What should we do about the Jevons Paradox?


Need to source some fads? Counter-culture to the rescue! It’s pretty cool right now to adopt “slow” practices. Just watch any Portlandia sketch if you don’t believe me. In a culture where time is money and burnout is becoming an epidemic, slowing down has become an act of rebellion.

The Slow Movement began in the food industry as a response to concerns about fast food and its impact on our health (think Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me). The movement is fringe-popular in many industries now; there’s slow fashion, slow teaching, and slow parenting. As more and more people plug into a consumerist, social media-connected world, still others are deciding to reject the fast-paced modern world, sometimes to the extreme of going “off the grid” to escape it altogether. (I’ll admit the latter has appealed to me in a Thoureau-like vision once or twice; I have a fondness for the transcendentalists.)

Utopia to me, however, is not a longing to “return” to pre-industrial society; I’m wary of the golden age fallacy. The golden age fallacy could breed a society like Gilead, the dystopian world envisioned by Margaret Atwood in her acclaimed novel (and the popular new Hulu Original series of the same name), The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, I’d like to see a world that borrows not from the so-called “good ol’ days” – when there was no democracy of information, and productivity was possible only on the backs of slaves and women relegated to the private sphere – but from the timeless human spirit as it has always existed, inseparable from nature. Go, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with your transparent eyeball and your optimistic view of the divinity of all things!

Speaking of Transcendentalism, I’d like to call your attention to a book written in 1865 called The Coal Question, by William Jevons. The field of Sustainability, as sparkling new and mired in environmental science as it is, has a lot to say about a theory proposed in this book, published long before the term “sustainability” even entered the lexicon. The Jevons Paradox, as it is now known, suggests that the more efficient a process becomes, the more affordable it becomes, and therefore the more its product is consumed, to the point of “overconsumption,” meaning that the efficiency gains of the improvements are negated by the increased production that results.

David Owen explains the Jevons Paradox well in The New Yorker through an observation about refrigerators. He notes that “the average refrigerator sold in the United States today uses three-quarters less energy than the 1975 average, even though it is 20% larger and costs 60% less,” according to a report by the World Economic Forum. Everything we are taught about environmental practices tells us that’s a huge win! Bye-bye, tiny energy-sucking monsters of the past, and hello to the eco-friendly tech of the future, right? Not as Owens (or Jevons) explains it. Although the individual product has become so much healthier for the planet, the improvement has likely been eclipsed by increased demand for that product and for corollary products. Owen anecdotally relates that it is not uncommon now for a single household to own not just one energy-efficient fridge, but maybe two of them, and maybe a deep freezer and a mini-fridge as well. The larger appliances also mean more space to fill; what use is a giant compartment if you don’t shove it full of perishable convenience foods, produce you’ll never eat, frozen dinners to carry you through the zombie apocalypse, and ALL OF THE SODA AND BEER? So, now that we’re buying more of these products, the industries that create them have expanded, and so have the refrigerated aisles in grocery and convenience stores (so, more refrigerators, if you’re keeping count.)

The idea of the Jevons Paradox is heavily criticized. I suspect this is because 1. It was theorized based on the coal industry alone, and nobody has bothered to disprove it in scientific fashion (fair enough), and 2. It brings one to an unacceptable and mind-boggling conclusion: we should stop trying to make things more efficient. Now, I’m no Luddite, and I refuse to accept this conclusion as much as the next gal. But! Since I’m also—I’m sure you’ll agree—a super-cool, Emerson-loving, slow-living genius, I have to hope that we could turn this paradox on its head.

To truly unravel the problem, we must address not only the socioeconomic component that drives such behavior (material acquisition symbolizing status), but also the psychological component. Our products – the washing machine, the photocopier – once heralded as helpers who would bring relief to tired homemakers and office workers, have not exactly resulted in a leisurely culture. Our processes have indeed become more efficient thanks to these products, but we’ve filled our schedules to bursting instead of basking in this “saved” time.

What if we keep our energy-efficient gadgets (and calendars), but scale back the “extras”? It would require us to face pockets of empty time and space head on. We could no longer run away from our psychological stressors by inventing errands and shopping to add our list of consumer habits. So, the next time you realize that one area of your life or home has become more “efficient,” ask yourself what you’re going to do with that gain: you can fall back on Jevons’ rebound effect and find ways to add more, of course, but the alternative I prefer is taking a beat and honoring the intention of eco-efficiency to waste less. If enough of us slow down, can we avoid overwhelming the planet?

Maggie Brown, the Editor-in-Chief of New Southerner, is an Associate Professor at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College, where she has taught writing, literature, film studies, and rock & roll lit. She resides in Louisville, Kentucky, and enjoys giving talks and leading workshops about her experiences with the zero waste and vegan lifestyles. Her philosophy is that sustainability for the planet perfectly aligns with sustainability for the self. She’d love to hear from you at maggie [at] newsoutherner [dot] com.

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