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Jevons Paradox

William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882)

As I look at the church’s responses to the impacts of climate changes I am deeply impressed and moved by the commitment shown by so many people. Yet I am also concerned that some of these efforts may be in vain. They may even be counter-productive. They may be unwitting victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences and of Jevons Paradox (the ‘Coal Question’).

False Savings

My first concern is to do with false savings. Let’s say that your place of work is near to your home. You have been in the habit of driving to work, but now decide to use a bicycle. You save a few gallons or liters of fuel each week. Great! You have done your bit to reduce the use of a scarce resource (oil) and you there are now fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But has that gasoline really been saved? Since it is now available to others it will be used by someone, somewhere. So, the truth is that it has not been saved. It has merely been transferred from one consumer (you) to another (a stranger who could be anywhere in the world).

You may respond by saying that we need to make a gesture, or that cycling to work is good for your health. Fair enough — but the fact is that you have not met your original goal of reducing gasoline consumption and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

In fact, you may have made matters worse than if you had done nothing at all.

The Coal Question

In order to understand this conundrum let us meet that bewhiskered Victorian gentleman, William Stanley Jevons.

Mill Chimneys Victorian industry

Jevons was living at a time when Great Britain was going through a phase of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution, which had started about 150 years earlier, was kicking into high gear.

In the year 1865 he published The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (they went in for long book titles in those days). Even though he was writing 150 years ago, the words he wrote in that book are as relevant now as they were then (just substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’).

Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers.

. . . new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable . . .

I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.

Let us unpack those three paragraphs.

  1. The first paragraph states that coal was the über-commodity of the 19th century because it was the principle source of energy. Substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’ and his words apply to our situation. Without coal, without oil, we are “thrown back into the laborious poverty of earlier times”.
  2. The second paragraph shows the coal and oil not only give us raw power, they give us “molecular power” — the ability to create new products. They are used not only as fuel but also to create basic chemicals that in turn are used to make an enormous range of products such as fertilizers, medications, pesticides and plastics.
  3. But, and there’s always a ‘but’, in the third paragraph Jevons points out that the supply of coal is not infinite. Moreover, it will become ever more expensive to extract future supplies. We will never run out of coal or oil, but, sooner or later, we will run out of affordable coal (and oil). He is actually describing, a hundred years ahead of his time, the problem of declining ERoEI — Energy Returned on Energy Invested. He has a premonition of the Hubbert Curve.

His wonderful phrase, “that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress” pretty much summarizes much of what we are trying to achieve in this blog. There are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. But there are boundaries that will “stop our progress”.

I suppose that there is one other question that can be derived from the above statements. How is it that the quality of our written English has declined so precipitously? Where did we go wrong?

The Paradox

The following two statements summarize his famous paradox.

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Whatever, therefore, conduces to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to augment the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations.

Translated into modern English, he is saying,

  • Coal is being burned with greater efficiency. (There were two reasons for this. The first is technological innovation, the second the economies of scale that ensue when the number of customers is increased.)
  • Hence more factories and power plants use coal since it is now economical to do so.
  • Hence the overall consumption of coal increases.

Apply the same thinking to our situation.

  • People buy fuel-efficient cars to save money.
  • Because their cars are more efficient, they drive more miles.
  • Also, because it is more economical to drive, more people buy cars.
  • Hence the overall consumption of fuel increases.
  • Hence we should all drive 1960 gas guzzlers. What’s not to like?
Red Cadillac gas guzzler
Now that’s an automobile

The Katy Freeway

Katy Freeway 26 lanes
The Katy Freeway

The idea of Jevons Paradox crops up everywhere.

I used to live in Houston, Texas, and frequently drove on the I-10 West (the Katy Freeway). It is a major, badly congested commuter highway. To reduce the congestion the freeway was expanded such that the intersection with Beltway 8 is now 26 lanes across. (There used to be a two-track railroad on the corridor but they tore it up to make room for more traffic lanes).

Once construction was complete, travel was much faster and more convenient for just a few weeks. But now the traffic is as bad as ever. Why? Because more people chose to drive to work, and real estate developers built more homes adjacent to the freeway.

Demand met supply.

Demand Reduction Is Crucial

Jevons Paradox leads us to the conclusion that demand reduction is crucial. Merely saving resources or improving efficiencies will do no more than keep us in one place; indeed, such activities may actually make things worse.

  • If you make steam engines more efficient then more factories and power plants will be built and coal consumption will increase.
  • If you add more lanes to freeways then more people will use those extra lanes, and congestion will be as bad as ever.
  • If you drive an economical car then other people will drive more miles and more people will buy cars, thus wiping out your sacrifice.

The lesson is simple:

Reducing consumption or pollution is of no value unless overall demand is reduced. Failure to heed this insight means that all attempts to address our predicaments through improved efficiency or consumption are doomed not only to fail, they may actually make those predicaments worse unless demand elsewhere, all over the world, is reduced correspondingly.

Compassion

Child labour in a Victorian factory

I started this page by alluding to the fact that so many of our church friends are dedicated in their effort to help those who have been hurt, in one way or another, by climate change and related problems.

Jevons was with them. Far from being a cold-hearted economist who had no concern for the needs of those in trouble, he showed compassion. Here is what he said (once more, using a quality of English that one can only envy).

We must begin to allow that we can do today what we cannot so well do tomorrow….

Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us.

Conclusion

Any attempt to “save” energy or to reduce emissions is likely to have limited success unless it is matched with a commensurate reduction in energy consumption and emissions everywhere by everyone.

Now that’s the real challenge.

Happy Motoring Esso 1950s

Proper 28: The City of Man

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is from Luke 21:5-19.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In this passage Jesus is predicting great calamities. Indeed, the Temple was destroyed only 40 years after his death. Many of those who look deeply into climate change reach similar conclusions (the subreddit Collapse is an example of a site populated by people who think this way). Jesus is also saying that many of those who prophesy will come to a sticky end, and that they will be betrayed by many of those that they trust.

As we consider climate change, resource depletion and the other issues discussed at this blog we may anticipate a calamity, such as what happened to the Temple. In fact, our City of Man is more likely to undergo a ragged, stairstep decline (with some periods when conditions may briefly improve). It is unlikely that we will be able to point to a single event — a single point in time “when everything changed”.

Aha! Moment #2: Augustine’s City of God

Augustine of Hippo and the City of God

In last week’s post I suggested that many of us develop an understanding of the issues that face us in a series of Aha! Moments when suddenly we “get it”, something “clicks” with us.  I have had five such moments. They are:

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of a myriad of manufactured goods such as light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.
  5. A reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of science fiction books.

The second of these Aha! Moments, the one that is discussed in this post, is to do with the thoughts and actions of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the early part of the 5th century CE.

He wrote three books that are particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living now. They are: De Mendacio (On Lying), Confessions and, above all, City of God — a book that is particularly important and relevant to us now. It provides us with guidance as to how the Christian church may provide leadership in troubled times, and why it is important to develop an appropriate theology.

This is why I have used the title of Augustine’s most famous work for my own work. Augustine understood that all “cities of men” will eventually fail and disappear, just look at all the failed states in the Hebrew bible. He maintained that the only permanent city was the City of God. Therefore, he and other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of that city — in other words, they developed a theology appropriate for their times, a time when central control was disintegrating and decision-making was devolving to create what was to become a feudal society. I suggest that Christians need to do something similar now. It seems likely that, as we run into limits to do with climate, resources and over-population, that our society will also tend to fragment — large nations, corporations and even churches will break into smaller components. We will move from globalization toward decentralization.

What will that theology look like? As a semi-retired chemical engineer I feel a degree of trepidation about offering thoughts to do with theology — a topic that is the domain of scholars, seminarians and ordained clergy. Nevertheless, I suggest the following three points that may, at the very least, contribute to the work of those professionals.

  1. Understand and tell the truth
  2. Accept and adapt
  3. Live within the biosphere, both spiritually and materially

The Slow Train

Transition from steam to diesel engines

One of the reasons for writing this blog is to examine some of the views held by environmentalists and climate activists, particularly those “solutions” that are simply not physically feasible. For example, programs to do with “saving energy” and “sustainable systems” do not meet the constraints of either the first or second laws of thermodynamics. We cannot “save energy” — the first law tells us so. Nor, according to the second law, is any activity truly sustainable. All activities within a closed system lead to an increase in entropy.

A second concern is that many of the programs put forward to address the predicaments that we face do not speak to project management realities. The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it can be implemented society-wide — at least not quickly enough to address the predicaments that we face. To illustrate this point, let us take a look at two railway projects. The first is the transition from steam to diesel electric power on American railroads  that took place in the 20th century. The second is the current California high speed rail project.

Steam to Diesel

Diesel and diesel-electric locomotives are attractive economically when compared to steam locomotives, largely because they require much less downtime for routine maintenance and cleaning. Such benefits were evident 100 years ago. Yet it took 50 years for diesel power to replace steam engines in the American railway system.

In November 2019 the Oil & Gas Journal (a leading publications in the energy business) published an article written by Michael Lynch. It was entitled, The oil industry revolution will not be televised. In the article Lynch shows how slowly new technologies are  adopted, even when there is a good economic justification. He uses the United States railroad industry as an example.

Transition from steam to diesel locomotives shows slow pace of adoption of new technologies.The chart, which is taken from his article, shows that the first diesel locomotive was put into service during the First World War. Yet it was not until the year 1937 that a commercial mainline, diesel locomotive was put into service. After that, diesel-electric locomotives steadily replaced steam locomotives. But, even by the year 1955, that replacement was not complete.

So it took nearly half a century to make this relatively simple switch to a new technology. Yet the economic justification was clear, the technology was well established, and the supporting infrastructure, particularly the supply of diesel fuel, was in place. Moreover, all other aspects of the operation, such as track, signals, union contracts, funding mechanisms and maintenance facilities did not require a significant change.

California High Speed Rail

California high speed rail over budget and behind schedule

In the year 2008 the citizens of California approved funding for the construction of a high speed rail service from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Proponents of the project claimed that the new trains would achieve a journey time between the two cities of 2½ hours, and that the ticket would cost around $50.

Here are some key steps in the project’s progress.

  • The ballot measure proposed a $38 billion project that would provide high speed train service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The journey time would be 2½ hours, and the cost of a ticket $50.
  • The schedule called for the project to be complete by the year 2029.
  • Since then, the project has run into considerable delays and cost over-runs. The current scope of the project is to build just the Central Valley section from Merced to Bakersfield.
  • The new trains will not have their own, dedicated tracks — they will have to share with existing Amtrak and freight systems. This change will substantially increase journey times.The latest cost estimate is $77 billion, and rising.

This California high speed rail project is emblematic of virtually all innovative and expensive projects. They always seem to take longer and cost more, a lot more, than originally proposed.

Lessons for Alternative Energy Projects

Climate activists say that “we must” transition away from fossil fuels toward new sources of energy that do not impact the environment so severely. But such statements often fall into the trap of “because something should be done, it can be done”.

There are many reasons why the transition to alternative energy sources will be a challenge, to put it mildly. These reasons include resource limits, finance, real estate constraints, and — above all — political will. And, as this post has shown, the transition to alternative energy is going to run into project management realities. The two projects just discussed — the transition from steam to diesel, and the development of a high speed rail system — are both realistic technologically. Yet the first took decades to implement. I question whether the second will ever be fully implemented. The project is now nearly twelve years old, and not one inch of rail has been laid.

The total decarbonization of our entire society is way more challenging than these railway projects. Yet political leaders continue to say that we need to decarbonize our entire way of life by the year 2050 — just 30 years from now. (These leaders include the Secretary General of the United Nations and all the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.) It’s not going to happen.

Theological Implications

What do the above thoughts mean to those in the Christian community who are trying to address the issues we face clearly and honestly? It will be recalled from previous posts that I have proposed the following three points to provide a basis for a theology that is appropriate for our times.

  1. Understand and tell the truth
  2. Accept and adapt
  3. Live within the biosphere.

With regard to the first point — Understand and tell the truth — we need to understand project management realities. Given 100 years we could switch to renewable resources in an orderly manner. But we cannot do so within 30 years. We need to understand and tell the truth that, “Just because something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it will be done society-wide”.

Which brings us to the second point: Accept and adapt. If we recognize that a massive energy transition is not going to take place in 30 years then we have two choices. Either we cut back our fossil fuel consumption without having sufficient alternative energy to provide an adequate replacement. Or else we continue to use fossil fuels as we are doing now and then face the dire consequences of climate change.

Proper 27: Complexity

Complexity of Age of Limits issues

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:27-38.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

In his ministry, Jesus tackled many moral and theological issues that seem not to have much relevance to the Age of Limits issues that we discuss in this blog. The above passage from Luke seems to be one of those topics. Jesus does, however, discuss a complex and tricky situation — to whom is the widow married after her death? And complexity is certainly something that we struggle with here.

Aha! Moment #1: Predicaments, Not Problems

Homer Simpson and the Law of Thermodynamics
Homer Simpson with daughter Lisa’s Perpetual Motion Machine. “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

We generally learn about difficult, complex and rather scary future scenarios by reading lengthy reports or by watching well-researched documentaries. Information from these sources is invaluable in helping us understanding what is taking place. But, we often gain a sudden understanding or insight from an Aha! Moment when suddenly we “get it”. Suddenly something “just clicks”.

I have had four of these Aha! Moments. They were,

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.

The first ‘Aha! Moment’ came when I read a post by John Michael Greer in which he said that, “There is no brighter future”. In that post he pointed out that we do not face problems, we face predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.

Climate change is mostly a predicament, not a problem. We have reduced the pH of the oceans (made them more acidic) as a result of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we have generated and that has then dissolved in the seas. Even if we cut CO2 emissions to zero the oceans will remain acidic for millennia. Similarly with the greenhouse gas effect. Some of those gases, such as methane (CH4), will disappear within decades. However, other gas, particularly CO2, will remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

Depleted resources are another predicament. Once we have used the crude oil in the earth’s crust it is gone. It will take millions of years for new reserves to be created. The same argument applies to fresh water; once an aquifer is emptied or a high mountain glacier has melted, that source of fresh water is gone for ever, at least on a human time scale.

Even the manner in which we use phrases such as “renewable energy” reflect a lack of understanding as to the distinction between problems and predicaments. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be saved nor created — it merely exists. Moreover, phrases such as “renewable energy” do not make thermodynamic sense. The second law tells us that whenever we transform energy from one form to another — say by burning coal to generate steam — then the entropy of the overall system will increase. Even when we “save” energy we will increase entropy and so exacerbate the predicament in which we find ourselves. The manner in which we are using energy is creating a predicament.

No “Happy Chapter”

An awareness of the intractability of our problems/predicaments can be seen in the works of authors such as William Patton’s book Overshoot, published in the year 1982. These early books usually ended with a “happy chapter”, a chapter with solutions and responses to help us to avert catastrophe. The catch is that those solutions require a total restructuring of society, and a level of political will that simply does not exist, and that probably never will exist. Therefore, given that there is little evidence that humanity ever will make those changes, later publications from these same authors tend to skip the final “happy chapter”.

Accept and Adapt

It is this understanding of the distinction between problems and predicaments that provides the foundation for my second theological point: Accept and Adapt. We need to accept that our actions to this point have changed the world irreversibly. We cannot go back to the “good old days”; we cannot swim in the same river twice. We have to accept that we live in a new and (at times) rather scary world. This means that we need to adapt to the conditions that are in our collective future.

 

 

The Church of Progress

Mobile phone in a garden
Credit: Pexel

One of the themes of this site is that material progress is coming to an end, like it or not. Another theme is that the predicaments we face provide a wonderful opportunity for the church to show leadership to society at large. However, before the church can provide leadership it will be necessary for most of us to leave the ‘Church of Progress’. Most of us, even those who understand issues such as global warming or resource depletion, nevertheless continue believe (or, at least, we want to believe) in never-ending progress, that tomorrow will be better (materially) than it is today. When we look around us it is becoming harder and harder to hold on that belief. But still, we easily fall back to the assumption that ‘They will think of something’ or ‘Technology will come up with a solution’.

In the context of this discussion, this week’s post from Kurt Cobb is well worth reading. The title of the post is The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress.

I have two takeaways from what he says. The first is that our culture virtually requires us to use the latest technology, such as cell phones, whether we like to or not. We are expected to participate in “progress”. Yet, I when I work in my garden I intentionally do not wear a watch or carry a cell phone; I do not feel that I am not making “progress”.

The second takeaway is Kurt’s request of all of us to find a word that can replace “progress” — a word that identifies a way of living that does not require us to undermine the biosphere.

Going bananas over climate change

Bananas — used in going bananas over climate change post
Credit: Pexel

The correspondence to do with global warming and climate change at the Richmond Times-Dispatch (the principal newspaper for central Virginia) continues. The latest letter (shown below) is from Ms. Monica Lewis. She is writing in response to Mr. Tim Brandon’s original letter and the reply from Mr. Ian Sutton. (The bananas motif stems from the possibility that, if the climate does change significantly, we may be able to grow tropical fruits in the area.)

Ms. Lewis’ letter is shown below. It was published on November 2nd 2019.

Lewis response to letters about climate change (bananas theme)

Various topics are covered in these letters. They include,

  • Accept that the climate is warming and simply taking advantage of that fact.
  • The potential for a move away from globalization toward decentralization of many of our institutions.
  • The value of actions taken by politicians at the national level.
  • The need for mitigation efforts, including carbon pricing.
  • Ms. Lewis refers to the “sixth great extinction event of geological time”.

What all three writers seem to agree on is that the climate is warming. Moreover, we cannot stop the warming — the best we can do is adapt in one way or another.

Yes! We have no bananas

Yes! we have no bananas. Climate change discussion

On October 19th 2019 the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a letter from Mr. Tim Brandon, “Consider the benefits of global warming”. A copy of the letter is shown below.

Tim Brandon Richmond Times-Dispatch letter global warming
The gist of the letter is that global warming can be beneficial. One sentence reads,

Maybe soon we will be growing bananas, coconuts, and pineapples in Virginia.

His letter prompted me to reply. My letter was published on October 22nd. I picked up on the bananas theme, and suggested two responses to Mr. Brandon.

Ian Sutton Richmond Times-Dispatch letter global warming

The first response is that we will need to be flexible as conditions around us change. None of us know what the future holds, except to say that there is much uncertainty. This means that individuals and businesses will need to emphasize “adaptability” and “flexibility” rather than “efficiency” in response to the current vogue for “just in time” strategies. If bananas are available then we will enjoy them. If they are not available then we will do without.

The second response is that we will need to think and act locally. It is likely that the extraordinarily complex, computer-driven supply chains that allow us to enjoy bananas at any time of the year will be degraded. All aspects of our personal and business lives will become more local and less global.

Both of these responses — adaptability and localization — provide an opportunity for the church to provide much needed leadership.