Interesting times ahead…..

29 11 2018

Very few people join all the dots, and as usual, Gail Tverberg does her best to do so here again…. There are so many signals on the web now pointing to a major reset it’s not funny.

Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

Many people, including most Peak Oilers, expect that oil prices will rise endlessly. They expect rising oil prices because, over time, companies find it necessary to access more difficult-to-extract oil. Accessing such oil tends to be increasingly expensive because it tends to require the use of greater quantities of resources and more advanced technology. This issue is sometimes referred to as diminishing returns. Figure 1 shows how oil prices might be expected to rise, if the higher costs encountered as a result of diminishing returns can be fully recovered from the ultimate customers of this oil.

In my view, this analysis suggesting ever-rising prices is incomplete. After a point, prices can’t really keep up with rising costs because the wages of many workers lag behind the growing cost of extraction.

The economy is a networked system facing many pressures, including a growing level of debt and the rising use of technology. When these pressures are considered, my analysis indicates that oil prices may fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers. Oil companies may close down if prices remain too low. Because of this, low oil prices should be of just as much concern as high oil prices.

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the possibility of Peak Oil, including high oil prices. If the issue we are facing is really prices that are too low for producers, then there seems to be the possibility of a different limits issue, called Collapse. Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits. Collapse seems to be characterized by growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Eventually, population associated with collapsed economies may fall very low or completely disappear. As Collapse approaches, commodity prices seem to be low, rather than high.

The low oil prices we have been seeing recently fit in disturbingly well with the hypothesis that the world economy is reaching affordability limits for a wide range of commodities, nearly all of which are subject to diminishing returns. This is a different problem than most researchers have been concerned about. In this article, I explain this situation further.

One thing that is a little confusing is the relative roles of diminishing returns and efficiency. I see diminishing returns as being more or less the opposite of growing efficiency.

The fact that inflation-adjusted oil prices are now much higher than they were in the 1940s to 1960s is a sign that for oil, the contest between diminishing returns and efficiency has basically been won by diminishing returns for over 40 years.

Oil Prices Cannot Rise Endlessly

It makes no sense for oil prices to rise endlessly, for what is inherently growing inefficiency. Endlessly rising prices for oil would be similar to paying a human laborer more and more for building widgets, during a time that that laborer becomes increasingly disabled. If the number of widgets that the worker can produce in one hour decreases by 50%, logically that worker’s wages should fall by 50%, not rise to make up for his/her growing inefficiency.

The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. The way that the growing inefficiency is hidden is by adding Debt and Complexity (Figure 4).

Growing complexity is very closely related to “Technology will save us.” Growing complexity involves the use of more advanced machinery and ever-more specialized workers. Businesses become larger and more hierarchical. International trade becomes increasingly important. Financial products such as derivatives become common.

Growing debt goes hand in hand with growing complexity. Businesses need growing debt to support capital expenditures for their new technology. Consumers find growing debt helpful in affording major purchases, such as homes and vehicles. Governments make debt-like promises of pensions to citizen. Thanks to these promised pensions, families can have fewer children and devote fewer years to child care at home.

The problem with adding complexity and adding debt is that they, too, reach diminishing returns. The easiest (and cheapest) fixes tend to be added first. For example, irrigating a field in a dry area may be an easy and cheap way to fix a problem with inadequate food supply. There may be other approaches that could be used as well, such as breeding crops that do well with little rainfall, but the payback on this investment may be smaller and later.

A major drawback of adding complexity is that doing so tends to increase wage and wealth disparity. When an employer pays high wages to supervisory workers and highly skilled workers, this leaves fewer funds with which to pay less skilled workers. Furthermore, the huge amount of capital goods required in this more complex economy tends to disproportionately benefit workers who are already highly paid. This happens because the owners of shares of stock in companies tend to overlap with employees who are already highly paid. Low paid employees can’t afford such purchases.

The net result of greater wage and wealth disparity is that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep prices high enough for oil producers. The many workers with low wages find it difficult to afford homes and families of their own. Their low purchasing power tends to hold down prices of commodities of all kinds. The higher wages of the highly trained and supervisory staff don’t make up for the shortfall in commodity demand because these highly paid workers spend their wages differently. They tend to spend proportionately more on services rather than on commodity-intensive goods. For example, they may send their children to elite colleges and pay for tax avoidance services. These services use relatively little in the way of commodities.

Once the Economy Slows Too Much, the Whole System Tends to Implode

A growing economy can hide a multitude of problems. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the growth that supports his growing wages comes from inflationary growth or “real” growth, since debt repayment is typically not adjusted for inflation.

Both real growth and inflationary growth help workers have enough funds left at the end of the period for other goods they need, despite repaying debt with interest.

Once the economy stops growing, the whole system tends to implode. Wage disparity becomes a huge problem. It becomes impossible to repay debt with interest. Young people find that their standards of living are lower than those of their parents. Investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies. Businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage. Pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people.

The Real Situation with Oil Prices

The real situation with oil prices–and in fact with respect to commodity prices in general–is approximately like that shown in Figure 6.

What tends to happen is that oil prices tend to fall farther and farther behind what producers require, if they are truly to make adequate reinvestment in new fields and also pay high taxes to their governments. This should not be too surprising because oil prices represent a compromise between what citizens can afford and what producers require.

In the years before diminishing returns became too much of a problem (back before 2005, for example), it was possible to find prices that were within an acceptable range for both sellers and buyers. As diminishing returns has become an increasing problem, the price that consumers can afford has tended to fall increasingly far below the price that producers require. This is why oil prices at first fall a little too low for producers, and eventually seem likely to fall far below what producers need to stay in business. The problem is that no price works for both producers and consumers.

Affordability Issues Affect All Commodity Prices, Not Just Oil

We are dealing with a situation in which a growing share of workers (and would be workers) find it difficult to afford a home and family, because of wage disparity issues. Some workers have been displaced from their jobs by robots or by globalization. Some spend many years in advanced schooling and are left with large amounts of debt, making it difficult to afford a home, a family, and other things that many in the older generation were able to take for granted. Many of today’s workers are in low-wage countries; they cannot afford very much of the output of the world economy.

At the same time, diminishing returns affect nearly all commodities, just as they affect oil. Mineral ores are affected by diminishing returns because the highest grade ores tend to be extracted first. Food production is also subject to diminishing returns because population keeps rising, but arable land does not. As a result, each year it is necessary to grow more food per arable acre, leading to a need for more complexity (more irrigation or more fertilizer, or better hybrid seed), often at higher cost.

When the problem of growing wage disparity is matched up with the problem of diminishing returns for the many different types of commodity production, the same problem occurs that occurs with oil. Prices of a wide range of commodities tend to fall below the cost of production–first by a little and, if the debt bubble pops, by a whole lot.

We hear people say, “Of course oil prices will rise. Oil is a necessity.” The thing that they don’t realize is that the problem affects a much bigger “package” of commodities than just oil prices. In fact, finished goods and services of all kinds made with these commodities are also affected, including new homes and vehicles. Thus, the pattern we see of low oil prices, relative to what is required for true profitability, is really an extremely widespread problem.

Interest Rate Policies Affect Affordability

Commodity prices bear surprisingly little relationship to the cost of production. Instead, they seem to depend more on interest rate policies of government agencies. If interest rates rise or fall, this tends to have a big impact on household budgets, because monthly auto payments and home payments depend on interest rates. For example, US interest rates spiked in 1981.

This spike in interest rates led to a major cutback in energy consumption and in GDP growth.

Oil prices began to slide, with the higher interest rates.

Figure 11 indicates that the popping of a debt bubble (mostly relating to US sub-prime housing) sent oil prices down in 2008. Once interest rates were lowered through the US adoption of Quantitative Easing (QE), oil prices rose again. They fell again, when the US discontinued QE.

While these charts show oil prices, there is a tendency for a broad range of commodity prices to move more or less together. This happens because the commodity price issue seems to be driven to a significant extent by the affordability of finished goods and services, including homes, automobiles, and restaurant food.

If the collapse of a major debt bubble occurs again, the world seems likely to experience impacts somewhat similar to those in 2008, depending, of course, on the location(s) and size(s) of the debt bubble(s). A wide variety of commodity prices are likely to fall very low; asset prices may also be affected. This time, however, government organizations seem to have fewer tools for pulling the world economy out of a prolonged slump because interest rates are already very low. Thus, the issues are likely to look more like a widespread economic problem (including far too low commodity prices) than an oil problem.

Lack of Growth in Energy Consumption Per Capita Seems to Lead to Collapse Scenarios

When we look back, the good times from an economic viewpoint occurred when energy consumption per capita (top red parts on Figure 12) were rising rapidly.

The bad times for the economy were the valleys in Figure 12. Separate labels for these valleys have been added in Figure 13. If energy consumption is not growing relative to the rising world population, collapse in at least a part of the world economy tends to occur.

The laws of physics tell us that energy consumption is required for movement and for heat. These are the basic processes involved in GDP generation, and in electricity transmission. Thus, it is logical to believe that energy consumption is required for GDP growth. We can see in Figure 9 that growth in energy consumption tends to come before GDP growth, strongly suggesting that it is the cause of GDP growth. This further confirms what the laws of physics tell us.

The fact that partial collapses tend to occur when the growth in energy consumption per capita falls too low is further confirmation of the way the economics system really operates. The Panic of 1857occurred when the asset price bubble enabled by the California Gold Rush collapsed. Home, farm, and commodity prices fell very low. The problems ultimately were finally resolved in the US Civil War (1861 to 1865).

Similarly, the Depression of the 1930s was preceded by a stock market crash in 1929. During the Great Depression, wage disparity was a major problem. Commodity prices fell very low, as did farm prices. The issues of the Depression were not fully resolved until World War II.

At this point, world growth in energy consumption per capita seems to be falling again. We are also starting to see evidence of some of the same problems associated with earlier collapses: growing wage disparity, growing debt bubbles, and increasingly war-like behavior by world leaders. We should be aware that today’s low oil prices, together with these other symptoms of economic distress, may be pointing to yet another collapse scenario on the horizon.

Oil’s Role in the Economy Is Different From What Many Have Assumed

We have heard for a long time that the world is running out of oil, and we need to find substitutes. The story should have been, “Affordability of all commodities is falling too low, because of diminishing returns and growing wage disparity. We need to find rapidly rising quantities of very, very cheap energy products. We need a cheap substitute for oil. We cannot afford to substitute high-cost energy products for low-cost energy products. High-cost energy products affect the economy too adversely.”

In fact, the whole “Peak Oil” story is not really right. Neither is the “Renewables will save us” story, especially if the renewables require subsidies and are not very scalable. Energy prices can never be expected to rise high enough for renewables to become economic.

The issues we should truly be concerned about are Collapse, as encountered by many economies previously. If Collapse occurs, it seems likely to cut off production of many commodities, including oil and much of the food supply, indirectly because of low prices.

Low oil prices and low prices of other commodities are signs that we truly should be concerned about. Too many people have missed this point. They have been taken in by the false models of economists and by the confusion of Peak Oilers. At this point, we should start considering the very real possibility that our next world problem is likely to be Collapse of at least a portion of the world economy.

Interesting times seem to be ahead.


A reality check on Renewable Energy

23 10 2018

Hat tip to my friend Shane who put me onto this TedX lecture…….  well worth sharing with your ecotopian friends! It does show how Australia – and Canada –  with very low population densities, are in not a bad position, except of course for the fact they are nowhere near the places with high densitity populations. You can’t beat arithmetics and physics…….

How much land mass would renewables need to power a nation like the UK? An entire country’s worth. In this pragmatic talk, David MacKay tours the basic mathematics that show worrying limitations on our sustainable energy options and explains why we should pursue them anyway. (Filmed at TEDxWarwick.) Lesson by David MacKay.

Italy and energy: a case study

22 10 2018

Since discovering Jean Marc Jancovici a couple of months ago, I have been following his work, which is mostly in French; but now and again he publishes something in English, so you guys can benefit from reading this while I prepare to drive my wife’s Suzuki Alto with a full load to Tasmania……  yes I am going to get my life back and get to enjoy sharing the fruits of my labour after a three year wait…..


Italy is in trouble. Or more precisely, the country has been “abandonned by growth”. It is one of the few OECD countries that is unable to recover from the “2008 crisis”: its GDP is still lagging below 2007 levels. Would it be the simple result of the unability of the successive governments to make the “appropriate reforms”? It might well be that the explanation lies in something much more different, but much more unpleasant: physics.

First, statistics are unequivocal on the fact that growth has vanished, so far.

Year on year change of the GDP in Italy (or “annual growth rate”) since 1961 (blue curve), average per decade (red curve), and trend on the growth rate (green dotted line). It is easy to see that each decade has been less “successful” than the previous one since the beginning of this series, and that the decade that started in 2010 has an average growth rate which is… negative. Italy has therefore been in recession, “on average”, for the last 7 years.

Primary data from World Bank.

As the two are generally linked in Western countries, the debt on GDP ratio has risen to heights, botbh for public and private debt.

Debt on GDP ratio in Italy since 1995. Primary data from Eurostat.

Households debt on GDP ratio since 1960. Data from Bank for International Settlements.

Credit to the non financial sector on GDP ratio (corporates and households) for Italy. Data from Bank for International Settlements.

All this would not be so annoying – well, from an economic point of view – if growth were to resume, because then the money to repay all this extra debt would be available. But why doesn’t growth come back? Some say that this is due to the lack of reforms. This is due to the lack of reforms, but not the same (reforms), say others.

But what if the true reason is… the lack of energy? In Italy, as elsewhere, the machines that surround us everywhere (rolling mills, chemical plants, trains, fridges, elevators, trucks, cars, planes, stamping presses, drawers, extruders, tractors, pumps, cranes…) have 500 to 1000 times the power of the muscles of the population.

It’s these machines that produce, not men. Today, homes, cars, shirts, vacuum cleaners, fridges, chairs, glasses, cups, scissors, shampoo, books, frozen dishes, and all the other tens of thousands of products that you benefit from are produced by machines. If these machines lack energy, they operate less, production decreases, and so does the monetary counterpart of this production, that is the GDP. And it is probably what happened in our southern neighbor.

First of all, energy is definitely less abundant in Italy today than it was 10 years ago.

Primary energy used in Italy (sometimes called “primary energy consumption”; “primary” refers to the fact that it is the energy extracted from the environment in its raw form – raw coal, crude oil, crude gas, etc, not processed fuels or electricity that come out of the energy industries: refined fuels, electricity, processed gas, etc) since 1965. There was a maximum in 2005, i.e. 3 years before the fall of Lehman Brothers. It is impossible to attribute the decline in consumption to a crisis caused by the bankers’ negligence!

It is interesting to note that maximum of the energy consumption in Italy corresponds to the maximum gas production of Algeria (2005), Italy’s second largest gas supplier after Russia.

Oil and gas production in Algeria since 1965 (oil) and 1970 (gas). Oil production peaked in 2008, and gas production in 2003 so far (monthly data from the Energy Information Agency suggest that the gas production in Algeria is anew on the decline). Primary data from BP Statistical Review.

Italy is a major consumer of gas, because its electricity production relies on it for half of the domestic generation. This maximum (of energy consumption in Italy) also corresponds to the beginning of the stabilization of world oil production that took place between 2005 and 2010, which also led to a decrease in Italy’s import capacity in this precious liquid.

Monthly production of liquids (crude oil and condensates) worldwide. Data from the Energy Information Agency. We can clearly see the “plateau” that runs from 2005 to 2010, before the rise of the American shale oil, which has rekindled global growth and allowed the subsequent economic “rebound”.

Combined together, oil and gas accounted for 85% of Italian energy in 2005 (and accounted for 65% of its electricity production): less oil available on the world market (because a constant production must be shared with a growing importation from the emerging countries), and less gas available in Europe and Algeria led to a decline in supply beforethe beginning of the financial crisis.

In fact, when looking at trends over long periods, we can see that, in Italy as in all industrialized countries, i. e. with machines that produce instead of men, GDP is driven by available energy.

Rate of change (3 year running average) of the energy consumption in Italy (green curve) and rate of change (also 3 year running average) of the Italian GDP. It is noteworthy that the trend is the same for both. Where’s the hen, where’s the egg? For what follows, we just need one valid rule: less energy means less running machines and thus less GDP. And we see that when the energy growth slower, so does the GDP, one to two years later, which supports the idea that when it is energy that is constrained, GDP is forced to be constrained as well.

Data from BP Statistical Review for energy and World Bank for GDP

This “precedence” of energy over GDP will show up in another presentation of the same data.

Energy used in Italy (horizontal axis) vs. Italian GDP (in constant billions dollars) for the period 1965 to 2017. The curve start in 1965, at the bottom left, and then follows the chronological order upwards to the right

We note that the curve makes a series of “turns to the left” in 1974, 1979, and especially from 2005 onwards. The “turn on the left” means that it is first the energy that decreases, and then the GDP, excluding in fact a sequence that would explain the decrease in the energy consumed by the crisis alone (then the curve should “turn right”).

One can also notice that after the decline in GDP from 2006 to 2014, the line goes back to “normal”, that is going from “bottom left” to “top right”, which reflects a GDP that grows again because of an energy supply that does the same.

Author’s calculation based on BP Statistical Review & World Bank data

And then?

Well, for the moment energy supply is going downwards, but will it continue to do so in the future? For the first 3 components of the energy supply in Italy, things look pretty settled. For coal, all is imported. This fuel is a nightmare regarding logistics: a 1 GW power plant requires between 4000 and 10000 tonnes of coal per day, and this explains why when a country is not a coal producer its coal imports are never massive. Add on top that coal is clearly the first “climate ennemy” to shoot: calling massively on imported coal to compensate for the decline of the rest seems very unprobable.

Consumption (dotted lines) and production (solid line, actually zero all the time!) of coal in Italy. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Then comes oil. Italy imports almost all it uses, and when world production stopped growing in 2005, Italian consumption fell in a forced way – as in all OECD countries – because the emerging countries took an increasing share.

Consumption (dotted lines) and production (solid line) of oil in Italy. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Eventually comes gas. Here too, Italy had to reduce its consumption in a compulsory way after 2005, when Algerian production – which provides about a third of Italian consumption – peaked.

Consumption (dotted lines) and production (solid line) of gas in Italy. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Italy gave up nuclear power after Chernobyl, and so no “relief” can come from this technology. Hydroelectricity has been at its peak for decades, with all or most of the equippable sites having been equipped. In addition, the drying up of the Mediterranean basin due to climate change should also reduce rather than increase this production.

Hydroelectric production in Italy since 1965, in TWh (billion kWh) electricity. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Then remain the “new renewable”, mostly solar, biomass and wind energy, that now represent about the equivalent of hydropower. But solar and wind require a lot of capital to be deployed, and thus the irony is that if the economy “suffers” because of a decline in the supply of fossil fuels, there is fewer money to invest in this supply! Biomass requires a lot of land to become significant because of the biomass that has to be grown.

Non-fossil electricity production in Italy since 1965. We see that the “new renewable” (biomass, wind, solar) do a little more than hydroelectricity, i.e. 20% of the total production (of electricity only, of course). Data from BP Statistical Review.

As these means cannot quickly supply large extra quantities of electricity, and will quickly be limited by storage issues, the energy used in Italy remains massively fossil, and will do so in the short term.

Share of each energy in Italian consumption. Data from BP Statistical Review.

It is therefore likely that Italy will remain massively dependent on fossils fuels in the next 10 to 20 years, and since the supply of these fuels is likely to continue to decrease on average, which means that Italy will have to manage its destiny without a return to growth, or even with a structural recession.

It is to this conclusion that a “physical” reading of the economy leads. And what is happening to our neighbours to the south is, most probably, the “normal” way in which an industrialized country reacts to the beginning of an unexpected energy contraction (and then populists follow, because of promises that coldn’t be fulfiled). As other European countries do not anticipate any better their upcoming energy contraction (that will happen anyway because oil, gas and coal are not renewable), let us look carefully at what is happening in this country. Something similar is likely to happen in France (and in Europe, and in the OECD) too if we do not seriously address the issue of fossil fuels, or more precisely if we do not seriously begin to organise society with less and less fossil fuels, including if it means less and less GDP.

The third curve…. concept vs reality

17 10 2018

Money vs Oil Real Combined - SmallerThanks to good old facebook, I have discovered another webside I want to share with my now nearly 800 followers…. Mansoor Khan is writing a book called The Third Curve, and is publishing it chapter by chapter on his website. I am currently distracted by a wedding and a funeral in Queensland, and haven’t yet delved too far into this book, but I was originally attracted to it by that telling graph at left, because it clearly describes the disconnect between concept and reality….

Khan studied engineering at IIT, Cornell University and MANSOOR_KHAN_4MIT but then went on to make four feature films including Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. In 2003, he moved to Coonoor, to realize his first passion of living on an organic farm. His first book, ‘The Third Curve – The End of Growth as we know it’ explains the limits of growth in economy and industry from an Energetics perspective.

Gail Tverberg, and others, have been saying for some time now, that the disconnect occurred during the 1970’s and 1980’s oil shocks, when the amount of net energy available from conventional oil (there was nothing else that far back) started going down. It was also the time when Thatcher and Reagan had to choose between managing limits to growth, or deregulating everything and, as Thatcher put it, move from a society to an economy. Of course the former never had a chance in hell of being applied, so now we are stuck with this neoliberalism cancer that will destroy civilisation…….

Debt has clearly replaced net energy to keep growth going until it can’t – like round about right now – and surely collapse can no longer be very far away……. Mnsoor Khan calls it deficit in real growth.

Phase 2 Deficit - Money and Oil - Smaller

Khan writes…….:

To most, the Modern Industrial World is the epitome of man’s ingenuity: a glorious manifestation of human intelligence and enterprise.
In my opinion, this is completely untrue.

The fact is that all the seemingly fabulous constructs and conveniences of the Modern Industrial World were only possible because of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. Human ingenuity was a co-factor and not the prime reason for it. As simple as that!

With a wild Concept like “Time-Value of Money” floating on the edge of our consciousness, we were simply looking for the perfect ally from Reality to make Exponential Growth possible.

And we found that ally. It was Oil – nothing but over 150 million years of ancient sunlight trapped in the bosom of the Earth.

A once-in-an-eternity bounty. Plentiful, cheap, energy-dense, portable, easily convertible to heat, motion, and electricity… A primeval elixir so varied in possibilities, having the unique innate ability to morph into a dazzling array of useful materials that it, but naturally, shaped the most powerful culture ever to dominate this Earth: modern industrial civilization.

No wonder oil has been referred to as the “blood of the devil”, a double-edged warning!

With the discovery of oil, the Concept and the Reality fused effortlessly and we took the easiest path. Whatever oil offered us, we seized: cars, airplanes, plastics, lubricants, complex electronics, computers, space travel, internet, gigabyte memory chips, mobile networks, artificial limbs, mega cities, automated garbage collection, robot-controlled assembly lines, global food networks, moving mountains or damming rivers, clearing forests or strip mining! Anything seemed possible! Nothing else could have achieved it on this scale of size, speed and complexity. Yes, oil allowed us to nurture the most audacious, wasteful, self-indulgent and even self-destructive ideas we could dream about, and turn them into reality.

This led the civilized world to believe that we did all this because of our superior intelligence as a species and as a culture. We patted ourselves on the back by terming it innate “human ingenuity”. We felt that, even if oil was removed or reduced, we could simply replace it with some other form of energy and continue on the same trajectory. This we also deemed to be our entitlement and inevitable destiny. Shoot the messenger but the message remains. This is a pipe-dream. Few ponder on why this is so.

It is because oil was not only an unbelievably cheap, plentiful, dense and portable source of energy to RUN our world, but also a divinely unique source of mind-boggling byproducts that BUILT our Modern Industrial World. Bitumen for our roads, plastics for everything, lubricants for all kinds of machinery, fertilizers and pesticides for our complex and vulnerable modern food production, chemical reagents for pharmaceuticals and endlessly more.

All these and more are intertwined in a complex web of interdependencies that are hard to unravel, let alone replace, to make the Modern Industrial World possible.
And reaching the peak of oil production means only an imminent decline of what is possible.

The world will not disappear because of Peak Oil but we will find ourselves in a considerably different world with a new set of economic rules, in fact, an inversion of the rules of Economics: Shrinkage instead of Growth. To appreciate fully what oil means, we first have to do a primer on energy.

The third curve is worth visiting just for the cartoons!




28 09 2018


Ian Lowe

Professor Ian Lowe

August 9, 2018

“If we go on increasing the population at the current rate, we’ll go on damaging our environment at an ever increasing rate…”

Back in March, Dr Jonathan Sobels – a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia and the author of a key 2010 report prepared for the Department of Immigration entitled Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050 – (356 pages) gave a brilliant incisive interview on ABC’s Radio National warning of a huge reduction in Australian living standards if the federal government continues with its mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy:

“You end up with, in absolute terms, more pollution. You end up with more impacts on people’s personal time spent commuting, for example. You end up with less choice in even simple things…

And we are coming up towards physical limitations within our physical, built and natural environments that will lead to compromises in the quality of our life…
Not only are the dams not filling, but the ground water supplies are not filling. The only option you have open to you is water efficiency use and whacking up desal plants. But if your population keeps increasing at the rates we have seen in recent times, you won’t be able to afford putting up billion dollar desal plants, which also have their environmental impacts…

I think we have a problem with this notion of growth being the panacea to all our policy problems. Ultimately, growth in a finite environment becomes impossible. It’s a lazy policy prescription that says ‘oh, let’s have more people’ to drive the economy because essentially the growth in productivity over the last 30 years is a product of increasing population.

Our productivity per se hasn’t necessarily gone anywhere in the last 20 years despite technological development. We need to consider how we can actually structure our economy so that growth is not the aim. But in fact creating living spaces and economies that people can sustain over a longer period…

I believe that [the number for net migration] is the place where we should begin. All our issues to do with infrastructure stem from the number of people we have. If we are going to have a discussion about infrastructure, we first need to discuss how many people but also, most importantly, where they are located before we start planning what we want to do in terms of infrastructure…

I’m baffled on why we don’t have politicians with either the information or the political capital to talk about how many people can live in certain places. 80% of the immigration into Australia post WW2 has been into 20% of the local government areas, principally Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Those are the places where the Commonwealth needs to be active in terms of ‘can we sustain the continuation of that intake’. Or, is there a way that we can ameliorate the pressure on these major cities in terms of where we encourage people to live…

I’m a little bit skeptical and sanguine about the political will of the Government and either side to actually engage people into what are difficult and contentious discussions. And it’s really quite a shame that we don’t see leadership in terms of establishing the vision of what Australia could be and then working back from that vision in terms of setting policy”.

This was an excellent interview from a genuine expert that clearly understands the key issues surrounding the immigration debate.

Dr Sobels’ 2010 report is also well worth reading and covers the above issues in much


Dr Jonathon Sobels

greater detail. One can only wonder why this report was completely ignored by the Immigration Department and federal government.

On Tuesday, Professor Ian Lowe – emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), and author of the excellent book Bigger or Better?: Australia’s Population Debate – also gave an incisive interview on ABC Radio warning of the deleterious impacts of Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy on Australia’s environment and living standards:

“The population in the last decade increased much faster than the most alarming of the ABS projections… Our population is increasing by one million every two-and-a-half years, and that’s causing the pressures people are seeing in the large cities…

No species can increase without limit in a closed system… My view is that we should have a coherent policy that aims to stabilise it [population] at a level that we can sustainably support, rather than have it increase until we see significant problems…
The more rapidly the population increases, the harder it is to provide the services that people expect. And I think the problem that the governments are facing is that people in particularly Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Brisbane and Perth, quite accurately see that their quality of life is going backwards because the infrastructure hasn’t been expanded at the same rate as the population, so the roads are more crowded, the public transport is less adequate, it’s harder to get the recreational services that people want…

The population increase is putting the demands on infrastructure that we just don’t have the resources to provide. So a rational government would not simply say “bigger is better”, assuming the population growth is an unmitigated benefit. They should be reflecting on the fact that people don’t just judge their quality of life by how much money is in their pocket. They also judge it by how clean the air is, how easy they can get around, how easy their kids can get into school, and so on…

[15 million people] is about the level that could be sustainably supported at our current lifestyle. There’s no doubt that you can cram more people in, except that they will have to accept a lower standard of living and lower level of services.

The first national report on the State of the Environment more than 20 years ago said that we are not living sustainably, that we had 5 serious problems. And they are all more or less proportional to how many of us there are, and the material standard in which we live. And since then, every year the population has got larger. And every year on average our consumption per person has increased. So we are putting compounding pressure on natural systems. And we are seeing it in losing our biodiversity, the pressures on the coastal zone, rapidly increasing climate change, and so on. If we go on increasing the population at the current rate, we’ll go on damaging our environment at an ever increasing rate…

A population policy would have two components. One would be that we’d set the migration level based on the principle that we want to stabilise the population at a level that would be sustainably supported. And that wouldn’t mean pulling up the drawbridge, but it would mean lower levels of migration than we have at the moment”.

It’s a crying shame that environmental experts like Dr Sobels and Dr Lowe are completely ignored in the population debate in favour of paid shills from the ‘growth lobby’.

Efficiency, the Jevons Paradox, and the limits to economic growth

15 09 2018

I’ve discovered a new blog which very much aligns with this one. In his own “about” section, Darrin Qualman describes himself as “a long-term thinker, a civilizational critic, a researcher and data analyst, and an avid observer of the big picture.”

I recommend anyone following this blog to check him out, his blog is full of interesting graphs……

I’ve been thinking about efficiency.  Efficiency talk is everywhere.  Car buyers can purchase ever more fuel-efficient cars.  LED lightbulbs achieve unprecedented efficiencies in turning electricity into visible light.  Solar panels are more efficient each year.  Farmers are urged toward fertilizer-use efficiency.  And our Energy Star appliances are the most efficient ever, as are the furnaces and air conditioners in many homes.

The implication of all this talk and technology is that efficiency can play a large role in solving our environmental problems.  Citizens are encouraged to adopt a positive, uncritical, and unsophisticated view of efficiency: we’ll just make things more efficient and that will enable us to reduce resource use, waste, and emissions, to solve our problems, and to pave the way for “green growth” and “sustainable development.”

But there’s something wrong with this efficiency solution: it’s not working.  The current environmental multi-crisis (depletion, extinction, climate destabilization, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, etc.) is not occurring as a result of some failure to achieve large efficiency gains.  The opposite.  It is occurring after a century of stupendous and transformative gains.  Indeed, the efficiencies of most civilizational processes (e.g., hydroelectric power generation, electrical heating and lighting, nitrogen fertilizer synthesis, etc.) have increased by so much that they are now nearing their absolute limits—their thermodynamic maxima.  For example, engineers have made the large electric motors that power factories and mines exquisitely efficient; those motors turn 90 to 97 percent of the energy in electricity into usable shaft power.  We have maximized efficiencies in many areas, and yet our environmental problems are also at a maximum.  What gives?

There are many reasons why efficiency is not delivering the benefits and solutions we’ve been led to expect.  One is the “Jevons Paradox.”  That Paradox predicts that, as the efficiencies of energy converters increase—as cars, planes, or lightbulbs become more efficient—the cost of using these vehicles, products, and technologies falls, and those falling costs spur increases in use that often overwhelm any resource-conservation gains we might reap from increasing efficiencies.  Jevons tells us that energy efficiency often leads to more energy use, not less.  If our cars are very fuel efficient and our operating costs therefore low, we may drive more, more people may drive, and our cities may sprawl outward so that we must drive further to work and shop.  We get more miles per gallon, or per dollar, so we drive more miles and use more gallons.  The Jevons Paradox is a very important concept to know if you’re trying to understand our world and analyze our situation.

The graph above helps illustrate the Jevons Paradox.  It shows the cost of a unit of artificial light (one hour of illumination equivalent to a modern 100 Watt incandescent lightbulb) in England over the past 700 years.  The currency units are British Pounds, adjusted for inflation.  The dramatic decline in costs reflects equally dramatic increases in efficiency.

Adjusted for inflation, lighting in the UK was more than 100 times more affordable in 2000 than in 1900 and 3,000 time more affordable than in 1800.  Stated another way, because electrical power plants have become more efficient (and thus electricity has become cheaper), and because new lighting technologies have become more efficient and produce more usable light per unit of energy, an hour’s pay for the average worker today buys about 100 times more artificial light than it did a century ago and 3,000 time more than two centuries ago.

But does all this efficiency mean that we’re using less energy for lighting?  No.  Falling costs have spurred huge increases in demand and use.  For example, the average UK resident in the year 2000 consumed 75 times more artificial light than did his or her ancestor in 1900 and more than 6,000 times more than in 1800 (Fouquet and Pearson).  Much of this increase was in the form of outdoor lighting of streets and buildings.  Jevons was right: large increases in efficiency have meant large decreases in costs and large increases in lighting demand and energy consumption.

Another example of the Jevons Paradox is provided by passenger planes.  Between 1960 and 2016, the per-seat fuel efficiency of jet airliners tripled or quadrupled (IPCC).  This, in turn, helped lower the cost of flying by more than 60%.  A combination of lower airfares, increasing incomes, and a growing population has driven a 50-fold increase in global annual air travel since 1960—from 0.14 trillion passenger-kilometres per year to nearly 7 trillion (see here for more on the exponential growth in air travel).  Airliners have become three or four times more fuel efficient, yet we’re now burning seventeen times more fuel.  William Stanley Jevons was right.

One final point about efficiency.  “Efficiency” talk serves an important role in our society and economy: it licenses growth.  The idea of efficiency allows most people to believe that we can double and quadruple the size of the global economy and still reduce energy use and waste production and resource depletion.  Efficiency is one of our civilization’s most important licensing myths.  The concept of efficiency-without-limit has been deployed to green-light the project of growth-without-end.

Why Growth Can’t Be Green

14 09 2018

jason hickelBy Dr Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, author, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.

Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.

It sounds like an elegant solution to an otherwise catastrophic problem. There’s just one hitch: New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

Green growth first became a buzz phrase in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. In the run-up to the conference, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the U.N. Environment Program all produced reports promoting green growth. Today, it is a core plank of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

But the promise of green growth turns out to have been based more on wishful thinking than on evidence. In the years since the Rio conference, three major empirical studies have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

A team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich first raised doubts in 2012. The group ran a sophisticated computer model that predicted what would happen to global resource use if economic growth continued on its current trajectory, increasing at about 2 to 3 percent per year. It found that human consumption of natural resources (including fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels) would rise from 70 billion metric tons per year in 2012 to 180 billion metric tons per year by 2050. For reference, a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 billion metric tons per year—a boundary we breached back in 2000.

The team then reran the model to see what would happen if every nation on Earth immediately adopted best practice in efficient resource use (an extremely optimistic assumption). The results improved; resource consumption would hit only 93 billion metric tons by 2050. But that is still a lot more than we’re consuming today. Burning through all those resources could hardly be described as absolute decoupling or green growth.

In 2016, a second team of scientists tested a different premise: one in which the world’s nations all agreed to go above and beyond existing best practice. In their best-case scenario, the researchers assumed a tax that would raise the global price of carbon from $50 to $236 per metric ton and imagined technological innovations that would double the efficiency with which we use resources. The results were almost exactly the same as in Dittrich’s study. Under these conditions, if the global economy kept growing by 3 percent each year, we’d still hit about 95 billion metric tons of resource use by 2050. Bottom line: no absolute decoupling.

Finally, last year the U.N. Environment Program—once one of the main cheerleaders of green growth theory—weighed in on the debate. It tested a scenario with carbon priced at a whopping $573 per metric ton, slapped on a resource extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation spurred by strong government support. The result? We hit 132 billion metric tons by 2050. This finding is worse than those of the two previous studies because the researchers accounted for the “rebound effect,” whereby improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.

Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.