I read a couple interesting pieces lately about how choices we make can set up incentives that end up negating the purpose for which we made those choices in the first place. The first example is from an article entitled “The Paradox of Energy Efficiency” by Ronald Bailey in the November 2012 issue of Reason magazine. He makes a very simple but, I think, often ignored point – when people switch to more energy efficient products, whether by choice or by legislative force, they save money on energy (be it their electricity bill, at the gas station, whatever). They then use this money they saved… to buy products, take trips, etc., that cause them to consume energy. For example,
Lighting efficiency has improved during the last three centuries by many thousand-fold, from sputtering candles to modern LEDs, as Jeff Tsao and his colleagues from the Sandia National Laboratory note in the July 2012 issue of the Journal Energy Policy. But the result “has been an increase in demand for energy used for lighting that nearly exactly offsets the efficiency gains.”
In other words, switching to more energy efficient products doesn’t actually end up reducing energy usage, it just allows you to consume energy by doing some things that you weren’t doing before. Now, if the whole reason you switched to more efficient products was to save money so you could do other stuff, good for you. But, if you’re an environmentalist pushing energy efficiency because you think it will reduce energy consumption (and hence production, and hence pollution) – ain’t gonna work.
The second example is from Jane Jacobs book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her book, she says that attempts to make sections of cities more accessible to automobiles inevitably makes them less accessible to pedestrians and people arriving by public transit. (I’m not sure I agree that this is always true, but anyway…) For example, if buildings are spaced out by large parking lots, it is harder to walk between them. If roads are wider, they are often harder to cross. Sometimes sections of cities will make themselves more car friendly in hopes of attracting more people to their shops and restaurants – and more people will arrive by car. But less people arrive by foot or by public transit, and (says Jacob) the result is always a net loss of people. Which is not at all what the cities intend.