UPDATED with new photo on May 6, 2011
Let’s say you’ve sold your old, leaky house and moved into a new, well-insulated home with Energy Star appliances. With all of its efficiency improvements, your new home requires 30% less energy than your old home. That’s got to be good for the planet, right?
Well, maybe not — especially if you save so much on your energy bills that you decide to fly to Florida for your next vacation.
A new book, The Myth of Resource Efficiency, casts serious doubts on the idea that efficiency improvements will lead to lower levels of energy consumption. The book focuses on the “rebound effect” — the increase in energy use that often follows energy efficiency improvements. (For more on the rebound effect, see “Getting More Efficient, But Using More Energy”.)
The authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency — John Polimeni, Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampietro, and Blake Alcott — identify William Stanley Jevons as the first economist to describe the rebound effect. In his 1865 book, The Coal Question, Jevons explained the mechanism whereby energy efficiency improvements lead to increased energy consumption: “If the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.”
“Let’s use more!”
One hundred and forty-four years ago, Jevons wrote, “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.” Economists now refer to this principle as the Jevons Paradox.
The Jevons Paradox takes many forms:
As Joseph Tainter explains in the forward to The Myth of Resource Efficiency, “An action taken to conserve resources reduces the cost of daily life to such an extent that entirely different kinds of environmental damage become affordable.”
In 1865, Jevons correctly predicted that the development of more efficient ways to harness the power of coal would lead to an increase in coal burning. Worried that Britain’s supplies of easily mined coal would be exhausted, Jevons suggested that Britain prepare for coming fuel shortages by (in Tainter’s words) “using the coal-given prosperity for posterity and for a sort of soft landing at coal’s limits.”
Is efficiency part of the solution or part of the problem?
The Jevons Paradox represents a serious challenge to the energy efficiency community. “The Jevons Paradox questions the pervasive assumption — common in colloquial discourse and even in many academic discussions — that sustainability emerges as a passive consequence of consuming less,” Tainter writes. “This assumption comes in two versions. The pessimistic version suggests that it is necessary for people voluntarily to reduce their resource consumption in order to become more sustainable. Examples might include taking shorter or colder showers, using public transportation, drinking tap water rather than bottled, or eating less meat. … The optimistic version…is that a future of technological innovations and the shift to a service-and-information economy will reduce our consumption of resources to such an extent that we will become sustainable without requiring people to sacrifice the things that they enjoy. … This is exactly the assumption that Jevons showed to be false.”
Communities that have a low environmental impact and live in harmony with nature are not particularly efficient. Our planet’s future is being threatened not by traditional rural communities with old-fashioned methods of livelihood, but rather by industrial economies where efficiencies are highest.
The authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency note, “The idea that ‘an increase in energy efficiency always promotes sustainability’ is very simplistic.”
In praise of higher taxes
If efficiency won’t save us, what will? One possible response to the Jevons Paradox is to enact higher energy taxes. According to Tainter, however, such taxes will never fly in the U.S.: “The Jevons Paradox cannot be circumvented through voluntary restraint or any other laissez-faire approach. Giampietro and Mayumi suggest that taxes could make up for any savings introduced by efficiency improvements, thereby avoiding the paradox. In the United States, at least, this approach is politically infeasible, but the general principle is sound.”
I agree with the authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency that we need higher energy taxes, but I disagree with their dismissal of voluntary restraint. Higher taxes will help, but a solution to our global climate crisis will also require a movement towards voluntary simplicity, as advocated by Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi.
Ã€ la recherche des loisirs perdus
A move toward voluntary simplicity would not only benefit the planet — it might also provide us with more leisure time. (An excellent short video by Peter Smith explores the link between the Jevons Paradox and the disappearance of leisure.) As anthropologists point out, every improvement in economic efficiency — including the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and the transition from agriculture to factory work — has been accompanied by a decrease in leisure. In The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light, William Irwin Thompson noted, “With a labor of a mere fifteen hours a week, hunters and gatherers can provide for all their needs.”
The “disappearing leisure” problem was memorably described in an essay, The Original Affluent Society, by American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins wrote, “Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s — in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.”
Needless to say, I’m not calling for a return to hunting and gathering. I’m calling instead for the voluntary adoption of a simpler lifestyle: one with less work, fewer possessions, and more leisure time. A graceful transition to such a lifestyle would be the greatest possible gift to our children and grandchildren.
Last week’s blog: “Solar Hot Water.”