Crosslands Bulletin

The Myth of Resource Efficiency

Author: John Polimeni and et al
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Number of Pages: 200
Binding: Paperback

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The first thing to know about the comprehensive review of the Jevons paradox is how poorly it is written.  An ordinary display of English sentence structure and proper punctuation would help.

Make no mistake.  This is a scholarly contribution to resource economics.  The researchers are not overly concerned about popularizing the contents for a general audience unfamiliar with economic theory and easily confounded by arcane terminology.

With that complaint out of the way, “The Myth of Resource Efficiency” stands up as a remarkable and unsettling critique of energy policy.  The authors challenge the dominant contemporary conviction about combating environmental deterioration and global warming.  The confrontation leaves conventional wisdom bruised and shaken.

“We have written this book to provide a warning that relying on energy efficiency and technology as a solution is foolhardy,” say the four professors and researchers who collaborate on the text. 

The Jevons paradox occurs when an increase in efficiency in using a resource leads to an increase in the consumption of that resource rather than to a reduction.  The hypothesis is drawn by extension from the work of William Jevons, a Victorian economist who drowned at the age of 46 in 1882.  The authors sort through the paradox starting with the analysis of the situation in England by Jevons in his book “The Coal Question.”

The premise explicitly refutes Amory Lovins and the school of thought that rebound — any additional consumption — is insignificant if and when it occurs at all.  Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute has so far failed to rebut the Jevons paradox, offering only a weak and inadequate argument.  [RMI published a longer rebuttal two years after this review.  The RMI paper focuses not on the work of these authors but on a magazine article on the subject published in 2010 in The New Yorker — Editor, 7/11/2012.]

Attempts to measure it precisely throughout the economy have so far also failed.  But no one denies some rebound. 

“The Myth of Resource Efficiency” raises the prospects of a still more extreme condition.  Called backfire, rebound can be more than 100% of the engineered savings.  In other words, environmentally motivated efficiency measures might plausibly be counterproductive.

Independent scholar Blake Alcott  provides a detailed historical background of the Jevons paradox.  Mario Giampietro from Barcelona University and Kozo Mayumi from the University of Tokushima offer a grueling thermodynamic analysis that covers material such as the evolution of metabolic systems and nested hierarchical levels.  John Polimeni assembles empirical evidence in the attempt to show, on a macroeconomic level, that energy efficiency is the primary factor in increased energy consumption.  

The book ends with a brief discussion of alternative policies that may activate significant changes in the patterns of consumer behavior.  “Humans have to accept losing something in order to be able to retain something else,” the authors write.

It is safe to say that the Jevons paradox poses many open questions.  At the conclusion of his overview, Blake Alcott asks another one to emphasize the current state of affairs:

“With the evidence at hand today, and given a certain urgency in finding an answer, good judgment is called for.  If asked by policy-makers today whether we can count on greater energy efficiency to lower energy consumption, how many economists can answer with a whole-hearted ‘Yes’?”

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