The Jevons Paradox

What is the great moral blindness of our generation? For our parents, it was apartheid in the USA and South Africa. Before that, women’s rights, and before that, slavery. Most of the past moral crises (and the current one of abortion) involved the exclusion of a given class as not fully human: lepers, slaves, women, Jews, blacks, gays[1]. These are easy to call out. The current problem is much more insidious, because it involves those we cannot see, and that which we don’t even think of as “the other”.

The numbers below are not from some Greenpeace doomsday leaflet. This is accepted mainstream scholarship from some of the leading universities, academic journals, and institutes in the world. It has been common knowledge for twenty years or more, but these things take time to filter through. It is also so stupefying that “the long numbers rocket our minds, and our slow, unreckoning hearts are left behind, unable to fear what is too strange”[2]

I am privileged to be doing engineering research in energy efficiency – an exciting and cutting-edge field. The advances in technology that we will see in our lifetime will blow your mind. But we are slowly realising that technology is not a cure to our problems. It may actually be making things worse.

Let’s look at some numbers:


Source:, by the Vienna University of Economics and Business, et al.

First we notice that the global population is increasing, and will continue increasing beyond 2050 as Asia and Africa mature. 100 people in 1980 are 150 people now. Then we notice that our material intensity is decreasing. That means that where we needed 100 units of raw materials to produce a loaf of bread in 1980, we only need about 70 units now. We’re more efficient. But now look at our resource extraction. It’s increasing as our population increases. It’s as if we made no gains in efficiency. If everyone were consuming at a 1980’s level, resource extraction should have been almost flat at 105 today, not the 150 we are seeing. Because we are 30% more efficient, we just consume 30% more stuff. In fact, since introducing ‘sustainability’ and ‘efficiency’ in the 1990’s, our resource extraction has accelerated.

Next graph:

South African ecological footprint and biocapacity. The global scenario is slightly worse. Source: Global Footprint Network

This one tells similar story. We have fewer hectares per person than we had 40 years ago, despite our gains in productivity. We are also demanding more and more from the earth, per person, despite our gains in productivity. We are not “living off the land”, the way you live off interest. If the interest is 10%, and you consume 10%, you can carry on like this indefinitely. But if the interest is 10%, and you consume 15%, you are eating into our capital. Within 20 years, you will have nothing left. It is shorter, in fact, because between now and then, your interest will drop to 9, 8, 7… We are demanding from the earth what it can replenish.

The solution to our problem is not better technology. This is the Jevons paradox: a more efficient technology will increase demand for the product, and result in greater consumption. Landline telephones were fancy back in the day. Today technology is cheaper, so we have tablets, smartphones, laptops, wearable tech, and the Internet of Things. Although we have reduced each individual device’s dependence on electricity and resources, that has only made us as a society more dependent on electricity, not less.

Cooling technology is but one example: Refrigerators used to be expensive and inefficient: remember those old clunky units your grandparents used to have? New ones much better. But now we have double-door fridges, freezers, ice-makers, and air conditioning in your home, office, and car. Between 1993 and 2005, air conditioning efficiency in the United States increased by 30%, but the total energy consumed by household cooling systems doubled.[3]

Source: The Economist, No sweat: Artificial cooling makes hot places bearable—but at a worryingly high cost

The United States uses more energy for air conditioning that the rest of the world combined, but not for long. Twelve of the thirteen hottest cities in the world are in the fast-growing regions of Southeast Asia, and will add a billion new consumers by 2025. That means that we will have the USA x4 in 10 years’ time[4]. From the figure above, you can see that 2025 is the beginning, not the end, of the trend.

Not only is the road to hell paved with energy-efficient technologies, but it is also superbly air conditioned.


Next: But we’re making progress on green business and sustainability, right?

[1] Or the ruling class, men, Christians/Gentiles, white people, and heterosexuals, depending on where you look.

[2] Richard Wilbur, Advice to a Prophet

[3] Population only increased by 13% during this time. By 2010, cooling energy use was up another 20%.

[4] Current US population: 0.318 billion.