13 January 2009

Energy, Wealth and Money

Wealth is energy.

Let's say you buy a potato. The potato was produced by energy - the energy of the person who planted, tended, and harvested the potato, the energy of the sunlight on the potato vine's leaves that enabled it to grow, the energy of sunlight on the earth and oceans that evaporated the water that condensed into clouds that rained on the potato vine and watered it. Add to that the energy used by vehicles that transported the potato to the market, and the energy that you used getting yourself to market as well.

In other words, the potato is made of energy. And what is true of the potato is true of everything else. Wealth is energy, or rather the ability to command or use energy to do, to make, or to bring you whatever it is that you need or want.

There are those who claim that the nations of the world should use less energy, which they hope to achieve by economic contraction. If you get poorer, you use less energy.

But it is also true that if societies use less energy, they get poorer. They can get more efficient in their energy use, but eventually as human populations grow, they will get poorer unless more energy can be made available.

On the other hand, if more energy can be made available to humankind, we may eventually achieve the kind of utopian, moneyless economy envisioned in the old television series Star Trek. In Star Trek any character could walk up to a matter-dispenser, and get anything he or she requested, made from energy congealed into matter and re-constituted according to a pattern of information stored in the associated computer's limitless memory. To do this in the real world would take an enormous amount of energy, probably the equivalent of the output of a star for each person's lifetime.

But the economy of plenty eliminates money. Of what use is money when everyone has access to unlimited energy, i.e., unlimited wealth? If the tyranny of money galls you, then there is only one constructive solution - create so much wealth, create access to so much energy, that money is no longer useful or meaningful.

Notice that I said create access to energy, but I did not say create energy itself. All energy on earth comes from the sun, and all the energy in the sun comes from thermonuclear fusion of the sub-atomic particles created in the Big Bang with which our universe began. All energy "generation" is just finding ways to unlock the energy stored in little caches throughout the universe from that primordial event.

So the path to a utopian economy is not via using less energy, but more. By unlocking the energy in the little batteries left throughout our universe when it was created. By more technology, not less, by nuclear energy and whatever we can discover to succeed it. Sure, we need to avoid wasting energy, and we need to be careful how we "generate" energy and how that impacts our environment. But more is the ultimate path, not less. Not unless you think universal poverty is good.

Your wealth, your ability to use your energy can be dissipated by your culture or amplified by it. In the United States, it is normally amplified by the infrastructure in which we have invested, as well as by the relatively high level of trust we have in each other and in our institutions. In Mexico and Russia just to mention two examples, your energy is typically dissipated by lack of infrastructure and endemic corruption. But that is another story.

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