The Low Energy Trap

I recently read Joseph Tainter’s outstanding book “The Collapse of Complex Civilizations,” which I recommend. It should be required reading for all politicians. Tainter’s theory is one of diminishing returns to bureaucracy, which we are clearly experiencing across many societies today. He also proposes one historic escape mechanism from such a collapse: a big energy unlock. We had a shot at that in the 1960s when we started building nuclear power plants, but then starting in the 1980s we instead chose to focus on energy efficiency. That has us now caught in a low energy trap.

It is extraordinary to see energy prices spiking in many parts of the world at the same time. Yes, there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And we are experiencing a big heat wave as part of the accelerating climate crisis. But these are ultimately just excuses. We should have built an energy system with so much capacity that these events would just be blips that barely go noticed. Instead we are facing brownouts and blackouts and prices at ruinous levels for individuals and companies.

Degrowth advocates would have you believe that the answer is less. Less consumption. Less production. Less energy. I suppose that all of that is fine if you want to go backwards. If you advocate for that you should be required to spell out what human carrying capacity you believe is sustainable under degrowth, because it certainly isn’t 8 billion people. If a degrowth advocate (Read more...)