The Rebound Effect

Topsy-turvy and upside-down

Aren’t sales great? I wait all year for the hardcover sale at Chapters, book geek that I am. For one glorious week after Christmas, I can get hardcovers for less than the price of a trade paperback. So I do. I buy several. It takes me months to get through them all, but then they look so pretty on my bookshelves and the thought of being able to read them whenever I want (and cheap!) is a continual source of happiness.

I’ll bet you have a few sales you like to wait for, too. The grand opening at the newest electronics boutique so you can get the latest iPod half-price, so long as you show up before six a.m. Or your favourite clothing store with the perfect blue jeans that are thirty per cent off for one week in late April. And the best part is you saved so much money on the books/iPod/blue jeans that now you can also get a ______!

You know what I mean. Most of the time, if you’re anything like me or most of the other people I know, the extra thrill of a sale is not in being able to put the money you saved into a savings account. It’s in being able to spend that money on something else you want. It’s in this way that savings fuel more consumption rather than more savings, and this extends to other forms of savings, including energy and material use.

We don’t save it. We spend it. And this is the Rebound Effect in action.

You’ve saved so much money on your electricity bill by installing CFLs and energy-efficient appliances that NOW you can afford that huge flat-screen TV you’ve always wanted! Furnaces are now so efficient that NOW you can get a bigger house and heat it at the same cost! Car engines are so efficient (and gas still so cheap) that NOW you can get that truck! The net impact is that technological efficiences and advances that could save our environmental bacon don’t, and instead our per-capita energy and material consumption continues to go up.

I suppose I don’t need to point out that this is unsustainable.

And since you’re all bright people who have figured out on your own that this is unsustainable, I can skip over the middle arguments and leap right to the conclusion: technology is not the answer.

I’m not saying technology is a bad thing, or the devil, or that it can’t be part of the answer, as in using wind and solar to replace coal or replacing regular irrigation with drip irrigation to reduce water use; but, on its own, it is not the answer. On its own, given our cultural impulses, it fuels exactly the thing we need to avoid.

(Well done, everyone! Let’s pat ourselves on the back.)

This, in a nutshell, is why I don’t do product reviews here, except for very occasionally pointing you to something more energy- or materials-efficient when you actually need the thing in question. (In other words, no thneeds! But that is a Dr. Seuss post for another day.) When you don’t need the thing in question, the earth is definitively better off if you don’t buy it, no matter how eco-friendly “it” is.

In order for technology to be part of the solution, we need to start saving our savings instead of spending it. My theory about what that entails (not to put it too simply, but a basic cultural overhaul) is probably not going to fit into the epilogue of this post, so I’ll get to that another day. When I do, it’ll involve biospheric value systems, nature deficit disorder, pro-environmental behaviours, positive psychology and personal change. Maybe make that two or three posts.

In the meantime, when confronting a consumer decision in whatever brick-and-mortor or online venue you favour, instead of asking yourself whether you can afford the item in question, ask yourself: Do I need this? If I don’t need it, but only want it, what do I want it for? What do I expect it to do? Is it likely that this product or service can do for me what I want it to? How happy will it make me to have this thing in a week, a month, a year? When I’m done with it, how will I dispose of it?

Ask yourself, in other words, how well this thneed truly fits in to the life you have and the life you want.

I read a lot of books, so for me, books are almost always a good bet. They make me just as happy to read, mark up, reread, post about, review, read again, stroke lovingly on the bookshelf, and so on, as I think they are going to when I first flip them over to read the jacket copy in the bookstore. Books are a big part of the life I have and the life I want. Clothes, on the other hand–and new cars, big living spaces, fancy dinnerware, purses, jewelry, and what have you–aren’t. On those, I save my savings.

As a result, my ecological footprint is much lower than the average Canadian’s. Plus, I have no debt and a fairly healthy savings account balance.

Next up in this series: why that sentence is exactly the wrong way to end this post.

5 thoughts on “The Rebound Effect”

  1. Over the years my in-laws have handed-down to us nearly every piece of furniture, every vase and other pretty-little-thing in my house. Because I like objects to have stories, I tell my kids about this. Your dad ate dinner at this table when he was your age, etc. So now, whenever I buy anything I expect to last more than a few days, I ask myself whether it’s something I’m going to gift to my kids when they’re grown.

    I don’t buy impulsively but I do have a tendency to buy cheap — you know, I buy what’s cheaper even though it’s uglier & won’t last as long. Well, asking myself about inheritance keeps me from doing that. Which keeps me from buying very much, I’d say.

    1. That is a cool way of thinking about it: that you want them to become part of a family history, and don’t buy what doesn’t fit that. I really like that idea.

  2. This is more related to yesterday’s post but I was thinking: if it’s true that you don’t need to make kids like nature — they inherently find it interesting — then really, the job is to make parents like nature. And since adults don’t wander about admiring things like kids do (generally), that means we need to find things for adults to DO outside. Adults will often say it’s too buggy/too cold/too hot outside, but I think what they really mean is, it’s too boring.

    What do you think?

    1. I think boring is a big part of it. I also think boring sometimes masks a bit of fear–it’s unknown, it’s big, it’s uncontrollable, it sometimes feels unsafe.

      But yes, getting parents to like nature, or at least getting parents to let their kids go outside to enjoy nature themselves, is definitely a hurdle.

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