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Editorial: The Jevons Paradox Myth

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, April 6, 2023

As the climate crises deepens and the push to decarbonize the world's energy systems intensifies, a chorus of skeptical and pessimistic voices continually warns against placing hope in renewable energy as a solution (whether partial or wholly), arguing instead for vastly reducing energy consumption (as well as everything else). One of the most commonly invoked pieces of putative evidence made to bolster the argument is the oft cited, but poorly understood concept known as "Jevon's Paradox" (see also Wikipedia for a quick reference).

For example, in an article featured on the degrowth blog, Resilience (run by degrowth advocate Richard Heinberg), "Resources for a better future: Jevons Paradox", author Sam Bliss declares:

In 1865, (English economist William Stanley) Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less.

These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal.

That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.

In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further.
A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury.

In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.

This is by no means the only such example, nor is it even necessarily the most illustrative one, but it perfectly summarizes the all too often careless application of what is an overused and debatable trope.

There are several problems with Jevon’s Paradox and the way in which Bliss presents it:

  1. It’s a case of using correlation (manufacturers installing more efficient equipment happening while coal use expands) to prove causation. There’s not necessarily any hard evidence to prove that one follows the other.
  2. It’s fatalistic. Just because one instance of conservation of a specific energy source (in this case, coal) in established applications (already existing and operating equipment) may have either coincided with (or even led to) the expansion of coal usage elsewhere, there’s no hard and fast rule that this will always be so. A perfect counter example, is the transition from horse drawn carriages to automobiles. If Jevon's Paradox were an immutable rule, then we'd expect to see a vast increase in the use of horses as beasts of burden even though the automobile replaced horse-drawn carriages, and yet, Bliss insists that Jevon's Paradox "is all but inevitable".
  3. It’s a misapplied argument. The argument is almost always used to demonstrate the futility of energy transition (or even simply arguing in favor of greatly increasing the amount of wind, solar, and storage) and counterpose degrowth and conservation of energy usage, but The original case featured in Jevon’s Paradox was supposedly an example of where conservation (in other words using less energy) proved ineffective!
  4. Jevon’s Paradox has never been conclusively proven either examining the data used in his original example or in any subsequent attempt to show a similar causation. At best the results have been inconclusive.
  5. Jevon’s Paradox is essentially Malthusianism in another form. It's arguing that demand will always grow to exceed demand, but this isn't supported by the facts.
  6. Jevon’s Paradox doesn’t make sense on an individual level. Quoting Chris Nelder, who devoted an entire podcast of The Energy Transition Show to Jevon's Paradox, "it’s highly unlikely that an individual homeowner, who upgrades from low efficiency electrical equipment to high efficiency alternatives which can—in many cases—save them sufficient energy to light up their home like a sports stadium, is going to light up their home like a sports stadium!"
  7. It’s a lazy argument. The actual effect that being observed and identified as “Jevon’s Paradox” (an immutable force of nature), is actually a series of complex, often capitalistic, market forces and political machinations (which are social relationships driven by complex interactions of people exercising free will).
  8. Jevon Paradox is often used to bolster bad faith arguments. In other words, people using it often have an ideological, philosophical, or economic axe to grind against renewable energy, energy transition, or divergent political views.

In fact it's likely that this is precisely the motivation behind Bliss's article and Resilience's publishing of it. Many Degrowth advocates are very quick to invoke Jevon's Paradox, because the notion that renewable energy can adequately replace fossil fuels with no loss in energy availability--an argument made by Mark Z. Jacobson, et al--is an anathema to their worldview, or they fear that most people will carelessly continue to waste energy and excessively consume resources if they realize this fact (as if most people are inherently mindless automatons and lack free will).

To be certain, reducing excessive consumption is a laudable and sensible goal (though the vast majority of consumption can be eliminated simply by abolishing capitalism--though the latter is no simple act in and of itself--because it's the super rich and capitalist businesses that account for it), but simplistically arguing against the replacement of fossil fuels (and nuclear fission) power with renewable energy sources, in favor of using less (especially by invoking the very dubious Jevon's Paradox as reasoning) would actually have worse outcomes, because simply reducing energy consumption will not eliminate the continued burning of fossil fuels, which will continue to spew additional greenhouse gasses into the Earth's atmosphere, and these must be eliminated. (Plus, it can't be emphasized enough, the original application of Jevon's Paradox was a case of growth continuing in spite of conservation of resources not substitution of them!)

Casual and careless invocation of Jevon's Paradox isn't limited to Degrowth advocates, however. Many ecosocialists also cite it for slightly different reasons. A great many ecosocialists firmly believe that unless capitalism is completely and utterly and abolished, or at least a working class socialist party controls the state and the means of production, including specifically energy production, is brought under centralized state ownership, energy transition will not happen in any meaningful way. For example, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), routinely argues that under neoliberal capitalism, what has occurred hasn't been an energy transition, but rather an energy expansion. Specifically they make the point that while renewable energy capacity has indeed grown in recent years, so, too has the use of fossil fuels. While not always, or even frequently, specifically identifying this as a case of Jevon's Paradox, it is nevertheless a loose identification of it as such.

While it is certainly true that a meaningful energy transition won't be brought about by capitalism, and--in many cases--public ownership is preferable to private ownership (though the devil is in the details and there are many varieties of what constitutes "public ownership", some of them good, some of them not so much), TUED's overall argument both overstates and simplifies the case. For instance, while it's true that fossil fuel capacity and usage has indeed continued to expand--and this is not a good thing--renewable energy capacity has expanded at a greater rate, such that its growth outpaces that of fossil fuels (the reasons for this discrepancy are many and complex, but suffice it to say that such disparities in growth, strictly speaking, violates the supposedly "inevitable" patterns which are supposed to occur under Jevon's Paradox). Also, TUED's analysis treats any economic activity that happens outside of "public" (meaning state, or at least municipal) ownership as neoliberal capitalism or "market forces", but that doesn't account for organized grassroots resistance to unfettered capitalist business activity, such as local cooperatively run energy systems, grassroots organizing that opposes, delays, and/or thwarts intended capitalist expansion of non-renewable energy infrastructure, all of which can counter the supposedly "all but inevitable" forces of Jevon's Paradox. So while TUED is correct to point out the false hope that an sufficiently effective energy transition can br brought about by capitalism, they tend to discount the possibility that such a transition might be brought about in spite of capitalism. (There are many other problems with TUED's analysis, but a complete accounting of such deserves a more, complete analysis).

Other political invocations, or even "weaponizations", of Jevon's Paradox include anti-technology dogmatists (however, as already stated, Jevon's Paradox originally questioned the utility of conservation, not substitution, but anti-tech dogmatists are essentially proposing abolition of use--the ultimate form of the former, and renewable energy is a case of the latter) and those who disingenuously use it to throw shade on renewable energy in favor of nuclear fission power or even fossil fuel use, and no more needs to be said about them, because their bad faith motivations speak for themselves.

While some of the aforementioned invocations of Jevon's Paradox are well-intentioned, most are not, and even those that are are essentially faulty analyses that do more harm than good.

How is this relevant to the working class and the IWW?

It goes without saying that the IWW Environmental Union Caucus is composed of members who believe that the abolition of capitalism is not only necessary for the abolition of wage slavery, but also for the survival of life on Earth. There are no jobs on a dead planet, and while no wage slavery exists on a dead planet either, the latter scenario is not what the IWW envisions when it seeks wage slavery's abolition. It's also been quite firmly established that fossil fuels and capitalism are inextricably intertwined and are incompatible with a sustainable environment. This necessitates an energy transition and such a transition will include the use of renewable energy (it will almost certainly also include much more efficient use of energy; elimination of waste--most of which is capitalist imposed--and use for need, not profit). While this may indeed involve some aspects of degrowth, and theoretically even state ownership (though worker ownership organized by industrial unions would serve that function much more effectively), or even rare and limited use of small amounts of fossil fuels as the transition unfolds and the latter are phased out, there is no precise roadmap under which this would unfold.

Such a transition requires the concerted and organized activity of the workers of the world organizing as a class at the means of production to abolish capitalism and make the societal transformations necessary to stave off the absolute worst case scenarios of climate change (it's unfortunately too late to prevent some climate change, but avoiding the worst case scenario is better than nothing and worth pursuing). We cannot hope to achieve that if we're blinded by mental laziness, faulty analysis, and ideological posturing. There is absolutely no proof that Jevon's Paradox exists, and the likelihood is that it's mostly mythical. Its continued use only serves to confuse and mystify the issue at best, and serves sectarian or even capitalist ends at worst. the left, anti-capitalists, the working class, and environmental movement should leave it where it belongs, in the dustbin of history.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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