Is resource efficiency the silver bullet for sustainability?

A lot of new management and technology paradigms are being discussed these days that talk of resource efficiency as the holy grail of achieving sustainability. The proponents of resource efficiency argue that if we can achieve more production with less input of resources it will have a favourable impact on natural eco-systems that are under extreme stress due to over exploitation.
On the face of it the argument looks logical. Consider a scenario where producing 100 pens need 2 kg of plastic. Better manufacturing techniques and improvement in plastic technology brings down the input of plastic to half a kg. This is an efficiency improvement of 1.5 kg per 100 pens or in pure economic terms the resource efficiency improves by a factor of 3.
However, this improvement will also lead to two unintended results. The company would try to manufacture more pens from the same material. This will over burden the warehouses as the production of pens will increase to four times. This will lead force the producers to sell the pen at a cheaper price making it more accessible to the consumers.
In the 19th century Britain an economist by the name William Jevon presented a theory that when the technology facilitates efficiency the use of the resources instead of decreasing increases. This theory was called Jevon Paradox. He had used the consumption pattern data of coal in 19th century Britain to forward his theory.
It was debunked by many saying that his logic thwarted any enthusiasm for finding better and more efficient technologies for resource utilization. However, later studies in resource consumption in US did signal the re-occurrence of this trend.
These trends beg a question whether Jevon was wrong in his assertion or his critics were too harsh on him. I think both Jevon and his critics failed to appreciate the inherent human angle in the pure data oriented study. What Jevon couldn’t articulate was the fact that resource efficiency is just one part of the sustainability equation. The other and equally important, if not more, part is the human society that receives the technology.
It is human tendency to become lax and continue with business as usual behaviour if he or she thinks a new technology will help them in paying less for consuming the same amount of resource. Take the case of CFL lamps. Those who replaced incandescent lamps with CFL for their lighting needs initially became so complacent with the assurance given by the new technology that their lamps would be on for twice more duration than during previous times. This brought their electricity bill to where it was earlier, eroding any monetary benefit from better efficiency. Similarly the service providers didn’t benefit as the individual consumption remained same.
The erosion of technological benefits due to human nature stresses the need for better communication with the consumers to make them aware of their habits and initiate a long term sensitization exercise to change their behaviour to help utilise the benefits of technology to the fullest.
Resource efficiency and behavioural changes in the society go hand in hand to achieve sustainability.


About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
This entry was posted in Sustainable development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is resource efficiency the silver bullet for sustainability?

  1. I totally agree that technology innovation and resource efficiency is not enough. We need to take into account behavioural changes in the society to achieve sustainability.

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