Friday, January 27, 2012

A paradox

If you ask most people what the number one way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is--what's quickest and easiest--they'll answer that efficiency is the way to go. After all, weatherizing your home can be rather cheap (compared to other remodeling you might do) and it's fairly easy. However, there is some evidence that efficiency of resources can actually promote waste. Thus I give you, the Jevons Paradox. Simply stated, the paradox is that when people use resources more efficiently they often end up using far more of them than when the resource was inefficient.
This happens for several reasons. For one, if something is efficient to utilize one often does it more. It's so easy! Why not turn up the heater a little bit more? After all, it just takes the push of a button. It's not like you have to shovel more coal in every time you want the house a little warmer. Or go ahead and take a longer shower. You've installed a low-flow showerhead! You deserve a little bit more time under the spray for being so eco-conscious.
The second reason is because the relative cost of the resource goes down with more efficiency. People feel freer to use something because, well, it's not going to cost that much more, right? And you're not using too much of it because you're being efficient! Go ahead, leave the lights on even when you're not in a room. After all, it's just the flick of a switch and it's all the way over there. It's not that big a deal, really, because the energy is so cheap.
Related to that is the fact that when a widely used resource is cheap, people have more money in their pockets to spend on other things. And as we've seen in the last few years, people are terrible at saving that extra money. After all, things are cheap! Buy more! By consuming more and more goods, we end up obliterating any gains we've made in the area of efficiency. All of the resources and energy that we're not using for Thing A end up getting used to produce Thing B, which usually would be a stupid thing to produce if the resources and energy weren't so cheap. But again, we're being efficient! We've got all the money in the worl...wait, the stock market crashed again?
Efficiency alone does not work. It needs to work in tandem with the idea of conservation. We need the perceived value of saving resources to match up with the value of making better use of them. That's the only true way to be efficient. I found a great infographic about some of the reasons electricity usage has gone up so much in our country in just the last 50 or so years. Digs against Republican views aside ("So much for the wisdom of the free market") it's very interesting.
On the subject of energy efficiency, light bulbs are now slated to be far more efficient soon. This is good news, at least in terms of how much money people will save. (Estimates say about $100-200 for the average household.) It would be even better news if people learned to turn off lights when they're not home or not in a room.
Also, fuel use in the U.S. went down by quite a lot last year. December reached a 15-year low. Since fuel use is so closely tied to economic health and employment (people buying things and going to work) why is it that so many politicians and articles are proudly proclaiming that we're out of a recession and on our way back to growth and prosperity? If you look at anything other than Wall Street and the stock market, the outlook is abysmal. The signs are not good. I'm not fool enough to think that the reduced gasoline consumption is because everyone in the country suddenly became concerned with the environment. I'm thinking it's more because they have to (can't afford it) or because they have no where to go (no jobs). Boy, I really can take some good news and make it depressing. It's a talent.
In other news, UAF was ranked as the fifth "most popular" university in the U.S. by USNews. Now, there is some debate and grumbling about how they defined popular (it's based on the number of applicants versus the number of enrollees) and I agree that it is bad, but it's also interesting. I think a lot of the naysayers were discounting the fact that we have some really good programs here. Anything involving biology, fisheries, and wildlife, or engineering, is fantastic. Even our Masters of Fine Arts program is in the top ten, last I heard. The fact that we retain 75% of students--that so many people are willing to tough out these conditions for their education--is a sign that our programs are worth it, I think. You can read their summary of UAF here. And then you can laugh with me that they define the setting as "urban". Anyone who comes from the big city expecting a truly urban setting is going to be seriously disappointed. (As is anyone who thinks they're coming to the middle of nowhere. I will never forget my sister-in-law exclaiming, "Oh, it's like a real town!")
Finally, here's a wonderful reminder that our actions affect not just humans but the animals around us too. "The mercury is believed to cause bats to act erratically, and in some cases to lose their adeptness at avoiding wind turbine blades." Actions that we take for the sake of human health and our environment positively affect the wildlife around us. Do we need any more reasons to change our behavior? Because I think that those two alone should be enough.
And next time you see an animal behaving oddly, remember that they might actually be suffering from mercury poisoning. And it's our fault.

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