9 item(s) found.

Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

We cannot deal with complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are. This problem is evident with the use of the concept of efficiency in policy discussions and in the definition of indicators. In fact, on a practical and conceptual level, efficiency is an ambiguous and problematic concept to implement in quantitative terms. Of particular concern is the lack of contextual and qualitative information provided in energy efficiency measurements based on simple ratios. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and three video lectures reflecting on the conceptual and practical problems associated with the use of the concept of efficiency in the policy domain.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


How should we measure efficiency? (1 min 57 sec)

How should we measure efficiency? Why are energy efficiency indicators always promoting new gadgets and devices affordable only by the wealthy, while sharing practices, which are normally enacted by the poor and that are equally or even more effective for energy conservation, are systematically ignored?  Choosing an indicator of energy efficiency is never neutral, and it generates “hypocognition” (the missing of other relevant aspects to be considered). These points are explained with clear and simple examples.

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic​ (16 min 40 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic. Equating increases in ‘efficiency’ (based on a definition of performance referring to just a single relevant attribute to be improved, among many others) with ‘sustainability improvements’ is misleading. In fact, the performance of complex systems can only be perceived and described using different levels of analysis and many dimensions of analysis. A simple output/input can only be defined at one given level and dimension at the time. This entails that indicators of efficiency generate “hypocognition” (the missing of relevant aspects of the issue dealt with in the analysis). Several examples are given to illustrate this point.

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions​ (12 min 10 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions. The analysis and the comparison of the performance of the economy of different countries based on simplistic definitions of efficiency should be avoided. One cannot compare efficiency in terms of the use of food of a very old lady, versus that of a young girl and versus that of a breastfeeding woman. When selecting indicators of performance, we cannot compare ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’. In order to characterize the performance of different economies, we have to be able to characterize their mix of production activities, their level of consumption, their level of openness (the terms of trade), the availability and quality of their resources, the goals of their society, etc. If we are not able to contextualize all these factors, the use of indicators dividing one number by another simply cannot generate meaningful information about the efficiency of an economy.

The Jevons Paradox: Why quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency are useless​ (11 min 8 sec)

The Jevons Paradox—Why are quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency useless? Complex adaptive systems are becoming in time and continuously adjusting to the changes imposed on them. For this reason, the more we increase the efficiency of the technology used by humans, the quicker the particular function expressed using that technology will become something else. This is a predicament that affects not only the validity of the policy based on efficiency (the results will be different from what was expected at the moment of the planning) but also the validity of the quantitative analysis (what has been modeled will no longer exist because of the implementation of the policy). A few simple examples show the relevance of these points.


Teams Involved

Saving Water in Irrigation

Saving Water in Irrigation

A Vargas, RJ Hogeboom & JF Schyns




Freshwater scarcity is a major global concern and irrigation is a key piece of the puzzle. Irrigation is crucial in dry climates where precipitation is regularly insufficient for plant growth, and it is typically required to maintain crop productivity during dry periods elsewhere.  Irrigated agriculture plays a fundamental role in the provision of food worldwide, generation of renewable energy, and economic development.  Simultaneously, irrigation is also one of the key drivers behind the depletion of freshwater resources, contributing to water scarcity.

In the European context, water scarcity affects 11% of the population and 17% of the territory (European Commission, 2007). The proportion of water withdrawals due to agriculture within the EU territory is around 45%, most thereof used for irrigation, where the southern European countries claim approximately two-thirds of the total (Eurostat, 2019). Figure 1 displays the concentrations of irrigated areas, expressed as percentage of irrigated area in relation to the total utilised agricultural area, where the highest, noticeably, are located in Southern Europe.

In the EU, irrigation practice is mainly governed by the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Where the WFD provides a basis to ensure the long-term sustainable use of water bodies across Europe, the CAP decidedly shapes the course of agricultural practices in Europe. The CAP seeks to integrate objectives of the WFD, and both policy documents have a clear bearing on water use in agriculture. However, a comprehensive integration of the two policies has not been fully achieved and the water challenges prove persistent. The major question that still stands, therefore, is how the EU can effectively save water in irrigated agriculture?

In this study, we set out to assess the consistency of a number of innovations that influence water savings in irrigation with various narratives in which they are embedded, within the context of the EU agricultural sector.  


Figure 1. Share of irrigated areas in utilised agricultural areas (UAA). Source: Eurostat (online data code: ef_poirrig).


Dimensions of water savings


To better understand water savings and how to achieve them, we highlight three different dimensions of water savings, following Hoekstra (2020) (see NEXUS TIMES publication in related work below), namely, production, trade and consumption. The nexus originated by irrigated agriculture in Europe requires solutions from all dimensions as it is expected that irrigation will continue to fulfil all of its functions while still sustainably managing Europe’s freshwater resources.

The production dimension focuses on the supply side. For crop production, it considers the intensity of application of inputs. Water-wise, it encompasses how water is applied to crops and its consequent impact on production.

The trade dimension focuses on the international trade in crop products, where water is traded in virtual form. Trade is an opportunity to release the pressures imposed on the water bodies, when production patterns are adapted by looking at where we can best produce certain crops from a water point of view.

A consumption dimension looks at the demand side, focusing on consumption patterns. It leaves the food supply behind and targets the consumers with the aim to reduce water consumption. There are two main strategies employed to reduce the water footprint considering a consumption dimension: dietary changes and reduction of food waste.


Innovations to achieve water savings


There are many innovations that have been developed with the potential to achieve water savings in agriculture. In the first place, agricultural management practices can significantly influence both crop water use and water productivity. In the second place, smart irrigation strategies can promote reductions in the application of water in the field - without significantly lowering yields. Moreover, there are efficient irrigation techniques and technologies that facilitate crop water uptake and reduce water use. Lastly, particular socio-economic responses can support water savings in irrigation as well, by steering changes in behaviour among producers and consumers.

It is worthy to keep in mind that while these innovations can achieve water savings, the potential to do so varies greatly, both in particular and combined. For example, on average, drip sub-surface irrigation and deficit irrigation are associated with the most considerable reductions on the BWF (Chukalla, 2015). However, a combination of the innovations thereof along with the practice of mulching is associated with even larger reductions, especially if the mulches are of synthetic origin. Figure 2 displays the potential reduction of the water footprint of a crop for different combinations of innovations.


Figure 2. Change in water footprints in different management practices. SSD stands for sub-surface drip, FI for full irrigation, DI for deficit irrigation, NoML for mulching practice, OML for organic mulching and SML for synthetic mulching. Source: Chukalla et al. 2015 (see related work below).


Effective adoption of particular water-saving innovations, nevertheless, depends on more than their water-savings potential alone. Uptake and acceptance varies as a function of the narrative or perspective one holds on the way crops should be produced and which role irrigation ought to play therein. Given the inherent complexity of interlinked water systems and the wide spectrum of narratives that exist, a careful understanding of both is crucial or order to make informed policy choices.


The five narratives of European crop production


Our analysis identified five overarching narratives that govern crop production in the EU. Each narrative assigns a specific role to water and irrigation, and hence promotes uptake of different water-saving innovations. The five narratives and their preferred broad innovation categories to save water in EU agriculture are:

  1. Food Security – Irrigation is a means to meet EU food demand. Innovations that increase yield and water productivity of food crops are the focus.
  2. Market Competitiveness – Irrigation is a means to increase the global competitiveness of the European agricultural market and improve the EU economy. Innovations that enhance market opportunities and maximize profit are the focus.
  3. Environmental Protection – Irrigation is a primary cause of the degradation of natural resources. Innovations to reduce the use of water are preferred.
  4. Circular Economy – Irrigation is a means to support a low carbon economy based on the production of biofuels. Innovations that support reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increase yield and water productivity of energy crops are the focus.
  5. Technological Optimism – Irrigation is a technological challenge that may boost crop production. Innovations based on the use of technology that maximizes irrigation efficiency and crop water productivity are the focus.


Results and conclusions


Since each narrative assigns a specific role to water and irrigation, it promotes uptake of different (sets of) water-saving innovations. We assessed the consistency within the different narratives of the selected innovations and their feasibility (external constraints – natural limits), viability (internal constraints – processes under human control) and desirability (implications for stakeholders). Table 1 presents part of the results from the assessment for feasibility and viability. Hereto, we inventoried a large number of innovations and described their potential to achieve water savings in irrigation using Quantitative Story-Telling as a method. We used various case studies and scenarios from literature and the results of a second stakeholder engagement to support the assessment.


Table 1. Main results obtained from the feasibility and viability check on the five narratives.


The results confirmed that the main goals and assumptions behind each narrative exert a significant influence on the uptake of a given water-saving innovation. Moreover, it was found that there are trade-offs in selection of particular innovations between the different narratives and that socio-economic innovations form an important part of any innovation mix.

The path towards effectively saving water in EU agriculture requires both clarity on the goals sought (here framed through the lens of dominant narratives) and coherence between these goals and the innovations that support them. The broad spectrum of goals currently portrayed by the CAP and the incomplete integration with WFD objectives illustrate such clarity and coherence is still lacking in EU policy. The increased understanding through this work on viable narratives and their preferred innovations contributes towards drafting more effective EU policies that help solve the persistent environmental challenges related to water.


Related Work


Teams Involved

Why focus on efficiency?

28 September 2017

Why focus on efficiency?

The Magic Nexus team

Efficiency has become a  popular measure in many of the policy areas of the European Union, including energy policy, the circular economy and climate policy. However, despite its ubiquitous use, the term efficiency is surrounded by considerable confusion. Indeed, in some cases improvements in efficiency may lead to increased consumption. This edition of The Nexus Times enters in the current debate on efficiency targets with a critical analysis of the term efficiency and its related paradoxes.

In this edition, you will find two articles that discuss the efficiency paradox from different points of view, highlighting some of the challenges that efficiency targets may pose for the governance of the water-energy-food nexus. We also take you through the historical origins and development of the concept of efficiency, and talk about how this concept is used in two of the policy areas that MAGIC is analyzing: energy policy and the circular economy.

These articles are meant to initiate a discussion on the use of the term efficiency in setting policy goals. We welcome any comments and contributions to the discussion. You can either use our discussion forum or write to us. We also welcome contributed articles in The Nexus Times.

» Read "The Nexus Times" Issue II - EFFICIENCY PARADOX (September 2017)

VIDEO: The paradox of energy efficiency

The paradox of efficiency: Can uncertainty be governed?

The paradox of efficiency: Can uncertainty be governed?

Zora Kovacic, Louisa Jane Di Felice and Tessa Dunlop

In a world of limited resources and increasing human impact on the environment, using resources more efficiently seems sensible. Many policies see efficiency as an important instrument to achieve their goals. In the case of energy policy, the EU has published in 2012 a directive on energy efficiency and in June EU energy ministers agreed to support a 30% energy efficiency target for 2030 as part of proposed legislation to improve the EU's electricity market. In water management, efficiency is seen as a means to deal with water scarcity in arid regions. In waste management, resource efficiency is pursued as a means to reduce waste production. But does efficiency guarantee that less resources will be used? Does it guarantee that resources will be used better? The Jevons paradox suggests that the answer is not so straightforward and that efficiency policies may not achieve the desired results.

In 1865, William Stanley Jevons observed that increased efficiency in coal engines led to an increase in consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. The improvements in coal engines made it possible to use engines not only in coal mines, but also on rail and sea transport. Jevons concluded that, contrary to common intuition, increases in efficiency do not necessarily reduce resource consumption because they also open up for new applications and uses and ultimately new demands. This is called “the Jevons paradox”. This paradox is one of the many ways that complexity displays itself. In a complex system, if a part is changed or taken out and substituted with a different part, interactions within the system may change and lead to surprising and paradoxical changes throughout the entire system. The Jevons paradox suggests that efficiency policies may not lead to the desired outcomes, because the economic system will adapt to increased efficiency and technological improvements.

A similar concept has emerged also in economics, called the rebound effect. The rebound effect is the reduction in expected gains from increases in efficiency, because of systemic responses to the increase in efficiency. While the rebound effect recognises that systemic responses may offset the benefits of technological improvements, it does not presuppose changes in the essential workings of the system. The rebound effect can be calculated through mathematical formulas, which assume that the interactions between the parts of the system remain stable. There are sometimes varying definitions, but scholars generally differentiate between 1) direct, 2) indirect 3) economy-wide and 4) transformational rebound effects, with the latter most comparable to the Jevons paradox. From the point of view of complexity, however, the rebound effect is different from the Jevons paradox in as far as changes in complex systems cannot be precisely calculated.

What this means is that the rebound effect essentially leads us to do more of the same thing, while Jevons paradox leads us to do something different. To make this distinction clearer, we can draw a parallel with diets. If I am trying to cut my calories to lose weight and decide to buy fat free yogurts, I may end up eating two fat free yogurts instead of a regular one – leading overall to a higher caloric consumption. This would be the rebound effect. On the other hand, I could also eat a fat free yogurt and then, feeling that I have saved on calories, I could take the bus instead of walking, or go out and eat a slice of pizza. This would be the Jevons paradox. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one should stop buying fat free yogurts, or stop improving our efficiency, but it does have implications for governance.

The existence of direct rebound effects is uncontroversial, with quantitative evidence in a large number of studies. The possible effects of the Jevons paradox and how to measure it, however, are in dispute. But rather than focusing on technicalities, the Jevons paradox reveals an important philosophical dilemma regarding complex systems. Because it focuses on unforeseen changes in the interactions between the parts and the identity of the whole, the paradox cannot be modelled nor predicted with precision. Therefore The Jevons paradox and the rebound effect have different implications for policy, and cannot be treated as equivalent. The rebound effect suggests that gains in efficiency can be estimated and that efficiency policies are a means to govern complex systems (although these are not as effective as one may hope). The Jevons paradox instead suggests that complex systems cannot be controlled, and that increases in efficiency may not produce the expected results. Given this uncertainty, which theory should policy rely on for advice? If one takes the Jevons paradox seriously, governance is as much a matter of relying on evidence as it is about taking into account uncertainty.



Sorrell, S. Jevons’ Paradox revisited: The evidence for backfire from improved energy efficiency. Energy Policy. 37 (2009) 1456–1469. (footnote for paradox being in dispute)

Greening, L. A., D. L. Greene, and C. Difiglio. 2000. Energy efficiency and consumption—The rebound effect—A survey. Energy Policy 28(6–7): 389–401.


Paradox or Paradigm? A deeper discussion about societal goals

28 September 2017

Paradox or Paradigm? A deeper discussion about societal goals

Jan Sindt

The Jevons Paradox and rebound effect can be seen as one of the same thing as both observe higher consumption levels due to increased efficiency. But the real public policy question we should be asking is: do we want to live in a consumption-driven society?

Some 150 years ago, when the industrial revolution took up steam in England, the British economist William Jevons described how efficiency gains could paradoxically increase resource consumption. Today, energy conservation policies in Europe are observing efficiency gains again in order to try to mitigate the greenhouse effects caused by the revolution’s spread across the globe. This time seemingly to solve the problem of which efficiency gains created or at least contributed to an increase in energy consumption in the first place. But could we reasonably expect different results from increased efficiency compared to 150 years ago, given that the generalised economic goals are similar in both circumstances?

The short answer is that Jevons Paradox has a number of particular preconditions, which include economic objectives of unregulated growth and increased consumption of resources. Some of the preconditions could be created by and trigger at least a rebound effect. A rebound effect is an increase in demand following a price reduction of a certain product or service due to its reduced resource intensity, i.e. efficiency gains. Hence, it depends on the relation between product price and consumer demand. Jevons Paradox is basically a special case of a rebound effect with elastic demand for energy. Jevons observed an increased demand for coal in excess of the actual efficiency improvement of the steam engine, caused by the efficiency gains of the steam engine (c.f. Alcott 2008 for a detailed assessment). The range of economically viable applications expanded, including of coal mining through providing cheaper water pumps, which in turn allowed the exploitation of previously inaccessible coal veins. Thus, the rebound effect was greater than the efficiency gains, which was possible because it affected the production of the very resource that was being used more efficiently.

An example of rebound effect of around 20% has also been more recently observed with respect to efficiency gains in vehicle fuel consumption. If vehicles are more efficient and hence cheaper to use, people feel more inclined to use them. A meta-study estimates such particular effect at around 3% of increased transport demand per 10% of increased efficiency (Dimitropoulos, Oueslati & Sintek 2016).

So what? On the one hand, increased efficiency does not necessarily translate into reduced resource consumption. In terms of transport, fuel efficiency gains in the US before 2001 have been compensated by the size and weight of cars (c.f. York 2006). This ought not be confused with Jevons Paradox, as there is no direct causal link between efficiency gains and bigger cars. Furthermore, improved efficiency has not created demand but removed restraints, and has ultimately not increased fuel consumption but only proven insufficient to reduce fuel consumption on its own.

On the other hand, increased efficiency does not necessarily cause a rebound effect, let alone a Jevons Paradox. As the rebound effect and Jevons special case thereof are entirely driven by cheaper supply due to efficiency gains, all it takes to curb the effect is to increase the price through market interventions like taxes on energy in order to at least compensate the efficiency gains. Economists may argue that such an intervention would strangle economic growth, but that is exactly the point to take away from an economist predating the industrial revolution: efficiency gains can technically reduce resource consumption with equal output, however widespread normative convictions demand instead that output must be increased. The freed resources provide an opportunity for economic expansion, instead of closing the mine. Cheap resources have fuelled economic growth from the very beginning, literally. Growth is a paradigm of capitalist societies, rather than a paradox of efficiency. The question is not so much if we can avoid such growth but if we actually still want that growth after 150 years, also keeping in mind who benefits and who pays for it. With an answer to that normative question, Jevons could finally rest in peace.


Alcott, B. (2008), “Historical Overview of the Jevons Paradox in the Literature”. In: J. M. Polimeni, K. Mayumi, M. Giampietro & B. Alcott: The Jevons Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements. London: Earthscan.

Dimitropulos, A., W. Oueslati & C. Sintek (2016), “The Rebounf Effect in Road Transport: A Meta-analysis of Empirical Studies”. OECD Environment Working Papers, No.113, OECD Publishing, Paris.

York, R. (2006), “Ecological Paradoxes: William Stanley Jevons and the Paperless Office”. Human Ecology Review, Vol.13, No.2.

Multiple perspectives on the water-use efficiency of food production

Multiple perspectives on the water-use efficiency of food production

Joep Schyns and Arjen Hoekstra

Due to increasing pressure on Europe’s freshwater resources, driven by changing climatic conditions, population growth, and shifting dietary and energy patterns, the interest in water-use efficiency is enormous. Especially water-use efficiency in agriculture is a hot topic, since agriculture uses around 40% of the all water abstracted from Europe’s groundwater and surface water resources on an annual basis (EEA, 2018).

There are three perspectives on water-use efficiency (Hoekstra, 2020). From the production perspective, we can address the question of how to produce a given crop with less water. From the geographic perspective on water-use efficiency, we can ask the question of where we can best produce what from a water point of view. Lastly, from the consumption perspective we can pose the question of how to best fulfil certain consumer needs with less water. The consumer perspective thus addresses the issue of demand and questions what actually is produced.

Nearly all attention and advancements around water-use efficiency in agriculture have focused on the production perspective. Food cannot be grown without water, because transpiration by plants is an essential element of plant growth. Strategies to increase crop water productivity therefore should aim at reducing the non-beneficial part of evapotranspiration from a crop field, which includes water evaporated during the application of irrigation water to the field and the water that evaporates from the bare soil and the leaves without contributing to biomass growth. This can be achieved by specific forms of tillage and mulching of the soil, or by installing more efficient irrigation systems (Chukalla et al., 2015). The replacement of sprinkler by drip irrigation systems in arid regions such as the Segura basin in Spain is a good example of the latter (Aldaya et al., 2019). In addition, since water productivity is a function of water use and crop yield, increasing yields by adopting good agricultural practices and optimal crop cultivars is an effective way to enhance water-use efficiency in agriculture. Such yield improvements have largely contributed to improved crop water productivity in Europe, especially in the past century.

The risk of solely focusing on the production perspective of water-use efficiency is that we end up producing the wrong crops in Europe most efficiently. Think of efficient large-scale production of water-demanding almonds, olives, tomatoes and fruits in Southern Europe for export. When we take the geographic perspective, we will look where we can best produce certain crops from a water point of view. Several local and global studies have shown that significant water savings can be achieved, maintaining current production levels, if crops would be produced in different places than they are at the moment (Davis et al., 2017a;b).

When we consider the water-use efficiency of food from a consumption perspective, we look at how we can fulfil the food needs of European consumers with less water. This can be done by changing our dietary patterns, particularly by replacing meat and dairy by suitable plant alternatives, maintaining the same nutritional value but reducing the water footprint per kilocalorie or per gram of protein. Food consumption patterns and associated water footprints largely vary across the North, South, East and West of Europe, but in all regions substantial water savings can be achieved by adopting diets according to regional health standards, and even more when meat and dairy products are replaced by nutritionally equivalent plant-based alternatives (Vanham et al., 2013).

Talking about changing production and especially consumption patterns is way more difficult than implementing best practices in the current agro-food system. Yet solutions from all perspectives on water-use efficiency will be required to tackle the nexus challenge of sufficient and nutritious food for all Europeans while sustainably managing Europe’s freshwater resources. To achieve sustainable water use, we need to reduce overall water consumption in all those catchments where overdraft currently affects local ecosystems and biodiversity, which particularly occurs in Southern Europe, and reduce the water pollution as a result of excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, which happens throughout Europe. Better agricultural practices, smarter choices on what to produce where, and adjustments in diets are all essential elements of the solution. Finally, given that forty percent of Europe’s water footprint lies outside Europe (Hoekstra, 2011), we need to consider and reduce the external environmental impacts of Europe’s food consumption as well.



Aldaya, M.M., Custodio, E., Llamas, R., Fernández, M.F., García, J. & Ródenas, M.A. (2019) An academic analysis with recommendations for water management and planning at the basin scale: A review of water planning in the Segura River Basin, Science of the Total Environment, 662: 755-768.

Chukalla, A.D., Krol , M.S. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2015) Green and blue water footprint reduction in irrigated agriculture: Effect of irrigation techniques, irrigation strategies and mulching, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 19(12): 4877-4891.

EEA (2018) EEA Environmental indicator report 2018, available online: https://www.eea.europa.eu/airs/2018.

Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) How sustainable is Europe’s water footprint? Water and Wastewater International, 26(2): 24-26.

Hoekstra, A.Y. (2020) The water footprint of modern consumer society: second edition, Routledge, London, UK. https://www.routledge.com/The-Water-Footprint-of-Modern-Consumer-Society/Hoekstra/p/book/9781138354784

Davis K.F., Seveso A, Rulli M.C. & D’Odorico P (2017a) Water savings of crop redistribution in the United States. Water, 9(2): 83.

Davis K.F., Rulli M.C., Seveso A. & D’Odorico P. (2017b) Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution, Nature Geoscience 10: 919–92.

Vanham, D., Hoekstra, A.Y. & Bidoglio, G. (2013) Potential water saving through changes in European diets, Environment International, 61: 45-56.

From religous concept to industrial tool

28 September 2017

From religous concept to industrial tool

Tessa Dunlop

Far from having a straightforward definition, the term 'efficiency' has taken on many different meanings throughout history, showing that its meaning is highly contextual, writes Tessa Dunlop.

In its most general sense, the term ‘efficiency’ has become a central ideal in the world’s advanced industrial cultures. Efficiency often signifies something good, as in a job well and economically done, and is associated with ideals of individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits.

But if you pull apart the meaning of efficiency, and observe how the term has evolved over time, its underlying definition is far from simple. In her book, The Mantra of Efficiency, Jennifer Karns Alexander traces the complex history of the meaning of efficiency, from its beginnings as a religious philosophical concept to describe divine agents and causes of change, its use in the 19th Century as an industrial tool to measure the performance of machines, right through to its varied and sometimes contradictory usage today. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries efficiency has been applied to various fields including biology, economic thought, personal development, worker management, and social history.

Interestingly, Alexander teases apart two dominant, yet distinct, interpretations of efficiency over this time. One is an efficiency of balance, a static efficiency, that accounts for the conservation of measured elements. The other is a creative and dynamic efficiency, which brings about growth through careful management.

Static efficiency was a priority during the Progressive era in the United States when factory owners prioritized stability, reliability and control of their production lines amid social turbulence. To help them maintain stability, production managers enlisted the help of efficiency consultant and mechanical engineer Henry Gantt. When analyzing worker practices, Gantt noted a problem with the incentives that workers were given. Workers that were paid a piece rate depending on the amount or ‘pieces’ they produced were at first motivated to greater productivity, but eventually lost motivation once they saw that managers eventually cut the rate per piece the more they produced. This meant that the workers had to work even harder just to break even. To solve this problem, Gantt proposed a differential piece rate, in which workers who met a daily quota received a higher rate for each piece. He wanted not just to stimulate production, but more importantly, to make it predictable.

Dynamic efficiency is allied to visions of change and progress, including the evolution of mechanical engineering during the 19th century. This encompassed the development of laws of thermodynamics such as the conservation of energy. Dynamic efficiency was famously used by Charles Darwin to describe the dynamic effectiveness natural selection and change through evolution. While the two ideas of static and dynamic efficiency often interwoven together, sometimes they created conflict, notably in the different ways to measure efficiency. In the 19th century, engineers and physicists argued about different measures of dynamic efficiency in waterwheels and thermal combustion engines. Although the efficiency of a waterwheel may seem like a simple idea (which waterwheel design is most effective in producing the most energy), engineers and scientists struggled to decide how to conceptually relate the source of a water wheel’s motion to the work it produced. Some believed that one should measure the water wheel efficiency statically – that is, measuring the energy throughput of the wheel before and after it turned – ie, in two static states. But an English engineer, John Smeaton, raised a philosophical dilemma for his time: How does one measure matter in motion? Ie, dynamic efficiency. The vast majority of engineers during, and for the century following Smeaton’s experiments, chose to conveniently sidestep this issue of motion, due to its inherent complexity of measurement. But Smeaton’s measures of dynamic efficiency led to significant disputes not only on how to measure efficiency but over who had the right to define the terms and measurement.

The multiple and sometimes contradictory definitions of efficiency imply that the term is highly contextual. It can be measured in different ways, depending on who is making the calculations. According to Alexander, this means that efficiency is an instrumental value, without inherent meaning of its own. Given the rich history of the term efficiency and its varied applications today, one must carefully scrutinize what efficiency means in each specific context – does it refer to conservation and stability, or dynamism and growth?



Alexander, J. K. 2008. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control. The Johns Hopkins University Press

The circular economy: A new efficiency paradox?

28 September 2017

The circular economy: A new efficiency paradox?

Tessa Dunlop

Proponents of the circular economy call for actions to be 'eco-effective': but is this another efficiency paradox?

The goal to create a Circular Economy has gained traction in recent years with calls from both government and civil society to ‘close the loop’. The European Union has pledged over EUR 6 billion as part of its Circular Economy Package and various NGOs around the world have championed the cause. Broadly speaking, the circular economy aims to increase environmental sustainability and spur economic growth through greater resource efficiency in the recycling and reuse of products. The idea is to decrease environmentally intensive primary production in favor of lower-impact secondary production whilst creating less waste, or ‘output’. Some are distancing the objective of circular economy away from the concept of efficiency in the traditional sense (the ratio of useful output to total input, for example the amount of coal used to power a steam engine), and replacing it with the idea of eco-effectiveness. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the idea behind eco-effectiveness is to transform products and their associated material flows such that they “form a supportive relationship with ecological systems and future economic growth” in a cyclical way such that materials can “accumulate intelligence over time (upcycling)” as opposed to simply trying to minimize the linear flow of materials that characterizes our current consume and throw-away culture. But is this perspective really that different to the objectives that underpin efficiency? Whether considering efficiency in relation to energy generation, or eco-effectiveness as applied to product manufacturing and consumption, both terms imply a reduction of resource inputs into the economic system, because natural resources are finite. And what if, like the paradox of efficiency, a circular economy could perversely lead to an increase in product demand, and thus more primary production and resource extraction?

Zink and Geyer (2017) have introduced the term ‘circular economy rebound effect’ to describe a phenomenon whereby increases in production or consumption efficiency are offset by increased levels of production and consumption. They have criticized the fact that circular economy proponents focus too much on the engineering aspects of the circular economy and not enough on its complex economic effects. In other words, they question whether a circular economy would reduce or displace primary production, or even if it might increase it.

While there is a solid body of research that measures the environmental impacts of recycling and repair activities, there is little known about the impact that these practices have on primary material and product production. This is in large part due to the complexity and difficulties in measuring the economic interactions between the primary and secondary goods markets, which are expected to become more competitive in a circular economy. Zink and Geyer (2017) argue that there is evidence pointing to the existence of circular economy rebound effects that could erase any gains in product recycling or reuse by increasing market demand for products. Take, for example, the income effect when lower-price recycled goods enter the market. Wholesalers often sell lower-grade quality recycled or reused products such as recycled paper or plastic at a discount to higher quality first-use goods. When purchasers perceive themselves as wealthier because they are able to buy more for less, they can purchase more material and use it to make more products than before. The excess wealth may be spent elsewhere, with unpredictable results.

One can also conceive of unexpected consequences of circular economy actions on a larger scale, explain Zink and Geyer (2017). An increase in recycling could, for instance, prompt consumers to purchase more disposable products under the belief that they are reducing their environmental impact. Wealthy consumers may sell their second-hand phones to subsidize their purchase of more expensive first-hand phones, thereby increasing demand and primary production. This effect may be fueled by an increase of secondary phone buyers, for example in poorer countries, who did not previously have an option to buy a phone. And how might a shift towards reuse and repair occupations effect the macroeconomy, including  employment levels, affluence, immigration and consumption patterns?, query Zink and Geyer (2017). What if cheaper recycled products become less cool? (And thus less valued than their harder-to-come-by primary production alternatives?)

This is not to say that the circular economy will necessarily lead to increased primary production. Many initiatives can reduce negative environmental effects if products truly substitute primary production alternatives and they do not create perverse market incentives to consume more new products. The point is that there is currently not enough research to say definitively whether circular economy initiatives will displace and/or reduce primary production. Thus one must critically examine the credentials of circular economy initiatives in their claims to increase ‘eco-effectiveness’.   



Welch, D., Keller, M. and Mandich, G. 2017. Imagined futures of everyday life in the circular economy. Interactions. Vol. 24, Number 2.

Zink, T. and Geyer, R. 2017. Circular Economy Rebound. Journal of Industrial Ecology. Vol 21, Number 3.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/interactive-diagram/efficiency-vs-effectiveness

European Union: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/priorities/jobs-growth-and-investment/towards-circular-economy_en