the Jevons paradox
April 8, 2011, 1:15 am
Filed under: betaCITY, Cities, Energy | Tags: , , ,

Increased efficiency doesn’t lead to less consumption, but more explains David Owen in his essay the Efficiency Dilemma excerpted below.  To reduce consumption you need law; technical advancements alone won’t achieve reductions in per capita energy and materials consumption.  It’s a logical axiom which strangely is virtually nonexistent in our discourse and in jurisprudence.  We’re law averse and big believers in technology and markets, so in some ways it makes sense.  But fundamentally, it shows a profound and comprehensive willful ignorance.

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question, 1865

The steadily declining cost of refrigeration has made almost all elements of food production more cost-effective and energy-efficient. But there are environmental downsides. Most of the electricity that powers the world’s refrigerators is generated by burning fossil fuel. Since the mid-nineteen-seventies, per-capita food waste in the United States has increased by half, so that we now throw away forty per cent of all the edible food we produce. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded.


In the United States, we now use roughly as much electricity to cool buildings as we did for all purposes in 1955. The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but it also makes distant destinations seem closer, thereby enabling people to live in sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where they work and shop.

David Owen, The Efficiency Dilemma, abstract, The New Yorker


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