Why can’t we use more energy?

In another comment to my posting, “Leave the World economy alone!” (1 June) Atanu Dey asks — “So aside from prejudice, is there any reason why humans cannot use more energy than they have used in the past?”

There’s no reason at all why a lot more energy — theoretically or practically — can’t be injected into the world economy.  And, in fact, since the Second World War, a very great deal more has been added.  But it’s been nowhere near as much as it might have been added if all those countries outside the top dozen had been able to bring it off politically. That is, for those governments to have been able to arrange things so that untrammelled free enterprise could have taken off.

There’s only been one exception worth speaking of and that’s China. Several other countries where one might have expected great surges of economic growth to have taken place due to either large populations or great per capital assets — e.g. Brazil, India, Russia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran — have hardly stirred.

From their point of view the great tragedy has been that they would have had a chance of breaking into the high-value trading network that the top dozen advanced countries still enjoyed if they had been able to develop some uniquely new products in which to take a lead. But this requires scientific research in depth and, since the Second World War there has been little or no fundamental scientific research ouside the advanced world.

Instead, cutting edge scientific research has burgeoned almost exclusively in only the handful of those countries which were first affected by the industrial revolution in the 19th century. There appear to be no niches available now for other countries to break into even if they get things right politically and culturally. China and other countries will be using more energy in the coming 20 or 30 years but nowhere near as much as they would otherwise have been able to.

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