Energy, Human Evolution, and Neuroscience

There’s a dividing line down the center of energy and environmental community. On one side are Amory Lovins types who say that we should focus exclusively on deploying the technologies we already have, because no breakthroughs are needed to scale the world for 10 billion people. On the other side are the likes of Bill Gates, who describes today’s solar and wind as “cute” and says we need radical innovation to keep the world turning.

While I don’t think either extreme is helpful I’m on the Gates side of the continuum.

My point of view is informed by my work as an investor, but just as much by my initial academic training in human behavior. Human beings are wired not to achieve some specific standard of living, but to always have more – “more than those around me, more than I had yesterday” – and evidence from sociology to brain imaging speaks to the fact. I gave the rapid-fire version of this thinking in the talk below from last month’s VERGE Boston event:

Take a gander and let me know what you think. At some point I’ll get around to writing up the long-form version of this thesis, which has sat half-composed on my laptop for several years now.

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4 Responses to Energy, Human Evolution, and Neuroscience

  1. V. Tralov says:

    Dear Matthew!
    The approach to the deepest arised questions , IMHO, could be:
    1.Aim – what kind of state/energy/ economy we want
    2. How we can achieve it today (Amory Lovins)
    3. Possible breakthroughs for tomorow (Bill Gates)
    Some illustrations:
    1. If (political) aim is oil/gas independance/self-sufficiency it means:
    2. Today’s conventional and shale oil/gas priorities (boom – boon – bridge) and
    3. Possible breakthrough for tomorow (gas hydrate in ocean)
    But the question arises – if the hydrocarbones economy the only correct/available model of development or it is a fatal dead-end in human evolution? (See great posts by Gail Tverberg in “Our finite world”) => The right answer is unknown – means we need at least plan B – in this case:
    1. Aim – H2/100% renewable economy (H2USA, SunShot, etc.) with more climate/ecology accents.
    2. Today steps – EVs, fuel cells, solar wind, verge . . . but the share of them in global energy mix – several procents – and grows too slowly (You know EIA projections) => it means that we need
    3. Breakthroughs in most energy/enviromental directions (summarised in ARPA-E mission and its OFOA).
    Connected hurdle : who will/want/must pay for this plan B? Does state/industry/VCs have will/resources/uderstanding of inevitability of such a way? Because in humans nature to have more and more (hear and now) without real breakthroughs (J-curves, or, say, when result/energy can be get at least 2-5x cheaper/simpler/cleaner) the possible outcomes are unclear.

    At the same time, in human nature not only to get more and more, but also to think/invent/try farther/deeper/harder. As a result a number/lists of breakthroughs, by all means, boiling in somebody’s brains and neuroscience, probably, can do nothing but confirms the unstoppable human’s passion for new excitments/emotions => ideas/breakthrouhgs, whatever politics/industry inertion or conditions or brain imagine/washing/drain or degrees of freedom exist.

    With the deepest respect

  2. V. Tralov says:

    P.S. 1. Could not see the video from VERGE, but hope my remarks within the scope/theme
    2. Hadn’t time to write short => sorry for long comments

  3. Infostack says:


    Nice video and good historical context.

    Keep in mind the information revolution (we began to digitize the real world) started 170 years ago and was delayed beginning in 1913 for about 60 years. Then we began to break up information monopolies actively for 15 years until the incumbents bought out the politicians.

    Nonetheless, the digital genie is out of the bottle and the “digitization” of the real world–processes and products–is the big innovation that will help achieve your better consumption model.

    The problem is that few really understand information theory and networks well and how their development and pricing impacts that digitization process.


  4. David McNeil says:


    Attributing the desire for more to human psychology does not explain country level variation. Fr, Uk Germany consume 10 barrels of oil per capita per year. The US 25. Do Europeans have 2.5x less? I don’t think so.

    Much consumption demand – what you describe as the desire for more – is not innate. It is planned and produced. For instance the US went with a suburban, freeway dominated planning model in the 20th c. And the US consumer sold all the stuff that went with it. By contrast the Dutch rejected car centric urban planning in the 60s and 70s – cars were literally killing too many people – and instead promoted pedestrian and cycle transportation. Do the dramatically different results in energy consumption mean Americans are getting more and the Dutch getting less? Not at all. People who cycle are happier, healthier and get around faster than urban motorists. In fact US culture is beginning to shift as people chose an urban / cycling lifestyle over cars and suburbs. And cities are beginning to compete on that basis. Rahm Emmanuel: “They’re an integral part of my economic development strategy… It’s no coincidence that the first protected bike lanes were on Kinzie Street, and that’s exactly where Google-Motorola Mobility is putting their headquarters with 2,800 jobs.” In December, at a press conference marking the opening of the Dearborn Street protected bike lane, Emanuel boasted that he was going to use bike infrastructure to attract tech talent and businesses from the city of Seattle. “I expect not only to take all of their bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this,” Emanuel said.

    Take another example you mention: toilet paper. In India washing with water is considered – correctly – to be more hygienic than using toilet paper. Our preferences are culturally driven. Not innate. In North American we often use more and get less.

    I pick these examples by way of illustration. You could explore the impact of advertising, feelings of social inclusion or education on rates of consumption. Maybe this is just a rehash of Lovins. I am not familiar with his argument. But the idea that less energy intensive lifestyle somehow amounts to getting less and is therefore at odds with human psychology just doesn’t sound quite right.

    Enjoy your posts.



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