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Musings of an Energy Nerd

The Jevons Paradox

How efficiency improvements lead to increased energy consumption

U.S. energy consumption continues to rise. In spite of continuing efficiency improvements that allow manufacturers to reduce the energy required per unit of production, we’re using more energy every year.
Image Credit: Energy Information Administration

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:

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  1. zZfihYkmcT | | #1

    Carbon Tax
    A thought provoking article, Martin. Seems to me a carbon tax is the answer to overconsumption, the green castle has been an issue not addressed.

  2. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #2

    Start sharpening your spears everyone.
    Martin, you've convinced me to stop what I am currently doing and start hunting and gathering 15 hours per week for all my needs. It sounds like everything else we do is futile. I hope squirrel tastes good.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Squirrel tastes good
    Just don't eat squirrel brains. Human ingestion of squirrel brains is a known form of transmission for Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a type of spongiform encephalopathy related to mad cow disease. Several unfortunate squirrel lovers in Kentucky acquired Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in 1997 by eating ALL of the squirrel.

  4. Marshall Sohne | | #4

    I think eventually all
    I think eventually all consumers of fossil fuels will need to pay the full cost of these fuels including the external costs to society. This probably will bring the true cost of a gallon of gasoline to more than 15 dollars a gallon or maybe double that. I dont think we should consider this a tax but the withdrawal of a subsidy. By artificially keeping the price of the fossil fuels low we have sent a signal to consumers to buy the larger house and to be wasteful with respect to these subsidized resources. I think if we reflected the true cost of these fuels in their price the cost of using more sustainable alternatives would comparatively make a lot more sense. Whenever I see the pay back periods calculated here for PV or for Solar Hot Water we always come up short because we are comparing the highly subsidized price of hydrocarbons against additional cost associated with alternative or sustainable energy.
    I guess also as a society we need to be educated to understand wasteful consumption is wrong. Sort of like its not cool to smoke. We also have to make sure our financial system incentives are not slanted towards infinite expansion in order to sustain ourselves as a society. I dont know if it is true but I was told in school that the reason that wine is 12.5% alcohol is result of the fermentation process. Apparently when yeast breaks down the sugar and converts the same to alcohol (the waste product of their consumption) they will continue this process until this waste product becomes toxic to them (12.5%). Lets hope we can do better and not have to rely on natures self regulating
    mechanisms. I seem pretty clear a a society we need to radically change our values and the way we do things. We dont have the luxury to continue they way we have in the past and we dont have the luxury to continue on a path towards unlimited human expansion and I have to assume reality will eventually create enough discomfort to provide the political will to change.

  5. Bonnie Pickartz | | #5

    I believe people are building smaller homes. There was a survey by the AIA last year and architects are seeing smaller homes. In our business, more people come in the door thinking about a smaller home as part of their move to use less energy.

  6. Brent Eubanks | | #6

    Exceptions to Jevons
    Jevons' Paradox is real, and a real problem for people interested in sustainability. But there is a way around it, which highlights the (in my opinion) fundamental difference between incremental and radical efficiency.

    Savings in the 10-30% range, typical of what green buildings typically try to achieve, are what I think of as incremental efficiency improvements. These are worthwhile, no question, but they don't change the long term story because these savings are readily eaten up by Jevons, and also by simple increases in population and/or prosperity.

    Savings in the 70-90% range, on the other hand, can change the nature of the game. Radical efficiency can reduce your energy use intensity to the point where it is possible to rely on renewable energy. That means current solar income to the site, in the context of low energy use applications, or imported energy in the form of biogas, offsite solar, etc in the context of higher intensity buildings.

    Note that I said "can" not "will". It's still possible to be unsustainable at very low energy use intensities. My point is that radically reducing that intensity is a necessary precondition to real sustainability. It's really hard to do, but it does get you around Jevons.

  7. user-669103 | | #7

    Just don't eat squirrel brains!
    Martin, that's probably the most important thing I've learned from you!
    Because if the darn squirrels eat my peaches and pears again next year I was thinking of putting them on the menu!

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Prosperity is part of the problem
    I hope you're right. The subtlety of the Jevons Paradox is that it accounts for the basic problem of prosperity. In other words, someone who acquires a house that uses 80% less energy than other houses suddenly has more disposable income, and is therefore likely to buy more stuff or go on more vacations.

    As the Peter Smith video I linked to makes clear, the Europeans have done a better job at addressing this fundamental paradox than we have. Not only have Europeans established higher energy taxes than the U.S., they have mandated longer paid vacations. That's why so many people in Germany, France, and Denmark enjoy four, five, or six weeks of paid vacation every year.

    Unless we realize the need to trade our increased productivity (efficiency) for more leisure, the way the Europeans have, we will continue to be drowning in more stuff every year. And the planet's atmosphere will continue to accumulate larger amounts of CO2.

  9. Allison A. Bailes III | | #9

    Jevons's Paradox & peak oil
    The peak oil community has known about Jevons's Paradox for a long time, and it's an integral part of the discussion there. I'm glad to see it starting to come up here in the green building community now, too. As you say, Martin, it really is subtle, and many people who think they've found a way around it really haven't at all.

    Jevons assures us that voluntary measures won't cut it, so because we in the US are stubbornly anti-tax, no matter the consequences, we'll just have to wait for the energy supply problems to hit. That's my biggest motivation for promoting and working on reduced energy usage. I want to delay the time when energy shortages hit, and I want to have as many people as possible living in homes that will do well in a low-energy world.

    Yes, I said shortages. When you look at the numbers for how much energy we get from petroleum and how much energy we might get if we ramped up all the available alternatives, the only logical conclusions are that either we're going to experience shortages or there's going to have to be a technological miracle. And more technology, as stated above, only accelerates the problem.

    If you think that this won't affect our homes because they don't run on oil, think again. As the oil problems worsen, our transportation system will switch over to using more electricity. It's already happening. Plug-in hybrid, anyone? More demand for electricity means higher prices and more rapid depletion of coal.

    Thank you for raising this important issue, Martin.

  10. Kevin Gerrity | | #10

    Energy Efficiency
    The problem is many do not understand the amount of waste we already are consuming. Many think that Green Building will only save between 10%-30%. They could not be so wrong and are thinking in such a small way. We waste around 40-75% even with today's practices, simply because the "Pay Back" is really unknown.

    Here is a study that shows how we ignore the reality around us.

    I will also try and find another study that talks about including the process from start to finish that again is ignored.

    We need to stop with low cost solutions and start to take energy efficiencies more seriously. If we don't we will be left with the programmable T-stat and how it killed the planet.......

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Efficiency to the rescue?
    I'm not sure how the study you cite illuminates the issue we're discussing. The ACEEE study trumpets the strides made in improving efficiency and proposes areas where further efficiency improvements can be easily achieved. But I'm not sure I agree with the authors' assumptions that efficiency improvements will get us where we need to go.

    According to the study's executive summary, "these figures indicate that, as a nation, we are clearly making positive strides toward increasing our energy productivity and reducing our carbon footprint."

    Well, it's true that we've increased our energy productivity. However, it is NOT true that we have reduced our carbon footprint -- so I believe it's a little early to congratulate ourselves on "making positive strides toward ... reducing out carbon footprint."

  12. Anonymous | | #12

    Jevons Paradox

    This may demonstrate that energy conservation cannot be a unilaterally undertaken by any industry within an industrialized society.

    While reduced energy costs may allow more leisure time activities, improvements in fuel efficient / alternative fuel automobiles and jets, can result in more vacation travel (quality of life) at a lower cost in energy terms per passenger mile, than was seen before.

    Hopefully we will see larger refrigerators that use less electricity than older, smaller ones, resulting in fewer trips to the grocery store. A net energy savings.

    The home that I live in now, uses less than half the electricity and gas as did my previous and much older home that was less than half the size.

    While energy efficiencies in one segment may shift demand into another segment, a societal approach to continuous improvement in energy use will put the net outcome in the "win" column.

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Refrigerator size
    I wish I could be as confident as you that "larger refrigerators that use less electricity than older, smaller ones" will result in "fewer trips to the grocery store."

    I don't really think that larger refrigerators will do what you hope. In Europe, where refrigerators are small, daily shopping expeditions are possible because the infrastructure supports shopping on foot or by bicycle. In the US, we seem (in most residential areas) locked into a "big refrigerator, big vehicle, and big distant supermarket" model. Now, in hopes of reducing the frequency of shopping, you suggest that one possible solution is "bigger refrigerators." I don't think so. (By the way, your bread will be stale and your vegetables won't be fresh -- unless you bake bread and have a garden. But then baking bread and having a garden is an entirely different solution from buying a bigger refrigerator.)

  14. Anonymous | | #14


    Perhaps I did not state myself clearly. I am not saying that larger refrigerators are a solution to energy usage. The article states that improvements in energy efficiencies has resulted in larger refrigerators that use more energy. I merely said that there are larger refrigerators today, that use less energy than the smaller ones of yesteryear. The use of larger refrigerators is not necessarily a bad thing.

    The benefits of the larger refrigerator can be extended when considering its larger storage capacity. If you had a smaller 1950's style refrigerator and a family of 5 or 6, you can imagine the number of trips of the store you would have to make weekly.

    Unlike European communities, the US is characterized by urban sprawl where groceries and other supplies are not readily accessible except by automobile. One can argue that average refrigerator size is inversley proportional to good urban planning. In other words, the less green and sustainable a community, the greater the need for larger refrigerators.

    Back to the main thrust of my statement, in order to compensate for the shifts in energy usage within a society that Jevon notes, that society must realize that each segment is part of an energy chain that must be continuously improved. (i.e. you cannot improve energy efficiencies in homes, and not address energy efficiency in automobiles....and so forth). While the shifts will occur, the net result is reduced energy usage across the board.

  15. Allison A. Bailes III | | #15

    Such a simple idea...
    Use any resource more efficiently, and you deplete it more quickly. It doesn't seem so hard to understand, yet most people just can't seem to wrap their minds around the truth of it. Just look at the comments above--smaller houses, exceptions to Jevons, bigger fridges leading to fewer trips to the grocery store.

    I believe it boils down to a false premise that we've been led to base our thinking on: indefinite growth. Our economy and our society are based on the idea that we can have economic expansion ad infinitum. As long as we live on a finite planet, however, that ain't gonna happen.

    As Kenneth Boulding says, "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."

  16. Rick | | #16

    Jevon, Peak Oil, Peak Capitalism, Peak People
    I haven't read every last word of this thread, and there may now be or has already been some digression, but I think Allison hit bingo with her second paragraph. I think I heard BINGO all up and down this thread--some were playing at home at some at a big church. I'm sure there are others in the new-to-me Peak Capitalism discussion, but I ran into the link below where the author summarizes his book about it. I can criticize or disagree with some of the details of the author's summary, but the general idea he presents adds up to me. Very bottom line: Peak People (maybe you heard it right here, first). We are so efficient as a renewable resource that it's killing us.

  17. Rick | | #17

    correction to above Rick post
    ["some were playing at home at some at a big church"] should be "some were playing at home and some at a big meeting hall." I want to leave any reference to any big church out of it--that was just my bad figure of speech.

  18. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

    The folly of indefinite growth
    I agree with you and Kenneth Boulding that "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."

    In a previous blog, I wrote, "The ultimate cap on growth is the carrying capacity of the planet — an unknown value that we approach at our peril. Over the long term, it’s clearly unsustainable for every American manufacturer, retailer, and home builder to hope for continuing growth, year after year. At some point, any economy based on unending growth will hit a brick wall."

  19. Anonymous | | #19

    Flat Carbon Tax
    If you really want to ensure the reduction of negative environmental impact a flat carbon tax needs to be implemented. It will not only shift consumer preference away from carbon intensive products and services, but it will also spur greater innovation on the part of companies in those industries in order to stay competitive. This is unlike cap and trade in which progress is exchanged for special interest groups and where the dirtiest industries can just buy credits instead of doing the right thing which would be to invest in change.

  20. Julian Miller | | #20

    Isolated Variables and other fallacies with this reasoning
    Fact of the matter is that this article and the views of many of the comments do not take into consideration of other variables in the mix here. This article looks at consumption as a single variable dependent only on the cost of that consumption. Lets face it consumers have plenty of options of what to spend their money on, if the price of one good goes down, it does allow them to buy more of it, but it also allows them to buy other non-related goods which they would prefer to spend their money on.

    Additionally Jevons' Theory doesn't take into consideration factors such as the rise of consumer goods, the rise of manufactured goods, Increased social mobility, and increased discretionary income among other social and economic trends over the last century. This article ignores the big picture and tries to make correlations while ignoring other variables that have direct impact on them.

    I do agree completely with the last post concerning a flat carbon tax.

  21. Kevin A Gerrity | | #21

    Jevons Paradox

    Jevons Paradox is really the evoltuion of human beings, nothing new this has been going on since time began. I do not see anyone changing that enough to have a real effect on our consumption by just making this simpler. I don't see many getting rid of the digtal alarm clock for the old wide up type....

    My issue is we haven't done enough, not even close to reduce our energy waste. Today I can install 78% efficient furnace or an 80% efficient boiler, over size it, install it improperly and there is no one to stop me... Taxing won't help either just look at cars people are still buy SUV and other gas guzzlers....

    What we need to start doing is increasing the Building regulations to reflect the technology of today. If we continue to allow people to chose the lower efficencies based primarily on cost we will continue to consume more and continue with a high carbon Footprint. In many countries in Europe if your system falls below 90% efficient you must replace it and they have inspections (Combustion analysis) twice a year.

    Europe has had a longer time at cutting the consumption of fossil fuels why do we think there is a short cut? Carbon taxes will only do one thing raise the cost....

  22. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #22

    Other variables, flat carbon tax, and stricter building codes
    Of course you're right that the Jevons Paradox doesn't account for all variables. The world is always changing. People make decisions for a variety of reasons — including their religious beliefs, their level of environmental awareness, and their perception of vulnerability to military attack, to name just three. The Jevons Pardox doesn't pretend to be a strictly predictive algorithm to describe energy use. It is a general principle, however, that explains why efficiency improvements have not historically resulted in lower levels of energy consumption.

    I agree that a flat carbon tax — or even a progressively rising carbon tax — makes more sense than a cap-and-trade system. Enough said.

    I think that the discussion of the merits of a carbon tax compared to the merits of stricter building codes is not an either-or debate. Let's have both.

  23. Randy Wilson | | #23

    Let's be practical.
    Jullian Miller's post is the only practical thought here (minus the carbon tax). When we focus on one variable, all other variables change. We can expect a reaction to every action. There have been few taxes enacted that have gained the desired results via American behavioral changes. Cigarettes are $6 a pack, but smoking decline is extremely small or non-existent. So do we say, "At least the smokers are paying for their habit today and their medical bills in the future"? If so, then why are we talking about universal health care at $900 Billion? Maybe smokers are not the only, let's tax sugary drinks, fast food, and any other product that does not meet the ideal calorie:carb:sugar:protein ratio quotient (you heard it here first). Maybe then then big corporations will quit making these products and we all will only need health care in our old age. That's not going to help, so we now need to .... when will the governement interference end?

    If we all start driving cars with 50 mpg capabilities will we drive more? I doubt it. We drive because we have places to go. I have never said, "Hey, gas is cheap so let's drive around the outerbelt for fun." The more miles we drive, the more maintenance we will need and the sooner we will need to replace our car. Thus, negating the cost savings. Furthermore, the total income from gas taxes will decline and the government will not tax our miles and our gas. (action - reaction)

    If we enact stricter building codes, fewer people will build. Again, I don't build because I'm bored. We build becasue we have a need. Commercial development is needed to expand business. Therefore, a commercial development is a profit/loss formula. The more the building costs, the less likley the company will expand. No expansion, no new jobs. (Action - Reaction).

    As a homeowner, if the cost to rennovate or build new is 10% more expensive, then I will save more money before I move/rennovate or I will stay put. Inaction = fewer jobs.

    We should be incentivizing good behavior not penalizing bad behavior. If the US government wants to effect the amount of energy consumed by our structures, they should give a tax credit for LEED projects. The less energy used and CO2 spewed, the larger the tax credit. This way we can choose to do the right thing. The key word is choose.

    Given a LEED project can cost upwards to 10% more than a non-LEED project and it has a payback of 6 to 10 years; why not split the savings via property tax (and/or employment tax/income tax) reduction? Now the payback is 3 to 5 years.

    1) If you believe cash for clunkers was a hit, this is right up your alley.
    2) This will increase 'green jobs' in the construction industry.
    3) This will apply to new and rennovation projects (residential and commercial).
    4) LEED AP's will be instant Green Czars.
    5) Liberals will love this because we will need a few million gov't workers to monitor this program.

    Lastly, striving for a balance is key. We all need to be conscious of our actions and the results of our actions. Modern 'energy consuming' conveniences allow us to spend time pontificating these very subjects. Most Americans only have time to provide for themselves and family. They are thankful to have a roof, meal, transportation and a source of income. Forcing more taxes on them to buy new cars, buy new appliances, pay a carbon tax, etc. will only hinder their ability to become self sufficient. How will a carbon tax help our fellow citizens that are living paycheck to paycheck? We will kill our economy and the American dream quicker with carbon taxes than we will kill the planet with pollution.


  24. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #24

    On the effectiveness of cigarette taxes
    The effectiveness of cigarette taxes is certainly a tangential issue to the topic of this blog. But, since you raised the issue, I suppose it's necessary to point out that research findings disprove your statement: "Cigarettes are $6 a pack, but smoking decline is extremely small or non-existent."

    Several studies have documented that increases in cigarette taxes are correlated with decreases in smoking. See:

  25. Rick | | #25

    Tip of the Iceberg and the Hidden Iceberg
    This blog started out demonstrating why energy efficiency improvements have not historically resulted in lower levels of energy consumption. Another way of saying that is, energy efficiency improvements have not (and will not) stop the GROWTH of energy usage. However, that idea, and Jevons, are only the tip of the iceberg, although the blog has given glimpses of the mass of the iceberg. It appears that even former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan sees only the tip of the iceberg, although he puts a twist on it in a news story entitled, "Another financial crisis inevitable: Greenspan"

    Greenspan notes, just yesterday, that another financial crisis is inevitable because human nature always reverts to "speculative excesses." What he is talking about is speculative excesses as to how much the capitalist economy will GROW. He cites a problem with speculative excess, a twist on the tip of the iceburg, but does not seem to see that taking growth for granted, even attempting to force it, make up the hidden mass of the iceberg. The greedy, disgusting, something-for-nothing fantasy world of speculative excess related to economic growth may again hasten the next WAVE of the crisis — with the government swishing phony money to bail out the boat--but continued attempts to rely on and force growth IS the crisis.

    The capitalist economy, the way of the world, along with an unchecked, growing human population, demands growth in the economy, but it cannot continue. Such growth is the hidden, dangerous mass of the iceberg. There are some streaks of carbon on the tip of the iceberg, some of which are not caused by man, but they seem to fade when I look at the iceberg mass. Again, see Peak Capitalism at

    I wonder, now, how much of the iceberg President Jimmy Carter saw in 1976, when he said: "We must face the prospect of changing our basic way of living. This change will either be made on our own initiative in a planned way, or forced on us with chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature."
    — Jimmy Carter, as President in 1976

  26. Allison A. Bailes III | | #26

    Yes, people do drive

    Yes, people do drive more with cheaper gas. It's a fact. When gas prices were $4 per gallon last year, driving was down, as measured in a statistic called 'vehicle miles traveled' by the US Department of Transportation. That's also why we created something called the 'drive till you qualify' housing market. People moved further and further outside the cities because gas was cheap enough that it barely registered in the calculations of how much house they could afford.

    You nailed it. We have this belief that growth is good and will/must continue forever, and questioning that premise is unacceptable, even to many who consider themselves environmentalists. But the growth will end at some point. That much is certain. We don't know when, but I think there's strong evidence that we're seeing the front end of major changes related to that process. We live on a finite planet, so growing indefinitely into the future is not possible. See my Kenneth Boulding quote above.

  27. Kevin A Gerrity | | #27

    Carbon Tax

    I am against the carbon tax because I live on Cape Cod and many think we have life good, but they would be wrong. We have one of the highest utility rates in the country and pay above state average for many essential needs. Add into that they low off-season pay scale and the higher than average poverty levels, a carbon tax would cripple this area.

    Now if you want to have a single national rate and then have a carbon tax I am all for it. But I warn you, you will not like your utility bills for this energy. A national carbon tax does not take into consideration the area and how the living conditions are. During perk months of the summer we have a power plant on Cape Cod that must produce energy to supply the grid, but during the lower times this plant does not operate at a maintainable level. This cause higher than average maintenance cost that only the local people must bear. Our representatives in Washington have tried for years to allow this plant to shut down during off season usage, but because the need of the rest of the grid is of more value we are stuck with paying the higher cost. This cost included bring a new natural gas line down to the plant even thought the plant is going to close because of bankruptcy. The people of this region will have to pay in increased utility cost to cover this mistake, just to keep brown outs from happening.

    The only way a carbon tax would be equal is to go to a national price on the cost of energy. That will increase many people rates by as much at 300% in some parts of the country. That is why I believe real energy efficiencies are far more important than a carbon tax. Although I still believe we must share the cost of energy equally and there should be a national rate equal for all.

  28. Allison A. Bailes III | | #28

    Raise the cost of energy!
    Kevin, from your posts here I gather that saving energy is important to you. So why are you against higher utility bills? That's probably the single best way to reduce energy consumption.

  29. Rob Moody | | #29

    Squirrel Brains
    Where I'm from people eat squirrel brains all the time. My friend in elementary school would bring brains and eggs for breakfast during the hunting season. I never ate them myself, and he never showed signs of encephalopathy, just psychopathy.

    I taught high school in my hometown and taught students about Creutzfeldt–Jakob. Some of the folks in my classes got a little worried about their nutritional history when they learned the source of the disease.

  30. Chuck | | #30

    Why is it that "some" people always think that added tax is the solution to everything. Hey Al Gore, got any carbon credits? Why not a system that actually Rewards people for saving energy. Many times the people who are high consumers of utilities etc. are also low income (poorly insulated rental homes). You are kind of piling on aren't you? High taxes are not the answer.

  31. Kevin A Gerrity | | #31

    Against Higher Utility Bills
    Reply Allison A. Bailes III

    I am against higher utility bill, because we have not done our jobs as energy experts and that is the easy way out.

    If you ask the average home owner what type of heat they have you might hear Honeywell???? I read a survey that asked 15K people this very same question and the #1 repsonse was "Honeywell". Simply because they looked at their thermostat and saw the name.

    Our Government gives more for Solar than energy efficiencies, yet we are only touching the surface on this.

    Energy efficiency should be about cutting the waste and not the savings, that should be the focus of today. We waste so much and still try and find better ways to save over cutting waste. Over 30 years ago President Carter told us about this and today we push programable thermostats over outdoor reset, simply because it is the cheapest option.

    As an industry we have failed the general public in getting out the real information based souly on the "Payback". So if we do not cut the waste we will just pay more for not recieving the benefit from our high cost solution.

  32. Bill Rose | | #32

    Mathematical proof! Jevons is right

    Sorry to be a latecomer to this blog topic. It is a very good one.

    Robert Herendeen, formerly from Champaign Illinois, now in Burlington VT, wrote Ecological Numeracy, an excellent little book. It contains what he calls the Tragedy of the Commons game, which I use in class. You pose a “commons” that can sustain a herd—say an optimum herd of 100 cows, and a yield in cow-pounds. In this case the yield function may be y = 200*n –n^2 where n is the number of cows. At n = 0, the yield is 0. At n = 200, the commons is depleted, the grass dies, the cows die and their owners die. The yield function is known to all the players. There are 11 students in class. They get to select how many cows they each put in the common field. They are instructed to “role-play”. The game is run for several successive seasons. The rules of the game may be modified in a hundred different ways.

    As you might imagine, in general the “pigs” win as they flirt with depletion. And it is hard to configure the game for other outcomes. But it proves Jevons is correct: the impact of a single player reducing his herd is to increase the yield for all the other players, especially for the largest consumers.

  33. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #33

    Welcome, Bill
    Glad you joined the conversation. (I wrote the line "À la recherche des loisirs perdus" just for you.)

    All of this is rather depressing — especially the mathematical proof part. The result of the tragedy of the commons game (life on earth) is, "The pigs win." I note, Bill, that out of compassion for your readers you decided not to write, "and all the people die."

    As our spiritual leaders tell us, however, "Hope does not depend on evidence. We hope for that which we cannot see. We hope not because of the evidence but in spite of it." So, there is hope.

  34. Dupa Grande | | #34

    Jevon's Paradox is just an observation
    Jevon's Paradox is not mathematically proven, the game is fixed. Energy efficiency does not cause excess consumption, unrestrained greed does.

    The "Tragedy of the Commons" is not a law about a legally shared commons, it is a statement about institutionally sanctioned unrestrained greed.

    Computational philosophy shows how the setup of the game is what determines the outcome. If we choose to allow everyone to take as much as they want, of course the outcome of the game is doomed, especially when each is told that there will never be enough. That game is called the Prisoner's Dilemma.

    The Assurance Game is what we really play in a cooperative society. Every day, we are assured that the lights will work, that the majority will obey traffic signals, that society will function. The fact that it has indicates that our restraints function, not perfectly, but nearly sufficiently.

    Only a slight tweak is needed to shift taxes from what is good, income, to what is agreed as bad, excess. Combined with fair subsidies to renewables equal to the trillions of dollars in depletion allowances to the fossil fuel industries, or their fair elimination, the playing field becomes level. No new taxes are needed, only a shift from taxing good behavior to taxing deleterious acts.

    Arguments from the left or right are irrelevant. The centrally controlled socialist economy of the Soviet Union did no better than laissez-faire capitalism. Reason and fairness can win, but only when we try to practice them.

  35. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #35

    David Owen writes about the Jevons Paradox
    David Owen, the author of several articles focusing on the low levels of energy consumption in Manhattan, has an interesting article in the current New Yorker on the Jevons Paradox.

    Owen writes, "The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption."

    Owen takes Amory Lovins to task for Lovins' uncritical belief in the power of efficiency improvements to lower energy consumption.

    Here's a link to the New Yorker article: The Efficiency Dilemma.

  36. Riversong | | #36

    Then What is Green?
    This is precisely why I've been a "voice in the wilderness" shouting that "green" is meaningless if it means only energy-efficiency or even includes resource-efficiency. If "green" does not encompass a complete revolution in the way we live on the planet, then it's nothing more than greenwashing our current paradigm of consuming the earth to death.

    And no amount of tinkering, such as carbon taxes, is going to bring the revolution of values that's requiried for us to continue as a species that is not just a cancer on the earth.

    P.S. Squirrel is a little tough but tasty.

  37. Dayton | | #37

    Per capita energy use
    Looks like empirical data doesn't support the idea that increasing energy efficiency increase energy use.
    Per capita energy use has been more or less flat since 1973. High points for use are 357 million Btu/person in 1973, 359 Btu/person in 1979, 350 million Btu/person in 1996, 351 million Btu/person in 2000. You can contrast that with 214 miliion Btu/person in 1949 rising to 357 million Btu/person in 1973, and 337 million Btu/person in 2007. Don't you have to account for increasing energy use from increasing population?
    Source is U.S. Energy Information Administration in the department of Energy

  38. Jim Coker | | #38

    Jevons Paradox
    RMI's Solutions Journal, Summer 2011, has an interesting argument.

  39. user-1119494 | | #39

    Jevons is right...but wrong
    As Lovins argues, Jevons argues that the money freed-up will simply be spent on more consumption. Let's take an example close to home: let's say we build a house that saves the owners $1000 each year with no increase in cost for a net present value improvement of $15,000 (yes, I am pulling these numbers out of thin air). They *could* plow that money back into an extra 100 square feet of house (just cheap open space) and that will increase their energy use by about $50 or $100 per year.

    Conclusion: there is some Jevons effect, but not nearly enough to eat all the savings. The effect Jevons and others have found is mostly due to increased wealth, allowing us to build bigger and buy more.

  40. user-1119494 | | #40

    Living lightly & non-growth economy
    "Beyond Growth" by Herman E. Daly was quite interesting. He contends that we need to differentiate between economic development (mostly service etc) and economic growth (using extracted resources). One is far more sustainable than the other.

    I, too, would like to see prices of resources go up. If we had a tax-and-dividend system we would eliminate the issue the conservatives have with giving government all the revenues. And we all would get a nice chunk of change back at the end of each year that we could use to reduce our use of that expensive energy.

    Complex and intractable, especially with our current political situation and our habitual consumerism.

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