Last bit (for now, I think) on Energy’s centrality and specialness

[Shalizian Attention Conservation Notice: Some 1000+ words wherein I realize halfway through a major source of the dispute/confusion, at least on my part. After some wheel-spinning I ponder the semi-Clintonian idea of Energy vs. “energy” and re-derive the fact that economics and biophysical reality are promiscuously overlapping magesteria, but are certainly not wholly congruent magesteria.]

I think part of the difference of opinion/analysis I’m having with eminent economist John Quiggin on whether or not energy is “special” or any more or less essential than other commodities is to do with context. From a biophysical standpoint, energy is absolutely and unequivocally “different” than everything else. It is a fundamental shaping force in evolution, and a fundamental coin of the way our universe (and on a smaller scale, ecosystems) runs. So of course it is a total non sequitur to say energy is no more essential or special than anything else in a biophysical sense; it’s like comparing apples and…  everything that an apple is made of.

The question Quggin has been addressing since the start is a different one–not “is energy a linchpin of how reality works” but rather “is energy a linchpin of how the economy works.”  In that case, it depends on what the definition of “is” is, so to speak–that is, the context is king in that question.  Quiggin says “The second [consideration] is whether, under current economic and social conditions, energy (electricity, gasoline etc) is more economically essential than other goods and services.”* In Quiggin’s thought experiment to show that energy is not special he cuts [his] energy use in half, and says that would be easier than cutting many other things in half (food, water, housing, healthcare).  Well, now we’ve conflated a number of different categories and contexts–but let me try the short, short version of my reaction: at the most this doesn’t show energy isn’t special, it shows that (economically) it is one of a *class* of special commodities. Food and water are perhaps the “most special” commodities in terms of human survival (though economically they are often not treated as such). But acquiring food OR water (or anything) requires energy; energy is special biophysically, but whether this is accounted for economically is a different question. So to some extent, I concede his point that economically, energy is, in certain circumstances, treatable as Just Another Commodity.

But from my point of view, looking on ecological and evolutionary time scales, energy is of course fundamental in that it is a major driving force in the shape of ecosystems and economies. Whether it is treatable in his household (or in our economy as a whole) as an easier thing to decrease by 50% is actually a question, to some extent, of the conceptualization of energy in the economy rather than energy per se.

Ok. Wait. Brainflash.

It occurs to me that Quiggin is not talking about reducing his energy use by 50%; he’s talking about reducing *his use of the conceptual commodity form of energy* by 50%. That is, not energy per se but the forms of goods we consider energy. What does that mean? Going back to my evocation of Clinton (“what the meaning of ‘is’ is”), if we define energy only as the commoditized forms of energy, then we see how we may treat it as identical within certain domains. However, if we’re thinking of *energy*, Quiggin did not identify how he’d cut his use of insolation (sunshine) in half (and its resultant maintenance of livable ambient temperatures and atmospheric energy, not to mention its non-commodified countereffect on SAD), or his use of geothermal energy in half (geothermal flux is apparently ~1/10,000 the energy intensity/fluence of insolation, but has important effects on ocean activity and therefore additional indirect effects on the basic functioning of the world’s life-supporting character), or cutting his use of the energy of the Earth-Moon tidal system by 50%. This may seem pedantic–of course he’s not talking about the Earth-Moon tidal system, what’s wrong with you [one might ask]? But this is precisely the point–I’m talking about Energy, the fundamental biophysical concept, and he’s talking about “energy”, the use, exchange and flow of particular forms of energy amenable to commodification. The question of how one relates to the other is, I think, a very difficult one to answer. I don’t think commodified energy takes into account all of the important aspects of energy on even a human time scale, but to be sure, it would be of practically no usefulness to spend much time economically worrying about the Earth-Moon tidal system, which should keep humming along far past the expected lifespan of any current biological species. Which is to say, I’m not sure how much of Energy can or should be conceptualized and treated as “energy”.**

Hmm…  Ok. I’m at a loss on how to treat this from here, except to say that clearly a huge part of the problem is trying to figure out where “energy” begins and Energy ends (or vice versa?). I have an intuition that there are elements of Energy that are improperly ignored by economic considerations of “energy”, but I’m not exactly sure what that means for this conversation and how to go about with a conceptualization that would both incorporate all the elements that may be important and is analytically meaningful. I’d say “watch this space”, but frankly, there are other things I need to be getting on about.

Bottom bottom bottom line: I agree we can cut energy use significantly without decreasing quality of life. What all the rest of this means about the specialness of energy or energy’s essentialness to the economy I may leave for the philosophers, or perhaps good friend, energy expert, and NWAEGgie Tom O’Donnell, to figure out.


* (One might note that “energy” is not electricity or gasoline–electricity is one form of energy, and gasoline is an item that may be processed (combusted) such as to create usable energy.  This conflation in how the market treats energy with what energy actually is makes this conversation all the more challenging–and what I later realize and discuss here post-brainflash.)

**(For another example: information is a form of, or at least inherently utilizes, energy. Melanie Mitchell has a nice discussion of this in her excellent book, Complexity: A Guided Tour, focusing on Maxwell’s Demon and Szilard’s critique/solution. Some forms of information-energy that Quiggin, I, or you use each day are at least partially economized–the energy it’s taking me to think and type this is expressed in the power running my laptop, servers on teh interwebz, and the biochemical energy I’ll refill with food shortly. But considering information’s ubiquity in its most basic sense, it seems like there’s a lot of Energy from information that is not accounted for in “energy”.)

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3 Responses to Last bit (for now, I think) on Energy’s centrality and specialness

  1. jstep77 says:

    Wow, Prof. I think it took me a whole five minutes to parse your first paragraph 😉 It seemed pretty obvious from the beginning that both of you were coming at this conversation from two sides of the “Energy vs. energy” debate. And as much as I enjoy esoteric debates about the fundamental nature reality, it seems much more productive to focus the argument on the flaws of relegating energy, even “commoditized” energy to the whims of the free market. There is a lot to unpack in the glib (and trivial) assertion that a reduction in supply will lead to a reduction in demand. That’s Microeconomics 101 (and I should know since I’m currently taking it). I would have expected a much more nuanced response from someone of Quiggin’s stature. It was the level of unconcern to the amount of human suffering that that would entail that bothered me about his post. (Oy, that was a lot of that’s).

  2. AgroEcoProf says:

    Jstep77: I totally agree regarding what would be the most productive to do. I would just add that it does bear further reflection on HOW to better incorporate more *Energy* into thoughts about “energy”, both within and beyond the context of commoditization. (My current pet peeve is the idea of making more food when we throw so much away; the energy lost to entropy in making food in the first place means it should be almost always more efficient to better use what we have, rather than make more and throw away equal or more.) But how to think about other forms of *Energy* and how to treat “energy” more carefully than leaving it to the market alone are indeed key.

    I don’t think JQ is unconcerned about human suffering, but I do feel in defending his point, he’s implicitly accepted a lot of it.

  3. jstep77 says:

    No, I don’t think that he is unconcerned either. I rather enjoy his blog, in fact. I’ve bookmarked it even (because clearly I need even more reading material!) However, the more I learn about economic theory the less impressed I am by those types of arguments. I find the language to be very distancing and it’s easy to forget that there are actual human beings whose lives can be destroyed in the fluctuations of the supply and demand curve. I think “it’s complicated” has become my new mantra *sigh*

    I agree with you in regards to increasing our food production. Although, honestly, I’ve never thought about it in terms of entropy before. I wonder if that angle would be compelling to the type of people that equate a more equal distribution in the food supply with wealth re-distribution.

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