Energy & Quality of Life
"Policies developed with the purpose of improving the human condition within a society may have little impact on a society’s well-being without accompanying increases in per capita net energy delivered to that society."
The history of human cultural advancement and de- cline has been examined frequently and powerfully from the perspective of the development of energy resources and the evolution of energy conversion technologies. In particular the energy provided by the burning of fossil fuels has fostered the expansion of economic, social and environmental development (e.g. Cottrell, 1955, White, 1959, Odum, 1972, 1973, Munasinghe, 2002). The availability of high EROI (i.e. cheap) energy and the increased efficacy with which it is used has enabled humans to devote more human effort to e.g. a higher quality diet, more education and medical technology, resulting in an enhancement of their comfort, a longer life and an increase in their numbers. The result is that there is a strong correlation between per capita energy use (i.e. energy quantity) and social indicators such as the UN’s Human Development Index (Smil, 2003). However, it is not just the total energy but also the efficiency with which that energy is incorporated into the economic process (EROIsoc) and the distribution of energy to each economic actor (Gini index)) that are important for societal well-being. In this section we examine these relations.
A society′s pyramidal hierarchy of energetic needs represents the relative importance of various components of a society, ranked by importance to human survival and well-being, and the quantity of energy devoted to the production and maintenance of infrastructure required to support those components of society. The specific and concrete nature of the lower levels may appear increasingly obscure and ambiguous to those at “higher” levels but is absolutely essential for their support. What represents the upper tier of the hierarchy of energetic needs is by no means definitive and levels are likely to change based on socioeconomic, demographic and cultural differences. But this concept acknowledges the reality that not all human wants and needs can be met simultaneously and that there are tradeoffs and opportunity costs such that meeting one want or need uses energy that is then not available for another, especially in a society with little or no growth in surplus energy.