Energy and the biophysical view of economic activity: from joules to fuels

The view of humanity’s energy supply and use presented last week painted a picture in the most abstract terms. The aggregate figures discussed there can be viewed as an attempt to describe all significant economic activity by means of a single quantitative measure. Such efforts may well have a familiar tone—in a sense, the data that the IEA provides in energy terms is a physical-world analogue to the financial-world perspective provided by bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—the IEA’s parent inter-governmental body—when it measures global economic activity in terms of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In this sense, we could view the 510 EJ total primary energy supply (TPES), and 350 EJ total final consumption (TFC) in 2009 as the energetic equivalent of saying that in 2009, global aggregate GDP was around US$60 trillion. Continue reading

Foundations for establishing a view

Energy issues occupy an increasingly prominent place in public discourse. I’d hazard a guess that general public awareness of the connections between energy, environment and economics has never been stronger. That these matters have critical implications for humanity’s possible and preferred futures is widely recognised, even if such insight is rather unevenly distributed. Of course, none of this necessarily implies significant action in response—though new instances of individual and collective energy-related activism on scales from the local to the global, seem to arise daily. The rate of institutional, infrastructural and cultural change in response to energy-related challenges may well be unprecedented, regardless of admonitions—from those whose own transformatory metronomes are set to a quicker tempo—that change is too slow.

Yet asked what energy is—what it relates to in a specific sense—most people without some sort of practice-based involvement in the natural or engineering sciences are left scratching their heads. At least, this has tended to be my own experience working with students from non-science backgrounds in a post graduate course in sustainable energy futures—though even people from science and engineering backgrounds often realise that it’s just not a question that they’ve ever really needed to grapple with. In a sense, energy is one of the modern scientific-industrial world’s great givens—a basic building block of contemporary knowledge the nature of which has been sufficiently well dealt with that we can assume there’s nothing to be gained by looking at it more closely. We can leave aside questions of its nature and origin, and focus squarely on the pragmatics of getting by in a world defined and configured in its terms.
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