Carey King is a research scientist and assistant director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas. In this episode, Robert talks with King about his new book, The Economic Superorganism: Beyond the Competing Narratives on Energy, Growth, and Policy, what he sees as the “hollow narratives” about energy and power systems, Thomas Malthus, why King  calls himself a “finite earther,” the relationship among GDP, energy, and human well-being, and why the global economy should be viewed as a “superorganism.”

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce  0:05  

Hi, and welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. This podcast is a place where we talk about energy, power, innovation, and politics. And my guest today is Dr. Kerry King from the University of Texas. You’re a research scientist at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas. Welcome to the power hungry podcast.

Carey King  0:28  

Right? Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Robert Bryce  0:30  

So we’re going to talk about your new book, the economic super organism today beyond the competing narratives on energy growth and policy. But what I do on this podcast is have guests introduce themselves. I’ve given you a partial introduction here. Maybe I blew the intro here. But nevertheless, the biases Have you introduced yourself as though you’ve just arrived at, say, a dinner party or you’re a guest at a function and you’re introducing yourself and you have 45 seconds, go? Tell, tell Who are you? Why are you here?

Carey King  1:04  

Right, yeah. So I’m Kerry King, Central Texas, native born and bred and still living here. But I’d like to say my mind and thoughts have expanded far beyond just thinking about one location and thinking about the globe now and the global economy and the global energy system. So those are my interests. My background is in engineering degrees from UT Austin and I now still work there. But I spent the last 10 years since I’ve been working back at UT, after graduating on understanding the role of energy in the economy, and from a fundamental what we would call biophysical economic standpoint, trying to understand how the physical principles of the economy are actually actually affecting social outcomes, even though people might not think of it that way. So I think this is a different approach and an approach that needs to be promoted and discussed. As opposed to just thinking about the economy is purely a mental and kind of construct of prices floating around, there’s a physical nature of the economy behind it. That’s, that’s governing things. Okay, what I that’s what I like to work on.

Robert Bryce  2:13  

Sure. Okay. So your new book is the economic, super organ, super organism beyond the competing narratives on energy growth and policy? So why this book and why now what what is the message? What’s the fundamental message of this book? And why is it What? Why should Why? Why should people read it?

Carey King  2:31  

Right, a lot of this book is summarizing research that’s, you know, been talked about and done by others over, you know, perhaps decades, we might even say. And since the 70s, the motivation is to show how, in some sense, the background on how most economic models that are used, we might say, mainstream or neoclassical economic thinking is actually kind of misleading us as to the role of energy in the economy. And this leads to misleading policy. And for things, including things like going low carbon for, for climate change. So So I like to say that, you know, there’s a physical basis of the economy. And these form constraints on on and largely define what the economy is. Energy Resources are physically powering machines and buildings and all kinds of other things in the economy, which is sort of the basis of the economy. But if our interpretation of the economy isn’t proper, and thinking about that, then we’ll have badly informed policy and policies there to affect social outcomes. And if we don’t get the social outcomes we want, if we don’t think that physical resources like energy are involved, then we’ll miss diagnose the problem, and we won’t think properly about it. So so the book there is to summarize a lot of the work some of it’s my work, but most of it is other people’s research that’s been going on to sort of explain this connection, and how we need to get past the quote unquote, narratives of energy about pitting one energy technology versus another fossil fuels versus renewables, and get beyond economic narratives of whether we can just kind of grow infinitely and there’s no constraint only our minds versus thinking about the physical constraints that actually affect our choices.

Robert Bryce  4:17  

So, okay, so I’m gonna, I’m gonna try and read that back to you. So you’re trying to connect the policy world and the physical world, I guess, would be one, one. That’s a good way, one way to think about it and point out the physical constraints in the systems. And I want to talk about the super organism just a minute but you said that the purpose of this book at the beginning you say to explain physical constraints, how physical constraints affect our social outcomes, in particular economic outcomes. A lack of understanding of these constraints pervades our politics, policy, business decisions and economic theory, that’s we’re too often given hollow narratives. What are the hollow narratives? Oh, the

Carey King  4:57  

hollow narratives, I would say. Let’s just say If you want to talk about, you know, people talking about whether the future energy system should be continued to be fossil fuel based or to shift to renewables, the narratives are, you know, we have the renewable technology we need, it’s cheap enough. So switching over should, should be easy, or maybe not that painful in terms of the economics, but not called economic? Well, because the economic models Tell me so. And on the other side, somebody would use the same economic theory. And I would say flawed framework to say that fossil fuels say that the future should govern the future of energy. And we can go low carbon still by using fossil fuels. So no matter what you want on either extreme, the economics is sort of informing policy that all things are possible. And, and they’re just not incorporating the sort of the timing and physical constraints of the, of the energy system.

Robert Bryce  5:55  

Well, let me jump ahead here. Because in going through your book I was and, you know, be challenging kind of early on in the in the, in the, in the discussion here, but I was a little surprised that your book doesn’t really reference the idea of the super organism until 300 pages in and you say that the coherent and combined energy and economic narrative is the following. The global economy is a super organism. What so which is an interesting idea, but you’re viewing the economy as a living thing, not just a living thing, but a super living thing, right? That is exceeding its boundaries, explore that, because I’d never seen this idea of the super organism. And I was, I was kind of in the first part of the book, I’m saying, Well, why is this book called The Super organism?

Carey King  6:41  

Yeah, I guess I won’t go into too many details. You’re a writer. And you’ve written what I can’t remember what eight books. And you know, whether you’re in charge of the title of your book.

Robert Bryce  6:53  

Fair, fair. It’s always a battle to find the right title. But never don’t Never mind that. So what about the super super organism,

Carey King  7:00  

let’s go into a couple things. So one, you don’t have to think of sort of defining the word living or nonliving, to think about the concept. And it’s not about overcoming the boundary. So I’m not proposing that we’re overcoming boundaries, I’m proposing that we’re operating within a boundary or within a physical boundary, for the most part, you know, the earth at the moment, although we say satellites into space and these kinds of things. But the idea, and I’m not the originator of the idea of the economy as a super organism, or even an information processing system. But no, it’s an organism in the sense that it’s composed of physical things. It’s exposed to natural laws and has to follow them. And it takes in resources from its environment. So there is a boundary between the super organism and everything else, which we’ll just call the environment, it takes resources from the environment that uses these resources to grow and structure itself, and produce waste, of course. And that’s basically how we think of human bodies, or ant colonies. And these other kinds of things are organisms or organisms of organisms, so we can call them super organisms that’s commonly referred to things like bee colonies and an ant colonies. Sure. And when you look at the rate of, say, resource consumption, or energy consumption, as it relates to the size of the organism, our economy follows similar principles and similar patterns, as do living things. So ecologists and biologists have kind of been on this, you know, for a while and been thinking about it since the 70s. And the oil prices and you know, how do we think about the economy, and it was natural for them to think about an entity that takes resources from the environment and uses them to grow and structure itself. So I’ve just kind of translated that and tried to explain how we think about the economy as something that’s taking in resources. It’s trying to grow, and it’s trying to maintain itself, and it has some structure. And economists would, we would talk about structure, such as things like wage distribution, inequality, even debt levels. And so attempting to say like, yeah, we should be explaining these kinds of things in terms of the rate of energy consumption, and,

Robert Bryce  9:07  

and what those are and what those limits and what those limits might be.

Carey King  9:11  

Right, including time, like, how long How long does it take to do something right time, right, another constraining factor?

Robert Bryce  9:16  

Sure. So and the narratives, of course, is in the title, these competing narratives. But let’s back up here because I think it you know, it’s helpful for the people who listen to this podcast, and I’ve been, you know, familiar with these terms for a while. But you start out in the first part of the book by quoting Richard Fineman, who, of course, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. And you point to his 1961 lecture and where he’s talking about the the first law and he says, the first law of thermodynamics states that there’s a certain quantity, which we call energy, that doesn’t change and the manifold changes which nature undergoes. And then he says in its most abstract, it’s a mathematical principle. So I’ll just put it to you. You know, everybody, this idea is very powerful one is that it’s the first law. What is the first law? If you don’t mind, I’m going to ask you about the second law too. And then why these fit into and then let’s talk about energy and power. Because these are fundamental to understanding our systems, right and our organism works.

Carey King  10:20  

Right? So the first law of thermodynamics is often stated as the conservation of energy. So there’s a certain amount of a word we call energy, as as Fineman says is a construct that we came up with. So by assuming this construct that there is this concept we call energy, and at one time, there’s a certain amount of energy in a system that we define. And at some other time, there’s the same amount of energy in that system, even though stuff is transferred from one form of energy to another internally in the system. If we count it all up, we’re going to get the same number. So that was an assumption. And the assumption has born out to be true every time we test it. And by using that assumption, it has become a law because we haven’t disproven it. And this allows us to design the world around us by using this principle. first law of thermodynamics, we can design computers and trains and cars and all kinds of things around us, essentially, that’s the proof on why we know it’s true if it if we didn’t follow this principle, in our designs, our designs wouldn’t be working and flawed, but we’re like, hey, when when we follow this, everything seems to work and we can understand it. You know, there’s another quote in the book from Howard Odum, that’s a little bit more of an information processing, kind of quote, but you know, that a system can understand itself. So there’s this whole idea of, can we understand, you know, what the economy is really for, if we’re part of the economy, so that in a high level, philosophical sense, we, we can’t totally understand it. But he says, we try to make models to understand as much as we can. And the first law of thermodynamics and other principles are ways in which we do this.

Robert Bryce  11:56  

So you had a good analogy there about a mother knowing that her son has 28 blocks, that’s fine.

Carey King  12:01  

I just take it from him.

Robert Bryce  12:03  

Okay, right. Well, but so that was fine. But yeah, but the the idea that know that the kid has 28 blocks, one of them might go missing, it might be under the bed, or you might not find it right away, but it’s there, and it’s always going to be there. It’s just where, you know, your ability to locate it. So okay, so the second law, you talked about Saudi karno, and his experiments, what’s the second law?

Carey King  12:24  

Second Law is you cannot convert 100% of an energy source that you say take from the environment into work or into useful work into some useful process that some amount of this energy you extract from the environment has to turn into heat, and you can’t make use of it. So you can’t have 100% efficient car engine or power plant or something like this, it’s always going to convert less than 100% of the fuel into say, electricity or motion of the car,

Robert Bryce  12:52  

something like this, which matters does, because we’re not going to get as you say, not gonna get 100% of the energy out of the gasoline that we use. But it also matters, then for batteries. Anytime you change the form of energy from one to another, something is going to be lost. And the more and the more you change it from one to another, the more losses you’re going to incur. So, but that’s basic. Okay, so let’s move on to talk about the you know that this idea being the concept of energy being a great leap forward. But and you talk about the need to think about power. So I’ve written about this thought about this, but it please what’s the difference between energy and power,

Carey King  13:32  

the difference between energy and power is pretty much time. So you can save one word if you would like. But power is essentially how much energy has been consumed over a period of time. Or you can think about the rate of consumption of energy. Energy is the amount of power that you have consumed over a period of time. So in a mathematical sense, you can integrate power across time to get energy, or you can take the derivative of energy with diamond and get power. So power is a rate, like the flowing water in a river. Energy is a quantity stock, like the amount of water in a lake.

Robert Bryce  14:09  

Good. I like that. Yeah, as I said, energy is a sum and power is a rate, right? That you have a fixed quantity of energy, but you have to make it flow. And when you make it flow, you make power. And the faster you make it flow, the more power you have. Right. So. But I also was intrigued by you talked about the point about GDP early in the book and about the fact that the GDP is a measure, it’s a rate. And so you’re talking about economic growth as a as a in similar way as a power metric, which I hadn’t thought of before. Or maybe some other people have thought of it before. But I thought that that’s a really it’s a really important point. So do we care about power or do we care about energy? Are they are they inextricable?

Carey King  14:54  

Oh, I suppose we care about both. Yeah, so the point there Yeah, so GDP is money per year or money per unit time. So that’s like a rake. And then power, of course, is energy per unit time. And we have words and phrases that we normally say in the industry like energy intensity of the economy, which, which is until we think, Oh, it’s energy and GDP, but really, it’s really its power. It’s the power intensity of the economy, or the energy per year consumed per year, divided by the GDP produced in a year. So it’s really a rate divided by a rate, even though we don’t say it. So by I’m just kind of emphasizing that, you know, hey, that’s what’s really we’re discussing. So when we talk about GDP, we’re talking about a rate. If we talk about wealth of the economy, we’re talking about a stock. And so those are two different things. It’s kind of the difference between power and energy. So this gets in, you know, that’s the first step to get in to the details about well, okay, how much power do you need to keep operating the economy and power it sometime during the night or sometime during the day or average over the whole year? You can discuss all these different timeframes, which is, you know, one of the chapter discusses how time and how, essentially, I think the energy narratives talk past each other on issues like reliability of an energy supply, because they’re just talking about different timeframes. You know, it’s, and you’re talking about one second, or one minute, are you talking about for decades, and we can have a different perspective. They’re all valid timeframes to talk about and they are all important. But you get a different sort of perspective.

Robert Bryce  16:22  

Sure. So your book and looking at it. I mean, you’re it’s technical book, but but who’s the target? Who do you Who do you want to read this book? Who’s the audience?

Carey King  16:33  

Well, certainly people studying economics, I’d say people studying economics more than people studying energy. But really both. It’s for reporters, it’s for people that are in policy circles that need to interpret and understand to say, journal articles. I mean, people in congress of legislative staffers will rely on journal articles and scientific studies, peer reviewed studies to create legislation, and they’ll use it as a basis for justification. And this book is a little bit of a step back from that. It’s not as technical as a journal article. There’s no equations and mathematics, but it’s trying to explain Well, here’s some of the really important assumptions that are behind reading results of someone’s economic model about how to change the energy system, you know, how are they assuming? What is the relationship between energy and the economy, and sometimes there’s basically almost no relationship. And so it can be misleading. So I’m, I’m here trying to promote that. wrote that knowledge so people are aware. Sure, I think well, do many people are unaware of that.

Robert Bryce  17:39  

So you divide in my takeaway from the book is really what you see is this battle between the techno optimists and the techno realists? Are we really? And so if you don’t mind, what, what’s the difference there? and is and is this? You know, I’ll ask a provocative question. Are you Are we still arguing about whether Malthus was right? Because you talk about Malthus, and being a techno realist versus Julian Simon being a techno optimist, right. Is that Is that a fair assessment?

Carey King  18:10  

That’s probably fair enough.

Robert Bryce  18:13  

Okay. So fair enough is all anyone?

Unknown Speaker  18:15  

Well, I mean, perfect. Elaborate, elaborate, but

Unknown Speaker  18:19  

Sure. He,

Carey King  18:20  

yeah. So yeah, chapter one defines these two energy narratives and two economic narratives. And they’re kind of meant, in some sense to be straw man arguments. And then I, you know, economy is a super organism is saying, okay, I don’t need these straw man arguments to understand what’s going on, I can use the consistent bits and pieces among them. So techno optimism. Julian Simon, and I quote, Milton Friedman, and they would say things like, we’ll just look at prices of energy to determine if energy is scarce. And that’s the signal you need. Well, prices are developed from a construct of what how we define the economy and how we define how people can do transactions. And these can be fairly independent of the physical system. They’re certainly reflective of what’s going on in the physical environment. But we have to interpret how prices do or do not relate to the environment and extracting energy. And this is not clear. I use the example of you know, just things like dresses, I mean, people are familiar with the idea that the price of something can change dramatically. And it seems to have nothing to do with the physical environment, like the price of a dress goes from $1,000. And then it’s on sale the next day for $100. How did that happen? Well, you know, it doesn’t cost. The price is different than cost price is what the market is trying to sell. And cost is something more fundamental about what it takes to actually make something so the techno realism says, well, let’s let’s think about whether the structure of the economy so I think both are important to emphasize size with the size of the economy. So GDP is most regular example. And structure structure could be anything about distribution of Something distribution of money amongst people distribution of money amongst sectors of the economy or people that own capital and people that work for a living. And I would say, the extreme case of the technical optimism as well, we can create whatever size and structure we want, somewhat independent of resources. And the techno realism, I’d say is like, well, now the rate at which we extract resources is going to put some constraints on us. And we might have to make trade offs between size and structure, or we need to understand how size and structure are related to energy consumption. And the chart I have one chart I have in the book, and, and which I discuss in a paper I published earlier this year shows, for example, the United States data for energy consumption per person. So that’s kind of a rate of energy consumption on a per person level, and the wage share what of GDP, which is how much money goes to wages and salaries are people who work daily or hourly for a living? And how much how much of all of those wages and salaries added together. And divided by GDP, what percentage is that? So a high percentage would be a more equal income distribution, because the other income would be going to people that own things like profits are capitalists, they might say, and so because obviously, we’ve been talking about our in mainstream discussions for the last, you know, decade since the financial crisis, for sure, has really picked up discussing wage inequality or income inequality. And, and so but when you look at the data, right, there’s been in the US a declining income inequality since early 1970s, you know, and what changed in the 1970s, when you plot these two things next to each other energy consumption per person was going up at say, 4% a year until 1973. And oil embargo and 1970 was peak oil production, then at the time, and the US, energy consumption goes flat in the early 1970s per person, and wage share starts declining at the same time.

Robert Bryce  21:59  

So if I can interrupt because I think

Carey King  22:01  

those two things are related go Yeah,

Robert Bryce  22:03  

right. Well, you I think you said, I just want to make sure that I made sure that I heard you correctly. But I think your your, and I remember your paper, I think it came out in January, if I’m not mistaken. And you were talking about it and saying that this is indicative of a broader trend. But the way I interpreted that was that if if per capita energy consumption is increasing, then working class folks are making more money. And when that stops, then the capitalists are making more money is that is that another way to think about it?

Carey King  22:36  

I don’t know if I use are but you say it’s easier to make those things occur. So if energy consumption per person is increasing, I would say it’s easier to distribute an expanding pie to, in some sense, all parties. Now in the post World War two years leading up to 1970, there were all kinds of laws put in place or still established from the New Deal. And, you know, unions, they would, they would say, okay, there’s more union bargaining power, and they had wages that were indexed with inflation. And so this was all part of them getting larger share of the economic pie and workers as a group. Sure. And this essentially kept going until early 1970. And then there were pressures on inflation pressures on increasing wages. And it was making it harder for companies to maintain profits. And, of course, due to oil price increases, the US as an entity was not in control of that particular aspect of inflation. And so the companies are kind of like, Well, you know, we’re not in control this energy inflation, you have the wages are supposed to go up, you know, Something’s got to give. And, and my interpretation is, well, something did give, we sort of changed the structure of how the US economy operates, for better or for worse, it didn’t have to exactly happen that way. But in the US, you know, this is the way it happened, which was, you know, focus on profits of companies and, and then, in some sense, the labor took the brunt of the structural changes.

Robert Bryce  24:03  

So, okay, so let’s go back to the the techno optimists versus the realist. In your book, I see this kind of tension where you’re really trying to prevent, you know, present both sides, right, and say, Well, you know, which side is is is you know, what are the arguments and using quotes, I’m mentioned in the book about land use, you talked about Alex Epstein, other people that are, you know, are writing about these issues. Well, so who’s winning the narrative? I mean, if you break this down, about you know, in just real politic today because if you think about the green new deal some of these other programs that are being proposed even look at Joe Biden’s energy proposals, the techno realists or the the the Limits to Growth people I guess, or I guess I’m putting really simplifying it here and then also talking about the climate activists. They seem to be on the ascent what’s your what’s your view, if you step back and say, well, who among these narratives which narrative is is winning the winning the day?

Carey King  25:07  

Right? Good question. So yeah, if we think about my, you know, energy and economic narratives and chapter one or you know, two axes, right? And so that means you can have you got fossil and renewable, and then you got techno optimism and realism. So you can have renewable technical optimism. And you can have fossil energy, Techno optimism. And so in that sense, I’m saying, I would, just to answer your question, Techno optimism is still winning are still the prevalent form of discussion, because the discussion will end from IPCC reports or anything as well, of course, we can go low carbon 50 years, or 40 years and the economy instead of growing, you know, this much over the, you know, from today until 2100, or something. And if we do this complete transformation, it’s going to grow this much a little bit, and this much versus this much. And so I look at that, and I think we have no idea what the, you know, the uncertainties about economic growth, independent of climate change are probably beyond this, you know, this small change. So I view that as techno optimism and, and for the most part, all of these economic models, over 95% of them that inform these kinds of policy studies and conclusions, if you want to go low carbon, are based upon flawed economic theories that just don’t properly take into account the role of energy. So it’s, I’m clearly I’m not saying that, yeah, we shouldn’t think about the climate. What I’m saying is, when we think about the climate, we need better economic frameworks.

Robert Bryce  26:37  

Okay, so. So where do you find yourself in the camp here? if you’re if you’re placing yourself on your your tea of left, right up, down? I mean, where do you fit in this? Because I mentioned even handed in in the way you wrote the book, but certainly you have opinions about, you know, what was I guess? So are you are you think Malthus was right or just hasn’t been proven right yet? I mean, how do you place yourself on this continuum here?

Carey King  27:05  

Right? Yeah, I think I stayed in the book. So hopefully, I don’t say wrong, where I put myself in the book. But pretty much I’m in the middle of the energy, fossil and renewable and in the sense that I’m just trying to understand the system and how everything fits together. But I’m definitely more towards the, you know, Techno realism camp. somebody suggested, I should call it techno pessimism announced like, Well, I think it’s pessimistic, I think it’s just the correct assessment of the situation. So I’m definitely more on the technical realism camp. And, you know, the idea of the super organism is sort of, you know, there’s this entity, it’s trying to grow and maintain itself. And it doesn’t really care whether it uses fossil energy or renewable energy, it just wants to use the mix that helps it grow and maintain itself. And that’s kind of a, you know, what I would say, you know, seems to take away agency from humans as controlling the system. Like, are we in control of ourselves? Are we in control of the economy? And most people think, well, we are fully in control. I make tax laws I, we invent technologies, the books are tries to open up the mind to people thinking about all kinds of stuff like artificial intelligence, and genetics and evolution. And when you start thinking about these things, you start to question Okay, how much are we doing from our own freewill or independent choice? versus are we some other

Robert Bryce  28:29  

guiding factor that we just just understand, just along for the ride here? Because I because I’m, you know, and when it comes to that, you know, that that those two axes that you’re pointing out, I think, Well, I think I’m a realist, when it comes to where we are with energy and technology, I think, yeah, as are renewables going to grow? Yeah, they are. But a lot of my work, including in my my latest book, my latest film is, with so many billions of people living in energy, poverty, they are they don’t want to stay there. So that I, you know, that we’re going to use whatever energy is available, because people aren’t going to be content to stay in the dark. So I don’t know what you know, of that. You know, where that place is on the continuum, I guess, somewhere in the middle. But I think that, you know, it was interesting, that even You say, Well, you know, there’s ideas of these two camps are a little bit of a straw man, but it seems it’s also a continuation of an ongoing argument with, you know, between Julian Simon and Paul are like, right about, you know, what are the limits? What is the price going to be? And then well, as the price realer, as you pointed out, before, well, the price is in a perfect reflection of the world, right? Because there are inefficiencies in pricing, as we well know. So it’s my own personal comment. So how do you describe your own politics then because the politics of course figure into this right on the left and i’m not i’m not talking about your your x y axis here, but left versus right that on the left that the as I see it here in the US particular and I think in Western Europe as well. The left is much more of that. In the Malthusian camp, I’ll put it that way. Right, the Sierra Club was the one who published the the population bomb. Right. So how do you fit your own politics into this? Is there in terms of this political divide?

Carey King  30:14  

Yeah, I’m not sure how to answer that. I guess I like to try to be fairly political, agnostic, you know, anybody who’s seems to be expressing views that are cognizant of how the economy actually works, I would, I would be a big fan of. And so, you know, in some sense, most politicians, now for practical purposes, you know, sort of gloss over this details. And, you know, maybe, you know, maybe that’s not the job of politicians to, to know these details, but the people informing them should be aware of some of these details. And that’s a little bit what this is probably, my book is more about, as politicians are using information, and they need correct and, you know, more and more accurate information. Something you I mean, just to save it, how would you, you know, associate GDP with energy consumption, you know, the research I highlight in the book, it’s not mine, it’s mostly from some Europeans, in particular, a guy Robert Ayres, who I guess is an American, but worked in France for his career in Siyad, this exploration, and there’s a group of us studying this, this idea of useful work, which is really kind of like, you know, work output and a thermodynamic sense from a machine, if you add the different kinds of useful work that are produced in an economy, which would be like the mechanical drive from a car engine, the output of a motor and electricity coming to the house. And if you plot that, versus gross domestic product, it’s almost one to one, you get more one more unit of useful work, you get one more unit of GDP. And this seems to have hold held for several countries in which they’ve looked at these data. And this is a much more powerful explanation of the linkage between the environment, which is extracting energy from the environment, technology, which is essentially the conversion efficiency at which you take energy resources and convert them to work. And then GDP, which starts to get into economics and social outcomes, at least to some degree. That’s an entry point. And, you know, this is just not even recognized, and, you know, most Economic Studies. So when you talk about transforming the energy system, instead of talking about which fuels we should use, or which energy technologies, we could talk about candies, how much useful work will we be able to get if we start to change the energy technologies? That’s a much more precise, and in some sense, describing the data more elegant than just arguing about oil, coal versus wind and solar?

Robert Bryce  32:55  

Sure. Okay. Well, you masterfully deflected the political question.

Carey King  32:59  

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, where do I lean, I probably tend to lean a little bit left, just from being a scientist, and thinking that at least the least in the US, the left side seems to want to pay a little bit more attention to scientific arguments. But yeah, and so I wrote this book, not to tell people to think about scientific arguments, by themselves, but just to say, Wait, you need to expand that. Think about the scientific concepts that we now have, and apply them to the economy to don’t just apply them to, are we harming the environment, think about the economy. Think about both.

Robert Bryce  33:35  

So of all, if I reflected back to you then in terms of how you’re looking at these issues, then your your politics are about, well, your politics, your work is really focused on this idea which I liked the idea of useful work. That’s what really after, right, that the energy input, you know, as I’ve said before, I don’t care whether I could put sawdust or or you know, Ragu spaghetti sauce in my fuel tank of my car, as long as I press the pedal, and it goes, and I don’t really care, right?

Carey King  34:02  

Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, that’s pretty much the thought. And I did read read your last book. And I think you expressed thoughts like that in the book. And I was like, yeah,

Unknown Speaker  34:10  


Robert Bryce  34:15  

Attaboy. But that idea about useful work being the key right to, to wealth, right. And that that’s one of the reasons why electricity, of course, is so so valuable, right, because we can convert it into all kinds of useful work at very, extremely high efficiency with you know, no, you know, no odor, no, you know, mess at the end point. So, is that what really what we’re after? I mean, this is when a tease that point out a little bit, because I think it’s a really important distinction about that, what this this grid that we’ve, you know, we’ve been talking about the x y that whether you’re an optimist or a realist or wherever you fit on that spectrum that the end goal is always the same, right? How can we get more useful work out of what it is that we’re doing right with the meet the at the lowest cost at the highest benefit. Is that is that fair? Um, yeah, I

Carey King  35:05  

think that’s fair. And it says this is Yeah, this is a great point worth unpacking. So the premise of the book is, you know, is that all we’re trying to do unconsciously, as a group as a society of humans? Are we just like every ecosystem that seems to be trying to extract as much energy from the environment as possible, at some rate, which is really power and convert it into, you know, more mass of the animal or mass of the ant colony? And are we just trying to do that for the economy? So that’s kind of the hypothesis. And by looking at the data, my conclusion is, the hypothesis probably not disprove that hypothesis appears correct so far. And the question is, can we just can we can we thwart that? can we can we overcome that and, and should we overcome that? So there’s an idea in ecology that was promoted by brought up by Alfred locka, that I mentioned in the 1920s. And then also promoted by an ecologist named Howard Odum in his career in the 50s, and 60s, and he called it the maximum power principle, and other people have talked about this, including, you know, Charles Hall, an ecologist as well. And so the maximum power principle is kind of saying, well, the part of the ecosystem overall, each individual part of an ecosystem is trying to extract resources or power from the environment. And when it does this, it’s able to maintain itself more effectively. And if it maintains itself more effectively, it can survive to reproduce and pass on its genes. So the organism

Robert Bryce  36:36  

going so going back to the organism, that means bringing it back to your title, right, that that’s, that’s what the organism is going to do.

Carey King  36:44  

Yeah, so so the organisms that survive are, by definition, the ones that procreate and have their, their their young survive, that’s the definition of surviving. And so the thought there as well, the more power you extract from the environment, the more likely you are to survive and pass on genes. And then you could argue the purpose of, you know, living things is to just pass on information and genes if you want, that’s kind of The Selfish Gene idea. And so if you translate that to the economy, you can think about countries versus other countries, you know, which country extracts more power from the environment? Is that country more likely to survive? In an economic sense versus another? Is this a driver to why it’s hard to reduce energy consumption, which is part of the equation for reducing potentially useful work. So really, the country that produces the most useful work is, in some sense, the most powerful, and I express quotes from military officials in in the book discussing this. And, you know, anthropologists thinking about this in terms of societal structures. I mean, this really is sort of the question. And if we want to address climate change, there’s some you know, the camp, maybe you might call the mouth museum that say, well, you just have to reduce consumption. This is if we reduce consumption, or reduce energy consumption and extraction and emissions. This is we know that can happen, because we’ve seen it in the data. We know if we do less activity, and produce less useful work, we’ll have less emissions. And so the catch on this is okay, well, can you actually increase GDP or keep it constant or keep well being increased? Well being? Before I say this, I do think that we can increase most human well being without increasing GDP necessarily. And that’s the structure part that’s more equal distribution part. But, you know, can I increase GDP and decrease useful work or decrease emissions? This is the question. And the technical optimist would say, Yes, we can. And try to make arguments that say is we have done this already, in some cases? And I in the book say, No, I don’t think we have evidence that we’ve yet increased a metric of growth and decreased energy consumption for sure. We haven’t done that. Right. And or but the

Robert Bryce  39:00  

decision there would be necessary would as you say that I’m thinking well, the distinction between energy and or not a decrease in energy, but potentially a decrease in carbon based energy. Because it seems to me as you said that I immediately thought when I didn’t think about this, it didn’t what it included in my questions, but among the techno optimists would be the the nuclear enthusiasts, right? So and I’m adamantly pro nuclear. But I’m also, you know, very clear that I, and I write in my book, there are a ton of obstacles to making nuclear grow at anything like the scale that is needed. Now, globally, I’m talking about terawatts scale. So last question. So how do you fit the nuclear the nuclear sector I know this book, your book isn’t necessarily about nuclear. But how do you fit that that growing enthusiasm among climate activists and the Democratic Party even this year they for the first time embrace nuclear in their in their party platform? How does nuclear fit into this? This techno optimism techno realism debate?

Carey King  40:06  

Yeah, in the book is you kind of point out, I sort of punted on a lot, any much detail on nuclear. It’s, it’s kind of its own.

Robert Bryce  40:14  

It’s, it’s, it’s complicated. Yeah.

Carey King  40:17  

But, you know, you know, certain things are on the up, I’d say things for the optimism side on nuclear, or have moved in the up direction, I guess, given particularly new scales, ruling from the nuclear

Robert Bryce  40:32  

and oklo, and sometimes other other recent,

Carey King  40:35  

potentially have, you know, the small nuclear reactors? A little bit more on the horizon? Now, you know, it’s getting a little bit more close to real. And I think that’s kind of what’s needed. I don’t, it’s the independent of small modular reactors, you know, nuclear, I say, is probably not gonna play a big role in the short term, but it could in the medium term, if we really get serious about lowering carbon emissions, you know, you’re going to get pretty far with solar wind batteries and gas mix. And we, we pretty much have the solar wind and gas, I’d say, I’d say I’m agreeing with the optimist that those are good enough to do a lot of things to get us, you know, 60 70% of electricity, decarbonisation there, then you got some gas. It’s that last bit, that’s when you’re going to start to think about Okay, yeah, maybe I want some nuclear, and it’s really going to be a battle between, you know, storage and nuclear type costs, I think. And I guess they’ll, they’ll be a mix of that. I have no idea. But the big nuclear plant is a really tough one. The current designs, at least in the world still happening in other countries. If we, if you take a big chunk of coal away, then yeah, maybe someone says, Okay, I’m going to look at enough to, you know, have a 10 year build out of a some new nuclear facilities to go after that. Right. Yeah, I

Robert Bryce  42:00  

agree. I mean, I just think that the, you know, with new with electricity consumption in the United States now flat for 15 years, it’s a whole different environment than it was in the 60s 70s. And even the 80s, when new nuclear plants were being built. So in, in the electric sector in the US, it’s a lot of competition among a lot of players just looking for a piece of a pie that’s not growing at all, and so that they can go ahead.

Carey King  42:24  

Yeah, yeah, so the benefit is, you know, I think I say this in the book, you know, big is sort of hard and out and nuclear as current technology, it has to be huge, so huge, it can bankrupt the company. So that’s just a big win. If you’re an investor or developer, you can, you know, you can do 10 different nuclear, solar and wind projects are 20 or 30 of them, instead of one big nuclear one, you spread your risk around, and it you know, we can keep integrating these things effectively, at the moment. So when we, you know, we’ll keep approaching more difficulties in the grid and managing stuff. But, you know, so far, the grid operators are managing it. Pretty sure.

Robert Bryce  43:04  

Well, you mentioned natural gas. So I mentioned nuclear, I’ve been talking about nuclear natural gas for a long time. So then, this isn’t necessarily pertaining directly to the points that you make in your book. But when I look at the gas, the growth in gas production globally, the gas discoveries globally, it looks to put me in the optimist camp when it comes to the growth of natural gas. What’s, what’s your view on that?

Carey King  43:26  

Yeah, yeah. So I’ll say one thing. And then if I get your question, right, then you can ask me again, one thing in terms of the, I can think of gas as sort of the, from a techno optimism perspective, if I were to really sort of poke at that strong man, I would say, hey, if we thought gas and natural gas in the United States was going to be two or $3, a million v2 with the hub. And, you know, if we thought about this 12 years ago, when people were really talking about climate legislation, would you say, Oh, great, if that happens, we’re for sure. Going to put carbon capture on all kinds of natural gas plants. And that’s still going to be cheap enough for people and then we’re going to have low carbon from from gas. Okay, well, that’s not happening, right? We have this cheap gas. And we’re not putting all this carbon capture stuff where we’re not experimenting enough and doing demonstrations to really figure it out fast enough. So I would say, you know, if you’re really in the techno optimists camp, like, Well, why are we doing that? It’s, it’s pretty cheap, it would still be not egregiously expensive, probably to put carbon capture on gas plants. You know, why are we doing that the super organism on concept says, Well, if you did that, that would be that would be less useful work. That would be less growth, because there’s a little bit of efficiency hit when you’re doing carbon capture. So is the organism about growth or is the organism about low carbon and so far, the organism is about growth. So we have to sort of overcome that. The question is really are we going to recognize this sort of maximum power principle organism, types of drivers and then specifically constrain ourselves or We’re just going to pretend that that’s not happening. So the book is a little bit there to talk about that. Of course

Robert Bryce  45:06  

there are things will interrupt about that constraint idea. Because you say, well, there’s a little bit of a constraint, you know, from everything that I know, when you talk about carbon capture with natural gas plants, you’re talking about a 25 to 30%, parasitic load, right off the top right in the in the overall output of the plant. So that’s a significant hit for any organism, right to say, Oh, I’m going to cut my diet by 70. By 25%. I mean, that’s a big number, especially if you’re going to translate into into dollars for investors, and how do they How do they justify that that part of it? And then I haven’t even talked about the pipelines that go downstream and carry this gas to somewhere? We don’t know exactly where yet. But, you know, presumably, at that, all that, that that that is going to find a home somewhere. So, but let me ask the question again. So I mean, on a macro scale, because you know, not shaped, afraid to ask the question again, where do you see the gas market going? globally?


you see this growing? What if, if nuclear is constrained? As you as we just discussed, when what’s what does it mean? What does that mean for gas? Yeah, I

Carey King  46:10  

get you know, more about, yeah, the nuclear situation, and I listened to one of your recent podcasts about the global versus sort of Western world, we might say, a developed world, a situation. So I won’t expand on that, you know, nuclear seems to be happening in the developing world and Middle East, these kinds of places in China. But in terms of gas, you know, yeah. So far. It Yeah, the accessible resources seem to be expanding, or certainly, you’re using more and in the US? You know, I, I think, yeah, I think you literally have to specifically, in some sense, constrain yourself to, to not continue that now I don’t, I’m a sort of finite earther. enough to say that, well, that’s not, it’s not that it’s not going to occur forever, anyway, but we certainly still have a lot we can do with gas. So um, so the constraints you would have to put on yourself because of climate, environmental or greenhouse gas type constraint would be Yeah, these are, you know, in chapter nine, talking about, you know, degrees of freedom of things we can do. And as we invent more technologies, or more degrees of freedom of options, and you literally have to take some away, you can use gas, but you can’t do it like this, or you can’t do it like that. And you have to do things like okay, you can use gas to take the hydrogens off and capture the carbon and stored underground, and then do whatever you want with hydrogen, or you have to, if you generate electricity, you have to capture a certain amount of carbon. So so as you know, we’re kind of going past the coal because coal is kind of going away, at least in the Western world. So he was going to invest in carbon capture on a coal plant that you don’t know when you’re going to retire anytime soon. So it really should shift to gas and say, Okay, are you really going to do this? And it’s, you know, I talked about the difference between price and cost and total energy expenditures. And most economists will just kind of look at price and say, here’s the dollar per ton that it’s probably going to cost to capture from gas or coal plant or something like this. But we should really think about total expenditures of the economy, how much of our expending on if we add up all of our spending on energy and compare that to the size of the economy? How much is that? Because that’s a combination, all these prices, and all these different technologies, that’s the super organism feedback that really occurs is spending on energy, right, relative to the economy. And you know, that the data show that, you know, since World War Two, if, if there’s a time at which the US and the global economy kind of match each other spend, you know, more than 8% of GDP on primary energy. This has been associated with recession. And so this gets into the understanding of the feedbacks, how fast do you invest in the energy system? How does that impact how much we’re spending, because if you invest quickly, you’re going to pay people for those jobs, and you’re going to build stuff. And that’s going to get passed down through the energy costs. That’s okay. That’s just how it works. But we have to

Robert Bryce  49:04  

do it, but it’s but if the energy costs go up, the super organism has to slow down.

Carey King  49:09  

It could you could transfer you could what, you know, a transition fast enough such that you reach this kind of threshold and total expenditures, and you would you would cause a recession, you cause other part of the economy to shrink to such a degree that

you have a recession. And to me, that’s not something to say it’s false. It’s something to say, Oh,

this is what could really happen. And we need to understand that and embrace it. And, you know, plan accordingly. And maybe we say that’s okay, you know, maybe we say, Well, why don’t we just plan on a concert? The one option, you could say, as as a kind of simple argument, why don’t we just keep a constant level of GDP spending for trying to target a constant level of GDP, spending on energy relative to GDP or or figure out what that number is and how Have a constant level of GDP and transform the economy to low carbon, where the economy is not shrinking or growing. We’re just trying to maintain some level. And if and if it’s, if we’re not, if we’re transforming the economy really quickly, or, you know, if you slightly go towards recession, you can maybe cut back on a little spending, if you go a little bit more towards growth, you can maybe spend more.

Robert Bryce  50:20  

So, okay, well, so when I hear you say that I’m thinking in my own head of Federal Reserve, setting interest rates or something, but it also smacks a little bit, and I’m just, you know, off the top of my head saying, well, that smacks kind of more of central planning, right, that the super organism, some of this individual agency, of investors, or individuals is going to be taken away, because some buddy, some group is going to say, Well, this is our ideal for energy pricing or energy infrastructure spending. And we’re going to decide that, not you. And that relates to my next question about ESG. But is that fair, right, that what some of what you’re saying it implies that there’s going to be there’s going to be a need for more central planning as it comes to energy development or energy spending? Is that is that fair? Hmm.

Carey King  51:07  

I don’t know if I characterize what I said is central planning. But it’s a you could pose it as a constraint on the system, which somebody has to do it. So the government would say I’m, we’re just going to have this constraint, which is different than dictating all of the individual actions that would occur to meet that constraint. There are many ways to meet the constraint. So it’s, you don’t have to dictate the ways but but you do have to, in some sense, I mean, that’s what we’re talking about with climate is setting a constraint and spending a hard time doing that we’re having a hard time forcing ourselves to do that.

Robert Bryce  51:38  

Well, exactly. Right. And so but and I guess one of the examples of that, and I don’t necessarily think this is central planning, although it does require a coordinated effort would be a carbon tax write that this is one of the things been talked about now for decades, never enacted, at any at least federally. But that would be one one aspect potentially of this broader kind of not going to say sensibility, a broader approach to energy as the key input for the society. Is that is that fair? How do you see that issue of the carbon tax fitting into this super organism discussion?

Carey King  52:14  

Yeah, well, it’s, it would be probably imposing, I mean, I’m, if we wanted to try that I’m going and trying this and trying the carbon tax, and let’s, let’s, you know, let’s see how it can work for that more than doing something like cap and trade, let’s just, you know, minimize the transactions in the financial markets and all these kinds of things and just try to go through the core issue as much as possible. But yeah, carbon tax, it would, you know, it sort of has no analogy in the biological or ecosystem type of world, you know, we don’t know of a organism in biology that say, Well, you know, I could do this, but I’m gonna, I’m gonna add this little feedback from the environment to me, to prevent me from destroying my environment. You know, in some sense, they might just take as much environment as they can. And when they get to someplace, they’re like, okay, I can’t take anymore, or it’s getting too hard. I have to spend too much energy to expand further. So this is kind of my boundary and limits. So we’re kind of saying, Well, I can keep expanding the economy, but but I should I should put an extra constraint on myself carbon related carbon taxes, is one way to do that.

Robert Bryce  53:20  

Hmm. Well, that’s an interesting one exempting about an animal, right? Oh, instead of, you know, instead of the coyote going right after the rabbit, it’s going to say, Well, I’m going to do a couple laps before I chase a rabbit or something, just to make it a little more difficult or something, but I’m really getting off into the weeds. Let me let me do a quick.

Carey King  53:38  

You know, it would be like, well, I I’m, you know, I’m hungry enough to eat three rabbits. But you know, I can get by with just do.

Robert Bryce  53:47  

Okay. Fair enough. Let me interrupt for the commercial. Talking with Kerry King is the author of the new book, the economic super organism, beyond the competing narratives on energy growth and policy. You can find him on the interwebs at Kerry He’s on twitter at Kerry, W King at Kerry, W King ca. So, Carrie, we’ve been talking for a while here, I’m just going to hit you with a few more questions, because now we’re talking about these constraints on the system and constraints on the organism, the idea of the energy, the energy, economic organism as it as a living thing. And in toward the end of the book, he talked about ESG environmental, social and governance investing, could could ESG and we just talked about carbon tax, but could ESG then end up being a maybe a bigger factor than any of these other things that we’ve been talking about, because we’ve seen BP say they’re going to reduce their spending on on hydrocarbons Shell has done the same. And that seems to be motivated by ESG concerns. Where do you see the look into your crystal ball on or your ESG crystal ball? How does that how do you see that playing out?

Carey King  54:59  

Yeah. That’s that you could be correct or the supposition that, you know, ESG type investing could be the thing that directs the needle towards more low carbon versus government action, say, it’s certainly a fairly independent type, many are affected by tax law. So it’s not totally independent. And if it’s mostly in the Western world, and somebody might argue, well, you’re not affecting, you know, however much investing 70% or 50%, of the investment in the world, but you know, somebody’s got to, in some sense, show it away. Right. So it seems promising, in some sense. So I, I think it’s an option if you literally, if companies are literally diverting money that they would have had to say, for oil and gas exploration into something else, in some sense, by definition, they’re not going to have the resources, they’re not going to find the resources to extract the future. So that’s kind of a, in some sense, that’s a, you know, paying attention to the physical nature of the economy and saying, Well, I’m just not even going to go look for these things over here. I’m gonna go make these other things that I think are better, that are options. I guess I don’t expect it to be easy. I don’t study in detail, papers and reports that say, well look at these people who did invest in ESG. And they invested from coal and oil, and they did better on the stock market than otherwise, or something like that. Don’t focus on that a lot. But because I think about the whole, you know, system and organism and interconnectedness, I’m not sure how much weight I put in those kinds of studies. In the sense of, you know, not everybody’s Apple design in California and made in China. Right, you know, we have to, we have to think about that, that really works. And, you know, the internet companies are, you know, becoming big.

Robert Bryce  56:48  

But they’re, they’re big, they’re big,

Carey King  56:50  

because they’re specifically doing something about carbon, just because you’re doing something that’s, you know, another part of the economy, right.

Robert Bryce  56:57  

At the end of the book is The you talk about efficiency, and we’ve talked about, you know, voluntary reductions and ESG, I guess, would be a type of voluntary reduction of carbon tax would be a similar kind of maybe compelled. But it’s it’s a it’s a, it’s a factor that would be added to the system, right, in some ways voluntary, but you say, toward the end of the book, the most certain way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to is to reduce consumption of physical resources. But we seem unwilling, so far, you put in parentheses to self impose this constraint. One of the main reasons is because the techno optimistic and infinite substitutability economic narrative, which dominates economic thinking, and thus also policy design, says we don’t have to, it does not contemplate physical constraints on long term growth. So let me really push back on that in this way. And that, it seems to me isn’t the reason that we, and I’m using the people, we everybody in me and me, and we in Vietnam, and Bangladesh and Pakistan, and YouTube, we aren’t reducing our we aren’t reducing our consumption of, you know, steak dinners, or, you know, airplane trips to Bali or wherever, because that’s not in our nature. I mean, it’s just not who we are, right? We’re not gonna say I’m going to go out and I’m gonna do less today just doesn’t seem like there’s it seems like a little conflict in terms of how individuals and countries do what they do. I mean, is that fair? Am I am I am I often in Miss apprehending what you’re saying there? Am I? Am I beating mine? So

Carey King  58:37  

that’s probably fair, I’ll try to say a couple things on that. Sure. So one thing this kind of relates to an idea of emergence or the scientific concept of emergence, which I’ll come back to, but he is a quote, I think from from Nate Hagens, who thinks along these lines, and has also been a thinker in this idea of the super organism, and how do you sort of force that tendency, but the quote I have, from him I put in the book may not get particularly correct is none of us is at fault. But all of us, all of us are to blame. So we’re all underlying doing something. And when you add up everything we’re doing, we end up with something we call the economy or total consumption. So this gets into thinking about complexity, science, and this idea of emergence, which is, there are patterns you can see at big scales like to say the macroeconomic scale, I can see these patterns emerging of how energy consumption relates to GDP, and that this follows similar trends that we see in ecosystems. And so that’s kind of the idea of emergence, each one of us isn’t consciously thinking about that pattern. We’re not trying to produce that pattern. Nobody’s thinking about it consciously. But that pattern emerges in some sense. So you can’t understand how this better than emergence but just looking at the individual actions, you have to think about how the individual actions are integrated, as well as what the constraints are on these actions. And it’s different constraints of operating under the thermodynamic laws and physical principles that are behind how these patterns emerge. And so this is completely pretty much far from policy, but it needs to be integrated into economics. And one simple way to do this not in terms of the patterns is to think about efficiency. You talk about efficiency, and I’m a big, you know, I think that more efficient, more efficiency leads to growth. So more growth, and I’ll just say that not less growth or less. So that’s Jevons paradox, and all this kind of thing. So I all the evidence, points to that. And, and just to be clear,

Robert Bryce  1:00:40  

just to be clear, all the evidence points to that efficiency is is positive in the economy, is that I just want to make sure what you’re referring

Carey King  1:00:47  

to use the word positive or negative, and I’ll say that increases in efficiency leads to more consumption of it, okay. Yeah.

Robert Bryce  1:00:53  

Right. And so the Jevons paradox, William Stanley Jevons showed that increasing efficiency doesn’t necessarily reduce consumption of coal and increase it, he should publish his book 1865, the coal question. Anyway, quick aside, just so everybody following here.

Carey King  1:01:06  

So here’s, you know, this is some sense, this is an emergent concept. So each individual process, each computer, each car, something like this, can literally consume less energy to do the same amount of service to drive a mile down the road. But if there were no more cars built, then we would consume, you know, less energy, but there aren’t no more cars built. And there are only more more people born, there are more people born, and there are more cars built to support them. And that’s why you get an increase in consumption. So you literally have to think about time, which is generally not present in most economic models in a fundamental way. And the concept of, I don’t know, evolution, they do think about investment and accumulating things accumulating more capital, but more directly to efficiency. Efficiency is essentially seems to be the best description of what economists would call productivity or more detailed total factor productivity, and the neoclassical growth model. And so this neoclassical growth model is what’s behind most, the vast majority of economic models that study energy transitions, including those that inform the IPCC. And so most people talk about total factor productivity, in terms of all kinds of things, it’s by definition, the part of economic growth that’s not accounted for by a metric of capital and a metric of labor. So how much money goes to pay wages? How much money goes to profits, but it’s a huge number, it’s like half of all economic growth. So the normal economic model that is used to think about energy transitions, for example, but it thinks about all kinds of other economic policies, or it’s used for those purposes, basically can’t explain half of economic growth. But when you look at total factor productivity, how it’s changed, and then you look at how efficiency changes from year to year, those are almost one to one. So essentially, this, this missing factor in mainstream economic growth theory is effectively How much are we increasing the efficiency of converting resources to useful work. And so that leads us back to useful work. And so that’s something you can count. It’s not, it’s not just this nebulous thing, like people are smarter or innovation as a word. And we don’t know what innovation is, we can say innovation is a technology, right? It’s an actual specific thing we can track and metric. It’s tedious. But you can do it. And the people that have done this, I think I’ve shown this to be, I would say this is the hypothesis, or the theory that has to be disproved at this point in my mind. And so, so I’m okay, all these people studying this this further. Okay, so just to be clear, then I’m trying to read back what I’ve heard you say and what the question I was asking was, is this is it reasonable to assume that the we collected we are going to use less and as I heard you talking about the you know, what you just said that our hope then in using less is through greater will that is to try and strive for greater efficiency of consumption, which to achieve more useful work for forever and and output with everything we use? Is that my my Am I hearing you right? Well, I’ll say I guess I’m in reference the asked me about Malthus earlier, I’ll just go back to that. I’m I’m Malthusian enough to say that we’re not going to grow forever. And one of the reasons will be I can be we can we somehow figure out how to constrain ourselves by by choice,

Robert Bryce  1:04:30  

voluntary constraint,

Carey King  1:04:33  

with strict our degrees of freedom, or we grow and until we just can’t we the size of us, our system has filled up the environment so much that we can no longer profitably extract from the environment and grow, we’ll just reach some maximum limit. So one of those dudes is going to occur. And so the question is whether we try to just not reach the maximum by choice by imposing some constraints. So you could say a lot We’re gonna try to maximize efficiency as much as possible, but we’re gonna have to add some extra restrictions on yourself to not just grow for the sake of growing. But you could say, well, if I want efficiency to lower carbon emissions, I’m actually going to have to prevent increases in consumption that can arise, because we got more efficient. And then one of them it actually, it’s not.

Robert Bryce  1:05:21  

So either there’s either we’re gonna, we’re going to have to have some collective wisdom and agreement to try to use less or those limits will effectively be pushed on us is, and I guess that, you know, maybe that. Yeah, I mean, maybe it’s almost too, too obvious to save it and say it. But that’s what I just heard you say, is that, is that fair?

Carey King  1:05:46  

I, I think what you said is fair. So. So the Yeah, I mean, and the difficulty here and sort of the narratives is, you know, you’ll find plenty of peer reviewed economic articles that say, no, this Jevons paradox thing, this idea of efficiency or getting more, consumption doesn’t happen. Look, I’ve done this analysis, and it doesn’t happen, right. But any analysis that only takes part of the economic system and looks at it, like just looking at my house, or looking at the City of Austin, you’re missing the point. The point is, you have to think about the whole system. And when you look at the whole global economy, we have gotten more efficient, we are consuming more, right?

Robert Bryce  1:06:26  

As we say toward toward that end, let me add one thing, because we haven’t talked about this, I was looking at the Energy Institute website, or I got your email, in fact, from this morning, about this energy infrastructure dashboard, that now you have up at the Energy Institute, what’s the I don’t have that URL, I can they, if they if they Google energy infrastructure dashboard will then take them, take them to

Carey King  1:06:45  

how you can look up energy infrastructure of the future. Or if you go to the Energy Institute website, which is energy dot new, there is a link to Policy Studies. And one of the links from the policy studies button goes to energy infrastructure the future. And then that takes you to this dashboard in which we let people select certain things have to change about the future of energy for 13 regions of the United States, to the year 2050. And then we actually do some calculations on the back end, goes to a server somewhere calculates, consumes electricity and spits out carbon when it does these calculations, and gives you the results. And so it’s a way for people to explore on their own with some fidelity, you can compare, you know, the Biden’s plan or something like this or right to go high, low carbon and the electricity system and see what happens. And it’s not everything you could change about the energy system by any means. But it’s a select set of things that we think are pretty informative. And we’ve been working on it for the last three years and just launched it in the last month. And there’s a you know, tutorials and webinars. An example reports one of the good features is you can run your scenario and you can save your scenario as a PDF file, and then, you know, send it to all your friends and say, here’s here’s mine, here’s what I think writing entity or legislator, like here, here’s what Sure.

Robert Bryce  1:08:06  

And I noodled around with it just a little bit this morning and just looked at Texas, and then you can put in what percentage of the electricity mix you went from natural gas, how much from nuclear how much geothermal, how much wind, how much solar, and then it gives you a land use calculation as well. So I thought it was really it was very clever. And I thought I

Carey King  1:08:23  

did that for you. I put the land use for you. And thank you very kindly, I’m pretty back of the envelope. But at least it’s it’s a dumb,

Robert Bryce  1:08:30  

but at least it’s a number and it makes sense. You know, it’s tied to something, you know, in reality, and I’m very focused on the land use issues, because, you know, I continue to follow, you know, and the Israelis just rejected a wind project in the Golan Heights, there was another project and will gage county Nebraska rejected a win win project, Christian County, Illinois, essentially banned wind projects in the land use issue is big. So anyway, I won’t I won’t beat my own drum. I’m here to interview you. So yes, thank you for the land use calculations on the interview.

Carey King  1:09:03  

I forgot to mention in my newsletter that just recently went out, as you said that, yeah, there was a webinar I did for the US United States Association for energy economics, with Varun, right here at the Energy Institute director, and Armand Cohen of clean air Task Force. And we talked about the tool. I didn’t put a link to it in my newsletter, I should have done that. But we do talk about land use and cleaner Task Force, they look at this in some pretty good detail and are associated with researchers looking at in detail. And yeah, as you say, you can get to pretty low percentages of land use for say, citing infrastructure in general, but they’re focused on wind and solar, you get to a few percentages in a state and it’s it starts to become can become pretty difficult in terms of actually putting it somewhere.

Robert Bryce  1:09:49  

Sure. So just, uh, two more things. So Carrie, what are you reading these days? I mean, I know you’re reading a lot but what do you read when you’re when you’re not working when he books you recommend And who do you Who do you enjoy reading?

Carey King  1:10:02  

Right? Well, yeah, I did a reading for the book and haven’t read as much since then. But the last book I read was the deficit myth by Stephanie. Kelton just kind of finished that. That’s just about it’s a modern monetary theory. Right? The money

Robert Bryce  1:10:18  

from SUNY Stony Brook? Yeah, right. Yeah, that

Carey King  1:10:22  

was a whole group of them. It used to be at University of Missouri, Kansas City. And so yeah, it’s about, you know, the role of public spending how, how the, how the federal government spending money is much different than banks, creating money through loans and credit. And these are very important distinction. And I’m looking to incorporate I incorporate these distinctions I’m looking to in my own economic modeling of the energy system, I got the great leveler by Walter scheidel, as they say, his name that’s kind of about how inequality has changed. Essentially, you need some sort of, or that you need. But traditionally, historically, there’s been some sort of famine or war or, you know, economic calamity that has been the trigger for increasing inequality. And when you have stability, you tend to increase inequality with stability. So that’s relevant for thinking about today. Another fun books are Donald Hoffman’s case against reality, which I read, doing inform my book and some of his papers that’s trying to think about, do we really know how we’re making decisions? And do we really perceive the world? What we see in the world? Is that really what’s happening? Do we know what’s happening?

Robert Bryce  1:11:30  

So, so no, Tom Clancy, in other words, here, I don’t hear any,

Carey King  1:11:35  

I tend to read things that are more Yeah, science and philosophy that can inform how I form economic modeling. Another book that I really enjoyed that informed my book was, and I listened to his podcast, on perils of the big picture. And I mentioned some of the ideas, he emphasized about philosophic philosophy of naturalism. And, you know, if you don’t buy into naturalism, you’re sort of buying into supernaturalism. So naturalism is, you know, what we observe in the environment is the only thing that we have to face are

Robert Bryce  1:12:07  

the big picture, the big picture is where it’s gone.

Carey King  1:12:09  

His book is called this, this book is called the big picture. And, you know, so you’re not going to use what you observe and what you know how to observe and test in the environment. What’s going on around the world? And what else are you using to govern your decision making? So it’s kind of, you know, in my philosophy of thinking, sure, that’s how you can understand the world by testing it, and observing things. And then you try to check if your observations are correct. And so yeah, the natural world is the only thing, the only thing we have to look at and understand how things are going. So

Robert Bryce  1:12:42  

yeah, that sounds interesting. Yeah, that’s it. That’s I haven’t heard that all. So one last, again, it’s Gary King, the author of the economic super organism beyond the competing narratives on energy growth and policy. So last question for you, what gives you hope,

Carey King  1:12:56  

gives me hope, well, that we, I’d say we’re not in a super organism, since we’re not necessarily in charge of knowing or are exactly projecting or predicting how big the economy is going to be how much stuff we’re going to consume, these kind of things. But we are in control of much more directly as distribution. And so I am hopeful that we’ll just start to focus more on distribution, and how we distribute the proceeds of the economy, rather than the size of the economy. And I think discussions are slowly moving in this direction. Whether people can move away from saying, well, in order to distribute more evenly, I have to grow, you got to move away from that. So I’m hopeful that we can move away from that because people are getting beyond GDP, as they say, a lot of discussion is getting away from GDP as a metric. I still think GDP is valuable, because it does seem to be a metric that represents the physical to some degree of physical output of the economy, but physical output of the economy is not everything we need to know. And certainly is not a metric of well being. So if we focus on your well being and distribution, I’m hopeful that we’re moving in that direction. And if we get there, it’ll be easier to tackle climate.

Robert Bryce  1:14:13  

Good. Well, that’s a good place to stop anything that we’ve that I’ve failed to mention or bring up. Carrie you want to talk about?

Carey King  1:14:21  

No, I guess not. Yeah, hopefully check out check out the book. Yeah, Kerry is my website. And thanks for having me.

Robert Bryce  1:14:30  

Glad to do it. Gary King is the author of the economic super organism beyond the competing narratives on energy growth and policy. It’s on published by Springer. It’s available on Amazon. He’s on twitter at Kerry at Kerry w King Kerry. Thanks a million for being on the podcast. Thanks to all of you for listening. And I will see you next time on the power hungry podcast.

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