Jul 22, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

You may have seriously neglected or at least underweighted a key variable in the flywheel: energy. There is a very direct relationship between increasing density of energy for work and GDP growth. Most work used to be done by human bodies, until we domesticated animals like horses and oxen, and then developed technologies to make animal power more efficient (yokes, carts, horseshoes, etc.), and then stalled for centuries after that. Which is why GDP only increased 0.01% per year and population growth was gradual and extremely variable. What changed in the 18th Century? Coal and then the steam engine, of course. But even before that, there was also the mini-revolution of wind and water-wheels, which created a boon in Europe in the late Middle Ages and were a contributing factor to the Renaissance.

Dense sources of energy for work continue to be key for the "technology eating the world," which you (incorrectly) assert a miraculous immateriality. At the far end of every Google search is ultimately organic matter that was densely compacted into energy-rich muck over the eons in a few choice locations on the planet.

Google, like the Internet itself, is a dense web of servers and fiber optic cables. It is material. It is also energy. The solar PVs that will "solve" the issue of freshwater's uneven distribution are energy embodied. They are created from silica, which is mined through an energy-dense process in places like Western China. Places are are desperate for the coal, diesel, and other energy-dense mediums that make technology and its cheap mass production possible.

Israel, Singapore, and the mega-region around London are fed be unimaginable amounts of energy, almost all of it imported in some manner. They do not exist in an energy vacuum. Where does their electricity come from? Where do all the computers come from? What is making the container ships and airplanes that deliver them go?

Silicon Valley is located in California, which was one of the first regions in the world to commercialize refined petroleum products at scale. To this day, California, though famous for its environmental regulations and "green industries" like Tesla, remains a significant source of "dead dinosaur juice." Silicon Valley is so-named because it used to be as Taiwan is today, the preeminent manufacturing hub for a very material thing: silicon chips. Mined from the earth and then manufactured into delicate instruments with exacting precision using massive amounts of energy from the oil wells down south. The legacy of this persists today: the sleek corporate campuses of Silicon Valley still sit atop some Superfund sites and are still reached by Stanford graduates in cars and Google Buses mostly powered by gasoline. Their world of bits and code is still a material one, built atop an empire of oil.

Energy isn't evenly distributed. The English industrial revolution was built on rich seams of coal, like the current Chinese one is. The United States has been blessed with the black rocks, as well as an even more valuable black liquid: petroleum. Other advanced economies (e.g. Germany and Japan) also lean heavily on coal, but have entirely outstripped their own indigenous supply and are perilously dependent on imports, oftentimes from potential adversaries or vulnerable supply lines.

Green generation technologies can be more evenly distributed, yes, but they are like batteries. They must be created with a massive infusion of energy, up front. Energy that, right now, is created by consuming other dense, material stores of energy. They are essentially energy that has been "stored" in a generation medium (PV, wind turbine, hydroelectric dam, or nuclear plant). They harvest energy from the sun, wind, water flow, or atomic bonds of atoms... but only after we expend massive amounts of energy from other sources creating, feeding, and maintaining them. Where does that initial energy come from?

And, unfortunately, current green energy technology doesn't create a perpetual energy flywheel. Nuclear power plants take decades to build and only last as long before decommissioning (again, another extremely energy-intensive process). Solarvoltaics last up to 30 years, but with decreasing performance. Turbines, subject to extreme forces, last much less long. Li-Ion batteries last mere years. So, again, green energy is more like a battery than a lump of coal. You fill it up with energy up front, use it for a while, and then must replace it. This is a tyranny of physics that isn't addressed in your model.

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Jul 1, 2021·edited 19 hr agoLiked by Tomas Pueyo

This reminds me of this interactive simulation: https://ncase.me/loopy/

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Jul 2, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Another excellent piece… the study of network effects and the flywheel is something that is hard to understand as it requires systemic and cross discipline understanding. Have you given thought to how network modeling works for a variety of different Supply Chain, or Logistics, problems. This way of thinking may help connect Trade, Infrastructure, Technology, and Macro-policy trends forward.

Even networks of all kinds use these concepts. They would help to identify the “success factors” or to explain some of the “why did this/will this happen”.

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Jul 2, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

First thanks for your writings, I read them all. This statement caught my eye: "Sedentary life comes with huge benefits. For one thing, you may have much more time in your hands since you don’t have to search for food and move. More importantly, you can accumulate wealth." I am listening to an Ezra Klein podcast with James Suzman where he describes "hunter-gatherer societies like the Ju/’hoansi spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs despite being deeply impoverished by modern standards." He goes on at some length but points out that settling down and farming is way more labor intensive and the concept of "wealth" is a cultural one. Interesting hearing both sides, I highly recommend the podcast.

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Dec 27, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

We are now almost 6 months on the in the UTers project so I think it worth a brief reflection on the mission statement in this article.

The goal is to understand the trends that will shape the future and hopefully influence these in positive way.

To this end I made a commitment to produce a problem list which should then lead on to potential solutions and a plan of action.

As Tomas has pointed out, the thing we can have the most certainty about in life is our self, so it seemed sensible to first ask my self what the problem list should be. The answer I got was "you already know the problems and most of the solutions you idiot, so why on earth don't you just get on with putting them into action?" This might work on a small scale and spread, but way too slowly to influence the majority of the world in any meaningful way. So there are 10 more days of Christmas after today and I'll do my best to scatter some ideas into this community.

Of course mine is only one opinion amongst that of the other 7 billion odd people in the world. I realised there wasn't much point asking people around me as they already tell me their problems anyway if I'm prepared to listen ( FWIW I did ask a few people more specifically what they thought were the world's biggest problems). It occurred to me that it would be better to get as big a sample size as possible and perhaps weight it by years of remaining life expectancy....that is more your line than mine Tomas.

I also asked the Universe, but it didn't answer so I think it's a reasonable assumption is that it doesn't give two hoots about humanity's problems.

I asked the Earth and she said she had a bit of a problem with one of her species getting overly dominant, but she didn't seem too worried about it. I have a feeling she thinks the situation will sort itself out one way of the other, but probably not in what we would consider a nice way.

Finally, I tried to imagine what an "outsider" would say was humanity's biggest problem. And the answer was that humanity has developed the power to destroy itself, but hasn't developed the collective wisdom not to.

PS I reread the article above and I must have been smoking something when I first read it. I can't believe I let the assertion "it is cheaper than ever to create wealth out of thin air" go unchallenged. There is a reason your Xmas present was gold, Frankenstein and mirth Tomas!

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Jul 7, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

In your article you explain how after the 1800 world GDP started an exponential growth. And in your previous article about the S curves we learned that everything that grows at some point stops doing it. Is this right, will world economic growth stop at some point? Is there a way to predict when? And what will the consequence be for the economy?

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Jul 5, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Hi Tomas. Very interesting article, I really enjoyed reading it! There is this concept called the Malthusian economy that basically says that for most of human history until 1800, the increase in population resulted in a reduction in living standards, and that the only way to improve living conditions was actually when population was reduced (due to a pandemic or natural disaster). This is very well explained in this article: https://ourworldindata.org/breaking-the-malthusian-trap

How do you think this fits in your thesis and flywheel?

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Jul 4, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

As you allude to in the comments below, the bubble that is missing from the network is perhaps one labelled competition/conflict. It arises partly as a consequence of population growth and can be a strong driver of technological development and financial wealth accumulation.

The underlying reason that competition and conflict arise of course is a much more basic one that I'm sure all of you are aware of....

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One comment: I'm not entirely sure that classic China's development (up to and including inventions and the development of a huge state) can really be traced back to trade with other population/development centers.

It surely didn't hurt, but as opposed to other parts of the world, China really wasn't learning and incorporating ideas, inventions and commercial items until much more recently in recorded history (I'm no expert on China, but you could argue that the 18th or 19th century).

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Jul 2, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

(less about the content, and more about article structure… Nobody gives a speech and says, "At the end of my speech, I'll give you an extra sentence about the previous sentence."

I'm currently not reading footnotes because they're almost worthless out of context.

I'd value and would read the footnote content if you put them in-context.

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Jul 2, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Thank you, Tomas, for a well-researched and impactful article. In comment-3 you are asking for other trends. An important trend is the expansion of cyber crime, propelled by the advances in ransomware and cryptocurrency payments. This is similar to the proliferation of pirates when the valuable good were transported across oceans.

One trend that I'd like to see is the reduction in the world population. Just as the explosion of technology made the availability of natural resources irrelevant, it seems that technology should also make economies less dependent on the population growth. But this is not happening. Political and religious reasons aside, China has reversed its one-child policy and Europe is lamenting its low population growth rates.

In the U.S., we are discussing the looming shortage of workers not being able to support the growth in retirees--and, at the same time, we are bouncing ideas about universal basic income to support those who can't work.

Technology should be able to solve retiree care problems. I saw some articles about Japan developing home-care robots, but I wonder why it's not more widely spread, why I don't see it in the U.S.


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Jul 1, 2021Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Thanks Tomás. Great read. I've been telling my kids for 10 years that they will need to be the generation that solves equitably the tremendous imbalances these trends are implying, and I see you've simplified that challenge in the end into selecting whether you're left behind, participating or leading... Sad joke apart, I will be anxiously awaiting next steps, and I hope you'll dig deeper into the wealth factor (of trade, of infrastructure, of technology development and control). And obviously into inequalities and their threats, as you hint above. I believe the cost of inequality will rise to the point they will need to be smoothened significantly, and do not doubt technology (i.e., in fine, US human beings) will be up to the task, but who and how?...

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