You're thinking about the energy transition the wrong way

You're thinking about the energy transition the wrong way
Photo by Jason Mavrommatis / Unsplash

Last time that the engines of container-ships got much more efficient, it was hailed as great news: after all, it would cause less pollution.

I tried to argue that it is actually bad news: it would only result in even more shipping-volumes, because the owner can ship more stuff, but still at the same cost. But no-one really wants to hear about Jevons' paradox.

Well, you're in for a deep dive.

It's not capitalism!

How did we get in the poly-crisis? Not because of 'capitalism'. Capitalism an Sich is great. Nature uses capitalism all the time. Capitalism has served us well from its inception, providing a high level of living-standard.

We got here because capitalism became too efficient. Way too efficient. So instead of hailing efficiency-gains for efficiencies sake, we should assess them on systemic effects instead.

'Efficiency' in itself is not bad, of course, but excessive, ubiquitous efficiency at its current level is bad. So again: 'capitalism' an Sich is not evil, but excessively efficient capitalism is evil. Monopolistic, oligopolistic capitalism is bad.


Resilience in complex systems is based on sweet-spots, or sweet bandwidths. It is about the right amount of capitalism, the right amount of efficiency, that matters. And even those are not 'fixed' or absolute, but always relative to the rest of the state of the system. Just like your blood-sugar level has a sweet bandwidth, and your cholesterol-level, and all those other metabolic aspects as well. Even healthy water will kill you, at excessive levels.

It is really a problem that many are still framing 'capitalism' as 'bad'. That statement is oversimplifying so much that it becomes absolutely useless. It is thinking about it in exactly the wrong way. To think properly about a system like the economy (etc) requires thinking in contextual sweet bandwidths.

I'm really serious about this. Stating that 'capitalism is bad' is something that only politicians should do; it is framing. It does not help at all in solving the problem. It does not even help in thinking about the problem. It is really the opposite of thinking about the problem. So if one wants to have a proper discussion about the poly-crisis, one should do not ever make a statement about 'capitalism being bad'.

Instead, one should talk about 'capitalism gone rogue', or 'hyper-efficient capitalism', or even 'too much capitalism'. One should stress that it is outside a 'healthy level'. Make it contextual. If somebody wants to do political framing, great. But if one wants to have a proper discussion, one should NOT EVER make the statement that 'capitalism is bad'. It is not proper systems thinking phrasing. Contextual phrasing is like: 'nature found a sweetspot of capitalism, human capitalism has gone rogue'. Help others in phrasing it correctly, instead of framing it politically. And please tell me, if I still fall for it. These things just really tend to get political and that is why it is important to be obnoxious about it.

Hosting systems

Which brings me back to 'efficiency'. As explained in earlier pieces, I would argue that our current globalized technologically driven, economic system has become WAAAYYY too efficient, with respect to its hosting social system and its hosting ecosystem.

The hosting social system and the hosting ecosystem CANNOT KEEP UP with the current level of hyper-efficiency of the globalized economic system. Social inequality is a function of this efficiency: the more efficient the economic system, the more social inequality will increase. And the more efficient the economic system, the more environmental pollution and land-degradation etc it will cause.

As avid readers already know, my assessment is that it has become hyper-efficient, and that this is thanks to the excessively high level of infrastructural complexity: synthetic financial markets, logistic supply-chains and production-capacity etc etc have gone through the roof.

The ultimate, fundamental fix for the poly-crisis is, therefore, obviously, a substantial reduction of this complexity. I would argue that this is the only fix.

It's even worse

From a non-linearity perspective things are even worse. The optimization process of the economic system has its own inertia: if we 'add' complexity to the system (by adding a new synthetic market, or some new technology), the system does not instantly optimize on it, but it takes time to find a higher optimum. These are gradually, non-linearly settling processes.

So, if we agree that, in the last few decades, a huge amount of complexity has been added to the system, there is arguably still a huge amount of space for optimization available left for the system, to populate.

That means that if we would stop adding complexity today, or even succeed in reducing complexity, the system would still become more efficient, for some duration, before its efficiency would saturate and start to retreat.

Let that sink in.

And now the energy aspect

So WHY does the system become more efficient? Because it is the most likely direction, given that it wants to dissipate the amount of energy-supply as efficiently as possible.

If the economy encounters a state in which it can dissipate its energy more efficiently, it will require a huge effort to get the system out of that state again. E.g. if we put an AI-agent on every smartphone which allows the system to burn more energy in aggregate, then it is really hard to de-proliferate again. It is easier to increase the number of lanes on a highway, than to decrease them. It is easier to register more datapoints, than to determine which datapoints are actually obsolete. Etc etc etc.

The hermeneutic

So, to recap:

Given the current amount of energy surplus (cheap, ubiquitous energy availability) and the excessive proliferation of infrastructural complexity, the system has lots of space available to increase its efficiency, way above the sweetspot-bandwith for its hosting social and ecological systems to keep up with.

Given this hermeneutic, the energy-transition can be qualified as:

  • increasing infrastructural complexity (without reduction elsewhere) even more, and
  • adding to (or at least maintaining) current levels of excessive energy surplus

both of which are at the root cause of current excessive evil efficiency!!

Let that sink in.

Mind the difference between framing and correct phrasing, and let me be absolutely clear: of course I am not anti-renewables; I believe 100% that we have a problem with our current fossil fuel use.

But I do 100% not believe that renewables are going to fix this problem. That is because fossil fuels are not the ACTUAL problem:

The actual problem is our current level of excess energy surplus and the way our proliferation of infrastructural complexity (technology, markets, etc) has allowed the economic system to shape towards the current state of excessive level of efficiency.

(Mathematically phrased: we have expanded the state-space for efficiency too much.)

Today, the hosting social - and ecological system can NEVER catch up with the current excessive level of economic systemic efficiency, whether we use fossil fuels or renewables!

So I would rather start thinking about how to properly start reducing complexity towards its happy bandwidth again, before either economic efficiency reaches more devastating levels, or we run out of fossil fuels.