Gold-plated gardening tools? How the energy revolution could affect the elite

The elite of a society likes to gather wealth and symbols of that wealth.  In order to accrue significantly more wealth than other people and thereby join or stay in the elite, someone has to have some particular advantage and then there have to be the rules of law which seal that advantage.

Good luck brings the advantage: genes, up-bringing and place account for almost all the different in wealth between individuals.  Yes, you can explain both fabulous insight and hard-work as a function of someone’s mind and character and therefore the result of good luck.

The laws of property rights and contract then seal the advantage: once rule-makers, judges, court officials, policeman and jailors are on your side, then you are safe with your wealth.

Among the people or organisations which accrue fabulous wealth and therefore power over other people are those that hold claims over energy resources, intellectual properties and strategically placed physical assets and networks.  Hence the Koch brothers, Arab princes, Shell or Bill Gates or Larry Ellison. (As long as money is spent and power is wielded in a kind way, there isn’t much problem with uneven distribution of wealth.)

The revolution happening in the energy sector could change the shape of the elite.  Currently we are beholden to suppliers of fossil fuels and also to a relatively small number of organisations which convert the fuels into motion and warmth.  When, as Deutsche Bank, Elon Musk and others predict (e.g., anyone can pop a relatively low-cost panel on their roof and achieve a certain degree of energy independence, then who holds the key to power?

The Saudis lose out to the sun.  A gain for society; a loss for IS, for purveyors of vulgarity, such as Rolls Royce, and for weapons manufacturers. All good so far.

Any strategic advantage of owning a large, centralised power plant evaporates, and is atomised into a million roofs: power to the people.

Given the proximity between the roof and the end-consumer (a few yards), traders of energy might also lose much of power they have: goodbye Vitol, Glencore et al.  No major loss to society.

The holders of power-generating intellectual property (e.g. GE, Siemens etc) lose out to the people who invent the best batteries and panels.  Would the holding of intellectual property become a monopoly or would it be spread among a wide range of inventors?

Rather than a simple change of guard from one elite to another, there is a scenario where energy is simply no longer a vehicle or bottleneck which confers elite status on those that control it.  It could become democratised and the associated wealth gets spread more evenly across society.

Then the elite will need to search for new bottlenecks by which to maintain their grip on power.  Will they turn to religion?  Will they invest medicine and find the serum for eternal life?  Or perhaps invent a new sport which will attract billions of fans?  Or will their grip weaken, and they slip back into quiet anonymity, tending to their vegetable patches with gold-plated garden forks?

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