Stanley Jevons’s Prophecy

In his famous treatise The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probably Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines, published almost 150 years ago, the British economist William Stanley Jevons described a phenomenon whose importance today might be even higher than back in 1865–the so-called rebound effect, also known under the names of second-order effect, Khazzoom-Brookes effect, backfire or Jevons’s paradox. Jevons argued that the increased efficiency of steam engines shall lead to increased use of them and thus, counter-intuitively, to an increase in coal consumption. His insights have surprising relevance for today’s debates on economic growth and climate change. Continue reading

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The Climate Is Too-Big-to-Fail

How is it that we really do care about too-big-to-fail banks and largely embrace the sacrifice-laden efforts of governments to bail them out, but apparently don’t care enough about our too-big-to-fail climate system to accept personal and collective sacrifices needed to “bail it out”, i.e. to keep catastrophic climate change at bay? Well, this is a question psychologists and sociologists are better suited and trained to answer than I am. Instead, I would like to sacrifice a few minutes of my spare time in an attempt to sketch the consequences of the fact that our climatic system is too-big-to-fail in conjunction with the fact that we have not really cared to stop dangerously interfering with it so far. Continue reading

The Need to Decouple from Growth

Not first since the recent Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro there has been much talk about the need to make the world economy “green”. The problem with this mention, somewhat similar to “sustainability”, is that everyone has a different picture of what constitutes a “green” economy (thus the decision in Rio to leave the definition in the national domain…). Astonishingly many view the “green economy” as one that still relies on economic growth – but without all the negative side-effects, such as climate change and environmental degradation in general. This is the idea of “decoupling growth“. It is just as tempting as flawed. Continue reading

From Efficiency to Consistency, from Consistency to Sufficiency

It is a near-consensus that the way we produce and consume goods and services in modern economies is not sustainable. We systematically (and knowingly) overuse natural resources, ignore the social cost of (ab)using Nature’s services… So, the diagnosis is more or less uncontroversial and agreed upon. However, the question about the right therapy is still unsettled: how can we do it all in a better way? Generally, there are three strategies that are often named as necessary to achieve true sustainability: efficiency, consistency and sufficiency. Continue reading