The Great Elbification

In the past two centuries humanity has used cheap energy to extract resources from the environment and grow the population of the species exponentially. This behavior occurs often in nature and results in boom-bust cycles of populations. When a species discovers a wealth of resources, they will exploit it and grow in numbers until the resources have been depleted after which the population declines just as rapidly as it has grown.

This is not new to our species. Several civilisations in our past have gone through this cycle. What makes the current instantiation of this process special in contrast to those of the past is that the environment we have been exploiting for the past two centuries is the out entire planet. We cannot move to a different planet — so, in order to avoid catastrophic decline of our population we have to fundamentally change the way we organise ourselves and at the same time heal the environment that is the foundation of our lives.

We move atoms and bits — in the form of products and services. Doing so requires energy. In the middle of 2022 the energy required to do so is a constant stream of roughly 19TW. This number grows by 2–3% per year. The reason why it does that can be found in the way we have set up our economic signalling function: money. The global total volume of money grows by 2–3% per year and the way we ensure its value is by growing our economies by 2–3% per year, which we measure in GDP. If GDP grows by that amount, so does the number of bits and atoms we have to move, hence also the amount of energy we need.

The main issue with this is that the kind of energy we are primarily using creates enormous negative externalities in the form of climate chaos. The secondary issue with fossil energy is: we are going to run out of cheap fossil energy in the coming decades. The quick and intuitive response would be to replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources. Up to a point that might work, but then we would run into the physical limits of mineral supply required to do so. If we are lucky, we would max out at 9TW using renewables, less than half of what we can use now.

This — along with all the other crises unfolding — opens the opportunity for various kinds of futures. Some bright, some not so. Predicting the future is impossible, especially in details since being off by a small margin today will result in a vast difference in the future. But it is possible to describe scenarios in broad strokes and decide to work towards the one that we consider the most desirable. In the following i will — in very very — broad strokes sketch a few scenarios. It will be very easy to guess which of those is the most desirable in my perspective and i will not try to hide it. To the contrary. I am hoping to find an ally in you in turning it into reality.

The first is what Nate Hagens calls the “Great Simplification”. In this he refers to us moving closer to the most important form of energy for human life: food which also is the most elegant form of solar energy. Effectively this would mean moving back into a mainly agricultural world. In this scenario most of the underlying functions driving our world today will not be needed or to expensive to run and stop working.

The second is a scenario that could be called the “Great Complification” in which — if we are luck — we manage to satisfy the hunger for energy with new forms of hydrocarbons in combination with efforts of geo-engineering to mitigate negative externalities. While this would prevent imminent catastrophic risks from playing out in the short term, it would create a brittle system, effectively increasing the potential scale of catastrophic risks.

A third one could be called the “Great Concentration” in which the accumulation of wealth in the form of energy gets even more concentrated in the areas of the world that are currently rich and can therefor afford to build the expensive infrastructure, mine for or buy the necessary minerals. This would leave 50–80% of the global population behind who will probably not be content with the situation.

The final scenario is what i call the “Great Elbification”. It focusses our curiosity and agency on how to use the 175000TW of energy the sun is constantly sending to create the things we need. While this might sound like fiction, it is being worked on in labs across the planet in the form of using microorganisms to metabolise unwanted molecules into wanted molecules using sunlight, sugar and water as the main inputs, to mention only one example. Imagine a world in which we can grow anything we need either directly or as an input to create the propulsion devices, communication devices and all the other devices that make our lives easier. Imagine that everyone in the world had access to this kind of natural technology. If you can imagine it, we can build it.

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