Radical transitions from fossil fuel to renewables: A change of posture

Timothy Allen, Joseph Tainter, Duncan Shaw, Mario Giampietro, Zora Kovacic

Research output: Chapter in BookChapterResearchpeer-review


© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017. The transition from fossil fuel to renewable resources is more difficult than it at first appears. It is not just a pressing issue of policy and governance; it is a special case of a whole raft of problems that press contemporary society in transition. The trap is that fossil fuel and renewables both are matters of energy in the service of human society, but they are essentially different. The issue invites giving privilege to an engineering level of analysis which is not special except it is regularly chosen by experts. The justification for the privilege of energy as understood by engineers is reification of that level of analysis. Reification in turn leads to an assertion of a situation in material terms, when it is in fact an abstraction. More data do not help if the situation is not material; it is not a data problem. Dominant and recessive genes are not a data problem as conventionally conceived, so the errors coming from reification are commonplace. It has led to 60 years of misconception in the Darwinian new synthesis. The effects of genes do not simply cascade up to phenotype, but instead pass through a hierarchy of physiological processes. Similarly, joules do not simply cascade upward to give sums for fossil fuels and renewables that are equivalent and straightforwardly comparable. The critical complication is the distinction between energy sources versus energy carriers. Embedded in all this are the purposes of energy use. Wheat is an energy source, flour is a carrier, but horse feed uses the source while making cake uses the carrier. At each stage, there are grammars that act as constraints on sources and carriers. The language of fossil fuel use is different from renewable energy use. The reference systems for time and energy are simply different. To bring energy systems into equivalent terms, it is crucial that the language of energy capture in the environment be distinguished from language of energy currency inside the system. Energy use is a complex system because it requires more than one level of analysis, with no simple nor necessary translation between levels. Fossil fuel is so fundamentally different from renewable because fossil fuel is simply consumed while renewables must be hugely processed outside the system. These ideas are remarkably general because goods are carriers of service.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGreen Energy and Technology
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)1865-3537
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


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