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

Reader Contribution by Staff
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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.

This 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.