Jevons Paradox

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Description

Blaqswans:

"English economist William Stanley Jevons:

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption according to a principle recognised in many parallel instances” (Jevons, 1865).

Savings arising from the increasing efficiency of energy conversions have been a factor in promoting their more frequent use and in driving up the overall use of fuels and electricity.

Examples abound: just compare the number of lights and electronic gadgets in an average household in 2010 with the total of their much less efficient predecessors in 1930. In 1930, even in the richest countries, a typical household had just a few (six to eight) lights, a radio, and perhaps a small electric stove; 80 years later it has more than two dozen lights, an array of electrical appliances (including such major energy consumers as refrigerators, stoves, toasters, washing machines, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and air conditioners) and a still growing range of electronic gadgets ranging from TVs and CD players to game boxes, personal computers, and cellphones. Clearly, relative dematerialization is decidedly one of those “many parallel instances” noted by Jevons as less means more."
(Google doc)

Discussion

Celine Piques and Xavier Rizos:

"In an overwhelming majority of cases, these complex, dynamic interactions of cheaper energy, less expensive raw materials, and cheaper manufacture have resulted in such ubiquitous ownership of an increasing range of products and more frequent use of a widening array of services that even the most impressive relative weight reductions accompanying these consumption increases could not be translated into any absolute cuts in the overall use of materials. Indeed, there can be no doubt that relative dematerialization has been a key (and not infrequently the dominant) factor promoting often massive expansion of total material consumption. Less has thus been an enabling agent of more.

This counterintuitive phenomenon was first described in relation to energy consumption by English economist William Stanley Jevons:

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption according to a principle recognised in many parallel instances” (Jevons, 186).

Savings arising from the increasing efficiency of energy conversions have been a factor in promoting their more frequent use and in driving up the overall use of fuels and electricity.

Examples abound: just compare the number of lights and electronic gadgets in an average household in 2010 with the total of their much less efficient predecessors in 1930. In 1930, even in the richest countries, a typical household had just a few (six to eight) lights, a radio, and perhaps a small electric stove; 80 years later it has more than two dozen lights, an array of electrical appliances (including such major energy consumers as refrigerators, stoves, toasters, washing machines, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and air conditioners) and a still growing range of electronic gadgets ranging from TVs and CD players to game boxes, personal computers, and cellphones. Clearly, relative dematerialization is decidedly one of those “many parallel instances” noted by Jevons as less means more.

The evolution of American passenger cars provides another well-documented example of an impressive relative dematerialization:

  • Statistic (see google doc): Weight, engine power, and mass/power ratios of US cars, 1920–2011.


This failure to reduce car mass is even worse when assessed in per capita terms, because between 1920 and 2010 the rate of vehicle ownership increased from fewer than 8 cars/100 people in 1920 to 27/100 people cars in 1950. After this, it became common for a family to own two or more vehicles: in 1950 only about 3% of US households had a second car, by 1965 that share reached 24%, and by 2011 it was nearly 40%, with about 20% of all families having three or more cars at just over 80 vehicles/100 people. Between 1920 and 2011 relative registrations thus increased almost exactly 10-fold, and even after completely eliminating the effects of the intervening population growth (from 106 to 308 million people) which would have, everything else being equal, resulted in nearly three times as many vehicles on the road, the combined effect of additional power, higher weights, and higher rate of ownership had increased the average per capita mass of materials deployed in passenger cars registered in 2011 nearly 35-fold when compared to their mass in 1920.


So we have is a “seesaw effect” between efficiency gains and the inflation of matter and “stuff” per item."
(Google doc)

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