Steve Hallett, a professor of botany at Purdue University, annoys a lot of people both in and out of the environmental activism community. His basic philosophy, which is boldly and entertainingly laid out in his book The Efficiency Trap, is simply this: “Stop trying to save the world, it’s not working.”
Sounds demoralizing, eh? After all, so many of us work so hard to make change, to influence the reduction of fossil fuel emissions, of consumerism and waste, now along comes some dude telling us we might as well give up. Hallett’s perspective is basically this: the world is too far gone at this point: Too many people, a lack of leadership and a corporate commitment to burning all the fossil fuels left in the ground. This combination will surely wreck the ecosystem for not just people, but for much of organic life.
Others, however, like myself, find his philosophy liberating. Every day I question my continued commitment to our deteriorating planet. So it’s kind of nice to hear someone say there’s no point to it, because on my darker days, I feel that way. There are too many people, too much greed, corrupt leaders, plus it’s so easy to not care.
In the prologue, Hallett states his premise, that the idea of efficiency “is the worst nightmare of the environmental movement” and that “new technologies can never save the world.”
The problem, as he points out, is that we are “conflating efficiency with conservation.” Conservation — using less, stepping with a lighter footprint upon the earth — could have enormous benefits. But efficiency just leads us to consume more.
Shall we surrender?
So what to do? Surrender? In a sense, yes, if what we’re trying to do is continue our current, profligate lifestyles. Hallett’s book hammers home the idea that it is simply impossible to keep it up. Big Biz won’t leave those valuable fossil fuel resources in the ground, and our consumer demand will keep on growing as developing countries embrace the consumption ideals established in the United States in the past half century or more.
But Hallett is not about to give up. To face the truth of the enormity of our energy problems, and to juxtapose that truth with the reality of human nature, is to be liberated from the burden of the big picture. “No system that consumes the volumes of resources that we consume,” Hallett maintains, “and dumps the volumes of waste that we dump can every be remotely sustainable.” He concludes, “We can not sustain this model of civilization and should not even try. The longer we succeed in keeping it alive, the more damage it will cause…”
The key is to take care of the small picture. Pick your battles. Save what you can: land, for example. Build resiliency. Recycle. Develop renewable energy — but keep it localized and decentralized. None of these approaches will “prevent the overall collapse, but it will soften the landing.”
I’ll admit that it’s frightening to read a sensible, practical scientist talk about “collapse,” but Hallett does so in an effort to inspire us to right-thinking, and improved behavior. However, he doesn’t sugar coat, and imply these changes will make a difference on a scale that matters to the overall culture.
These changes do, however, make a difference to you and your neighbors.
[The above is excerpted from a blog posting originally published in Indiana Living Green magazine in August 2013. See http://www.indianalivinggreen.com/steve-halletts-the-efficiency-trap/ for the original full text.]
Jim Poyser is the Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana and the featured speaker at 2014 Living Lightly Fair.