Dr. Carey W. King performs interdisciplinary research related to how energy systems interact within the economy and environment as well as how our policy and social systems can make decisions and tradeoffs among these often competing factors. The past performance of our energy systems is no guarantee of future returns, yet we must understand the development of past energy systems. Carey’s research goals center on rigorous interpretations of the past to determine the most probable future energy pathways.
Carey is Research Scientist at The University of Texas at Austin and Assistant Director at the Energy Institute. He also has appointments within the Jackson School of Geosciences and the McCombs School of Business. He has both a B.S. with high honors and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He has published technical articles in the academic journals Ecological Economics, Environmental Science and Technology, Environmental Research Letters, Nature Geoscience, Energy Policy, Sustainability, and Ecology and Society. He has also written commentary for American Scientist and Earth magazines as well as major newspapers such as the The Hill,Dallas Morning News,Houston Chronicle, and Austin American-Statesman.
As the energy transition proceeds and the world takes more aggressive steps to curb global warming, analysts from many disciplines are questioning how economic growth can be maintained, or if there are limits to growth—a concept first raised in the 1970s—that will also limit the progression of energy transition. Will we run into fundamental limits on resources and debt? Or can human ingenuity and technological innovation continue to overcome any limits we encounter?
These two narratives—techno-realism and techno-optimism—compete for our attention and argue for very different trajectories of energy transition. In this episode, we speak with researcher and author Carey King about his new book, The Economic Superorganism, which explores the scientific and rhetorical basis of the competing narratives both within and between energy technology and economics.
The notion of “decoupling” energy consumption from economic growth has become vogue in policy circles, but how much evidence is there that it’s really happening? If the energy intensity of our economy is falling, are we sure that it’s becoming more efficient, or might we just be offshoring energy-intensive industries to somewhere else…along with those emissions? If energy reaches a certain percentage of total spending, does it tip an economy into recession? Is there a necessary relationship between energy consumption and monetary policy? Is there a point at which the simple fact that we live on a finite planet must limit economic growth, or can economic growth continue well beyond our resource consumption? Can the declining EROI of fossil fuels tell us anything about the future of the economy? And can we have economic growth using clean, low-carbon fuels, or might transitioning to an economy that produces zero net new carbon emissions put the economy into recession and debt?
To help us answer these thorny questions, we turn to an expert researcher who has looked at the relationship between energy consumption and the economy over long periods of time and multiple economies, and found some startling results with implications for the Federal Reserve, for economic policymakers, and for all those who are involved in energy transition.