Unintentional, and yet powerful a reductor

As usually, I work on many things at the same time. I mean, not exactly at the same time, just in a tight alternate sequence. I am doing my own science, and I am doing collective science with other people. Right now, I feel like restating and reframing the main lines of my own science, with the intention to both reframe my own research, and be a better scientific partner to other researchers.

Such as I see it now, my own science is mostly methodological, and consists in studying human social structures as collectively intelligent ones. I assume that collectively we have a different type of intelligence from the individual one, and most of what we experience as social life is constant learning through experimentation with alternative versions of our collective way of being together. I use artificial neural networks as simulators of collective intelligence, and my essential process of simulation consists in creating multiple artificial realities and comparing them.

I deliberately use very simple, if not simplistic neural networks, namely those oriented on optimizing just one attribute of theirs, among the many available. I take a dataset, representative for the social structure I study, I take just one variable in the dataset as the optimized output, and I consider the remaining variables as instrumental input. Such a neural network simulates an artificial reality where the social structure studied pursues just one, narrow orientation. I create as many such narrow-minded, artificial societies as I have variables in my dataset. I assess the Euclidean distance between the original empirical dataset, and each of those artificial societies. 

It is just now that I realize what kind of implicit assumptions I make when doing so. I assume the actual social reality, manifested in the empirical dataset I study, is a concurrence of different, single-variable-oriented collective pursuits, which remain in some sort of dynamic interaction with each other. The path of social change we take, at the end of the day, manifests the relative prevalence of some among those narrow-minded pursuits, with others being pushed to the second rank of importance.

As I am pondering those generalities, I reconsider the actual scientific writings that I should hatch. Publish or perish, as they say in my profession. With that general method of collective intelligence being assumed in human societies, I focus more specifically on two empirical topics: the market of energy and the transition away from fossil fuels make one stream of my research, whilst the civilisational role of cities, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, is another stream of me trying to sound smart in my writing.

For now, I focus on issues connected to energy, and I return to revising my manuscript ‘Climbing the right hill – an evolutionary approach to the European market of electricity’, as a resubmission to Applied Energy . According to the guidelines of Applied Energy , I am supposed to structure my paper into the following parts: Introduction, Material and Methods, Theory, Calculations, Results, Discussion, and, as sort of a summary pitch, I need to prepare a cover letter where I shortly introduce the reasons why should the editor of Applied Energy bother about my paper at all. On the top of all these formally expressed requirements, there is something I noticed about the general style of articles published in Applied Energy : they all demonstrate and discuss strong, sharp-cutting hypotheses, with a pronounced theoretical edge in them. If I want my paper to be accepted by that journal, I need to give it that special style.  

That special style requires two things which, honestly, I am not really accustomed to doing. First of all, it requires, precisely, to phrase out very sharp claims. What I like the most is to show people material and methods which I work with and sort of provoke a discussion around it. When I have to formulate very sharp claims around that basic empirical stuff, I feel a bit awkward. Still, I understand that many people are willing to discuss only when they are truly pissed by the topic at hand, and sharply cut hypotheses serve to fuel that flame.

Second of all, making sharp claims of my own requires passing in thorough review the claims which other researchers phrase out. It requires doing my homework thoroughly in the review-of-literature. Once again, not really a fan of it, on my part, but well, life is brutal, as my parents used to teach me and as I have learnt in my own life. In other words, real life starts when I get out of my comfort zone.

The first body of literature I want to refer to in my revised article is the so-called MuSIASEM framework AKA Multi-scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism’. Human societies are assumed to be giant organisms, and transformation of energy is a metabolic function of theirs (e.g. Andreoni 2020[1], Al-Tamimi & Al-Ghamdi 2020[2] or Velasco-Fernández et al. 2020[3]). The MuSIASEM framework is centred around an evolutionary assumption, which I used to find perfectly sound, and which I have come to consider as highly arguable, namely that the best possible state for both a living organism and a human society is that of the highest possible energy efficiency. As regards social structures, energy efficiency is the coefficient of real output per unit of energy consumption, or, in other words, the amount of real output we can produce with 1 kilogram of oil equivalent in energy. My theoretical departure from that assumption started with my own empirical research, published in my article ‘Energy efficiency as manifestation of collective intelligence in human societies’ (Energy, Volume 191, 15 January 2020, 116500, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2019.116500 ). As I applied my method of computation with a neural network as simulator of social change, I found out that human societies do not really seem to max out on energy efficiency. Maybe they should but they don’t. It was the first realization, on my part, that we, humans, orient our collective intelligence on optimizing the social structure as such, and whatever comes out of that in terms of energy efficiency, is an unintended by-product rather than a purpose. That general impression has been subsequently reinforced by other empirical findings of mine, precisely those which I introduce in that manuscript ‘Climbing the right hill – an evolutionary approach to the European market of electricity’, which I am currently revising for resubmission with Applied Energy . According to the guidelines of Applied Energy.

In practical terms, it means that when a public policy states that ‘we should maximize our energy efficiency’, it is a declarative goal which human societies actually do not strive for. It is a little as if a public policy imposed the absolute necessity of being nice to each other and punished any deviation from that imperative. People are nice to each other to the extent of current needs in social coordination, period. The absolute imperative of being nice is frequently the correlate of intense rivalry, e.g. as it was the case with traditional aristocracy. The French have even an expression, which I find profoundly true, namely ‘trop gentil pour être honnête’, which means ‘too nice to be honest’. My personal experience makes me kick into an alert state when somebody is that sort of intensely nice to me.

Passing from metaphors to the actual subject matter of energy management, it is a known fact that highly innovative technologies are usually truly inefficient. Optimization of efficiency, would it be energy efficiency or any other aspect thereof, is actually a late stage in the lifecycle of a technology. Deep technological change is usually marked by a temporary slump in efficiency. Imposing energy efficiency as chief goal of technology-related policies means systematically privileging and promoting technologies with the highest energy efficiency, thus, by metaphorical comparison to humans, technologies in their 40ies, past and over the excesses of youth.

The MuSIASEM framework has two other traits which I find arguable, namely the concept of evolutionary purpose, and the imperative of equality between countries in terms of energy efficiency. Researchers who lean towards and into the MuSIASEM methodology claim that it is an evolutionary purpose of every living organism to maximize energy efficiency, and therefore human societies have the same evolutionary purpose. It further implies that species displaying marked evolutionary success, i.e. significant growth in headcount (sometimes in mandibulae-count, should the head be not really what we mean it to be), achieve that success by being particularly energy efficient. I even went into some reading in life sciences and that claim is not grounded in any science. It seems that energy efficiency, and any denomination of efficiency, as a matter of fact, are very crude proportions we apply to complex a balance of flows which we have to learn a lot about. Niebel et al. (2019[4]) phrase it out as follows: ‘The principles governing cellular metabolic operation are poorly understood. Because diverse organisms show similar metabolic flux patterns, we hypothesized that a fundamental thermodynamic constraint might shape cellular metabolism. Here, we develop a constraint-based model for Saccharomyces cerevisiae with a comprehensive description of biochemical thermodynamics including a Gibbs energy balance. Non-linear regression analyses of quantitative metabolome and physiology data reveal the existence of an upper rate limit for cellular Gibbs energy dissipation. By applying this limit in flux balance analyses with growth maximization as the objective function, our model correctly predicts the physiology and intracellular metabolic fluxes for different glucose uptake rates as well as the maximal growth rate. We find that cells arrange their intracellular metabolic fluxes in such a way that, with increasing glucose uptake rates, they can accomplish optimal growth rates but stay below the critical rate limit on Gibbs energy dissipation. Once all possibilities for intracellular flux redistribution are exhausted, cells reach their maximal growth rate. This principle also holds for Escherichia coli and different carbon sources. Our work proposes that metabolic reaction stoichiometry, a limit on the cellular Gibbs energy dissipation rate, and the objective of growth maximization shape metabolism across organisms and conditions’. 

I feel like restating the very concept of evolutionary purpose as such. Evolution is a mechanism of change through selection. Selection in itself is largely a random process, based on the principle that whatever works for now can keep working until something else works even better. There is hardly any purpose in that. My take on the thing is that living species strive to maximize their intake of energy from environment rather than their energy efficiency. I even hatched an article about it (Wasniewski 2017[5]).

Now, I pass to the second postulate of the MuSIASEM methodology, namely to the alleged necessity of closing gaps between countries as for their energy efficiency. Professor Andreoni expresses this view quite vigorously in a recent article (Andreoni 2020[6]). I think this postulate doesn’t hold both inside the MuSIASEM framework, and outside of it. As for the purely external perspective, I think I have just laid out the main reasons for discarding the assumption that our civilisation should prioritize energy efficiency above other orientations and values. From the internal perspective of MuSIASEM, i.e. if we assume that energy efficiency is a true priority, we need to give that energy efficiency a boost, right? Now, the last time I checked, the only way we, humans, can get better at whatever we want to get better at is to create positive outliers, i.e. situations when we like really nail it better than in other situations. With a bit of luck, those positive outliers become a workable pattern of doing things. In management science, it is known as the principle of best practices. The only way of having positive outliers is to have a hierarchy of outcomes according to the given criterion. When everybody is at the same level, nobody is an outlier, and there is no way we can give ourselves a boost forward.

Good. Those six paragraphs above, they pretty much summarize my theoretical stance as regards the MuSIASEM framework in research about energy economics. Please, note that I respect that stream of research and the scientists involved in it. I think that representing energy management in human social structures as a metabolism is a great idea: it is one of those metaphors which can be fruitfully turned into a quantitative model. Still, I have my reserves.

I go further. A little more review of literature. Here comes a paper by Halbrügge et al. (2021[7]), titled ‘How did the German and other European electricity systems react to the COVID-19 pandemic?’. It points at an interesting point as regards energy economics: the pandemic has induced a new type of risk, namely short-term fluctuations in local demand for electricity. That, in turn, leads to deeper troughs and higher peaks in both the quantity and the price of energy in the market. More risk requires more liquidity: this is a known principle in business. As regards energy, liquidity can be achieved both through inventories, i.e. by developing storage capacity for energy, and through financial instruments. Halbrügge et al. come to the conclusion that such circumstances in the German market have led to the reinforcement of RES (Renewable Energy Sources). RES installations are typically more dispersed, more local in their reach, and more flexible than large power plants. It is much easier to modulate the output of a windfarm or a solar farm, as compared to a large fossil-fuel-based installation. 

Keeping an eye on the impact of the pandemic upon the market of energy, I pass to the article titled ‘Revisiting oil-stock nexus during COVID-19 pandemic: Some preliminary results’, by Salisu, Ebuh & Usman (2020[8]). First of all, a few words of general explanation as for what the hell is the oil-stock nexus. This is a phenomenon, which I saw any research about in 2017, which consists in a diversification of financial investment portfolios from pure financial stock into various mixes of stock and oil. Somehow around 2015, people who used to hold their liquid investments just in financial stock (e.g. as I do currently) started to build investment positions in various types of contracts based on the floating inventory of oil: futures, options and whatnot. When I say ‘floating’, it is quite literal: that inventory of oil really actually floats, stored on board of super-tanker ships, sailing gently through international waters, with proper gravitas (i.e. not too fast).

Long story short, crude oil has been increasingly becoming a financial asset, something like a buffer to hedge against risks encountered in other assets. Whilst the paper by Salisu, Ebuh & Usman is quite technical, without much theoretical generalisation, an interesting observation comes out of it, namely that short-term shocks, during the pandemic in financial markets had adversely impacted the price of oil more than the prices of stock. That, in turn, could indicate that crude oil was good as hedging asset just for a certain range of risks, and in the presence of price shocks induced by the pandemic, the role of oil could diminish.     

Those two papers point at a factor which we almost forgot as regards the market of energy, namely the role of short-term shocks. Until recently, i.e. until COVID-19 hit us hard, the textbook business model in the sector of energy had been that of very predictable demand, nearly constant in the long-perspective and varying in a sinusoidal manner in the short-term. The very disputable concept of LCOE AKA Levelized Cost of Energy, where investment outlays are treated as if they were a current cost, is based on those assumptions. The pandemic has shown a different aspect of energy systems, namely the need for buffering capacity. That, in turn, leads to the issue of adaptability, which, gently but surely leads further into the realm of adaptive changes, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is my beloved landscape of evolutionary, collectively intelligent change.

Cool. I move forward, and, by the same occasion, I move back. Back to the concept of energy efficiency. Halvorsen & Larsen study the so-called rebound effect as regards energy efficiency (Halvorsen & Larsen 2021[9]). Their paper is interesting for three reasons, the general topic of energy efficiency being the first one. The second one is methodological focus on phenomena which we cannot observe directly, and therefore we observe them through mediating variables, which is theoretically close to my own method of research. Finally, the phenomenon of rebound effect, namely the fact that, in the presence of temporarily increased energy efficiency, the consumers of energy tend to use more of those locally more energy-efficient goods, is essentially a short-term disturbance being transformed into long-term habits. This is adaptive change.

The model construed by Halvorsen & Larsen is a theoretical delight, just something my internal happy bulldog can bite into. They introduce the general assumption that consumption of energy in households is a build-up of different technologies, which can substitute each other under some conditions, and complementary under different conditions. Households maximize something called ‘energy services’, i.e. everything they can purposefully derive from energy carriers. Halvorsen & Larsen build and test a model where they derive demand for energy services from a whole range of quite practical variables, which all sums up to the following: energy efficiency is indirectly derived from the way that social structures work, and it is highly doubtful whether we can purposefully optimize energy efficiency as such.       

Now, here comes the question: what are the practical implications of all those different theoretical stances, I mean mine and those by other scientists? What does it change, and does it change anything at all, if policy makers follow the theoretical line of the MuSIASEM framework, or, alternatively, my approach? I am guessing differences at the level of both the goals, and the real outcomes of energy-oriented policies, and I am trying to wrap my mind around that guessing. Such as I see it, the MuSIASEM approach advocates for putting energy-efficiency of the whole global economy at the top of any political agenda, as a strategic goal. On the path towards achieving that strategic goal, there seems to be an intermediate one, namely that to narrow down significantly two types of discrepancies:

>> firstly, it is about discrepancies between countries in terms of energy efficiency, with a special focus on helping the poorest developing countries in ramping up their efficiency in using energy

>> secondly, there should be a priority to privilege technologies with the highest possible energy efficiency, whilst kicking out those which perform the least efficiently in that respect.    

If I saw a real policy based on those assumptions, I would have a few critical points to make. Firstly, I firmly believe that large human societies just don’t have the institutions to enforce energy efficiency as chief collective purpose. On the other hand, we have institutions oriented on other goals, which are able to ramp up energy efficiency as instrumental change. One institution, highly informal and yet highly efficient, is there, right in front of our eyes: markets and value chains. Each product and each service contain an input of energy, which manifests as a cost. In the presence of reasonably competitive markets, that cost is under pressure from market prices. Yes, we, humans are greedy, and we like accumulating profits, and therefore we squeeze our costs. Whenever energy comes into play as significant a cost, we figure out ways of diminishing its consumption per unit of real output. Competitive markets, both domestic and international, thus including free trade, act as an unintentional, and yet powerful a reductor of energy consumption, and, under a different angle, they remind us to find cheap sources of energy.

[1] Andreoni, V. (2020). The energy metabolism of countries: Energy efficiency and use in the period that followed the global financial crisis. Energy Policy, 139, 111304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2020.111304

[2] Al-Tamimi and Al-Ghamdi (2020), ‘Multiscale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism of Qatar’ Energy Reports, 6, 521-527, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.egyr.2019.09.019

[3] Velasco-Fernández, R., Pérez-Sánchez, L., Chen, L., & Giampietro, M. (2020), A becoming China and the assisted maturity of the EU: Assessing the factors determining their energy metabolic patterns. Energy Strategy Reviews, 32, 100562.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esr.2020.100562

[4] Niebel, B., Leupold, S. & Heinemann, M. An upper limit on Gibbs energy dissipation governs cellular metabolism. Nat Metab 1, 125–132 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42255-018-0006-7

[5] Waśniewski, K. (2017). Technological change as intelligent, energy-maximizing adaptation. Energy-Maximizing Adaptation (August 30, 2017). http://dx.doi.org/10.1453/jest.v4i3.1410

[6] Andreoni, V. (2020). The energy metabolism of countries: Energy efficiency and use in the period that followed the global financial crisis. Energy Policy, 139, 111304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2020.111304

[7] Halbrügge, S., Schott, P., Weibelzahl, M., Buhl, H. U., Fridgen, G., & Schöpf, M. (2021). How did the German and other European electricity systems react to the COVID-19 pandemic?. Applied Energy, 285, 116370. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apenergy.2020.116370

[8] Salisu, A. A., Ebuh, G. U., & Usman, N. (2020). Revisiting oil-stock nexus during COVID-19 pandemic: Some preliminary results. International Review of Economics & Finance, 69, 280-294. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iref.2020.06.023

[9] Halvorsen, B., & Larsen, B. M. (2021). Identifying drivers for the direct rebound when energy efficiency is unknown. The importance of substitution and scale effects. Energy, 222, 119879. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2021.119879

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