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.