Monday, December 20, 2010

Raccoon and the Jevons Paradox

Moving Like Raccoon

(revision of an early chapter of Cosmopolis Earth)

By John Taylor; 2010 Dec 20, Masa'il 10, 167 BE

When my children were young, they had a favourite toy which they called their "raccoon" -- we got it second-hand but I later found out that this toy is marketed as a "Weazel Ball". Raccoon consisted of a yellow plastic ball with a fluffy, brown and white "tail" connected to it. When placed on a smooth surface and they flipped its switch, it vibrated furiously, rolling forward, sideways, every which way. In the midst of its erratic spurting and wobbling, there was no way to guess which direction it would go next, much to the consternation of Malley, our cat, and the delight of the children.

Thus the gyres and gimbals of Raccoon amused the childish mind while exasperating the ordered feline imagination; as Hamlet put it, Raccoon made the "unskilful laugh but the judicious grieve." I was pestered to explain how Raccoon got that strange, stutter step, so when its batteries ran down we opened the yellow sphere to find the secret. The erratic stutter-step came from a clever design where an off-center electric motor did nothing but vibrate, while opposite it were its batteries, which acted as a counterweight, spinning its center of gravity alternatively into balance and out of balance.

Raccoon's intentionally crazy mechanism is an apt metaphor for the incomplete globalism that puts the times out of joint. Quicker transportation encourages free trade across borders, making the economy more global. But hearts and minds stay glued to one location, one nation surrounded by impermeable borders, firmly set in past ways. At the same time, the Internet spins hearts and minds into instantaneous motion through cyberspace.

Like Raccoon, we spin around our own batteries, the burning of hydrocarbons, instead of the true center, our humanity. The economy accomplishes miracles of productivity and green food revolutions one second, and the next turns around to destroy the environment and set the positive feedback mechanisms of global warming in motion. The ordered mind expects thought and actions to synchronize and roll the world straight forward. But some invisible misalignment within forces a derangement.

Our sources of energy align with a vibrator, not the true center of gravity. Fanatics and partisans proliferate, earnestly upholding causes which, one way or another, contradict one another. Our global center spins, bursts forward, halts and turns in a completely different direction. Instead of world order, everything resolves into flittering Brownian motion.

If education does not produce balanced citizens, if it trains only narrow-minded specialists who are sophisticated technically but clueless in ethics, philosophy and spirituality, is it surprising that lives are unbalanced and politics disruptive? Institutions and interests will always work against one another in a crazy spin. It will always be impossible to say in what direction events will roll.

Even if education were turning out well-rounded citizens by the billion, there would still be an unavoidable need for moral courage.

This is demonstrated in a phenomenon known as the Jevons paradox. Instead of improving the overall situation, an increase in efficiency makes it worse. Automobiles that run on cheap fuel, that do not require much maintenance and that are safe and comfortable to ride in will only encourage drivers to drive them more, not less. In a seminal 1865 book, "The Coal Question," William Stanley Jevons asserted that it is a "confusion of ideas" to think that economical use of fuel will result in less consumption. Almost a hundred and fifty years of experience have proven Jevons correct in his paradoxical prophesy. He concluded that Britain had a choice between "brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity" in its use of energy.

A recent article by David Owen points out that by "mediocrity" Jevons meant what we now call "sustainability." Here (The Efficiency Dilemma, by David Owen, The New Yorker, December 20 & 27, 2010, p. 78) he adds that energy policymakers imagine that they are getting a free lunch by pushing fuel efficiency. They find that it is not contentious to suggest greater efficiency rather than hard choices, which demand sacrifice, responsible behavior and restraint. They avoid discussing higher taxes, legal protections for the environment and the inevitable switch to renewables. Instead they take the easier course, which Jevons proved is only oiling the wheels on a handcart to hell. The only way for decision makers to delve deeper into the mechanism and come up with a design that will set us on a smoother equilibrium. Such a design will include energy, but in order to avoid the Jevons paradox it will have to include everything in the scope of humankind.

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