It’s the Growth Paradigm, Stupid

Jevons Paradox

Jevons Paradox is the thorn in the side of energy efficiency nerds everywhere.

Jevons Paradox is the observed phenomenon that gains in energy efficiency lead to increased consumption of energy, ultimately negating the energy “saved” by the efficiency measure.

This rebound effect is explained by the fact that using less fuel to do x decreases the cost to do x. With all things being equal, the demand for x thus increases (we go so far to call this relationship a law).

Jevons Paradox is often presented as evidence that energy efficiency work is futile or even counterproductive. The Amazon.com blurb for David Owen’s new book The Conundrum says that

Efficiency, once considered the holy grail of our environmental problems, turns out to be part of the problem.

I suspect that Owen’s perspective is more nuanced than that, but the quote summarizes a popular misunderstanding of the issue, or at least a popular misframing of the issue.

The reality is that energy efficiency isn’t part of the problem. But thinking that energy efficiency is the solution to energy consumption, carbon emissions, dead polar bears, and drowned cities, is definitely part of the problem, if not the entirety of the problem. Technological innovation alone will not be able to save us; we cannot design our way out of this mess.

So what actually is the problem, and what are we going to do about the negative impacts of energy efficiency?

It’s the Economy, Stupid

This civilization is based on economic growth. The economy runs on energy (fuel). The use (extraction, processing, and consumption) of energy is ripping the planet to bits. It’s not logically possible to reach steady-state energy use in an economy based on continuous growth; our economy requires increasing energy consumption.

There is no way to reconcile our current economic paradigm with a sustainable civilization; no amount of technological wizardry or design cleverness will allow us to have our cake and eat it too for all time.

Jevons himself understood this:

If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity.

He was talking about the British nation, I think; now, of course, we’re talking about humanity. We clearly made the choice to pursue brief but “true” greatness. We the descendents of the hedonists who made that myopic decision are now facing the consequences of the physical impossibility of maintaining such a position.

So what does Jevons Paradox tell us? Well, it tells us what we already know, really. The basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable and needs to be totally remade if we want to have any hope of escaping either a boom & bust cycle (which will wreak havoc on the planet and probably lead to the end of our species) or just skip right to the extinction even that will signal the end of the Anthropocene.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The good news for us energy efficiency nerds is that efficiency can play a role in our future civilization, the one we dream about with a steady-state economy. In a world where people don’t consume resources just because they can, energy efficiency will allow us to serve our basic needs using clean and renewable energy sources (at a far lower energy density than we currently use energy) without gutting the health of the planet. So while the work we’re doing now is at best mitigating the damage done by a destructive industrial system, and at worst increasing the damage, the systems and techniques we’re learning now will serve us in the future. We’re the pioneers of the low-energy, ecotechnic future, if such a thing is possible.

The bad news is that to get there from here requires a radical, deep, and planet-wide change from how we currently operate as a society.

The ugly news is that no one actually thinks we have a sliver of a shot at making this shift gracefully.

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