Jevons Paradox

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars
~ Walt Whitman

In economics, the Jevons paradox (/ˈɛvənz/; sometimes Jevons effect) is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource” (Wikipedia)

Fall is here and with it, this desire of abandoning myself to just read all the books I’ve been accumulating as a book hoarder, work from home and fix all the things I couldn’t touch during the busy summer months…what a year! Something in me longs to go in and stay in. I have been out there too much, attending to Transition, Food Security and Emergency Preparedness meetings, volunteering and taking courses, gardening, teaching, sharing…it is time to take care of “Zone 0”.

Although Jevons’ paradox was initially created to talk about resource efficiency (specifically for coal), it has been used by economists and others to talk about energy and even transferred to technological tools: if we compare this to our house, the more energy efficient our households become, the more “stuff” we tend to buy and use.  In modern times, there is a similar “paradox” called “rebound effect,” where the creation of a more efficient manner of doing something causes people to do more of it, thereby offsetting some or all of the efficiency gains.

Some real examples of the above ideas are:

  • More efficient cars are being used more and people buy more cars, not  fewer: therefore, the end result is the same or worst: making and disposing of cars pollute the environment and increase the resource depletion as more efficient cars are often made with materials that have to be mined, etc.
  • More efficient light bulbs make people careless: they tend to leave the lights on more often as these new bulbs “consume less” (the end result, again, is the same or worse)
  • Clean your closet and you will soon end up buying new clothes
  • Technologies have made our life “easier” so now we have more kitchen aids, more computers, more appliances, more office equipment, more stuff…most households have electric can openers, electric t teeth brushes, electric juicers, blenders, bread makers, toasters, etc…
  • Information technologies have also “saved time” and made communication faster, so now we are attached (and enslaved by) a continuous flow of emails, tweets, blogs, pledges, surveys, online buying, online studying, online watching, texting, etc.
  • Gyms, home exercising machinery and diets were created so now people consume more calories than ever and move their bodies less (there is always this idea that gyms and diets will save us)
  • We earn more money than ever and work has become more and more specialized. At this point in time with all the machines and inventions, we should be doing less, working less hours/days and retiring earlier but the opposite has happened: we are trapped paying eternal mortgages and consumer debt, student loans and buying stuff to look OK at work (we even go to the extent of buying cars, shoes, make-up, clothes and even food we only need because we are out there working)
  • The system has become so efficient than we are trapped: because it is so efficient (and complex) we need to send our children (our most precious treasure and gift to the world) to daycares and schools and training academies to learn extra stuff so they can be as efficient and competitive as we are or better

I could continue forever, but you got the idea…

I have been struggling with this for months. As Rob Hopkins mentions in this incredibly funny, inspiring and wise presentation (Permaculture and Transition – shared challenges, shared possibilities: a talk in Northern California), I am one of those individuals who works Monday to Friday, eight hours a day (sometimes more) and does Transition and Permaculture on weekends, evenings and vacations. And it has become hard, really hard: physically, emotionally, relationship-wise and even financially.

Just this week I finished reading “Future Scenarios” by David Holmgren (the book) and between David’s call to action and Rob (above) urge to “scale up” I wonder if I should “burn the ships” and swim naked into strange waters…

The waters are so close that I am dreaming them almost every night: I can see the waves, the rising sea, they cover everything. One of these days…

At work, I have been invited to present at a special fair at the local library. I may even present at next year’ conference.

At home, I look at my son watching TV and playing with his iPod, my oldest one lost in his computer games among a messy room.  I want to scream. My little dog’s eyes are full of accusations: why I am not enough at home? Why I barely play with her? It has become too dark and cold to see my plants: I still have peppers and all herbs and the Nasturtiums are doing OK, but till when? I managed to save the worms in time: the poor things who so hard worked to create soil were left outside too long in the cold. My shelves full of Permaculture and similar books haunt me…Only my cats are oblivious: they come and warm the bed for me, without blame in their ways. Bilbo is here with me, almost falling asleep on the keyboard, as usual.

I still wonder how people “do” transition and manage to be present at every action or protest. Unless we do something about it, “Transition” will remain as a cool thing for middle class people just semi-committed, young ones without children or commitments and comfortable retirees.  Real transition needs to offer options to those like me who are enslaved by the system (eternal volunteering is not sustainable) and free those like the ones who are not even aware “Transition” or “Permaculture” exists because are too concerned about bringing food to the table and keeping a roof over their heads.

In the meantime, I’m developing a “Permaculture for Community Champions” short course (not a PDC yet), preparing my Permaculture diploma projects and journaling and sorting out among my “stuff”: I may emerge next year lighter and wiser, more prepared (I hope) for the upcoming storms.

However, I want to keep myself clumsy, simple, humble, even naive: otherwise I will be another victim of the “rebound effect” or, as some know it, the “Jevons’ paradox”.

Me, 4 years old:

silvia 1970

Tide washes away
all vain attempts to impress
shifting sands of time


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