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Our bloated cult of efficiency: doing the wrong thing right

The idea that improving efficiency makes sustainability problems worse seems counter-intuitive. But what if aiming to do more with less is actually doing the wrong thing right? If sustainability is our…

Perpetually seduced by the coolest, most “efficient” conveniences, we prefer not to see the heat and waste we leave in our wake. AAP/EPA/STR

The idea that improving efficiency makes sustainability problems worse seems counter-intuitive. But what if aiming to do more with less is actually doing the wrong thing right? If sustainability is our concern, this is almost always the case.

Doing more with less means we end up doing so much more that as a society we ultimately end up using more overall. This is called the Jevons Effect. It has been known for at least 147 years, though of course not commonly. If it was, we might be living sustainably by now. Recently, however, the problem of efficiency has been thrust back into the spotlight.

Amory Lovins and David Owen are two of the most prominent thinkers on the topic, with opposing views. Owen’s new book is The Conundrum: how scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse, and it includes the debate between the two that occurred after the publishing of Owen’s earlier feature article in The New Yorker in late 2010. We’ve been using this article with our postgraduate sustainability students at Swinburne University’s National Centre for Sustainability. We’ll now use the book, as students examine the issue in some detail.

Out with the old, in with the new: a woman gazes at an exhibition of e-waste. Flickr/drspam

The Conundrum was last month featured on Radio National’s Life Matters program, during which the host Natasha Mitchell said that it left her feeling impotent and pessimistic. This is very different to the reactions we get in the classroom.

Exploring the implications of the Jevons Effect often engenders a sense of empowerment and a resurgence of hope. After all, if acting on a belief in technology as the answer, and efficiency as the key, is proving counter-productive - and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is - then here is a logical framework for understanding why that is happening, and how we might explore real sources of sustainability.

Lovins’ famous counter to Owen’s argument is that efficiency is “a lunch you’re paid to eat”; a more efficient car uses less energy, saving the environment while saving you money. But as Owen puts it, the world hasn’t lost weight by being paid to eat. Improving efficiency almost always results in increased aggregate consumption.

This has also been called the Rebound Effect, but it is more pernicious than that. Owen suggests it might be better termed the Chain Effect. As we improve efficiency in one thing, say the fridge, its reduced costs make it accessible to more of us. And we don’t just go on to use bigger fridges and more of them (developing ideas like bar fridges, meat fridges etc.), we create and expand related spin-off cooling technologies, industries and activities. Air conditioning has become a “must”, we expect access to food from all over the world any time of year, and see refrigerated spaces in supermarkets take up increasing amounts of space as our demand for chilled goods increases. All that also conveys the sense that the food we buy will last longer than it does, resulting in increasingly excessive food consumption, and food waste (4 million tons a year in Australia alone). Of course, not only is the food wasted, so too is the energy used to produce, transport, buy, store, and dispose of it.

And as Catherine Simpson outlined recently on The Conversation, we do all this while feeling better about being “green”. With the right car or fridge, we need care less about how we drive, eat and shop.

‘Some kind of existential chasm opens before me while I’m browsing …’ Bret Easton Ellis, from American Psycho. Flickr/avlxyz

It is time to blow our minds

So if improving efficiency takes us backwards in sustainability terms, what are we to do? Far from hemming us in to more limited options, we are liberated from the unintended harm stemming from an old, flawed idea. We evolve the eyes for seeing far greater possibilities that serve to engender more care, rather than less, for our impacts upon each other and the rest of nature. We set our minds towards creating systems and institutions that help us live in more considerate, fulfilling, and less materially intensive ways. Past a certain material threshold, which most of us have passed in this country, these qualities very often go hand in hand.

There is plenty of evidence indicating diminishing returns in quality of life beyond certain thresholds of energy use and economic growth, while environmental impacts continue to grow (and these are far from limited to climate change). The renowned work of Vaclav Smil and others suggests that in many industrialised countries like Australia, this threshold has been surpassed, and in a big way.

Improving efficiency is very often doing the wrong thing right. Perhaps we would do better to think about efficiency in terms of evolving more (wellbeing, wisdom, care, etc) with less, rather than doing more for its own sake. What we do and why, are far more important questions than how. The former needs to guide the latter, rather than the reverse.

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31 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor

    This is such an important message that is almost impossible to sell in a society that is obsessed with superficial trivia. The current macro-economic model is predicated on continual growth and consumption. Come on economists, how about coming up with some viable alternatives based on principles of well-being that can be sold to politicians and the community.

    1. Kate Neely

      Research Student

      In reply to Stephen Prowse

      I agree that this is an incredibly important message. I think that society is stating to get it though - many more people intersted in community wellbeing than there were 15yrs ago. Also the message about stopping growth and moving to a different economy is reinforced in books like Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth and the recent Royal Society report People and the Planet.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I've always liked Amory Lovins ... but there was always this nagging problem that his cleverness ended up strengthening the consumer society. I had visions of vast concrete freeways chockers with purring electric vehicles as folks commuted themselves to their desks one at a time. A more sustainable low impact sort of hell.

    This might seems really silly - perhaps it is - but I don't think the consumer society is all that big or intractable a problem. Not when one breaks it down into something…

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    1. Russell Hamilton


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "Consume less - produce more. Grow your own food, make your own clothes, build your own furniture. Work up a sweat every day. That sort of thing. Get a mate to help. Make it a social activity."

      As Sartre said: "Hell is other people". One would also get dirty, possibly hurt, trying that stuff. Maybe making a poem would suit some people more.

      The article by Owen mentioned above (whole article is here: ) has this:
      "The problem with efficiency…

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    2. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Relax Peter and Russel, you're both right. The way I see it is, consumerism is in opposition to creativity. People who realise they can create things themselves are less driven to consume - partly because they can meet their own requirements (basics like food and clothes) but partly because their creative endeavours fill the spiritual void that consumerism promises to fill, while actually deepening (feel free to put that into poetry either of you - I'm no damn poet but I know one).

      Creativity can take a lot of forms - visual art, music, performance, craft, dressmaking, electronic "craft" - and very, very definitely gardening.

      Tomorrow's international permaculture day - maybe there's a garden open to the public near you.

  3. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    An interesting and useful article. It is noteworthy that during the Fifth Discipline (Senge) fad managers didn't get the take-away about the depletion of the commons.

    What this article doesn't do is observe on the fact that western economists, business people and political commentators have substituted 'efficiency' into the semantic space previously occupied by 'effectiveness'. It is now the accepted view that 'doing more for less' trumps achieving 'actual results' in the marketplace (not the…

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  4. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    "We set our minds towards creating systems and institutions that help us live in more considerate, fulfilling, and less materially intensive ways."

    The AFP are on their way to your office even as you read this. Hippy.

  5. John Smith


    The only way we can have human society continuing with technological innovation is if we can bring about a population declining until a much lower level is reached. If we had a global population of a about a billion people we could continue with technological innovation as the ecological buffer of resources and environmental support system could absorb it up to a certain level.

    If things continue as they are even human survival without continued technological innovation will be difficult.

  6. Liam Smith

    Director, BehaviourWorks at Monash University

    More research is needed on indirect and direct rebound effects. One great study by Ornetzeder and others in 2008 compared two new housing developments in Vienna. Both were of comparable size and both built with efficiency in mind. One, however, had a no cars policy while the other did not. What the researchers found was that while it was cheaper to live without a car, this money was then spent on travel, bringing their CO2 emissions nearly back up to that of the other housing project. While this…

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  7. Dave Smith

    Energy Consultant

    For an economist, consumption that damages the environment is, by definition, inefficient because the damage is not priced and so the consumer takes no account of it. It is therefore (economic) INefficiency that is unsustainable, not efficiency.

    The answer is to "internalise" the damage into the price, as for example an Emissions Trading Scheme does for damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

  8. John Barker
    John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

    While agreeing with the general thrust of the article, I think that there is something amiss with the 'Jevons Effect' and therefore our understanding of the problems of (over) consumption. Let me try to explain:

    To start, 'efficiency' is a measure of output per unit input- eg, the results out for the effort put in. In the case of direct human effort, increased efficiency means more goods or services (desires) for the same input of blood, sweat and tears- this is usually measured as the direct…

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    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to John Barker

      Great explanation - but I wouldn't go blaming Jevons or accusing him of perversity at all John.... no more than the rest of us any way. But it is a partial analysis of efficiency - determined by price through a market. Efficiency was seen as synonymous with lower unit cost.

      So inherently we exclude those externalities which are taken as a given - a freebie and unlimited - like air and water and environmental services like pollination. We also exclude the inherent reliance on ancient fuels to…

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    2. James Tonson

      Community Development Officer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I can't help feeling like you've both missed the key point:
      "What we do and why, are far more important questions than how. The former needs to guide the latter, rather than the reverse." (from the end of Anthony's article).
      Why do we want more stuff, more convenience, more...?

      That consumption and progress are the chief ideals of our age reveals the very adolescence of our culture, and the deep unconformability with have with ourselves, both individually and collectively. What I hear Anthony trying to point out is that progress (with which efficiency has become synonymous) is not the solution to consumption because they come from the same kind of more-based thinking. What was it Einstein said about the kind of thinking required to solve a problem?

      So let us look for the solution not in technology or systems but within ourselves.

    3. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Peter Ormonde


      I read that one major driving force behind the steam engine was the abolition of slavery. Machines can do hard physical labour for no pay, so you don't need to enslave humans. Admittedly I read it in the Baroque Cycle, which is well-known for being a work of fiction, but it might still be true...

    4. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Morning Lorna,

      I haven't actually come across that idea before - but I'd suspect it's not right ... maybe even backwards ie that the steam engine helped bring about the end of slavery (at least in the west where slavery is abolished... still happens elsewhere). I'll have a read and see what I can dig up.

      Actually I'm pretty sure even we haven't abolished slavery - just subcontracted out the domestic maintenance functions to the slaves themselves - buy your own house, feed your own family, get yourself to work. A very limited sort of freedom on offer.

      Have a productive day.

    5. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Morning Peter!

      You're quite right about the continued existence of slavery - I'm limiting my comment to the fact that a science fiction book claimed that the proponents of the steam engine saw it as a way of replacing labour carried out at that time by slaves, mostly from Africa.

      But mostly I'm trying to coerce you into reading the book in order to reduce your productivity. I'd send you my copy but it won't fit down the intertubes.

    6. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to John Barker

      It was cheaper to put another pair of bullocks on the team than to make the dray roll more easily on pneumatic tyres and ball bearings.

      Once (wealthy) people had to pedal their own bicycles, both inventions came into use quite quickly.

      Increasing efficiency is a cost/benefit decision.

      Aside of the increased usage Jeavons mentions, there is the increased capital cost. A hybrid car may use less fuel but it costs a lot more to make both in terms of money and resources.

      Beyond the extra…

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    7. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to John Harland

      What an excellent craft - fixing bicycles.

      I agree totally with some of the "magic technological fixes" being proposed to maintain our energy hungry "living" standards - smart meters, batteries, PV panels and the like. Seems we think the way to get out of a hole is to keep digging - or even - better have some machine do the digging for us. OK as long as it's happening somewhere else apparently.

  9. Mark O'Connor


    Yes, the point is very well made. it's rather like Daly's famous formulation:

    'Efficiency is more miles per gallon. Frugality is using fewer gallons. A policy of “frugality first” stimulates efficiency. A policy of “efficiency first” does not stimulate frugality—indeed, it fosters the perception that frugality has become less necessary.'
    Selected Essays of Herman Daly, p. 98

    This crops up, as Daly shows, in discussions like the one Clive Hamilton started recently about whether it is more…

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  10. Chris Knowles

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Surely efficiency and frugality are not mutually exclusive - that the way forwards is a combination of both.

    Frugality is a behavioural change and will take time (there's an entire economy to restructure), perhaps even generations.

    In the meantime, efficiency gains can be immediate and can be driven by policy mechanisms such as taxes that charge users the true costs of their choices.

    Yes, having an efficient bar fridge defeats the purpose but equally just because I've got energy-efficient light globes doesn't mean I'm going to leave the lights on all the time.

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Chris Knowles

      Thanks Chris - I'm getting really tired and dispirited by so many things being framed as 'either/or' when the more useful position is 'both/and'

  11. Edwin Taree Vriesman

    logged in via Facebook

    Great article and a very important point. Sadly the tendency of many western humans is to want more of the technologies which make our lives 'easier'. This seems to be the no. 1 desire, not whether it creates more sustainability. Companies do not make profit from 'less' but from 'more'. I think one solution would be to charge people for what they use. This will not only force people to use less, but also ignite companies to come up with technologies focused on using less AND making our lives 'easier'. Ultimately the few of us who do care enough about sustainability are not going to make the world a lot better by consuming and using less. We need to lobby politicians to make the change nationwide.

  12. Dean Rizzetti

    logged in via Twitter

    Surely it's worth mentioned that the rebound effect doesn't swallow the whole benefit. Largest estimates I've seen are 50%, but a more common figure pins it at about 10%. Thus, even in our most pessimistic mood, we can still make real savings.

    I think the broader question is how do we embed efficiency into our electricity networks, when unbundling has reduced incentives and the NEM has no environmental goal.

    Good article though.

  13. John Merory


    Thanks Anthony for bringing Jevons to the Conversation. I could write a book of comments but shall limit myself to the biological: rabbits very efficient at reproduction- the rest you can deduce. A species can gain advantage and consume a greater share of the Earth's limited resources, often at the expense of other species, by evolving greater efficiency in energy conversion, metabolism, reproduction, etc. Jevons plus genetics explains Darwin's observations.

    As for us humans, our health will improve by being less "efficient" in some activities, like personal transport, e.g. walking and cycling (actually the most efficient mode of transport) instead of driving a car. I would be interested in the longterm health outcomes of the people in the no car development in Vienna. The noncommunicable disease epidemic is driven in a large part by lack of exercise caused by replacement of intrinsic exercise by the car.

  14. Alex Cannara

    logged in via Facebook

    I'll just throw in a tech-weenie comment on th ultimate limit to all "inefficiencies", whether they're "right" or "wrong" things to do...

    The Earth receives about 86,000,000 GigaWatts of solar power all day long. Some is absorbed, some reflected back to space. The balance of those effects maintains what we've come to like as climate over the last, stable 10,000 years.

    Our present unnatural power generation is about 16,000 GW -- all of which ends up as low grade heat, except for TV & other…

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  15. Ted Floyd

    Retired Soil Scientist

    In 1996 I attended a seminar on "Consumption and the Environment". It was concluded most people want to consume more and want to save the environment. It was thought efficiency would help to achieve both these aims. Since this seminar, efficiency has generally improved and the environment has deteriorated.

    A comment I made at the seminar is stiil valid. I do not think we are going to persuade most people to reduce their consumption. "We have a business world that wants to produce more and more…

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  16. Peter Redshaw


    In this argument about efficiency we are blaming the tool for its use. We are also arguing against the evolutionary process. And if we take this argument on efficiency to its logical beginnings we are saying we as humans should not have been so good at hunting and gathering in our hunter gather days.

    After all efficiency has not only allowed human population to survive at every stage of our movement from hunter gather to farmer to urban dweller, but to expand our population to the extent it…

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  17. Ted Floyd

    Retired Soil Scientist

    The Jevons Effect is new to me, so I did a little background research. Energy efficiency is a well known law of physics and Lovins is a world leading student of this law of physics. Jevons was an economist over a hundred years ago. Many economists now support the Jevons Effect theory. We now have a debate between scientists and economists. These types of debate are never won or lost. Just pick your side and stick to it.

    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Ted Floyd

      Not really, Ted. The mistake is in trying to use the laws of physics to predict the motives and behaviour of people. Physics don't do that.

      Jevons says that when an increase in efficiency allows people to do the same activities with less energy, they just use the saved energy by doing/buying more stuff.

      Energy efficiency isn't a law of physics incidentally. It's just a formula.