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Bob Bollen


This is a very clear and helpful article. I wonder if you’ve seen the 2010 study “An Exploration into the Carbon Footprint of UK Households” which attempts to break down the average energy usage (or rather CO2 equivalent emissions) per capita by activity? see http://resolve.sustainablelifestyles.ac.uk/sites/default/files/RESOLVE_WP_02-10.pdf

Do you know of more recent studies?

An interesting and useful exercise would be to examine each of the big ticket uses, set reduction targets for each, brainstorm ways to hit the target, and then examine their feasibility and impact in detail.

We might then find new lifestyle/ technology balances emerging. These could potentially be very motivating, if for example, we could find a mix with less stress, less commuting, significantly shorter working hours, more physical work and less reliance on technology with high energy content. (Or am I a naive dreamer?)

I’m keen to be plugged into groups working in this area. Thanks for any help you can give.

Jack Santa Barbara


Excellent article. The idea of "energy excess" needs to be taken very seriously.

With respect to an energy ceiling - the work of Vaclav Smil is relevant. In "Energy at the Crossroads" he summaries some research showing that the relationship btw several empirical measures of well being (access to nutritious food, female mortality, educational level; infant survival) and per capita energy consumption are linear at low levels, but quickly asymptote - much like the relationship between subjective reports of happiness and income.

My recollection is that increases in energy use above about 70 to 110 gigajoules per person, there is little if any improvement in any of these indices across countries. North American levels were in the 300+ gigajoules per capita range - signifying huge amounts of waste in terms of well being.

As to whether the ceiling might be lower than the minimum level of energy available, I am reminded of the IPAT equation. The total Impact on the environment is a function of Population, Affluence (consumption) and Technology. If we cannot obtain gains from efficiency, then we have to either reduce our consumption, or population or both.

AI is promising significant increases in efficiency (see the notion of reverse computing among others). Even if such efficiency is realized, Jevon's Paradox may occur - increased efficiency may lead to overall increased use. I think it is critical that this issue of energy excess, and indeed, consumption excess in general, gets more attention as the world plunges into a new era stimulated by innovation in AI - which appears inevitable whether we want it or not.

Nikolay Ivankov


@Jack Santa Barbara

Sometimes economy means economy. I am working as a data scientist, developing AI solutions for the industry. One of our recent project was to optimize the performance of a power plant. In other words, to get just as much energy for less fuel. And that's what we did.

In a short run, fossil fuel consumption is decreased. In a long run, this may of course mean that, on a spared penny, one builds a new plant and in effect burns the same amount of fossils, producing the same amount of energy.

Nikolay Ivankov


More importantly, basic needs can be met with different means, and the relative necessity of some energy services could and should be questioned. This approach can be labeled ‘sufficiency’. Energy services could be reduced (smaller TVs or lighter and slower cars, or less TV watching and car driving) or replaced by less energy-intensive ones (using a bicycle instead of a car, buying more fresh instead of frozen food, playing boardgames instead of watching television).

When reading this and the previous articles, I've had a feeling that this ‘sufficiency’ thing sounds too familiar. In fact, I was born and lived first years of my life in an economy that was designed to be ‘sufficient’ - the perestroyka-time USSR. And was lacking to fulfill the promise. If there is a word to describe the economics of USSR form the 60s on, the best word is ‘deficient’.

The word ‘deficit’ in the vocabulary of a soviet citizen used to mean ‘anything you can only take hold of if you are from X Yvich’. This X Yvich (Za Wyevna for a feminine version) was someone that had something to do with support. In fact, a night man in of a local grocery would do.

Did this mean that less food went rotten? Of course not, quite the opposite. There have been multiple reasons for that. Say, once a ‘deficit’ food arrived somewhere, the market workers have been ‘stashing it under the counter’ - and that's why you basically had to have somebody working at the market to ‘get hold of it’ (here and in brackets are closest translations of the epoch's set phrases). For instance, tangerines were ‘deficit’ - but you can't stash them for a long time, especially when they come seasonally in the mid-winter and are stored at temperatures of about -10°C and below. Sometimes, when ‘deficit’ was at a brink of rotting, it was ‘thrown onto the counter’ - and actually, everything but perhaps the very basic food, like bread, milk and eggs - but not meat, cheese and butter - was periodically ‘thrown’ in 70s and 80s.

Speaking meat, it could be stored in the fridge. And it was - for in a ‘sufficient’ economy needs to have reserves for the case of emergency, and USSR this was always the case. Thus, much of meat went to the fridge and was kept there. For decades. Literally. And then, when it could not be kept there any more, it was ‘thrown’. Fresh meat was seldom - but it could have been there, if one simply brought it to the market directly!

That is the most astonishing thing - at least for those who always lived in the west. Actually, all the ‘deficit’ was mostly there. It was spectacular how the markets transformed just in few months after USSR's collapse. At this time, it was money that most of us lacked. But before, there was money, but nothing on the counters.

My goal here is not to scorn the soviet economy, for its story is too complex to be told in comments. It is also not specific to soviet union. In S9 Ep54 of Modern Marvels "Garbage", an archaeologist who used to teach students excavations on NY landfill has been telling that, in the layer attributed to the beef crisis, he and his students were expecting to find less remains of beef. Yet they found more. For each time people could have buy beef, they've been buying it excessively.

I am no economist, I don't have numbers at hand. But my impression was that, though this article makes an honest attempt to show that the difference between haves and havenots is not just a scale, it still doesn't grasp the whole complexity of the problem. It still - so my impression - bases on premise of the abundance economy - that you still can have what you need when you really need it. And if if not, then the people will still have some decent share, even if disproportional.

What I am arguing about here, that the line between sufficiency and insufficiency/deficiency is thin and blurring. And when - then the cost of inefficiency may be higher due to quite other an other side of human factor.

Bob Fearn


Does the amount of energy we use really matter if it is all solar energy? As you know the energy we need is already over 99% solar. Less than 1% to go. It is possible. If we can rush into a war that costs trillions and killed 60 million we can certainly power our societies with solar energy.

Jim Baerg


Bob Fearn has a point. There is wide variation in the amount of CO2 emitted for the amount of energy used. In the case of electricity see this website.
Note that the energy source doesn't have to be solar to be low carbon.
The OP noted factors that change how much energy is needed to do a task. See the table here for the difference HOW you move stuff makes.
See this for details on how to minimize energy used for transport.
I recommend the entire _Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air_ for anyone interested in Energy & Climate Change issues.

kris de decker


@ Jim Baerg & Bob Fearn

"Does the amount of energy we use really matter if it is all solar energy?"

Yes, it does. All technologies that convert renewable energies into electricity require fossil fuels for their manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance, and replacement.

In the case of a clothesline, this only concerns a line. In the case of a solar panel or a wind turbine, however, it implies the use of sophisticated factories, fossil fuels and many other resources. This is even more so when you take into account the need for energy storage and transmission.

Of course you are correct to state that there is a variation in the amount of CO2 that different energy technologies emit. But I wouldn't call it a "wide" variation, at least not when your comments apply to solar panels, wind turbines, and the like: http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2017/09/how-to-run-modern-society-on-solar-and-wind-powe.html

Furthermore, renewable energy today is almost completely focused on electricity, which only comprises a small part of total energy demand. I agree that renewable energy should be encouraged, but it's not the panacea that people are hoping for.

Mario Stoltz


Kris' article - brilliant as always - uses the term "carrying capacity of the planet" a few times. I believe there is a difficulty in the definition of this term.

To some degree, it seems related to physical resources of the planet that humans consume faster than they are deposited. This limitation of exploitable resources is the problem that the Club of Rome first brought up in the 1970s.

The Earth / Nature does not care about this aspect. A number of events that do regularly occur - though on geological scales, not historical - are stronger than any changes we humans can produce, even assuming worst intentions.

So, when we say "carrying capacity of the planet" what we should rather think of is the sustained ability of the planet to continue carrying humans, and the environmental conditions that our species requires. Life will go on also without us.

The dilemma we face is that making the necessary changes requires thinking in historical dimensions - decades and centuries. Our political deciders are incentivized to make decisions and changes that show visible results within a single legislative period, or best case in the next (if they are very sure that they will be re-elected). Also our political deciders will have a spectacularly hard time selling anything to their voters that even smells like a reduction in lifestyle.

Most people, alienated from nature and brainwashed by media bombing them with ephemeral "news" will hardly bother about anything that comes after them. They may say they care about their children, but really as lip service, nothing more. Vox populi, vox bovi will dig future generations' graves.

Dr Hugh Owens


Excellent article on a subject familiar and near and dear to me.

My single and tiny cavil is the use of energy units which among most authors is variable and inconsistent not to mention confusing. I plead for authors to stick with one unit. The Joule is that unit. It is small enough to be useful and multiples like kilo, mega, giga exa are easily added. JOULES PER UNIT TIME(power) IS THE WATT. Please no more KGOE or MTOE, or BTU or whatever. I have read that the average American uses 100 watts of power CONTINUOUSLY. Compare this the avg European which is about half. Another useful factoid is is Exajoule. One exajoule is the amount of energy consumed as FOOD energy by America.That is 10 to the eighteeneth. Doing the math of 100 watts/US citizen, 300 million of us use 100 exajoules/year or 100 times what we need to eat and survive(Source: Patzek, Tainter., et al).



"Does the amount of energy we use really matter if it is all solar energy? "

If you think we can replace the current amount of energy used by industrial civilization with solar energy, you need to stop reading science fiction. (Popular Science magazine articles that are more about wishful thinking than anything empirical).

Making enough solar panels to accomplish this task would require more steel, copper, and other commodities than are currently being used by the world. Where are the materials to build that many solar panels going to come from? Where is the energy to build this infrastructure going to come from?

It's not going to come from renewables, it's going to come from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the world can't ramp up increased consumption of fossil fuels to do that--because there aren't additional fossil fuels that can be burned. The low-quality unconventional sources of fossil fuels can't really be used without extremely high prices--so they might as well not exist. Without the materials being available, financing is out of the question.

War, a zero-sum game, is actually much more cheaper than building out and maintain very expensive renewable energy infrastructure that provides very little energy because of intermittency.



Can any of you point to anything that runs on solar power or wind 24/7?

Any examples of people in extremely cold places being kept warm by machines that run on wind power or solar panels only?

You guys seem like the folks who go around telling the people in your lives that Tesla Motor's autopilot d feature on its cars is 100% autonomous.

It seems like you're all privy to some secret scientific information that no one else is privy to. Is that the case?



Kris, here you go from efficiency to sufficiency. This is a no-no. While efficiency, at least in part, is a term in the real world, sufficiency is not. Sufficiency is idealistic, unreal, but this idea can not leave the ivory tower:

Bad message 1:
The vast majority of people (the voters, unfortunately) are unable to understand one single word here (“What’s that, bro?”, and worse). They want fun, luxury and leisure, and more of it every day. Our society depends on them/us, worse, we are the society!
+ Greed is our all natural driving force, it's in our blood, from child to President.

Bad message 2:
Those who understand and are leaders immediately realize the imminent danger of that idea for our society, because sufficiency implies no more growth - And that would be suicide, the end of the world, not only economically.
Ceiling? Reduction? Really? - It’s a race, we can’t stop it without disaster!

No one has the guts to question never ending growth, even authoritarian leaders have to respect the ever growing demand of the plebs (good EU example: GDR) because of globalization (information).

Sufficiency may fill scientific pages but does not push growth / business.

If we like it or not:
To keep growth AND to survive we need a purge in capita. Very soon!

How to decide how many are (and who is exactly) not entitled to western abundance and luxury?
We only can hope that nature will decide before us (Katla, Yellowstone, …).
Some will pay the price, but generally the future is bright, as always.
However, your site provides valuable facts (!) and extraordinary food for thoughts, I’m reading and reading …
Thank you!

Kris Kaul


These are exactly the kinds of comparisons and numbers I have been seeking, both in the changes we are making as a household and as data to wield in arguing for community and larger scale energy and resource reduction. Thank you for all the work you've done in amassing the background research and presenting the numbers in ways that can be used immediately.

Paul Brendemuhl


Good article and necessary points for educating people. That I think is key. Then hopefully many will choose to reduce our use of energy. Anyone who has seriously considered alternative energies knows it is much easier and cost effective to reduce usage, than to attempt to build a system to produce what we are currently using.

But, interesting how this discussion always leads to limits, which is just a generic word for control, which the narcissists among us love. And of course, that also leads to limits or controls on population. Those among us that want to reduce the population should the first to volunteer.

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