What’s the rebound effect?

Every time our species has faced a disfunction or an opportunity to improve existing technology, it has been done so. Throughout millennia, our society has grown as a consequence of these improvements, confident enough that we were better than before. Has it always been the case? Let’s find out, as always, together.

From the past

Our journey today takes us through the fine borders of the concept of benefits. We normally associate this word with a certain action, law, decision, more properly an input, that is intended to improve a given situation. These situations we try to solve are often problematic, therefore our ingenious brains explore possibilities to overcome them.

In my opinion, it is a modern key for the interpretation of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest: our constant desire of having a better life is a result of our effort and natural instinct as a species to survive. And so we settled down mastering the art of agriculture. We decided which animals were the best fit to work for us and feed us, giving them in return a sort of “protected slavery”: (I doubt chicken could have survived into the wild by themselves, however, their species thrived simply because we decided to keep them for us). And then we built roads, we mastered the art of sailing, we organised ourselves in more or less efficient systems of societies, we also mastered the skies, and we are now in the so-called Anthropocene, an era of human domination.

Looking back, most of the innovations, both technological and medical, have been carried on in order to solve existing problems. Hunter-gatherers homo sapiens spent centuries studying the growth patterns of plants, before deciding that it was better to settle down next to fertile land rather than roaming around in search for food. Roads have been laid down to improve communications between different tribes, science have more or less always aimed at understanding the natural world. But some of these major discoveries have resulted in some side effects that I believe we didn’t take into consideration when developing them.

This is the rebound effect: it happens when we make a discovery in order to solve a problem and in return we might create a new one, sometimes worst than the one we tried to solve.

…to the present

A typical example is email communication. Before, the fastest way to communicate with someone overseas was mail correspondence. I am not really able to give a practical estimate of the time needed to send a letter to the USA from Europe, or even within the same country. I know as a matter of facts that in the UK, Royal Mail used to deliver mails twice a day, to keep up with the huge demand of letters sent. It seems like another era to me, but it was just the last century.

But then, everything changed: the development of the internet has enabled people, even at his early stage, to communicate instantly from the opposite sides of the Planet. Mind-blowing! Instead of waiting days, if not weeks, for our loved ones to get back to us, we became connected to the whole world in a matter of decades, when PCs landed in every household.

What happened next? I believe we all know. From rich and emotional, we shifted to a poor, sterile form of communication. And it’s not all.

The rebound effect of email communication is not evident, but it works as follow. We knew that we had to reduce paper communication in order to preserve trees, that’s why at the beginning emails felt like the perfect solution. However, by improving the efficiency and speed of our communication, we also improved its volume. Emails are sent via the internet, which is supported by servers placed around the world, powered by electricity. On top of that, the amount of junk, promotions, spam emails we get daily all rely on that electricity production to be carried out while wasting our time when going over to delete them. The electricity involved in the whole process includes also our laptop and phones that we use to check emails and the whole web-infrastructure that couldn’t function without it.

Case study

But why is electricity a problem?

It depends where you live. In Iceland, most (if not all) of the electricity used is naturally produced via geothermal energy: everyone who visited this beautiful country must have seen geysers blowing gas from the ground. So, assuming Iceland doesn’t import electricity from nearby countries (which I believe they don’t, given the low domestic demand and no official documentation available), the email revolution would be a great benefit for population and the environment.

But, if we consider Australia, where most of the electricity is produced by burning coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, then we have a problem. If you think about it, Australia is contributing to damaging itself with these actions. If they want to preserve trees and don’t chop them to produce paper for letters, one of the key steps should be preventing deforestation and taking action to tackle climate change (which triggers huge fires and increase the possibility of severe weather phenomenons). But, if they produce electricity by burning coal (and more coal will be needed in order to produce more electricity to sustain more email communication) they’re just feeding climate change, by producing more greenhouse gases that will activate the feedback loop that we are experiencing right now.

Obviously, the solution is not to come back to paper communication, that would be mad. The solution is to change our energy production system, by shifting the entire world production to renewable sources, like sun and wind.

We will talk another time about the limits of the actual electric energy production, giving you the time to reflect and digest today’s story. For the time being, if you want to share how your life has changed since the email revolution, let us know in the comments and don’t forget to stay Green!

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