How Energy Is The Economy

Van Gogh’s ‘The Potato Eaters’. Van Gogh spent time with poor families in the coal-mining districts of Belgium. Here is a poor family gathered around a oil flame, eating potatoes. Here we are.

As my homie B writes, energy is the economy. As Vaclav Smil says in Energy And Civilization, “Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done.” In that expansive book, he details the history of human civilization through the energy sources we use.

The sweat of our own brows, our beasts of burden, then finally the dug up lifeforms we lit on fire. In one way or another, energy must be expended to get anything done. The great golden god we call ‘The Economy’ is just the sum total of all this activity. It’s just energy expended in different forms.

In the 1970s oil prices crashed the whole global economy, and in the 2020s fossil fuel shocks are again shaking the world. Now as then, this is causing major damage to European economies and outright immiseration in the Global South. As much as economists talk about productivity gains and supply and demand, these are all just waves on the ocean. The economy as we know it is just ships made of coal floating on a sea of oil, with natural gas filling their sails. Should any of those elements fail, the whole thing just stops and people drown.

I’m from a country (Sri Lanka) where fossil fuel supplies almost completely stopped, and you don’t get it. Everything shuts down. No one goes anywhere, food barely gets transported, the entire economy grinds to a halt. Europe today is facing a fraction of what we faced, but on a higher base. Caught between the Americans and the Russians yet again, their factories are being shut down as effectively as if they were bombed. They simply cannot afford the energy inputs that go into materials like steel, which are themselves inputs into many other products. You can see how the whole thing grinds to a halt.

As I’ll repeat, energy is the economy. While you can certainly run an economy on horsepower, you certainly can’t run this economy. As Smil said, “Only the inputs of fossil energies — directly as fuels and electricity, and indirectly in agricultural chemicals and machinery — could sustain both an expanding population and a higher per capita supply of food.” This is something I think people forget, which is that we use natural gas to make fertilizer. That was the Green Revolution, which seems misnamed now. That was just the massive injection of fossil fuel energy into the food supply.

The food we eat is grown in natural-gas-infused fertilizer, harvested and transported with oil-powered machines, preserved in fossil-fuel plastics, kept cold by coal-powered energy, and then cooked using natural gas again. Climate campaigner Vanessa Nkate says “We can’t eat coal, we can’t drink oil or breathe gas” but the fucked up thing is that we do. Fossil fuels are not just energy for machines. They literally provide energy to humans too.

Smil documents that human population, like any living population, is largely limited by its energy supply. The only other limiter would be predation, but in the absence of that, humans—like rats unleashed on virgin islands—will rapidly befoul the environment. Any lifeform in this situation will hoover up available energy until either A) we run out or B) we choke in our own waste products or C) all of the above. It’s not a matter of will, which is an illusion. As the Bloodhound Gang said, you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals.

The sad thing is, for those that believe in the so-far blind luck of humanity, is that we perhaps could’ve threaded this needle. The discovery of nuclear energy was the promise of something else. It produces scary waste which can end a city, but we forget that the path we were on was ending the whole world. This was supposed to be the nuclear age, but it wasn’t. It continued to be the age of fossil fuels.

The other possibility is that we could have sustained even this wretched society for a bit longer if we’d simply divided the wealth better. But instead the richest 1% account for more than double the emission of the bottom 50%. The promise was that wealth would ‘trickle down’ but all that’s really happen is the planet is burning up. The way to divide wealth better would have been communism or socialism, but that was violently resisted by capitalists all over the world and either bombed or couped into submission all over the Global South. And so here we are, capitalism won, and the spoils are literally a spoiled Earth.

Our energy use didn’t change when it could have in the 1970s, our economic systems didn’t change when they should have in the 1920s, and so here we are—100 years later literally depending on fossil fuels for our daily bread while the rich eat caviar in private jets. It’s not even that we’re completely fucked. It’s that we were fucked decades ago, and Rosemary’s Baby is crowning now.

I think people don’t get it and, indeed, I didn’t get it until recently and am probably missing significant chunks now. We don’t understand how much our lives are intertwined with fossil fuels not because we can’t understand but because we don’t like the answer. It is what I call the physical impossibility of climate collapse in the mind of someone living (hat tip Damien Hirst). Even as I write this now I don’t believe it. I’m just going to take flights and order shit on Amazon like every other schmuck.

The way that capitalism processes the giant shit it’s taken on the planetary bed is to call it chocolate and market it some more. People advertise stuff based on reducing emissions, ignoring the fact that they’re still emitting and plan to make up for in volume what they ‘reduce’ per unit. Countries like Norway are praised for moving towards 90% electric vehicles, while two-thirds of their exports are fossil fuels. It’s not just that these people are lying to us. We’re lying to ourselves. We want to be lied to. What’s the alternative? The Damien Hirst reference is to the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, and that’s what we’re talking about.

What we call ‘The Economy’ and worship like it’s some inanimate math problem is really just the sum total of energy expended. Marx talked about how it was essentially the congealed blood of labor in our commodities, and it is also the congealed blood of plankton and zooplankton and all the other ancient gods we dug up and burned (that’s what oil and natural gas are). The Economy is a lifeforce and, I argue, legitimately alive. I argue that Capital is already a globe-spanning artificial intelligence, and the smartphones rapidly evolving in your pockets only its most basic avatars.

Energy is the economy. The economy is energy. On the most superficial level Europeans are experiencing this now, on an existential level poor countries like Sri Lanka already know it, but on a level none of us are psychologically capable of dealing with this tautology is going to literally rock our world. If energy organized is life, then it also dies. This is the eternal law. As our fossil fuel-fed lifestyle dies, it won’t be a leisurely switch to electric cars. We still don’t know how to switch to electric fertilizer at scale, which is a big fucking problem. People are going to die. Indeed, it has already started.

The biologically reassuring thing is that lifeforce can get recycled and reorganized in other forms, but we who are used to things being a certain way are not used to that. It’s going to be fucking traumatic. Indeed, it already is, we’re just not thinking about it. We’re used to thinking about economies and energy as these distinct, separate things that we have power over because we named them. But it’s not like that. Everything is everything, nothing is nothing, and it’s all connected. Energy is the economy, economies are alive, and all living things must die. And this economy is already quite sick. Just listen to us cough.