There is an evolutionary biology story of stuff – are you ready to hear it?

You would think that with signals everywhere about how world energy production has peaked, there would be more rational discussion generally about how to prepare for the future. In some ways, our way of living is ridiculously wasteful of energy. At least ten litres of fuel are used to get the 50 litres of petrol to your local filling station and into your car. And when you go and pick up the shopping in the car, you use more energy in the transport to do that than is embodied in the calories in the food itself. In fact we are surrounded by huge amounts of energy in embodied form. To make a car uses nearly as much energy as the car uses over its lifetime.

Embodied energy – emergy – and why we need so much of it is an evolutionary conundrum

For scientifically minded people like myself who like to put things in spreadsheets and do back of envelope calculations this all seems like dysfunctional behaviour gone mega. You would think there would be a drive for all of us to live better on less energy, more equitably at that, which would reduce wars and crime. However, the biologist in me has another explanation. To understand this conundrum you need to think about evolution.

When you go and pick up the shopping in the car, you use more energy in the transport  than is embodied in the calories in the food itself.

I remember being on a biology field-trip during my university studies way back in the 70s, and my lecturer pointing out the shape of one of the shells of the snails living in the woods.

“Isn’t evolution a mystery?” he said. “That large protuberance on the side of the shell has no function, and it has taken a lot of energy for the snail to make it. Still the snails survive. You would think evolution would make everything a lot more energy effective.”

At first thoughts one might be tempted to think that the snail shell shape was a snapshot in time of shells evolving towards a more energy-effective future and a better design. In fact, today, the discussion is very much alive in sustainability circles. The term emergy, short for embedded energy, means the energy required to get a product into your possession, for example for a car it could be from mine to driveway.

You  might  think mammals’ energy use is  a snapshot in time evolving towards a more energy-effective future. You would be so wrong.

However, looking at the animal kingdom, mammals and birds especially, although nature is highly energy efficient, you see peacocks with giant spectacular feathers, lions with huge manes, elk with magnificent antlers etc. There is something more than energy efficiency behind all this; and it has to do with mating.

A theory of evolutionary biology says that animals, often males, develop features signalling they have an excess of energy. This makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Crudely put, the female thinks “if he has all that excess energy to make those stupid antlers then he probably has enough to look after me and all the wonderful kids we are going to have”.

What does this all have to do with the peak of oil production? Well, humans work the same way too. We don’t develop protuberances or fancy feathers, but we are nuts about making things look really neat, shiny, straight, flat, fancy, big … you get the idea. I could go on for ages.

This drive to make great stuff, including clothes and running all the way up past yachts to skyscrapers is in part down to a built-in evolutionary drive to procreate. As we are flock animals, the position in the flock is important for the couple so both males and females drive the creation and acquisition of possessions that signal excess of energy.

We are not going to address peak oil until we address our own built-in natural drives.

By now you will probably realise this drive is comparative. For the couple to establish their rank in the flock they need to be a little bit better than others they see around them. Put another way, there is an evolutionary drive in humans to use excess energy to form the environment around them. In a way, this is forming themselves, the environment and possessions define who they are.

Stepping aside from the deeper discussion of how this drive operates in society, we turn to the incredulous scientists – standing with an advanced calculator in their hand wondering how the population of the Earth can use so much energy and get so little achieved.

Some examples: despite the fact we have used up around half of the world’s oil reserves, more people are in poverty, without food and water and education than ever before. Despite years of research and development we are still driving around in cars that give the same gas mileage as the Model T Ford. And the third largest cause of death is in the transport system.

A growing number of scientifically educated people, me included, are baffled by the apparent disinterest in doing anything about creating a standard of living using planet friendly levels of energy.

But of course we still love our shiny stuff, we scientifically minded still want to establish our position in society so we still exhibit high emergy behaviour. We have to find a way – and you could call it new technology of you like although not the kind of technology that requires machines – to act as responsible stewards of the planet whilst living with the genetic drives built in to us. We need if you like, an inner way to come to terms with these animal drives. We already have advanced practices to deal with aggression (laws, policing) and sex drive (moral codes, marriage). This technology (maybe I should use another term – like cultural value and practice) could include rites of passage into adulthood, ceremonies, training from elders, self-imposed limits, all kind of things.

Which brings me to my final reflection: these things are probably to be found in ancient tribal cultures. Tribal cultures appeared in a context where the amount of energy available was constant (for example what the forest, in walking distance, gave in terms of fruit and animals). Let us find the bearers of these cultures and go and talk to them before they disappear from the face of the earth, killed by fast food, runaway trucks or fossil-fuel powered war.

2 thoughts on “There is an evolutionary biology story of stuff – are you ready to hear it?

  • Highly interesting thoughts on the paradox of our era; why is
    not more happening to mitigate the effects of fossil fuels on
    Climate Change?

    These reflections are also just that; thoughts, and as such,
    what do our thoughts, or our thinking have to do with it? If our
    Thinking isn’t making us act, maybe there is something about
    the way we think about ourselves and our world?

  • Thanks for your comments Christer. I guess you mean that if
    one accepts that
    – our biology is driving us to surround
    ourselves with objects of high embodied energy, and that
    we are in a situation where that energy is about to deplete
    and/or cause climate destabilization

    – what should we DO about it.
    My advice will be laid out more in detail in later posts.
    To give a quick reply though, I feel each of us would need to
    work out how to transcend this tendency within ourselves.

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