The Jevons Paradox Essay

The Jevons Paradox Essay

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Energy-efficiency has become the talk of the town. Scientists, marketers, journalists, and politicians alike are showering praises on the new technologies that promise to revolutionize our planet. From "zero-emission" electric cars, to smart electric grids, to "green" laptops, high-tech "sustainable" solutions seem to promise the world a brighter future (1). It’s a positive message at heart: to solve the world’s energy problems, all we need is better engineering. And with many prototypes near completion, who wouldn’t be excited?

The economists aren’t, for one. These contrarians are quick to point out that most attempts towards energy-efficient technology have proved utterly futile. History has repeatedly shown that energy-efficiency rarely leads to net energy reduction. In fact, quite frequently, efficiency improvements makes things worse by actually encouraging a net waste in energy. This counter-intuitive effect is known as the Jevons Paradox.

This energy-efficiency paradox was first described in the mid-1800s by a British economist named William Stanley Jevons. During this era, coal was the fuel that powered industrialization in Britain. Britain was blessed with this valuable resource: geologists estimated that it had around 90 billion tons of natural coal reserves (2). This ample supply of cheap energy provided the power for the nation’s vast array of steam engines. These engines, in turn, powered the manufacturing industries that made the British Empire wealthy.

Over time, Britain’s economy became increasingly dependent on coal. Since 1770, the amount of coal being consumed each year was growing exponentially. Assuming continued exponential growth, England would exhaust its vast coal reserves in the next 100 years–no...


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...ters encourage people to leave these systems on longer. Lower costs might even encourage the average home-buyer to purchase a larger house. Any potential savings are thus wasted cooling and heating extra space (6).

The Jevons Paradox makes it clear that technology by itself can’t solve our present energy crisis. If new innovations aren’t accompanied by a cultural shift towards conservation, they are likely to waste more energy than ever before.

The trouble with sustainable living is that it requires a total lifestyle change. Life apart from consumerism can be difficult to imagine, so we resist. It’s much easier to just keep searching for the next big thing. We want to be environmentally-friendly, but we don’t want to give up our cheap energy, shopping sprees, fast cars, quick profits, and junk food. So we’ll be sure to see plenty of paradoxes for years to come.

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