Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jevons' Revenge

The always-excellent Lloyd Alter finds a couple of diverse instances of the Jevons effect. In case you don’t know, the Jevons effect is the idea that, as a resource becomes cheaper or as we become more efficient at using it, it encourages a more profligate use of the resource such that you wipe out any gains, or even make the situation worse. For example, there are all sorts of totally unnecessary and wasteful activities we do today that we simply wouldn’t do at all if we didn’t have abundant energy and technology, such as throwing away 40 percent of our food and making disposable plastic everything.

This paradox is almost wholly ignored by the techno-optimist set, but once you learn about it, you start seeing it everywhere you look. The example I always use is the Internet bandwidth. Today you can access dozens of Web sites in seconds, whereas in the early days of the Internet it might take you up to a minute to download a single graphics-intensive page with your 9600 baud modem.

So now that Internet access is lightning-quick, do we spend less time on it? No, we spend more time on it, because it has caused an exponential explosion in Web sites. And now every page has to have video news or sounds, or download bloated advertisements, malware, and spyware; run scrips and place cookies on your hard drive, or shove ads and surveys down your throat with popup and popover windows, and loads of other garbage. The end result is pages take ever longer to load even with the fastest possible Internet connections.

We can also see this with buildings, too. With all our amazing construction technology and knowledge, buildings have gotten progressively larger and more complex at every level. And we build a lot more of them – I’d be willing to bet that 90 percent of all buildings worldwide that have been constructed since the dawn of humanity have been constructed in the past thirty years alone (especially if we measure in terms of square footage). And many of these buildings as are completely pointless (such as luxury hotels in Dubai and China’s endless parade of museums). And we actually make them less durable and tear them down more often – I have seen several fast-food outlets torn down only to build brand new fast-food shacks on the exact same parcel.

Alter points out that the gains from energy efficiency measures in residential construction (lights, HVAC, insulation, etc.) have been plowed into building larger and larger houses with more appliances:
A number of years ago I disagreed with Martin Holladay at Green Building Advisor (I do this a lot) about The Myth of Resource Efficiency. He suggested that people would spend the money that they saved by having more efficient houses on having bigger houses, or that improvements in vehicle efficiency would lead to more driving, or even that improvements in refrigerator efficiency would lead to larger fridges.

I disagreed, suggesting that this Rebound Effect, or Jevons Paradox, wouldn't happen because the rising cost of energy would eat up those savings. And besides, how do you squeeze in a bigger fridge?

In the four years since I have been proven wrong again and again, from LED lighting to flat screen monitors, and even to refrigerators. People have consistently figured out new ways to waste energy with new technologies or just use more, because they can.

Now, via Wendy Koch, I see new data that show that our houses are 30% larger but consume just a bit more energy than houses built a decade ago. All of that work to improve construction standards and insulation, and the savings? A big nothing, because it all went into house size and air conditioning.

The data are just depressing. More square footage, more appliances, more of everything.
New more efficient US homes eat up as much energy as they did a decade ago, because they are 30% larger (Treehugger) See also Jevons Paradox and Energy Efficiency and On Jevons' Paradox and The Size of Your Refrigerator

And sometimes when things get more efficient, we waste energy just because we can:
The problem is, Stanley [Jevons] was right. You can see it all around you; the latest and greatest example is the Bay Lights project...

...the world’s largest LED light sculpture, 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high. Inspired by the Bay Bridge’s 75th Anniversary, its 25,000 white LED lights are individually programmed by artist Leo Villareal to create a never-repeating, dazzling display across the Bay Bridge West Span through 2015.

The eight million dollar project would not have even been considered before the invention of LEDs; it would have burned too much electricity. Now it can be built because LEDs use a whole lot less power, but the Bay Bridge project is using a whole lot more than nothing. There is also the issue of the energy, water and carbon footprint of manufacturing 25,000 LEDs and 48,000 clips to hold them.
The Bay Bridge shines in the light of 25,000 LEDs (Treehugger) See also: Jevons Paradox in Action: An LED Covered Snowsuit and How Greater Efficiency Leads to Greater Waste, Or Jevons Paradox in the Mens' Room As a commenter to an earlier article put it:
The Jevons Paradox definitely is important- as efficiency rises, the cost of consuming a product or service falls, so we consume more of it. So efficiency can't happen in a vacuum. It needs to be combined with either rising energy prices (by taxes or decreasing supply) or by a culture that embraces efficiency as a value in itself. That's all it means. Efficiency is still an essential component: it allows us to consume less without having to give something up.
Put simply, we’ll always find a way to burn through whatever surplus we create. Put another way, our appetites will always grow to encompass whatever means are at our disposal. It's just who we are as a species, apparently.


  1. I had no idea there was a word for this effect, that's great.

    If we discovered a way to double fuel efficiency overnight, the effect wouldn't be fuel conservation -- it'd be the return of the SUV. Capitalism fails us once again.

  2. Technology is pretty damn cool. It's when you give certain products to EVERYONE that it becomes uncool.

  3. I am a firm believer that under the paradigm of continuous economic growth, energy saving is pretty meaningless. I save $100 in energy, I spend it on something else that requires energy. Same with a corporation. Look at coal- we are reducing US usage, but have doubled coal exports. Coal and fossil fuel usage rise with world GDP, and our idiotic paradigm is that we must grow world GDP.

    Another important issue- if we as a country do not have a vision of where we want to stabilize our population- 400 million? 500 million?; what is the point of saving energy if that savings will get eaten up by population growth energy usage? Energy savings is only effect in a steady state environment where the savings actually save something.

  4. Efficiency means you can do the same for less, but equally it means you can do more for the same. We're inclined to the latter.


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