Last week we looked at Jevons' Paradox, a topic in The New Yorker’s last issue of 2010.
“If the only available vehicle today were a 1920 Model T, how many miles do you think you’d drive each year? How far do you think you’d live from where you work?”
We have far greater fuel efficiency today than we did in 1920. But we’ve simply stepped up our energy consumption to accommodate that fact. We live in sprawling communities far from the places where we live and work.
Many of today’s economists disagree, arguing that such rebound effects are trivial. But proponents of the Paradox insist that it’s real, especially when considering economies as a whole.
Because our economy is so complex and interconnected, it’s impossible to quantify the precise effects of a single energy efficiency improvement. An energy savings in one sector may contribute to a new demand in yet another.
The real question is this: Can energy efficiency alone deliver the environmental benefits we so desperately need?
Can we do it without adding measures that call for political will and sacrifice? Measures that include capping emissions, taxing carbon, or investing in utility-scale renewable energy?
If we make energy increasingly available – without raising its cost, without reducing consumption – will we simply make our predicament worse?
Photo credit: Sunset Classics