About energy&stuff - how to safely make it through the 21st century

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After 10 years of mostly scientific work on understanding our human ecosystem, energy&stuff is IIER 's first public outreach project. Given the very negative societal dynamics observed around the world, with hate and blame on the rise, we consider it relevant to instill a sense of reality into the discussion, hopefully supporting a different and more constructive dialogue moving forward.

After 10 years of mostly scientific work on understanding our human ecosystem, energy&stuff has become the first public outreach project of IIER. Here's why.

During the past decade, the world we thought we knew and understood has changed. People are clearly worried about the future, but also don’t exactly know how to pinpoint and explain what they feel in their gut about what’s unfolding.. The consequence is widespread uncertainty, along with an urge to find someone to blame. If we want to preserve the best of what we have accomplished during the 20th century, and forge new, livable, workable, peaceful paths through the 21st, we have to first understand how our human ecosystem really works, which has been a main thrust of IIERs work for over a decade.

The road ahead: leading to the "Great Simplification"

Our research tells a very clear story: we have recently reached the end of the economically luckiest period in human history, which made almost all of the 7.5 billion humans to be richer than most of their ancestors ever were. Unbeknownst to traditional economic theroy and what is portrayed in the media, the key driver of this special period wasn't human prowess and ingenuity, but a treasure trove of easily accessible and usable energy stored for us by geological processes over the course of 500 million years, only to be unearthed and used up by us in the form of oil, coal and natural gas within less than three centuries.

Even though we are not paying the price for their creation and most of the pollution, the energy and other natural resources we extract today are already becoming too expensive to maintain our complex societies and meet our expectations, but we can – for now - paper over this reality by using credit at artificially low interest rates, and in the process drawing down our scarce resources further. It is only a matter of time until this band-aid becomes no longer an option, and we will be forced to scale back our complex world to something simpler and more affordable. The good news: this does not mean we have to give up on quality of life or live less meaningful lives, but does imply that the richest 1-2 billion humans on our planet will have to significantly reduce their energy and resource consumption and embrace a less consumptive future. This will not be a ‘choice’ to consume less but a necessity based on resource cost and availability.

The choice: keep ignoring reality or design a positive future

The vast majority of our pro-social future oriented colleagues working at NGOs, institutions, corporations, governments, etc. are assuming continued growth in material well-being for decades -or even centuries – into the future. We don’t want to hear that we are likely to have less stuff, less physical wealth, less opportunity than we have experienced in the past. When we hear messages about limits, we commonly fall into 2 behavioral camps: 1) general denial of our problems – often supported by the assumption that technology and human ingenuity will solve our resource, growth and environmental challenges or 2) nihilism and despair - things are so bad there is nothing I can do. These poles have something in common – both denial and nihilism obviate the need for personal change and engagement.

The result of this - fully natural – behavioral response: there are very few people actually working on the issues that will actually be relevant in the decades to come. We urgently need more people in the middle camp – informed about realistic future trajectories, aware that a contracting economy might be unpleasant but doesn’t need to be a disaster, and ultimately engaged in projects that prepare societies to transition from a period of steady growth in material things, to one where we have fewer resources and stuff but perhaps as much or more positive human experience and well-being.

Our purpose: grow the number of people who understand what's going to happen

Photograph by Teddy Kelley

With this background, the objective of the energy&stuff website is straightforward. We want to make a solid case about the limits and opportunities of our future, based on scientific facts that don't ignore big parts of the picture. We want as many people as possible to understand that 1) there isn't really anyone to blame for the problems we are facing, that 2) there likely isn't an easy "way out", and that 3) we can shape a positive reality within this environment.

Three key objectives

Here is some guidance for first time visitors. energy&stuff has thee main objectives:

  • Make the scientific case that we are entering a period where energy and natural resource limits become relevant again, and that this implies a smaller economy, regardless if we keep using more fossil fuels or rapidly switch to renewable energy sources;
  • Explain how this will affect our lives and create a positive vision and blueprint around a less consumptive lifestyle;
  • Help start a societal dialogue around how we want to shape a realistic future without resorting to fight, blame, and social discord.

Ultimately, we want to give our readers the complete set of information required to understand the world we live in, with the hope that this helps them make good decisions about the future in their own lives, in their communities, and in their countries, We also hope that readers of our site will actively contribute to the urgently needed societal dialogue about this reality, and our collective futures.

Where to start?

The easiest way to get an initial understanding is our Cover Story, which provides a good overview of the developments of the 20th and 21st century as well as directional information on the way forward. Because it’s a summary it won’t contain the ‘proof’ to make our case to someone new to these concepts -, but contains links to additional articles providing further background and references supporting this synthesis. This story is also available as an audiobook, with animated videos to explain things further.

Understanding energy limits and their effect on human ingenuity

The many background stories we are going to add to our site will make a number of cases: first and foremost, one about our energy future: the biggest misconception that stops us from thinking about an economically and societally different setup is that we keep convincing ourselves that human ingenuity will find energy sources or efficiency gains with benefits similar to those of the fossil fuels that powered the once-in-a-species' lifetime success story of the 20th century. There is sufficient scientific evidence that this is highly unlikely, no matter if we keep operating on more complex-to-retrieve fossil fuels or try to switch (back) to renewable current solar power, it all implies a smaller economic footprint for advanced economies.

Connect energy and resource limits with economics

Then, there is the economic situation. We need to understand that economies are currently operating on borrowed time. With rapidly expanding debt levels at record-low interest rates, we are funding the use of even more scarce resources (that, without the use of debt, our children and grandchildren would have been able to use in the future). Instead, we build even more infrastructure and consume even more, under an expectation that things will continue this way more or less during our entire lifetimes. This consumption provides short-term GDP growth that is now not reaching the majority of people, while at the same time reducing the quantity of economically available natural resources at a faster rate. On top of that, it destroys the incomes of many people previously with jobs: if financial capital is almost free to build a robot, human labor becomes economically less competitive.

Relate our story to human behavior

Lastly, we look at the human behavioral dynamics in real-time. We explain why we are poised to consume, even though there is enough evidence that "less" often can be experienced as "more" when it comes to resource use. We show how there is currently a large risk of ripping societies apart due to the conflicts and misunderstandings emergent to slowing growth, and we try to show alternative pathways that can help societies stick together and find solutions for the future.

Please help change our trajectory

We realize this is not a ‘feel good’ story – but we are not PR people, nor politicians or CEOs but merely analysts coalescing an urgent synthesis for society to understand and engage with. The default for most people will be to ignore this information, assume miracles will arrive, or that someone else will deal with these issues. If everyone has that reaction we’re going to face much more difficult hurdles than if those who reexamine their beliefs using logic, arrive at similar conclusions as IIER has, recognize the risks and leverage points, and engage accordingly.

Please help us make this work - humanity has only one go at the upcoming transition. Today, we still have enough resources, technology and bright pro-social humans to work out the right paths to a benign future, but we are currently following the wrong game plan. What we need most are people who understand our constraints and opportunities, and realize that human health, happiness and a livable environment do not require current levels of resource consumption. Those people need to meet each other, grow in numbers, and change the world.

And: please ask us questions, share our website, or support our work with a donation. Thank you.