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A good article on the Jevons Paradox

Martin Holladay | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

David Owen, the author of several articles focusing on the low levels of energy consumption in Manhattan, has an interesting article in the December 20, 2010 New Yorker on a topic I wrote about last year: 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.

Excerpts from Owens’ article are reprinted here: “The Efficiency Illusion”.

Here’s a link to my earlier blog: The Jevons Paradox.

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  1. Steve El | | #1

    Its one manifestation of an inherent aspect of capitalism as an economic system. Capitalism requires never ending economic growth. In this model, efficiency is only good so far as it reduces some other limiting factor. However, capitalism's never ending demand for never ending growth will erase any gains brought about through any means. I'm all for efficiency, but sustainability requires diving deeper.

  2. Riversong | | #2


    Another minor website adjustment that would be useful is to add the year to the date of each blog.

    This oversight is similar to the Y2K bug.

  3. user-757117 | | #3

    Efficiency isn't the problem.
    Lack of discipline is what prevents us from "capitalizing" on a more sustainable way of life.
    From Martin's blog:

    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.

    I'll second that.

  4. J Chesnut | | #4

    Would it not be more effective then to blog about examplars of this type of lifestyle and discussing/ organizing means for others to transition toward them from there current circumstances than to focus on super insulated, passive solar construction?

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Perhaps. But if I devote my life to interviewing rural people who live in trailers -- people I admire greatly, by the way -- I will no longer be available to answer your construction questions.

  6. J Chesnut | | #6

    This is my own dilemma Martin. I'm most useful (and paid) within the paradigm of single family home construction though my heart is with the Buddhist monastic communities I witnessed in Korea.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    And the food was better there.

  8. Riversong | | #8

    There are examples of better ways to live on the planet. Bill McKibben's book Hope, Human and Wild shares a few such current examples from other cultures.

    If it weren't for the embargo and propaganda about Cuba, we would know that Castro has created one of the most efficient, green and equitable societies on earth.

    And this is precisely why I've been that "voice in the wilderness" arguing that "green" is nothing but greenwash if it doesn't encompass a complete revolution of values. No amount of re-arranging the deck chairs on this Titanic engine of technological destruction will save us from ourselves.

  9. Riversong | | #9

    Chestnut's dilemma is the essence of the problem. We follow the dollar rather than our hearts, doing what is "practical" rather than what we really long for.

    Wouldn't it be better to live for a year following our bliss than live forever as a slave to the mighty dollar?

  10. Steve El | | #10

    I'm sure you Vermonters know of these characters. Very interesting books about a very different way to live in the US.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    A whole generation of back-to-the-landers, including several of my friends and me, moved to Vermont in the early 1970s, clutching copies of Helen and Scott's book.

    Scott's granddaughter, Elka Schumann, is a neighbor and friend.

  12. Riversong | | #12

    By the way, I visited the Nearings in the last year of Scott's life at their Forest Farm in Maine. As I recall, Helen made us popcorn in an electric hot air popper (how's that for green?).

    Much of the leisure of their lifestyle was made possible by the constant help they received from young idealistic people who wanted some of their Ju-Ju.

  13. homedesign | | #13

    Burnt weenie sandwiches
    Watch out for that yellow snow

  14. user-757117 | | #14

    ...and Plan B (continuing but with more efficient technologies).

    I'm not so sure there is a "Plan B".

  15. Steve El | | #15

    "The United States had cleaner water, healthier ecosystems, and more caring human relationships."

    Yes, for one thing in 1850 we couldn't hiss and spit at each other over the 'net

  16. user-788447 | | #16

    Chestnut's dilemma is the essence of the problem.

    Commerce of goods and services through the medium of money is not the problem.
    The essence of any problem is greed, ignorance and hatred. Jevons Paradox is one description of their manifestations.

    So energy efficiency alone won’t lead to sustainability. No surprises here but are even the efforts towards sustainability effective?

    ‘Sustainability’ as an operative concept pushes any measure of success into the future and thereby allows for a lack of immediacy. A sense of immediacy is likely a vital component for any act of significant change. When and how do we know if we were successful or unsuccessful at the goal of ‘sustainability’? Discourse about sustainability, because it cannot be measured, I believe will only continue to lead to fractioned actions and arguments over the various interpretations of what it means to properly transform societies.

    What about Justice as a more effective operative concept? Because of the interdependence of things environmental concerns are necessarily implicated in a reasoned account of what is just. Justice can be defined in law and methods and institutions already exist to execute the rule of law. Justice is about what is happening in the present and can even make an account of past actions. Laws could govern just relationships between valued ecosystems and the commerce needs of human populations. (The World Resource Institute with its concept ‘Ecosystem Services’ has begun to describe ecosystems in terms that may be recognized in legal terms.)

    Yes Capitalism is inherently problematic to regulating consumption of limited resources. But I think the dynamic of continued growth and expansion had reared its head in powerful civilizations before the advent of industrial capitalism.

    Building a new home has impacts. When does building a new home NOT justify these impacts? Compare this discussion to the prevalent discourse of “this is a ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ home because of this, this, this and this.”

  17. user-757117 | | #17

    Yes Capitalism is inherently problematic to regulating consumption of limited resources.

    This isn't the problem with Capitalism. The problem with Capitalism is that it is inherently unsustainable - it requires sustained and unlimited consumption to survive.

    A sense of immediacy is likely a vital component for any act of significant change.

    Probably true but all the more tragic. The most significant problems humanity faces (climate change for example) cannot be resolved in this way. Climate change is the result of very high-order entropy and has significant momentum. By the time a sense of immediacy is realised by the general public and our politicians (it's really in our faces), tipping points have already passed. Available solutions are no longer restorative (how do we put things back?) but adaptive (how do we adjust?).

    Discourse about sustainability, because it cannot be measured, I believe will only continue to lead to fractioned actions and arguments over the various interpretations of what it means to properly transform societies.

    People spin "sustainability" for marketing and other purposes, but the definition of the word is quite simple - and that definition has nothing to do with any product or technology. As has been pointed out before on this forum, the only sustainable house is the one that is never built - consumption is the enemy of sustainability.
    If there is a path to sustainable living it lies on the road of self-discipline and self-denial - saying "NO" to the "Golden arrow of consumerism".

    For a model of what a (high-population density) sustainable society looks like, look at Japan in its "Edo" period.

  18. user-788447 | | #18

    OK no to justice ; )

    Japan has a long history of pilfering Korea for natural resources. I'd need to be convinced the long Edo period didn't leverage this for its sustainability.

  19. user-757117 | | #19

    I'd need to be convinced the long Edo period didn't leverage this for its sustainability.

    Fair enough. Japan definately has a history of war with Korea.
    I'd have to do more research myself to be absolutely sure but I do believe that the time spent under the Tokugawa bureaucracy was an unusal period in Japan's history. They had essentially closed themselves off from almost all contact with the outside world and did so successfully for 200 some-odd years...

  20. user-757117 | | #20

    Or do you mean that you're not convinced that they didn't coast through the Edo period on the spoils of a war that occured prior to the Edo period?
    Either way, the Edo period in Japan provides a number of interesting examples of a more sustainable way of life than the current model we're caught in...
    Possibly Japan's most remarkable feat during that period is that they managed to feed some 30 million people - despite the limitations of a small landmass and the mountainous topography - using humanure (chemical fertilizers obviously being not available at the time).

  21. John Hess | | #21

    For an alternate view of the "purity" of Helen and Scott Nearing's lifestyle, see:

  22. Steve El | | #22

    Very interesting, John and Robert. I always kinda wondered if they were able to do all their food gardening, preserving, and building on 4 hours per day like the books claimed.

    Still, the idea is interesting and I've always wondered how the ideal population/membership would be to maximize the efficiency of "Bread labor" inputs? I know there were some larger intentional communities that tried out some agri-living. The Farm, Oak something or other. Can anyone recommend a good read about those projects?

  23. J Chesnut | | #23

    When I looked at the dates of the Edo period they did just squeeze in between the huge invasions of Korea in 1592 and the occupation period in the early 1900s so I wonder myself what the relationship with Korea was (another hermit kingdom) during their run. Admittedly mine was a knee jerk comment.
    But to continue to be the devil's advocate, while Japan has a limited land mass it has lots of coastline and consequently their diets show a wealth of sea food.

    I support your idea that long sustained societies that immediately preceded the industrial revolution are worth investigation. Population growth seemed not to be completely out of control and some like Japan seemed to understand how to sustain healthy soils. And as you are implying this revolves around important relationships between technology, economic and agricultural policy, but it can get complicated by international power dynamics as well.

  24. user-757117 | | #24

    But to continue to be the devil's advocate, while Japan has a limited land mass it has lots of coastline and consequently their diets show a wealth of sea food.

    Yes, but rice was the caloric foundation of their society. The economy of feudal Japan was centered around the value of a koku of rice - one koku being the amount of rice determined to be sufficient to feed one adult for one year.

    I appreciate you playing the "devil's advocate". I would love to see more of these types of discussions on this forum. The way we build is an extension of the values we hold as a society. If we are truely interested in advancing our knowledge of "green building" then it only makes sense to include some thought on the value systems that guide our desicions.

  25. user-757117 | | #25

    I think it's worth mentioning that "pure" sustainability is impossible since the concept of a perfectly sustainable system violates the laws of thermodynamics. Any discussion about sustainability must assume that sustainability is more of a sliding scale where something is either "more sustainable" or "less sustainable" than an alternative. Presently, industrial civilization is an experiment on the extreme end of "less sustainable".

  26. user-757117 | | #26

    I support your idea that long sustained societies that immediately preceded the industrial revolution are worth investigation.

    While I agree that history has alot to teach us about sustainable lifestyles there are some interesting contemporary models as well. For example:
    Cuba was forced into an extreme energy crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is valuable information there on "details that work" when dealing with energy adversity - any "sustainable" society must be resiliant in the face of adversity.

  27. J Chesnut | | #27

    That's very interesting about the economy being based on the value of rice, the basis of sustenance of the population. Would be interesting to know the statistics on Edo population over the course of its run.
    Transforming our own agricultural policy will have more impact than the more limited potential of a green building movement. Sometimes I wish I had a background in farming rather than the building trades.
    Any examples you know of of cold climate populations that represents a better models for providing heat in the winter? Korea's climate is too mild to transfer methods from there to here. The native american nations that populated my region were of such a radically different lifestyle and smaller densities that they to don't seem to provide models of how to transition from our current state to something 'more sustainable'. Reducing the energy consumption needed to heat conditioned spaces, in addition to agriculture policy, is the priority for my area.

  28. user-723121 | | #28

    Sustainable agriculture,

    Many of the homesteaders made it work, if the land was not too arid. Grazing was the norm and prairie hay was put up for the horses and cattle. The railroads had a stop about every 7 miles to pick up grain cars at the local elevator. Diversity was the key in those days, the soil was a living soil, harvesting sunshine, a great thing.

  29. user-757117 | | #29

    Sometimes I wish I had a background in farming rather than the building trades.

    It's never to late to learn...
    However I might suggest that you discard the idea of "farming" and turn to ideas like "permaculture" or at least organic gardening.

  30. user-757117 | | #30

    Any examples you know of of cold climate populations that represents a better models for providing heat in the winter?

    Not really. The only real examples I can think of are the indigenous societies that existed historically.
    It's likely that in extreme environments of heat or cold, the required energy inputs to live in a modern way are just too high to be sustainable. Living in these environments is only sustainable as long as the required energy inputs are available - and you need energy for more than just heating or cooling of course. This is not a model of resiliency.
    Doug said:

    Diversity was the key in those days, the soil was a living soil, harvesting sunshine, a great thing.

    And he's right, that was a great thing. There are very few "living" soils now. We've pretty much put all our eggs in the basket of fossil-fuel powered, chemical fertilizer dependant industrial agriculture. Not good.

  31. user-757117 | | #31

    J, in Japan I saw a house that had, instead of central heat, a warming pad that you would sit on - at the table or wherever. I have spent some time in Korea as well, but never saw anything like this there.
    I wonder if, in combination with high levels of insulation and smaller houses, this isn't a more sustainable solution to space heating than central heating - put on a sweater and sit on a heating pad.

  32. user-716970 | | #32

    As the owner/operator of a small "fossil-fuel powered, chemical fertilizer dependant" farm, I feel that I must weigh in here. There is actually much good news on the agriculture front. In the last twenty to thirty years, farming methods have changed dramatically, here on the prairies, resulting in an almost complete elimination of soil erosion, and fantastically improved soil health. The changes are so significant that huge amounts of carbon are now being stored in these soils and these "carbon sinks" are recognized under Kyoto. Fuel use is way down as tillage is almost completely eliminated. We do use large amounts of chemicals, in particular glyphosate....but here is a fact for you. Glyphosate is 400 times less toxic than table salt and breaks down completely and rapidly when in contact with soil. We must continue to be vigilant and extremely careful about our use of chemicals.

    Almost no one knows about this story because main stream media would much rather report on "gloom and doom" stories.

    I have seen many attempts at organic farming in this area and the results are mostly disappointing. Most involve large amounts of tillage and fuel use and soil erosion is a real issue. The only real sustainable use of these prairie soils probably would be a return to native forages.

  33. user-723121 | | #33

    Garth says,
    " The only real sustainable use of these prairie soils probably would be a return to native forages".

    Bingo! Thats what I did with 160 acres of our family farm back in 1993, a prairie restoration. I am building the soil, still sequestering 100's of tons of CO2 annually and keeping the water clean. This land has become a wildlife mecca, if I can keep the poachers out, and native plants are returning with new discoveries every year.

    Living soil is chemical free soil with a high percentage of organic matter, 5% or more. Soil of this type holds and stores heavy rainfall and does not contribute to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
    Terrestrial carbon sequestration is one leg of the CO2 solution, prairie plants have deep roots, reaching depths of 10'. It is no coincidence that the richest farmland on earth was once the Tallgrass Prairie.

  34. user-757117 | | #34

    Hi Garth, thanks for "weighing in".
    My comments we're not meant as a slight to farmers and I hope it wasn't taken that way. If anything, I believe farmers are owed a debt of gratitude for how hard they are required to work.
    I also believe you when you say that there have been advances to the process of farming that reduce negative impacts.
    When I say:

    ...fossil-fuel powered, chemical fertilizer dependant industrial agriculture.

    I am just stating facts - not trying to "doom and gloom". Industrial agriculture is driven by fossil fuel energy and it does require chemical fertilizers. I could also add that it relies on monocultures as well.
    From a sustainability standpoint, you could say that the present model of industrial agriculture (despite improvements) is only sustainable as long as we have a steady flow of oil, a steady flow of fertilizers (the production of which also rely on fossil fuels) and some pest or disease doesn't find the genetic weaknesses in our monocultures.
    In other words, alot of things have to keep going right for industrial agriculture to be sustained over time - industrial agriculture is "less sustainable" than some other alternatives.

    I have seen many attempts at organic farming in this area and the results are mostly disappointing.

    I agree with you. I think the best alternative to industrial agriculture is to have people start taking more responsibility for their own food security.
    De-centralized systems are more resilient than centralized systems.
    Organic gardening and "permaculture" provide a means to put food security back in the hands of individuals since they require far fewer inputs.
    I think this model of food production is "more sustainable" than industrial agriculture.
    Whether or not people want to take on the responsibility of their own food security is another matter.

  35. user-757117 | | #35

    Doug, right on! Tallgrass prairie is an endangered ecosystem. Those deep roots make it an excellent forage for free-range critters.
    I'm doing something similar with 80 acres of boreal mixed-forest.

  36. user-716970 | | #36

    Nice stand of grass there. I have to ask you though, how many people does it feed? There are close to seven billion of us and I have to believe that some form of industrialized ag is going to be necessary for some time to come.
    Monoculture ag is also becoming a thing of the past. Wheat/fallow rotations were the norm here for many decades and the resuting soil degradation was severe due to erosion caused by tillage. Today, is normal to see crop rotations that include grains (wheat, durum, oats, rye) oilseeds (canola, flax, mustard) legumes (field peas, chick peas, lentils, fababeans, pinto beans etc) and forages(alfalfa, grasses etc) Production is increasing and fertilizer use is starting to decline in some areas as soils are rebuilt. Most progressive farmers in my area actually store more carbon (in soil) than they release through their use of fossil fuels on an annualized basis.

  37. Riversong | | #37

    how many people does it feed?

    That might appear to be a reasonable question, given not only the vast amount of human biomass on the planet (which is largely converted from the rapidly depleting biomass of the other species) but also the extent of hunger in the human global population. But it's coming form a backassward perspective.

    The only reason that the human population has been able to exceed the environment's carrying capacity (and hence degrade the earth's life support systems to the point of ruination) is because of sedentary agriculture.

    When humans were hunters and foragers, as with any other natural population, their numbers could never exceed the local carrying capacity without rather quick correction. Once we were able to grow more food than we needed, thus creating a surplus, two things happened. Our population began to grow exponentially and hierarchies of wealth and power (those who owned or controlled the surplus) spread like a plague across the earth. From those came wars of conquest, blights, extensive famines, epidemic diseases and the destruction of once vibrant landscapes.

    But the "progress" of our technologies always slightly exceeded the corrective die-offs and allowed the human population to overspread every habitable piece of land on the planet. We are now, however, discovering that our technological cleverness can no longer outpace the damage we've wrought on the earth's life support capabilities, and the "interest" payments (like our national debt) that we've continued to put off by borrowing more natural capital, are coming due.

    James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency has written a cautionary tale of what the near future may look like - a compelling novel called A World Made by Hand - a world without fossil fuels or electricity or communications, and without functioning institutions of civilization - a world that is necessarily local and immediate and human-centered, with all the treachery and benevolence that includes .

  38. user-723121 | | #38

    Garth says,

    " Most progressive farmers in my area actually store more carbon (in soil) than they release through their use of fossil fuels on an annualized basis".

    Prove that statement and attach some soil test results for the last few years. You have been drinking the (RoundUp) kool-aid for too long. How many people does your farm operation feed directly? Do you consider high fructose corn syrup a food?

    I could easily turn my land into a free range grazing operation, the market for quality free range products continues to grow. Growing corn to feed livestock is folly and survives only due to cheap and taxpayer subsidized fossil fuel. Peak oil and industrial agriculture are on a collision course, factory farming will not survive. I am the 1 agricultural land owner in 50 that does not take a government subsidy, all the best to organic and biodynamic farmers everywhere.

  39. user-757117 | | #39

    Peak oil and industrial agriculture are on a collision course, factory farming will not survive.

    Yes, it's true. Like almost everything else about industrial civilization, industrial ag is a "house of cards".
    Caution! Significant doom and gloom at the other end of that link. Here's a good quote from the conclusion:

    So then what can we DO about that? We do the only thing we CAN do: we do it OURSELVES. We call up our neighbors, lace up our boots, grab some shovels from the shed, load the seedlings into the wheelbarrow, and start building a sane fricking food system all by our damn selves. We say “f*%k off” to these ‘leaders’ whose short-sightedness and greed would doom our children and grandchildren to hunger and misery, and we get down to some good work -- some work that just might make a difference. That’s what we do.

  40. Riversong | | #40

    The reason I say that "how many people does it feed?" is a backassward question is what might be called the Malthusian Corollary to the Jevons Paradox.

    Malthus was right about the exponential growth of human population eventually outpacing the arithmetic growth of food production, though he may not have anticipated the first "green revolution" which used the natural capital of "ancient sunlight" (fossil fools) to supercharge food production for a short time.

    But he missed the cause and effect relationship. We have not historically increased food production (whether by increased efficiency or increased acreage) in order to feed a growing population (the utilitarian theory). Rather, since the start of agriculture, we have increased food production to increase the surplus (wealth) to feed the increased greed of those who controlled the surplus. This early feudalism morphed into mercantilism and then capitalism and finally the global corporatocracy which rules the world today.

    Efficiency increases are almost always illusory because our vision rarely comprehends the entire picture.

    For instance, years ago (before gasoline and cars became expensive) Ivan Ilich, Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and critic of modern civilization (which he believed was engaged in a "war on subsistence), calculated the ACTUAL speed of the American automobile.

    Taking the average number of miles driven annually by the typical American family and dividing that by the number of hours spent driving the car, plus the number of hours spent taking care of the car, plus the number of hours spent working to earn the money for the car payments, gasoline, maintenance, insurance and registration - he concluded that the American motorist was moving slower than 5 mph while consuming 28% of his time budget for the temporary illusion of speed.

    A walking society requires only 3%-8% of their waking time to move at about the same pace, and has far higher levels of social interaction and appreciation of the local environment because of their more human-scaled method of locomotion.

    These numbers are similar to the difference in "time budget" of ancient societies for subsistence compared to modern cultures, and their much higher ratios of leisure time than we have today. We continue to confuse quantity with quality of life.

    Efficiency is the mythology of modernity - and it blinds us to the reality of the physical world.

  41. J Chesnut | | #42

    I imagine small farms are part of the solution for some time to come. But in the last 20-30 years that farming has become more intelligent about soils as you say hasn't small farms continued to disappear to large agro-business that represent the worst land management practices?
    Scale and mechanization is an important factor and in this aspect you are more in line with an organic approachs than the industrial scale approach.
    I bet there will be even more resistance to changing farms practices than there is to the realities of climate change. Not only is there a lot of powerful capital interest at stake but a class of professionals will be asked to make difficult and uncertain transitions with their families.
    A brother of a colleague of mine is currently in Afghanistan training the farmers there to use the Monsanto model of agriculture. Lucrative for Monsanto and will put the Afghan people on a path to dependence on international markets. As production goes up watch less Afghans find livelihoods in agriculture even as the population grows.
    I've heard some testimony from diary farmers here in the diary land that going organic has saved them from having to sell out the farm. The demand for organic diary exceeds the local supply and the organic market cost structure is much more stable. In addition their testimony often includes a sense of well-being because they see a great degree of improvement in the health of their livestock. Not having to pay for doctors and medications for the livestock helps the bottom line of the business.
    Thanks everyone for the interesting discussion.

  42. user-723121 | | #43


    And some reading for you.

  43. user-716970 | | #44

    I can only speak for farmers from my area of Saskatchewan. While it is true the average farm sizes are increasing dramatically, it is also true that the vast majority of these huge grain farms are still owned and operated by local families. Money is the driving force behind the move to larger and larger farms, and this is of course having detrimental effects on local communities. It is probably just a happy coincidence that today's modern and efficient farming methods also happen to improve soils in the long term. It is also true that most family farms take their role as "stewards of the land" quite seriously but their motives are mainly profit driven.

    Now, where did I leave my Roundup and eggnog??

  44. Riversong | | #45

    I've heard some testimony from diary (sic) farmers here in the diary (sic) land…

    The demand for organic diary (sic) exceeds the local supply …


    I fully agree that organic diaries are what our rural communities need, because they allow children the free expression they need to develop a sustainable and wholesome personality.

  45. Riversong | | #46

    It is probably just a happy coincidence that today's modern and efficient farming methods also happen to improve soils in the long term.

    Todays farming methods can be considered "efficient" only in the narrowest sense, for it ignores most of the externalities, or hidden ecological and social (as well as economic) costs of modern agribusiness, whether corporate or family owned.

    From "The Agrarian Standard" by Wendell Berry, published in the Summer 2002 issue of Orion magazine:

    We agrarians are involved in a hard, long, momentous contest, in which we are so far, and by a considerable margin, the losers. What we have undertaken to defend is the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency—the high and indispensable art—for which we probably can find no better name than “good farming.” I mean farming as defined by agrarianism as opposed to farming as defined by industrialism: farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.

    I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world.

    The way of industrialism is the way of the machine. To the industrial mind, a machine is not merely an instrument for doing work or amusing ourselves or making war; it is an explanation of the world and of life. Because industrialism cannot understand living things except as machines, and can grant them no value that is not utilitarian, it conceives of farming and forestry as forms of mining; it cannot use the land without abusing it…

    The industrial contempt for anything small, rural, or natural translates into contempt for uncentralized economic systems, any sort of local self-sufficiency in food or other necessities. The industrial “solution” for such systems is to increase the scale of work and trade. It brings Big Ideas, Big Money, and Big Technology into small rural communities, economies, and ecosystems—the brought-in industry and the experts being invariably alien to and contemptuous of the places to which they are brought in. There is never any question of propriety, of adapting the thought or the purpose or the technology to the place.

    The result is that problems correctable on a small scale are replaced by large-scale problems for which there are no large-scale corrections. Meanwhile, the large-scale enterprise has reduced or destroyed the possibility of small-scale corrections. This exactly describes our present agriculture. Forcing all agricultural localities to conform to economic conditions imposed from afar by a few large corporations has caused problems of the largest possible scale, such as soil loss, genetic impoverishment, and groundwater pollution, which are correctable only by an agriculture of locally adapted, solar-powered, diversified small farms—a correction that, after a half century of industrial agriculture, will be difficult to achieve.

    The industrial economy thus is inherently violent. It impoverishes one place in order to be extravagant in another, true to its colonialist ambition. A part of the “externalized” cost of this is war after war.

  46. user-716970 | | #47

    I have no argument with most of what you have written here. But still, I ask myself why should I feel guilty about choosing a way of life that helps turn sunshine into nutritious food. Yes, chemicals were used to produce this food. But everything in this world is made of chemicals. Why does the word chemical in an agriculture setting always evoke the word poison?

    Would it be better for the earth if all arable land was returned to its natural state? I say yes. Would it be better for the human species? My answer would be that in the long term, yes. In the short term, a lot of people would go hungry. Would people tolerate food shortages for greater good of the earth? Somehow, I doubt it.

  47. Riversong | | #48

    But everything in this world is made of chemicals.

    That statement represents either our general ignorance of the biochemistry of the earth or a willful disregard for it.

    Life, as far as we know, has evolved on only one small planet in the Universe, and over a period of 3.5 billion years using the small number of elements and chemical compounds that were either present from the birth of the earth or created organically from the processes of life.

    Since the start of the petroleum age, we've introduced 80,000 chemicals that never before existed in the natural world and which are completely alien to all of life. There is now a global campaign against the introduction of genetically-altered materials, but there should have been the same resistance to "Better Living Through Chemistry" had we known that we were literally invading the planet with alien beings to which we had no resistance.

    Unfortunately, the aliens have probably conquered the planet, and we are experiencing the price of domination by a profoundly anti-life (antibiotic) plague from which there is likely no recovery.

  48. user-716970 | | #49

    So if a chemical is synthesized by one of nature's creatures, it cannot be called natural?? Nature has been synthesizing new compounds for billions of years.

  49. Riversong | | #50

    You can make the argument that, since humanity is a natural species, then everything that humanity does is natural - only if you're willing to accept the premise that it's natural for nature to destroy itself. Because that is the necessary conclusion of that syllogism.

    The truth is that homo (non) sapiens is the only species on earth - and only for the last 10,000 years (3 millionths of evolutionary time) - that has consciously, willfully, and aggressively altered its environment to the detriment of itself and every other species of life.

    So it's reasonable to state that, for the first 2.4 million years of the genus homo, "we" were a natural species living by natural law the same as any other life form. But it would be difficult to logically or scientifically justify our activity as natural since the start of the agricultural revolution, and impossible to justify that descriptor since the industrial revolution.

    Nothing in nature, except cancer (which is arguably a man-made phenomenon) consumes its environment and life-support systems. The reason that humanity is at the precipice of global extinction and has initiated the sixth great species extinction is precisely because we have been violating natural law.

    In other words, the hubris that all ancient societies understood as the root of tragedy, has driven humanity toward what religion has always understood as sin - the deliberate separation from God or the Source of Life, the choice to leave the Garden and make our own world. When we chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we chose to become godlike (for only God has that knowledge) and, in so doing, began our journey to destruction.

  50. Riversong | | #51


    You're quite right that living in the moment is one of the keys to transformation (though even indigenous tribal people also planned for the next season and acted with concern for the next seven generations).

    But if you think that justice as manifested in Law and associated institutions is an answer and not part of the problem, then you're really deluding yourself. And if you don't understand how the abstraction of value into a piece of paper (or now just bits and bytes) called money is not also one face of a generalized problem of abstraction from the immediacy of the natural world, then you're completely missing the boat.

    Jevons paradox is not based on greed, but rather on what we have long understood as the basis of economic activity: enlightened (sic) self-interest, or rational self-interest. It is completely rational to use as much of the commons as one can since the costs are distributed to many while the immediate benefits are yours alone. This is a form of living in the moment that's typical of modern economic activity - a five year plan is considered long-range.

    Neither reason, nor institutions of law and justice (sic), nor the monetization of ecosystem services (sic) will bring us one iota closer to living sustainably on the earth.

    How is it possible that every indigenous tribal human intuitively understood how to live within natural law, but we rational moderns are clueless?

    Natural law is so simple and obvious that we can no longer see it for all the abstractions and distractions we have lost ourselves in. Every Native American knew that there was good medicine (what leads toward wholeness and harmony) and bad medicine (what does otherwise). It's as simple as that but it requires living from the heart and not the head.

  51. Riversong | | #52

    Whad'ya mean no Plan B.

    Plan B is just BP backwards, and we all know that British Petroleum changed its name to Beyond Petroleum.

  52. Riversong | | #53

    There is a book that describes an alternative to Plan A (continuing the way we're going) and Plan B (continuing but with more efficient technologies).

    It's called Plan C (for community and curtailment).

    Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate
    by Pat Murphy, director of Community Solutions, a non-profit organization founded in 1940 that educates on the benefits and values of small local community living. "We envision a world where people live sustainably and cooperatively in local communities which are diverse, equitable, and just."

    Concerns over climate change and energy depletion are increasing exponentially. Mainstream solutions still assume a panacea that will cure our climate ills without requiring any serious modification to our way of life.

    Plan C explores the risks inherent in trying to continue our energy-intensive lifestyle. Using dirtier fossil fuels (Plan A) or switching to renewable energy sources (Plan B) allows people to remain complacent in the face of potential global catastrophe. Dramatic lifestyle change is the only way to begin to create a sustainable, equitable world.

    The converging crises of Peak Oil, Climate Change and increasing inequity are pre-sented in a clear, concise manner, as are the twin solutions of community (where cooperation replaces competition) and curtailment (deliberately reducing consumption of consumer goods). Plan C shows how each person's individual choices can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. It offers specific strategies in the areas of food, transportation and housing.

    Plan C is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in living a lower-energy, saner, and sustainable lifestyle.

    From the Preface:

    "My thesis is that the best of American culture has been seriously degraded since becoming addicted to oil.We used to have fewer material goods but better relationships. The country was less violent. Our citizens sought to avoid entanglement in foreign affairs.The United States had cleaner water, healthier ecosystems, and more caring human relationships. It had neighborhood schools and unlocked doors. It had community in the best sense of that word. Much of this has been lost.We have gained wealth but we are losing our souls. The national soul desperately needs rework. Our best examples of community-focused living, and the sustaining relationships it fosters, show us exactly what to strive for. But the time remaining is limited, and the urgency of engaging ourselves in this work can not be overstated."

  53. Riversong | | #54

    The real lesson of the lives of the Nearings is that they didn't choose simple living - they were forced into it by the Communist Witch Hunts which resulted in Scott's being black-listed and unable to find work in the "real world".

    The hobo villages of the Depression weren't models of sustainable living - they were examples of the alternative lifestyle that is possible when there are no other options. Necessity, as they say, is the Mother of Invention (or was that Frank Zappa's band?)

    Similarly, we will never see a broad exodus to simple living until we're forced into it by a collapsed economy and a collapsed ecosystem. "Goin' to Montana soon...gonna be a dental floss tycoon".

  54. user-757117 | | #55

    So if a chemical is synthesized by one of nature's creatures, it cannot be called natural?? Nature has been synthesizing new compounds for billions of years.

    I tend to agree with you on this point - although the natural synthesis of new compounds normaly proceeds at a glacial pace. Extremely long time scales are what allows natural systems to adapt to new or changing conditions - like the sysnthesis of a new environmental compound - with minimum risk of catastrophic system failure.
    Humans do not respect that process. Humans (at least no one I've ever known of) do not possess the foresight or wisdom to see all the far-reaching concequences of our creations.
    Consequently, using our percieved "cleverness" we churn out countless new compouds into the environment. Some of these compounds are created as tools, some are just by-products and some - the worst and least understood - are the unanticipated result of uncontrolled chemical interactions taking place in the environment.
    The pace at which we pump out these new compounds far, far exceeds the biosphere's ability to adapt genetically just as the rate at which we pump out greenhouse emissions far, far exceeds the environment's ability to naturally sequester the excess.
    This is all just entropy within a complex system - but we are being overwhelmed by that entropy.

    ...only if you're willing to accept the premise that it's natural for nature to destroy itself. Because that is the necessary conclusion of that syllogism.

    Personally, I can accept that it is in nature's nature to destroy itself. Good examples of this process are matter/anti-matter reactions, HIV/AIDS, Stromatolites and of course cataclysmic events of all kinds (remember Shoemaker-Levy 9 and the planet Earth sized explosions?)
    Not being a great philosopher, all I can say is who knows why things have been allowed to get to this point.
    Except for the purpose of understanding for the sake of understanding the point is pretty much moot at this stage of the game anyway.
    There are still plenty of ways the future can unfold but the entropy generated by human civilization is so extreme that no technology can unwind it, tame it or put it back in a box - it is a gordian knot.
    One way or another, the next great evolutionary event is coming to a theater this century.

  55. Riversong | | #56

    no technology can unwind it, tame it or put it back in a box - it is a gordian knot.

    It can be almost as dangerous to mix metaphors as to mix chemicals.

    I just happen to have a Gordian knot that I put back in its box when I'm done trying to untie it - piece of cake ;-)

  56. user-757117 | | #57

    Yeah, maybe not the best metaphor... Especially since Alexander the Great cut the Gordian knot in half with a sword... although he did destroy the knot in the process.

  57. Riversong | | #58

    King Solomon tried to do that with a baby, but cooler heads prevailed.

  58. 2tePuaao2B | | #59


  59. 2tePuaao2B | | #60


  60. 2tePuaao2B | | #61


  61. jklingel | | #62

    People tend to gravitate toward easy and fun, and vanity and greed are age old aspects of human nature, or nurture; I don't know which is more responsible. Walking is too hard, so get a four wheeler. Eating veggies and fruit is not as fun as donuts. You have a Chevy, but I have a Rolls. No, wait, I have TWO Rolls. The fundamental commodity of trade is money, so we seek it. And who pushes the "role models" for us? Business. I can't count the number of kids who "can't afford" a $15 calculator for class, but were wearing $100 Michael Jordan sneakers. Why?

  62. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #63

    I'm not sure what prompted you to revive this old thread on the Jevons Paradox -- but since you did, I'll chime in. I just added a new photo to my blog on the Jevons Paradox.

  63. homedesign | | #64

    Martin, I thought you were the one that "revived" this blog when you edited it prior to John K's post.

  64. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #65

    I was unaware that editing old posts had the effect of "reviving" a thread (this is, bringing it to the top of the list). Hey, I learn something every day. You'd think I'd understand this Web site by now.

  65. homedesign | | #66

    the funny thing is that editing does not always move it to the top of the que

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