“The further we go along the path of business as usual, the more we are lost.”James Lovelock
Most of us now seem to accept the fact that global warming is reality. We all have a vested interest in saying so, whether we believe it or not. We are seen by believers to be eccentric if we deny it.
But how about the fact that the economy is an energy system?
As a teenager in the 1950s, I was totally unaware of the reality of global warming. I first became aware of it in the late 1980s, when I went to Bradford to see an architect friend, John F C Turner, receive a Right Livelihood Reward, “for championing the rights of people to build, manage and sustain their own shelter and communities”.
Until then, I had assumed that the future would be an indefinite continuation of the way things were.
There is now a new emerging reality. That economic output is the product of surplus energy, after the energy cost of energy (ECoE) has been deducted. In other words, the economy is an energy system.
Until recently, around the beginning of this century, this didn’t present us with a problem. The energy cost of producing the energy we use was relatively small. From now on, it will be an increasing problem, albeit not yet recognised as such.
An immediate consequence of our economic system being an energy system, is the fact that prosperity is in decline and has been for a decade.
Declining prosperity means that although our take-home pay may have increased, we can buy less than we used to. We have less disposable income. The powers-that-be are in denial about this and constantly tell us how we are better off.
An expected impact of ECoE is that, in the end, our capitalistic society will not survive as such. Which is not a political statement. It is a future reality in a world which until now has depended on economic growth, albeit recently funded by borrowing.
Borrowing which assumed that debts will be repaid, from the proceeds of growth. But if prosperity is in decline there can be no growth. So, there can be no repayment of debts, which means there will be no borrowing.
Our economy is changing now. From growth to no-growth. Which means that everything is changing.
No-growth is now the way things are. Beneath our noses, our economic and social systems are changing. New ways are emerging, yet to be recognised as such.
There are some symptoms. In the UK declining public services can be attributed to the emerging new ways, albeit obscured by demographic trends.
Classical economists are unlikely to see the energy view of economics as reality. Their vested interest is in their kind of economics. Which is also true of the establishment, which understandably, is in a state of denial.
This is not to suggest that the energy view of economics has replaced the classical view. The two views exist alongside each other. Only one is real.
No amount of reasoned argument can yet convince the establishment – the government, commerce, public services administrators, academics the media and the professions – of this reality. To do so they would have to abandon their mindsets and put their jobs at risk. So, understandably they are in denial.
There is nothing wrong with being in denial, for the time being. Everyone must look after their self-interests until it becomes OK to openly accept that the economy is an energy system. But we should bear in mind that it is said that ‘he who hesitates is lost’.
For the time being, we will run with the herd – with our vested interests embedded in the traditional view of economics.
Think back to the days just before the reality of global warming became generally accepted by thinking people. That is where we are now with this new understanding of economics.
As a contributor to this think-tank, this gives me a problem. Am I a voice in the wilderness, because no-one likes the notion of surplus energy economics? Or is this something which an increasing number of people see as a possible explanation, but are unwilling to say so?
Maybe the first step should be to admit that is possible. And then think about it. So that, when the time comes, we will be ready to join in discussion about how to plan for it,
Hopefully, my grass-roots meanderings around the subject will help to open up discussion about this new reality.
Dominic Elson says
You are likely to remain a voice in the wilderness if you don’t provide some links to sources in your articles. This ‘ECoE’ stuff is new to me, but your article does not explain the concept, nor tells me where to go to find out more.
Barry Cooper says
Please see https://radixuk.org/re-imagining-our-societies-2-energy-prosperity-and-government/ published on this website earlier this year. I will try and remember in future to provide links to things like this – sorry!
Stephen Gwynne says
You are not alone Barry.
Britain must start adapting in ways which takes the risks of economic, climate, environmental and ecological disruptions seriously, of which surplus energy economics is a part. This means adapting to sufficiency and cooperation as the two main priorities of transforming our communities and societies towards quality of life metrics rather than quantity of life metrics.
At the very heart of an adaptation strategy should be the insight that European and Global security cannot be achieved with national security. This means national security within European security within Global security and one which recognises that frictionless free trade increases both energy and materials consumption and emissions.
Progress in this respect should mean the non-material development of individuals, communities and societies towards a stabilisation of energy and materials consumption with a view of producing long life products with built in recyclable hardware.
The alternative is ever increasing competition and conflict as cheap Nature is depleted and slowly but surely replaced with expensive Nature.
With regards this growing awareness of life and the economy as an energy system, on one side of the radical centre is the primary goal of achieving human social justice and a fair allocation of energy and materials to pursue happiness or the good life. On the other side of the radical centre is the primary goal of achieving ecological justice which not only gives intrinsic respect to the right of life to all planetary life but ensures ecological security regarding ecosystem services and the biodiversity which maintains the health of these services.
In other words, we need to protect our ecological means of survival and protect our social means of survival by reorientating and adapting our economies towards enjoyment of life rather than the exploitation of life and towards an acknowledgement of limits rather than the denial of limits.
Barry Cooper says
Many thanks Stephen. But ….. how to get there? I suspect that by the time the essential need for change is recognised, it will be too late.
However, James Lovelock’s latest book, published on his 100th birthday, suggests how things will turn out. A bit different from what we have imagined so far!
Stephen Gwynne says
By leaving the EU, we are already on our way. Many working class folk I know are well aware of the need to create sufficiency systems including the facilitation of back to land ways of life.
Through democracy and sufficient levels of national autonomy, we can start building up national ecological consciousness and the need to adapt for a disruptive future.
Transhumanism and the deployment of AI will no doubt require humans being saved from themselves if destruction as usual persists. This may also mean the extermination or enslavement of humanity, especially if humans can be recycled for organic AI.
Barry Cooper says
I do so hope you are right, Stephen. In cities such as Birmingham? I haven’t been there for some years. Are the gardens of the former white middle class suburbs, such as Handsworth Wood, now being used to grow food? Or are they being crammed with more houses?