Energy Capture, Technological Change, and Economic Growth: An Evolutionary Perspective

  • Victor CourtEmail author
Original Paper


After several decades of discussions, mainstream economics still does not 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 is then placed in a historical context. It is shown that during the entirety of human history, energy has been central to direct the successive phases of technological change and economic development. In particular, energy is crucial to understanding 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 40 years. The article concludes that conventional economic growth theories should finally acknowledge the central role that energy plays in the economic process.


Energy capture Technological change Economic growth Evolution 

JEL Classification:

B52 O44 Q43 Q57 



This work benefited from the support of the Chair Energy & Prosperity. I thank Adrien Nguyen-Huu and David Le Bris for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I am also grateful to two anonymous referees for their fruitful comments and suggestions. All remaining errors are mine.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


  1. Abramovitz M (1956) Resource and output trends in the U.S. since 1870. Am Econ Rev 46(2):5–23Google Scholar
  2. Acemoglu D (2009) Introduction to modern economic growth. Princeton University Press, PrincetonzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  3. Acemoglu D, Robinson J (2012) Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Crown Publishers, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Aghion P, Howitt P (1998) Endogenous growth theory. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  5. Aghion P, Howitt P (2009) The economics of growth. MIT Press, CambridgezbMATHGoogle Scholar
  6. Allen RC (2009) The British industrial revolution in global perspective. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  7. Anderson B, M’Gonigle M (2012) Does ecological economics have a future?: contradiction and reinvention in the age of climate change. Ecol Econ 84:37–48Google Scholar
  8. Aoki I (2006) Min-max principle of entropy production with time in aquatic communities. Ecol Complex 3(1):56–63MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  9. Arnoux M (2012) Le temps des laboureurs : travail, ordre social et croissance en Europe (XIe-XIVe siècle). Albin Michel, ParisGoogle Scholar
  10. Atkins PW (2010) The laws of thermodynamics: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  11. Ayres RU (1998a) Eco-thermodynamics: economics and the second law. Ecol Econ 26:189–209Google Scholar
  12. Ayres RU (1998b) Technological progress: a proposed measure. Technol Forecast Soc Change 59(3):213–233Google Scholar
  13. Ayres RU, van den Bergh JC, Lindenberger D, Warr B (2013) The underestimated contribution of energy to economic growth. Struct Change Econ Dyn 27:79–88Google Scholar
  14. Ayres RU, Warr B (2009) The economic growth engine: how energy and work drive material prosperity. Edward Elgar Publishing, CheltenhamGoogle Scholar
  15. Baran PA, Sweezy PM (1966) Monopoly capital. Monthly Review Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Barro RJ, Sala-i Martin X (2004) Economic growth, 2nd edn. MIT Press, CambridgezbMATHGoogle Scholar
  17. Batten D, Salthe S, Boschetti F (2008) Visions of evolution: self-organization proposes what natural selection disposes. Biol Theory 3(1):17–29Google Scholar
  18. Becker MC (2004) Organizational routines: a review of the literature. Ind Corp Change 13(4):643–678Google Scholar
  19. Beinhocker ED (2006) The origin of wealth: evolution, complexity, and the radical remaking of economics. Harvard Business School Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  20. Bejan A (1997) Constructal-theory network of conducting paths for cooling a heat generating volume. Int J Heat Mass Transf 40(4):799–816zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  21. Bejan A, Lorente S (2011) The constructal law and the evolution of design in nature. Phys Life Rev 8(3):209–240Google Scholar
  22. Binswanger M (1993) From microscopic to macroscopic theories: entropic aspects of ecological and economic processes. Ecol Econ 8(3):209–233Google Scholar
  23. Bloch M (1935) Les “inventions” médiévales. Annales d’histoire économique et sociale 7:634–643Google Scholar
  24. Boehm B (2008) Traverses of economic growth. An econometric investigation. J Evol Econ 18(2):233–247Google Scholar
  25. Bolt J, Inklaar R, de Jong H, van Zanden JL (2018) Maddison Project Database.
  26. Brockway PE, Barrett JR, Foxon TJ, Steinberger JK (2014) Divergence of trends in US and UK aggregate exergy efficiencies 1960–2010. Environ Sci Technol 48(16):9874–9881Google Scholar
  27. Brooks DR, Wiley EO (1986) Evolution as entropy: toward a unified theory of biology, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  28. Bruelisauer R, Bradfield GE, Maze J (1996) A thermodynamic interpretation of succession. Coenoses 11(2):73–76Google Scholar
  29. Buenstorf G (2000) Self-organization and sustainability: energetics of evolution and implications for ecological economics. Ecol Econ 33(1):119–134Google Scholar
  30. Carlaw KI, Lipsey RG (2011) Sustained endogenous growth driven by structured and evolving general purpose technologies. J Evol Econ 21(4):563–593Google Scholar
  31. Chen P-Y, Chen S-T, Chen C-C (2012) Energy consumption and economic growth-New evidence from meta analysis. Energy Policy 44:245–255Google Scholar
  32. Cook E (1971) The flow of energy in an industrial society. Sci Am 225(3):134–144Google Scholar
  33. Cordes C (2006) Darwinism in economics: from analogy to continuity. J Evol Econ 16(5):529–541Google Scholar
  34. Corning PA (2002) Thermoeconomics: beyond the second law. J Bioecon 4(1):57–88Google Scholar
  35. Corning PA (2014) Systems theory and the role of synergy in the evolution of living systems. Syst Res Behav Sci 31(2):181–196Google Scholar
  36. Court V (2016) Energy, EROI, and economic growth in a long-term Perspective. Ph.D. thesis in economics, Université Paris Nanterre, FRGoogle Scholar
  37. Crosby AW (2007) Children of the sun: a history of humanity’s unappeasable appetite for energy. W.W. Norton & Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Cullen JM, Allwood JM (2010) Theoretical efficiency limits for energy conversion devices. Energy 35(5):2059–2069Google Scholar
  39. Daly HE (1985) The circular flow of exchange value and the linear throughput of matter-energy: a case of misplaced concreteness. Rev Soc Econ 43(3):279–297Google Scholar
  40. Darwin C (1859) On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray, LondonGoogle Scholar
  41. de La Croix D, Michel P (2002) A theory of economic growth: dynamics and policy in overlapping generations. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  42. De Stercke S (2014) Dynamics of energy systems: a useful perspective. Technical report, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IR-14-013). Schloss Laxenburg, ATGoogle Scholar
  43. de Vries J (1994) The industrial revolution and the industrious revolution. J Econ Hist 54(2):249–270Google Scholar
  44. Debeir J-C, Deleage J-P, Hemery D (1991) In the servitude of power: energy and civilisation through the ages. Zed Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  45. del Jesus M, Foti R, Rinaldo A, Rodriguez-Iturbe I (2012) Maximum entropy production, carbon assimilation, and the spatial organization of vegetation in river basins. Proc Natl Acad Sci 109(51):20837–20841Google Scholar
  46. Depew D, Weber B (1995) Darwinism evolving. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  47. Dewar RC (2010) Maximum entropy production and plant optimization theories. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B: Biol Sci 365(1545):1429–1435Google Scholar
  48. Dilli S (2016) Family systems and the historical roots of global gaps in democracy. Econ Hist Dev Reg 31(1):82–135Google Scholar
  49. Dosi G, Fagiolo G, Roventini A (2006) An evolutionary model of endogenous business cycles. Comput Econ 27(1):3–34zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  50. Duranton G, Rodríguez-Pose A, Sandall R (2008) Family types and the persistence of regional disparities in Europe. Econ Geogra 85(1):23–47Google Scholar
  51. Eisenmenger N, Warr B, Magerl A (2017) Trends in Austrian resource efficiency: an exergy and useful work analysis in comparison to material use, CO2 emissions, and land use. J Ind Ecol 21(5):1250–1261Google Scholar
  52. Fizaine F, Court V (2016) Energy expenditure, economic growth, and the minimum EROI of society. Energy Policy 95:172–186Google Scholar
  53. Foster J (2011) Evolutionary macroeconomics: a research agenda. J Evol Econ 21(1):5–28Google Scholar
  54. Fouquet R (2008) Heat, power and light: revolutions in energy services. Edward Elgar Publishing, CheltenhamGoogle Scholar
  55. Fröling M (2011) Energy use, population and growth, 1800–1970. J Popul Econ 24(3):1133–1163Google Scholar
  56. Galor O (2011) Unified growth theory. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  57. Georgescu-Roegen N (1971) The entropy law and the economic process. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  58. Georgescu-Roegen N (1986) The entropy law and the economic process in retrospect. East Econ J 12(1):3–25Google Scholar
  59. Goldstone JA (2009) Why Europe? The rise of the west in world history. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Boston, pp 1500–1850Google Scholar
  60. Gordon RJ (2016) The rise and fall of American growth: the U.S. standard of living since the civil war. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  61. Greif A (2006) Institutions and the path to the modern economy: lessons from medieval trade. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  62. Hodgson GM (1993) Economics and evolution: bringing life back into economics. University of Michigan Press, Ann ArborGoogle Scholar
  63. Hodgson GM (2002) Darwinism in economics: from analogy to ontology. J Evol Econ 12(3):259–281MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  64. Holdaway RJ, Sparrow AD, Coomes DA (2010) Trends in entropy production during ecosystem development in the Amazon Basin. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B Biol Sci 365(1545):1437–1447Google Scholar
  65. Jablonka E, Lamb MJ (2014) Evolution in four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life, 2nd edn. MIT Press, BostonGoogle Scholar
  66. Jacob MC (1997) Scientific culture and the making of the industrial west, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  67. Johnson L (1990) The thermodynamics of ecosystems. In: Hutzinger O (ed) Handbook of environmental chemistry, vol 1. Part E. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 1–47Google Scholar
  68. Jones CI, Vollrath D (2013) Introduction to economic growth, 3rd edn. W.W. Norton & Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  69. Jorgensen SE, Svirezhev YM (2004) Towards a thermodynamic theory for ecological systems. Elsevier, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  70. Kalimeris P, Richardson C, Bithas K (2014) A meta-analysis investigation of the direction of the energy-GDP causal relationship: implications for the growth-degrowth dialogue. J Clean Prod 67:1–13Google Scholar
  71. Kander A, Malanima P, Warde P (2013) Power to the people: energy in Europe over the last five centuries. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  72. Kaplan D (2000) The darker side of the “Original Affluent Society”. J Anthropol Res 56(3):301–324Google Scholar
  73. Kauffman SA (1993) The origins of order: self-organization and selection in evolution. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  74. Kilian L (2008) The economic effects of energy price shocks. J Econ Lit 46(4):871–909Google Scholar
  75. King C (2015) Comparing world economic and net energy metrics, part 3: macroeconomic historical and future perspectives. Energies 8(12):12997–13020Google Scholar
  76. Kleidon A (2010) Life, hierarchy, and the thermodynamic machinery of planet Earth. Phys Life Rev 7(4):424–460Google Scholar
  77. Kleidon A (2012) How does the Earth system generate and maintain thermodynamic disequilibrium and what does it imply for the future of the planet? Philos Trans R Soc Ser A: Math Phys Eng Sci 370(1962):1012–40Google Scholar
  78. Knudsen T (2002) Economic selection theory. J Evol Econ 12(4):443–470Google Scholar
  79. Kümmel R (1989) Energy as a factor of production and entropy as a pollution indicator in macroeconomic modelling. Ecol Econ 1(2):161–180Google Scholar
  80. Kümmel R (2011) The second law of economics: energy, entropy, and the origins of wealth. Springer, New YorkzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  81. Kümmel R, Ayres RU, Lindenberger D (2010) Thermodynamic laws, economic methods and the productive power of energy. J Non-Equilib Thermodyn 35:145–179zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  82. Kümmel R, Henn J, Lindenberger D (2002) Capital, labor, energy and creativity: modeling innovation diffusion. Struct Change Econ Dyn 13(4):415–433Google Scholar
  83. Kümmel R, Lindenberger D (2014) How energy conversion drives economic growth far from the equilibrium of neoclassical economics. New J Phys 16(12):125008MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  84. Larsen CS (2006) The agricultural revolution as environmental catastrophe: Implications for health and lifestyle in the Holocene. Quat Int 150(1):12–20MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  85. Le Bris D (2016) Family characteristics and economic development. Toulouse Business School Working PaperGoogle Scholar
  86. Lewin R (2009) Human evolution: an illustrated introduction, 5th edn. Wiley, HobokenGoogle Scholar
  87. Lipsey RG, Carlaw K, Bekar C (2005) Economic transformations: general purpose technologies and long-term economic growth. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  88. Lotka AJ (1922) Contribution to the energetics of evolution. Proc Natl Acad Sci 8(6):151–154Google Scholar
  89. Malanima P (2016) Energy consumption in England and Italy, 1560–1913. Two pathways toward energy transition. Econ Hist Rev 69(1):78–103Google Scholar
  90. Malm A (2016) Fossil capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming. Verso, LondonGoogle Scholar
  91. Mamadouh V (1999) A political-cultural map of Europe. Family structures and the origins of differences between national political cultures in the European Union. GeoJournal 47(3):477–486Google Scholar
  92. Mansson BA, McGlade JM (1993) Ecology, thermodynamics and H.T. Odum’s conjectures. Oecologia 93(4):582–596Google Scholar
  93. Martyushev LM, Seleznev VD (2006) Maximum entropy production principle in physics, chemistry and biology. Phys Rep 426(1):1–45MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  94. Martyushev LM, Seleznev VD (2014) The restrictions of the maximum entropy production principle. Phys A: Stat Mech Appl 410:17–21MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  95. Milewski AV, Mills AJ (2010) Does life consistently maximise energy intensity? Biol Rev 85(4):859–879Google Scholar
  96. Mokyr J (1990) The lever of riches: technological creativity and economic progress. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  97. Mokyr J (2011) The enlightened economy: Britain and the industrial revolution. Penguin Books, London, pp 1700–1850Google Scholar
  98. Morowitz HJ (1979) Energy flow in biology: biological organization as a problem in thermal physics. Ox Bow Press, WoodbridgeGoogle Scholar
  99. Morris I (2010) Why the west rules for now: the patterns of history, and what they reveal about the future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  100. Morris I (2015) Foragers, farmers, and fossil fuels: how human values evolve. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  101. Mouhot J-F (2011) Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage. Clim Change 105(1–2):329–355Google Scholar
  102. Nelson RR (2005) Technology, institutions, and economic growth. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  103. Nelson RR, Winter SG (1982) An evolutionary theory of economic change. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  104. North DC (2005) Understanding the process of economic change. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  105. Odum HT (1971) Environment, power, and society. Wiley-Interscience, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  106. Odum HT, Pinkerton RC (1955) Time’s speed regulator: the optimum efficiency for maximum output in physical and biological systems. Am Sci 43(2):331–343Google Scholar
  107. Omri A (2014) An international literature survey on energy-economic growth nexus: Evidence from country-specific studies. Renew Sustain Energy Rev 38:951–959Google Scholar
  108. Plumecocq G (2014) The second generation of ecological economics: How far has the apple fallen from the tree? Ecol Econ 107:457–468Google Scholar
  109. Pomeranz K (2000) The great divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  110. Prigogine I, Nicolis G, Babloyantz A (1972a) Thermodynamics of evolution. Phys Today 25(11):23–28Google Scholar
  111. Prigogine I, Nicolis G, Babloyantz A (1972b) Thermodynamics of evolution. Phys Today 25(12):38–44Google Scholar
  112. Prigogine I, Stengers I (1984) Order out of Chaos. New Science Library, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  113. Proops JLR (1983) Organisation and dissipation in economic systems. J Soc Biol Struct 6(4):353–366Google Scholar
  114. Raine A, Foster J, Potts J (2006) The new entropy law and the economic process. Ecol Complex 3(4):354–360Google Scholar
  115. Richerson PJ, Boyd R (2005) Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  116. Sahlins M (1972) Stone Age economics. Aldine-Atherton, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  117. Santos J, Domingos T, Sousa T, St. Aubyn M (2018) Useful exergy is key in obtaining plausible aggregate production functions and recognizing the role of energy in economic growth: portugal 1960–2009. Ecol Econ 148:103–120Google Scholar
  118. Saviotti PP, Pyka A (2008) Product variety, competition and economic growth. J Evol Econ 18:323–347Google Scholar
  119. Schneider E, Kay J (1994) Life as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics. Math Comput Model 19(6–8):25–48Google Scholar
  120. Schneider ED (1988) Thermodynamics, ecological succession, and natural selection: a common thread. In: Weber B, Depew D, Smith J (eds) Entropy, information, and evolution. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 107–138Google Scholar
  121. Schrödinger E (1945) What is life?. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  122. Sciubba E (2011) What did Lotka really say? A critical reassessment of the “maximum power principle”. Ecol Model 222(8):1347–1353Google Scholar
  123. Shannon CE (1948) A mathematical theory of communication. Bell Syst Tech J 27(3):379–423MathSciNetzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  124. Sieferle RP (1997) Das vorindustrielle Solarenergiesystem. In: Brauch HG (ed) Energiepolitik. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  125. Sieferle RP (2001) The subterranean forest: energy systems and the industrial revolution. White Horse Press, WinwickGoogle Scholar
  126. Smil V (2008) Energy in nature and society: general energetics of complex systems. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  127. Smil V (2017) Energy and civilization: a history. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  128. Smith A (1776) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. W. Strahan, T.Cadell, LondonGoogle Scholar
  129. Sorrell S (2010) Energy, economic growth and environmental sustainability: five propositions. Sustainability 2(6):1784–1809Google Scholar
  130. Southwood T (1981) Bionomic strategies and population parameters. In: May RM (ed) Theoretical ecology. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, pp 30–52Google Scholar
  131. Spencer H (1897) First principles. D. Appleton & Company, New yorkGoogle Scholar
  132. Stern DI (2011) The role of energy in economic growth. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1219(1):26–51Google Scholar
  133. Swenson R (1989) Emergent attractors and the law of maximum entropy production: foundations to a theory of general evolution. Syst Res 6(3):187–197Google Scholar
  134. Swenson R (2010) Selection is entailed by self-organization and natural selection is a special case. Biol Theory 5(2):167–181Google Scholar
  135. Todd E (1985) The explanation of ideology: family structure and social systems. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  136. Todd E (1987) The causes of progress: culture, authority, and change. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  137. Todd E (1990) L’Invention de l’Europe. Seuil, ParisGoogle Scholar
  138. Todd E (2017) Ou en Sommes-Nous ? Une Esquisse de l’Histoire Humaine. Seuil, ParisGoogle Scholar
  139. Ulanowicz RE (2003) Some steps toward a central theory of ecosystem dynamics. Comput Biol Chem 27(6):523–30zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  140. van den Bergh JCJM (2007) Evolutionary thinking in environmental economics. J Evol Econ 17(5):521–549Google Scholar
  141. Vermeij GJ (2009) Comparative economics: evolution and the modern economy. J Bioecon 11(2):105–134Google Scholar
  142. Warr B, Ayres R, Eisenmenger N, Krausmann F, Schandl H (2010) Energy use and economic development: a comparative analysis of useful work supply in Austria, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US during 100 years of economic growth. Ecol Econ 69(10):1904–1917Google Scholar
  143. Weber BH, Depew DJ, Dyke C, Salthe SN, Schneider ED, Ulanowicz RE, Wicken JS (1989) Evolution in thermodynamic perspective: an ecological approach. Biol Philos 4(4):373–405Google Scholar
  144. Weil DN (2013) Economic growth, 3rd edn. Pearson Education, HarlowGoogle Scholar
  145. Wicken JS (1980) A thermodynamic theory of evolution. J Theor Biol 87(1):9–23MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  146. Witt U (1997) Self-organization and economics-what is new? Struct Change Econ Dyn 8(4):489–507Google Scholar
  147. Witt U (2003) The evolving economy: essays on the evolutionary approach to economics. Edward Elgar Pub, CheltenhamGoogle Scholar
  148. Wrigley E (1962) The supply of raw materials in the industrial revolution. Econ Hist Rev 15(1):1–16Google Scholar
  149. Wrigley EA (2013) Energy and the english industrial revolution. Philos Trans R Soc Ser A: Math Phys Eng Sci 371:1–10Google Scholar
  150. Wrigley EA (2016) The path to sustained growth: England’s transition from an organic economy to an industrial revolution. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  151. Yen JDL, Paganin DM, Thomson JR, Mac Nally R (2014) Thermodynamic extremization principles and their relevance to ecology. Austral Ecol 39(6):619–632Google Scholar
  152. Ziegler H (1963) Some extremum principles in irreversible thermodynamics. In: Sneddon IN (ed) Progress in solid mechanics. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 91–193Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CERES, École Normale Supérieure – PSL Research UniversityParisFrance
  2. 2.Chair Energy & ProsperityInstitut Louis BachelierParisFrance

Personalised recommendations