When limited energy flow constrained innovation

Since the Industrial Revolution, human life on this planet has changed dramatically: spurred by technological progress, society escaped the Malthusian Trap to become ever more numerous and ever more prosperous, while energy consumption increased by several orders of magnitude, both collective and per capita. Throughout this stormy development, energy played a double role: on one hand, increasing energy demand resulted from growing population and new technologies; on the other hand, growing energy supply causes further technological development and yet further population growth.

In this post, I’ll address the relation between energy and innovation, more specifically how energy can empower innovation. For a start, I’ll tackle the situation prior to the Industrial Revolution, when our ancestors had limited access to energy. In a follow-on post, I’ll then look at the patterns in energy flow and their changes, how they have affected our innovation capacity, and how they –the changing patterns as well as the corresponding effects– might develop toward the future.

To start a short walk through our energy history, I’ll look a little further than just the Industrial Revolution; in fact, I’ll start back in the caves, when our ancestors had very limited sources of energy. Wood fueled fire to generate heat, but the only other available resource was muscle. For the larger part of human history, man had to serve as his own engine for shaping his environment. As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors led a nomadic life-style to secure food and clothing, depending on the seasons and the migration of animals.

The domestication of animals like goat, oxen and (later on) horse provided man with more muscle, with stronger and more reliable engines. However those biological engines primarily served the traditional purposes of providing food and clothing. From that perspective, it was appropriate to sustain the animals with energy (fodder), even when their muscle was not used. Yet from a purist energy perspective, their fuel consumption was nearly constant, whether they were idle or productive.

The adoption of agriculture, and the resulting change toward a more resident life-style allowed for increasing degrees of organisation and planning. The production of food (for the humans) and fodder (for their livestock) became more predictable, and surplus was put into storage for times of scarcity like winter or draught, so that overall the energy supply grew and became more stable. At the same time, building and maintaining the settlements, organising larger communities of people, and not the least crop farming itself let the energy demand increase. But essentially, our ancestors continued using the very same engines, only that they had learned to select the breed with the best performance to pull the plough.

Levers, wheels, and pulleys certainly helped to enhance the application of force to a very focused purpose. But even the amplifying effect of those innovations did not change this archaic pattern of energy flow: at the core were biological engines that used renewable energy sources. These small, mobile units had a low power output (by today’s standards at least) and required high maintenance cost.  But that was sustainable due to the multiple uses of those engines: their primary purpose was the supply of food and clothing, while the energy supply was initially only a secondary benefit. And unlike later patterns, the archaic energy flow was perfectly decentralised and democratic: everybody had direct access to more or less the same low level supply.

Of course we need to acknowledge a few exceptions from this simplified summary. If you think about pottery and metallurgy, you’ll find that the heat energy required to process ceramics and metals was available to our ancestors already in the Neolithic Period. The mastery of charcoal production was the indispensible condition for creating enough heat to cure ceramics and to melt metal. But this energy source (and the underlying technologies to handle it) remained confined to exactly those applications, it didn’t spread further. As another exception, wind- and watermills served as heavy-duty machines since antiquity. These machines literally turned the force of wind or water into power to grind grain, oil seed, mustard, spices, colours, minerals, you name it, and later on to pump water or drive hammers. And again, this energy source didn’t spread to other applications. In both cases, these energy flows served their highly specialised purposes very well , but they within their niches because their inherent constraints prevented wider usage. Therefore, the archaic pattern of energy flow outlined above dominated the lives of our ancestors for the larger part of human history.

How does all of that relate to innovation? Very little at first glance. But diving a little deeper, we find that in this archaic pattern the energy supply could not be scaled up to meet an emerging need: horse and oxen didn’t simply increase their power by a factor of ten when necessary. In the end that constrained the innovation capacity of our ancestors: novel ideas that would consume more energy than what the available small units could provide were impossible to realise. The energy supply could not be provided, unless …, well unless you could apply a trick: centralisation. Or rather, organisation and management. For example, if you intended to farm larger patches of land or wanted to use a heavier plough, you needed to borrow your neighbours oxen (and lend him yours in turn). At far greater scale, buildings like the Roman aqueducts or later the Gothic cathedrals were erected by an army of workers that had to be hired, fed, trained, housed, guided: these construction projects were the most complex management challenges of their time. And the Egyptian pyramids required the orchestration of an entire society over decades. For millennia, organisation and management were the only means to muster sufficient power and energy for moving complex ideas from theory to practice, for turning a novel problem solution into reality. And only few societies mastered the necessary level of centralised organisation to push the boundaries imposed by the limited energy flow.

Now, it would be a gross overstatement to say that energy flow is the only driver for innovation, or even the dominant driver. Innovation naturally occurred within the constraints of the archaic pattern of energy flow. However, it was limited to those novel problem-solutions that fit under the glass ceiling imposed by the available energy and power output. For all other brilliant ideas would have to remain in the state of novelty of thought, as they could not be pulled through to the state of novelty of deed.

It took the Industrial Revolution to break the glass ceiling, to fundamentally change the energy flow patterns so that the art-of-the-possible could dramatically expand. That’s the story of a subsequent post.


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