Jevons Paradox


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


A term sometimes referred to in the environmental and ecological literatures is “Jevons Paradox.” Jevons Paradox was proposed by William Stanley Jevons, an English mathematical economist from the mid to late 1800. Jevons Paradox states that technological progress results in increased efficiency of production and increased efficiency in the use of raw material resources. This increase in efficiency results in an increased rate of commodity consumption. Thus, over time as production efficiency increases, and prices decline, the rate of raw material consumption increases. In traditional economic terms, the decline in price of commodities associated with production efficiency increases demand for those commodities, leading to accelerated resource consumption.

Jevons Paradox is important in environmental/ecological studies because it suggests that new production technologies do not have the expected effect of producing ecological protection. That is, in some views, it is argued that increased economic efficiency and efficiency in the use of natural resources provides a protective measure that leads to a decline in the rate of ecological destruction associated with consumption. This latter view is expressed in some versions of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) argument which suggests that overtime, ecological destruction within nations is reduced through technological innovations (see, EKC entry).

There is a substantial literature on Jevons Paradox, and since the mid-1970s, this term has been relabeled as the “rebound effect” (ie., the lower price produced by technological efficiency increases demand). Ecological Marxists have also addressed the assumptions found in Jevons Paradox (Foster, Clark and York, 2010). In discussing Jevons Paradox, (see ecological Marxists) point toward one of the contradictions in Jevons’ work: namely that greater technological efficiency was the source for improving the quality of life of people. Following this argument, Jevon proposed using natural resources quickly to propel the United Kingdom to a position of world supremacy and a higher standards of living. In part, that argument assumed that short term supremacy was more valuable than ecological stability, a point on which ecological Marxist critique Jevon. The Marxist critique points out that there is a long term trade-off between economic consumption and the expansion of capitalism on the one hand, and the acceleration of ecological destruction and ecological collapse on the other than should become part of assessing efforts to increase the standard of living through consumption.

Further Reading


Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. (2010). “Capitalism and the curse of energy efficiency. The return of the Jevons paradox.” Monthly Review 62, 6

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