The Tribal Equilibrium of the Joule


This update has been ripening for quite a few days. Things have been happening. Things usually do, mind you. What else could they do, if not happening? Anyway, the most important experience I went through during those last days was watching that Cannes-prized movie by Pawel Pawlikowski: ‘Cold War’ (PL: ‘Zimna wojna’). It was the first movie ever when I could see people like nailed to their seats and watching the final subtitles scroll through the screen. Everybody was sitting still, until a man from the staff came and asked us to leave.

Man, it stirred a lot inside my head! I know that foreign audiences see that movie mostly as sort of a love story, served in unusual packaging. Yet, for me, and, as far as I know, quite a lot of Polish people from my generation, it is much more. It is a story about existential choices that we used to make. When I was 13, in November 1981, my mother took me and basically escaped from Poland, just 15 days before the introduction of Martial Law. Then, I spent a few years living in France. Touch and go, you would say. Very much so, indeed.

Still, as I contemplate the life of the main male character in ‘Cold War’, I have very much the same recollection of that strange feeling, sort of being emotionally astride between Poland and France. It is as if you had just half of your emotional energy at your disposal, whilst the other half is like frozen. Bloody unpleasant, at the end of the day. A bit like depression (which I experienced too, many years later), but not quite the same. Gives you an impression of existential lightness, but you know, lightness is the absence of weight, and weight is what holds you in place, and what allows you to bounce up from a solid support. No weight, no bouncing up.

Years later, as a young adult, I decided to return to Poland, where I have been living ever since. Right now, as I observe a mounting wave of nationalistic fanaticism among my compatriots, and as I see them cultivating the same patterns of behaviour I remember from the communist Poland of the 1970ies, I feel like shaking them, especially the young ones, and saying: ‘Look, I have already been down there, down that deep, dark asshole, where you are heading right now, singing patriotic songs. Really, people, there is nothing glorious down that avenue’. Another voice inside of me says: ‘Look, man. There is no use in shaking anybody. They want to go all the way down to the bottom of the shithole? Let them go and get away from this cursed country! There are so many other places to live, nice and cosy’.

Still, here comes the first lesson I start coining up after having watched ‘Cold War’: once you start running away, it is bloody hard to stop. You are very likely to keep running for ever. Here comes the lesson I have learnt scientifically, over those last years: the catalogue of nice and cosy places to live, in the world, is shrinking on a daily basis. If I am to go anywhere, it is just to meet a different set of challenges. In Poland, we have that saying: in life, there ain’t soft game. There is not much point in looking for any. Life is tough, ‘cause it is meant to be.

The second lesson, out of that movie, is the following: in the communist Poland, we were deeply and utterly f***ed. It seemed so hopeless that emigration was a much better prospect than staying. Still, we moved on. As I see my country today, we have made quite a stroll, out of that communist shithole. My dream is to devise some sort of educational package, in social sciences, which could help the young generation to understand the mechanics of social change.

I got some inspiration, here. Mind you, this is also, partly, the fault of John Nash and John Rawls, as you can hint it with my last update in French, the one entitled « La situation est tellement nouvelle – hommage à John Nash ». What starts taking shape in my mind is a logic in three facets: ethical values <> rules of the game <> economic equilibrium. Why this? Firstly, and most importantly, I am deeply convinced that social sciences have a practical purpose, and this purpose is different from the theoretical one. Just like physics express themselves in a construction crane or in a wind turbine, just as biology and chemistry find their expression in a good diet or in a cure for a dangerous disease, social sciences need a practical application.

In Poland, as in many other places, I can observe a mounting wave of emotionally heated, quasi-tribal conflicts marked by an astounding amount of hate. I think I understand what is happening to us, humans. There is more of us on this planet than there has ever been, and even according to my most optimistic analyses, we are like 13% overshot as regards the available food and energy. With more and more of us around, there is more and more social interactions. More interactions mean faster learning and more experimentation, in a resource-constrained environment.

What can a civilisation be experimenting with? I have that simple social theory: any social structure is made of group identity, on the one hand, and of the definition of individual social roles, on the other hand. Out of those two, group identity is sort of more primal. This is how homo sapiens survived when they were barely sapiens enough to make a fire: by ganging up together. Social roles come as second, they are the fancy part, being defined once the most pressing urge for survival is under control. Still, as the founding father of my discipline, Adam Smith, used to claim, it is precisely the definition of social roles which gives a real developmental kick to any society. Moreover, the science of microeconomics proves – mostly indirectly, mind you, and this is the kind of flaw I would like to remediate – that the way people define and endorse social roles is significantly correlated with the way that markets work, which, in turn, translates into welfare, as well as into the ability to produce purposeful social change.

As a civilisation, we are intensely experimenting with the more primal of the two social dimensions, namely with group identity, and we leave social roles for dessert. In a more and more densely populated world, group identity is almost inevitably defined by opposition rather than by congregation. I mean, in a desert, a social group is made of people who simply are around. In a city, a social group is mostly made of people who define themselves as different from all those other f***ers surrounding them. I a densely populated world, you define a social group by defining common enemies.

This is where my own intellectual stance comes. With the presently observable level of social tensions, it is important to communicate – and educate – that we can be really better off if we give up auctioning group identities built on hate, and focus on creative experimenting with social roles.

The whole challenge consists in that ‘show to people’ part. I am an academic, and I know how appallingly boring can science be when presented in the wrong way. If I am to show other people, i.e. my students, how can they define social roles, it is interesting to start with my own social role. Once again, I am stressing the difference between social role and group identity. If I say ‘I am agnostic’ (which I am, by the way) or ‘I am Polish’ (yep, this is me, too) I am conscribing to a group of people, i.e. agnostics and Poles, respectively. This is group identity. On the other hand, my social role is made of what I do, not the category I identify myself with.

There is an important remark I feel like dropping into the conversation, right now. There are things I think, and the things I say, and the things I say I think I do, and, finally, the things I really do. My ambition, in the understanding of social roles in general, and my social role in particular, is to get to that last category, i.e. to define social roles in terms of what people really do. I fully acknowledge the importance of communicating about what we do. In some cases, like (re)running for the presidency of a country, it can be quite important to talk a lot about the things a person has done when in office. Still, I have that what we really actually do matters more than what we say we do.

We do things because we know how to do them. Human behaviour is based on incremental learning of what is possible here and now, as opposed to what is possible under the condition of mastering new skills, and, as still another distinction, opposed to what seems utterly impossible. The choices we make are always determined by what we currently know how to do. That skill-base is, in the same time, the base for framing our decisions.

You can consult Tversky & Kahneman (1992[1]) for a good theoretical review of this particular issue. Their review of the theory regarding human choices strongly suggests that we do things because we know how to do them. Human behaviour is based on incremental learning of what is possible here and now, as opposed to what is possible under the condition of mastering new skills, and, as still another distinction, opposed to what seems utterly impossible. The choices we make are always determined by what we currently know how to do. That skill-base is, in the same time, the base for framing our decisions.

What I do is, in other words, my behaviour. In that vast array of phenomena, I can make basic distinctions simply by assessing the frequency of occurrence. The most important part of what I do is what I do the most recurrently. Yes, I cut out things like breathing, brushing my teeth or having my coffee. Frequent, but not really looking pertinent to defining a social role. What I do every day, like socially meaningful things, consists, first of all, in being a husband and a father. This is generally a bliss, seriously, but on some (frequent) occasions, it is a job. You have targets, deadlines, and much less leisure time you would expect. Next, I do scientific or peri-scientific communication every day. I write things for my blog, I write the strictly spoken scientific content (articles, books), I do research on empirical data, I prepare educational materials, I review the literature, I teach etc. I don’t know if it’s important, but communicating in itself is important to me. Keeping a blog dramatically increased my output as scientific communicator. In other words, when I know I have an audience, I switch into a much more active mode of communication.

I can provisionally say that I am a family man, a researcher and a scientific communicator. If I had to visualise myself as a node in the network, I would imagine something like a small, semi-artisanal factory. I absorb input in the form of information, and emotional stimulation from other people. I produce output, which consists in transformed information, and support to my family and my students. As I produce transformed information, I try to be kind of original and persuasive: I try to distinguish myself. As I produce social support, I value being kind of solid and dependable. The kind of support I do is like ‘do-whatever-you-want-just-remember-I-am-here-when-you-need-me’.

From a different point of view, I can visualise myself in a hierarchy. I am prone to see myself as sort of lower-middle class, and I like developing new skills in order to improve my own perception of my hierarchical position. I had a few attempts at leadership, in my adult life, but it was just moderately successful. People whom I used to work with, on those occasions, would say that I am kind of cool, but with time I tend to cut ties with those I am supposed to lead. If you want, I tend to be too much of a leader in my own head, and not enough on the outside. On the other hand, when I took a personality test, a few months ago, it turned out I have strong predispositions to leadership. F**k, man! Strong predispositions to leadership, combined with just moderately successful experience in leadership, it makes a lot of strong predispositions basically staying idle, on their couch, in front of their TV. Sounds a bit dangerous. Such predispositions tend to do silly things. Revolutions, for example.

Once I have done this basic inventory of my behaviour, I can start asking embarrassing questions. Can I branch or switch into other types of behavioural sequences, and how can all that branching and switching alter my social role? What would be the consequences of such a change?

By branching, I mean producing mutations of the routines I repeat presently. It is evolution rather than revolution. I can do it, at the most elementary level, by changing frequencies, volumes, or intensities. In other words, I can do something that I have already been doing, just more or less frequently, more or less assiduously, or, finally, more or less intensely. This is sort of Undergraduate branching in my individual behavioural sequences. At the Graduate level, the Master’s one, I can like casually drop some new pieces of behaviour into my routine, and keeping them dropped in, like for many months in a row. On the other hand, switching means going into a sequence of completely different pieces of behaviour.

Good. Let’s branch. I have that internal curious ape inside of me, and apes know about branching. I mean, they certainly know about branches, but it is almost the same. Just look up the theory of graphs and you will see by yourself. How can the catalogue of behaviourally defined social roles meddle with economic equilibrium? In order to ponder this issue, I am returning to that idea of mine, which I have been ruminating for months: the EneFin concept. I already posited the hypothesis that that new institutional schemes in the market of energy can trigger positive social change. You can refer to « Which salesman am I? » from the 23rd of July.

I made a comparison of four countries – South Soudan, Sri Lanka, Poland, and Germany – with respect to the structurally apprehended consumption of energy, based on the data provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA). In the last year of time series provided by IEA, i.e. 2015, the populations of these countries were, respectively, 11 882 136, 20 966 000, 37 986 412, and 81 686 611 people. Now. you can have a glance at Table 1, below, and Table 2, further below.  In Table 1, you can see the final use of energy in those countries, in KTOE, or kilotons of oil equivalent, structured at the level of final consumption. Table 2, for the sake of complete presentation, shows the coefficients of energy use per capita, in KGOE, or kilograms of oil equivalent.

When studying numbers in those tables, it is good to keep in mind that essential truth: the human civilisation is all about the transformation of energy. No energy, no civilisation, sorry. As you compare the South Soudan with the remaining three countries, you can see there are things in those three, which are virtually inexistent in South Soudan: industry, transport, commercial and public services. More energy means a different structure of activity in a given society. A different structure of activity means, in turn, a different catalogue of social roles. New jobs, crafts, and skillsets appear.

New social roles mean that people develop new sets of goals. For example, in Germany or Poland, a young person can easily say ‘I want to be a bloody good bus driver’. The more energy in transport, the more chances that such a goal can be achieved. If I want something, it is important to me, and it is important to cultivate the skills required for achieving what I want. Things that are important to me, and to other people, are socially valuable outcomes and patterns of behaviour, thus they become ethical values. As brutally strange as it can look, the ethical values of a society are very likely to change as the consumption of energy changes. The more energy is being consumed in a given field, the more people can develop an ethical stance regarding outcomes and skillsets corresponding to that field.

Mind you, that paragraph above it has been free style thinking. I have written something, which, on the one hand, seems obvious to me, and still, on the other hand, as I am trying to fathom all the further-reaching consequences of that, my internal curious ape starts scratching its chin. Lots of branching, here.

Table 1 Final use of energy in South Soudan, Sri Lanka, Poland, and Germany, International Energy Agency, KTOE [kilotons of oil equivalent]

  South Sudan Sri Lanka Poland Germany
Industry  2  3 009  14 094  55 275
Transport  219  2 857  16 586  55 693
Other  201  4 042  29 934  87 934
Residential  168  3 470  18 836  53 122
Commercial and public services  19  444  7 810  34 691
Agriculture/forestry  13  –  3 287  –
Fishing  –  –  –  –
Non-specified  1  128  –  121
Non-energy use  –  31  5 540  21 266

Table 2 Final use of energy per capita, in South Soudan, Sri Lanka, Poland, and Germany, KGOE [kilograms of oil equivalent], author’s

  South Sudan Sri Lanka Poland Germany
Industry  0,0002  0,144  0,371  0,677
Transport  0,018  0,136  0,437  0,682
Other  0,017  0,193  0,788  1,076
Residential  0,014  0,166  0,496  0,650
Commercial and public services  0,002  0,021  0,206  0,425
Agriculture/forestry  0,001  –  0,087  –
Fishing  –  –  –  –
Non-specified  0,000  0,006  –  0,001
Non-energy use  –  0,001  0,146  0,260

I am finishing this update with a quick note based on the World Energy Investment Report 2018 by the International Energy Agency.  The report suggests that currently we are witnessing two types of important changes in the sector of renewable energies. On the one hand, the investment made and committed so far had allowed a sharp drop in the LCOE of renewable energies. A further fall in that LCOE can be predicted for the immediate future. On the other hand, the aggregate value of investment in energy in general, and in renewable energies in particular, is on a decreasing path as well. We have falling investment, and falling costs. These two phenomena combined show an economic landscape very similar to that known from the 19th century.

Still, in order to understand that phenomenon, it is to keep in mind that we are talking about net investment, after depreciation and divestment. For example, the big observable divestment in coal-fired power plants contributes to lower the overall net investment in the energy sector.

There is a noticeable switch from the relatively less capital – intensive investments in traditional thermal technologies, like coal-fired power plants, towards more capital – intensive projects connected to more advanced, renewable technologies. It looks almost as investors were purposefully looking for highly – capital intensive projects with a lot of experimentation, research and development on the way towards full operational capacity.

Have we overinvested in the sector of energy? Can institutional changes affect this state of things?

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

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[1] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and uncertainty, 5(4), 297-323.