Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What we lose through "efficiency" - Jevon's Paradox and complexity

My previous posts (here and here) focused more on the less quantifiable aspects of "efficiency," such as taste and flavour, as well as balance in nature. Today's post is a more technical post, primarily focusing on energy and economics, following up on my last two posts. Humans have always had a tendency and will to make things more "efficient" - we would rather our shopping be done at one place, we would rather a computer simulation take half as long as it currently does, we would rather pay half of what we do for our heating bill. What we believe is that making things and activities more efficient will allow us time to do other things, or allow us to do more for less. In practice however, this has a perverse feedback associated with it - we may end up using more by making things more "efficient."

A recent article in The New Yorker by David Owen was titled, "The Efficiency Dilemma: If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?" Owen writes about Jevon's Paradox, which was first written about by a young English economist, William Stanley Jevons, in 1865. The paradox states that instead of using less by making things more efficient, we end up using more. This phenomenon is called "rebound." When the savings through efficiency are canceled out and overwhelmed by increased consumption, the phenomenon is called "backfire." When something becomes more efficient, the implicit price of it drops from a neo-classical standpoint (and we all know that the world runs, unfortunately, on neo-classical economics), thus spurring increased demand.

Owens gives a most wonderful example about refrigeration and air-conditioning, both energy-hungry processes. As refrigerators have become more efficient, refrigeration capacity in the world has increased multi-fold. Furthermore, the effects of better refrigeration are not limited to refrigeration only. We are tempted to buy more food to store in refrigerated conditions, and by the time we get to eating them, much of the food is spoiled anyway. Here, not only do we waste the energy going into refrigeration, we waste and throw away all of the energy, chemicals and resources that went into food production, through transportation, storage and agriculture. In fact, (and this was incredibly shocking to me), one quarter of US freshwater use goes into food that is eventually thrown away. As you may be able to tell, after a certain point, it becomes difficult to know what the true effects of efficiency gains are when moving to studying small systems to larger systems; issues only become more complex, becoming much more difficult to address. (I have written about complexity here, here and here.) Owen makes the point that, along with advocating for "efficiency," there must be other measures adopted simultaneously to make sure gains are not canceled out by increased consumption. Indeed, without further measures, you may be left in the boat of the United Kingdom, which has seen marked increases in "efficiency," but only increased greenhouse gas emissions.

There are several questions worth thinking about here: Do we need things to be more efficient? What is so wrong with things being inefficient, especially from a personal time standpoint? What are we going to do with any efficiency gains that will come our way?

Trash, to me, seems like a natural outcome of this "efficiency," "centralisation," and "convenience" mentality.


  1. I often think of the case of cars, which seem to have been driven on ever-longer commutes as they've gotten safer and more fuel-efficient.

    Another way to think of the problem is that if we measure efficiency by utility/costs, then there's environmental impact that isn't being factored into the denominator. Put that way I think efficiency is still a useful idea....

  2. As we start feeling the effects of Peak Oil (, efficiency will serve to soften the drastically higher energy prices we're all in for. To be honest, I'm not so worried about Jevon's Paradox because I truly don't believe it will be a factor for much longer. Nothing will cause the "mainstream" to cut down on resource consumption unless prices are significantly higher, especially not here in our exceptional(ly wasteful) country.

  3. Princen gave another example of this in his sustainable food course: when electric street lights became "more efficient" (as in used lesselectricity to produce the same amount of light), energy use went up because more street lights were put up, they were kept brighter, and kept on for more hours of the day.

  4. You are right, Sam. I read that now darkness is being considered a vanishing aspect of the world.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. One criticism, I do think as others have said in many cases efficiency is a good thing. Many of your arguments seem to come from a Luddite perspective and this concerns me because these ideas are not progressive and have already been shown to be counter productive. Look at energy efficiency as an example, we produce more power so by Levon's paradox more energy is used as the price drops. A number of European countries compensate for this by taxing energy with what are called "lethargy taxes." This is especially important when the energy is subsidized in some way since it is artificially cheap. Regardless, the increased efficiency is great for the environment the increased use isn't. We can correct for all of these problems by taxing the cost upto the point where people cannot be wasteful. As we talked about at the wedding, I think one of the overarching problems is people don't pay the true costs and so they are often wasteful with the most valuable things (our health and environment).

  6. I completely understand and agree with what you are saying. I still think however that since we're unable to quantify the costs of our actions, efficiency is something we can hide behind while continuing environmentally and socially degrading behaviour.