My views on environmentally friendly production and consumption of energy, and especially on public policies in that field, differ radically from what seems to be currently the mainstream of scientific research and writing. I even got kicked out of a scientific conference because of my views. After my paper was accepted, I received a questionnaire to fill, which was supposed to feed the discussion on the plenary session of that conference. I answered those questions in good faith and sincerely, and: boom! I receive an email which says that my views ‘are not in line with the ideas we want to develop in the scientific community’. You could rightly argue that my views might be so incongruous that kicking me out of that conference was an act of mercy rather than enmity. Good. Let’s pass my views in review.
There is that thing of energy efficiency and climate neutrality. Energy efficiency, i.e. the capacity to derive a maximum of real output out of each unit of energy consumed, can be approached from two different angles: as a stationary value, on the one hand, or an elasticity, on the other hand. We could say: let’s consume as little energy as we possibly can and be as productive as possible with that frugal base. That’s the stationary view. Yet, we can say: let’s rock it, like really. Let’s boost our energy consumption so as to get in control of our climate. Let’s pass from roughly 30% of energy generated on the surface of the Earth, which we consume now, to like 60% or 70%. Sheer laws of thermodynamics suggest that if we manage to do that, we can really run the show. These is the summary of what in my views is not in line with ‘the ideas we want to develop in the scientific community’.
Of course, I can put forth any kind of idiocy and claim this is a valid viewpoint. Politics are full of such episodes. I was born and raised in a communist country. I know something about stupid, suicidal ideas being used as axiology for running a nation. I also think that discarding completely other people’s ‘ideas we want to develop in the scientific community’ and considering those people as pathetically lost would be preposterous from my part. We are all essentially wrong about that complex stuff we call ‘reality’. It is just that some ways of being wrong are more functional than others. I think truly correct a way to review the current literature on energy-related policies is to take its authors’ empirical findings and discuss them
under a different interpretation, namely the one sketched in the preceding paragraph.
I like looking at things with precisely that underlying assumption that I don’t know s**t about anything, and I just make up cognitive stuff which somehow pays off. I like swinging around that Ockham’s razor and cut out all the strong assumptions, staying just with the weak ones, which do not require much assuming and are at the limit of stylized observations and theoretical claims.
My basic academic background is in law (my Master’s degree), and in economics (my PhD). I look at social reality around me through the double lens of those two disciplines, which, when put in stereoscopic view, boil down to having an eye on patterns in human behaviour.
I think I observe that we, humans, are social and want to stay social, and being social means a baseline mutual predictability in our actions. We are very much about maintaining a certain level of coherence in culture, which means a certain level of behavioural coupling. We would rather die than accept the complete dissolution of that coherence. We, humans, we make behavioural coherence: this is our survival strategy, and it allows us to be highly social. Our cultures always develop along the path of differentiation in social roles. We like specializing inside the social group we belong to.
Our proclivity to endorse specific skillsets, which turn into social roles, has the peculiar property of creating local surpluses, and we tend to trade those surpluses. This is how markets form. In economics, there is that old distinction between production and consumption. I believe that one of the first social thinkers who really meant business about it was Jean Baptiste Say, in his “Treatise of Political Economy”. Here >> https://discoversocialsciences.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Say_treatise_political-economy.pdf you have it in the English translation, whilst there >>
https://discoversocialsciences.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/traite-deconomie-politique-jean-baptiste-say.pdf it is in its elegant French original.
In my perspective, the distinction between production and consumption is instrumental, i.e. it is useful for solving some economic problems, but just some. Saying that I am a consumer is a gross simplification. I am a consumer in some of my actions, but in others I am a producer. As I write this blog, I produce written content. I prefer assuming that production and consumption are two manifestations of the same activity, namely of markets working around tradable surpluses created by homo sapiens as individual homo sapiens endorse specific social roles.
When some scientists bring forth empirically backed claims that our patterns of consumption have the capacity to impact climate (e.g. Bjelle et al. 2021), I say ‘Yes, indeed, and at the end of that specific intellectual avenue we find out that creating some specific, tradable surpluses, ergo the fact of endorsing some specific social roles, has the capacity to impact climate’. Bjelle et al. find out something which from my point of view is gobsmacking: whilst relative prevalence of particular goods in the overall patterns of demand has little effect on the emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) at the planetary scale, there are regional discrepancies. In developing countries and in emerging markets, changes in the baskets of goods consumed seem to have strong impact GHG-wise. On the other hand, in developed economies, however the consumers shift their preferences between different goods, it seems to be very largely climate neutral. From there, Bjelle et al. conclude into such issues as environmental taxation. My own take on those results is different. What impacts climate is social change occurring in developing economies and emerging markets, and this is relatively quick demographic growth combined with quick creation of new social roles, and a big socio-economic difference between urban environments, and the rural ones.
In the broad theoretical perspective, states of society which we label as classes of socio-economic development are far more than just income brackets. They are truly different patterns of social interactions. I had a glimpse of that when I was comparing data on the consumption of energy per capita (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE ) with the distribution of gross national product per capita (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD ). It looks as if different levels of economic development were different levels of energy in the social system. Each 100 ÷ 300 kilograms of oil equivalent per capita per year seem to be associated with specific institutions in society.
Let’s imagine that climate change goes on. New s**t comes our way, which we need to deal with. We need to learn. We form new skillsets, and we define new social roles. New social roles mean new tradable surpluses, and new markets with new goods in it. We don’t really know what kind of skillsets, markets and goods that will be. Enhanced effort of collective adaptation leads to outcomes impossible to predict in themselves. The question is: can we predict the way those otherwise unpredictable outcomes will take shape?
My fellow scientists seem not to like unpredictable outcomes. Shigetomi et al. (2020) straightforwardly find out empirically that ‘only the very low, low, and very high-income households are likely to achieve a reduction in carbon footprint due to their high level of environmental consciousness. These income brackets include the majority of elderly households who are likely to have higher consciousness about environmental protection and addressing climate change’. In my fairy-tale, it means that only a fringe of society cares about environment and climate, and this is the fringe which does not really move a lot in terms of new social role. People with low income have low income because their social roles do not allow them to trade significant surpluses, and elderly people with high income do not really shape the labour market.
This is what I infer from those empirical results. Yet, Shigetomi et al. conclude that ‘The Input-Output Analysis Sustainability Evaluation Framework (IOSEF), as proposed in this study, demonstrates how disparity in household consumption causes societal distortion via the supply chain, in terms of consumption distribution, environmental burdens and household preferences. The IOSEF has the potential to be a useful tool to aid in measuring social inequity and burden distribution allocation across time and demographics’.
Guys, like really. Just sit and think for a moment. I even pass over the claim that inequality of income is a social distortion, although I am tempted to say that no know human society has ever been free of that alleged distortion, and therefore we’d better accommodate with it and stop calling it a distortion. What I want is logic. Guys, you have just proven empirically that only low-income people, and elderly high-income people care about climate and environment. The middle-incomes and the relatively young high-incomes, thus people who truly run the show of social and technological change, do not care as much as you would like them to. You claim that inequality of income is a distortion, and you want to eliminate it. When you kick inequality out of the social equation, you get rid of the low-income folks, and of the high-income ones. Stands to reason: with enforced equality, everybody is more or less middle-income. Therefore, the majority of society is in a social position where they don’t give a f**k about climate and environment. Besides, when you remove inequality, you remove vertical social mobility along hierarchies, and therefore you give a cold shoulder to a fundamental driver of social change. Still, you want social change, you have just said it.
Guys, the conclusions you derive from your own findings are the political equivalent of an inflatable dartboard made of fine paper. Cheap to make, might look dashing, and doomed to be extremely short-lived as soon as used in practice.
 Bjelle, E. L., Wiebe, K. S., Többen, J., Tisserant, A., Ivanova, D., Vita, G., & Wood, R. (2021). Future changes in consumption: The income effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Energy Economics, 95, 105114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eneco.2021.105114
 Shigetomi, Y., Chapman, A., Nansai, K., Matsumoto, K. I., & Tohno, S. (2020). Quantifying lifestyle based social equity implications for national sustainable development policy. Environmental Research Letters, 15(8), 084044. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9142