This paper makes several points about the use of EROI as an indicator of future potential.
First, for comparability it is important to limit comparisons to specific end-use a products, such as gasoline for cars or electricity for the grid, or perhaps hydrogen for fuel cells. Comparisons between different end-uses are very dubious.
Second, it is important to avoid comparing EROIs for fossil fuels stored by geochemical processes in the Earth’s crust vs nuclear power (based on a single element, uranium) vs technologies based on energy directly or indirectly from the sun.
John A. “Skip” Laitner is the first guest contributor whom we are proud to welcome to the important Op-ed section of this site . This section is intended to serve as a tribune for readers and colleagues who are working to develop new ideas and perspectives on the important topics focused on here — Environment, Exergy, Economy and Growth — to share their work, ideas and challenges with our growing network of international readers. We welcome critical discussion and creative disagreement.
Abstract: The universe resembles a heat engine. It does work while cooling and expanding. The work performed is to create differentiable objects and structures, starting with elementary particles, then atoms, molecules, bacteria, plants and animals, humans, social organisms and scientific papers. The differentiation mechanism is called “symmetry-breaking. The selection mechanism – survival of the fittest, is familiar.
The evolutionary process before humans can be regarded as an accumulation of natural wealth. Humans have learned to exploit (and destroy) natural wealth in order to create “new” wealth. Can the new wealth, based on knowledge, compensate for the wealth destruction in order to ensure long term survival? Or are we on a suicidal path?
This article, never published, was based on a talk given to the Swedish society for Future studies, in 2005. On re-reading it 11 years later, I have little to change or add, with one exception. In that same year, a book entitled The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil (a well-known denizen of Silicon Valley) was published. It’s thesis was that progress in computer technology had reached the point where artificial intelligence (AI) can be applied to its own development. Kurzweil suggests that this would lead to a hyper-exponential rate of progress resulting in a computer-based “super-intelligence capable of controlling human evolution or surpassing it.
The essay below is a short version of the main thesis of my new book, entitled “Energy, Complexity and Wealth Maximization”, just published by Springer. It points out the interesting correlation between the expansion and cooling of the universe, and the creation of complexity and diversity. In a fundamental sense, wealth can be characterized as diversity, although the billionaires of Wall Street probably think in terms of money.
But what does money provide if not choices? I venture to think that the ideas discussed here constitute the first baby steps toward a thermodynamic theory of evolution. Even at its full length, the book is hardly a complete theory. There is a lot more to do. But it does suggest that the arrow of time is not necessarily aimed at the cold and the dark.
The United States may not be the most admired country in the world today, as once it was. But the economic decline of the US is still capable of doing much harm outside its borders as well as internally. Part of the underlying problem is an extremely unrepresentative government system of the US. Congress is currently dominated by entrenched special interests – “big money” — that want to preserve the status quo. This reality makes it very difficult for the executive branch to function day-to-day, still less respond creatively to new challenges.
There is a weak economic recovery under way. It is weak because most OECD governments have been persuaded by conservative economists that government debt is now much too high and that government deficits have to be cut by cutting welfare spending. As a direct consequence of austerity policies, unemployment is still too high, especially when under-employment and “drop outs” are taken into account. Youth unemployment is bad in the US, worse in Europe (except Germany) and truly terrible in the Mediterranean countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal). Meanwhile, economic inequality has been growing , most workers (except the top 10 percent) have static or declining incomes, but corporate profits have soared. Corporations, especially the “tech” companies of Silicon Valley, are sitting on vast hoards of money, stashed mostly in off-shore banks to avoid taxes.
Neo-Keynesian economists, like Paul Krugman, have been saying for years that austerity is a bad idea. They advocate more “stimulus” spending, even at the expense of increasing the government deficits. The problem with that approach, of course, is that there is no visible end to it. Bigger deficits would (will) unquestionably increase the government debt burdens still more in the short run. The problem is that it is not clear why or how growth could cut those deficits in the future.
A 15 minute interview of Robert Ayres and Benjamin Warr appearing in the INSEAD Knowledge series posted on 16 September 2009, in which the authors are quizzed on the key findings of their then jut published book, ‘The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity’ (Edward Elgar Publishing).
Click HERE for 15 minute video