Friday, July 21, 2006

The Jevons Paradox

This post is not about oil, despite the opening paragraph. It is about the application of a theory from the world of economics, as applied to other areas of life. The Jevons paradox states that an increase in resource efficiency will not decrease consumption, but rather increase it. Thus, all things being equal, widespread use of hybrid cars, for example, would not mean less oil burned, but more miles driven. Stores might consolidate farther away, and commutes might get longer.

As with most laws, axioms, and theorems, this does not come with a moral judgment attached. Murphy's Law, after all, was not an expression of pessimism or cynicism, but an engineering consideration. If you are designing a tool, a machine, or a system, make no assumptions about the likelihood of a particular type of failure, because, given enough time, the failure will occur. If it can happen, it will.

The Jevons Paradox also doesn't indicate that individual efficiency is a bad thing. I know one regular visitor here who has topped 90 miles per gallon in a mass produced vehicle, and I'm quite sure he uses far less fuel than I do. It just indicates that on the whole, society will take advantage of efficiency to increase consumption rather than decrease it.

What other "resources" can this be applied to? I'm thinking about two resources that tend to weigh on us: Time, and Money.

Think of "labor saving" devices. Of course, I put that in quotation marks, because not everything designed to save time actually does. Look around your kitchen. Do you have task-specific appliances that sit in the corner or the back of a cupboard because they're not worth the bother?

But even those that truly do save time don't mean we get more chances to lay in a hammock with a glass of lemonade and a good book.

Last time I checked, the 40-hour work week is still standard. Or is it closer to 50 hours now? The labor saving computer allows us each to do the work of a thousand pencil pushers. Do we work less? No, we work more.

A long debate raged here and elsewhere about, among other things, tractors. For what it's worth, I have come to regret my part in it. Instead of sharing common ground, we exchanged blows over angles and perspectives, communication failing. Like the Jews and Palestinians, fighting over scraps of desolate land they both consider "holy", agreeing only that (as an acquaintance put it) "Thou shalt not kill" expired the moment Moses reached the bottom of Mt. Siani. All this despite the fact that Jews and Palestinians are genetically indestingushable. But I digress.

The tractor was designed to "save the farmer time" because it could do more work than a team of horses. I don't know if the marketing of the day would have stated it this way, but in today's world, it would be sold as a way to "spend more time with your family." Why then, were lights added to the tractor? Because rather than saving time, some farmers used it to increase capacity. The more efficient farmers were getting more done. Higher production meant higher supply at the market, which meant more income... at first. But a supply increase ultimately means lower prices. Lower prices meant farmers who didn't adopt the longer hours saw their income drop. Adding lights allowed farmers to work after dusk, thus increasing productivity even more. Again, those who didn't follow suit fell behind. Work load was increased rather than decreased by the labor saving tractor.

Let's switch from time to money. How often do we buy more because something is on sale? "25% off? We should get two!" Say it with me: "We're saving money!"

"Biggie size that? For only 25 cents more you get a bigger fry and bigger drink!" I suspect that the average American eats more lavishly than the richest kings of only a century ago.

When goods are cheap, we don't keep more money in our pockets, we spend more money. Goods have gotten cheaper and more plentiful year after year, and yet the average credit card debt in the U.S. has more than doubled in a decade, from $4,300 in 1994 to $9,300(!) in 2004.

We tend to think, if only we made a little more money, our problems would be solved. But rather than a bigger savings account, a raise more often means we just get more stuff... and a little more stuff... maybe new car... perhaps a bigger house (with a bigger garage) to hold it all. Mortgages used to be 15 years. Now the standard is 30. Oh, with an adjustable rate and balloon payments. Banks in California are introducing 50 year mortgages now.

The Jevons paradox shows that perceived gains do not always play out how we expect. And the problem that arises is that if the resource is limited, and it's being used up faster and faster, it's all the more painful to go backwards when the limit is reached, because of our inflated expectations. At that point we're more dependent than ever on the resource. What would you do if your pay wer to decrease? Or if your available time were shortened due to illness or other unforseen circumstances? If we have a 10-minute outage at my place of employment, it might cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, because so much "whatever" can be cranked out in 10 minutes.

I haven't seen this expressed elsewhere, so I humbly submit Freeman's Corrolary to the Jevons Paradox: The greater the efficiency in using a resource, the greater the difficulty in giving up the resource.

I guess we just need to consider that if we intend to "save" something - time, money, fuel, the planet, whatever - we should truly save the resource, rather than squandering the gain by consuming even more. And before we "save" we should consider whether the savings is an actual savings, or a means to squeeze ever more life out of life.


At 7/21/2006 1:40 PM, Blogger Suzer said...

I think this is the beauty of not having a lot of spare resources in our house because it forces us to say, "Do we really need this?" Nine times out of ten the answer is no, and that is not a bad thing. I don't mind that we don't go out to eat, or the movies, or do expensive anything because that means what we do is have picnics and go the park and take long walks at a nature preserve. And Maya isn't going to remember all the toys she didn't have or the designer clothes she didn't wear. She's going to remember that we spent time with her because we didn't have the money to ignore her!

At 7/21/2006 7:54 PM, Blogger Beo said...

One of my favorite bumperstickers for hybrid cars is "I'm getting 60mpg so you can keep getting 10..."

I drive my Insight to mitigate my environmental impact-I cut 10,000lbs of C02 emissions annually with that purchase, to be a better parent (pratice what I preach) and becuase I, personally, could no longer live with the reality that I was wasting a global resource.

We drive our Forester less now-it kills me to know I could be getting more than double the mileage in the Insight-and we are driving about 10% less overall.

I am not normal and am virtually always on one end of a bell curve...


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