Efficiency Without Sufficiency Is Lost

The latest IPCC report discusses the concept of sufficiency.

A black and white aerial image of bicyclists in Stockholm.
This is sufficient transportation in Stockholm in 1928.

Swedish Archives

Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute used the subhead "efficiency without sufficiency is lost" in his paper "A Critique of Techno-Optimism." I have quoted this phrasing often, as I wrote about sufficiency for years and those five words summarize my writing concisely. Now, it encapsulates a big section of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

In section 9 on buildings, the IPCC Working Group III report describes the concept of sufficiency, noting it is derived from the Greek word “sôphrosunè,” which was translated in Latin to “sobrietas," in a sense of “enough.” It defines sufficiency as "avoiding the demand for materials, energy, land, water, and other natural resources while delivering a decent living standard for all within the planetary boundaries." 

The IPCC report talks about the SER Framework, developed by Yamina Saheb—she is listed as a lead author—that combines sufficiency, efficiency, and renewables. In a post for Buildings & Cities, Saheb wrote: "Overall, the unequivocal role of human activities in global warming is unlikely to be reduced unless sufficiency is made a primary principle in climate mitigation scenarios and policies." 

An image of laundry hanging on a wire outdoors in Lisbon, Portugal.
Laundry day in Lisbon, Portugal.

Lloyd Alter

I first learned about sufficiency from Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine, writing efficiency is important, but it is time to get serious about sufficiency. More recently I wrote "Why We Need Sufficiency First," suggesting that making things more efficient is not enough. We have to ask ourselves what we really need—what is enough? I often used the simple clothesline instead of a dryer as an example, or a bicycle instead of a car.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, energy efficiency is in the news again. Energy efficiency advocate Amory Lovins told The Guardian that we need the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency," said Lovins. "There should be far more emphasis on efficiency.”

But as the IPCC report notes, we need sufficiency as well. In fact, you can't really have one without the other because, as Alexander wrote in his entertaining essay: Efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

After criticism of growth models and invoking Jevons' Paradox, Alexander explains that "the central message of the analysis so far is that efficiency gains that take place within a growth-orientated economy tend to be negated by further growth, resulting in an overall increase in resource and energy consumption, or at least no reduction."

So instead of banking the energy savings, we are taking all the gains from efficiency and putting them into more stuff, such as bigger cars, larger houses, and, as journalist John Lorinc wrote recently in The Toronto Star, more urban sprawl. Even everybody's beloved electric cars demonstrate the phenomenon:

"A peer-reviewed paper published last year in the Journal of Sustainable Cities and Society noted that because the cost of operating an EV is lower than a conventional vehicle, families that own them will end up traveling both more and longer distances, thus accelerating the outward expansion."

This is why the IPCC report notes that sufficiency doesn't just apply to buildings in cities, but also "[goes] beyond energy and climate policies to include land use and urban planning policies." It applies to everything we do. 

Alexander suggests sustainability does not just mean producing and consuming more efficiently. It also means producing and consuming less—producing and consuming what is sufficient.

"What is needed, at a minimum, is for rich nations to stop redirecting efficiency gains into production and consumption growth. Instead, efficiency gains must be used to reduce overall energy and resource consumption. For example, technologies that increase labour productivity should generally lead to decreased working hours, not increased production; technologies that increase energy efficiency must not be used to ‘do more with the same inputs’ but to ‘do enough with fewer inputs’."

Alexander muses that a world based on sufficiency will require cultural change, such as the acceptance of more free time instead of more superfluous consumption. In my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I also note the kind of cultural change we need is to appreciate the value of doing enough with fewer inputs and at a lower cost—the simpler solutions that use less of everything.

To use my usual example, in an all-electric world we might promote more e-cargo bikes and fewer 7,200-pound pickup trucks that go 0 to 60 in 3.3 seconds. We are talking tons of money and material difference to do fundamentally the same thing. It is definitely a cultural change, but a critical one. We can't keep consuming more to make things bigger and faster, even if it is "efficient."

Last word to Alexander: "Any transition to a just and sustainable economy depends on a value-shift in the direction of sufficiency. Until that occurs, sustainability will remain a will-o’-the-wisp."

View Article Sources
  1. "Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2022.