Jevons paradox

by Sam Bliss

The Jevons paradox is that efficiency enables growth. New technologies that can produce more goods from a given amount of resources allow the economy as a whole to produce more. More resources get used overall.

This is the magic of industrial capitalism and the secret of growth. Economists have known it for a long time. So why is it called a paradox?

A question of scale

The paradox is that we tend to assume that the more efficiently we use a resource the less of it we will use.

This is the case in our personal lives. If you buy a more fuel-efficient car, you might drive a little bit more but overall you will likely burn less gasoline. Switching to a low-flow showerhead typically saves water at home.

This efficiency-for-conservation logic appears correct for most subsets of the economy. When a business switches to energy-efficient light bulbs, its electricity bills go down. Municipalities that require new buildings to meet energy efficiency standards might see energy use decrease within city limits. 

But at the level of the whole economy, the reverse is true. These efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption, which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.

Energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions

This suggests that energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions, that fertilizer-saving precision farming techniques do not decrease fertilizer applications overall, and that increasing agricultural yields does not spare land for nature. Real-world evidence supports these claims.

Environmental policy focused on efficiency gains does not by itself benefit the environment. Economies grow by developing and deploying increasingly efficient technologies. 

How growth happens

Consider a hypothetical example. If the owner of a tea kettle factory installs a new machine that can make one kettle from less raw copper than before, he might continue to produce the same amount of kettles at a lower cost, or he might choose to make more kettles overall from the same amount of copper. 

Either way, profits will go up. The factory owner can buy more machines to make even more kettles from even more copper. Or he can invest those profits elsewhere, increasing production in another sector of the economy and thus increasing the use of copper and other materials. 

As more tea kettle factories adopt the copper-saving technology, they might start selling kettles at lower prices to compete for customers. As tea kettles get cheaper, people will be able to buy more of them. Since more kettles can be sold, factories will make more—using more copper. 

Copper’s price might increase as factories increase their demand for it. When the price goes up, more potential copper mining sites become profitable, which further raises supply.

Or, even if all tea kettle factories end up using less copper with the new, copper-saving machines, copper’s price will fall and other sectors will be able to afford more copper and therefore demand more. 

Cheaper copper could make all copper-containing things cheaper, not just tea kettles, leaving people with more money to spend. They can demand more of the products of all economic sectors, further increasing the use of many materials, including copper. 

Cheaper copper might increase industrial profits, too, which capitalists either reinvest to increase production or spend on luxury things. 

Even if the initial factory owner decides to give his workers a raise rather than keeping the profit or increasing production, then the workers will have more money to spend on tea kettles and everything else. Even if they decide to save all that additional income, the banking sector will direct it toward investing in more new machinery to produce more things from more materials.

No matter what, it seems, copper consumption rises in the end, because efficiency increases kickstart the growth machine.

The more efficiently society can use copper, the more of it will generally be used. Unless, that is, society intentionally limits its use of copper. 

The same goes for just about any resource.

150 years of more

English economist William Stanley Jevons gets credit for being the first to point all this out. In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less. 

In 1865, 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.

Fighting growth with collective self-limitation

To prevent catastrophic climate change, humanity must rapidly reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. But despite decades of policy efforts and international negotiations, emissions continue to rise every year.

The focus on making energy use more efficient is paradoxically worsening the problem, as efficiency gains facilitate increasing, not decreasing, carbon burning. And renewable energy sources are adding to fossil fuels, not replacing them. Earth’s limited sources of coal, oil, and gas will not run out in time to save the stable climate.

But what if governments around the world treated coal like they do asbestos? What if petroleum extraction and uses were subject to strict limits like those of mercury?

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically. We must set limits on our own activity.  

Once binding limits are in place, efficiency gains become one of several tools for staying within them. With a hard cap on the total amount of oil that can be burned, adopting increasingly fuel-efficient machinery cannot backfire and spark growth of oil-burning economic activity. Instead, fuel efficiency would allow more useful work to be done with the limited amount of oil that society permits itself to combust. 

Of course, we must also be skeptical of the maximizing mentality that considers efficiency and more to be good things as such. Collectively limiting ourselves offers not just an escape from capitalism’s endless loops of efficiency and growth; it also provides the constraints necessary to imagine and act out new ideas about what makes the good life, as well as revive and protect traditional lifeways. 

For many communities around the world, a global project to limit resource use could bring liberation from pollution, exploitation, and the one-way path toward Western-style development. To them, limits do not mean reductions or sacrifice but an opportunity to pursue goals other than growth.

Efficiency makes growth. But limits make creativity.

Once free from the efficiency mindset, we see that setting legal limits is not the only solution to the Jevons phenomenon. Society can also purposefully choose less-efficient production processes, setting the paradox in reverse by constraining the potential scale of the economy. If efficiency makes growth, maybe inefficiency makes degrowth.

Further resources

David Owen. “The Efficiency Dilemma.The New Yorker, December 12, 2010. 
This New Yorker piece captivatingly chronicles the history of the Jevons paradox as an idea and as a real material force.

Christopher L. Magee and Tessaleno C. Devezas, “A Simple Extension of Dematerialization Theory: Incorporation of Technical Progress and the Rebound Effect,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 117, no. Supplement C (April 1, 2017): 196–205.
This is the article in which MIT researchers show that the Jevons paradox applies to pretty much every material, energy source, and industrial process for which data exists.

Salvador Pueyo. 2020. “Jevons’ Paradox and a Tax on Aviation to Prevent the next Pandemic.” Preprint. SocArXiv.
The Jevons paradox holds that using a resource more efficiently leads to economic growth and thus more of that resource is used overall. In this article, Salvador Pueyo shows that, similarly, advances in disease control have enabled humans and livestock to live at higher densities, eventually bringing about more ferocious outbreaks. He argues that the aviation industry shifts costs onto society by spreading diseases around the world, and should thus be taxed.

Sam Bliss, “Why growth and the environment can’t coexist.Grist. 
This video explains degrowth in 4 minutes, starting from a Jevons-inspired explanation of how increasing efficiency in orange juice production leads to more oranges consumed, not less.

Sam Bliss is a wildly inefficient researcher, writer, gardener, and warehouse manager of Food Not Bombs Burlington. He participates in and studies non-market food systems in Vermont.

Drifting through the coal mine

by Aaron Vansintjan

(If you play the above video while reading the article, it can provide a nice soundtrack)

As we found out on May 3rd, 2016, coal comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes. Yes, we had “invaded” an open-cast coal mine for the sake of the climate, we were calling for a more just economic system that is not based on extraction, exploitation, and pollution. But in the presence of this substance, we became children collecting shells and pebbles at the beach: we crawled on hands and knees, exclaimed “woah, look at all the layers!”, placed them gently in bags to give to our friends later.

Holding a chunk of coal in my hand, I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible. This opaque matter, which sucks in all the light around it, has stood at the center of social and environmental struggles for the last two centuries. It has powered science and innovation, fueled wars, and helped build the cities we live in. These thoughts imbued the coal I was holding with a sort of enchantment, inspired a reverence I had not felt before.

I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible.

Ffos-y-fran, the United Kingdom’s largest open-cast coal mine, is nestled in the hills just outside of Merthyr Tydfil, a Welsh community of just 65,000 people. Miller Argent, the owner of the mine, employs 200 people and has dug up 5 million tonnes of award-winning coal, and intends to extract 11 million tonnes more.

For decades, the community has resisted the coal mine, complaining about the proximity of the mine, pollution of their ground water and air, the noise from explosives, and that it’s really, really ugly. While the community was in favor of deepcast mining—which involves less visible impact on the environment and will often employ local residents—open-cast mining employs far less people, most of whom are specialized in operating specific machinery and will move on once the mine is exhausted. In 2007 Miller Argent proposed to start another site nearby. Once again, the community resisted.

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Reclaim the Power (RTP) is a decentralized network of climate justice activists—they organize without central leadership, coming together for strategic actions to block further development of the fossil fuel economy in the United Kingdom. As part of a two-week global wave of actions against fossil fuels, RTP organized their largest action yet: to invade a coal mine and shut it down for a day, symbolically highlighting the need to shift to a more just, fossil fuel-free economy.

Working with some amazing local activists, the United Valleys Action Group, RTP meticulously planned a campsite with the facilities to support hundreds of people (food, water, even composting toilets), orchestrated a massive media campaign, and even used the opportunity to host workshops, art-making, and dance parties. The result was beyond a direct action: it involved celebration, education, and politicization.

At several points during the action, I heard people remark, “what matters is how this appears in the media”, or, “this is useless if it’s not covered in the news.” Now, a week after the action, I want to reflect, not on its media impact, not on its success or failure—all important concerns. Very simply, I’d like to tell the story of what it’s like to be in a coal mine, explore it, and play with its terrain.

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Unearthing the logic of the mine

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

-Guy Debord, “Theory of the dérive

The Situationists argued that the alienation workers felt in the factory had extended to every aspect of modern life. Our cities have become depoliticized, commodified spaces primarily geared toward profit and social isolation.

To confront this, they developed tactics—games—that could repurpose the city and allow them to engage with it differently. To them, understanding how the city shapes our daily lives was paramount in overcoming alienation from our environment, and breaking down isolation between each other.

If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine.

One of these games was the “dérive”, meaning “drift”, where a small group of people would navigate the city, letting its landscape and terrain guide their movements. This would allow them to come to new conclusions about their city and pin-point ways to counteract its commodification and estrangement.

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If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine. The growth of modern urban life is inseparable from the extraction of coal. London first outmatched Amsterdam economically when the peasantry, displaced from their land, were forced to work in the coal mines. Coal powered the textile mills and food processing factories, which in turn enabled the cotton and sugarcane industries, fueled by slave labor, to flourish in the Americas. Coal kick-started a new world order, just as it continues to be a key ingredient for the industrial development of East Asian countries today.

Since the 1960s—when the Situationists were most active—the world has globalized and urbanized. We are now faced with what geographers call “planetary urbanization”—in which even the “countryside” has been shaped in the likeness of, and for the purpose of, growing megacities, and it has become difficult to say exactly where the city begins and ends. Now, all types of terrains and landscapes have been transformed into an interconnected mesh, a standing reserve of resources, extractive flows, and sites of commodified value.

The coal mine is an essential component of urbanization, and a great place for a dérive.

So why not think of the action at Foss-y-fran as a mass dérive? The organizers realized this: one affinity group dragged around giant inflatable “cobblestones”—a direct and conscious reference to the Paris May ’68 slogan “under the cobblestones, the beach”. The slogan recalled the cobblestones lifted by students to throw at police and create barricades with, but it also suggested that capital could be subverted by engaging with your surroundings in new ways.

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It was this sense of play that many brought to the coal mine. When we arrived at the mine, there was a moment of wonder, excitement. This required weaving our way past giant mounds of slag that had been “reclaimed”—in other words, they grew some grass on top of it and allowed sheep to graze on them. But once past these, we entered a different world: everything around us was black and grey, muddy, gritty. Tall cliffs surrounded us on all sides, and nestled in their shadows were a handful of massive yellow machines—the diggers and the trucks.

The access roads were made for and by these machines. We were told to be careful of the smaller heaps of slag on each side: these could collapse and endanger others below. Finally, we found ourselves in the belly of the beast: the place where coal was being actively mined.

Here we were, in the hundreds, in a landscape not intended for pedestrians, let alone crowds. It was no accident, then, that we tended to gravitate toward the large machines that shaped this landscape. We quickly climbed up them and appropriated them with our slogans and games.

If you string a banner—“NO NEW COAL”—between two large diggers, you can play a game of volleyball with the “cobblestones”. The arm of the digger—just over two meters long—creates a hollow space ideal for amplifying a portable sound-system. When it rains, several dozen people can hide under a digger and start a mini-rave.

Once the initial excitement receded, we took strolls around the site, picking up rocks, inspecting deep pools of water, clambering up ledges. At one point, we stopped in front of a steep cliff. From a crevice in the layers of rock bubbled a tiny stream, staining the rock around it with a bright, rusty red. Even within this site dedicated to excavation, wildness still found a way to seep through the cracks. Amongst several people that I talked to, there was an appreciation for this landscape that I hadn’t expected: we agreed that there was something sublime about it.

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Activists are often worried about whether their direct actions really “make an impact” or “succeed”. At meetings in London I attended in the past year, people would often suggest that community-based (“local”) organizing was less effective than orchestrating a large media presence and announcing clear, attainable demands, achieved through mass movements with precise political platforms. I’ve heard people criticize temporary occupations because they fail to scale up beyond the local, and, without institutionalized resistance or well-defined goals, they are unable to address the root of our problems.

The action at Ffos-y-Fran was highly temporary in nature: a day later, the mine was operating perfectly, without a hitch. It did not change any government policies, nor did participants articulate a coherent policy platform. What’s more, for every coal mine shut down in the UK, there are ten new ones in China, Vietnam, and Australia.

But is this how we want to define success? Ende Gelaende, the Germany-based anti-coal group whose invasion of a German coal mine last year inspired the Ffos-y-Fran action, loudly proclaim: “we are the investment risk!” The joke is that activists are happy to speak in the language that the fossil fuel companies use. Today they are at it again, with 3,000 people occupying the largest coal mine in Europe.

But the joke is double-sided: they are also poking fun at that very same language. It acknowledges that success cannot just be defined according to the language of the status quo. If all we mean by success is a good media presence, divestment of stocks, or a shift in government policy, then anything that does not look like that is ignored.

If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action.

In his book Territories in Resistance, Raúl Zibechi argues that blockades and spontaneous actions have much deeper roots and are less fragmented than they seem. Rather than measuring their success in terms of whether they were able to change the state structure, he instead sees them as “lightning illuminating the night sky”: the direct action is just the more visible part of much larger, non-institutionalized movements that are already creating a new world within, and outside of, the old.

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How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy. For a day, adults became children, they turned machines into playgrounds, and they formed new relationships with each other.

How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy.

If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action. You will miss the heaps of dishes, the hours of meetings, the work put into making food. You will miss the crucial elements of a new type of movement that sees cooking, cleaning, playing, and caring as forms of resistance. These elements are busy rehearsing new ways of doing things, new types of economies.

The nature of the dérive is open-ended: it requires a kind of receptivity to new experiences, to new realizations. In return, it provides fresh insight into the machinations of our world, it suggests strategic weak points that may have not been visible before. If we are to resist today’s economy and plan for a new one, we cannot allow the elite to define success for us. Just as we must imagine new worlds, we must learn to create life and play in the ruins of the old.


Lifting the spell

The action was nearing its end. By 2 p.m., many of us were getting tired, others were just anxious to move out of the site we had occupied for the past five hours.

As a group, we decided that some of us would guard the diggers, which had become so familiar to us, and others would go explore the rest of the mines and try to stop the works that were happening elsewhere.

On the way there, we were met with a convoy of white Land Rovers filled with roughly 80 fully-outfitted riot police. They gave us two minutes to leave the premises. Now about 70 ourselves, we gathered in a circle to make a quick decision. I split off from the group with about fifteen others—not wanting to risk arrest at this point—and we made our way up another excavation site, which then curved around and over the hillside, finally leading us to the jagged edge of the mine.

The day had turned dark. I felt a bit like Frodo in Lord of the Rings: in the very guts of Mount Doom, my thoughts transformed by the landscape, all willpower receding in face of the challenge ahead of me.

When I reached the edge, I felt a thick layer of moss under my feet and saw the rolling Welsh hills in front of me. I collapsed onto the green ground. All of a sudden the dark spell was lifted. The massive black coal pit, at one point so impressive, had shaped my mood, and it gave the impression that there was no escape. Hugging the moss, I realized the extent to which the mine had clouded my judgements, and knew that it could no longer affect me.

From this edge we could see the events unfolding below us. A group of activists stood aside from the police, who, having left their vehicles, marched in impressive formation down the road, toward the deepest part of the mine, toward those who were guarding the diggers. We stayed at this look-out spot for about an hour, sharing snacks, talking about the day, and observing the show-down between the police and the handful of activists that remained.

It was at that point that the action was mostly over. It would take about two more hours for everyone else to leave. Some successfully stopped activity in other parts of the mine. Others chained themselves to the diggers. No arrests were made. In groups, we arrived back in camp, and were met with a warm welcome from those who had stayed behind.

A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out of the mine. Business as usual.

The next day, I set off back to the city. A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out from the mine. Business as usual. It seemed like yesterday was an illusion, a trip into the Kingdom of Narnia. Waiting for the light to change, I reached into my pocket and my fingers found a small rock. I took it out and looked at it: it was black, the size of a coin. It glinted in the sun. The traffic light turned green, and I put the piece of coal back into my pocket.



Postscript: lessons learned

If our action was like a “dérive”, I’d like to contribute three small notes to its methodology, none of them particularly new but each reinforced by my experiences of the action.

First, the structure of the “affinity group”—developed by activists to maintain autonomy and decentralization within actions, while ensuring trust and cohesion among the participants—is also useful for drifting through the terrain of the coal mine. Guy Debord notes that a dérive works best when capped at 2-4 participants. We could say that the affinity group, which tends to be comprised of 2-10 people, and will often be broken down into “buddy groups” of 2-3 people, makes it possible to conduct a dérive en masse.

Second, anonymity—upheld by activists in these kinds of actions for fear of surveillance and political persecution—is a double-edged sword. Paranoia inhibited trust between us, deflating some of the potential for making connections with others and multiplying strong bonds. It also inhibited some from being more outgoing and honest in their opinions, and created a hierarchy between long-time activists who knew and trusted each other and newcomers, like myself. Then again, the necessity of anonymity in the action led to a new experiential relationship for those who didn’t already know each other: who a person is was stressed less than the interactions you have with them. In these fleeting interactions, you were judged by your immediate acts and not by your ideas, past, political stance, etc. Kind of like at a party—a mass trespassing party.

Third, problems of exclusivity and ableism were apparent throughout the action. I met an older man who was almost in tears because he had been excluded systematically. Whenever he had tried to join an affinity group, people turned away or stopped talking. As a result, he didn’t feel comfortable joining in the day of the occupation. His way of speaking and interacting was unusual, and I thought that many of these activists might have been uncomfortable engaging with someone who seemed like he was mentally unstable.

In addition, one of the participants of the action used a wheelchair, and she constantly had to assert herself to make the action accessible to her. At one point, some people in her affinity group accompanied her to observe the edge of the mine: doing this could be seen, not as an inconvenience, but as an extremely radical action. It challenges both the world shaped by and for machines and the often inaccessible world of activist actions.

If an action is based on trust, it also means that the dominant group will define who is “trustworthy”, and not being member of that group or having mental health issues may increase the chance of not being trusted. Similarly, if an action is organized by mostly able, white folks, then the activities will likely feel alienating to those not part of those demographics, and they will need to work so much harder to be involved. A dérive can be so much more instructive if people excluded by this alienating, isolating society were to participate: they may be better equipped than anyone else to notice the weak points in the oppressive terrain.

All photos and videos by Aaron Vansintjan except for #17 (of the feet under the digger), which was taken by Anonymous. 

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, and long bicycle rides.

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