The Good Side of the Jevons Paradox


In the 1860, the English economist William Stanley Jevons noticed a curious trend in England's historical coal consumption. For decades, the English had used the coal-powered steam engine introduced by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, and it was only in 1776 that the now-famous Watt steam engine became popular.

Compared to Newcomen's older design, Watt's was vastly more efficient and could produce much more power per unit of coal. Now: what effect do you think Watt's engine had on coal consumption?

The answer: consumption rose rapidly. As steam engines became more efficient, they could be applied to more industries. And this wider application, in turn, increased total coal consumption even as consumption per use case greatly declined.

Hence the paradox: when we can use a resource more efficiently, we generally use more of it, not less. Or to yank a pithy phrase out of it, we accelerate what we make easy.

And though many of the examples of the Jevons paradox are bleak — for example, the rise of the cotton gin increased the demand for slave labor — we can apply the same dynamics in our favor. What would you create if creating were ten times cheaper? What would get funded if funding were ten times easier?