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Our age of paradoxes

By Valerie Yule - posted Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A paradox is a statement that appears self-contradictory but actually has a basis in truth. Of all paradoxes the greatest is Man himself, despite our powers of reason. So like the gods, but so foolish with it all, as Psalm 8 said, a little lower than the angels, but nevertheless our own worst enemies.

At present, our scientists are on the brink of discovering all the secrets of life, at the same time that we face innumerable problems that threaten us, many of our own making. Many are paradoxes too. 

The Jevons paradox is the idea that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase, rather than decrease, the rate of consumption of that resource.


In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of the use of coal led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to intuition technological improvements could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.

The Jevons paradox is plainly seen in the history of human populations. As fast as new technologies make it possible to feed more people, more people are born to take up the slack. The effect began with the invention of agriculture, and it has continued at every stage as populations use up existing resources – expanding to fill every habitable corner of the earth. A most recent technology was the green revolution, which now cannot feed the extra mouths it made possible. Unless human populations deliberately keep within limits, they will expand as much or more as technology makes possible.

Along with the new inventions to make more food possible, must come methods to keep populations within bounds to consume it. Large families were desirable for survival when infant mortality and disease were rampant. Along with the modern technologies and practices that have reduced causes of death throughout the world, the ‘white man’ must give the rest of the world the modern technologies and attitudes that keep families small. Instead, Caucasian governments mourn small reproductive rates by comparison with the rest of the world. Already a projectory of eight billion people by 2050 has been extended to nine billion. Drivers of population growth continue. 

The Bicycle Paradox is our economic model. Once you are on a brakeless bicycle and pedalling, you have to keep pedalling and moving, or you will fall off. The argument for continual growth is that we will fall off our bicycleshould we stop growing. Yet at some stage growth must stop–the earth cannot carry much more. 

The third major paradox is Original Stupidity. It delights in being told of our intelligence. This condition is more to worry about than Original Sin. We all suffer from it, and yet we are most impressed by those who assure us we are in control of our faculties. Surely we have learnt by now that this is a prelude to being deceived, as Barnum concluded when he brought the crowds into his circus. Yet the problems facing us require more intelligence than we have.

Original stupidity is most evident in political discourse – the public is sensible, it is told, and that is the prelude for something to be put over it. One way we are deluded is by being told what we can half understand, because the language is pompous and complex. If it is simple, we could see through it.


How is it that so many people think differently from ourselves? We must think about this fact, rather than assume that ours is the position of right, to enjoy expressing our feelings rather than our thoughts.

Curiosity and learning are our best defences, and openness to new ideas without being credulous.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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