Beware of the green rebound effect

First published May 2009, updated June 2011

It’s very difficult to consume our way out of the environmental issues we face, even if what we buy is “green” as we may just fall victim to a variation of what is known as the rebound effect.

What is the rebound effect?

The name was originally used in relation to energy production and is known as Jevons Paradox or  the Jevons effect. The rebound effect was first proposed by William Stanley Jevons; an English economist and logician of the 19th century.

In Jevon’s 1865 book “The Coal Question”, he theorized that improving the efficiency at which energy was produced would reduce energy costs and as a result increase rather than decrease energy use and consumption of coal.

He was spot on. More efficient electricity generation saw the world change very quickly in terms of technology and industry by the turn of the century – and we’re gobbling up coal at an incredible rate. Unfortunately, the environmental impact has been disastrous; with coal fired generation responsible for huge amounts of carbon dioxide and mercury emissions and coal mining has seen the destruction of natural habitats.

Rebound effect – the ice cream example.

Probably another good example of a type of rebound effect that many of us could relate to is low fat ice cream. Since it is low fat, we’re tempted to eat more – just a little, because it’s OK as we’re still consuming less fat than we would from full cream ice cream. However, what we forget is that most low-fat ice cream is chock full of sugar; not to mention through eating more that means more raw products are used, more packaging and so forth.

Green rebound effects

These types of scenarios are by no means confined to ice cream and coal. Even the environmentally savvy person who buys nothing but green products is at risk.

Here’s some green rebound effect examples in my own life

– I use “green” paper towel – made from 100% recycled content – but I use way too much of it. I still find I need to consciously stop myself using more sheets than I need. I’ve also somewhat rationalized that while using reusable rags would be better, the green paper towel is ok and a good compromise. But really, there’s no reason why I should need to use it at all in many circumstances.

– Our house is powered by “green” power; so if we leave a light on we don’t really need, it doesn’t have the same effect on us psychologically as leaving one on when our house electricity came from coal fired generation. The sense of urgency is minimized.

– Because I do a,b,c green, that gives me an excuse not to be so green in x,y,z – after all, it all balances out and I’m still ahead right?

These are the types of minimizations and rationalizations we need to be very careful of if they are long term. I say long term because it’s hard to “go green” overnight – that’s where “transitional ethics” comes into play.

However, if our transitional ethics do become the norm rather than just an evolutionary stage, the green efforts we make can be negated by other excesses of our lives we have a degree of control over but do nothing about; or by using more of anything “green” thinking that it’s fine to do so.

Hyperconsumption in any form isn’t helpful for the environment, regardless of what the marketing tells us.

Another good example of the green rebound effect is having a fuel efficient car and driving it more, more often; perhaps to a point where the old gas guzzler is more environmentally friendly.

The nature of the beast

I’ve become increasingly convinced over the years the base nature of humans is tied up in greed – wanting more than we need for a reasonably comfortable life.

Merriam Webster defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed”. It’s an ugly word, one most of us would like to reject in connection with ourselves, but have a think about that definition for a moment. 

Do we really need a big screen TV for a more fulfilling and productive life? Do we need that jumbo sized candy bar?

Greed comes in all sorts of forms, whether it’s food or drink, material goods, attention or power. Greed is so ingrained in us, it’s instinctive – we are born this way. It’s normal, even applauded and actively encouraged – but normal doesn’t mean it’s a positive trait. Think about the other “normals” of the past that we now frown upon.

Greed is one of the secrets to our success in becoming the dominant species on this planet, and also the root cause of our battered Earth. To dress this greed up as anything else or offer excuses for it may make us feel a little better about ourselves, but it won’t solve our problems.

Once we have all come to terms with greed being a very strong force in our lives, we can better discern our needs vs. our wants and we may actually get somewhere; by focusing more on the former and less on the latter. 

To help minimize the green rebound effect in your own life, just ask yourself this simple question before purchasing a product; “It’s green, but do I really need it and do I need it in this quantity?”.