Social life only exists because of ecological processes, and is shaped by those processes.

All economies (modes of production, distribution and consumption) involve systems of energy, waste, extraction, information and ecological limits. [They almost certainly involve systems of accumulation/property, class/plutocracy and regulation/politics, but I’ll leave those out for another blog]

  • These other systems are not necessarily subsumed or determined by economies.
  • If an economic theory ignores the interactions between energy, ecology, waste, information, social organisation and conflict, it is more or less pointless.

It can be helpful to think of eco-social relations in terms of flow or flux, of patterns rather than structures, or of disruption rather than stability, or as guidable but not controllable .

Ecologies and eco-social relations are inevitably what we call ‘complex systems’. Their trajectory cannot be predicted with complete accuracy. If we are working with them, we should be on the look out for unintended consequences and surprise – as these are sources of information.

Every being in the system is interdependent with others, and responding to others. It has the characteristics it has, because of those interactions and their histories.


All ecologies and economies involve transformation of energy, from the transformation of sunlight by plants, to atomic power.

Transformation of energy, plus effective ecological functioning, is necessary for any human actions to happen. The less effective, or functional, the energy or the ecology, the more restrictions and difficulties.

Labour power is just one form of humanly applied and directed energy. Labour, itself requires energy from the organic transformation, and breakdown, of food into waste.

  • Humans have appropriated animal labour, the flow of water, wind and tides, the burning of biological material, the burning of fossil fuels, the energies inside atoms, and so on. These processes magnify, and transcend, human labour.
  • Once you develop large scale directed energy generation and application, then labour, and the organisation of labour, becomes secondary to the organisation of energy production and transmission in general. This is why energy is so fundamentally important to social capacity and organisation – and why changes of modes of energy generation are so threatening and unsettling to that established order.

Human producing, or using, of energy takes energy. Understanding this is vital.

The more energy is produced by the energy used to produce it, the greater the energy availability and the greater the activity possible. This is what we can call the “Energy Return on Energy Input” or EREI.

  • Fossil fuels have had a very high EREI. It look as though the EREI of renewable energy is much less. However, for most renewables after they are installed, the EREI changes, as very little labour, or energy expenditure, is required to gain an energy output – it is more or less free – whereas fossil fuel energy generation requires continual energy use to find and process new fossil fuels, and continual pollution from burning.
  • It looks as though the EREI of fossil fuels is decaying. Gas and oil sources are diminishing, requiring uneconomic and ecologically dangerous practices like fracking, or they are having to be found in places with increasingly difficult extraction practices – such as being under deep and stormy waters. Extraction of fossil fuels seems to be doing more ecological damage and requiring more energy to obtain. The ‘low hanging fruit’ has been taken and it cannot grow back, as once used it is consumed forever.
    • Coal could be an exception to the decline in EREI, but this may be because contemporary open cut coal extraction processes are much more ecologically destructive than previously, and the energy costs of transport are being ignored.
  • The decline in the EREI of fossil fuels, with the possible exception of coal, means that the energy expense of finding new fossil fuels to provide the energy for fossil fuel power stations is probably increasing in general.
  • It also means that there is less available energy around.


Transformation of materials through energy, or in energy production, produces ‘waste’. The simplest human society imaginable, turns edible material into energy and human excreta (this is an overt simplification).

  • ‘Waste’ is here defined as excess, or unwanted matter which can be used, or ‘recycled’ by the economic or ecological system within an arbitrary, but functional, ‘reasonable’ time.
  • ‘Pollution’ is defined as waste which cannot be so processed in a ‘reasonable’ time.
  • Perfectly harmless waste can become pollution if there is so much of it that the economic or ecological systems cannot process it, and it accumulates and disrupts, or poisons, functioning ecologies.
  • Contemporary Greenhouse gas emissions are wastes which have become pollution because of the volume in which they are emitted.

The more that pollution damages the system, the less waste can be processed by it.

Extraction and ecology

Economies can also extract materials, and life forms, from the ecology in ways that destroy the ability of the ecology to regenerate and, as a consequence, produce eco-social change, minor or large depending on industry wide levels of destruction.

  • Ecologies are not passive, and respond to human or other actions in ways which are often unpredictable in specific.
  • It is possible to imagine an economy in which destruction of ecologies was not standard practice.
  • Indeed the impact of humans on ecologies was, until relatively recently, mostly fairly gentle. Although some human systems appear to have been unintentionally destructive of their ecologies, before the large scale use of fossil fuels, and carried out the destruction fairly quickly.
  • Increasing economic growth, which seems essential in capitalism and developmentalism, nearly always seems to involve increases of ecological damage. Such growth has often come out of destruction.

For decarbonisation, the fundamental question is “how we can transform the energy system without continuing a damaging extraction system?”

It can be postulated that the economic system is not the only cause of ecological destruction. Religious systems can demand the cutting down of trees, the use of plaster which blocks water supplies, as apparently the case for the Maya, and so on. That is another reason why we talk of eco-social relations, and indicates the importance of worldview and information.


Economies require information distribution and restriction. At the minimum, people need to know what to extract, how to transform it, how to consume it, and how to keep the system going. This knowledge may be restricted so that only some people know how to do some tasks properly (through gender, age, class, education, etc.), and the information may be limited, incorrect, or influenced by its role in politics.

The information system is how humans generally recognise eco-feedback.

Any information about complex systems, such as societies or ecologies, is almost always limited and inadequate, because it is inherently impossible to map all the relevant links and exchanges in real time. Any representation, however useful, is a distortion.

  • Not all information is literal, some can be ‘symbolic.’ There is the possibility that symbolic information may be useful in dealing with systems that ‘resist’ ordinary language.

Information distortion is not just a product of the limits of human conception. The information system can be distorted by organisational, economic and political processes.

  • For example, information distortion can result as a normal function of capitalist accumulation. There is the production of opaqueness of pricing to hinder customers finding out the best price (competition through obscurity), the use of rhetorical, or overly hopeful, information as part of market strategy to capture markets and discourage competition, and the use of information to capture, or influence, states.
  • The information needed to know that aspects of the economy, are destroying the ecologies they depend upon, can be ignored or suppressed as part of the functioning (and protection) of that economy.
  • Politics also damages accurate information, through using information as a mode of persuasion, through concealment of information, and through the inability to co-ordinate coherent information in a zone of information excess, such as an information society, when information justifying almost anything can be found.
  • Organisational forms, such as punitive hierarchy, can also distort information transmission. In such a circumstance, people try to give those higher up in the hierarchy than them the information they think those above them require, and hide mistakes to avoid punishment or gain reward. Likewise, those above have incentives not to reveal exactly what is going on to those below them, or to ever admit ignorance, as that implies vulnerability. This situation can be reinforced if the organisation is justified by adherence to a correct dogma which has to be kept safe from challenge.
  • Information has value, and its value to a group may depend on how restricted or how available it can be made, in different situations.

Ecological systems 1: Human Geographies

Before considering planetary boundaries as features of eco-systems, lets first briefly consider geography, climate and landscape.

Obviously, mountain ranges, forests, plains etc may affect the layout of Renewable Energy, or the RE may affect the land, if trees are felled, fields converted etc. Wind may be more geographically more prevalent than sunlight, or vice versa. Wind may be severe, putting a limit on size of turbines, or the angles of solar panels. Winter darkness, or heavy seasonal rain can affect the possibilities of solar power. Weather features such as presence of wind and sunlight, and the presence of water for hydro-electric generation, can be affected by climate change. Distances between centres of population and the areas in which renewables can be deployed, are all important, although cities may need to become renewable centres (there are plenty of wind canyons, and high roofs ). All this means that simple geography, spatial layout and its effects, cannot be ignored.

Landscape and vegetation is also something that people related to, and end up in relationship with. Disruption, or change, of landscape can disrupt and unsettle people and their activities, and often their livelihood, to the extent of them feeling ‘unhomed’.

Unhoming is a common feature of development, which is usually ignored by the established powers and thrust upon people living in that landscape. For some reason it is far more significant when the unhoming comes from renewables.

Ecological Systems 2: Planetary boundaries

All planetary eco-social systems are currently bounded. Exceeding the boundaries leads to the rundown, or breakdown, of ecological functioning, and this breakdown then adds difficulties to maintaining other systems in their previous flourishing.

  • As ecological systems breakdown, they cease performing all of their ‘essential services’ at previous levels.
  • If these levels are to be maintained ‘artificially’ then this requires extra energy expenditure, in addition to normal energy expenditure.
  • It appears that growth, in the contemporary world, is likely to eventually lead to the breaking of planetary boundaries

Capitalism and developmentalism tend to recognise boundaries only to ignore them, and claim that ingenuity and willpower, will overcome those boundaries forever without limit. However, just because a technology is needed and would be profitable, does not mean it will be developed in time to save the system.

Capitalism downplays any limit to growth, and any fundamental role to the world ecology. This is one reason it is currently so destructive.

The main planetary eco-social systems which form these boundaries are:

  • Climate stability,
  • Biospheric integrity (distribution and interaction of organic life forms),
  • Land layout (geography),
  • Water flows and cycles,
  • Biochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. The possibility of ‘Metabolic Rift’),
  • Ocean acidity or alkalinity,
  • Particulates,
  • Ozone levels,
  • Novel entities such as new chemicals, plastics and microplastics.

All of these factors should at least be glanced at.

To emphasise again: humanly propelled destructive extraction and pollution are the main current disruptors of these boundary systems.

Capitalism and developmentalism

Capitalism and developmentalism have been incredibly successful at increasing standards of material life for many people. This success means that changes to their processes are likely to be resisted, at many different points in society.

So far, this success has involved refusals to live within ecological (or planetary) boundaries and processes. The eco-social relations of these systems seem doomed.

Capitalism and developmentalism, run a several pronged attack on ecologies. They a) emit pollution, b) destroy ecologies through over-extraction, and c) attempt to grow themselves to increase their ‘benefits’ (such as profits, development, spread, production, consumption and extraction). They attack planetary limits, and produce compounding destruction.

  • Dumping pollution and poisoning without cost is defined by these systems, as an ‘externality’, and helps to increase business profit. This means that pollution escapes being ‘accounted’ for (or noticed) by members of the emitting organisation.

There are no ‘externalities’ once we accept society and ecology always intermesh, and that there are boundaries to the planet and its functionality.

  • To reiterate: organisational structure can limit the observation, and conscious processing, of feedback and useful information. It is involved in creating patterns of ignorance or unaccountability. It is likely these patterns of ignorance also hide other information vital to the general survival of the organisation.

Capitalism leads to the classic tragedy of the commons, in which individuals and organisations acting independently, in their apparent self-interest, over-exploit and over-pollute a resource destroying the common good.

By diminishing ecological functioning as part of their own functioning, capitalism and developmentalism, suffer from what Engels called the ‘revenge effects of nature’.

Climate Change

One of these ‘revenge effects’ is climate change. Climate change is a subset of the consequences of the ecological damage produced by capitalism and developmentalism, as should be clear through looking at the list of planetary boundary systems. We probably should not ignore the other ecological problems we are facing at the same time.

All the systems I have been discussing, are bound into a shared set of eco-social processes, and as they are all active (although not coherently or harmoniously), any change in the relationships, or interactions, produces further changes in eco-social relations.

  • Ecological damage probably always portends some change in eco-social relations. The greater the damage the more likely the greater the change.
  • This is summarised in the concept of the Anthropocene, in which it is recognised that human activity can influence planetary activity, and vice versa.

Climate change disrupts the possibility of a smooth continuance of the established eco-social relations. This means change, whether voluntary and planned, or otherwise. There is no necessity the change should be beneficial.

Accelerating social breakdown produced by climate change may render all forms of transition more difficult.

Energy Systems and Transformations

Through the introduction of new energy systems and a simultaneous ongoing reduction of pollutions and destructions, the global greenhouse effect could be diminished and climate disruption ameliorated.

  • It needs to be emphasised that an increase in renewables without a cut back in pollution (especially from burning fossil fuels) and a slowdown in destructive extraction (which will probably need to be connected to a slowdown in growth etc.), will not generate stability and the eco-climate crisis will continue.

If establishing a new relatively stable set of eco-social-energic relations is successful, then social relations will have changed – and probably unpredictably.

As energy systems influence the capacity of a society’s ability to act (to produce, consume, struggle, invent, extend itself, produce information, or promote dominance of various groups and nations,), a change of energy system will cause political eruptions, and unpredictable change, which potentially threatens losses for powerful sections of society, not just fossil fuel companies.

  • For example:
    • cheaper energy might threaten the capital accumulation of energy companies of all kinds; it may even threaten capital accumulation itself.
    • Cheaper energy might increase eco-destruction, as more damage can be done at low cost.
    • More jobs may threaten economic platforms which depend on maintaining a “reserve army” of unemployed labour.
    • With localised energy production, nations may be able to break up with greater ease.
  • Our solutions to poverty have so far depended on increasing energy supply, emitting cheap pollution, destroying ecologies and economic growth. If we stop these practices to save the world, do we know how to reduce poverty in the short term? I suspect not. If those in favour of transformation are in favour of what is loosely called ‘climate justice’, then this is a problem they have to face.
  • Unintended consequences are possible everywhere and should be expected.

Any energy transformation depends on the production of energy to power and build that transformation.

It may not be possible to provide all this energy immediately from other renewables, or non-greenhouse-gas emitting sources. Without care, the organisation of transformation could lead to a catastrophic increase in the use of fossil fuels to ‘temporarily’ provide the energy for the transformation, which would then appear to ‘lock-in’ the use of those fossil fuels for some time.

  • As stated earlier, the EREI of fossil fuels seems to be declining, which could mean there is both less energy available from them and the harm of using them increases.

A program of transformation may also generate heavy pollution from the manufacturing, and installation, of the new energy system.

If the old forms of social organisation remain, then renewables may be used to allow increasing energy supply on top of fossil fuels, rather than replacing energy supply from fossil fuels.

  • This would be a so called ‘Jevons effect’ in action.

The energy costs of transformation, when added to the power of established fossil fuel industries, may lead to state and business encouragement for locking in fossil fuels.

  • Potential conflict between the state and capitalist accumulation, may lead to the state abdicating its role in the transformation, to the extent that its governors depend on corporate subsidy for their campaigns or for other forms of income.
  • The energy transition is largely occurring because of recognition of climate change, not through normal socio-political reasons such as increase of profit for already powerful people, or increase of state power, or the dangerous increase in the EREI of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel energy production is still relatively cheap, efficient (for certain values of efficiency) and is an established and understood technology. Transformation can be seen as an unnecessary cost, with little benefit for the already successful.
  • Accepted behaviour that previously generated wealth and power, now generates (disputable) harm – in the sense that any information can be disputed. Recognition of this problem, could produce an existential crisis, which may well lead to people lowering their anxiety by enforcing familiar ways of problem solving.

Cost, lack of co-ordination among, and between, capitalists and states, and presence of competition between business and states, is likely to increase problems of freeloading and non-cooperation.

  • It may seem beneficial for an organisation to allow other organisations to bear the cost of transformation, or catch up later assuming that costs will have decreased.

Every country has possible excuses for why it should be exempted from action and allow other countries to have the primary expense of conversion.

  • In Australia it tends to be argued that we are an exporting nation, contribute relatively little in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, or that we are large country which needs to burn fuel for transport etc.
  • It also tends to be argued that we should only change after others have done so, so we do not lose out through: a) the higher competitiveness of nations which retain or boost fossil fuels; b) loss of coal sales; or c) through the greater cost of early transformation.
  • We also tend not to be informed of the steps to transformation that are happening elsewhere. Even the success of Conservative British Governments in reducing greenhouse gases tends not to be reported here, or skated over. That India has a carbon price is almost completely unknown.
  • Information is hidden or lost, probably by ‘interested parties’ to reinforce inertia.
    • Australians also have to deal with an extremely confusing, and hidden set of energy regulations, which vary from state to state. There is no apparent co-ordination of energy legislation or regulation.

“How do we overcome organisational inertia and freeloading within a state and capitalist framework that puts local profit first?”

Renewable Energy

Renewable energies can be presented as:

  1. a simple technical fix,
  2. a retro-fit of the existing system,
  3. an ‘energy transition’,
  4. a wide-scale ‘energy transformation’
  5. a wide-scale social and energy transformation, which makes either radical break with the present or for continuing change,
  6. the inevitable process of societal decarbonisation under climate change,
  7. a co-ordinated socialist plot to increase government control over daily lives,
  8. a false hope – too little too late. Or even,
  9. the end of civilisation and a reversion to barbarism with a return to “living in caves”.

The information presented about renewable energy is not always entirely positive, and analysts should not pretend otherwise, or claim that a transformation will inevitably occur. Transformation to renewable energy involves social struggle, partly because we do not know the consequences of the transformation, and imaginations of the transformation involve, and produce, politicised information geared at social persuasion.

Transformation also involves technical and organisational difficulties.

  • According to some estimates, the amount of fossil fuel energy we need to replace is truly massive. Real renewables (not biofuel, not hydro) currently compose less than 3% of the world’s total energy requirements, according to the IEA. Other estimate seem more optimistic, but we are still, once biofuels are removed, talking about 5-7% of the world’s total energy usage.

To make incursions on the non-electrical energy system we have to electrify these other uses of energy (diesel in Australia). This requires even more energy use to build.

The technical difficulties of achieving this replacement, without producing further ecological destruction or pollution, is huge, especially given that energy needs to be highly available to make the transition. It is a problem which has to be faced.

Transition to renewables also faces powerful political opposition. This renders the imposition of renewables upon people through standardised neoliberal non-consultative planning processes, which do not benefit local populations, even more harmful than usual. Renewables may face difficulties not faced by more established industries.

We also appear to have significant time constraints. If we keep delaying the transformation, climate change and eco-social destruction will become more severe and make the transformations far more difficult.

  • As the ecological crises get worse, we may well require more energy use to keep eco-social relations stable, or repaired, after more frequent, and compounding, disasters
    • (such as covid and intense storms, which spread the virus because people cannot keep clear of each other, which lessens the energy available to deal with the problem).
  • The crises may possibly take energy away from transition, or require still more energy generation.
  • Organisational breakdown resulting from climate turmoil will also impede the transitions and add to the energy expenditure.


We cannot successfully decarbonise, without generating enough energy to decarbonise. It also seems we must generate this energy at the same time as cutting pollution, ending extractive destruction, ending growth, refining information, protecting ecological resilience, dealing with compounding problems, and fighting political wars etc.

Energy transformation is not easy, and is being rendered more difficult, by the current forms and dynamics of eco-social relations, and our ways of problem solving.