Problem 7 - The Fallacy of Efficiency

red Mini Cooper on the streets of Paris

   This post is part of the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   Efficiency gains can only take us so far... or so it seems. But they can’t even do that, when you really get to the facts. Because there’s an insidious little problem known as the Fallacy of Efficiency, which states that as things become more efficient, we tend to use them more. In other words, if we’re driving a more efficient car, we’re more likely to drive it further distances. Or if the light bulbs are so efficient, what’s the big deal with turning them off when we’re not using them? This highlights the fact that it’s actually more important to change our minds (and then to change our behavior) than it is to change our gadgets.

   My own experience is a good example. I once lived in a place that was almost completely unwalkable. Between the two of us, Wanda and I drove about 48,000 miles a year in two cars. We moved to Miami Beach in 2003 to work more closely with the many New Urbanists here, and our driving habits changed immediately because the place is so walkable. We live five blocks from the office; I walk, while Wanda bikes so she can carry our two miniature dachshunds in the front basket so they don’t make the trip a 30-minute sniffing expedition. Our office is within two blocks of three neighborhood groceries, and our home is four blocks from Whole Foods, so the front basket and two saddlebag baskets on the bike are good for almost all grocery trips. Our bank is five blocks from the office. The hardware store is two blocks away; the post office is across the street. The drug store is two blocks away. And once we moved here, I lost 60 pounds because of all the walking. Here’s the building where we have our office: It has a Starbucks on one end, a pub on the other, and a Crunch gym above, and lots of other businesses in between:

   But I digress... the real point here is efficiency. We now crank the car roughly twice a week, and drive less than 6,000 miles per year. That’s one eighth as much as we drove before. If we wanted to achieve the same reduction in gasoline use with a more efficient car instead, while still driving 48,000 miles a year, we’d have to have a car that was 8 times as efficient as my Accord and Wanda’s CRV. Or, in percentage terms, that’s 800% as efficient. Remember the green line on the chart a few pages back that is labeled “Towards Sustainability,” but is considered an impossible dream? Well, the green line is an efficiency increase of just under 5% per year. So when we moved to South Beach, the effect was 160 times better (800/5) than the impossible dream of efficiency! Let that sink in a minute: one hundred and sixty times better than efficiency’s impossible dream!

   This is not to say that we should not have more efficient cars, machines, and light bulbs. Efficiency is fine if you want to ease your conscience, but it is a losing strategy for achieving sustainability. If our behavior doesn’t change, then our machines can’t save us. And if our behavior does change, then those savings will dwarf the efficiency savings. And in my own experience, our behavior did not change because we suddenly felt that it was our duty to walk everywhere, but because it is so much fun to walk all over South Beach. Put another way, the best way to change behavior is with enticement.

~ Steve Mouzon


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020