The Red Queen Dilemma
Updated: Mar 18
Alice and the Red Queen
In the year 2015 the economist Robert Samuelson wrote an editorial entitled, “Productivity mysteriously goes bust” for the Washington Post. He starts by saying,
What’s surprising about the disappointing slowdown in productivity is that, by all outward signs, it ought to be booming. What’s especially baffling is that, superficially, outside forces seem to favor faster productivity growth.
The outside forces that he alludes to include the internet, activist investors and globalization.
All of these forces should have resulted in improved productivity, but they didn’t. He concludes by saying,
The productivity bust is a big story. It’s also a bit of a mystery.
The reason for the decline in productivity that he talked about — a decline that has continued ever since he wrote the editorial — may be due to a factor that he did not consider: ERoEI, or Energy Returned on Energy Invested. But it takes energy to find and develop new sources of energy.
In the early days of the oil industry not much energy was needed to replace what had been used. But, as the low-hanging fruit was plucked, an increasing fraction of our energy is spent on finding and developing replacement sourcces.
In Lewis Carroll’s famous story Through the Looking-Glass. In it the protagonist, Alice, meets the Red Queen. Suddenly they start running.
Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’
Alice and the Queen run faster and faster until,
. . . just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.
The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’
Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’
‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’
‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’
‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place.
This image of needing to run faster and faster to stay in the same place is an excellent metaphor for the fossil fuel basis of our current lifestyles.
Further explanation and discussion of the important concept of ERoEI is provided here.