David Owen, 56, is a writer for The New Yorker and Golf Digest, and author of more than a dozen books, including The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. He lives in Washington.
Which word has more worn out its welcome in the American lexicon: Kardashian or sustainability?
[laughs] Sustainability. It’s just become kind of meaningless catch-all. It’s more of a marketing word than a scientific one. It certainly doesn’t mean anything that you could apply to anything that can truly be sustained over a long time—it’s usually a restaurant menu item, a car, some product that it certainly not sustainable over any reasonable period of time.
There are fad words in marketing—“solution” is a similar word. No one makes products any more, they make “solutions.” The word “solution” has probably peaked in marketing, but you still see it everywhere. It doesn’t mean anything any more. When people talk about a sustainable product, they mean “We’re trying to market this to people who are interested in the environment.” There’s no such thing as a sustainable product or a sustainable house or a sustainable individual item. Sustainability is a huge network of interrelated things. It’s global. To talk about a sustainable product is like talking about a one-company economy or a one-person democracy. It doesn’t make any sense. True sustainability is a relationship among resource-using entities.
Many of the solutions you suggest seem counter-intuitive, such as raising energy prices, increasing the size of cities, etc. How can you get people to understand and accept such radical suggestions?
I’m not sure. I think it’s very difficult. I think it’s very hard, especially for us because we’ve enjoyed such tremendous benefits of energy and resource consumption that we’re not very good at thinking about having or using less. We’re terrible at it. So when we talk about so-called “sustainable” solutions, it involves product substitutions. “We’ll use this instead of that. We’ll burn this instead of that.” But those strategies don’t address the underlying problems, which at the bottom, is energy consumption.
How can we realistically go about changing the global mindset to one of less consumption? Is it even possible?
Realistically, I have no idea. I think one of the difficulties is that it’s a problems that’s inconceivably vast. I think that the fallback of everybody—of environmentalists, of climate-change deniers, of pretty much everyone—is that technology will save us. And technology isn’t always a benign force in these matters. Problems innovate, too, and usually they have better funding. An example is the technological innovations that have hugely increased the global supply of natural gas, especially the American supply. And this is even hailed by environmentalists as a good thing because natural gas is a “good” fossil fuel. But it’s still a fossil fuel, and having increased access to an inexpensive fossil fuel does not push us any closer to what a few years ago looked like the only solution. It doesn’t push us any closer to renewable energy.
The re-branding of natural gas has been pretty spectacular. It’s like “the other white meat.” I was just at a conference in Washington, D.C., and heard an energy expert refer to natural gas as “really good for the environment.” This is something that in the book, I call the “Prius Fallacy,” which is the tendency to believe that an activity that is less damaging becomes environmentally valuable in itself. Because a Prius gets more miles to the gallon than a conventional internal-combustion automobile, then driving a Prius is an environmental positive—you’re actually doing something positive for the environment as you’re driving around. There’s a Prius commercial where a Prius drives across this colorless landscape, and as it does, everything bursts into bloom, children with wings hover above children who look like flowers, beautiful music plays and there’s all the colors of the rainbow and everything, and there’s this idea that “Just by driving, I’m vacuuming bad things from the world.”
That’s the position that natural gas is in now. “It’s so good, let’s use more of it.” It’s still a fossil fuel. In some ways, and it’s not clear yet, but it’s possible that if you take it all into consideration, including leakage of uncombusted natural gas into the atmosphere, that it’s a worse greenhouse gas than emissions from a coal-burning power plant.
You extol the ecological benefits of living in a city—a smaller environmental footprint, less fuel consumption, etc.—yet you live in rural Connecticut. Do as I say but not as I do?
Right. Like most of us, I’m just a web of hypocrisy. [laughs] If you’re a connosieur of big carbon footprints, check out the book-store itineraries and frequent flier mile balances of almost any authority on the environment. I went to an environmental conference in Australia about a year-and-a-half ago to speak, and my share of the jet fuel that we burned on the way there would be equal to the total amount of energy that the average human being consumes in a year. There’s the argument that the environmentalist will make that it’s important to go and participate in this event. It’s a huge issue, it really is, but even if someone who is committed to the issue can’t find a way to eliminate that kind of consumption, what possible hope do we have of getting people who are not interested in the issue to change.
I think that most of the steps we take are acts of self-forgiveness. We do things that make us feel better about consumption, but we continue. I’m working on a piece for the The New Yorker about a chemist who is working on artificial photosynthesis—he’s been working on it for decades, trying to recreate in some way what plants do with solar energy. And he says that he’s been thinking about these issues for 30 years, but he hasn’t changed the way that he lives. He thinks the way we all do. If you look around, the tendency is to be like, “Oh, I’m going to eat different tomatoes. I’ll buy a different car.” No one really wants to talk about what it would take to achieve on a global scale the kinds of reductions that we talk about.
We were talking about sustainability earlier. I think for most Americans, sustainability means, “Pretty much the way I live right now, but maybe with a different car.” If you go to a place like the Aspen Ideas Festival, that’s the question people always have. “How am I going to power the car? What kind of car will I be driving?” The questioning doesn’t go beyond that. “What energy sources will I be using to sustain my current life?”
If you wrote a golfing book entitled “Conundrum,” what would it be about?
[laughs] It would be about the game itself. The golf conundrum: Why do I play this game that causes so much frustration. It’s like those experiments you see with pigeons where they peck a color disk and periodically are rewarded with a piece of food. There’s some rate of reward that causes them to persist at it. It’s not every time, it’s not every hundredth time, but there’s a reward just frequently enough to make them keep at it. Golf is like that. You hit a good shot just often enough to make you think that if you applied yourself that you could do it every time. It’s extraordinarily frustrating but it’s not so frustrating for those who play it to give up hope altogether. Somewhere in there is a rate of return on effort—it’s pretty low, but it’s sufficient.
I’ve often said that if I even got a hole in one, I’d stop immediately because I’d know that I’d never get any better than that moment.
I have had a couple of holes in one, and I don’t think of them as the ideal. The perfect thing would be a 400-yard drawing drive. Just a gorgeous, beautiful drive seems more like a random occurrence than a hole in one does. But I think in fact if that situation was to occur, you’d think, “Okay, well I figured that out. Now it’s going to happen all the time.” You’ll just continue your ongoing humiliation.
Best club in your bag?
Right now, I’d say it’s a hybrid golf club by Nike that they don’t make any more. I just wrote a column in Golf Digest complaining about it. A friend and I refer to it as a magic golf club. I don’t know how familiar you are with hybrids, but they’re somewhere between traditional irons and woods. They have bigger heads, and they’re easier to hit. The pros are now carrying them in place of the more traditionally hard to hit irons, things like 2, 3 and 4 irons. It’s my belief that the advantage to hybrids extends all the way down to guys like me.
Favorite golf course in Connecticut?
My favorite is my own, the Washington Golf Club, a little nine-hole golf course in Washington. It’s more than a century old, very small, private club in town that’s so tucked away that there’s many people who live here that don’t even know it’s there. You don’t really see it from anywhere. I really have played the best golf courses in the world, and this is my favorite golf course, and my favorite club. The main thing about any club is the people and I like my gang—mostly middle-aged men who play golf.
You’ve written about a variety of subjects—anything out there you have interest in but just haven’t gotten around to yet?
Oh, there are lots of things. I have a short attention span so one thing I like about journalism is the ability to go on to something else. I’m not sure what the next thing will be. I’ve gotten very interested now, uncharacteristically, in the environment and energy. There’s a number of more topics that I’d like to write about that have to do with that, and I have a couple of pieces coming in The New Yorker that are on that topic. So I guess that’s a little unusual for me, to still be on that. I also have a piece coming in The New Yorker that’s a third personal history I’ve written about growing up in Kansas City. This one is about hurting myself doing various things when I was young.
Are you contrarian by nature?
I must be because several of my books take a non-conventional position on certain topics. My second book was about standardized testing called None of the Above, which had to do with what I still feel are tremendous flaws in our whole standardized testing industry and in culture of testing. The public perception of that industry doesn’t align with the facts. In that case, it’s especially interesting because with the SATs, back in the day, it was hard to get people to even talk about it. One of the things that made college boards and the educational testing service so powerful was that people were intimidated by the idea of the SAT, even many years after they graduated from college, that they didn’t question the sanctity of those test. In those days, it was the position of the college board that you couldn’t improve your score by preparing yourself to take the test—coaching didn’t work. They had a bunch of phony studies reporting that position. But since then, it’s much less unusual to take issue with the college board and the educational testing services, although the perceptions about testing still permeate out society. I think most of the criticisms I made about the SATs and similar test 25 years ago still apply.
I have two sons are 10 and 12 and take the Connecticut Mastery Test regularly, and it seems to me that we’re teaching a generation of kids how to take tests rather than actual subjects.
Very true. The tests are multiple choice and they are like that because that used to be the only kind of test that you could administer to a large group and then economically score. You had to do it with a machine, it was very crude so you had multiple choice questions. No one, then or now, thinks that multiple choice questions are a pedagoguely important tool. It’s just a convenience. It was the only thing that worked. However, it has given multiple choice questions a kind of educational validity it doesn’t deserve. And because we compensate teachers on how the students perform on standardized tests, teachers have huge incentive to teach to those tests. We select our teachers the same way. There’s been an interesting evolution in what used to be called the national teacher exam—it’s got a different name now—but it was given to prospective teachers to see if they had what it took to teach. The content was unrelated to that, but that was the hurdle, and because it was the hurdle, educational programs started teaching to it because it made perfect sense to. And because they began teaching to it, they started using it as an entrance exam to their own program. So it becomes this self-fulling, dumbing down and narrowing of scope in something so important. And the same thing has happened in the classroom. Teachers spend a huge amount of time on it because their own jobs depend on the performance of their students taking this pointless test, the structure of which is determined by which answer is it.
That’s the problem—the answer is already there.
Right! The interesting thing is that the key to beating those tests is . . . for years, I was told that there was nothing you could do to improve your score, you can’t prepare for it. But in fact, there are many things you can do if you learn how the tests are put together. There are lots of guessing strategies that involve knowing the right answer is right there on the page. And all the strategies are contrary to educational values. In math class, students are taught to do all the work, check every step, not to take short cuts, but you have to take short cuts on a timed test, so the simplest thing to do on a standardized math test is to take all the answers and plug them into the formula and see if it works. Your teacher would give you an F if you did that in class. Sometime students who have trouble with standardized tests are very bright students who do it the right way like they do their homework.
Everyone in your family are writers: Who wins on family Scrabble night?
[laughs] We haven’t all played Scrabble together in a while. We’re all pretty evenly matched. But now my kids would have a huge advantage because they play Words with Friends. I haven’t dared to in fear of becoming addicted to something else. In addition to golf, I’m addicted to online bridge. So I play bridge with people from all over the world. It gnaws into my work space.
Both children are writers—did you encourage that or did it just evolve?
We didn’t discourage it, certainly. We read to them a lot. We read to them from when they were very tiny, and constantly. I’m sure that had an influence. They both have been interested in writing from when they were little. I think my wife and I feel guilty about having raised two English majors in this current economy. They have seamlessly—without the wailing and agonizing that people my age do—they are very comfortable with the way the media world is now, which doesn’t have to involve paper.
What’s more convoluted: The solutions to the climate crisis or the politics behind the local planning & zoning board?
The climate crisis for sure. I enjoyed being on the land commission in my town. Washington is about 4,000 people, and I think democracy works incredibly well right up to at least the size of a large high school. Being on the zoning commission was like being on student council. Everybody knows each other. There tends not to be idealogical differences at the local level because all the issues are concrete, so people don’t tend to take theoretical positions on issues like “What’s my neighbor going to build next door to me?” Even a libertarian will object to something that’s offensive, and similarly, you can have somebody who sneers at the Environmental Protection Agency who nonetheless is concerned with the health of the steam that runs across his property. The kind of theoretical issues that tend to divide people on the national level are nowhere near as strong on the local level. I really enjoyed it. I did it for a long time. It was stressful sometimes, and I thought it was time for someone else to get in there, that’s why I retired.
Any thought to getting a book out of it?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve mentioned it at times in various books. I wrote a book called Green Metropolis, with the one about density of cities. One of the reasons we build suburbs the way we do is because of land-use regulations. In The New York Times, I recently saw a story about they’ve changed, but they are still very much the way they were in the early 20th century. They basically arose to accommodate the automobile, to make sure that everyone had a place to park. And they arose because of the automobile, which made it possible for metropolitan areas to separate. You could put people in their house over here, and you could put companies that made noise or gave off smoke, over there. It’s very appealing, but it has environmental consequences, part of the problems we’re wrestling with.
Why isn’t high-speed rail between New Haven and Springfield a good idea?
The answer to this question is a complex answer. Anything we do that makes it easier for people to move around has environmental consequences. When we talk about transportation and the environment, our solutions almost always involve making it less expensive, less frustrating, more enjoyable for ourselves. We want to get rid of traffic jams, we want to reduce commuting time over long distances, we want to increase our comfort as we go, we don’t like stopping at toll booths, we don’t like sitting in traffic, we don’t want to sit in traffic on the way to work, but one unintended consequence of alleviating those annoyances is that we make ourselves even more likely to travel long distances. It’s one of these paradoxical results. The thing that I say in the book is that traffic congestion isn’t an environmental problem, it’s a driving problem. Driving is the environmental problem. If you take steps to merely alleviate the driving problem of congestion, you’ve actually made the underlying environmental problem worse because you increase the willingness of people to use their car to travel from one place to another. And that’s carries lots and lots of direct environmental consequences with it, in addition to the fuel that those cars consume.
The problem with high-speed rail is that for every person who you pull off of I-91 along the route of that high-speed train, you make I-91 more attractive to another driver because now the congestion on that road is reduced by one. So you end up, if the rail is successful, of creating more space on the road, which will fill—that’s the history of roads. You kind of alleviate the problem that makes people think that it’d be a good idea to run a train along that route, and as you do that, you encourage people to come in and fill those spaces on the road. This is the problem that engineers have dealt with. When you add another lane, you don’t make traffic jams go away, you make new traffic jams later at higher traffic volumes because people will fill that road. That’s the history of highway construction.
The green thing to do would be to tear up I-91 and make everyone who would use it between New Haven and Springfield take the train, assuming that they had a way to get around when they got there. But no one wants that. If you’re a driver, the best thing that could happen would be that everyone who’s making your life miserable went and got on the train so you could speed along in your car, which of course, you’d rather take.
You advocate the benefits of “dense, efficiently organized cities,” but what if you just don’t like people?
There’s no guarantee with any of this that people will actually like it. I love living far from people so I can walk down my driveway in my underpants to get my paper. We Americans like the way we live for many reasons. The difficulty is that we consume grotesque proportion of the world’s resources, and if we want to do anything about that, we have to look at the other side, too. There’s no environmental solution that guarantees the American lifestyle for 7 billion people. You have to shift the pieces around, and you can’t do that without shifting the big piece, which is us.
Do you think people will ever truly care enough to change consumption habits?
I think it’s unlikely that a world’s worth of people will modify their behavior in a way that will cause us to leave known quantities of fossil fuels in the ground forever. I think that the only force strong enough to move large numbers of people is economics. It has a price. It gets into an even nastier problem: How do you make consumption more expensive for people who consume too much without putting it entirely out of reach of people who don’t consume enough, who don’t have access to health care or any electricity—the very base level of modern convenience? I don’t know what the solution to the problem is, but that’s the problem. How do you make 130 million people in India who have no electricity, how do you make it cheap enough for them without making it even cheaper for us, which would negatively amplify our impact on the globe. There’s no solution. It certainly would necessitate cooperation on a global scale that would be unprecedented. But not impossible. I think it’s that for reason that people tend to latch onto to environmental “busywork.” The thing I say in The Conundrum is that it’s easy to look busy on environmental issues. There’s lots of things you can do—promote efficiency, drive a different car, eat different food. We can do all these things. It’s easy to do these things, and that’s how we console ourselves or make us feel that we’re addressing the issues, but in fact, in many cases, we’re making it worse by amplifying our negative environmental impact.