Accepted Paper:

Jevons' paradox and the conservation of energy: A recurrent controversy  


Thomas Turnbull (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

Paper long abstract:

The economist William Stanley Jevons' claim that increased energy efficiency increases net energy-use in a given system - rather than acting to conserve it, has re-emerged in numerous controversies regarding the effects of energy efficiency policy. This paper attempts to trace the historical genealogy of Jevons' paradox from its origins, as a response to the Victorian era's liberalisation of trade, to today, where it has become of growing concern to contemporary policy-makers, as, if proven, it serves to undermine the rationale underlying the prevailing mode of governing energy resources, that is via increases in efficiency. Tracing the genealogy of the paradox takes us through the miners' strikes (1912-1972), and the energy crisis of 1973-1979, where in both instances the dynamics implied by the paradox had direct political implications. Later, between 1978 and 1989, the privatisation of energy markets in the UK and the de-regulation of US energy markets led to resurgence in interest in the paradox, as advocates of deregulation suggested a diametrically opposite dynamic to that proposed by Jevons. In tracing this genealogy, sociology of science's concern with controversies is reconciled with an historical approach. A further theoretical insight is offered, in terms of epistemology Jevons' paradox exemplifies what Niklas Luhmann (2002) has referred to as productive capacities of paradox, in that via self-referential confirmation, paradox asserts the legitimacy of new knowledge.

Panel L4
Energy controversies and technology conflicts