Jevons Paradox and the Downside of Energy-Efficiency

Wait, what’s not to like about energy-efficiency? Environmental scientist Amory Lovins has referred to energy-efficiency as “the lunch you are paid to eat.” What could possibly be the downside?

Turns out that increases in energy-efficiency just end up enabling people to consume more. (For example, when cars get more miles per gallon, people end up driving more miles. And modern refrigerators are pretty inexpensive and super energy-efficient — but now lots of households have an extra fridge or freezer in the garage! And people have huge fridges nowadays.) This phenomenon is known as the Jevons paradox.

“Jevons paradox is named after William Jevons, who observed in the 19th century that an increase in the efficiency of using coal to produce energy tended to increase consumption, rather than reduce it. Why? Because, Jevons argued, the cheaper price of coal-produced energy encouraged people to find innovative new ways to consume energy.” (Rob McDonald writing in; see link below.)

Once I heard of Jevons paradox (which wasn’t that long ago — maybe a few months, or a year or so ago), it seemed like examples were all around me, and that I had actually been noticing it for decades. Where it stood out for me was in the realm of human energy: I noticed that with all of our high-efficiency automated appliances such as clothes washers, dryers, and dishwashers, many of my clients and other people I knew were still seeming to spend tons of time and personal energy dealing with laundry and dishes. Were the machines just prompting people do do a higher volume of laundry and dishes? I wondered. There was also the time and worry spent on dealing with these appliances when they malfunctioned. I didn’t have hard data, but I had a sneaking feeling that my volume of laundry and dishes stays lower because I know I’m going to hand-wash them.

A tangent, not exactly the same as Jevons paradox but seems related somehow: Does the availability of cheap air flights prompt us to travel long distances at the drop of a hat? Certainly. (In the paper the other day, one doting grandmother wrote about flying across the country to attend her grandchild’s “elementary school continuation” ceremony. Not even a graduation; just kids completing a year of school and preparing to move up to the next year.)

And along similar lines, mass-market availability of what used to be professional-grade lawn equipment has certainly made people more relentless about barbering their little piece of the earth.

In his excellent talk “How To Enjoy the End of the World,” Sid Smith observed that increases in energy-efficiency do not lead to reductions in consumption, unless those efficiency increases are accompanied by rationing. I gather he was referring to government-imposed rationing. But it occurred to me that the rationing would work just as well if it were voluntary. Self-imposed rationing. This has actually been my goal in promoting a “grassroots green mobilization.”

Governments imposed rationing during World War II. And also imposed a form of rationing during the Covid pandemic (via the stay-home orders). But, more recently, we saw the strict orders fall apart, as public opposition from the anti-mask, open-everything-up faction, including a number of state governments, made it politically impossible to enforce masking, social distance, and other measures in anything resembling a unified nationwide manner.

I doubt the situation would be any different if some government leaders were to try to implement energy rationing to try to put the brakes on the climate crisis and destruction of our planet’s life-support system.

For decades I yearned for the government to “save” us from eco crisis by instituting rationing, World War II style. Now I think that’s not likely to happen. As I’ve said before and will probably say again, I feel that bottom-up cultural shift is our best hope. The more of us get on board, the more corporations and governments will get on board with us.

Note, I’m not attempting to change the minds and hearts of relentlessly air-traveling grannies or mad lawn-barbers. That’d be a foolishly monumental task to try to take on. Rather, I’m out to reach the people who can feel we’ve got a problem, and who want to be part of a consumer downshift.

The most important thing to know about voluntary rationing is that thousands of people are already doing it, and they’re doing it in groups. Where I see it happening is mainly online communities, where people are exchanging tips and offering each other moral support. Facebook groups include Zero Waste, Zero Judgment (32k members at this writing); The Non-Consumer Advocate (82k). Although it is not as active as it once was, and membership in the Facebook group is modest at 153 people, I also have to give a plug for the Riot for Austerity Facebook group. (The Riot for Austerity movement is what inspired me to keep going with my low-footprint living experiment and turn ut into a lifestyle, eventually leading me to write my book and start this blog.)

Also, though we don’t immediately think of it as “rationing,” the 78k members of Pollinator Friendly Yards are certainly self-rationing their use of gasoline and other fossil fuels by rewilding their yards. And there are countless other groups of people who are committed to a conservation lifestyle; voluntary rationing at the grassroots level is a bigger phenomenon than meets the eye.

By the way, grassroots action definitely includes voting and social pressure (such as public shaming of bad behavior by government and corporations), in addition to voting with our feet and our wallets.

Further Exploration:

“The Efficiency Dilemma: If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?” (David Owen, The New Yorker, December 12, 2010). “Energy efficiency has been called ‘the fifth fuel’ (after coal, petroleum, nuclear power, and renewables); it is seen as a cost-free tool for accelerating the transition to a green-energy economy. … But the issue may be less straightforward than it seems. The thirty-five-year period during which new refrigerators have plunged in electricity use is also a period during which the global market for refrigeration has burgeoned and the world’s total energy consumption and carbon output, including the parts directly attributable to keeping things cold, have climbed. Similarly, the first fuel-economy regulations for U.S. cars—which were enacted in 1975, in response to the Arab oil embargo—were followed not by a steady decline in total U.S. motor-fuel consumption but by a long-term rise, as well as by increases in horsepower, curb weight, vehicle miles travelled (up a hundred per cent since 1980), and car ownership (America has about fifty million more registered vehicles than licensed drivers). A growing group of economists and others have argued that such correlations aren’t coincidental. Instead, they have said, efforts to improve energy efficiency can more than negate any environmental gains …”

Jevons paradox: When doing more with less isn’t enough (Rob McDonald; “Jevons paradox is named after William Jevons, who observed in the 19th century that an increase in the efficiency of using coal to produce energy tended to increase consumption, rather than reduce it. Why? Because, Jevons argued, the cheaper price of coal-produced energy encouraged people to find innovative new ways to consume energy.”