Energy and Institution Size

This week was a first for me. I participated in an academic conference that was entirely online. The conference — called Thermodynamics 2.0 — was designed to connect the natural and social sciences. It was a fitting place to discuss my research, and there were many interesting (virtual) talks.

I’ve posted here a recording of my presentation, called Energy and Institution Size. In it, I discuss how firms and governments tend to get larger as energy use increases. And I tell you why I think this happens. (Spoilers … I think it has to do with hierarchy.)

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll have seen much of this material before (here, here, here, and here). But perhaps you’ll enjoy an audiovisual presentation of it. If you’re a new reader, this talk is a good introduction to my work.

You can download the slides here. If you want to dive into the methods, you can read about them over at PLOS ONE. For a more recent article about the same evidence, check out Economic Development and the Death of the Free Market.

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  1. I think your presentation is very interesting and well done. I like the quote from Leslie White. Here’s another from his book The Evolution of Culture, following the thinking of Wilhelm Ostwald, “culture advances as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increases, or as the efficiency or economy or the means of controlling energy is increased, or both.”

    White was an early analyst of energy’s place in cultural history, but he was not a cultural relativist at all. He thought more energy meant more ‘progress’, something that many would dispute, including me. Another early surveyor of the relationship between energy and society was Fred Cottrell, who wrote Energy and Society in 1955.

    I was very impressed by the sophistication of the charts in your presentation. What software did you use to create them?

  2. Hello! I have recently read two books by the cultural anthropology John H Bodley that I think could be useful for your research about scaling of hierarchy with energy use:

    John H Bodley (2015) “The Power of Scale: A Global History Approach”

    John H Bodley (2013) “The Small Nation Solution: How The Worlds Smallest Nations Can Solve the Worlds Biggest Problems”

    Alternatively see these two short entries he wrote for the Encyclopedia of Lifes Support Systems:

    John H Bodley (2009) “Growth, Sustainability and the Power of Scale” Dimensions of Sustainable Development VOL I

    John H Bodley (2009) “Use of Resources and Space” Social and Cultural Development of Human Resources

    He frames the problems of growth and sustainability in similar terms as you: “The anthropological evidence suggests that growth beyond the level of small-scale, domestically organized societies is an elite-directed cultural process that occurs because it concentrates social power in direct proportion to increases in scale. More importantly, elite-directed growth may reduce sustainability by disproportionately impoverishing more people than it enriches.”

  3. Hi Blair, I know this is one of your older posts but I’m revisting it as I share it with others. There’s a wealth of great information here, though I have some questions about a few things.

    I see that around 16:00 you begin to measure technological scale and index it to a base year. How is different is this compared to GDP? Is technological scale much more measurable than production? I don’t think there’s actually an issue there, but I’d just like it elaborated on as I can’t explain it very well myself.
    At 20:00 I think you misuse Dunbar’s number in trying to explain the inadequacy of the market. Market relations are frequently about as close as “facebook friends”, and Dunbar’s number does not apply to their limit. Indeed, the term “market relations” is an oxymoron at best. We often turn to exchange when we aren’t close enough to people for lending or sharing. Markets are what we turn to in the absense of a relation. The rest of your points about hierarchy are spot on though.

    • Hi James,

      Regarding technological scale, the measurement I use focuses specifically on the nameplate capacity of power plants. That’s easy enough to average, since the goal of all power plants is to produce electricity, and engineers are good at measuring that capacity. Moving to a more general measure of technological scale is difficult. As you say, it would incur all of the problems associated with aggregation. That’s why I don’t try to do it.

      About Dunbar’s number and the market. Sure, humans don’t interact/exchange with everyone they know. But that’s a behavior that needs to be explained. My point was to start from first principles. As in assume a market, and assume that people can interact with every other individual. That assumption does not scale well.

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