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In my quest to give worldbuilders powerful tools to make their stories cooler, I’ve hesitated for a long time to tackle the subject of wealth and economics. Economics matters for politics quite a lot, and authors who want grist for compelling conflicts can find an embarrassment of riches here, so to speak. But how the heck do you turn such a complex subject into a useful model?

However, my recent post on the vicious internal politics of the Russian economy proved illuminating. I now think that the correct approach is not to try and jam all of political economy into a single model. Instead, we’re going to lay out several distinct lenses that you can pick and choose between, to organize your worldbuilding the way you want it. No one lens will tell the whole story, and we’re not going to try. But each lens will highlight a specific set of conflicts that can play out in economic behavior. In your own stories, you can focus on a single lens that clarifies the conflict you want to write about, or layer several lenses on top of each other if you’re feeling ambitious.

(This is similar to how we discussed empires in a previous post.)

We begin with the most fundamental level of economic analysis: energy.

(The following is largely based off of ecologist Joseph Tainter’s massively useful book The Collapse of Complex Societies. It also takes some from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization.)

By “energy,” I don’t just mean electricity or oil, although these are important. “Energy” includes any accessible way to turn a resource into work. The most fundamental energy source is food. If we don’t eat, we die. So, much of our activity is organized around producing calories and other nutrients that we can then consume. We invest the energy source of human labor and transform it into calories, which then are turned into more human labor to produce more calories.

Let’s say that it takes a full day’s work for a man to get enough food to feed himself. If so, the man would be in a desperate state: no clothing, no shelter, no leisure activities other than collapsing at the end of the day in total exhaustion. All activity would be directed toward getting food. A group of people in such a state would have a low level of culture, hardly worthy of the term.

Now, suppose that this group developed some way to get food more efficiently. It could be a new division of labor between male hunters and female foragers that raises the productivity of each; it could be finding a new, energy-dense food like tree nuts or buffalo. In either case, suddenly the group has a new surplus of food production. People have a few hours in their day to do something other than produce food. Or, the work of one person can now feed more than one person; so not everyone needs to gather food, and some people can devote their time to other kinds of work.

Note that the availability of an energy surplus presents options for how to benefit from it. Perhaps everyone gets to work a little less hard, but then devotes the rest of their time to leisure. The society that results would have about the same low level of material wealth, but might develop a rich culture of games and storytelling. Perhaps everyone spends less time gathering food, but they also develop different arts and crafts with the rest of their time; people might make better clothing and live in more comfortable shelters, and accumulate various prestige goods. Perhaps most people keep gathering food as before, but the surplus food goes to feed a small class of artisans who do useful work for the group: blacksmiths, potters, tanners. And perhaps another class of functionaries who do rather less work: chiefs, priests, poets, or professional warriors.

The development of a group and its culture depends on the availability of an energy surplus, its source, and its size. Possibilities for cultural development are very different if the average person works 12 hours a day to produce enough food for everyone, compared to 11 hours, or 3. How a culture responds to the availability of an energy surplus will dramatically influence its future development. Perhaps everyone will benefit, or perhaps some people will benefit from the surplus and others will work as before. And the manner in which they work and benefit could vary widely.

But back to the source of the surplus. A surplus can be generated in three main ways:

  • exploiting a new energy source;
  • using existing energy sources more efficiently or productively; or
  • allocating the surplus unequally between persons.

Suppose a farmer is working a small farm with hand tools. It’s grueling work and long. But then she gets the idea of yoking a donkey to a plow. Suddenly, she controls a new source of energy than just human labor: animal labor. The animal can do a lot of the work, and the farmer needs to work less hard, or can produce more food. And the animal eats food that people would not. The energy surplus grows.

Then, benefiting from the strength of her donkey, the farmer develops a new and heavier plow that can produce more food with the same effort. The energy surplus grows again.

Then she realizes that if animals can be made to work for a larger energy surplus, so can people. Slavery is born: slaves are made to work for more of their day than their owners would have, and the surplus is captured by the owners. The benefits of the energy surplus are divided unevenly. It gets even worse if the slaves are fed less than free people would eat; the energy surplus grows and the slavers benefit, but the slaves may waste away and die. The slavers would have to capture new slaves, perhaps by raiding other groups, perhaps by enslaving unfortunates within their own group.

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For most of human history, the main energy inputs were human labor and animal labor. Firewood too; the chemical energy from fire was used in cooking food and keeping us warm, and later for other things as well. The invention of the sail turned wind into an important energy source, which made ocean transport much easier. But then the gear was invented: suddenly, kinetic energy from other sources could be transformed into useful work. The windmill and watermill were able to replace labor that was previously done by animals. Then came the steam engine, and suddenly coal became a useful energy source. Then the combustion engine and the battery, then nuclear power, and so on. Each new energy source brought benefits with it, but also brought political changes—in part because the people who controlled that energy were different.

In our time, the computer has revolutionized all of society. In this model it is not a new energy source, but allows us to use existing energy sources more productively. It also changes the allocation of our energy surplus, as unskilled labor becomes displaced and technical expertise becomes massively more productive than at any previous time in human history. The rise of robotics is already having similar effects, and those effects will grow as robots replace more and more human labor. We now must ask what we will do, as a society, with all the available human capacity that is no longer needed for its former employment.

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This discussion was quite brief, but you can already see how it provides a powerful way to think of economic conflict in your stories. We can add another layer and ask what happens when energy surpluses suddenly shrink. Suddenly, societal arrangements that worked with a given level of energy become unsustainable. If you want to know what happens next, check out Tainter’s book. (The title is a spoiler, though!)

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)