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MAX Update No. 96: Jevons' Paradox and Gore's Dilemma

William Jevons was a 19th century British economist back when England was the world superpower and, not coincidentally, consumed as much fossil fuel as the rest of the world put together. Engines had won the Industrial Revolution, power was prosperity, and coal was king and England had lots of the stuff.

Coal-powered manufacturing and transportation gave England the edge. Coal consumption increased at 40 percent per decade. Boy howdy, people didn’t like it when Jevons wrote The Coal Question in 1865 and told them that cheap coal wasn’t going to last forever; he also predicted what would happen after it was gone. The Coal Question was the An Inconvenient Truth of its day, and was published when English fuel consumption averaged five tons of coal per person per year. Not surprisingly, reviews were harsh. But, like Galileo’s sun-centered solar system (or, dare I say it, Al Gore’s global warming), not wanting to believe something doesn’t make it untrue.

It’s a fascinating book, and though it’s been out of print for a century or so, you can still read it online. If you swap the word “coal” for “petroleum” (or even “fossil fuel”) it shines a light on what’s happening today, much like the tulip mania of 1637 illuminates the dot-com bubble of 2000.

So, back to Jevons’ paradox (recently renamed the Khazzoom–Brookes postulate; those who do not learn from history are doomed to rename it) which shows how increases in fuel efficiency lead to increases in fuel consumption. This is terribly counter-intuitive, but there it is. Jevons showed how the efficiency of the Watt steam engine (roughly twice the power per pound of coal as its predecessors) made steam power affordable in a wide range of industries and, as a result, coal consumption went through the roof.

We now move on to Gore’s dilemma, a name I came up with to describe the phenomena of conservationists who feel their message is so influential to other people that they don’t personally have to walk their own talk. Al Gore is easy to pick on because his movie shows him taking airliners from one speech to the next, and shows a limo delivering him to a global warming presentation, and he lives in a 10,000 square foot house. He does mitigate his fuel consumption some by buying carbon credits, and his electricity bill includes paying extra for renewable power sources, but the point remains: if we all lived like he says we should live, the fossil fuel supply would last an extra century, and if we all lived like he does live, the planet would be out of oil already.

I’ve gotten myself really used to MAX’s phenomenal fuel economy. Even when I factor in the city driving and hooning I do in MAX, I’m saving an easy two gallons of fuel per hundred miles in comparison with my Miata, and with MAX logging over 100,000 miles to date I’ve more than paid for MAX in fuel savings alone.

096JevonsThis came to me during a recent trip to Canada, when I noticed that MAX shows close to 2400 hours—which will be 100 solid days behind the wheel—on its Tiny Tach’s TOT (total time) screen. The display is a trifle goofy (the Design Technology software guys really should remove the unnecessary colon), but sure enough, I drive MAX about double what the average car gets driven in America—24,000 miles a year instead of 12,000 miles a year.

So what gives? I live farther from the city than most folks, I average 70-75 miles per round trip to town, and since it only costs me $3 in MAX (instead of $10 in my Miata or $15 in my minivan), I take that trip pretty often. And including my various side trips along the way, a trip from Oregon to Pennsylvania is about 7000 miles, about 300 bucks in fuel instead of a thousand.

But it turns out it’s not an either/or situation; I'm sure I'd combine my trips to town better if they cost me ten bucks a pop, and truth is, if all I had to drive was my Miata, I’d only go to one MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR a year: I’d go to the close one (Puyallup, Wash., is fairly close to Oregon) and sit out the far one (Seven Springs, Pa.).

Now, I love the Seven Springs FAIR; I’ve been to two of them (and the two Puyallup fairs, too), but I have to ask myself if I'm being a good example or self-indulgent when I drive to Seven Springs for the fun of it. I’m not speaking at Seven Springs this year—there are only so many slots available, I’ve presented at the four previous fairs and, hey, they need to mix things up now and then—and they have a great lineup of speakers and workshops this year, so I could listen and learn for a change. I’d really enjoy being there and I’d really enjoy the drive, but considering the ideals I preach, could I justify the journey?

I preach the value of conservation and, in my opinion, whether God gave us this planet or whether we just lucked into it, we have the responsibility for its stewardship. If I’m invited to talk again I’ll gladly drive MAX to Seven Springs (MAX was well received at the FAIR last year) but I’ll try to reduce my resource consumption elsewhere to make up for it.

I’ve no way of knowing if Al Gore wrestles with this particular devil, but calling it McCornack’s dilemma seems a bit pretentious. I’m serious about cutting our reliance on petroleum by increasing the efficiency of our vehicles, but it won’t work if we increase our driving at the same rate. Maybe I could get away with it personally—MAX is a pretty extreme case, after all, and I could drive MAX 40,000 miles a year and still beat the national fleet—but, as my father used to say, you can’t push a chain.

t brandt
10/3/2012 1:45:10 AM

Mike, Mark & Jack all are right and their points are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, it's true that the "environmentalists" are using pseudoscience centering on ecology to win the favor of the naive to gain control and alter the existing power structure of the world. Then again, we should be conserving, just for conservation's sake. Why waste any resource? Even if our cheap fuel, whch translates into economic prosperity, will last 500 yrs, it will eventually run out and Mankind will suffer for it. We have 5 centuries to either invent cold fusion or finally perfect solar energy & battery inadequacies or move back into caves (and there ain't that many caves)..It'll be our own progeny who will be fighting that fight. We owe them something.

michael cassidy
10/1/2012 1:41:26 AM

I will never understand why people are so against using our resources more efficiently. They always argue we have plenty, we aren't going to run out for x amount of years. Well the facts are it doesn't matter how long it's going to be, we will run out, no it won't be tomorrow or the next day but we will run out and is it really fare or smart to just keep over using it till it's gone. If it's going to be 200 years or 500 why wait till it's gone to make a change? Even if it isn't what you want to do why not encourage others not discourage. All I wish those people would do is try looking beyond your lifetime and think about the people that have to live here after us. We used to throw excrement out windows into the street and have open sewers we don't do that anymore here do we. All change isn't bad and sometimes it make really good sense!

jack mccornack
9/26/2012 7:04:25 PM

Hi Mark, you make interesting points and they're well worthy of discussion. --To paraphrase Jevons, we won’t ever run out of coal, it’ll just get more and more expensive as we dig deeper. Great Britain hasn’t run out of coal yet, but as Jevons predicted, the expense climbed until GB lost its world dominance to nations with cheaper power (he put America at the top of the list). England’s power policies didn’t change when they had the chance (people thought Jevons was scaring them), and so here we are. --“Today’s consumption level” is a rapidly moving target. Worldwide fuel consumption is growing by leaps and bounds, and at tomorrow’s consumption level (and the day after that, and the day after that…) affordable fuel oil could be gone in our lifetime. If it hits $10 a gallon before the DMV says I’m too old to drive, I’ll be really glad I’ve got MAX. --I don’t want to live in Jacksonville Fla with two feet of space around me. I share 5 acres with one other person, which is about the world average—2-1/2 acres of arable land per person. If I totally ignored my stewardship of my environment, could I screw up 2-1/2 acres enough to make it unlivable? Of course I could, and so could everybody else, and I’d rather they didn’t, so I try to be a good example.

mark eaves
9/25/2012 1:29:07 PM

Dear Jack, there's enough coal to last 500 yrs. Enough crude oil to last 200yrs at today's consumption level. This environmental craze is part of a communist manifesto to take over. The reality is this; every person on earth will fit inside of Jacksonville Fla. with two feet of space around them. Do something with your life more worthwhile than scaring people.