Energy capture, technological change, and economic growth: an evolutionary perspective

Abstract. After several decades of discussions, mainstream economics continues not to recognize the crucial role that energy plays in the economic process. Hence, the purpose of this article is to reformulate a clear and in-depth state of knowledge provided by a thermo-evolutionary perspective of the economic system. First, definitions of essential concepts such as energy, exergy, entropy, self-organization, and dissipative structures are recalled, along with a statement of the laws of thermodynamics. The comprehension of such basics of thermodynamics allows an exploration of the meaning of thermodynamic extremal principles for the evolution of physical and biological systems. A theoretical thermo-evolutionary approach is then used to depict technological change and economic growth in relation to the capture of energy and its dissipation. This theoretical analysis then receives an historical contextualization. It is shown that during the entire human history, energy has been central to direct the successive phases of technological change and economic development. In particular, energy is crucial to understand the transition from foraging to farming societies on the one hand, and from farming to industrial societies on the other. Finally, the theoretical and historical insights previously described are used to discuss a possible origin of the economic slowdown of the most advanced economies for the last forty years. The article concludes that conventional economic growth theories should finally acknowledge the central role that energy plays in the economic process.