Taken in Mar de Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico. —Cecilia Simon, 2014 Fellow


Resources about the practice of market-based conservation.

In a four-part series, James G. Workman writes about the three paradoxes that obstruct water conservation: value, efficiency, and monopoly. In this article, Workman writes about the second paradox: efficiency. As long as people merely “rent” the resource, efficiency devices increase overall consumption. Frugally conserved water is lost through new demand by the system as a whole.

The ghost of an obscure British economist is disrupting our efforts to conserve energy and water.

William Stanley Jevons died more than a century ago, but his specter recently began to haunt hybrid vehicle owners. To get their extra mileage’s worth and display clean and fuel-efficient credentials, they began to drive faster, farther, more frequently than before – leading to increased consumption. Jevons then haunted homes that installed compact fluorescent bulbs and ‘green’ appliances, making people switch on more lights and gadgets, more often, and leave them on longer or even continuously.

In short, Jevons makes us tech-savvy consumers burn more of the resource we set out to save. And even if I’m disciplined enough to resist Jevons and stamp down demand, my haunted neighbors eat up my savings by burning my saved BTUs and kWhs.

Of course, this ‘haunting’ is the consequence of rational self-interest scaling up from the micro to macro economy. Efficiencies create surplus gas or electricity; the increased supply costs less; lower costs jack up demand and new consumers. This ‘rebound effect’ is often so potent that it erases original gains technology sought to win.

This dynamic is bad news for climate mitigation and energy reduction; it is even worse news for climate adaptation and water security. Whether his influence is ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural,’ Jevons now haunts efforts at water conservation, where we lack real options.

Less means more

In 1865 the (living) 29-year-old Jevons considered the effect of British steam engines, which improved the efficiency of coal, the finite, geopolitical, carbon-emitting economic resource of its day. Such cheap energy-efficient machines might actually speed up depletion, he wrote, since we then use them more. In “The Coal Question,” Jevons argued (italics his): “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Happily, coal has energy alternatives: nuclear, wind, oil, gas, solar, geothermal and so forth. But the steam engine generated energy by consuming another valuable element that Jevons hardly considered rare. Now scarce, water has no substitute and has perhaps become the most potent case proving Jevons’s argument.

In the face of global scarcity, water efficiency has become a growth industry, subsidized by governments. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set up a WaterSense partnership that designates and labels certain qualifying technologies that claim to “protect the future of our nation’s water supply by promoting water efficiency and enhancing the market for water-efficient products, programs, and practices.” The relevance of such programs is enormous. Consider toilets, where Americans flush 4.8 billion gallons of water each day. Each year an average citizen flushes 230 gallons of human waste with 9,000 gallons of drinking water.

Efficiency drive

In response to resource depletion, a relentless barrage of education, tips, incentives, and technology transfers shifts water toward ever more efficient use. The roar of a five gallon flush is muted to dual-flush high-efficiency toilets. Shower nozzles blast less water at higher velocities. Dishwashers and front-door washing machines use less per load. Pool covers prevent evaporation. Lush lawns are replaced with xeriscaping (gardening for arid regions). The US EPA claims that in a few years, WaterSense has helped consumers save a cumulative 46 billion gallons of water and US $343 million in water and sewer bills. Perhaps.

And perhaps agricultural water efficiency takes place around the world: as dirt canals become pipes and flood irrigation is replaced by centre pivot blast sprinklers, which in turn give rise to drip irrigation applied directly to the roots of plants at night.

Perhaps, given the undisputed wonders of widgets, we can make up the 40% shortfall between global demand and supply just by using water-efficient technology.

Increased demand

The ghost of Jevons moans: Don’t bet on it. There is scant evidence that conservation technology drives overall reduction of water use, consumption, and demand. In fact, empirical studies at the municipal, industrial, agricultural, state, and federal level suggest that, as with energy, water efficient technologies may extend supply, lower costs, and increase demand and opportunities to divert, pump, and use even more water.

Our water efficient neighborhood lets the city divert savings into a sprawling new development. Multinational corporations use efficiency technology to reduce the amounts of water per unit throughout the supply chain, but that can help them to sell more overall products containing water.

Likewise, river basin authorities in arid lands encourage their farmers to adopt drip irrigation, for ‘more crop per drop.’ But from Texas cotton fields to the orchards of Israel, efficiency gains do not return to the Rio Grande or Jordan River or West Bank Aquifer, or even, it seems, to Palestinians restricted from pumping water. Rather, efficiencies spread irrigation deeper and farther into ever more marginal lands, letting current farmers grow more water-intense crops on more land at the exclusion of other natural and human communities competing for that water.

As interest groups grasp this dynamic, we find the odd situation of social advocates and environmentalists fighting attempts at water efficiency.

Such a perverse and undesired outcome defines the Second Paradox of Water: as long as we rent our resource, water-saving devices increase overall consumption. Water that you and I frugally conserve is lost through new and collective augmented demand.

Enter H2Ownership

One way we can all resolve this paradox is by adopting a new, and yet timeless, system of what might best be called “H2Ownership.”

If all stakeholders have clear dominion over an equal amount of water, then whatever we save from our share we can take out of the equation, to be later sold at a premium, donated to charity, or restored directly to nature.

From the Kalahari to Oman and Bali, this system has enabled traditional systems where people compete to conserve. Under a scaled up digital version of this virtuous cycle, urban efficiency gains could be locked in and improved on, helping us to transform water scarcity into natural abundance.

About the Author

James G. Workman (2005 Fellow) is a leader in the design and execution of natural resource conservation markets for water, fisheries, forest and energy. He is author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, which won the prestigious Rachel Carson Award for best book of the year from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and co-author with Amanda Leland of the forthcoming The Quiet Sea Change: How America’s Hunter Gatherers Are Transforming the Rules of the Wild. He has been a visiting professor at Whitman Colleague and Wesleyan University’s College of the Environment, and co-founded AquaJust, an online utility-based platform that unlocks equitable water markets for cities using the system that has sustained the Kalahari’s indigenous people for 30,000 years. James is a Kinship Conservation Faculty member.

If all stakeholders have clear dominion over an equal amount of water, then whatever we save from our share we can take out of the equation, to be later sold at a premium, donated to charity, or restored directly to nature.