The Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/%5D

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.





Peak Copper is coming….

26 08 2019

Elon Musk told a closed-door Washington conference of miners, regulators and lawmakers that he sees a shortage of EV minerals coming, including copper and nickel (Scheyder 2019).   Other rare metals used in cars include neodymium, lanthanum, terbium, and dysprosium (Gorman 2009).

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick JensenPractical PreppingKunstlerCast 253KunstlerCast278Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

***

Richard A. Kerr. February 14, 2014. The Coming Copper Peak.  Science 343:722-724.

Production of the vital metal will top out and decline within decades, according to a new model that may hold lessons for other resources.

If you take social unrest and environmental factors into account, the peak could be as early as the 2020s

As a crude way of taking account of social and environmental constraints on production, Northey and colleagues reduced the amount of copper available for extraction in their model by 50%. Then the peak that came in the late 2030s falls to the early 2020s, just a decade away.

After peak Copper

Whenever it comes, the copper peak will bring change.  Graedel and his Yale colleagues reported in a paper published on 2 December 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that copper is one of four metals—chromium, manganese, and lead being the others—for which “no good substitutes are presently available for their major uses.”

If electrons are the lifeblood of a modern economy, copper makes up its blood vessels. In cables, wires, and contacts, copper is at the core of the electrical distribution system, from power stations to the internet. A small car has 20 kilograms (44 lbs) of copper in everything from its starter motor to the radiator; hybrid cars have twice that. But even in the face of exponentially rising consumption—reaching 17 million metric tons in 2012—miners have for 10,000 years met the world’s demand for copper.

But perhaps not for much longer. A group of resource specialists has taken the first shot at projecting how much more copper miners will wring from the planet. In their model runs, described this month in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recyclingproduction peaks by about mid-century even if copper is more abundant than most geologists believe.

Predicting when production of any natural resource will peak is fraught with uncertainty. Witness the running debate over when world oil production will peak (Science, 3 February 2012, p. 522).

The team is applying its depletion model to other mineral resources, from oil to lithium, that also face exponentially escalating demands on a depleting resource.

The world’s copper future is not as rosy as a minimum “125-year supply” might suggest, however. For one thing, any future world will have more people in it, perhaps a third more by 2050. And the hope, at least, is that a larger proportion of those people will enjoy a higher standard of living, which today means a higher consumption of copper per person. Sooner or later, world copper production will increase until demand cannot be met from much-depleted deposits. At that point, production will peak and eventually go into decline—a pattern seen in the early 1970s with U.S. oil production.

For any resource, the timing of the peak depends on a dynamic interplay of geology, economics, and technology. But resource modeler Steve Mohr of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), in Australia, waded in anyway. For his 2010 dissertation, he developed a mathematical model for projecting production of mineral resources, taking account of expected demand and the amount thought to be still in the ground. In concept, it is much like the Hubbert curves drawn for peak oil production, but Mohr’s model is the first to be applied to other mineral resources without the assumption that supplies are unlimited.

Exponential growth

Increasing the amount of accessible copper by 50% to account for what might yet be discovered moves the production peak back only a few years, to about 2045 — even doubling the copper pushes peak production back only to about 2050.  Quadrupling only delays peak until 2075.

Copper trouble spots

The world has been so thoroughly explored for copper that most of the big deposits have probably already been found. Although there will be plenty of discoveries, they will likely be on the small side.

“The critical issues constraining the copper industry are social, environmental, and economic,” Mudd writes in an e-mail. Any process intended to extract a kilogram of metal locked in a ton of rock buried hundreds of meters down inevitably raises issues of energy and water consumption, pollution, and local community concerns.

Civil war and instability make many large copper deposits unavailable

Mudd has a long list of copper mining trouble spots. The Reko Diq deposit in northwestern Pakistan close to both Iran and Afghanistan holds $232 billion of copper, but it is tantalizingly out of reach, with security problems and conflicts between local government and mining companies continuing to prevent developmentThe big Panguna mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, has been closed for 25 years, ever since its social and environmental effects sparked a 10-year civil war that left about 20,000 dead.

Are we about to destroy the largest salmon fishery in the world for copper?

On 15 January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a study of the potential effects of the yet-to-be-proposed Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. Environmental groups had already targeted the project, and the study gives them plenty of new ammunition, finding that it would destroy as much as 150 kilometers of salmon-supporting streams and wipe out more than 2000 hectares of wetlands, ponds, and lakes.

Gold and Oil have already peaked

Copper is far from the only mineral resource in a race between depletion—which pushes up costs—and new technology, which can increase supply and push costs down. Gold production has been flat for the past decade despite a soaring price (Science, 2 March 2012, p. 1038). Much crystal ball–gazing has considered the fate of world oil production. “Peakists” think the world may be at or near the peak now, pointing to the long run of $100-a-barrel oil as evidence that the squeeze is already on.

Coal likely to peak in 2034, all fossil fuels by 2030, according to Mohr’s model

Fridley, Heinberg, Patzek, and other scientists believe Peak Coal is already here or likely by 2020.

Coal will begin to falter soon after, his model suggests, with production most likely peaking in 2034. The production of all fossil fuels, the bottom line of his dissertation, will peak by 2030, according to Mohr’s best estimate. Only lithium, the essential element of electric and hybrid vehicle batteries, looks to offer a sufficient supply through this century. So keep an eye on oil and gold the next few years; copper may peak close behind.

References

Gorman, S. August 30, 2009. As hybrid cars gobble rare metals, shortage looms. Reuters.

Scheyder, E. 2019. Exclusive: Tesla expects global shortage of electric vehicle battery minerals. Reuters.





THE WAKING UP SYNDROME

2 08 2019

By Sarah Anne Edwards PhDLinda Buzzell, originally published by Hopedance May 1, 2008

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” — T. S. Eliot

Just dealing with our daily lives keeps most of us too busy to worry about whether or not the sky is falling. We focus on getting to and from work, paying our bills, doing our errands, and, if our time-stressed schedules allow, enjoying a little time to relax with friends and family.
 
But we’re deluged of late with dire pronouncements from high-profile newscasts, documentaries, and scientific reports about global warming, melting ice caps, dwindling oil supplies, and a looming imminent economic collapse. Closer to home, we’ve experienced climate-related disasters: floods, wildfires, hurricanes, wildfires, and severe droughts.

While the sky may not be falling, this day-after-day onslaught of alarming news is making it more difficult simply to overlook the triple threat of environmental, climatic and economic concerns. It’s leaving many of us feeling like Alice in Wonderland, being sucked down a Rabbit Hole into some frighteningly grotesque and unfamiliar world that’s anything but wonderful.

Few of us are eager to contemplate, let alone truly face, these looming changes. Just the threat of losing chunks of the comfortable way of life we’re accustomed to (or aspiring to) is a frightening-enough prospect. But there’s no avoiding the current facts and trends of the human and planetary situation. And as the edges of our familiar reality begin to ravel, more and more people are reacting psychologically. A noticeable pattern of behavior is emerging.

We call this pattern the Waking Up Syndrome, and it unfolds in six stages, though not necessarily in any particular order.

Stage 1 – Denial. 
When we first get an inkling of the shifting environmental reality and its potential impact on both the national economy and our daily lives, most people begin by denying it. We slip into one of four common ways to discount things we’d rather not deal with:

“I don’t believe it.”  
We simply deny the existence of any such concerns and refuse to consider them. This might include latching eagerly onto any few remaining naysayers for confirmation and comfort. But as the number of reputable naysayers dwindles, more people are forced to face the fact that “something” is happening.

“It’s not a problem.”  
We may admit there’s a change taking place, but deny that it’s significant, seeing such things as climate change and economic fluctuations as part of a normal pattern that is nothing to concern ourselves with. Or we may incorporate the changes we see happening into our spiritual and religious beliefs, regarding them not as a problem, but a test of faith, a sign of a global spiritual awakening, or evidence of a long-awaited Apocalypse. Some may believe focusing on such problems makes them worse and that we should instead visualize, meditate, or pray for the world to be as we want it to be.

“Someone will fix it.”  
We may admit major problematic changes are underway but conclude that there’s nothing we personally can do about them and we needn’t worry because technology, scientists, the government, or some expert authority will come up with a solution in time to save us.

“It’s useless.”  
We may believe there’s nothing anyone can do about macro-problems, so why do anything, except perhaps eat, drink and be merry. What will be, will be.

Stage 2 – Semi-consciousness.  
In spite of the various ways we may try to discount what’s happening to our environment (and consequently to our economy and whole way of life), as evidence mounts around us and the news coverage escalates, we may begin to feel a vague sense of eco-anxiety. Some express this as virulent anger at all this discussion about global warming. Others dissociate from their growing concern and misdirect their feelings toward other things in their lives, perhaps blaming family members or jobs for their undefined discomfort.

Stage 3 – The moment of realization.  
At some point we may encounter something that breaks through our defenses and brings the inevitability and severity of the implications of our collective problems into full consciousness. We might read a particularly compelling article, learn more about the aftermath of Katrina, hear a news broadcast about polar bear deaths or rampant fires and flooding, see a documentary like “An Inconvenient Truth” or “The End of Suburbia.” Or — most dramatically – we might experience a natural disaster ourselves with all its personal and economic costs.

At such moments, suddenly we realize no matter how we try to explain away the changes that are happening, they are and will be accompanied by huge challenges to life as we know it and cause considerable pain and suffering for many, including ourselves and those we love.

Even if we believe all these disruptions are leading to a global spiritual awakening or a long awaited Apocalypse— even if we think some helpful new technology is going to emerge (hopefully soon)— we nonetheless begin to understand on a visceral level that the changes taking place will have dramatically unpleasant implications beyond anything we’ve faced in our lifetimes. In fact, we realize many of these uncomfortable changes are already underway and will be growing in coming months and years, affecting most of the things we love and cherish.

But like the character Neo in the 1999 movie The Matrix, even at this point we still have a choice. We can choose to swallow the metaphorical red pill and find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes and where it leads. Or we can take the soothing metaphorical blue pill and choose to “escape” from the nightmarish Wonderland of the rabbit hole we’ve fallen into by slipping back into the comfort of our favorite form of assuring ourselves that all is well.

But if, like Neo, we take “the red pill,” we wake up to the reality of our individual and collective situation. We get that the triple threat challenge facing us is a real Medusa monster. Once we’re awake, the problem is full-blown in our consciousness. It’s right in our face. It won’t let us turn away, and the force of it makes “waking up” incredibly painful.
 
The moment we realize — even briefly — that we’re slipping into a dangerously threatening new world that no longer makes sense according what we’ve always believed, our genetic wiring kicks in with predictable physiological and emotional threat responses that can take many forms.

Some of us become obsessive newswatchers, documentary filmgoers, internet compulsives or book readers, wanting to know more and more about what’s really happening. Loved ones may think we’ve gone nuts. Spouses may consider divorce; kids may decide mom and dad are hopeless cranks. 

The more fragile or vulnerable among us may get depressed or experience panic attacks. If something about this current eco-trauma retriggers earlier traumas in our lives, we may have a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reaction. Even the more resilient may throw themselves obsessively into save-the-planet and other activities, soon to become exhausted and weary from trying to do what no one person can.

Others, once they realize what’s happening, see it as a new business or political opportunity. These green business ventures can sometimes be helpful and productive, but at other times can actively circumvent or sabotage the efforts of those who are trying to solve the problems.
 
Stage 4 – A Point of No Return.
Once awakened, especially as economic and environmental changes intensify, most of us find there is no turning back. We find ourselves traveling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Whatever methods we’ve used to avoid facing the coming changes is no longer successful to quell our personal concerns. We can no longer help but notice the continuing rapid progress of the bad trends – more expensive energy, higher costs of living, a weaker economy, more species in trouble, rising temperatures, more devastating severe weather events, increasing political, economic and military competition (wars) over remaining resources, etc.  It all starts to make a dreadful sort of sense as we let in the enormity of the situation.

One of the most difficult aspects of this stage is the profound but unavoidable sense of isolation and disconnection we may feel when living in a different world from most of those around us, a world we can no longer escape from, but one few others seem to notice. The result is a bizarre sense of surrealism. Interaction and communication can become a challenge. How do we relate to a world that’s no longer real to us, but is business as usual to most? Do we try to reach out to others about the ugly new reality and endure their defenses? Is it better to indulge those who don’t yet see the reality we’ve stumbled into and act “as if” nothing has changed just to get along? Or might it be easier to withdraw from life as we’ve known it and turn into a hermit? 

5. Despair, guilt, hopelessness, powerlessness. 
The realization sets in that one person or even one group or community can’t stop the effects of such things as climate change and peak oil and their economic consequences from impacting millions of people around the planet and at home. We see this thing spiraling out of control and realize that our species, and even we individually, are responsible for much of what’s happening!  As the mayor of Memphis said to the Los Angeles Times when a major heat-wave hit his city and most of the Midwest and South last summer, “This is pretty akin to a seismic event in the sense that there is no solution that we here in this room can come up with that will take care of everybody.”
   
Some have suggested that this stage is similar to the traditional grief process, and indeed, this is a time of grieving. But there is a significant difference between this awakening and the normal experience of grief. Grief that occurs after a loss usually ends with acceptance of what’s been lost and then one adjusts and goes on. But this is more like the process of accepting a degenerative illness.  It’s not a one-time loss one can accommodate and simply move on. It is a chronic, on-going, permanent situation that will not only not improve, but actually continue to worsen and become more uncomfortable in the foreseeable future, probably for the entire lifetime of most people living today.  This is what author James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency.”

Our grief and sorrow are also amplified by having to bear the pain of upbeat acquaintances who go merrily along in their denial, discounting their own uneasiness about what’s happening and wondering why we’re so “negative.”

Stage 6 – Acceptance, empowerment, action. 
As we come to accept the limits of our general powerlessness, we also find the parameters of the power we do have in this strange new situation. We discover we no longer need to resist our current and emerging reality. We don’t need to feel compelled to save the entire world or to hold onto a world that no longer makes sense. We are freed, instead, to pursue what James Kunstler calls “the intelligent response, ” seeking and taking whatever creative, constructive action will best sustain those aspects of life that are truly most important to us in the context of the changes unfolding around us.  At this point our curiosity and creativity kick in and we can begin following our natural instincts to find what is both feasible and rewarding to safeguard ourselves, our families, our communities and the planet.

 And indeed, growing numbers of people are beginning to respond with a plethora of creative, socially and personally responsible actions along four paths that are similar to those identified by Joanna Macy in her book World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal and Richard Heinberg in Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Declines. We are finding individual and collective ways to:

Resist making matters worse. 
What’s going on may or may not be inevitable, but we don’t have to speed it along. We can do at least one thing to ease or lessen the negative impact of these changes. We can join an environmental action group, plant a tree, bike to work, help with a protest march or write letters to our congressperson. Just doing our little bit to limit the damage eases the psychological distress we’re feeling, even if we’re not “saving the whole world.”  Taking even a small stand for what Macy calls “the life-sustaining society” (as opposed to the life-destroying one) gives us back our dignity and sense of agency.

Raise our level of consciousness so we can maintain some serenity and not burn out in the midst of all this change. We might adopt a spiritual practice of some kind, take up meditation, expand our understanding of ecology or history, or spend time reconnecting with nature, learning to live our lives in harmony with the rest of the earth.

Build a lifeboat for ourselves and our loved ones. 
Many people are already taking steps to create a richer yet more sustainable way of life better suited to weathering the new economic and environmental realities. Some are moving to less vulnerable or expensive locales. Others are simplifying their lives, starting to lower their energy use, or creating personal and community permaculture gardens. Still others are changing into more sustainable careers, joining relocalization efforts to safeguard their local economy, or adopting alternative ways to exchange needed goods and services. Learning more about these positive possibilities is vital. Until we can see that there are options, there’s no way out of despair except to return to dissociating or denying, which only makes us more vulnerable to the difficulties around us.

Join with others in small communities 
for support and understanding. Don’t try to cope with this enormous challenge alone!  Find others who share your concerns and views. Some people have formed reading or study groups around books like David Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, Cecile Andrews’ Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, or Middle Class Life Boat by Paul and Sarah Edwards. Others are becoming active in relocalization efforts like those described on www.relocalize.net . Still others are joining together to turn their neighborhood into a sustainable “eco-hood” or exploring options for co-housing or eco-villages.

Taking some action in each of these four areas prevents us from getting stuck in panic and paralysis. It energizes us and re-establishes a sense of confidence and security in life. Does it mean we will no longer be plagued with concerns, doubts or even fear at times? No. The threat of what we face is huge and relentless. There’s never been anything like it in human history.  All who awaken to the enormity of the challenges before us still slip and slide somewhere along this continuum at times. One day we may feel encouraged with our forward action, the next we may be back to despairing. Or we many need to take a mental holiday altogether for a few days or weeks so we can come back refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to work again on the survivable future we’re creating for ourselves and our loved ones.

When asked in an interview with The Turning Wheel if there are times when she ever thinks “Oh, no! This is impossible,” even Joanna Macy, who has been a leader in championing ways to address these changes, replied, “Every day.” But she goes on to explain that while she does think this at times, such times pass because she can’t think of anything more engaging and enjoyable than addressing the most pressing issues of our time.
 
Such wisdom seems to be the secret to living positively while navigating the painfully difficult stages of awakening until we get to the point where we can enjoy the daily challenges our dismaying situation presents to our imagination, our creativity and our deep and abiding love for the most valuable aspects of life.

 
To Learn More

Books

Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life by Cecile Andrews.

World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal by Joanna Macy.

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community by David Korten.

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler.

Middle-Class Life Boat, Careers and Life Choices for Staying Afloat in an Uncertain Economyby Paul and Sarah Edwards.

Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren

Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline by Richard Heinberg.

Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World by Richard Heinberg.

Reconnecting with Nature by Michael J. Cohen.

Documentary DVDs

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dreamwww.endofsuburbia.com/previews.htm

Escape From Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

What a Way to Go: Life at the End of the Empire. www.whatawaytogomovie.com/

Crude Impact

Organizations

The Post-Carbon Institute www.postcarbon.org

Sarah Anne Edwards, Ph.D., LCSW, is an ecopsychologist, author, and advocate for sustainable lifestyles. She is founder of the Pine Mountain Institute (www.PineMountainInstitute.com ), a continuing education provider for professionals seeking to empower their clients to respond to today’s challenging economic and environmental realities.

Linda Buzzell, M.A., M.F.T. is a psychotherapist and career counselor in private practice in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, California.  She is the founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy (http://thoughtoffering.blogs.com/ecotherapy ) and the co-editor of Ecotherapy: Psyche and Nature in a Circle of Healing (in press, Sierra Club Books).





Rethinking Renewable Mandates

1 08 2019

Posted on July 31, 2019, another terrific post by Gail Tverberg

Powering the world’s economy with wind, water and solar, and perhaps a little wood sounds like a good idea until a person looks at the details. The economy can use small amounts of wind, water and solar, but adding these types of energy in large quantities is not necessarily beneficial to the system.

While a change to renewables may, in theory, help save world ecosystems, it will also tend to make the electric grid increasingly unstable. To prevent grid failure, electrical systems will need to pay substantial subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear electricity providers that can offer backup generation when intermittent generation is not available. Modelers have tended to overlook these difficulties. As a result, the models they provide offer an unrealistically favorable view of the benefit (energy payback) of wind and solar.

If the approach of mandating wind, water, and solar were carried far enough, it might have the unfortunate effect of saving the world’s ecosystem by wiping out most of the people living within the ecosystem. It is almost certain that this was not the intended impact when legislators initially passed the mandates.

[1] History suggests that in the past, wind and water never provided a very large percentage of total energy supply.

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per person (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Tony Wrigley, Cambridge University.

Figure 1 shows that before and during the Industrial Revolution, wind and water energy provided 1% to 3% of total energy consumption.

For an energy source to work well, it needs to be able to produce an adequate “return” for the effort that is put into gathering it and putting it to use. Wind and water seemed to produce an adequate return for a few specialized tasks that could be done intermittently and that didn’t require heat energy.

When I visited Holland a few years ago, I saw windmills from the 17th and 18th centuries. These windmills pumped water out of low areas in Holland, when needed. A family would live inside each windmill. The family would regulate the level of pumping desired by adding or removing cloths over the blades of the windmill. To earn much of their income, they would also till a nearby plot of land.

This overall arrangement seems to have provided adequate income for the family. We might conclude, from the inability of wind and water energy to spread farther than 1% -3% of total energy consumption, that the energy return from the windmills was not very high. It was adequate for the arrangement I described, but it didn’t provide enough extra energy to encourage greatly expanded use of the devices.

[2] At the time of the Industrial Revolution, coal worked vastly better for most tasks of the economy than did wind or water.

Economic historian Tony Wrigley, in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, discusses the differences between an organic economy (one whose energy sources are human labor, energy from draft animals such as oxen and horses, and wind and water energy) and an energy-rich economy (one that also has the benefit of coal and perhaps other energy sources). Wrigley notes the following benefits of a coal-based energy-rich economy during the period shown in Figure 1:

  • Deforestation could be reduced. Before coal was added, there was huge demand for wood for heating homes and businesses, cooking food, and for making charcoal, with which metals could be smelted. When coal became available, it was inexpensive enough that it reduced the use of wood, benefiting the environment.
  • The quantity of metals and tools was greatly increased using coal. As long as the source of heat for making metals was charcoal from trees, the total quantity of metals that could be produced was capped at a very low level.
  • Roads to mines were greatly improved, to accommodate coal movement. These better roads benefitted the rest of the economy as well.
  • Farming became a much more productive endeavor. The crop yield from cereal crops, net of the amount fed to draft animals, nearly tripled between 1600 and 1800.
  • The Malthusian limit on population could be avoided. England’s population grew from 4.2 million to 16.7 million between 1600 and 1850. Without the addition of coal to make the economy energy-rich, the population would have been capped by the low food output from the organic economy.

[3] Today’s wind, water, and solar are not part of what Wrigley called the organic economy. Instead, they are utterly dependent on the fossil fuel system.

The name renewables reflects the fact that wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels in their capture of energy from the environment.

Modern hydroelectric dams are constructed with concrete and steel. They are built and repaired using fossil fuels. Wind turbines and solar panels use somewhat different materials, but these too are available only thanks to the use of fossil fuels. If we have difficulty with the fossil fuel system, we will not be able to maintain and repair any of these devices or the electricity transmission system used for distributing the energy that they capture.

[4] With the 7.7 billion people in the world today, adequate energy supplies are an absolute requirement if we do not want population to fall to a very low level. 

There is a myth that the world can get along without fossil fuels. Wrigley writes that in a purely organic economy, the vast majority of roads were deeply rutted dirt roads that could not be traversed by wheeled vehicles. This made overland transport very difficult. Canals were used to provide water transport at that time, but we have virtually no canals available today that would serve the same purpose.

It is true that buildings for homes and businesses can be built with wood, but such buildings tend to burn down frequently. Buildings of stone or brick can also be used. But with only the use of human and animal labor, and having few roads that would accommodate wheeled carts, brick or stone homes tend to be very labor-intensive. So, except for the very wealthy, most homes will be made of wood or of other locally available materials such as sod.

Wrigley’s analysis shows that before coal was added to the economy, human labor productivity was very low. If, today, we were to try to operate the world economy using only human labor, draft animals, and wind and water energy, we likely could not grow food for very many people. World population in 1650 was only about 550 million, or about 7% of today’s population. It would not be possible to provide for the basic needs of today’s population with an organic economy as described by Wrigley.

(Note that organic here has a different meaning than in “organic agriculture.” Today’s organic agriculture is also powered by fossil fuel energy. Organic agriculture brings soil amendments by truck, irrigates land and makes “organic sprays” for fruit, all using fossil fuels.)

[5] Wind, water and solar only provided about 11% of the world’s total energy consumption for the year 2018. Trying to ramp up the 11% production to come anywhere close to 100% of total energy consumption seems like an impossible task.

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Fuel, based on data of 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Let’s look at what it would take to ramp up the current renewables percentage from 11% to 100%. The average growth rate over the past five years of the combined group that might be considered renewable (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar) has been 5.8%. Maintaining such a high growth rate in the future is likely to be difficult because new locations for hydroelectric dams are hard to find and because biomass supply is limited. Let’s suppose that despite these difficulties, this 5.8% growth rate can be maintained going forward.

To increase the quantity from 2018’s low level of renewable supply to the 2018 total energy supply at a 5.8% growth rate would take 39 years. If population grows between 2018 and 2057, even more energy supply would likely be required. Based on this analysis, increasing the use of renewables from a 11% base to close to a 100% level does not look like an approach that has any reasonable chance of fixing our energy problems in a timeframe shorter than “generations.”

The situation is not quite as bad if we look at the task of producing an amount of electricity equal to the world’s current total electricity generation with renewables (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar); renewables in this case provided 26% of the world’s electricity supply in 2018.

Figure 3. World electricity production by type, based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The catch with replacing electricity (Figure 3) but not energy supplies is the fact that electricity is only a portion of the world’s energy supply. Different calculations give different percentages, with electricity varying between 19% to 43% of total energy consumption.1 Either way, substituting wind, water and solar in electricity production alone does not seem to be sufficient to make the desired reduction in carbon emissions.

[6] A major drawback of wind and solar energy is its variability from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Water energy has season-to-season variability as well, with spring or wet seasons providing the most electricity.

Back when modelers first looked at the variability of electricity produced by wind, solar and water, they hoped that as an increasing quantity of these electricity sources were added, the variability would tend to offset. This happens a little, but not nearly as much as one would like. Instead, the variability becomes an increasing problem as more is added to the electric grid.

When an area first adds a small percentage of wind and/or solar electricity to the electric grid (perhaps 10%), the electrical system’s usual operating reserves are able to handle the variability. These were put in place to handle small fluctuations in supply or demand, such as a major coal plant needing to be taken off line for repairs, or a major industrial client reducing its demand.

But once the quantity of wind and/or solar increases materially, different strategies are needed. At times, production of wind and/or solar may need to be curtailed, to prevent overburdening the electric grid. Batteries are likely to be needed to help ease the abrupt transition that occurs when the sun goes down at the end of the day while electricity demand is still high. These same batteries can also help ease abrupt transitions in wind supply during wind storms.

Apart from brief intermittencies, there is an even more serious problem with seasonal fluctuations in supply that do not match up with seasonal fluctuations in demand. For example, in winter, electricity from solar panels is likely to be low. This may not be a problem in a warm country, but if a country is cold and using electricity for heat, it could be a major issue.

The only real way of handling seasonal intermittencies is by having fossil fuel or nuclear plants available for backup. (Battery backup does not seem to be feasible for such huge quantities for such long periods.) These back-up plants cannot sit idle all year to provide these services. They need trained staff who are willing and able to work all year. Unfortunately, the pricing system does not provide enough funds to adequately compensate these backup systems for those times when their services are not specifically required by the grid. Somehow, they need to be paid for the service of standing by, to offset the inevitable seasonal variability of wind, solar and water.

[7] The pricing system for electricity tends to produce rates that are too low for those electricity providers offering backup services to the electric grid.

As a little background, the economy is a self-organizing system that operates through the laws of physics. Under normal conditions (without mandates or subsidies) it sends signals through prices and profitability regarding which types of energy supply will “work” in the economy and which kinds will simply produce too much distortion or create problems for the system.

If legislators mandate that intermittent wind and solar will be allowed to “go first,” this mandate is by itself a substantial subsidy. Allowing wind and solar to go first tends to send prices too low for other producers because it tends to reduce prices below what those producers with high fixed costs require.2

If energy officials decide to add wind and solar to the electric grid when the grid does not really need these supplies, this action will also tend to push other suppliers off the grid through low rates. Nuclear power plants, which have already been built and are adding zero CO2 to the atmosphere, are particularly at risk because of the low rates. The Ohio legislature recently passed a $1.1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants because of this issue.

If a mandate produces a market distortion, it is quite possible (in fact, likely) that the distortion will get worse and worse, as more wind and solar is added to the grid. With more mandated (inefficient) electricity, customers will find themselves needing to subsidize essentially all electricity providers if they want to continue to have electricity.

The physics-based economic system without mandates and subsidies provides incentives to efficient electricity providers and disincentives to inefficient electricity suppliers. But once legislators start tinkering with the system, they are likely to find a system dominated by very inefficient production. As the costs of handling intermittency explode and the pricing system gets increasingly distorted, customers are likely to become more and more unhappy.

[8] Modelers of how the system might work did not understand how a system with significant wind and solar would work. Instead, they modeled the most benign initial situation, in which the operating reserves would handle variability, and curtailment of supply would not be an issue. 

Various modelers attempted to figure out whether the return from wind and solar would be adequate, to justify all of the costs of supporting it. Their models were very simple: Energy Out compared to Energy In, over the lifetime of a device. Or, they would calculate Energy Payback Periods. But the situation they modeled did not correspond well to the real world. They tended to model a situation that was close to the best possible situation, one in which variability, batteries and backup electricity providers were not considerations. Thus, these models tended to give a far too optimistic estimates of the expected benefit of intermittent wind and solar devices.

Furthermore, another type of model, the Levelized Cost of Electricity model, also provides distorted results because it does not consider the subsidies needed for backup providers if the system is to work. The modelers likely also leave out the need for backup batteries.

In the engineering world, I am told that computer models of expected costs and income are not considered to be nearly enough. Real-world tests of proposed new designs are first tested on a small scale and then at progressively larger scales, to see whether they will work in practice. The idea of pushing “renewables” sounded so good that no one thought about the idea of testing the plan before it was put into practice.

Unfortunately, the real-world tests that Germany and other countries have tried have shown that intermittent renewables are a very expensive way to produce electricity when all costs are considered. Neighboring countries become unhappy when excess electricity is simply dumped on the grid. Total CO2 emissions don’t necessarily go down either.

[9] Long distance transmission lines are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Early models suggested that long-distance transmission lines might be used to smooth out variability, but this has not worked well in practice. This happens partly because wind conditions tend to be similar over wide areas, and partly because a broad East-West mixture is needed to even-out the rapid ramp-down problem in the evening, when families are still cooking dinner and the sun goes down.

Also, long distance transmission lines tend to take many years to permit and install, partly because many landowners do not want them crossing their property. In some cases, the lines need to be buried underground. Reports indicate that an underground 230 kV line costs 10 to 15 times what a comparable overhead line costs. The life expectancy of underground cables seems to be shorter, as well.

Once long-distance transmission lines are in place, maintenance is very fossil fuel dependent. If storms are in the area, repairs are often needed. If roads are not available in the area, helicopters may need to be used to help make the repairs.

An issue that most people are not aware of is the fact that above ground long-distance transmission lines often cause fires, especially when they pass through hot, dry areas. The Northern California utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy because of fires caused by its transmission lines. Furthermore, at least one of Venezuela’s major outages seems to have been related to sparks from transmission lines from its largest hydroelectric plant causing fires. These fire costs should also be part of any analysis of whether a transition to renewables makes sense, either in terms of cost or of energy returns.

[10] If wind turbines and solar panels are truly providing a major net benefit to the economy, they should not need subsidies, even the subsidy of going first.

To make wind and solar electricity producers able to compete with other electricity providers without the subsidy of going first, these providers need a substantial amount of battery backup. For example, wind turbines and solar panels might be required to provide enough backup batteries (perhaps 8 to 12 hours’ worth) so that they can compete with other grid members, without the subsidy of going first. If it really makes sense to use such intermittent energy, these providers should be able to still make a profit even with battery usage. They should also be able to pay taxes on the income they receive, to pay for the government services that they are receiving and hopefully pay some extra taxes to help out the rest of the system.

In Item [2] above, I mentioned that when coal mines were added in England, roads to the mines were substantially improved, befitting the economy as a whole. A true source of energy (one whose investment cost is not too high relative to it output) is supposed to be generating “surplus energy” that assists the economy as a whole. We can observe an impact of this type in the improved roads that benefited England’s economy as a whole. Any so-called energy provider that cannot even pay its own fair share of taxes acts more like a leech, sucking energy and resources from others, than a provider of surplus energy to the rest of the economy.

Recommendations

In my opinion, it is time to eliminate renewable energy mandates. There will be some instances where renewable energy will make sense, but this will be obvious to everyone involved. For example, an island with its electricity generation from oil may want to use some wind or solar generation to try to reduce its total costs. This cost saving occurs because of the high price of oil as fuel to make electricity.

Regulators, in locations where substantial wind and/or solar has already been installed, need to be aware of the likely need to provide subsidies to backup providers, in order to keep the electrical system operating. Otherwise, the grid will likely fail from lack of adequate backup electricity supply.

Intermittent electricity, because of its tendency to drive other providers to bankruptcy, will tend to make the grid fail more quickly than it would otherwise. The big danger ahead seems to be bankruptcy of electricity providers and of fossil fuel producers, rather than running out of a fuel such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, I see little reason for the belief by many that electricity will “last longer” than oil. It is a question of which group is most affected by bankruptcies first.

I do not see any real reason to use subsidies to encourage the use of electric cars. The problem we have today with oil prices is that they are too low for oil producers. If we want to keep oil production from collapsing, we need to keep oil demand up. We do this by encouraging the production of cars that are as inexpensive as possible. Generally, this will mean producing cars that operate using petroleum products.

(I recognize that my view is the opposite one from what many Peak Oilers have. But I see the limit ahead as being one of too low prices for producers, rather than too high prices for consumers. The CO2 issue tends to disappear as parts of the system collapse.)

Notes:

[1] BP bases its count on the equivalent fossil fuel energy needed to create the electricity; IEA counts the heat energy of the resulting electrical output. Using BP’s way of counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to 43% of total energy consumption. Using the International Energy Agency’s approach to counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to only about 19% of world energy consumption.

[2] In some locations, “utility pricing” is used. In these cases, pricing is set in a way needed to provide a fair return to all providers. With utility pricing, intermittent renewables would not be expected to cause low prices for backup producers.





Collapse early, avoid the rush……

31 07 2019

How long have we got?

published by matslats on Fri, 07/26/2019 – 03:02

Last month I expressed personal alarm at the weather and the unexpected speed of change. Since then the global weather continues to break records, and I’ve thought of something slightly more constructive to say.

The asteroid which brushed passed the earth on Thursday was only identified as such the day before. Presumably our instruments calculated that it wasn’t a risk and the alarm wasn’t raised. But had the trajectory been six earth diameters to the side, how much notice would we have had to prepare ourselves for a 30 Hiroshima-bomb impact somewhere on the earth? What if the authorities decided not to tell anybody because there wasn’t time to prepare and it would just cause unnecessary panic?

Sometimes climate change feels like that. We know time is running out, but governments are failing to tell the truth (for whatever reason) so we don’t have the information or the political power to respond appropriately. No wonder people are waking up to the shortness of time and wondering how long they’ve got.

But the question in that form is poorly articulated perhaps because of the panic behind it. Who is we? What do we need time for? Do we really need to know? Might living in unknowing be wiser than planning for one specific possible future?

This post is an attempt to answer for myself. I want to avoid conflict and oppression in my own life and contribute to attempts to reduce harm. How long do I have for that?

It seems to me that no-one wants to be so irresponsible as to make a prediction too short. The shortest predictions are the most dangerous and potentially embarrassing, because they invoke the maximum panic and will be proven wrong the soonest. Mavericks like Guy McPhearson are marginalised and even belittled for advising us that “Only love remains“.

At the more respectable end of the panic spectrum the UN is pushing countries to make 2050 commitments which could be even more irresponsible. This date could be even more irresponsible and less accurate if by being slow to incorporate the latest science, it gives anyone the impression that we have wiggle-room.

So how long have we got? If someone would just give us a clue, we might make better decisions. If I knew an asteroid might hit my city 24 hours from now I might try to escape the impact zone, or seek or construct some kind of shelter; but if I had ten minutes I’d be lucky to get my children out of the building and underground. Less than that, and at least I could follow the advice of the Chinese/World government in the apocalyspse action thriller The Wandering Earth to go back to my family and be with my loved ones.

However climate change is not a Newtonian body in constant motion through space, but a very large and complex system which has yet to be accurately modeled by computers. We don’t know how long we’ve got or what event we dread. Every number you hear representing a target, threshhold or deadline, such as 12 years, 1.5 degrees, ‘2050 tipping point’ is chosen by Public Relations advisors as a strategic target for policy makers and should be taken with a large pinch of salt. The body which has promoted most of those numbers has failed us badly by implying those things were knowable, and then placing them far too far in the future. But even if the models were accurate it wouldn’t help very much because our well being depends in large part not on the weather but on society, another complex system which is premised on the first. That’s not including the economy, another system which nobody understands, and which is designed to fail suddenly, unexpectedly and catastrophically.

The future most of us should be concerned about is not death in a heatwave or hurricane, or drowning in a rising tide, but social and political failure in a civilisation unable to adapt to changes in its environment.

So how long have we got – until what? I’m concerned that there’s too much vague fearmongering and not enough thinking about how our society is most likely to fail. It probably won’t be a distinct ‘event’ as its known in prepper-speak, a jump from capitalism to cannibalism, but could unfold in different ways and lead to different outcomes, some more preferable than others. Fiction can help us imagine possible futures like the charred landscape and fearful encounters of the The Road or living in a sealed dome of Logan’s Run. The best prediction we can hope to make is to project forwards from now in a straight line, and for me Children of Men is the movie that does that best. Notice the police and the public, the dirt and decay, the slim hopes! 

The continuing shocking weather will lead to poor harvests this year and probably poorer next year. Kudos to AllFed for their work on food security already. Around that time, maybe the year after, global food markets will go crazy as the rich countries begin hoarding food in earnest. It won’t be the shortage itself so much as the political handling of it which will be brutal. Even now many humans are already starving for political reasons while food rots in vast warehouses. Lloyds of London predicted that Africa would be hit hardest and soonest. Maybe we could feed ourselves for a few years, but without improved yields it wouldn’t be long before we saw food rationing in developed countries and governments using emergency rhetoric, political repression and of course debt-slavery to maintain order.

This at least seems like the harsh direction of the capitalist road we are on. The self-entitled, super-wealthy business and political classes will requisition everything to sustain themselves in militarised island ecovillages.

They would manage the rationing system while infrastructure decayed and schools and hospitals services failed and closed. Growing numbers of unemployed destitutes would be left to fend for themselves, dying younger than their parents from poverty related causes, including disease and violence.

So if I told you how long you had, would you wait until the last minute? One thing is for sure that you don’t want to get caught in the rush for the exit. Once everyone else starts to panic, considered, conscientious action becomes much harder.

In his Deep Adaptation paper Jem Bendell put his neck out and guessed we had 10 years before ‘societal collapse’. After a year of reflecting on this and of reading alarming science, I’m currently guessing that widespread food panics will come to dominate international politics in the next 2-4 years. The introduction of rationing will herald the crumbling of our political and financial freedoms.

So in my mind as a Western European, that 2-4 years is my window to do whatever I think necessary, desirable or possible with relative freedom. After that I think life will become harder, and choices narrower.

We can not now prevent a massive die-off of all that sustains us, starting with the insects now, expanding to the fish, trees, and surely also the grasses we depend on for food. However bleak the outlook seems – it could be worse. Maybe we’ll go extinct and maybe we won’t; wise choices could make the difference between the two. It is still possible to reduce the coming anguish and suffering; to reduce the mess and leave opportunities for the cockroaches to thrive after us; to face the future with dignity and open eyes.

I think many of us should be looking at quitting our jobs in the commercial machine, preferably with a spectacular act of nonviolent industrial sabotage, cashing in our pensions and investing in real things we care about, whether it be survival, justice, personal or collective redemption, or just pleasure.

I believe there may still be important political/collective options which would both lessen the suffering and increase our survival odds. Neither of those things seem to matter to many people I talk to, but Extinction Rebellion is closest to my way of thinking right now. To me the wonder of the universe is enough to make me want more of it, so I expect I’ll be working on system change as long as there is a system to change – not only with the hope to make things less bad, but because that is what I do.





Downfall

27 07 2019

Last night, we watched a German movie titled Der Untergang, which translates as “Downfall”. It’s the story of the last few days of Hitler’s reign over Germany as the war was well and truly lost, and is the source of many re subtitled classic video clips using the scene where Hitler completely loses the plot and goes into a rage, like this one. Most are hugely hilarious…

The reason I’m writing this rather than another rant on renewable energy or climate change is because I was completely gobsmacked at the goings on in this film touted to be very accurate with most events coming from first hand observations of survivors….

The actor portraying Hitler does, I think, an amazing job. I guess we all know he was crazy, and he gives vegetarians a bad name, but the complete denial of his demise as Russian artillery rains down all around and the frequent fits of rage are outstanding. Paranoia also reigns, traitors everywhere.

The amount of bending of the truth and facts, not to mention the persecution (and executions) of anyone with the wrong opinion is truly staggering… as is the faith of the true believers Hitler surrounded himself with.

In the end, the loss of the war is blamed on Aryan Germans who simply failed to be the superior race Nazis believed in, and nobody bar a handful of somehow humane SS officers even cares that by not surrendering, huge numbers of innocent old people, women, and children will die. It’s their own stupid fault…..

As the inevitable end nears, the carnage is unbelievable. Magda Goebbels kills all six of her children, before they go outside for Joseph to shoot her before he shoots himself. Suicides abound at this stage. None of them believe that life after Hitler (who has already killed himself, his dog, and Eva Braun) and Nazism is simply impossible. You can cut the fanaticism with a knife……

Me being me, of course, I could not but see this as a simile for what is currently going on all around us. With the sole exception of Jacinda Ardern, I consider most current leaders as crazy as Hitler ever was. After all, they are leading us into a disaster even bigger than the collapse of Germany (and much of Europe) post WWII. The war cost some 80 to 100 million deaths, global collapse will be in the billions.

And just like so many Germans voted for Hitler in 1933, clueless morons everywhere are also being elected by even more clueless morons to lead us to disaster. And just like I am doing now, handfuls of people warned the world, and nobody listened.

Hitler Made many promises to the Germans in order to come to power. Most of the promises he made, he did not keep. After WWI, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles which was the main cause of Germany’s economic problems at the time. The U.S. made loans to Germany to help with its failing economy. But when the market crashed in 1929, the U.S. could not continue to help out Germany.

This helped set up Hitler perfectly. The people of Germany were looking for someone who could help fix all of the ongoing problems they were facing in Germany. At the time they had lost faith in their governments ability to take care of its citizens. Hitler believed he could help the people in Germany and he promised them all relief. He also promised jobs for the unemployed and a market for the farmers goods.

Hitler was going to make Germany great again…….

Hitler began to appeal to peoples’ emotions instead of their reason. The people of Germany heard what they wanted to hear and ignored the violence of the Nazi party. Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the “corrupt” politicians, communists, and Jews. He told Germany that if they got rid of them, all of Germany’s problems would vanish and the whole country would improve. Many people in Germany protested Hitler’s ideas and reasoning. The people that did disagree with Hitler were faced with violence. Many were forced to leave the country to save their lives. If you don’t like it, you can leave…….

Is this starting to sound familiar?

I personally found the movie a great insight into human psyches. If you can’t handle the truth, believe all the lies. And everything will be alright.

Many of the world’s leaders are looking like Hitlers to me. They don’t care how many people die of climate induced heat waves and famines, or wars for that matter, and when the truth finally hits home, I wonder how many will suicide, and even kill all their children, because life without affluence will seem so unbearable……. They will undoubtedly be our Downfall too.





Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

11 07 2019

If EVER you needed proof there is no energy transition happening, and that growth in fossil fuels consumption is increasing, or that without de-industrialization there is no way known we’ll avoid catastrophic climate change, then this article by Gail Tverberg is it……..

The years during which the quantities of material resources cease to grow correspond almost precisely to recessionary years.

Furthermore, Gail’s “2% lag” mentioned below proves the global economy is in serious trouble. Here in Australia for instance, car sales have been dropping for fourteen months straight……

Posted on July 10, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

Economists tell us that within the economy there is a lot of substitutability, and they are correct. However, there are a couple of not-so-minor details that they overlook:

  • There is no substitute for energy. It is possible to harness energy from another source, or to make a particular object run more efficiently, but the laws of physics prevent us from substituting something else for energy. Energy is required whenever physical changes are made, such as when an object is moved, or a material is heated, or electricity is produced.
  • Supplemental energy leverages human energy. The reason why the human population is as high as it is today is because pre-humans long ago started learning how to leverage their human energy (available from digesting food) with energy from other sources. Energy from burning biomass was first used over one million years ago. Other types of energy, such as harnessing the energy of animals and capturing wind energy with sails of boats, began to be used later. If we cut back on our total energy consumption in any material way, humans will lose their advantage over other species. Population will likely plummet because of epidemics and fighting over scarce resources.

Many people appear to believe that stimulus programs by governments and central banks can substitute for growth in energy consumption. Others are convinced that efficiency gains can substitute for growing energy consumption. My analysis indicates that workarounds, in the aggregate, don’t keep energy prices high enough for energy producers. Oil prices are at risk, but so are coal and natural gas prices. We end up with a different energy problem than most have expected: energy prices that remain too low for producers. Such a problem can have severe consequences.

Let’s look at a few of the issues involved:

[1] Despite all of the progress being made in reducing birth rates around the globe, the world’s population continues to grow, year after year.

Figure 1. 2019 World Population Estimates of the United Nations. Source: https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/

Advanced economies in particular have been reducing birth rates for many years. But despite these lower birthrates, world population continues to rise because of the offsetting impact of increasing life expectancy. The UN estimates that in 2018, world population grew by 1.1%.

[2] This growing world population leads to a growing use of natural resources of every kind.

There are three reasons we might expect growing use of material resources:

(a) The growing world population in Figure 1 needs food, clothing, homes, schools, roads and other goods and services. All of these needs lead to the use of more resources of many different types.

(b) The world economy needs to work around the problems of an increasingly resource-constrained world. Deeper wells and more desalination are required to handle the water needs of a rising population. More intensive agriculture (with more irrigation, fertilization, and pest control) is needed to harvest more food from essentially the same number of arable acres. Metal ores are increasingly depleted, requiring more soil to be moved to extract the ore needed to maintain the use of metals and other minerals. All of these workarounds to accommodate a higher population relative to base resources are likely to add to the economy’s material resource requirements.

(c) Energy products themselves are also subject to limits. Greater energy use is required to extract, process, and transport energy products, leading to higher costs and lower net available quantities.

Somewhat offsetting these rising resource requirements is the inventiveness of humans and the resulting gradual improvements in technology over time.

What does actual resource use look like? UN data summarized by MaterialFlows.net shows that extraction of world material resources does indeed increase most years.

Figure 2. World total extraction of physical materials used by the world economy, calculated using  weight in metric tons. Chart is by MaterialFlows.net. Amounts shown are based on the Global Material Flows Database of the UN International Resource Panel. Non-metallic minerals include many types of materials including sand, gravel and stone, as well as minerals such as salt, gypsum and lithium.

[3] The years during which the quantities of material resources cease to grow correspond almost precisely to recessionary years.  

If we examine Figure 2, we see flat periods or periods of actual decline at the following points: 1974-75, 1980-1982, 1991, and 2008-2009. These points match up almost exactly with US recessionary periods since 1970:

Figure 3. Dates of US recessions since 1970, as graphed by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

The one recessionary period that is missed by the Figure 2 flat periods is the brief recession that occurred about 2001.

[4] World energy consumption (Figure 4) follows a very similar pattern to world resource extraction (Figure 2).

Figure 4. World Energy Consumption by fuel through 2018, based on 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Quantities are measured in energy equivalence. “Other Renew” includes a number of kinds of renewables, including wind, solar, geothermal, and sawdust burned to provide electricity. Biofuels such as ethanol are included in “Oil.”

Note that the flat periods are almost identical to the flat periods in the extraction of material resources in Figure 2. This is what we would expect, if it takes material resources to make goods and services, and the laws of physics require that energy consumption be used to enable the physical transformations required for these goods and services.

[5] The world economy seems to need an annual growth in world energy consumption of at least 2% per year, to stay away from recession.

There are really two parts to projecting how much energy consumption is needed:

  1. How much growth in energy consumption is required to keep up with growing population?
  2. How much growth in energy consumption is required to keep up with the other needs of a growing economy?

Regarding the first item, if the population growth rate continues at a rate similar to the recent past (or slightly lower), about 1% growth in energy consumption is needed to match population growth.

To estimate how much growth in energy supply is needed to keep up with the other needs of a growing economy, we can look at per capita historical relationships:

Figure 5. Three-year average growth rates of energy consumption and GDP. Energy consumption growth per capita uses amounts provided in BP 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. World per capita GDP amounts are from the World Bank, using GDP on a 2010 US$ basis.

The average world per capita energy consumption growth rate in non-recessionary periods varies as follows:

  • All years: 1.5% per year
  • 1970 to present: 1.3% per year
  • 1983 to present: 1.0% per year

Let’s take 1.0% per year as the minimum growth in energy consumption per capita required to keep the economy functioning normally.

If we add this 1% to the 1% per year expected to support continued population growth, the total growth in energy consumption required to keep the economy growing normally is about 2% per year.

Actual reported GDP growth would be expected to be higher than 2%. This occurs because the red line (GDP) is higher than the blue line (energy consumption) on Figure 5. We might estimate the difference to be about 1%. Adding this 1% to the 2% above, total reported world GDP would be expected to be about 3% in a non-recessionary environment.

There are several reasons why reported GDP might be higher than energy consumption growth in Figure 5:

  • A shift to more of a service economy, using less energy in proportion to GDP growth
  • Efficiency gains, based on technological changes
  • Possible intentional overstatement of reported GDP amounts by some countries to help their countries qualify for loans or to otherwise enhance their status
  • Intentional or unintentional understatement of inflation rates by reporting countries

[6] In the years subsequent to 2011, growth in world energy consumption has fallen behind the 2% per year growth rate required to avoid recession.

Figure 7 shows the extent to which energy consumption growth has fallen behind a target growth rate of 2% since 2011.

Figure 6. Indicated amounts to provide 2% annual growth in energy consumption, as well as actual increases in world energy consumption since 2011. Deficit is calculated as Actual minus Required at 2%. Historical amounts from BP 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

[7] The growth rates of oil, coal and nuclear have all slowed to below 2% per year since 2011. While the consumption of natural gas, hydroelectric and other renewables is still growing faster than 2% per year, their surplus growth is less than the deficit of oil, coal and nuclear.  

Oil, coal, and nuclear are the types of energy whose growth has lagged below 2% since 2011.

Figure 7. Oil, coal, and nuclear growth rates have lagged behind the target 2% growth rate. Amounts based on data from BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The situations behind these lagging growth rates vary:

  • Oil. The slowdown in world oil consumption began in 2005, when the price of oil spiked to the equivalent of $70 per barrel (in 2018$). The relatively higher cost of oil compared with other fuels since 2005 has encouraged conservation and the switching to other fuels.
  • Coal. China, especially, has experienced lagging coal production since 2012. Production costs have risen because of depleted mines and more distant sources, but coal prices have not risen to match these higher costs. Worldwide, coal has pollution issues, encouraging a switch to other fuels.
  • Nuclear. Growth has been low or negative since the Fukushima accident in 2011.

Figure 8 shows the types of world energy consumption that have been growing more rapidly than 2% per year since 2011.

Figure 8. Natural gas, hydroelectric, and other renewables (including wind and solar) have been growing more rapidly than 2% since 2011. Amounts based on data from BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

While these types of energy produce some surplus relative to an overall 2% growth rate, their total quantity is not high enough to offset the significant deficit generated by oil, coal, and nuclear.

Also, it is not certain how long the high growth rates for natural gas, hydroelectric, and other renewables can persist. The growth in natural gas may slow because transport costs are high, and consumers are not willing/able to pay for the high delivered cost of natural gas, when distant sources are used. Hydroelectric encounters limits because most of the good sites for dams are already taken. Other renewables also encounter limits, partly because many of the best sites are already taken, and partly because batteries are needed for wind and solar, and there is a limit to how fast battery makers can expand production.

Putting the two groupings together, we obtain the same deficit found in Figure 6.

Figure 9. Comparison of extra energy over targeted 2% growth from natural gas, hydroelectric and other renewables with energy growth deficit from oil, coal and nuclear combined. Amounts based on data from BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Based on the above discussion, it seems likely that energy consumption growth will tend to lag behind 2% per year for the foreseeable future.

[8] The economy needs to produce its own “demand” for energy products, in order to keep prices high enough for producers. When energy consumption growth is below 2% per year, the danger is that energy prices will fall below the level needed by energy producers.

Workers play a double role in the economy:

  • They earn wages, based on their jobs, and
  • They are the purchasers of goods and services.

In fact, low-wage workers (the workers that I sometimes call “non-elite workers”) are especially important, because of their large numbers and their role in buying many items that use significant amounts of energy. If these workers aren’t earning enough, they tend to cut back on their discretionary buying of homes, cars, air conditioners, and even meat. All of these require considerable energy in their production and in their use.

High-wage workers tend to spend their money differently. Most of them have already purchased as many homes and vehicles as they can use. They tend to spend their extra money differently–on services such as private education for their children, or on investments such as shares of stock.

An economy can be configured with “increased complexity” in order to save energy consumption and costs. Such increased complexity can be expected to include larger companies, more specialization and more globalization. Such increased complexity is especially likely if energy prices rise, increasing the benefit of substitution away from the energy products. Increased complexity is also likely if stimulus programs provide inexpensive funds that can be used to buy out other firms and for the purchase of new equipment to replace workers.

The catch is that increased complexity tends to reduce demand for energy products because the new way the economy is configured tends to increase wage disparity. An increasing share of workers are replaced by machines or find themselves needing to compete with workers in low-wage countries, lowering their wages. These lower wages tend to lower the demand of non-elite workers.

If there is no increase in complexity, then the wages of non-elite workers can stay high. The use of growing energy supplies can lead to the use of more and better machines to help non-elite workers, and the benefit of those machines can flow back to non-elite workers in the form of higher wages, reflecting “higher worker productivity.” With the benefit of higher wages, non-elite workers can buy the energy-consuming items that they prefer. Demand stays high for finished goods and services. Indirectly, it also stays high for commodities used in the process of making these finished goods and services. Thus, prices of energy products can be as high as needed, so as to encourage production.

In fact, if we look at average annual inflation-adjusted oil prices, we find that 2011 (the base year in Sections [6] and [7]) had the single highest average price for oil.1 This is what we would expect, if energy consumption growth had been adequate immediately preceding 2011.

Figure 10. Historical inflation-adjusted Brent-equivalent oil prices based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

If we think about the situation, it not surprising that the peak in average annual oil prices took place in 2011, and the decline in oil prices has coincided with the growing net deficit shown in Figures 6 and 9. There was really a double loss of demand, as growth in energy use slowed (reducing direct demand for energy products) and as complexity increased (shifting more of the demand to high-wage earners and away from the non-elite workers).

What is even more surprising is that fact that the prices of fuels in general tend to follow a similar pattern (Figure 11). This strongly suggests that demand is an important part of price setting for energy products of all kinds. People cannot buy more goods and services (made and transported with energy products) than they can afford over the long term.

Figure 11. Comparison of changes in oil prices with changes in other energy prices, based on time series of historical energy prices shown in BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. The prices in this chart are not inflation-adjusted.

If a person looks at all of these charts (deficits in Figures 6 and 9 and oil and energy prices in general from Figures 10 and 11) for the period 2011 onward, there is a very distinct pattern. There is at first a slow slide down, then a fast slide down, followed (at the end) by an uptick. This is what we should expect, if low energy growth is leading to low prices for energy products in general.

[9] There are two different ways that oil and other energy prices can damage the economy: (a) by rising too high for consumers or (b) by falling too low for producers to have funds for reinvestment, taxes and other needs. The danger at this point is from (b), energy prices falling too low for producers.  

Many people believe that the only energy problem that an economy can have is prices that are too high for consumers. In fact, energy prices seemed to be very high in the lead-ups to the 1974-1975 recession, the 1980-1982 recession, and the 2008-2009 recession. Figure 5 shows that the worldwide growth in energy consumption was very high in the lead-up to all three of these recessions. In the two earlier time periods, the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union were all growing their economies, leading to high demand. Preceding the 2008-2009 Great Recession, China was growing its economy very rapidly at the same time the US was providing low-interest rate rates for home purchases, some of them to subprime borrowers. Thus, demand was very high at that time.

The 1974-75 recession and the 1980-1982 recession were fixed by raising interest rates. The world economy was overheating with all of the increased leveraging of human energy with energy products. Higher short-term interest rates helped bring growth in energy prices (as well as food prices, which are very dependent on energy consumption) down to a more manageable level.

Figure 12. Three-month and ten-year interest rates through May 2019, in chart by Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

There was really a two-way interest rate fix related to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. First, when oil and other energy prices started to spike, the US Federal Reserve raised short term interest rates in the mid 2000s. This, by itself, was almost enough to cause recession. When recession started to set in, short-term interest rates were brought back down. Also, in late 2008, when oil prices were very low, the US began using Quantitative Easing to bring longer-term interest rates down, and the price of oil back up.

Figure 13. Monthly Brent oil prices with dates of US beginning and ending Quantitative Easing.

There is one recession that seems to have been the result of low oil prices, perhaps combined with other factors. That is the recession that was associated with the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991.

[10] The recession that comes closest to the situation we seem to be heading into is the one that affected the world economy in 1991 and shortly thereafter.

If we look at Figures 2 and 5, we can see that the recession that occurred in 1991 had a moderately severe effect on the world economy. Looking back at what happened, this situation occurred when the central government of the Soviet Union collapsed after 10 years of low oil prices (1982-1991). With these low prices, the Soviet Union had not been earning enough to reinvest in new oil fields. Also, communism had proven to be a fairly inefficient method of operating the economy. The world’s self-organizing economy produced a situation in which the central government of the Soviet Union collapsed. The effect on resource consumption was very severe for the countries most involved with this collapse.

Figure 14. Total extraction of physical materials Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, in chart by MaterialFlows.net. Amounts shown are based on the Global Material Flows Database of the UN International Resource Panel.

World oil prices have been falling too low, at least since 2012. The biggest decreases in prices have come since 2014. With energy prices already very low compared to what producers need, there is a need right now for some type of stimulus. With interest rates as low as they are today, it will be very difficult to lower interest rates much further.

Also, as we have seen, debt-related stimulus is not very effective at raising energy prices unless it actually raises energy consumption. What works much better is energy supply that is cheap and abundant enough that supply can be ramped up at a rate well in excess of 2% per year, to help support the growth of the economy. Suitable energy supply should be inexpensive enough to produce that it can be taxed heavily, in order to help support the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, we cannot just walk away from economic growth because we have an economy that needs to continue to expand. One part of this need is related to the world’s population, which continues to grow. Another part of this need relates to the large amount of debt that needs to be repaid with interest. We know from recent history (as well as common sense) that when economic growth slows too much, repayment of debt with interest becomes a problem, especially for the most vulnerable borrowers. Economic growth is also needed if businesses are to receive the benefit of economies of scale. Ultimately, an expanding economy can be expected to benefit the price of a company’s stock.

Observations and Conclusions

Perhaps the best way of summing up how my model of the world economy differs from other ones is to compare it to popular other models.

The Peak Oil model says that our energy problem will be an oil supply problem. Some people believe that oil demand will rise endlessly, allowing prices to rise in a pattern following the ever-rising cost of extraction. In the view of Peak Oilers, a particular point of interest is the date when the supply of oil “peaks” and starts to decline. In the view of many, the price of oil will start to skyrocket at that point because of inadequate supply.

To their credit, Peak Oilers did understand that there was an energy bottleneck ahead, but they didn’t understand how it would work. While oil supply is an important issue, and in fact, the first issue that starts affecting the economy, total energy supply is an even more important issue. The turning point that is important is when energy consumption stops growing rapidly enough–that is, greater than the 2% per year needed to support adequate economic growth.

The growth in oil consumption first fell below the 2% level in 2005, which is the year some that some observers have claimed that “conventional” (that is, free flowing, low-cost) oil production peaked. If we look at all types of energy consumption combined, growth fell below the critical 2% level in 2012. Both of these issues have made the world economy more vulnerable to recession. We experienced a recession based on prices that were too high for consumers in 2008-2009. It appears that the next bottleneck may be caused by energy prices that are too low for producers.

Recessions that are based on prices that are too low for the producer are the more severe type. For one thing, such recessions cannot be fixed by a simple interest rate fix. For another, the timing is unpredictable because a problem with low prices for the producer can linger for quite a few years before it actually leads to a major collapse. In fact, individual countries affected by low energy prices, such as Venezuela, can collapse before the overall system collapses.

While the Peak Oil model got some things right and some things wrong, the models used by most conventional economists, including those included in the various IPCC reports, are far more deficient. They assume that energy resources that seem to be in the ground can actually be extracted. They see no limitations caused by prices that are too high for consumers or too low for producers. They do not realize that affordable energy prices can actually fall over time, as the economy weakens.

Conventional economists assume that it is possible for politicians to direct the economy along lines that they prefer, even if doing so contradicts the laws of physics. In particular, they assume that the economy can be made to operate with much less energy consumption than is used today. They assume that we collectively can decide to move away from coal consumption, without having another fuel available that can adequately replace coal in quantity and uses.

History shows that the collapse of economies is very common. Collectively, we have closed our eyes to this possibility ever happening to the world economy in the modern era. If the issue with collapsing demand causing ever-lower energy prices is as severe as my analysis indicates, perhaps we should be examining this scenario more closely.

Note:

[1] There was a higher spike in oil prices in 2008, but averaged over the whole year, the 2008 price was lower than the continued high prices of 2011.