The economic view of systemic efficiency: rebound and backfire—Jevons’ legacy

As I stoke the boilers here at Beyond this Brief Anomaly after another (much) longer-than-anticipated intermission, it’s worth checking in on what this project has been all about to date. In a nutshell: I’ve attempted to make some modest in-roads into improving how we make sense of energy-related concepts, given the central role that I see for these in coordinating social action as we seek ways of living well together in the face of the increasingly urgent socio-ecological dilemmas confronting humanity. And in doing this, I’m drawing on principles from the field of inquiry known as systems thinking, or simply systems. If I were to try capturing what this means in essence, it would be along the lines of “considering the situations in which we’re interested as comprehensively as we’re able, by paying attention to their encompassing contexts.” The approach I’m taking extends this question of context to include considerations around cognition, language and meaning. Put simply, this implies treating the energy-related concepts that the inquiry deals with as sense-making “tools” and “artefacts” constructed by us. As such, they constitute important and influential parts of our shared culture. With them and through them, we bring our circumstances into being. What this implies is that the quality and coherence of our conceptual spaces “in here” affects the nature of our physical, social, economic, political etc. conditions “out there”. Attending to this “interior dimension” can have profound implications for the quality of the worlds that we bring about through the actions we engage in together. Continue reading

Introducing efficiency: the energy costs of energy supply and use

In an earlier series of posts (Fueling an industrial world and Energy and the biophysical view of economic activity: from joules to fuels) I pointed out how aggregating energy sources on the basis of their nominal heating values—as is common practice for our most prominent and influential energy information agencies at national and international scale—tends to obscure the dependencies between concrete economic infrastructure and the specific forms that energy sources take in practice. The aggregation process involves taking a highly abstract view of energy sources—a view that highlights only one narrow parameter, at the expense of most of what is important for appreciating how our physical economy functions. One of the most critical areas of omission relates to the energy costs of energy supply and use. Continue reading

Driving in circles: road building and causal thinking

Way back in September last year, I concluded the post prior to Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s rather longer than expected hiatus by using a very simple example to illustrate the distinction between the way that causality is conventionally understood, and how it tends to be appreciated within systemic thinking. I’ll now round out that discussion by extending the ideas explored there to a real-world “problematical situation”, in order to show how our understanding of causality can have very practical implications for the ways that we organise things in the social sphere. Continue reading