The Jevons Paradox

Recently I read an article in WIRED magazine by Clive Thompson entitled Unsaving the Planet. In it he described what some refer to as the Jevons Paradox:

…in 1865, British economist William Stanley Jevons offered a skeptical take on efficiency. In The Coal Question, he wrote that energy-efficient technology has a backlash effect. By increasing efficiency we make energy cheaper, thus spurring people to use more of it. As Jevons pointed out, when steam engines became more efficient, the consumption of coal (for steam production) didn’t decrease — it expanded, because steam engines became cheaper to run and thus attractive for more and more things. – WIRED March 2012, p.42

That says a lot about human nature, I think. When we gain an efficiency because something becomes easier or cheaper, we don’t capitalize on those savings by becoming more frugal. Instead we take advantage of those efficiencies by increasing our consumption, coming to rely more and more on the cheap and readily available resources.

I think that has implications for ministry as well. Here’s a little parable I’ve been sharing with some fellow pastors lately in conversation. Imagine that a city has a problem with cigarette butts littering the sidewalks. The mayor, seeing this problem, hires a part-time street cleaner to pick up the butts, hoping that the sight of clean sidewalks will encourage his citizens to keep the streets clean. However, his move has the opposite effect. Seeing that someone else has cleaned up their discarded butts, they no longer bother to seek out an ashtray or garbage can and now causally flip their butts onto the ground knowing they’ll be picked up by someone else. Seeing the increased litter on the sidewalks, the mayor decides to bring the street cleaner on full-time. And the vicious cycle continues as people litter even more because it has become a consequence-free transgression.

Too often our first response as ministry leaders is to fill an observed gap by increasing programming or staff. We reason that if we plug the hole with a dedicated person, other stakeholders will join the effort as partners. However, usually the opposite happens. When people see that someone else is willing to do what they bear the primary responsibility for doing, human nature will usually drive them to readily hand off that responsibility.

This is especially visible in the area of children’s and youth ministry. I believe that the primary privilege and responsibility for children’s faith belongs to the parents (if they are Christians). A church’s ministries to children and youth should be seen as partnering with the parents and not the other way around. After all, the church has them for a couple hours while the parents have them all week long. We need to remember that parents come first so that our attempts to enrich our kids’ lives don’t end up weakening them.

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