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Energy for complexity: big government vs big business – it doesn’t really matter which you hate

The economic struggles since mid-2008 are bringing out factions that highlight both the uncertainty of the future together with ignorance of how the past has led us to where we are today. In the US, we have the conservative “Tea Party” movement of the right that is complaining about excessive government spending and the liberal “anti-banking” faction on the left that is fed up with the fat cats on Wall Street skimming too much off the top. Both sides are correct in coming to grips with the fact that large organizations and bureaucracies (e.g. government and banks) are having a harder time coping with the current economic and social problems of today.

What has unfortunately been quite absent from most of the political discussions about how to get the economy “back on track” is the true role of energy resources and technologies. With all of the talk in the United States about the need to “connect the dots” for the “War on Terrorism”, what we really need to do is accept the way the energy and economic dots are connected in our modern industrial society.

By taking the following factors into account and enhancing our knowledge of how we can and cannot affect these indicators, we will “connect the dots” on our future as well as possible:

  • (1) Jevon’s Paradox states that increased efficiency in the use of resources (in this case energy resources) through the use of technology and structural change increases total resource consumption.
  • (a) Policy point: if we target increasing efficiency, we can expect to only delay environmental problems.
  • (2) The energy return on energy invested (EROI) for the combination of energy resources, renewable and fossil, together with technology that converts those resources into services dictates the level of complexity attainable by society.
  • (a) Policy point: society seems to have reached a level of complexity in the last 1–3 decades such that:
  • (3) The EROI of energy services has been extremely high with the use of fossil fuels, and EROI will eventually come to a value such that it is equal for fossil and renewable resources. That time of EROI equality will mark a turning point in human civilization.
  • (4) The human species has now grown in size that it is capable of affecting the environment on a global scale as opposed to only very localized impacts before the industrial revolution.

The connecting of the dots goes as follows:

  • (1) Humans organized into agrarian societies, and this was beneficial because it raised the EROI from farming, where the energy produced in this case was that energy embodied in food, not primary energy for operating machinery. The invention of tools and use of beasts of burden (horses, oxen, etc.) also enhanced human EROI (i.e. the amount of human energy required to grow food for human consumption).
  • (2) The discovery of fossil fuels and subsequent technological change to enable further exploitation of fossil fuels led to the industrial revolution and the capabilities of production and economy in our present industrialized society.
  • (3) Resource constraints via any combination of technical, physical, economic, and political factors act as a driver to increase efficiency in the use of energy resources, but there are thermodynamic limits.
  • (a) For example, the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s drove up the price of oil which in turn drove the US and Europe to increase fuel efficiency of vehicles to get the same service (move passenger and cargo from point A to point B) with less fuel, or energy. Subsequently, energy efficiency increased since the 1970s but the rate of consumption of energy changed from exponential growth to linear growth, and economic growth also slowed compared to the previous post World War II rates for the US.
  • (4) Today the rate of technological change in terms of increased energy efficiency and high EROI has not increased at the same rate as needed to enable economic growth equal to the pre-2000 years and subsequently the top of the economic food chain has decided to hoard recent profits at the expense of distributing those profits to the middle and lower classes. This is evidenced by the increased income gap between the top and the bottom.
  • (5) The inherently lower EROI of renewable resources will not enable the same level of economic production and societal complexity as provided by higher EROI fossil fuels. This is because renewable technologies are based upon current flows of energy (e.g. sunlight, wind, waves), as compared to fossil fuels which are based upon stocks of energy stored over hundreds of millions of years.

To contemplate the final point above, consider that Earth stored the renewable energy of the Sun (in the form of biomass) on the order of 100 million years, and now we are consuming this energy on the order of hundreds of years. What humans learn and choose to practice during this century will dictate the type of societies that are even possible after peak fossil-fuel production.

About Carey King

Dr. Carey W King performs interdisciplinary research related to how energy systems interact within the economy and environment as well as how our policy and social systems can make decisions and tradeoffs among these often competing factors. The past performance of our energy systems is no guarantee of future returns, yet we must understand the development of past energy systems. Carey’s research goals center on rigorous interpretations of the past to determine the most probable future energy pathways. Carey is a Research Scientist and Assistant Director at the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, and appointed also at the the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy within the Jackson School of Geosciences and Business, Government, and Society Department of the McCombs School of Business. Visit his website at: and follow on Twitter @CareyWKing
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  1. Jevons paradox is an accurate observation of our history, but it is not a physical law. It is only valid with the context of a system that values economic growth as the primary goal.

  2. Whether opponent of IFRS convergence or not, the global impact are indeed world-wide, whenever the SEC speaks.
    I enjoy frequently visiting your site and appreciate the information, despite not always agreeing with some things.
    Is the subject of US GAAP to IFRS convergence something you plan on convering in detail via a toe to toe?

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