Declining growth rates and technological stagnation since the 70s correlate with flatlining energy use per capita.
I've been reading "Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past" by J Storrs Hall. Ostensibly a book about a promised future that never arrived, it's a broader commentary on a technologically stagnating culture and society. A few others have reviewed it here on Less Wrong already, and Jason Crawford has a great summary and commentary of the book at Roots of Progress.
I'm sharing this post here to get feedback on the coherence of the idea that declining growth rates and the technological stagnation since the 70s strongly correlate with flatlining energy use per capita:
A key takeaway from the book has been the counter-intuitive realization that perhaps one of the main reasons for the so-called "Great Stagnation" is the western world's flatlining energy usage (per capita). But given our overall increase in energy consumption (mostly due to the growth of the developing world), one can be forgiven for having missed this - especially as we're trying to deal with a warming climate by using less energy. Yet this drive towards efficiency and the resultant decline in energy usage among developed nations, at least according to Hall, may be one of our biggest mistakes of the past half-century.
The Great Stagnation - as readers of Less Wrong are likely familiar with - is the term coined/popularized by economist Tyler Cowen which is now used to describe the current period since the ~70s of declining economic and technological growth experienced by most developed nations. This is perfectly exemplified by the fact that almost every important piece of technology we use in our day-to-day lives and in industries where invented before the 60s. This includes things like refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves, and washing machines; indoor plumbing, detergent, and deodorants; electric lights; cars, trucks, and buses; tractors and combines; fertilizer; air travel, containerized freight, the vacuum tube, and the transistor; the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television.
Although this stagnation is surely a result of a wide range of social, economic, and technological factors; like the fact that we've already picked a lot of the "long hanging fruit" of technological innovation since the start of the industrial revolution, or that most women have moved into the workforce since the second world war. According to (my interpretation of) Hall, the underlying cause of this stagnation is our stagnating energy usage. Or put differently, the decline in the growth rate of energy usage in advanced economies. Which is a result of a shift from a focus on progress in tech to a focus on the efficiency of tech.
In other words, we have had a very long-term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. Let us call it the “Henry Adams Curve.” The optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries can quite readily be seen as predicated on it. To a first approximation, it can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate, and a 2% growth in actual energy consumed per capita. Here is the Henry Adams Curve, the centuries-long historical trend, as the smooth red line. Since the scale is power per capita, this is only the 2% component. The blue curve is actual energy use in the US, which up to the 70s matched the trend quite well. But then energy consumption flatlined.
The story of human progress is largely a story of how much energy we have been able to harness and put to productive use. Starting with our early ancestor’s ability to harness fire to the discovery that we could split the atom, and beyond. Declining energy usage is therefore a problem because technological innovation and growth are tightly correlated with increased energy consumption, and technological innovation is one of the main drivers of progress. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in order to drive innovation broadly, we have to use more energy because advanced technologies are generally more energy-intensive. All things equal, increased energy efficiency is great, but all things aren't equal and we've traded growth for efficiency.
The extent to which a technology didn’t live up to its Jetson’s-era expectations is strongly correlated with its energy intensity. The one area where progress continued most robustly—Moore’s Law in computing and communications—was the one where energy was not a major concern.
The one notable exception to this is the computing revolution which birthed the Information Technology industry - arguably the only technological revolution we've had since the ~60s. Computing, driven by improvements in semi-conductor performance and computing power according to Moore's Law, is perhaps the only area where increased energy consumption beyond what was available in the 70s hasn't been needed to keep up [with Moore's Law]. As such, it has been able to grow despite the focus on energy efficiency. Not surprisingly, nearly all of today's most valuable companies by market cap are tech/IT companies.
No one captured this as eloquently as Peter Thiel when he said:
"We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
So if we want to see continued improvements to our quality of life and progress as a civilization, we need new technological revolutions in the world of atoms and not just bits. Nanotech, flying cars, space travel, biomedicine. All those things are possible but they will demand a lot more energy; in addition to less regulation, better academic institutions, and a culture that wants growth, according to Hall.
Needless to say, the flatlining of energy usage has had a profound effect on our current predicament. Given how our modern society and political systems work, steady economic growth seems crucial for the continued existence of peaceful and prosperous civilizations (stagnation or "degrowth" leads to zero-sum competition for resources). The effects of stagnating growth may even be more detrimental than the effects of climate change in the short to medium term. And faster technological progress may be just what we need in order to deal with climate change, rather than less progress.
What is then the cause of this decline in the growth of energy usage? Probably the drive for efficiency over effectiveness (for ideological reasons), stricter regulation of science and technology since the middle of the 20th century, including many energy-producing industries, and a culture that's often opposed to technological progress. The decline in energy use per capita started in the 70s and largely coincides with the spread of the counter-cultures of the 60s, including the green movement. Of course, not all regulations are bad or unnecessary, but it's not very clear that strict regulation actually makes us much safer and healthier overall, and in fact, the opposite may be true:
"Economists John Dawson and John Seater recently published a study in the Journal of Economic Growth, “Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth”,  that put some hard numbers to these observations. The result is startling: America’s median household income is now $53,000. If we had simply maintained the amount of regulation we had in 1949 since then, our income would now be $185,000 per household."
In retrospect, the utopian science fiction from the first half of the 20th century looks ridiculous. Flying cars and robot maids perhaps best illustrated by the Jetson's cartoon is something we laugh at today. But when you plot the growth trends from that era it was perfectly reasonable to predict its continuation for many more decades or centuries. In fact, the economist Alex Tabarrok (a colleague with Tyler Cowen) made just this point in a recent blog post on Marginal Revolution, The Future is Getting Farther Away:
“If total factor productivity had continued to grow at its 1957 to 1973 rate then we today would be living in the world of 2076 rather than in the world of 2014.”
While we probably can't expect growth to continue forever, it's not at all a given that it must decline now. And the better tech we have, the more smart people (and machines) there are, and the better our political systems, the better our chances of dealing with that eventuality.
It's quite clear to me that the current myopic and dystopian narrative that's captured a large part of the western zeitgeist is largely explained by our declining growth, just like the perhaps overoptimistic extrapolations of the early 20th century is explained by that eras ever-increasing growth trends.
Nevertheless, if we look at our (economic) growth trajectory on the time frame of many thousands of years, we're still in the early stages of hypergrowth and judging by the trend, we can expect it to continue for some time - which is a cause for optimism.
The need for growth in a finite world is often criticized as a greedy and selfish impulse, but I believe we need continued growth exactly to solve some of our most pressing problems, including climate change, poverty, and a stagnating quality of life. And to do that, we must dare to use more energy, not less.
Obviously, we don't want to burn more fossil fuels than we are doing yet we shouldn’t minimize the importance that fossil fuels have played and still play in our society. Luckily, we already have a viable technology that provides clean and reliable energy with zero emissions: it's called nuclear energy. Although we should and have to continue improving other alternative energy sources (including solar, wind and even nuclear fusion!), and stop using fossil fuels asap, we can only do that if create the right incentives and provide the right mechanisms for technological innovation. The conclusion to me, then, is that our drive towards efficiency before we've reached some sort of technological maturity may be undermining the long-term potential of our civilization and the near-term viability of our modern societies.
P.S. Tyler Cowen has recently said that he now thinks we might be coming out of the great stagnation in the near future, something mainly driven by innovations across various fields of technology and science like computing, AI, Space tech, biotech, etc; that all converge into general-purpose innovations.