It’s worth noting that noted economist and admired-by-yours-truly blogger John Quiggin responded to the previous blogpost. He is, of course, completely right that when someone whose analytical prowess you respect says something that seems abysmally dumb, you’re probably missing the point. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, was what I intended to express with my previous post, though I (perhaps unfortunately) leaned heavily on the “Snarkify” button in WordPress. (Bet you didn’t know about that feature.)  I was hoping someone would point out what I’d missed, not expecting it would be John Quiggin himself. Alas, his comment didn’t clear it up for me. My response is after his in the original post.

3 thoughts

  1. There are two issues here. One is whether the fact that all processes involve atoms and energy (which can of course, neither be created nor destroyed, at least as mass-energy) has any implications for the centrality or otherwise of any particular commodity, such as carbon-based fuels (a source of easily usable energy) or diamond (a substance high in atomic density). I don’t buy this at all – precisely because everything is mass-energy, nothing can be special by virtue of that fact.

    The second is whether, under current economic and social conditions, energy (electricity, gasoline etc) is more economically essential than other goods and services. In this respect, I did the thought experiment of proposing an immediate and permanent 50 per cent reduction in energy use, then compared it to other goods and services. My conclusion – energy use would be hard to cut, harder than some other things, but easier than making the same kind of cut in food, water, housing, health and education. So, I restate my view that energy is not particularly special. More here

  2. Shorter AgroEcoProf comment: “whether, under current economic and social conditions, energy (electricity, gasoline etc) is more economically essential than other goods and services” — it depends on whose economic and social conditions you’re talking about! Since we use an excess of a fundamental resource, it doesn’t follow that it’s not special just because we can cut our excesses.

    My full comment posted at (
    “John — I still can’t agree with you. The fact that *this* particular case of energy is relatively unproblematic is far, far from a general proof of energy’s non-centrality. If, for example, your family were gluttons and water hogs — huge irrigated gardens, a pool, very rich calorie-dense foods, and–typical of most first world households, food waste ranged from 20-50%, I think you’d find actually that cutting the food and water you consumed in half would be at least as “easy” (or difficult) as energy. It seems to me that *any* commodity, with a high enough starting point, can be cut in half without significant issue–this doesn’t prove that every single commodity is the same in toto. Expanding from Dominic’s point, saying that energy is the fundamental coin of the realm seems to me to inherently make it different, *even if in certain circumstances its behavior maps the same.* The point is that its behavior maps the same as all else *only* in certain circumstances. (Imagine you were a consumer already doing the measures you point to above. Now cut them in half again…)

    I absolutely agree with you that cutting energy does *not* necessarily mean cutting quality of life significantly. But I would argue this is generally from the fact that we live extravagantly energy-rich lifestyles in the Global North, and thus have plenty to spare, not because energy is the same as all else. Equating the two points does not actually logically follow. That is “Energy is a fundamental and special commodity” does not == “Cutting energy use will always and forever substantially decrease quality of life.” Disproving the latter does not disprove the former.

    Energy has limited substitutability. Because you cannot substitute other items for it ad infinitum, and because it is the “coin” of all activity, it is different. You cannot obtain water without energy, or grow food without energy; you cannot do anything without energy. In its “middle ranges” of availability and use, it behaves as all other commodities. But having tons of per capita energy allows for completely new vistas of production (e.g. discovery and utilization of steam, coal, oil, fire) and having very little available restricts every single area, constraining choices among other commodities (e.g. energy must be allocated to food and water and away from all other activities). Having tons of food or water can allow some new choices, having not enough will constrain many, but in energy’s case replace “some” with “many” and “many” with “all.”

    I think your argument that reducing energy consumption won’t be disastrous is right on; I think that it is both unnecessary and logically faulty to route this through the argument of “because energy’s like everything else.””

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