This reminds me of John Michael Greer's idea of "catabolic collapse". See, in particular, his comments about the 1970s: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2011-01-20/onset-catabolic-collapse/

Expand full comment
Jan 20·edited Jan 20

Sorry, I know I'm late to the party here; only recently discovered this splendid (and more importantly this Wodehouse-referencing...) blog. Hope nobody minds!

[TL;DR: the utility landscape is bloody complicated and whilst it's true that the high peaks represent improving access to resources rather than improving efficiency of resources we already have access to and the troughs represent 'improving-efficiency-only traps', it's far from obvious that the best next step for our particularly civilisation, for where we happen to be on the utility landscape right now, is a resource-improving rather than an efficiency-improving step.]

I'm skeptical of Psmith's criticism of efficiency-improving over resource-improving (whether that resource is energy or anything else); obviously in the long run resource-seeking must win out and efficiency-seeking must stagnate, for all the reasons described, but it's not clear to me that we're at a point in the utility-landscape where *specifically the best next step* is definitely a resource-seeking one rather than an efficiency-seeking one.

Right now, there are obviously gains to be had from both efficiency-improving and resource-improving and even if energy is theoretically unlimited (or limited only at a Kardashev-scale that's so far beyond our needs we may as well call it unlimited) it *is* limited in the practical sense that we don't have the political, social, and to a lesser extent technological, mechanisms to extract vastly more of it right this moment, whereas there are efficiency-improvements currently being implemented successfully: so, whilst we structure society, develop technology, etc. to extract more energy, why should we eschew the available efficiency gains owing to the abstract principle that resource-improving is better.

Steam engines only took over from water wheels after a period of development and refinement (made possible in part by their synergy with waterlogged coal mines, as Psmith fascinatingly relates); the technology (and the social gumption) to improve our energy resource extraction appears to need a similar period of development and refinement (and if you can measure this in terms of eg. trends in the cost-across-time of offshore wind or whatever, we do appear to be progressing through this necessary period of refinement). However - we need to make changes to our energy usage *now*, if we're to avert climate catastrophe, and the resource-improving interventions aren't entirely ready to take the strain; it seems crazy to criticise the efficiency-improving interventions that may be the only thing that staves off disaster for long enough to allow the resource-improving interventions to mature.

(By analogy: if a town's energy needs had risen by 1% -say, owing to a gold-rush-style immigration boom- literally the same afternoon that the steam engine was invented, it would be madness for the town's burghers to say "well, we *could* improve our water wheels to eke out a 1% gain to cover our increased needs and then nobody has to go hungry... but probably in a decade's time steam engines will be better than water wheels so in the meantime let's just do nothing")

Expand full comment

"Homo floresiensis began to reduce their basal metabolic load first by becoming smaller and then by giving up their brains. After a few thousand years of evolution, we see skeletons that are stunted, deformed, and with skulls that have room for brains no larger than those of a chimpanzee. How wonderful. Just think how energy efficient they must have been."

I've got an essay you'll probably hate but might find interesting.


Expand full comment

I am now realizing that dropping the book out if fatigue at approximately the Industrial Revolution was basically the right choice. Your reframing if the (very boring) pre-modern part of the book gave me a new appreciation for the ascendancy of civilization and further cemented my conviction that More Energy Good.

One thought about efficiency. It’s interesting that in general, resource (material, spatial, temporal) constraints drive important and interesting innovations. Vacuum tubes-->transistors--> ICs, for instance. I think that when most people think about efficiency, they have in mind these sorts of inventions, but in fact this is a category error. Any constraint that is not primarily energetic can be surmounted by the application of MOAR JOULES. Limits on how much energy we can deploy are clearly suicidal, but most people don’t understand this distinction.

Expand full comment

Excellent reframing of the concept of “efficiency” when it comes to energy (and other things)! In America, we've been conditioned to think of "efficiency" as only a good thing, when in reality, that mindset means resigning yourself to stagnation and scarcity. Very insightful essay!

Expand full comment

Nice. I listened to this as an audiobook and didn't find it that dry - loved it tbh

You may enjoy this niche Smil meme:


Expand full comment

Good post. I like the footnotes even more than the text (more concise?).

Expand full comment