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New Water Math: Efficiency 2.0 = Sufficiency 1.0 (Part 2)

Posted on July 19, 2012

William Stanley Jevons.

For all the sexiness surrounding it, “efficiency” is a relative term. It speaks to the relationship between an input and an output. The input could be money, time, energy, water, and a host of other things. The output usually links to some sort of economic good, a product, service or effort. Since efficiency cannot stand alone, it is subject to the changing music of its dance partner—more efficient than what?

In the emerging blue economy, the idea of water efficiency is gaining traction. Tools like life-cycle assessment, embedded water, and water footprinting are all giving credence to the idea that using less water to meet our growing demand for food, energy, and other goods and services is not only possible, but is actually happening. This is a good thing. But is it sufficient?

Sufficiency, on the other hand, quite simply means to meet one’s needs. It is absolute. Unwavering.

Indeed, experts of varying stripes are beginning to question the “sufficiency of efficiency.” The Jevons paradox, despite its nineteenth-century origins, remains a relevant theory in the blue economy of the twenty-first century. The more efficient we become (at manufacturing, producing, doing, et cetera), the more we do it, consuming ever more resources in the process.

To truly become a global water leader, and reap all the blue brand benefits, Canada needs to balance both. Becoming more water efficient makes for good corporate strategy. But seeking water sufficiency is a survival strategy. As we pursue growth and innovation, our leaders—political, industrial, and civic—must also ensure that watersheds are plenty, rivers are flowing and our natural systems are healthy. These systems in turn will feed us, clothe us, fuel us, cool us. We know this, but do we act like we know it?

It turns out that adding sufficiency to our lexicon of innovation can produce social co-benefits.

“Sufficiency begins as a simple idea and, under certain conditions, especially ecological constraint, can lead to major social organizing principles, ones that rival, indeed, compete with cooperation and efficiency,” says Thomas Princen, professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan. (See more here.)

Building our blue future is an ambitious endeavour, and finding efficiencies en route, like the ones described by Princen, increases our chances of success.

RELATED: New Water Math: Technology + Policy = Ecology (Part 1)

Anthony M. Watanabe is the founding CEO of the Innovolve Group, the company behind the annual Canadian Water Summit. This guest column is part of Building Our Blue Future, a monthly web series that narrates Canada’s water story as it happens.

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