The current issue of The New Yorker has a well-developed article by David Owen (subscription needed to read the whole article) on the dilemma of efficiency improvements in energy usage. The phrase, more efficient, sounds at first like something that always should be good for us. The dilemma is that this is not always true is a paradox. Don’t more efficient automobiles get more miles to the gallon? Isn’t this the definition of efficiency?
The answer is yes to both. What could be bad about that? The hitch is that the potential savings are spent on doing more with the new, more efficient thing, or spending the the savings on something else. It’s not like we should be so surprised. This economic phenomenon, now usually referred to as the “rebound” effect, was first noted in 1865 by William Stanley Jevons (pictured). Jevons was arguing that the new, more efficient, coal-burning steam engines would hasten, not extend, the depletion of England’s coal reserves. The gist of his argument was simple: more efficient use would lead to more absolute consumption as more people invested in steam engines. This prediction was correct as coal usage grew enormously over time.
The same pattern can be found in other energy using devices found in today’s homes, commercial buildings, and factories: automobile travel, air conditioning, refrigeration, lighting, and more. The article delivers a lot of data to explain the causes for the outcomes, but sums it up tersely.
The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvent them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but it also make distant destinations seem closer, thereby enabling people to live in sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where they work and shop.
If the focus is on the individual, efficiency does produce more satisfaction whether measured in more miles driven or brighter lighting. And if that were all that mattered, Jevon’s forecasts would not mean much. The paradox comes when you look at the aggregate effect of the resources consumed in increased activities or goods. If these were always plentiful, no need to worry. That was no more the case when Jevons wrote than it is today. The article ends with a key quote from Jevons,
At the end of “The Coal Question,” Jevons concluded that Britain faced a choice between “brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.” His preference was for mediocrity, by which he meant something like “sustainability.”
Our world is different from his, but most of the central arguments of his book still apply. Steve Sorrell, who is a senior fellow at Sussex University and a co-editor of a recent comprehensive book on rebound, called “Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption,” told me, “I think the point may be that Jevons has yet to be disproved. It is rather hard to demonstrate the validity of his proposition, but certainly the historical evidence to date is wholly consistent with what he was arguing.” That might be something to think about as we climb into our plug-in hybrids and continue our journey, with ever-increasing efficiency, down the road paved with good intentions.
His choice of the word “mediocrity” needs careful thought. The industrial world in 1865 was exploding, bringing forth economic goods and services heretofore unimaginable. The promises of the Enlightenment thinkers and burgeoning technological innovations were being realized with no end in sight. Local environmental conditions were often deplorable, but nothing systematic like climate change was to be observed. Mediocre in his words was held to be a stasis along the road to unending progress. Jevons understood the inevitable choice created by expanding the economy versus the limits of the Earth’s resources. His “brief greatness” has lasted almost a century and a half so far, underpinned by unheard of increases in efficiency and productivity. The Malthusian outcome of his model has been pushed into the future by the discovery of vastly larger resources that he could imagine, but in quantities more difficult to foresee today. Our present policies continue to ignore both Jevons and Malthus, at our peril.
The conditions of human beings in the modern world Jevons knew have improved to a state that few might deem mediocre, but his paradox is just as valid. We cannot build our future on the paradoxical foundation of efficiency. The growth it spawns, aggravated by aggressive economic growth policies, is unsustainable in a quantitative, global sense. We must learn that enough is enough is not just a mother’s admonition to her children. Sustainability, as opposed to mediocrity, demands that we learn that what is most important to us is not more, but better.