The Jevons Paradox Asteroid

Jun 27, 2016

How the Jevons Paradox is contextual and represents an asteroid headed strait for humanity and human extinction if we don't change the context.

I first encountered the Jevons Paradox in the form of an economic theory called The Kazhoom Brookes Theory which stated that the more efficient you make a economic process the more it gets used. In other words if you make gasoline cheaper more people buy gasoline. I had just become the Vice President of a new start up company we called Negawatts Inc which was set up to sell energy efficient lighting and other services that would save energy. This theory I had encountered was very concerning because essentially it said in the long run we could not help people conserve energy. If they could get services using less energy, hence cheaper, it would just end up with them using more of them.

It was only some years later I encountered William Jevons who was the author of this theory in a seminal book he published in 1865 titled “The Coal Question”. Over the years I had become more concerned about this energy efficiency results in more energy use theorem because energy efficiency is one of the primary tools we have to address climate change. You could say I have been thinking about this paradoxical observation for the last twenty five years. One of the places I encountered this issue was in Tim Garrett’s paper explaining how only the collapse of civilization can stop abrupt climate change from happening.

So I decided to read “The Coal Question” which I just finished a few weeks ago. After reading the source book for this energy efficiency results in more energy use I concluded the Jevons Paradox is entirely contextual. The answer to it resides in the book itself. Jevons loved to publish tables which are found throughout the book. Tables of population growth, coal mined, coal traded, coal burned and burned where to do what. You name it; he had a table for it.

There is a chapter in the book devoted strictly to the paradox question, Chapter VII which is titled The Economy of Fuel. Essentially the Jevons Paradox is really just an observation. The tables Jevons published tell the story. The population doubled in 30 to 50 years, The number of engines increased even more on a percentage basis then the population, and economic activity increased even more. It is no wonder that fuel could not be saved even though engines and boiler efficiency had been improved. The context was a growing population, a dramatic increase in the number engines, and economic activity. Energy efficiency can and will conserve energy for an individual device, and the individual. It will not in sum total save energy embedded in a constantly growing society.

Let me give you a couple modern examples to better explain what I mean. If you buy compact fluorescents which are four times more efficient at producing light per watt of energy used society at large is not going to save any energy over time. You may laugh but municipalities did this with street lighting in the 1970’s in the switch from Mercury Vapor streetlights to High Pressure Sodium streetlights which are roughly twice as efficient. Essentially what happened over time was that municipalities had a budget for lighting and the pressure was on them to put up more lights and to light the streets with brighter light fixtures. I am concerned we are about to see another round of such foolishness with the new LED street lighting that is coming on the market now.

An even clearer example can be seen on our nation’s highways with semi-trucks sporting aerodynamic fences, and boat tails. The fence on the bottom sides of the trailers save about 3% of the operating fuel. The boat tails we are just now beginning to see on the rear of the trailers can reduce fuel consumption by 7%. What is likely to happen with a 10% savings in fuel over time is owner operators will say to themselves, “we now operate 100 trucks and we can easily afford to operate 10 more rigs for no more fuel cost.

In a static or shrinking economy this simply would not happen. If we were to live in a society that had negative population growth, and had decided that neo liberal economic theory was destroying the planet, which it is, we definitely could reduce our energy consumption though the implementation of energy efficient devices. The individual always has had this capability to save energy and I have employed it in my personal life over the years. Recently we converted all of our house lighting from fluorescent lighting which was already energy efficient, to LED lighting. We went from 60 lumens per watt to 90 lumens per watt which is saving us energy and cost. We saw about a ten dollar increase in the rebate for the solar generated power we export to El Paso Electric.

Given the enthusiasm Jevons had for growth and improved productivity he would not have been out of place at any modern Chamber of Commerce meeting. Jevons knew about crude oil in 1865 but did not think it would ever amount to much in the energy market place. He even was aware of the potential of electricity, and electric drive to supplant the steam engine but he did not think it would ever become significant either. In short Jevons was no Nostradamus. I am going to go out on a limb here and prognosticate that electric drive will become the primary engine technology for cars and trucks in the coming decades.

Jevons seemed to be totally unaware of that CO2 emissions from his beloved coal fired steam engines would warm our planet. In point of fact I can state here categorically that the Jevons Observation about an increasing population, a corresponding increase in economic activity, and the cornucopia it represent for humanity is leading us toward a disaster of epic proportions.

There has been a carbon cycle on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. Plants use CO2 for photosynthesis, and animals breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2. So far so all was in balance, but then humanity comes along and digs up carbon that had been sequestered underground for millions of years and begins to burn it and release it back to the atmosphere upsetting this fine balance. Nature has a limited ability to absorb this extra CO2 and sequester it again as seen in the Keeling Curve.

It turns out the climate is extremely sensitive to the amount CO2 in the atmosphere and there are plethora of amplifying feedback loops in our climate system. CO2 is an exceptionally powerful greenhouse warming gas in that it is very opaque to the infrared, and it is extremely long lived. The CO2 we release today is likely to be here a thousand years from now. Methane is far more powerful molecule per molecule but (up to 20 times more powerful over time) but is short lived and breaks down in 20 to 100 years. That is the good news; the bad news is it breaks down into CO2.

It looks like Abrupt Climate Change has started in earnest this year. There does not seem to be a month that goes by that isn’t filled with at least four one thousand year events. My favorite this week was the floods in West Virginia (Coal Country, how is that for irony) where we saw a video of house floating down a river that had overrun its banks. To add insult to injury the house was on fire.

It took humanity 250 years to warm the planet 0.85 C. In the last year it looks like the planet wide energy budget has shot up another 0.5 C. That, my friends, is the exponential function writ large. We could see up to another 4 C increase in planetary warming over the next 20 years. At 4 C they say the trees will die. We are losing the oceans now. The Jevons Paradox represents a CO2 Bomb Asteroid headed straight towards Earth and humanity although Jevons was not aware of it. He was just worried we would run out of coal, peak coal was not a concept then.

Why am I so focused of the Jevons Observation you may rightly ask. In a seminal paper published in 2009 Tim Garrett postulated that only the collapse of industrial civilization can stop climate change. I had occasion to exchange text messages with Mr. Garrett so I sent him a short list of changes to our living arrangements that could possibly save us. They are as follows.

1: Reduce human population by a factor of ten to around 700 million people.

2: Convert all energy systems as much as possible to renewable energy sources.

3: Get rid of Neoliberal Economics and stop growing the economy.

4: Get rid of democracy and move to a form of government that can actually get things done.

5: Create a worldwide power grid to connect night and day which would cut generating needs by 40% at least.

6: Manage and regulate energy consumption as a strategic resource.

7: Set up a one world government with all the nations being member states with a one world currency.

Tim replied to me that his work was based upon what was likely to happen, not what should happen. That is a fair answer, but I believe it begs the question, what should happen?

Garrett and others use the Jevons Paradox to point out that industrial civilization is unsustainable and headed towards collapse. I think they are right, given our current set of living arrangements. Dr. Guy McPherson is publishing and speaking about how Abrupt Climate Change represents Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE) and I think he is right also. The main stream press is asleep at the wheel and our leaders appear to be Psychopaths and Sociopaths if they are really aware of what is going on and are doing nothing.

This is the real paradox, why can’t humanity act collectively in its best interest to really address Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Energy? There are many reasons that can be pointed to but I think the most salient reason is that the Human Brain is an overlay of a more primitive brain that seeks dominance, status, power, and all the other primary needs. We as a species may have the intellectual capacity to plumb the Observable Universe, but we cannot seem to do anything to control our biological imperatives to reproduce and fill every ecological niche anymore then a colony of bacteria can do it in a Petri Dish.

If we cannot even begin to make the necessary changes needed to save our species from extinction our evolved brain power represents no evolutionary advantage at all. In fact it seems to be a evolutionary mistake given that we are likely to take the majority of species living on this planet with us into the abyss of extinction. Given we have these grand intellectual gifts I feel it is long past time for us to start using them.

I am told by many well meaning people that humanity will never actively control our population because of religion and politics. My answer to that is we can either do it or let nature do it, but it will be done, and it will not be to our liking when it is happening. The same is said of energy use and controlling the energy companies and I would say the same thing. If death, if our near term extinction does not have the power to focus our minds, nothing will!

I believe humans are capable of great things including becoming a space faring race in the Universe. If, on the cusp of our greatest adventure, we go extinct because of greed, short sightlessness, and a paralyzed will, we will finally have the definitive answer for the Fermi Paradox; only we will not be around to know it. Intelligence technical civilizations may all just self destruct before they mature enough to contact other beings in the universe.

Times Article Viewed: 11105


blog comments powered by Disqus