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energy efficiency: a paradox « Previous | |Next »
January 22, 2011

More energy efficient buildings are often suggested as one way to reduce the need for energy (electricity) produced by coal fired power stations and so can help reduce the effect of climate change.The key question is how effective these energy efficiency savings in the use of productive resources, will be.

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York have a sobering interpretation of the logic of energy efficiency in a capitalist system in Monthly Review. Referring to the Jevons Paradox —the idea that increased energy (and material-resource) efficiency leads not to conservation but increased use— they say:

What is neglected, then, in simplistic notions that increased energy efficiency normally leads to increased energy savings overall, is the reality of the Jevons Paradox relationship—through which energy savings are used to promote new capital formation and the proliferation of commodities, demanding ever greater resources. Rather than an anomaly, the rule that efficiency increases energy and material use is integral to the “regime of capital” itself.

The result, they say, is the production of mountains upon mountains of commodities, cheapening unit costs and leading to greater squandering of material resources at the expense of the environment. Any slowdown in this process of ecological destruction, under the present system, spells economic disaster.

A sobering insight. The paradox is often brought up as a proof that conservation measures just won't work and so we should “live high now and let the future take care of itself.”

It not that energy or fuel efficiency is a bad thing. It is not. More energy efficient households, offices and cars are better because they reduce energy costs and use less energy. Improvements in technical efficiency increase the ranges of choices to consumers such that consumers are not worse off.

In economic language in order to achieve the same level of utility, the individual can consume less energy; or if we take the assumption of self interested consumers and maximization of utility seriously, they will not be satisfied with the same utility he/she reached earlier if he/she is able to reach a higher utility for the same expense. The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption.

The inference that is drawn by Ecological economics is that, as increased efficiency, by itself, is unlikely to reduce energy use, so a sustainable energy policy must rely on other types of government interventions that that reduces demand (e.g., cap and trade, fuel tax or carbon tax).

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 3:22 PM | | Comments (3)


Capitalism is based on the fallacious notion of cornucopia, of infinite resources. Apart from that, it seems that the system doesn't really set about identifying any damage done to or likely to happen with, economic bases.
In fact, as time passes, it seems rather, an attitude of suppression to inconvenient info has developed. Think of the interference with CSIRO and political attempts to stall or dodge identification/discovery processes, such as happened in Tasmania and with the MD basin.
To me, over time, the system seems not to have been imaginative enough in seeking to predict and identify phenomena like desertification and soil degradation, impacts of land clearing and deforestation on the hirthoe unconsidered relation ship of enviro to local climate and rainfall.
Fisheries collapses, water and air pollution, the Ozone layer and global warming also come to mind as examples of reality intruding on people's ambitions and feel good daydreams.
Its always assumed or proposed that a techno fix will conveniently turn up to solve whatever problems we've been saddled with, through the rashness of others in previous times.
One dares say, the next generation will curse us as loudly we have our elders, for errors identified through the luxury of twenty twenty hindsight, when these were made in haste or worse still conscious disregard for facts and warnings, out of blatant arrogance or greed.
Unfortunately ,it seems the need to massage people's endorphins in inciting commodity fetishism to drive growth, has interfered with our ability to see the world and life in realistic terms.

The nightwatchman liberal state of the 19th century was a world where most of the rowing and steering was done in civil society; in the Keynesian state that succeeded it in the 20th century the state did a lot of rowing but was weak on steering civil society; the neo-liberal state of the 21st century favours state steering and civil rowing.

So we shouldn't expect too much by way of the state addressing energy issues --its really up to civil society to do the rowing. The state rules at a distance and itself is an object of regulation by international institutions--WTO. IMF, ratings agencies etc.

This is why energy and resource conservation measures have to be coupled with measures to reduce the birth-rate. Only with a declining population is technological progress sustainable.