Monthly Discussion



Energy and Society



The question of energy has been often treated in this Newsletter, sometimes in connection to energy prices, other times in connection to energy demand and consumption. Today we highlight some sociopolitical aspects of the forces that govern the use of energy.

          The substitution model described in Predictions is ideally suited for understanding the historical succession of the various types of energy because energy substitution is governed by the law of "the survival of the fittest". In other words, it is always the type of energy which is "best-fit at the moment" that gains consumers' preference and dominates the energy market. During the last 150 years coal replaced wood, and oil replaced coal as primary energy source for human needs. In the future, the competitive‑substitution model predicts that natural gas will replace oil, and later that nuclear energy will replace natural gas (see smooth lines in Exhibit 3). But while the model predicts what should happen naturally, society has its own agenda and often interferes in "unnatural" ways. Such interference makes the data deviate from the model trends, but only for a limited period of time. Natural-growth trends have a propensity to reestablish themselves, sooner or later.



Exhibit 3.  Data, fits, and predictions for the shares of different primary energy sources consumed worldwide. For nuclear, the straight line is not a fit but a trajectory suggested by analogy. The line at the extreme right bottom corner is a futuristic source that may involve thermonuclear fusion. Open circles designate recent data not taken into account while making the substitution-model predictions.


The first time society interfered with the natural-growth trends of Exhibit 3 in a serious way was during the 1970s when nuclear energy entered the world energy market as a major contender (claiming more than 1% market share). Boosted by impressive publicity from atomic-weapons use, nuclear energy began diffusing in society at an abnormally high growth rate (see steep early rise of the nuclear-data curve).

The precautious diffusion of the use of nuclear energy resulted in a number of major nuclear-plant accidents. Environmentalists launched a crusade against it, and the use of nuclear energy eventually stopped growing. The data in Exhibit 3 show a flat evolution throughout the 1990s. In fact, many believed that nuclear energy is dead.

The second time society interfered with natural growth trends was when governments around the world (particularly in Germany and in the UK) opposed the decline of coal by imposing by law high levels on coal production. As a consequence the data for the production of coal remained rather flat for more than two decades while the substitution-model trend kept pointing downward. As a consequence of coal's persisting presence, natural gas still suffers today a compromised popularity.

But a flat evolution in the place of what should have normally been a steep trend causes pressure to build up, the more so as the gap widens. Back in 1984 this kind of bottom-up pressure gave rise in the UK to the longest strike ever in the coalmining industry. The strike's net effect was to bring coal production down to what it would have been had the government not interfered.

We should not be surprised to witness near-future "events" that will force coal production down (and consequently natural gas up), as well as nuclear energy up. The former is more pressing than the latter. Curiously, we may witness the latter first. Nuclear energy may be ready to pick up again. I have recently come across public discussions around the possibility that small amounts of nuclear radiation are not only harmless but are also beneficial! John Cameron, professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin, has evidence that short bursts of radiation stimulate our immune system. He believes that people in three Gulf States (LO, MS & AL) show 25% higher cancer death rate compared to three mountain states (ID, CO & NM) because they are suffering from radiation deficiency (there is higher background radiation in the mountains because of thinner layer of protective atmosphere). The interested reader can find more details and arguments in Cameron's Physics and Society October 2001 issue at, but for me the mere appearance of such literature in the public scene signals a yet another sociopolitical interference, this time in the direction of restoring a trend to its natural course.


Few of us will be tempted to claim that the data deviations in Exhibit 3 represent new long-lasting trends. The substitution model is based on the principle that no niche in nature was ever left partially filled (or emptied) under natural conditions. I would add that it is inefficient and self-defeating (if not downright futile) to work against natural trends. Therefore I would put my money on the model's predictions rather than the persisting deviations of the data.