ENERGY doesn’t exist; it isn’t a ‘thing’. Paradoxically that is why it is so important, and why economists, who naively seem to believe that energy is a substance and just another input (and only a minority input at that), give such grievously bad advice on the subject. They tell politicians, for example, that environmentalists can be safely distracted with harmless Net Zero Emissions climate policies, while government gets on with the real economic work of balancing tax policy and fiddling with interest rates. That is a profound mistake; indeed, it is to give the whole game away.
If it doesn’t exist, why is energy so important? Energy isn’t radiation, it isn’t an electron, a molecule, or a member of the weird subatomic zoo of fundamental particles. Indeed, look where you can, there seems to be no thing called ‘energy’ anywhere in the philosophy of natural science. Yet physicists say that all things have energy and that energy is fundamental, so what do they mean by this, and why is it so crucial both intellectually and politically?
The answer to the puzzle is that ‘energy’ is an abstract property of all physical things without exception. That property is the potential to cause change, and the term ‘energy’ represents a concept, barely two hundred years old, that permits the abstract and rigorous measurement of that potential.
This shining idea, one of the greatest advances in human thought, gives regular and formal structure to the observation of Heraclitus that ‘everything changes’ – panta rhei – which is perhaps itself the single most profound observation in natural science, reminding us that the mutability of the universe is its most outstanding feature. The concept of energy allows us to measure that mutability and even to direct it with great precision and to our advantage. Heraclitus saw the world changing, but like most of mankind before the sixteenth century, and in spite of strenuous efforts, could do little more than watch. Increasing mastery of energy in practical action from the later Middle Ages onwards delivered gradually increasing wealth and eventually the idea of energy itself, and with that razor-sharp tool in hand we can now shape the world to our hearts’ desires. Marx was on to something in the Theses on Feuerbach: natural philosophy describes the world, but the point really is to change it.
Far from being just one economic input amongst many, energy is the key property of all economic inputs, and thus it determines the only thing that really matters in any economic system, the potential to change the world in order to satisfy human requirements, to maintain and protect our bodies and those of our offspring, to kill pathogens, to make us warmer or cooler, to move things or people here and there as we wish.
Economic output, then, is simply a change in the world as desired by people. Technically, we would say that it is a reduction of entropy (an increase in improbability) within the human sphere and in relation to a human requirement.
The substances we casually call ‘energy’ sources: coal, oil, gas, fissile uranium, firewood, flowing water in a river, flowing air in the wind, the flux of solar radiation, amongst many others, are merely physical phenomena with a more or less significant potential to cause change in the world. And that potential varies enormously, some having much more and others much less.
The natural flows of energy, the ones now modishly, superficially and inaccurately called ‘renewables’, have provided nearly all the changes in the world that mankind could manage from prehistory onwards. They enabled the changes that supported Heraclitus and every human society until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when certain populations in North Western Europe, notably those in the Netherlands and in Britain, made a momentous addition to their energy supplies, mineral stocks, peat and then coal, with dense, vast and reliable potential to change the world.
The renewable energy flows by contrast were and still are variable and of low density. The wind bloweth where (and as) it listeth, and even the available energy of the sun has its own cyclical variations as well as fluctuating with the weather, varying diurnally and seasonally, from year to year and decade to decade. Agricultural production, man’s principal source of change for thousands of years, rose and fell in ways that could be survived only with immense hardship; bad harvests damaged even well-established and painstakingly accumulated civilisations, sometimes setting them back by centuries, sometimes destroying them altogether. The reliability of the stockpiled energy meant that economic growth ever since the emerging dominance of coal in Britain – it provided about half of our island’s energy in 1700 – has been more or less uninterrupted.
Furthermore, sources with low energy density, the sun and the wind, require many changes to concentrate them sufficiently for such potential to be brought to bear on the service of human wishes. This bootstrapping consumes most of the potential for change that is available in the source itself, and leaves little over for human use. Those who owned the renewable energy supply of the past, the land, were also the principal consumers of their own energy, giving them enormous social authority: they employed nearly everyone and owned nearly everything, and consequently they possessed great political power.
This changed with the introduction of coal and then oil and gas. A system harvesting dense stocks does not consume as much of its own energy output as a system gathering a low density flow. The use of dense stocks hugely expanded the potential for change in the rest of society, resulting in broadscale political liberation. It is no accident that some of the earliest complaints about the falling political power of land ownership and the rising influence of a ‘mon’yed interest’ occur in the earlier eighteenth century, the roots of the phenomenon being dated by contemporaries such as Swift to the 1690s (letter to Pope, January 10, 1721). The socio-economic balance of the society was changing and it was changing because of coal.
Attempting to reverse this process by returning much or all of the energy system to low density flows means handing over to those who control the renewable energy sector the majority of the potential for change available to our society. The political implications of this are terrifying, and not even public ownership of those resources could avoid the concentration of power and constriction of human freedom that would result. No one will want to return to the seventeenth century. Most politicians, listening to the false comfort of mainstream economics, are unaware of the hazard, but Green authoritarians and their rent-seeking camp followers are fully conscious of their opportunity, and with passionate Gollum-eyes wide open are reaching out to grasp the ‘Precious’, the Ring of Power, The One Ring to rule them all . . . and in the darkness bind them.