About energy&stuff - how to safely make it through the 21st century
After 10 years of mostly scientific work on understanding our human ecosystem, energy&stuff is IIER's first public outreach project. Given the very negative societal dynamics observed around the world, with hate and blame on the rise, we consider it relevant to instill a sense of reality into the discussion, hopefully supporting a different and more constructive dialogue moving forward.
During the past decade, so many things have changed in our world that it is hard to keep up and make sense of it. Large parts of our societies are affected by uncertainty about the future, by fear, and everything we took for granted in terms of functioning democracies and societies is being questioned by a rapid succession of events. For us at IIER, who have been researching our human ecosystem for the past 10 years, none of this comes as a surprise: we see the growing uncertainty as a result of more and more people realizing that something is wrong, without the ability to make sense of that gut feeling. The consequence is uncertainty, and the urge to find someone to blame. If we want to preserve what we have accomplished during the 20th century, we have to begin to understand what is going on under the hood.
The road ahead: leading to "the great simplification"
Our research tells a very clear story: we have recently reached the end of the economically luckiest period in human history, which made almost every single one of now 7.4 billion humans richer than any of their ancestors ever were. Unbeknownst to traditional economic theroy and common belief, the key driver behind all this wasn't human prowess and ingenuity, but a treasure trove of easily accessible and usable energy stored for us by geological processes over the course of 500 million years, only to be unearthed and used up by us in the form of oil, coal and natural gas within less than three centuries.
Already now, the energy and other natural resources we extract today are too expensive to keep our complex societies going, but we paper over this by using credit at artificially low interest rates, drawing down those scarce resources further. However, it is only a matter of time until that becomes impossible, and we are forced to scale back our complex world to something we can afford in the long run. The good news: this does not mean that we have to give up on quality of life or live less happy lives, but it definitely means that the richest 1-2 billion humans on our planet have to significantly reduce their energy and resource consumption and embrace a less consumptive future.
Two choices: keep ignoring reality or design a positive future
The choice of most people today is to ignore their gut feeling that something is fundamentally at odds between the perceived and the real future, and keep living their lives as always, while tension between different groups keep building. Another group who understands that we have to change something, hopes that "technology" will somehow help us find a solution that enables a future that is as economically favorable as the past, which unfortunately is highly unlikely.
Our objective: grow the number of people who understand what's going to happen
With this background, the objective of the energy&stuff website is straightforward. We want to make a solid case about the limits and opportunities of our future, based on scientific facts that don't ignore part of the picture. We want as many people as possible to understand that there isn't really anyone to blame for the problems we are facing, that there likely isn't a "way out", and that we can shape a positive reality within this environment.
Three key objectives
Here is some guidance for first time visitors. energy&stuff has thee main objectives:
- Make the scientific case that we are entering a period where energy and natural resource limits become relevant again, and that this leads to a smaller economy, no matter if we keep using more fossil fuels or rapidly switch to renewable energy sources;
- Explain how this will affect our lives and create a positive sense around a less consumptive lifestyle;
- Help start a societal dialogue around how we want to shape a realistic future without resorting to fight, hate and blame.
Ultimately, we want to give our readers all the information required to understand the world we live in, with the hope that it helps them make good decisions about the future. We also hope that readers of our site will actively contribute to the urgently needed societal dialogue about that future.
Start with the basics
The easiest way to get an initial understanding is our Cover Story, it summarizes the developments of the 20th and 21st century in a way that provides a good overview and directional information on the way forward. You won't find the entire proof of our case in there to keep it simple, but many links to additional articles that provide further background and references supporting our case. This story is also available as an audiobook, and it comes with animated videos to explain things further.
Understand energy limits and their effect on human ingenuity
The many background stories we are going to add to our site over the next couple of weeks will make a number of cases: first and foremost one about our energy future: the biggest misconception that stops us from thinking about an economically and societally different setup is that we keep convincing ourselves that human ingenuity will find energy sources or efficiency gains with benefits similar to those of the fossil fuels that powered the once-in-a-species' lifetime success story of the 20th century. There is sufficient scientific evidence that this is highly unlikely, no matter if we keep operatiog on more complex-to-retrieve fossil fuels or try to switch (back) to renewable current solar power, it always means a smaller economic footprint for advanced economies.
Connect energy and resource limits with economics
Then, there is the economic situation. We need to understand that economies are currently operating on borrowed time. With rapidly expanding debt levels at record-low interest rates, we are funding the use of even more scarce resources. We build even more infrastructure and consume even more. This provides short-term GDP growth that doesn't reach the majority of people, while at the same time it reduces the quantity of economically available natural resources at a faster rate. On top of that, it destroys more people's incomes: if finance is almost free to build a robot, human labor becomes relatively more expensive.
Relate our story to human behavior
And last, we look at the human behavioral dynamics at work. We explain why we are poised to consume, even though there is enough evidence that "less" often is "more" when it comes to resource use. We show how we are currently at risk of ripping societies apart due to the conflicts emerging in the transition to a different future, and we try to show alternative pathways that can help societies stick together and find solutions for the future.
Please help change our trajectory
Please help us make this work, humanity has only one go at the upcoming transition. Today, we still have enough resources, technology and bright humans to work out the right way to a benign future, but we are currently looking at the wrong game plan. What we need most are people who understand, realize that human health, happiness and a livable environment do not require current levels of resource consumption. Those people need to meet each other, grow in numbers, and change the world.
And: please ask us questions, share our website, or support our work with a donation. Thank you.