Why is prosperity so elusive? It may have something to do with ‘surplus energy’


It is a truth universally acknowledged that any new political age, or groundbreaking political movement, must be in want of an economic theory.

And not just the new age either. We are all in need of some explanation why rebooting the economy seems like wading through treacle these days. Whether you reflate like Japan or deflate like the UK, the result seems to be much the same. Why?

Welcome to the world of Surplus Energy Economics. It is an idea with its origins in various places, but specifically, a researcher called Tim Morgan. You can read his blog about it here (thank you, Barry, for pointing it out to me!)

Like the ‘peak oil’ theory, it assumes that the basis of wealth in the global economy is now energy – that money depends on energy and not the other way around. Unlike the peak oil, it tracks not the amount of oil produced but the amount of energy required to generate or extract a given amount of energy – the so-called ‘surplus’.

Because this surplus, which may well be the basis of so much of our prosperity, has been shrinking slowly but inexorably since about 2000. It now requires almost as much energy to extract the oil, or generate the nuclear electricity, as you can produce. And there, according to Morgan, you have the explanation for the sluggishness of the so-called recovery.

Morgan and his associates have developed SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) which is able to make predictions about the economy, and they seem to stand up. As he says:

“Some of the consequences of waning prosperity have already become apparent, most notably in politics, where events such as “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump were wholly predictable on the basis of adverse trends in prosperity. Some other logical consequences, in business and finance as well as in politics, are eminently predictable, even though they still lie in the future…”

This is a theory that remains unconventional. It is also somewhat depressing, since it predicts waning prosperity without any clear idea about what can be done about it, except – presumably – to hurtle into the solar age, and use the energy there to keep manufacturing. But it does provide a challenge a radical centre to develop solutions that have some chance of keeping civilised values intact during the great downturn we are now living through.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    Very interesting. Seems like real growth is becoming an illusion. I’ve recently been looking at economic degrowth in order to achieve an ecocentric society and the below might have some interesting ideas for you.

    The starting point is how to transform from anthropocentism to ecocentrism which means economic degrowth and population degrowth.

    I myself find it incredibly hard to begin even thinking about what an ecocentric world would look like beyond reduced consumption and reduced population let alone thinking about the linkages between ending landscaping and rewilding grain plantations for example.

    Mainly because if certain technologies are to be considered permissible from an ecocentric perspective, then automatically supply chains, production chains and resource chains need to be considered as well. The question then becomes what is the minimum required supply, production, resource chains that are required to supply minimal technology. If electricity is needed to supply these various chains then we have alot of goods that need to travel and alot of people that need to be fed. So ending landscaping on which roads considering that some roads will still. be busier than others even in an ecocentric world and which grain plantations to rewilding considering that many people will not be able to grow their own food directly since they will be engaged within the supply, production, resource chains required to produce permissible technologies and electricity.

    Beyond that, then the whole system regarding (post) industrial societies need to be completely redesigned with creative destruction democratically deciding should go and what should stay. I say this from a perspective that ecocentrism will be chosen as a democratic choice and so the need for population degrowth and economic degrowth will be de facto assumptions. Obviously housing will need to stay, water systems will need to stay, energy systems will need to stay, agricultural systems will need to stay and so a minimum amount of transportation systems will need to stay. Therefore overall any work that is required to maintain these systems will need to stay.

    The point being is that to transform our over-developed overpopulated societies from anthropocentism to ecocentrism will require creating more and more redundancy within the current system and being able to support those individuals, families and communities if they become redundant in order to maintain a democratic mandate.

    It is in the process of redundancy that the true transformations will start occurring within the ethical framework of sacrifice, generosity, wisdom and compassion. For example people made redundant no longer need to pay mortgages or rent. Food, clothing and energy is provided for free, within reason, or else paid work will be created within the demolition industry as redundant buildings and infrastructure are demolished and its components saved for future reuse where redesigning a space or building to accommodate ecocentrism requires modification or the building of multifunctional low impact buildings to replace the excesses of Victorianism or modernism. In other words an ecocentric world would undergo creative destruction in order to create redundancy within the system. As such monetary transactions will also undergo redundancy as voluntary work slowly but surely replaces it in terms of utilising one’s redundancy for ecocentric goals and objectives. Whether this is ecological enhancement, creating multifunctional low impact housing, growing vegetables or designing and creating new social spaces to share ideas about local community politics and local economic agendas.

    This process of ecocentric redundancy building can therefore be informed by best practice and best knowledge as well as be guided by the ethics of ecocentrism and the principles behind resilience thinking.


  2. Donald says

    Hi David I’ve been following Tim’s website for several years – it’s generated a lot of comments from those who wanted a better understanding of the World economy and the dangers we now face.

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