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Winning the energy lottery, Jevons Paradox, and the need for even more.

Winning the energy lottery, Jevons Paradox, and the need for even more.

Every week, the massive jackpots of Mega Millions and Powerball captivate millions of hopeful players, including myself. The allure of striking it rich with a winning ticket is undeniable.

But as a climate historian, I couldn’t help but draw a striking parallel between the lottery and our collective reliance on fossil fuels. In a sense, we have all won the grand prize by being born in an era abundant with this energy source. However, our reckless overuse of it is now putting the very planet we depend on at risk.

Let’s talk about the odds of winning the human lotteries first, with the example being Mega Millions. Winning the Mega Millions jackpot requires matching 5 numbers out of 70, followed by 1 number out of 25. The probability of such a feat can be calculated using the formula n! / (r! (n — r)!), where n represents the numbers in the set, r signifies how many numbers you choose, and in this case, n2 stands for the second set, which is 25.

Applying this formula, we arrive at the odds of 1 in 302,575,350 for a single winning combination. Daunting as it may seem, someone ultimately wins, making it tempting to buy more tickets, hoping for that life-changing moment.

Or 302,575,350 to 50!

Mega Millions is drawn twice a week and a single ticket is $2, meaning if you played each drawing once, you would spend $4 per week. Suppose you decided to buy every combination of numbers in the game, starting with 01, 02, 03, 04, 05 and 01. It would mean you would buy every combination 151,287,675 weeks from now.

Or, in other words, you would finish in the year 2,911,399, when it will currently be an open question as to whether humanity as a whole survives that long. And since every drawing resets the combinations, you would have the same number of odds of winning that jackpot as the first one you played. Even spending $400 a week on tickets (100 tickets each drawing), you wouldn’t have purchased all the combinations until 31,114.

I created a little calculator for the odds of winning the lottery, and you can input your own values based on other lottery games, and we even give you some numbers to pick!

Lottery Number Generator

Lottery Number Generator

Enter the details for the lottery drawing:




Generated Lottery Numbers

Odds of Winning

At least as compared with Mega Millions, and indeed most lotteries, these odds are bad, and yet if we were to convert them to years, it actually pretty well parallels how lucky we are with our abundance of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, are formed over millions of years from the remains of ancient organic materials. It's a slow and intricate process of carbon sequestration deep within the Earth.

Remarkably, we have tapped into this vast reservoir of energy in a relatively short span of time. Over the past roughly 200 years, we have unlocked the power of fossil fuels and utilized them to fuel our industrial revolution, advancements, and modern way of life.

This abundance has led to what Dr. Nate Hagens has referred to as "energy-blindness".

Image by David Shand via BioEd Online

However, it is essential to recognize that our dependence on fossil fuels and the pursuit of perpetual growth is based on a fallacy. We are trying to sustain exponential growth on a finite planet. The resources and capacity of Earth are limited, and there is no viable alternative within reach. Even in the best-case scenarios, finding another Earth-like planet capable of sustaining life is a distant prospect, many light-years away. The idea that we are going to become a trans-planetary species is many thousands of years away at best, which means we as humans are going to have to, one way or another, live within the limits of the planet.

I don't see this as impossible, and I believe in the ingenuity of humanity to come up to novel solutions to crises; however, the idea of exponential growth continuing on for even another hundred years does not seem feasible within our planetary boundaries. It's not a bad idea to learn to live with less, in fact, it may save us in the end. To continue the lottery metaphor, about 7 in 10 lottery winners go broke not long after their winnings.

It's not like our government and society as a whole have a problem with excessive spending, risky investments and poor money management though, right?

The Jevons paradox, much like the fate of lottery winners who squander their wealth, highlights a curious pattern in human behavior. Just as sudden riches can lead to financial downfall, energy breakthroughs often result in increased energy consumption, like coal during the Industrial Revolution. This paradox underscores the need for a more comprehensive approach, emphasizing that addressing issues like energy usage or financial management requires careful consideration and thoughtful strategies for sustainability, lest we destroy this wonderful bounty and our home in the process.

The Jevons paradox also finds resonance in the financial challenges faced by Detroit's auto industry. Over the years, the industry achieved significant productivity gains and cost efficiencies, allowing it to thrive. However, these achievements inadvertently led to increased competition and overproduction, driving down prices and profit margins. As the industry expanded its production capabilities and invested in advanced technologies, the need for capital and resources grew exponentially. This reliance on continued growth and unsustainable financial practices eventually strained the industry's finances, contributing to Detroit's bankruptcy.

The Jevons paradox also bears resemblance to the approach of trying to solve traffic congestion by building more lanes of roadway. While expanding road infrastructure is often seen as a logical solution to alleviate traffic, it can paradoxically lead to increased congestion in the long run. As new lanes are added, it initially eases traffic flow, encouraging more people to use their cars and resulting in a surge in overall vehicle volume. This phenomenon, known as induced demand, ultimately offsets the initial benefits of increased road capacity.

Just one more lane ought to fix this..!

And finally we come to renewable energy, and why while I'm optimistic about our ability to sustain ourselves, infinite growth should not be the goal of renewables. While transitioning to renewable energy is essential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change, there is a potential for the Jevons paradox to manifest. As renewable energy technologies become more efficient and cost-effective, the demand for energy, clean and otherwise, will increase as a result. This could be driven by a combination of factors, including population growth, economic expansion, and the development of energy-intensive industries. The paradox highlights the importance of holistic approaches to sustainable energy transitions, such as promoting energy conservation, implementing energy-efficient practices, and adopting a diversified energy portfolio that combines renewable sources with responsible energy management.

You can thank the International House of ZZYZX for the thoughts of the lottery parallel to our current climate situation two decades ago, as it was one of numerous "roadgeek" websites I visited before I understood about how induced demand and maintenance we can't pay for changed the way I think about our highway system.

As a climate historian, it is evident that our reliance on fossil fuels is akin to winning a grand jackpot. However, the real prize lies not in exploiting this bounty recklessly but in recognizing the fallacy of infinite growth and the urgency to transition to sustainable alternatives. We must acknowledge the limitations of our planet and strive to protect and preserve it for future generations. The pursuit of sustainable practices and renewable energy sources is vital to ensure a secure and habitable Earth. Let us embrace this historical perspective and collectively work towards a more sustainable and responsible future.

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