About 10 years ago I was involved in a council project providing information on energy efficiency for the local community. I remember commenting to my collaborators that a lifetime of changing light globes is not going to make up for our recent overseas trips. Local action was all about the little things – light globes, chickens in the backyard and not using plastic bags. It you were ambitious, you’d install a 1 kW solar system and pocket the 60 cents feed-in tariff. But at some point, I realised that there were much greater forces at work and wondered about the efficacy of voluntary action.
Fast forward to 2017 and Wynes and Nicholas cast a critical eye over the ‘sustainability’ narrative and explore the role of education and government in promoting sustainable lifestyle choices. They conclude that most of the ‘little things’, such as recycling and light bulbs, as well as ambitious choices, such as a buying a hybrid car have ‘low impact’. The things that really matter are having fewer children, doing without a car, and avoiding flying. The purchase of green energy was mixed due to the role of double counting and ‘additionality’.
I don’t think Wynes and Nicholas go far enough. There seem to be much greater forces at work that can’t be readily un-done with voluntary action. The stand out examples are Jevon’s Paradox and Bashmakov’s law of stable long-term energy costs to income ratio. We purchase a more energy efficient appliance or asset, but direct rebound reduces the efficacy of the technical efficiency, and any savings are re-spent. Whether we spend our money on the purchase of a painting (presumably with a very low energy footprint) or a plane flight, the money circulates in the economy, and the energy price system indirectly drives energy throughput by other pathways. Person A bought a painting from person B who spent the money, enabling person C to buy the plane ticket because the airline offloaded a cheap airfare because person A didn’t buy a ticket. This is a crude example, but we see constant energy shares across nations despite widely varying energy costs. Energy efficiency enables an economy to withstand higher energy costs or increased energy consumption.
Human society seems to conform to the same energetic principles as all natural species – we extract the maximum quantity of energy from the natural environment as we can. The groups that are the most extractive tend to be the most powerful and dominant. This could apply at the level of an ecosystem, a herd, or in human society, at a socio-political level.
In Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), John Maynard Keynes saw economic development continuing into the future and posed the question –
What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?
and concluded that humans should be able to satisfy basic human needs and an acceptable quality of life with 15 hours of work a week.
My conclusion is that most voluntary actions are integral to the economic system and are of little value since they are ‘washed out’. On the other hand, those that fall outside the economic sphere are the most valuable – choosing less children, eating little meat, working less hours. I’m not sure that we’re collectively smart enough to work this out yet, but in a recent post, I posed the question as to whether Japan may become a case study for others to explore in grappling with stagnant growth and resource depletion.