I heard about the refrigerator problem in a great book by Peter Huber, “Hard Green”*.

If we make refrigerators more efficient, the likely outcome s that we will use bigger refrigerators, consuming just as much than the earlier inefficient refrigerators.  More people will buy these more effect refrigerators, because they cost less to operate.  So the new more efficient refrigerators become even more popular consuming even more energy for refrigeration than before.  The object of the inventor of the ore efficient refrigerator was that they would save energy, but it winds up consuming more energy.  A cruel paradox.

Staying in the realm of compression and cooling, the efficiency of air conditioning increased by 28%, while the consumption of electricity increased by 37%.  The article I got this example from went into the numbers as to why this was not a paradox at all, but wound up explaining exactly what ore efficient air conditioning would allow bigger houses, bigger air conditioners, and more energy consumption by air conditioners.

This was also famously the case with car engines.  Car engines are much more efficient, complex and less polluting that they were in nostalgic “golden age” of car culture, the 1950s.  Environmental, fuel, and safety forces have modes the car into a calculated wisp of its former bullheaded self.  The result has been cars that are much faster, cleaner, and efficient.  As a result of these newfound economies, there is less disincentive to driving a larger and taller behemoth down the highways.  The rise of the SUV tracks pretty well with advances in engine efficiency.

Induced traffic demand is another example of this.  If the government expands the highway in front of your house to “improve traffic flow”, it will reduce the cost of driving past your house.  The congest ion in front of your house may be just as bad if no t osiers than before, because the government has reduced the cost of driving past your home, and increased the overall capacity between things to the left and right of you.  I have a friend getting married in Fredericksburg this fall. There are 5 traffic lanes he can use to carry him there with his fiance on their multiple sorties to figure out the wedding.  I’ve suggested he drive to meet his priest at 3 AM to avoid congestion.  More lanes would reduce this time cost of congestion for him and thousands of other commuters, many of which would begin to see Fredericksburg as a valid place to drive from every day. It is likely that enough people would decamp to the newly accessible idyll of Fredericksburg that the congestion would be he same as before with 1, 2 or even 4 more lanes of traffic on offer.

I found out just this week the proper name of this: Jevon’s Paradox.


Jevon thought of this way back when coal was king.  Coal was the premier source of energy (steam) and heat for about a century starting thin the late 1700s.  Improving the efficiency of coal, the ratio of coal burnt to work done,  did not decrease the consumption of coal.  It increased it, because people didn’t want to bun coal, they wanted to do work.  Decreasing the cost of coal would mean they could get more work done, and so they did, more and more, throughout the Industrial Revolution.


Jevon’s paradox works when you consider that people’s desire for goods is limitless.  That is, if we find a way to deliver more goods for the same price, then people will consume more goods.  This does not always hold, because some people have a limited need of some goods. Air or Water, for example.  Fast Food and the size difference of the average American has shown us that we cannot add food to that its, as people will readily consume more food presented to them cheaply**.  We stopped off at a new Wawa gas station yesterday that was having a free coffee promotion, and people were “buying” coffee all out of proportion to their Sunday afternoon needs.  Who was I to judge, I got some too.

The other problem with Jevon’s paradox, and one that I think offers better guidance out of the irony of Jevon’s Paradox, is substitution.  Efficiencies notwithstanding, Coal plants are no longer the growth sectors or every dominant players in electricity generations. People don’t want refrigerators so much as they want food.  This is why consumption of food at restaurants is on the rise, and home cooking is struggling for relevance.  After the housing and jobs crash of 2007-2008, the only sector of hosing  that was still growing was in walkable, mixed use centers, where people had a chance of making money within walking distance of where they lived.  I’ve personally found that getting more sleep is great substitute for more coffee.

To get around Jevon’s Paradox, you have to understand what people are getting that they want.  When I buy a drill, I want to drill holes in walls and wood.  I also want to tighten and loosen screws.  Nut I don’t really want those things.  I want things attached to other things, all the better that I didn’t have to attache them myself.  When I drive a car, I don’t really want to drive a car, use a road, buy gas, or park in a space.  I want to be somewhere.  If somewhere is here, then my need for transportation is negated.  Conversely, if the cost of using a car, a road or a parking spaces is reduced or made free, then my universe of “somewheres” will expand.  I could not imagine walking to where I work***.  If I want to reduce people’s need for cars, roads or parking spaces, I’d better offer more somewheres in walking or biking distance of where they are.  Making the car more fuel efficient, tolling the road, or charging for parking will not work nearly as well.

Dan Piraro, 2014

In the pursuit of sustainability, efficacy and recycling are great starting potions, but if we really want to solve problems, we have to explore substitutes for getting what we really want: food, water, and shelter.  We expect connect will get these for us, and it is almost as primal as our need for the first three.

*  I take environmentalism seriously enough to want to see it work, not just to confirm my biases.
** This is actually a function of life.  Life does not guarantee us food, and the most primitive parts of our brains  tell us to jump on a boon when we find one.  This impulse of life is actually more primitive than nerves themselves.
*** Though I can now proudly consider biking there