Skip to main content

Energy Throughput Defines Metabolism of Societies

Click on the image above to see its full size.

A human society can be viewed as a macro-organism, a far-from-equilibrium creature that exists by pumping energy through it.  The more complicated the society is, the more energy per unit time it needs to pump through to keep itself going.

What you see above is a plot of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in US dollars per day per person, versus the total rate of hydrocarbon use in Barrels of Oil Equivalent (BOE) per day per person.  The plot is doubly logarithmic, so a straight line here is a power law curve in Cartesian coordinates. The source of data is CIA, and all 200 countries on the Earth are plotted in different colors by their continents.

The three poorest countries with the least use of hydrocarbons are Congo, Burundi, and Chad.  On the other extreme, I show Qatar, Gibraltar, Luxembourg, and US.  China and Brazil are in the middle of the cloud of points that clearly form a linear trend.

The two solid lines are the power law scalings of metabolism in mammals from a tiny shrew to a huge whale.  For example, the skin area of a mammal scales with its body mass to the power 0.63 (the red line).  The oxygen intake, or the rate of metabolism in a mammal, scales with its body mass to the power of 3/4=0.75 (the green line).

As you can see, the throughput rate of the hydrocarbon energy per person is equivalent to body mass of a mammal, and the societal metabolism (GDP/person-day) is equivalent to the rate of oxygen intake in mammals.

This finding should not be surprising. A non-equilibrium dissipative structure, such as a developed society, organizes and feeds its complex institutions with a flux of energy, much of which comes from hydrocarbons. What surprises me is that the scaling exponents are almost the same for all societies on the Earth and for all mammals.

The metabolism-like scaling of societal complexity means that "bigger" or more complex societies necessarily require more energy throughput.  Conversely, a smaller energy throughput necessarily leads to a simplification of the society.  So don't worry, the U.S. will become simpler soon, and so will our health care system, as well as funding for education and research.

A corollary to the plot above is an observation that a steady-state society, whose material economy does not grow, still requires a certain level of energy flow through it to maintain its energy-conserving structures.  More importantly, even purely spiritual institutions and organizations will require their own energy throughput to remain active. Unless everything is recycled perfectly and only heat is given off, chemical waste discharges into the environment in a steady-state economy will continue to injure the environmental services for some time.  Thus, remediation of  active chemicals will require dedicated energy throughputs for some time after their discharge, at a cost of diminishing energy allocations elsewhere. Is, then, a steady-state economy possible? Or does the second law of thermodynamics prevent its existence through a gradual creation of entropy, and an ever-increasing diversion of energy to remediate the effects of this entropy?

Next, I will plot where the USA would be on this plot if it only operated on biomass, biofuels, wind turbines, and solar photovoltaics.


  1. Fascinating. It's truly a crime that you only have 6 followers, but sadly indicative of the general state of humanity.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Requiem for the Beautiful Earth

First, let me remind you that a pessimist is an optimist who shed his delusions and denial, and educated himself. Please keep this in mind, if you continue reading. If you don't, that's fine too. You will remain in your blissful bubble of denial and ignorance, which are the dominant genetic traits of most denizens of the fossil superorganism. Please understand that many democratically elected governments know very well about your truth aversion and are making best use of it.

Imagine now that your favorite airline offers a vacation package to a world-class city like the one shown below. That city is Beijing. China is the rising economic superpower that will collapse rather immediately, because there is not enough of the environment left to protect her 1.4 billion people from disease and death. But before China collapses, she will suck dry most of the world that remains. The brutal global competition for resources may precipitate a war between China and US.

By the way, a famous …

Green New Deal - Part II

In Part I of this blog, I explained difficulties with comprehending the astronomical scale of change that is awaiting us, the rich people in the developed countries, in our journey to a more sustainable, greener future of humankind.  I have also pointed out a few of the many ways people escape responsibility for the crimes against the Earth we  - you and I - have committed.  And, please, let's not blame the poor people in Honduras or Gabon for our sins, plastic in the oceans and greenhouse gas emissions.

Exponential growth.  Remember a lonely lily pad floating on an empty pond?  She multiplied daily, so after day one, there were two lilies; after two days, four lilies; then eight; and so on.  After 20 days, there were 1,048,576 lilies. After 21 days, there were  2,097,152 lilies that covered the pond, exhausted nutrients and died. Question: After which day was the pond half-filled?  You already know the answer, it was day 20.  On that fateful day, 95% of the time allotted to our li…

The New Improved 1984

Many people ask me how can I be happy writing and thinking about so many sad and desperate things? Well, let me explain. Happiness is the fleeting rush of dopamine I feel seeing my little grandson, my wife or children.  As good as it might feel, it comes and goes. Think, please, about the happiness you purchase by sharing with your "friends" on Facebook a picture of a new pair of pink sneakers. Or think of the happiness you bring to your partner by giving her/him a bouquet of roses on the Valentine day.

You probably never pay attention to over a billion roses which are imported that day for your bouquet.  They are flown refrigerated on transport flights from Columbia, Ecuador and Mexico.  Once these cold roses land in Miami, they are rushed to other refrigerated planes and trucks, so that you can get them from a store refrigerator anywhere in the US.  The energy cost of your bouquet is absolutely ginormous, but it is worth another minute or two of dopamine rush. Or is it?