James Cook sailed from England in August 1768, on the first of the three voyages that would make him famous, and reached Australia two years later. His ship, the Endeavour, was powered by wind, but the trip nevertheless required a huge expenditure of natural resources, not least in the form of human lives.

In 2010, I gave a talk in Melbourne as part of a series of lectures on climate change. My trip to Australia, by contrast with Cook's, was a miracle of efficiency, because my conveyance was the product of many decades of technological innovation.

The plane carried almost five times as many passengers and crew as the Endeavour, required no repairs en route, recorded no casualties, made it from New York to Melbourne in less than 24 hours, and was just one of hundreds of international voyages arriving in the country that day.

My flight consumed a lot of energy; my proportional share of the fuel burned during my round trip was greater than the total energy the average resident of the Earth uses in a year. But the environmental problem with modern flying is not that planes are wasteful; the problem is that, thanks to the steady application of engineering brilliance, we have eliminated so much waste from long- distance journeys that the main impediment to travelling 15,000 kilometres is less likely to be the cost of the ticket than the perceived unpleasantness of spending a day watching movies and sleeping in a cushioned reclining seat.

Today's passenger jets are something like 75 per cent more fuel-efficient than the jets of the early 1960s, and the physics of flying imposes a low ceiling on further advances.

But even if the potential for additional reductions were huge, the main effect of any such innovations would be the same as the main effect of all such innovations since the time of Cook: they would make travel easier, cheaper, more convenient and more attractive, and would therefore encourage us to do more of it.

The only clearly, unambiguously effective method of reducing the carbon and energy footprints of air travel is to fly less – a behavioural change, not a technological one.

We already understand how to fly less: no scientific breakthrough required. But where's the fun in going nowhere? Travel is exciting and romantic and educational, and the livelihoods of millions of people depend on our continuing to do lots of it. So, instead of taking steps to cut back personal mobility we talk about aeronautical innovation and improved efficiency, or we assuage our consciences by making trivial contributions to organisations that promise to "offset" the environmental impact of our wandering.

That's the conundrum.

How many of us would freely choose to transform our lives to the extent necessary to revolutionise our relationship with energy and consumption? And what political, economic or moral force would be strong enough to bring enough of us into line to make a difference?

Beginning in late 2008, something happened that not even the most optimistic environmentalists had been expecting: the world's energy and carbon footprints shrank, and by significant amounts. But those changes didn't occur because the human race had suddenly attained environmental enlightenment. They occurred because the price of oil had risen to record levels and the global economy had tanked.

The world's main emitter of manmade greenhouse gases has always been prosperity, and when times are bad consumers respond by consuming less. Closed factories don't burn coal and, when people lose their jobs, or become worried about losing their jobs, they drive less, turn down their heaters, turn off lights in empty rooms, stop heating their swimming pools, make do without airconditioning, travel less and make fewer impulsive purchases. Even wealthy people hunker down, and the resulting interruption in economic growth slows the pace at which we worsen a long list of environmental troubles. The global recession spread pain through much of the world, but it also put time back on the carbon clock.

No rational person would advocate economic collapse as a climate and energy strategy. The challenge is to find a non-catastrophic way to accomplish the equivalent – to harvest the benefits of falling consumption without human suffering.

That's an especially tough problem because, as recent experience proves, when times are tough even the world's wealthiest nations focus not on perpetuating serendipitous reductions in energy use and carbon output but on making them go away – by cutting energy taxes, bailing out bankrupt manufacturers, reducing the cost of borrowing, encouraging sprawl with incentives to builders and home buyers, weakening environmental controls and opening fragile ecosystems to resource exploitation.

We may believe we care about the world's deepening environmental challenges and are merely waiting for scientists, environmentalists, politicians and others to come to their senses and implement effective solutions on our behalf. In truth, we already know what we need to do, and we have for a long time. We just don't like the answers.

David Owen writes for The New Yorker. This is an edited extract from The Conundrum: How scientific innovation, increased efficiency and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse (Scribe Publications, $19.95).

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