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It looks to me that the efforts I'm doing to make my living more sustainable are worthless.

Indeed, when some of us make efforts to lower energy consumption, doesn't it only leave harvestable resources for the others at lower price (because of market law "offer & demand" making prices)?

If too many others have no clue how harmful they are for future generation, and only consume more because it is cheaper, is there any point making any effort in the direction of sustainability?

  • I think this is in interesting question, which probably requires the input of an economist to answer completely. It definitely applies on this site, but might get better answers if migrated to economics.SE – LShaver Jan 26 '17 at 16:15
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Yes, to a certain extent. In economics this is called the 'rebound effect'. The rebound effect is that the effectiveness of a new techology or measure is reduced because it is counter-acted by other parts of the system. To give an example: people who insulate their house tend to keep their house at a higher temperature than before the insulation was done. It has been suggested that people do this because they can now afford it or because they feel like they already did 'enough' to save energy. The above is an example of a 'direct rebound effect'. Since the insulation saves some money, this money may be spend on other services that require energy, which is an example of an 'indirect rebound effect'. What you are referring to in your question is actually a 3rd type, called 'economic-wide rebound effect'.

The rebound effect almost always occurs to some extent in all kinds of sustainability improvements. It's even possible that the rebound-effect fully counter-acts the measures taken and that the net-effect is negative, the situation gets worse. This is also called Jevons paradox.

How big the total effect of a technology or policy change is is very difficult to determine and has led to a debate between scientists. I'm not sure what the outcome of that debate is, but it seems there are no indications that negative effects are common. Most changes seem to have a net positive effect, albeit that it's less than it one might expect at first. In any case it is important to be aware that the rebound effect exists and that it is taken into account when creating and implementing new technology and policy changes.

  • Doesn't the rebound effect mostly apply at a personal level rather than a societal one? The Jevons Paradox can be societal, and makes it annoying to design schemes to increase sustainability. And that's partly personal (individual people do the things that cause the effect), but it's not necessarily the same people - if I have PV on my house exporting to the grid during really hot days, that reduces load on the grid and keeps power prices lower, so other people are likely to use more electricity on those days (via reduced price signalling). – Móż Jan 31 '17 at 3:10
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    @Móż The rebound effect is often discussed from a personal level because that's the easiest to understand and analyze. Most scientists think it also occurs on a societal level (economic-wide), but there is disagreement how big the effect is at that level. This article explains some of the controversy. – THelper Jan 31 '17 at 4:15
  • @THelper Thank you for putting forward this concept's name. That "rebound effect" what I was looking for. – J. Chomel Feb 1 '17 at 7:59
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On the positive side economically you are expanding the market for sustainable products, which will help lower their price and make them more likely to be developed. Another reason to make the effort is that the grandchildren of the people who aren't pursuing sustainability may be, for example, traumatized like the grandchildren of war criminals, and wish they could have had ancestors like you.

  • I like the way you're thinking! – J. Chomel Jan 27 '17 at 7:37
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The social signals you send might well be more important than the economic ones. Consumers are not rational. Look at what people spend money and time on - it does not make them happier. We know what causes mental well being (such as these five steps). So people's consumption is highly illogical and does not follow economic theories of maximizing happiness. Not only does this show how economics is unhelpful, but it also shows how social science is crucial: by setting an example you are doing one of the most important things you can do. When we reach critical mass, we will be unstoppable. Look only to the rise of vegetarianism and other trends that shows we are quickly approaching critical mass.

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Your life is never worthless if you are setting a good example.

You can increase the worth of your efforts by spreading the word, by setting up programmes in your area to help people recycle etc, you can help your less able neighbours "I'm going to recycling, shall I take that stuff of yours?".

Do not lose heart.

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I don't see the world like a big "offer & demand market place", I prefer a vision of an ocean of data. In a positive future, sustainability will be the new fashion (well, it begins !). The best is to do what we think is the best for the planets and share it with everyone. However, my view may be influenced by "what I see is what I agree"...

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Your personal practical contribution is negligible but you can promote the topic by all kinds of media like speaking with friends and writing in social media. Maybe you will not see the effect during your life but in the eternity your action may gain a lot of followers.

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