The Jevon’s Paradox refers to a term in economics whereby an increase in efficiency, with regards to the use of a resource, does not result in reduced use of that resource but an increase. William Stanley Jevons observed this 150 years ago when increases in the efficiency of coal use resulted in increases in the use of coal.
I have some first hand experience with the Jevon’s Paradox. In most modern day homes you will find LED lighting. LED lighting uses a fraction of the energy of an equivalent incandescent light source. In older houses you would usually have a single light source in the centre of the room but with the advent of energy efficient lighting people have started using more of it. These days people appoint a lighting designer, they have main lighting, accent lighting and even lights in cupboards. It feels like the goal is to see how many light fittings you can cram into a room. The rationale for all these lights is that they are energy efficient. This is Jevon’s Paradox.
As soon as something creates the mental impression that it uses less we use it more, negating the effects of any efficiency gains. This is one of the main arguments against the belief that technology will save us regarding resource depletion. The only way to reduce your consumption is to use less. A new technology which will reduce your consumption, will only make you consume more in the end.
There is this strange quirk regarding humans, they have an issue with limits. People don’t like having limits. They don’t want to die, they don’t to want keep to a certain speed on the roads, they don’t want to be told they cannot study neurosurgery because they don’t qualify. How many movies glorify someone overcoming limits and limitations – inspiring all of us to reach higher and further.
I need to highlight here that there are good limits and bad limits. Limiting the use of lead in children’s toys is an example of a good limit, limiting political positions to only men is a bad limit. By their nature limits restrict some aspect of something and accordingly some cost is required. If you mandate lead free paint in toys they might be more expensive. If you set speed limits it takes longer to travel.
I want to give an example that it is not always a good idea to live just within limits. If you receive a credit card with a $1000 limit, you can view this amount as the upper limit to your spending and then you will constantly be in debt. Somehow people assume that since the bank assigned them this limit it is perfectly fine for them to constantly sit with this amount of debt to their name. And yet this limit just denotes the maximum amount of debt you are allowed to accrue. If you were to limit your debt to $100 you would have a much more manageable amount of debt and you would have some reserves left for emergencies.
This trade-off has many aspects, efficiency vs. resiliency, short term vs. long term, sufficiency vs. maximization. I would like to propose here that in most cases it is better to stay as far away from the limits as possible since this grants the greatest amount of freedom. This is an idea that is applicable to various scales in life. From the innocuous example of leaving room for dessert after a meal to overpopulation or financial management.
This is a lesson that I only learned recently but it is a valuable one. Limits are real and should not always be viewed as a barrier but rather as a safety rail. The further you are from limits the more flexibility you have.