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Energy’s Iron Triangle.

Written By: - Date published: 7:46 am, December 11th, 2020 - 62 comments
Categories: energy, Environment, global warming, uncategorized - Tags: ,

For those who don’t trawl through all the comments; a little personal background. I’ve been fortunate enough to have just finished up a 40 year career in technology and automation, most of it in heavy industry. Looking back it’s been one hell of an adventure, tough at times, but I’ve been one of those lucky people who find their work intrinsically rewarding. While most of my working life was based in NZ, a good 20% or so was in other countries. Some of them reasonably exotic locations.

At the same time, I’ve always maintained an interest in a range of non-mainstream alternative views of the world … the list is long and varied, I’ll spare this forum from listing the peculiar tangents I’ve explored over time. But in a nutshell, I may have earned a living in a deterministic world, but my soul always yearned to have a few non-deterministic mysteries left.

The two world views have not always sat comfortably with me; neither the eco-loon nor the engineer could fully answer the questions I asked of them … where the hell are we going? The engineer informed me of just how our incomprehensibly complex, inter-dependent, industrialised world sustains us all; while the eco-loon declared that same world often destructive in unintended ways, alienating and ultimately perhaps doomed. They both spoke truth, even if their sensibilities and voices conflicted.

The Eco-Modernist movement attempts a reconciliation, and this piece references in particular their manifesto outlining a path forward. Let’s start with what has been achieved in the unique, turbulent and astonishing period we have come through:

Humanity has flourished over the past two centuries. Average life expectancy has increased from 30 to 70 years, resulting in a large and growing population able to live in many different environments. Humanity has made extraordinary progress in reducing the incidence and impacts of infectious diseases, and it has become more resilient to extreme weather and other natural disasters.

Violence in all forms has declined significantly and is probably at the lowest per capita level ever experienced by the human species, the horrors of the 20th century and present-day terrorism notwithstanding. Globally, human beings have moved from autocratic government toward liberal democracy characterized by the rule of law and increased freedom.

Personal, economic, and political liberties have spread worldwide and are today largely accepted as universal values. Modernization liberates women from traditional gender roles, increasing their control of their fertility. Historically large numbers of humans — both in percentage and in absolute terms — are free from insecurity, penury, and servitude.

Moreover our population is going to increase more than ten-fold, from just under 1b in 1800 to probably a bit over 10b in 2100. A world of 10b mouths to feed is fundamentally different to one of 1b; each and every day these people are fed, clothed and largely kept alive by an industrial system of immense complexity, a web of energy, resources, methods and mechanisation spread across the globe. A photosynthesis constrained world (muscle and wood energy only) simply never did this; our so-called ‘carrying capacity’ under those conditions was probably somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0b. Unwind the industrial system and there is little reason to think this is not the population (and similar social conditions) that will eventually prevail; a fast or slow collapse … the outcome would eventually be a reversion to very similar pre-industrial conditions.

Yet without belabouring the obvious, this same industrial system rests heavily on fossil carbon fuels that we know we cannot continue to consume without another equally unhappy outcome; a climate/resource crisis that will destabilise everything. Again slow or fast … the outcome will be the same. And there is no rule that says we might not stumble into both crisis’ at once, an economic/technology collapse and climate change both feeding into each other.

This is a stark outlook. The current industrial path we are on appears to be a literal dead end, yet abandoning it altogether and reverting to the pre-industrial world is equally catastrophic. Neither is an acceptable plan … and for the purposes of the argument being made here, I am firmly setting both aside as essentially strawmen arguments.

This leaves us with two broad options; the most popular is the idea that we might retreat a little, downsize our consumption habits  to somewhere around the developed world in the 1950’s. There is merit to this, we’ve been there before and thus we know it can be done. But it comes with at least three problems.  One is that selectively unravelling what technology and consumption we want to keep (nice things like birth control, computers, etc) while shutting down the ones we have to let go is a non-trivial problem. Assuming we can maintain the benefits of  modernisation, while unwinding much of underlying physical basis of it at the same time is a risky assumption.

More pragmatically, there is no global solidarity for such a program. Neither the developing world would buy into it, quite reasonably they would see it as the rich world denying them the benefits they have briefly enjoyed, or a rogue nation might cheat on the deal and seize a hegemonic dominance. Absent any global means to reliably enforce such a powerdown, indefinitely into the future, it’s an idea set up to fail in my view for these two reasons alone.

But in more seriously a world of maybe 2 -3b humans we can make the numbers around such a managed retreat work. With 10b it’s much less clear that they do. No matter our good intentions here, I do not believe we can “save and efficiency’ our way out of this in the long run. (Note: None of this implies that reducing waste, gross profligacy and moderating our material demands on the world should not be done where possible; it’s just an insufficient action in isolation.)

The takeaway here is a version of the classic ‘Iron Triangle‘, three constraints appear to define our future; one is destabilising environmental cost of continuing with our present industrialised base, the other is the unsupportable cost of abandoning it, and the third being an absolute ethical requirement to ensure a world of 10b people can thrive in both hope and dignity.

Right now we occupy the triangular space between them … and it’s shrinking. To escape we must find a path past one of the boundaries.

PS: During the process of writing this up a new page appeared at OurWorldInData just yesterday. It explores this theme and provides much greater background data and detail.

62 comments on “Energy’s Iron Triangle. ”

  1. Robert Guyton 1

    Engineer.v. eco-loon ???
    Perhaps techno-loon .v. eco-loon?
    In all fairness 🙂

    Are all comments for this post being moderated before publication? That’s odd!

    • RedLogix 1.1

      That’s odd!

      My bad; it's been so long since I put up a new post that I ticked a wrong box. All good now I trust, but can you reply here just to check I've applied the right fix please?

      Perhaps techno-loon .v. eco-loon?

      Fair enough; I just wanted the two words to start with 'e'. And I used the the word 'loon' in it's affectionate sense. (Like when Aussies call you the c-word, and you haven't done anything obvious to piss them off, it means you've entered the matezone.)

      • Robert Guyton 1.1.1

        All good, but now I can't help by see, "eco-loons and techno-c**** 🙂

      • Phillip ure 1.1.2

        can I question your assumption of population to be 10 billion..?

        back in July the bbc reported how birthrates are dropping rapidly..

        with most ..if not all countries seeing major drops in population from now..

        ..with some countries seeing their populations halving…

        ..this falling birthrate being noticed now is being put down to more women getting educations..and increased use of contraceptive…

        how would this eventuality colour your reasonings..?

        • RedLogix

          Good question; yes in many places population has plateaued or is falling. Some quite surprising places like Brazil for instance have an inverted demographic pyramid, and will peak within decades.

          But it's Africa where the projections just keep on rising. I really like this site, it's fast and makes the core demographic data extremely accessible. Really worth a few minutes banging about on.

          There are a range of scenarios from a high to low, but again the best summary I know is again here at OurWorldInData. Basically as people move to the cities, and move toward modernisation, family size drops precipitously.

          Will the future always looks this, while these trends always hold? I don't think anyone knows the long term answer to that question, but these projections look reasonable for the rest of this century.

          • Phillip ure

            ..one could quite reasonably assume that further education..(formal..or via mobile phone/online..)..will see that rise in women getting educations/using contraception more in those african countries also..

            and the ensuing drop in their birthrates also..?

            you'd think…?

            since finding that out..back in July…

            I have accepted that as underlining the fact that the overpopulation thing just isn't going to happen..

            and this must affect any plans/thinking etc..?

            given that that overpopulation chimera has coloured most thought/attitudes..

            has been viewed as a given..

            ..for as long as I can remember…

            • RedLogix

              The best metaphor I can think of is that collectively humanity has gone through an adolescent growth spurt so spectacular it was easy to think it was going to continue indefinitely.

              • Phillip ure

                so…we can park that 10 billion prediction..?

                  • Phillip ure


                    did you even read the link you posted..?

                    it confirms that population will level out/drop by 2100..

                    this due to a precipitous drop in the global birth-rate..

                    so chrs for backing up what I said..

                    that the population-bomb..doom!..doom..!

                    is essentially bullshit..

                    ..and just a distraction from what we have to do to ensure that world is liveable for that population..

                    ..many of whom are being born today..

                    • The Al1en

                      Of course I read it, and while the quote above confirms a lower birth rate over time, it also states population numbers will continue to grow regardless.

                      Again "The UN Population Division report of 2019 projects world population to continue growing, although at a steadily decreasing rate, and to reach 10.9 billion in 2100 with a growth rate at that time of close to zero"

                      The page does state some other projections a bit lower, and they also rely on low total fertility rate, but bet on it falling more rapidly than the UN report.

                      So while 10 billion isn't guaranteed, it certainly can't be 'parked' either. Understand now?

                    • RedLogix

                      I'm thinking you're both misreading each other here.

                    • The Al1en

                      I'm thinking you're both misreading each other here.

                      I'm not sure how

                      so…we can park that 10 billion prediction..?

                      Countered with

                      The UN Population Division report of 2019 projects world population to continue growing, although at a steadily decreasing rate, and to reach 10.9 billion in 2100 with a growth rate at that time of close to zero

                      Can be misread in anyway.

                      But then these are interesting times.

                    • Phillip ure []

                      @ t.a..

                      the main point is that the population doomsayers.

                      ..predicting growth forever..

                      ..leading to inevitable doom and gloom'…are/were wrong..

                      that is not going to happen..

                      understand now..?

                    • The Al1en

                      Actually, the only point I've commented on, is your 10 Billion population can be parked, which as per the UN projection shows, cannot be taken as certain fact.

                      The rest is for you to debate, honestly, with that point now made.

                • RedLogix

                  Somewhere between 10 and 12b is the most reasonable prediction for the rest of this century.

                  But it is the business of the future to be a dangerous place … devil

  2. Ad 2

    Haven't read that last link, but Red it's great to see you contributing in long form.

  3. mango 3

    It's good to see your position set out clearly. Some of the comments you have received have been a bit unfair and personal (That's the internet for you).

    • RedLogix 3.1

      That research link you provided the other night was especially helpful in that it did provide a sound basis for describing a minimum Decent Living Energy floor (DLE). I was going to link to it, but the PostCarbon Org site I used instead makes a more broad based and comprehensive case.

      However the next post I'm planning will endeavour to show that a retreat to even this low DLE is still too much in isolation.

    • RedLogix 4.1

      I have a meeting to get to at the moment, but yes both do look highly pertinent …

      I'll take a look later.

    • RedLogix 4.2

      That SEED's author makes some excellent points about how fundamental energy is to economics and he makes his case well enough.

      To get anywhere at all with our investigation, we need to start by recognizing that the economy is an energy system, and not a financial one. Money is a human artefact used to exchange the goods and services that constitute economic output, but all of these are products of energy. Our economic history is a narrative of how we have applied energy to improve our material conditions.

      As a starting point I totally agree, but as he progresses I think he misses something important that I'll try to explore later.


      • Pat 4.2.1

        I will keep an eye out for your post to see what you think he has missed….I note his argument is the same as that of Susan Krumdieck (and others) albeit in slightly different terms

  4. AB 5

    That's a useful way of thing about it. Some of those 'iron' boundaries are mental as much as they are material – so are possibly more prone to breaking, and not necessarily in a good way.

  5. Robert Guyton 6

    Are you proposing then, RedLogix, a doubling-down of this " unique, turbulent and astonishing period we have come through", despite saying that "The current industrial path we are on appears to be a literal dead end"?

    • mango 6.1

      To be fair to RedLogix, I think that his position is that while reduced consumption might be necessary he doesn't think it will be sufficient by itself. Hence his advocacy of new technology.

      • Robert Guyton 6.1.1

        Having seen first-hand some repurposing of existing technologies by inventive people from South-East Asia, I don't see that a return to the 1950's is even a possibility; some materials present in the world now are practically indestructible (the blades of diggers etc…) and won't disappear in the event of an economic collapse. New technologies generally emerge from the military complex, we've been repeatedly told, so I'm anxious when faith in those is advocated. What will come with. such thinking? Who will call those shots?

      • Robert Guyton 6.1.2

        Here's one: biodegradable rat-traps, delivered by drone!

        "The current prototype had a small cone, sized between a thimble and a shot glass, just big enough for a rat’s head to fit inside.

        When a rat nibbled the bait, a biodegradable elastic band would snap around its neck and quickly strangle it."


  6. mango 7


    I would recommend this source for all it's other content with the caveat that some of the thought experiments sometimes go a bit further than is reasonable.

  7. Andre 8

    What would it take to build enough zero-carbon electricity to replace the fossil fuels currently used? Let’s do a ten-minute wild-ass guess at that.

    The world currently uses energy at the rate of about 18 TW (TW is a trillion watts).


    That's the primary energy used – ie electricity output from non-fossil generators, plus the chemical energy contained in coal, gas, oil, regardless of where it's used . When fossil fuel is burned for process heat, most of that primary energy goes to its intended purpose of heating. But when it's burned in some sort of heat engine to turn it into electricity or mechanical motion, the efficiency ranges somewhere from 25% to 55%. Considering this loss of energy wouldn't happen if all those mechanical energy users were electrically powered, let's hand-wave and say 10TW of total electricity supply would be needed to replace all primary energy currently used.

    Renewable energy costs around USD3 per watt to build, for a rough hand-wavy number for the sake of argument, allowing for 3x overbuild in capacity to allow for intermittency. Nukes around USD6 per watt to build.


    So, really rough order of magnitude guess, building enough zero carbon electricity generation to supply all of humanity's current energy use would be in the range of of 30 to 60 trillion US dollars. Plus the cost to change over to electricity all the machines that currently burn dino-juice. Call it another 30 to 60 trillion. 60 to 120 trillion USD to get ourselves to zero-carbon worldwide.

    Current global GDP is around 85 trillion. Put 10% of global efforts to getting to zero-emissions, and we'd be there in somewhere around a decade.

    With World War 2 level mobilisation and sense of urgency, it looks doable.

    • WeTheBleeple 8.1

      Now we're talking.

      There's still a paradigm shift required around 'reasonable consumption', where ecological literacy and the continued deification of the lifestyles of the rich and famous are problematic to environmental and social progress.

      Clean energy for all would be an incredibly good springboard to launch a brave new future – for all.

    • RedLogix 8.2

      Nukes around USD6 per watt to build.

      They used to be around the USD1 per watt, but this has been greatly inflated by a range of 'soft costs' over the past few decades. Mostly because building massive 'one off' plants as site builds entails a whole range of commercial and project management risks.

      The good news is that everyone innovating in this space is totally aware that if a 4th gen nuclear tech is ever to be useful, the price has to be under that of coal/gas and solar. The critical innovation to achieve will be to build smaller standard designs in a factory, and then ship them to where they're needed.

      • WeTheBleeple 8.2.1

        What's your take on China's fusion project?

        • RedLogix

          Sorting out hype from reality is always hard with China, but my guess is that they're not as far advanced as they'd like us to think they are, but at the same time they've made a lot of progress they don't want us to really know about.

          Especially in military applications. For instance I've seen informed speculation around a molten salt fission based nuclear submarine being far more advanced than the search engines will readily show.

          They know they are terribly exposed to disruption of Middle East oil supplies and are highly motivated to reduce this.

          • WeTheBleeple

            Thanks RL. It seemed to me a combo of vanity project but also some blue sky type research which I always appreciate.

            'Exposed to disruption' – good point, justification enough to run with such projects.

  8. Robert Guyton 9

    "This leaves us with two broad options; the most popular is the idea that we might retreat a little, downsize our consumption habits to somewhere around the developed world in the 1950’s."

    The problem with this proposal is that unless the seemingly-ingrained human need to "improve" their circumstances, no matter what those circumstances are, will lead to the same "progress" that brought us to this point; a re-set to a less-destructive state will only be of value if somehow we are able to rein-in our rapaciousness, hence my call for a "change of heart", a re-culturing that results in a secure and accepted way of being for humans that holds discretion as the highest ideal. We have to learn a number of things for this to work; a sense of scale, a sense of responsibility, a reverence for everything and everyone on the outside of our own skin.

    • Tricledrown 9.1

      Cambridge Analytica did a survey on how Americans think many wanted to go back to the fifties when men were men and Women knew their place .

    • RedLogix 9.2

      hence my call for a "change of heart",

      Yes, this is essential too.

      And again if we look back over the past 200 years, consider how much 'change of heart' we have already undertaken. This is very encouraging.

      Because while we always carry with us the biological scripts our physical bodies have inherited from millions of years of evolution, I firmly reject the idea that 'human nature' is fixed and irredeemable. Quite the contrary, we demonstrate a remarkable capacity to adapt our desires and behaviours to changed circumstances.

      • Robert Guyton 9.2.1

        " I firmly reject the idea that 'human nature' is fixed and irredeemable. Quite the contrary, we demonstrate a remarkable capacity to adapt our desires and behaviours to changed circumstances."

        Agreed. Who has, or which culture has, the best "take" on what "human nature" is, do you think, RedLogix?

        • RedLogix

          Good question, but forgive me for proffering an answer beyond the acceptable bounds of what is a political forum.

          Let me just say this much; the unity of the human race is the core moral challenge of our particular era. Everything else flows from this.

          • Robert Guyton

            Indeed. What do you see as the essential beliefs that unify the human race at this point in time?

            • Ad

              Betterment and eating.

              • Robert Guyton

                Complicated by bettering our eating, leading to obesity, ridiculous trade set-ups, the extinction of tasty-but-frivilous species, cruelty to animals and a whole raft of other abominations; our stomachs rule our heads and are causing the destruction of the other-than-stomach world!

  9. Maurice 10

    So … if we downsize back to the 1950's will we bring back Mark One Zephyrs?

    Asking for a friend (who wants one) .. or will we get electric Ford Prefects?

    • Robert Guyton 10.1

      I yearn for winklepickers!

    • Phillip ure 10.2

      can we all smoke ciggies again..?

      • Phillip ure 10.2.1

        but seriously…there is no way people will 'go back'.….

        dunno what the destination will be like…

        ..but we always move 'forward'..

        ..be it to a dystopia..(economic/environmental)

        ..or a more enlightened future ..

        .we can get this sorted..

        ..but not by continuing doing things the way we do now…that much is certain..

        the victorians had absolutely no idea of what the future held..

        ..and neither do we..

        all we can do is make wild guesses..

        ..and agitate for what needs doing..that is right under our noses..

        • greywarshark

          We are going back PU. Our society is abandoning the concepts that have driven many people to sacrifice their lives to improve conditions for others and to bring in changes that keep out the darkness that threatens the human soul. We have regressed and it seems to me that we are back to about the 1960s in our thoughts and behaviours.

          The wokeness of the present parallels the flower power of the past, the search for different gender identity matches the cults that would suck in young people and then entrap them so that they had to be kidnapped and be deprogrammed for their parents to once again be part of their children's lives.

          Feminism was trying to break through barriers of prejudice; in the USA agitation for a break from the racial superiority arrogantly applied by whites was continuing and some breakthrough achieved but with immense courage from those forcing it.

          In NZ we slowly pulled away in the 1960s but even in the 1970s there were shameful examples of racism and disrespecting women.

          We have gone backwards. But not in the way we need most, and that is to a simpler life and less posing and pouting about how great our homes are, with every mod con. And we need to model this approach. Robert and his family are one example. Perhaps we can start keeping a note of those who have managed to change their lives around and keep them in a group, not necessarily under their own names which could put them in the spotlight, but with details and some images of how to go about it. Not preachy, but showing others that it can be done, and have ideas that can be followed for those wanting to make a start, from which they will expand. If there is a site on-line, to make it easily accessible, perhaps we can make a note of it here, and curate all those that come forward. Give them feedback too.

          • Phillip ure

            @ grey..

            would you have been considered to be a straight..back then..?

            how was your sixties..?

            • greywarshark

              I'm trying to be objective here. It is a societal thing and I'm not personalising it, though I can bring memories of the time to the comment. This is a big thing, and needs an overview of what is happening.

              • Phillip ure


                just a quick snapshot..

                grey in the sixties..

                it isn’t a crime to have been a straight..

      • Robert Guyton 10.2.2

        Nah – but you can tuck 'em behind your ear, if you wanna be cool.

  10. Muttonbird 11

    All I'm reading is 'engineers made the world great, and eco-terrorists want to destroy it'.

    Straight out of the ACT party manifesto.

    • greywarshark 11.1

      Oh dear. The engineer's practical view – I thought that might happen so I haven't perused it. There is so much to think about just now. One thing I know is there won't be an easy answer, and engineering won't save us from nature unrestrained. I did put up a link yesterday showing the underground caves fashioned about 900 BC in Cappadocia, Turkey. You had to watch your engineering there and ensure there were enough columns as the soft rock they hacked into could collapse. But they did pretty well in those supposedly primitive times.

      • RedLogix 11.1.1

        But they did pretty well in those supposedly primitive times.

        I tend to think of our ancient ancestors as tough and smart people; they survived in a very difficult world and achieved many remarkable things given the limits they had to live with.

  11. Foreign waka 12

    There is of cause the question whether nature will rectify what is currently a mismatch of development of technology and size of population to nourish. If, for instance the disappearance of the rain forest is continuing at the current rate, we don't need to think about any of this because the decision has been made….by sheer greed.

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