Articles | Volume 6, issue 2
Earth Syst. Dynam., 6, 689–702, 2015
https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-6-689-2015

Special issue: Social dynamics and planetary boundaries in Earth system...

Earth Syst. Dynam., 6, 689–702, 2015
https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-6-689-2015

Research article 13 Oct 2015

Research article | 13 Oct 2015

Resource acquisition, distribution and end-use efficiencies and the growth of industrial society

A. J. Jarvis1, S. J. Jarvis2, and C. N. Hewitt1 A. J. Jarvis et al.
  • 1Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK
  • 2Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, London, UK

Abstract. A key feature of the growth of industrial society is the acquisition of increasing quantities of resources from the environment and their distribution for end-use. With respect to energy, the growth of industrial society appears to have been near-exponential for the last 160 years. We provide evidence that indicates that the global distribution of resources that underpins this growth may be facilitated by the continual development and expansion of near-optimal directed networks (roads, railways, flight paths, pipelines, cables etc.). However, despite this continual striving for optimisation, the distribution efficiencies of these networks must decline over time as they expand due to path lengths becoming longer and more tortuous. Therefore, to maintain long-term exponential growth the physical limits placed on the distribution networks appear to be counteracted by innovations deployed elsewhere in the system, namely at the points of acquisition and end-use of resources. We postulate that the maintenance of the growth of industrial society, as measured by global energy use, at the observed rate of ~ 2.4 % yr−1 stems from an implicit desire to optimise patterns of energy use over human working lifetimes.

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Short summary
This paper uses observations of global and national energy use to attempt to show that the growth in energy use over the last 160 years can be related to the distribution constraints imposed by the networks that link environmentally derived resources to points of end use. Having accounted for the distribution efficiency of this global-scale network, we speculate that the observed long-run return rate on energy of ~2.4%/yr requires regulated deployment of acquisition and end use efficiencies.
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