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.
In an economy as large and complex as the United States, how can we tell when our efforts at energy transition are working? How do we calculate our carbon emissions? How do we know why emissions fell, especially if increased efficiency can rebound into more consumption, an effect known as the Jevons Paradox? How should we calculate the cost of damage due to climate change, and how we should choose the discount rates we use in evaluating investments to stop it? And even if we knew the answers to all these difficult questions, how should we act, given how little certainty we have about the future of the climate, and of the trajectory of energy transition itself? Can economic theory even help us plot a sensible path toward energy transition and climate change mitigation? Our guest in this episode has published extensively on all of these thorny questions, and we’ll discuss that research with him, along with his current research into solar geoengineering.
How do we know at what level our consumption is sustainable, and when we’re in planetary overshoot? How do we quantify what the planet’s capacity is to meet human demands, and how much of that capacity is renewable, and how much of it is just being permanently depleted? And once we had a way to quantify that, what would we do with that information? Would we use it to inform our actions and avert overpopulation and disaster? Would we ignore it at our peril? Or would reality just unfold in some messy fashion along a default path somewhere in between? Is a deliberate transition to a sustainable energy system even possible?
Our guest in this episode created a scientific methodology called “ecological footprint analysis,” a kind of ecological accounting, to inform policymakers about our resource demands on the world as compared with Earth’s ability to meet those demands. Earth Overshoot Day, which the Global Footprint Network calculates every year, arrived on August 2, meaning “that in seven months, we emitted more carbon than the oceans and forest can absorb in a year, we caught more fish, felled more trees, harvested more, and consumed more water than the Earth was able to produce in the same period.” After listening to this discussion, you’ll never quite think of energy transition the same way again.