The Efficiency Nightmare A Review of The Efficiency Trap: Finding a Better Way to Achieve a Sustainable Energy Future by Steve Hallett

efficiency trapIn The Efficiency Trap: Finding a Better Way to Achieve a Sustainable Energy Future (Prometheus Books), author Steve Hallett challenges the almighty quest for efficiency, asking “What if the virtuous Prius driver consumes more energy than the jerk in the Hummer?” Hallett, an associate professor at Purdue University, calls efficiency “the worst nightmare of the environmental movement.” He starts at the beginning of civilization, tying each efficient step forward in human history to its environmental consequence. Advanced weapons brought the downfall of megafauna; efficient wood harvesting meant forest depletion.

From fossil fuels—on which two-thirds of the world’s energy depends—to fast transportation, to exploding monoculture crops, more efficient production, Hallett argues, comes with devastating environmental consequences. But could the Hummer really be greener than the Prius? Not in terms of emissions, but the total life cycle of each vehicle tells a different story. Drawing on data from CNW Marketing Research, he notes that manufacturing costs for the Prius are high because it uses more advanced materials that are shipped from various parts of the world. What’s more, it relies on a nickel-halide battery, and nickel mining and smelting carries a heavy pollution cost. Battery disposal is also an environmental problem. Hallett doesn’t conclude that the Hummer is a greener vehicle, but that neither vehicle is a real win for the environment.

The Efficiency Trap successfully shifts the conversation away from efficiency as an end-all-be-all to advocate for more livable cities, hydroelectricity over solar and wind, sustainable farming in place of consolidated mega-farms and a return to mom and pop stores. Hallett concludes that the only solution to unlocking the efficiency trap is to embrace sustainability on all fronts—to mimic the natural world, in other words, and adapt already.