Weekend Warrior #19 – Making the Jevons Paradox Work For Us

How often have you caught yourself buying 2 of something when they’re on special? Or more of something simply because it’s in season and cheaper? No doubt we all have because to us it’s good micro-economics. And this is the Jevons Paradox at work.

William Jevons was an economist who in 1865 suggested that when we make a process or resource more efficient we’ll simply use more of it, rather than less. For example, when coal becomes cheaper due to improved mining efficiencies we’ll just use more, or when energy becomes cheaper we won’t be as vigilant in managing our consumption.

Jevons Paradox is often used to argue against the drive for more efficient buildings and cleaner energy, i.e. ‘why bother when we’re just going to consume more as a result’. I wan to turn this around.

Having spent my career in the sustainable development game it’s obvious that the Paradox isn’t always true. The owner of a newly energy-efficient building is not going ignore good energy management just because the building is leaner – that owner is going to pocket the returns instead.


Depends how far you drive them. Good article on Jevons Paradox via the image [Joseph Tainter, Our Energy Futures]

And the Paradox can work for us rather than against us; data has shown that as the cost of rooftop solar systems has dropped around the world, home owners buy more, i.e. they’re spending the same on a system that they always were, but getting more for their buck.

So in effect we can help amplify the benefits of Jevons Paradox towards our cleaner future;

  1. Continue to drive efficiencies in energy performance in cities – the pure economics are making this a relatively easy path to travel; and
  2. Support the resources and materials that we want to become cheaper – sustainable timber, clean tech, healthy materials, clean transport and so forth.

It’s the second one that’s the challenge. It’s a question of us helping the desirable industries reach commercial scale, as we are witnessing right now with solar. So we need to continue to ask for the products, order them and invest in them, even if at times it means some short-term pain for a long-term gain. And many of these industries are keen, lean and green – they are hungry for success. The natural economic process of demand and supply will take care of the rest.

So this weekend’s challenge, should you choose to accept it, is [on the assumption that you buy anything at all] to purchase one clean, organic, ethical or renewable product [hopefully all of the above!] that you wouldn’t normally because of the price.

Give it a go – the way we spend our money shapes our world.

[good Wiki background on Jevons Paradox here]


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