An Introduction to the Jevons Paradox

The Jevons Paradox, first observed by William Stanley Jevons in the 19th century, describes the phenomenon by which consumption of a resource increases in response to advances in the efficiency by which that resource is used, sometimes negating the efficiency gain altogether.

From Wikipedia:

The Jevons paradox was first described by the English economist William Stanley Jevons in his 1865 book The Coal Question. Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Watt’s innovations made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. Jevons argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use: “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

At that time many in Britain worried that coal reserves were rapidly dwindling, but some experts opined that improving technology would reduce coal consumption. Jevons argued that this view was incorrect, as further increases in efficiency would tend to increase the use of coal. Hence, improving technology would tend to increase, rather than reduce, the rate at which England’s coal deposits were being depleted.

From Our Energy Futures:

The Jevons paradox (not to be confused with the Rebound Effect, which is the reductionistic view of this phenomenon) states that if a system gains the possibility of using more energy, through increases in efficiency, it will use this opportunity to “do more” – exploring new activities and expanding the set of functions, which can be expressed – rather than “doing the same, while consuming less”. This paradox (more efficiency leads to more consumption), stated by Jevons in the first half of the 20th century, has proved right over and over in several applications. This implies that it is very naive to expect that technical improvement in efficiency will lead “per se” to lower consumption of energy. The truth is that sustainability is not a technical issue, but a cultural one

The Jevons Paradox is based on a foundation principle of Economics: Any time one reduces the cost of consuming a valued resource, people will respond by consuming more of it. Or people will consume more of something else, resulting in perhaps no net savings or even greater overall consumption. As the noted journalist Eric Sevareid once said, “The chief cause of problems is solutions.”

In response to a really terrible Grist article on the subject:

Though Jevon’s Paradox may not apply to every situation, I think there is plenty of evidence that Jevon’s Paradox applies to *many* situations. Therefore, it is worthy of being acknowledged and studied, and anybody who tries to off-handedly throw it out (as I feel Grist often does) is making a mistake.

Now, assume we believe Jevon’s Paradox to be true. Then this is the point so many people miss because they polarize this issue into either we should do nothing or do everything:

Technological efficiency is good but ONLY if it is accompanied by corresponding policy and the ensuing behavioral change to make sure the efficiency is truly harnessed rather than being exploited to consume more.

This means that efficiency without policy and behavioral change will demonstrate Jevon’s Paradox, whereas that accompanied with smart policy and behavioral change will cut consumption. I think Grist and its writers are so afraid of acknowledging Jevon’s Paradox because they believe people’s response to it will be: hey, let’s just keep making things more efficient and not worry about anything else, and everything will work out. And if this were true, then we should indeed be worried (after all, our main problems on this planet are social/political/behavioral, not technological). But here is why Grist drives me nuts on this issue: it’s not that extreme. We need to acknowledge that efficiency by itself is useless. In other words, improved technological efficiency is absolutely no excuse to fight the real battle: changing our behavior via better policy and social institutions.

In short, Jevons Paradox exists, and it is observable. The debate, though, is where and to what extent it applies to any given system, and what kind of systems (micro- or macro- seems to be the question) it tends to apply to. And then there’s just some people, like the author of the Grist piece, who get offended by it and call it names.

Have you ever seen the Jevons Paradox in action in your life?

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2 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Jevons Paradox

  1. Pingback: A Zero-Waste Case Against Proprietary Software and Surveillance | Zero Waste Millennial

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