It is widely believed that human ingenuity, design skill and culture are the keys to the second industrial revolution, but EMERGY analysis suggests these less concrete forms of human and social capital are themselves the product of past embodied energy from fossil sources. Although this informational infrastructure is more flexible and enduring than physical infrastructure, like other forms of embodied energy it is subject to gradual depreciation over time. Thus the current rash of brilliant breakthroughs in industrial redesign and engineering can be seen as the natural products of half a century of social democratic politics, education, welfare and other social products of affluence, all refined and honed by twenty years of more laissez-faire capitalism and individualism.
While I am not suggesting that the bonanza of technological innovation is almost spent, there are plenty of indications that huge resources will need to be invested in coming decades to rebuild the depleted social capital which has been the source of current successes.
From a permaculture prospective, most of the existing human and social capital is configured to solve large-scale technological and industrial problems within a framework of market capitalism. Even when more socially and environmental valuable outcomes are mandated, our cultural bias in training and culture causes us to continue to reinvent the old problems in new forms.
(David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, 2002)