Technology OR Energy vs. Technology AND Energy?
Summary: The current societal story is that technology will allow us to get by with less energy and that with enough hard work, innovation, and time, the future will arrive full of clean energy services. We argue differently.
Modern technology can be separated into four types.
First, there are the inventions that combine fossil energy with machines to replace physical tasks that humans used to do manually. Coal-fired steam engines and spinning-jenny weaving looms paved the way for gas-powered lawnmowers, automobiles, cow-milking machines, smelting furnaces, airlines etc. Because fossil energy was so inexpensive, we used huge amounts of it (inefficiently, from an energy perspective) to raise the standards of living for many people. The combination of higher wages, higher profit margins and lower-priced goods rippled through a new global economy of “consumers” in a virtuous cycle of humans wanting, being able to afford, and buying more. This type of technology seemed - on the surface - like it “saved energy” because things became subjectively easier and more convenient. However, the reality was that the total energy used in our system increased substantially, as now there were millions upon millions of lawnmowers, automobiles and microwave ovens, each representing a n ew baseline of “perceived needs” for its owner, each having its own embodied energy of construction and each requiring continual fill-ups or incoming electricity to operate. Such technology sharply increased society’s overall energy metabolism, as these things would simply not exist without a large infusion of excess net energy. Second, there are the novel inventions that create pleasing brain stimulation that we didn’t have before. Devices for entertainment that humans never had access to (or even imagined) in earlier generations replaced free activities like telling stories around a campfire or at a medieval tavern. Things like iPads, HDTV’s and video games. The immediate novelty, leisure and play experiences these devices provide use energy never
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