Jevon’s Paradox – Talking to “Experts”


Guy McPherson, love him or hate him, has some great comments on hope, and quotes Nietzsche – “it is one of the worst of all possible human emotions, since it prolongs man’s torment.”   Some days, I admit, that I do hope a little bit, especially when talking to supposed experts in a particular field.

At a recent schmoozefest at a renewable energy center, a few folks in the efficiency space were there, talking and pointing out new technologies, sensing devices and ways of making buildings more efficient.   Since their business was efficiency, I’d figure they’d have some knowledge about the history of efficiency campaigns, and the side effects that come with them.   The technical term for this Jevon’s Paradox, and although they called it something else (“rebound” or some such thing), they understood that yes, it did happen.   For example, if it takes a building X units of energy to provide a temperature of 68 F in the winter, and you bring this to X/2 units of energy, it is very possible (and probable) that people will raise the temperature set point to 72 F.  Also, with the energy they save, they will most likely spend it on other things that use energy (or boost the economy), making efficiency a losing battle.

The weird thing about this is that even though my admiration for what they did was sincere, they felt that my raising of the issue was a bit off the mark.  As much as their work was important, I felt compelled to ask them about the limits of their technological solutions.  Even in my own stint in the renewable energy industry, I know that it was going to take more than technological fixes to change the way we lived our lives.  One of the two efficiency folks even gave the classic line, “We didn’t end the Stone Age because we ran out of stones,” and insisted that we’d always find a way to keep going, to keep expanding.  When I mentioned that there were real physical limits (infinite growth on a finite planet was impossible; even Moore’s Law has limits), they just handwaved my comment away (and then said they had to talk to others at the meeting).

Of course, the folks here were engineers (myself included); we love technical solutions, efficiency, and making things work better.  My thought was, however, maybe these folks were ahead of my thinking, since they were so heavily in the efficiency space, and their firm was actively thinking on how to combat Jevon’s Paradox.   For example, if it became fashionable (the word ‘cool’ here is a bit confusing) to wear the warmest but thinnest possible sweater or pullover, or if posting your carbon footprint per occupant on the front of a building became de rigueur, perhaps Jevon’s Paradox could be actively fought against.  But although this was acknowledged, the general feeling was we could have efficiency and a better way of life, plus growth and everything else that went along with the modern world.  Not a peep about how life was going to change for most of us, and how we were all going to have to get used to a different world.

The general mood of this small event had a bit of trepidation in it, given the recent US election, but all in all, the technocrats were still doing what they do best – making the best technological solutions they could muster.


  • Have you met any experts (in any field) that seem to miss the forest for the trees?  Doctors who want to “cure” cancer or things like depression without considering our seemingly crazy and poison filled food chain and culture?
  • How do you talk to experts when they are this far gone?
  • Have you had any success in talking to folks like this?   At one event, where a speaker on resources addressed an audience of over 700 folks, it was only afterwards (and after a pint) that the speaker pretty much admitted to me a truth (carrying capacity of the Earth – it wasn’t 7+ billion, but a lot lower).  Do we have to get these folks in small crowds (or one on one) to admit these ugly truths?
  • Jevon’s Paradox has some criticism; are they valid?
  • Are there any “experts” (as a whole), in any field, who are waking up to reality?   The climate change scientists seem to have some cognition that things aren’t going swimmingly.  Who else?




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