy) efficiency.  

Too much of a good thing can kill you! The case of green technology clearly demonstrates the limits of (resource and energy) efficiency. Here’s why:

    1. Efficiency is blind to the upper limits of consumption and emissions, and so we can keep improving our efficiency even as we transgress the planetary boundariesThere is no science-based scenario to support the political or popular contention that we can replace our entire car stock, or worse, everyone on the planet could have an efficient electric vehicle without climate collapse.
    2. The rebound effect shows that although there have been much welcome efficiency improvements in material and energy over the last several decades, the sheer increase in volumes of consumption have cancelled out the efficiency gains. Our cars, TVs, fridges, etc. have gotten substantially more efficient than in the 70s, but we now also have more and bigger cars, more and bigger TVs, and more and bigger fridges.
    3. Efficiency focuses on the symptoms, not the causes of the sustainability issue. The climate change, resource scarcity and biodiversity loss crises are man-made, through a global economy which measures development with the colonial and destructive GDP index and conflates human wellbeing with materialismAt the fundamental level, we need to address overproduction and overconsumption – and overpopulation, while we’re at it.
    4. Efficiency is primarily a technology-driven approach. Not only have sustainable technology promises failed to deliver over the last several decades (see carbon-sucking machines, geoengineering, and electric vehicles, for example), they have further entrenched social tensions. The obsessive focus on investments in technology efficiency do not only widen the gap between the poor and the rich – who either own the patents or are investing in these technologies – it further perpetuates the economic-growth paradigm and keeps ballooning the global economy that is already overheating.
    5. Approaches such as “decoupling”, rely on the efficiency myth. At this point, a reminder that there is no single country in the world that has succeeded in decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts to sustainable levels. Not even (or, especially not) the Scandinavian countries that appear at the top of every index of progress – but with per capita footprints that would need multiple Earths. Decoupling, especially relative decoupling, is not a strategy; so far over the last several decades it’s just a buzzword.

Technology is important, indeed; not the least in a climate emergency. But our society’s religiosity about it is making it a problem.

As we keep our faith in the hi-tech priests of technology, we are still toying around with flights to space and hoping to escape to Mars, spending more of our limited carbon budget on sucking out less carbon from the atmosphere than we are pumping in, planning grand geoengineering schemes to change the weather, changing our definitions and including fossil gas in the renewable energy taxonomy, and pushing already poor people down unsafe mining pits in the DR Congo to go fetch rare earth metals for us so we can get bigger and more efficient cars… all the while desecrating entire ecosystems, boring mining holes through earth like Swiss cheese, and continuing to max out our GHG credit cards.

The myth, or perhaps the curse, of technology (efficiency)!

So, there remains the question – as a climate emergency and biodiversity crises stare us in the face – of just when we (our elected officials, licensed businesses, and communities) can act on absolute reductions in energy throughput and material use. Sufficiency reframes the question to a very basic one: how much is enough (and not how much can we get away with).


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