Living life on a curve

By Tom Abel

This is a story of energy, and how it makes our worlds go round. We’ve heard other versions of that story, but this one differs from the usual energy tale. My concern is with the swings of energy and their effects on the way we act and the way we feel about the world we live in. To start simply, a question or two:

Why are Americans out of work? Why are we all in debt? Why are the rich so rich? Why is our infrastructure crumbling? Why fundamentalism, in religion and politics? Why the anti-immigration? Why all the anti-Americanism around the world? Why is society so polarized? Why are Americans so angry with each other? Etc.!

There are surely independent answers to every one of these, but…if there is an underlying principle of social causality it might be found in self-organization, the same process that knits together ecosystems, earth systems, ocean gyres, or typhoons. Wait, people are angry because of energy?! Why not? You’ve heard far worse explanations. In the presidential debates, for example. It will take a minute to get there (my friend said, too long!). Read on, if you want. Ideas are free.

On Human Time

We all live day-to-day. I am not talking about income and expenses, where this is profoundly untrue, some with much, many with little. I mean in our minds. We live day-to-day. Or maybe hour to hour. Or as some say, in the here and now, or in the moment. Our thoughts go to our current circumstances, what we are planning to do this afternoon, what happened yesterday or last week, maybe at the most what we will do for this year’s vacation, if we are lucky enough to have one. And we have our memories, selective snips of near events that encircle each of us, not the full sweep of time.


Now, if we were all mayflies these spans of days, months, or years would be an eternity. Since the adults live for only a day or two, they must measure time in seconds or less, searching frantically for mates, laying eggs. Time is definitely a relative concept, and compared to most life forms, humans are rich in it.

But the universe is full of events in duration far greater than days or weeks or even a human lifespan. Language and literacy have helped us mark them. We tell our children about the return of comets, the drying up of once lakes or rivers, the eclipses of sun and moon. Science has added further to our perception of time with plate tectonics, radiocarbon dating, red shifts, and others. We know now of the rise and fall of ancient dynasties, the deforestation of much of the world, the growth of world population. But events at these lengths are not sensed by us. We know them intellectually, or not at all.

Most of the big slow cycles and processes of earth and humanity have no effect on our everyday lives. But some do. The relentless march of climate change is one that promises a big wallop. But there is another, one that has been slowly but surely changing the world under our feet these last hundred years. We barely sense it, but I argue it has had the power to raise us high, and bring us low.

And yet we all know the causes of human affairs. Today, there are bad people in the world. Wall Streeters, CEOs, liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, jihadists, birthers, lifers, socialists, academics, the list goes on and on. These are the ones to blame for our predicament, our predicaments. Let’s go after them.

The Pensive ‘S’

Is that it? The world is that simple? One event after another, bad people and good? The big slow process that I am hedging toward is illustrated in the curve below. People who follow this website know it well. It is the global curve of oil consumption. This big slow s-curve is over a hundred years in duration, longer than a human life. Most of us have lived in only the last third. So we have not experienced this curve in its entirety. In our day-to-day lives, in fact, we pay it no mind.

World Oil Production
World Oil Production, Source

Still, most of us know a small piece of it intellectually, that the world uses more oil today than yesterday, more than we did in the past. So what’s the point? Is this one of those peak oil, end of the world, doomsday articles? The peak is coming, run for the hills! But real incomes have been stagnant for forty years, you would say, income inequality has grown just as long, social democracy in Europe has been in trouble for decades, as has social welfare in the US. These are not new! That’s right, it is not Peak Oil that matters. It’s the pensive ‘S’. Somewhere on the big slow curve we’ve all been riding, things started to change. Where exactly on the curve, there are a few nearby candidates, the first oil inflection point, Peak energy per person, Peak emergy per person, or Peak NP. I favor Peak NP, but they are all in the same ballpark. Anyway, it is not about a ‘point’ in time, but the processes related to the sweeps of the curve. Continue reading Living life on a curve