Efficiency and Conservation

The two concepts are often spoken of as if they were a unit, or even nearly synonymous. But a decent working definition would identify “efficiency” as getting more out of the same resources, while conservation is simply using fewer resources, period.

The difference is not so much a matter of technology (or lack of technology) as one of intent. I can strive to keep all the lights in my house on all night efficiently by switching to better lightbulbs. Conservation would be turning the bulbs off when I’m not using them. Efficiency is trading in my Ford Navigator for a Prius; conservation is biking to work.

An article in the Dec. 20 & 27 addresses the problem. “The Efficiency Dilemma,” by David Owen, illuminates the debate over the so-called Jevons paradox. The paradox, first identified by a 19th-century British thinker, holds that when we learn to use a resource more efficiently — coal, timber, water — our consumption of it does not go down. It goes up, because the resource becomes cheaper to use.

This would help explain, for instance, how society has spent the past half-century making electrical consumer goods more efficient even as electricty use continues to skyrocket. Each kilowatt hour is so cheap we keep finding more uses for it, and don’t have to think twice. From no air-conditioning to central air; from one refrigerator to two, or three. Each of them with ice-makers.

Owens’ caution is to folks like Energy Secretary  Steven Chu, whom Owens quotes as saying that efficiency can save us money and resources (and pollution, of course), and do it all painlessly.

Here’s where it comes back to intent. It seems that in many if not all cases, people (as a whole, and over time) view efficiency as a license to use more, not less. The reason is that their intention was never really to burn less coal, for instance. It was to maintain their standard of living more cheaply, or raise their perceived material wealth at the same monetary cost. But this invariably means the cost to the environment goes up.

As Owens points out — a point made repeatedly on this blog, among other voices – if our goal is to actually conserve resources, the resources have to cost more, not less.

That means, say, big taxes on carbon or other stuff we don’t want burned, or released into the water, land or air. Using less is conservation — the happy result of which might well be drives to improve efficiency, even if things don’t work the other way around.

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