The Ergosphere
Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sustainability, efficiency and Jevons' "Paradox"

Jevons' Paradox is a misnomer; it is really no paradox at all.  The idea that it is a paradox assumes that the price-demand curve for product is flat.  This is a notion that most students of economics would laugh at.

This is best illustrated with an example.  Let's suppose that I'm in the widget business.  The old widget-making process uses one hogshead of floo at $10 to make one widget; at $15/widget I can sell 1000 widgets a month and I make $5000.  If I improve my process to use only 1/2 hogshead of floo per widget, I can sell for $10 and still make $5/widget.  Here's the "paradox":  suppose that people will buy 3000 widgets/month at $10 each so my floo consumption goes from 1000 hogsheads/month up to 1500. Floo could go to $15/hogshead and I'd still be making $7500/month compared to my original $5000/month.  Everyone is better off:  I make more money, the floo producers make more money, and the public enjoys 3 times as many widgets.  Even Wikipedia has it right.

Jevons' Paradox only applies where supply is not limited by other factors.  This does not apply to oil; all the money in the world cannot put more in the ground nor change the geological constraints on its rate of production.  Price has some effect on the recovery methods used, but it mostly decides who gets what's produced.  If we doubled our efficiency of using oil, either we could consume twice as much of its products while paying the same price, consume lots more and grab even more of the oil with the higher price we can pay, or hold our consumption to less than double and watch the price of oil go down.

At least it would go down temporarily; depletion will eventually bring the supply back down and cause the price to be bid up once more.  But the ability to pay a greater price has a salutary effect:  it makes other sources competitive.  Suppose that the producer of $10/hogshead floo gets it by mining his raw material and pressing out the liquid; if there is a process for making floo from grape leaves and willow bark at $12.50/hogshead, the improved widget process opens up an entirely new source of supply.  So long as the viniculturists and coppicers can supply the raw material for 1500 hogsheads a month, the price of floo will remain pegged at $12.50 even if the miners go out of business.

This bears a deliberate resemblance to our situation with petroleum and its substitutes.  Biofuels and batteries are expensive, and their production costs have to come down before they're competitive; worse, the further off the prospect of price parity, the less likely people are to invest to make it happen.  But every increase in the price of petroleum brings that point closer.  The cost of alternatives will hit the breakeven point for one use, and then another, and another.  The bigger the industry, the greater the yield from accumulated experience; the greater the cost of petroleum, the faster the investment in new technology will come.  The more efficient the use of the alternatives, the more business they will take away from today's suppliers.

This will work so long as the alternatives do not run into resource constraints of their own.  Corn ethanol is almost there already (it's likely that resource constraints and the consequent price boosts are the entire purpose of the ethanol program), but cellulose resources in garbage and crop and forestry wastes are very under-utilized.  The wind capacity of the United States stands at about 10 GW out of an estimated 1.2 terawatts possible (and another 900 GW on the continental shelves), and solar is barely on the map.

We won't have to worry about competing uses for waste biomass until we're using a lot of the waste.  It would take decades to build out the continental wind resources alone, and I can't see us worrying about competing uses for solar energy for a very long time.

To a first approximation, the likely product of Jevons' Paradox for alternative energy is to make it more attractive and more widely used.  Efficiency is our friend, and as for the paradox, I say bring it on.

Excellent post, convincing again as always. I enjoyed reading it.

One paradox I've been considering recently is the opinion of some environmentalists regarding renewable energy source. They all say we should be moving to renewable energy sources, which undoubtedly we should. But they don't like wind farms because "they are ugly". They don't like hydro schemes which involve modifying the landscape or water flows because this upsets the ecosystem. They don't like any form of big solar schemes, because they're an eyesore. They don't like farming because this causes long term damage to the land and soil. On one hand, they're telling us to do one thing, but on the other hand they're saying they don't want it. It's classic NIMBY stuff.

Not really related to your post, but I thought it was another interesting paradox.
Define 'efficiency.'
The rhetoric of some hints that they didn't even start as NIMBY's, they started as primitivists, fascists or suicidalists (human extinctionists).  Anything that prevents the crash they're so fervently wishing for is against their religion, and they go from NIMBY to BANANA to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth).

Appeasing them is pointless; they are not arguing in good faith.

Jevon is a relative measurement... not an absolute one.

Of course resource constraints define the limits of production/consumption.

Jevon himself makes this observation...

"Savings" from efficiency or conservation are not "saved" per se... These savings are absorbed as lower prices.

People are going to find ways to consume any useful stuff, to the extent they can afford to do so.

You cannot legislate intent.
Engineer-Poet, have you been following the discussion of the Jevons paradox over at

I have been trying to make some similar points there to the relationship you point out between efficiency and the adoption of renewables. I appreciate your concise use of the demand curve to illustrate this connection.
No, I'm not.  If I did, I'd get even less writing done than I do.

Besides, I despise the systems which divide comments into a bunch of different pages and make it nearly impossible to search them.
I think that this model inherently favours technology with minimal initial investment. You have this marginal step-increase in the cost of petroleum projects followed by a technological response. Then our

It makes sense that the market should pick the cheapest, easiest solutions first rather than the one that might provide the greatest long-term benefit.

If there's a true oil shock (to supply) then the dynamic changes.
"Savings" from efficiency or conservation are not "saved" per se... These savings are absorbed as lower prices.

Both obvious and trivial. They will be if the efficiency growth rate is sufficiently great with respect to the growth of supply to keep the price falling.

If supply does not grow, efficiency gains will restrict the rise in price and thus demand. If efficiency increases fast enough, it may be able to keep the price constant. If we use a broad definition of efficiency and include substitution of other resources, it might even fall - this would reflect a progressive abandonment of the resource.

I don't know why the peakies love Jevons so much. After all, look what happened to his original predictions - he was talking about the UK coal industry and was convinced that coal would peak out and decline and that the UK would decline with it.

Well, you can argue that the UK declined, but it wasn't because of coal. Coal production peaked in the 1980s, a good hundred years later, and not because the coal ran out but because Maggie Thatcher decided to shut down the mines because natural gas from the North Sea was cheaper.

(Silly bitch.)

Jevons's paradox is only a paradox if we're *not* running out of oil.
E-P, while you're analysis of oil and Jevon's Paradox is probably accurate on the longterm - i.e. constraints in oil supply will negate the effects of Jevon's paradox - but on short-term time scales, we have already seen examples of Jevon's Paradox at work.

During the late 1970s and 80s, vehicle fuel efficiencies increased in response to high oil prices. The result was a decrease in oil consumption and a resulting decrease in world oil prices by the early 1990s. This in turn created cheap prices at the pump which helped encourage the mass adoption of SUVs and the fuel economy of the light duty fleet decreased/stopped increasing while vehicle miles travelled increased.

That is, short supplies caused high prices which in turn resulted in increased efficiency and decreased demand that lowered prices and eventually caused an increase in oil prices and killed efficiency efforts - a perfect example of Jevon's.
I'm with Watthead.
Hello, Engineer-Poet,

your comments on the 1957 Rickover-Speech in The Oildrum ( were informative and I have taken the liberty to quote you in my German translation (

As for the Jevons' Paradox however, I am rather skeptical. The "paradox" is just a special case of the more general question as to whether we are able to save energy (on a national or global scale) by saving energy (on a technical level by introducing energy-saving devices etc.).

I would say we're not. Quite apart from the interesting information that "WattHead" is giving us in his commentary of 03/06/2006, we should not so much focus on whether people will by bigger cars or ride more often, but on the question of what they do with the money that is being saved.

Assuming they by hybrid cars and assuming that they save on their gasoline bill: how do they spend the extra money left in their pockets?
They certainly don't flush it down the drain! Maybe the take an extra flight to Hawaii, or by more clothing from China. Even if the State would tax their profit away, it would still flow back into the economy and there induce some demand for extra energy.
So what you're saying is that, given a certain amount of energy, people will eventually use it for something.

I'm in complete agreement.
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