Dick Smith on growth; emphatically yes…and no

16 08 2017

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

Another article by my friend Ted Trainer, originally published at on line opinion……

The problems of population and economic growth have finally come onto the public agenda, and Dick Smith deserves much of the credit…but he doesn’t realise what’s on the other end of the trail he’s tugging.

For fifty years a small number of people have been saying that pursuing population and economic growth on a finite planet is a very silly thing to do. Until recently almost no one has taken any notice. However in the last few years there has emerged a substantial “de-growth” movement, especially in Europe. Dick Smith has been remarkably successful in drawing public attention to the issue in Australia. He has done more for the cause in about three years than the rest of us have managed to achieve in decades. (I published a book on the subject in 1985, which was rejected by 60 publishers…and no one took any notice of it anyway.) Dick’s book (2011) provides an excellent summary of the many powerful reasons why growth is absurd, indeed suicidal.

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Dick Smith

The problem with the growth-maniacs, a category which includes just about all respectable economists, is that they do not realise how grossly unsustainable present society is, let alone what the situation will be as we continue to pursue growth. Probably the best single point to put to them is to do with our ecological “footprint”. The World Wildlife Fund puts out a measure of the amount of productive land it takes to provide for each person. For the average Australian it takes 8 ha of to supply our food, water, settlement area and energy. If the 10 billion people we are likely to have on earth soon were each to live like us we’d need 80 billion ha of productive land…but there are only about 8 billion ha of land available on the planet. We Australians are ten times over a level of resource use that could be extended to all people. It’s much the same multiple for most other resources, such as minerals, nitrogen emissions and fish. And yet our top priority is to increase our levels of consumption, production, sales and GDP as fast as possible, with no limit in mind!

The World Wildlife Fund also puts the situation another way. We are now using resources at 1.4 times the rate the planet could provide sustainably. We do this by for example, consuming more timber than grows each year, thereby depleting the stocks. Now if 10 billion people rose to the “living standards” we Australians would have in 2050 given the 3% p.a. economic growth we expect, then every year the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be 20 times as great as it is now.

Over-production and over-consumption is the main factor generating all the alarming global problems we face is. Why is there an environmental problem? Because we are taking far more resources from nature, especially habitats, than is sustainable. Why do about 3+ billion people in the Third World wallow in poverty? Primarily because the global economy is a market system and in a market resources go to those who can pay most for them, i.e., the rich. That’s why we in rich countries get almost all the oil, the surpluses produced from Third World soils, the fish caught off their coasts, etc. It’s why “development” in the Third World is mostly only development of what will maximise corporate profit, meaning development of industries to export to us. Why is there so much violent conflict in the world? Primarily because everyone is out to grab as many of the scarce resources as they can. And why is the quality of life in the richest countries falling now, and social cohesion deteriorating? Primarily because increasing material wealth and business turnover has been made the top priority, and this contradicts and drives out social bonding.

Dick has done a great job in presenting this general “limits to growth” analysis of our situation clearly and forcefully, and in getting it onto the public agenda. But I want to now argue that he makes two fundamental mistakes.

The first is his assumption that this society can be reformed; that we can retain it while we remedy the growth fault it has. The central argument in my The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (2010a) is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Many of its elements are very valuable and should be retained, but its most crucial, defining fundamental institutions are so flawed that they have to be scrapped and replaced. Growth is only one of these but a glance at it reveals that this problem cannot be solved without entirely remaking most of the rest of society. Growth is not like a faulty air conditioning unit on a house, which can be replaced or removed while the house goes on functioning more or less as before. It is so integrated into so many structures that if it is dumped those structures will have to be scrapped and replaced.

The most obvious implication of this kind is that in a zero growth economy there can be no interest payments at all. Interest is by nature about growth, getting more wealth back than you lent, and this is not possible unless lending and output and earnings constantly increase. There goes almost the entire financial industry I’m afraid (which recently accounted for over 40% of all profits made.) Banks therefore could only be places which hold savings for safety and which lend money to invest in maintenance of a stable amount of capital stock (and readjustments within it.) There also goes the present way of providing for superannuation and payment for aged care; these can’t be based on investing to make money.

The entire energising mechanism of society would have to be replaced. The present economy is driven by the quest to get richer. This motive is what gets options searched for, risks taken, construction and development underway, etc. The most obvious alternative is for these actions to be come from a collective working out of what society needs, and organising to produce and develop those things cooperatively, but this would involve an utterly different world view and driving mechanism.

The problem of inequality would become acute and would not only demand attention, it would have to be dealt with in an entirely different way. It could no longer be defused by the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. In the present economy growth helps to legitimise inequality; extreme inequality is not a source of significant discontent because it can be said that economic growth is raising everyone’s “living standards”.

How would we handle unemployment in a zero-growth economy? At present its tendency to increase all the time is offset by the increase in consumption and therefore production. Given that we could produce all we need for idyllic lifestyles with a fraction of the present amount of work done, any move in this direction in the present economy would soon result in most workers becoming unemployed. There would be no way of dealing with this without scrapping the labour market and then rationally and deliberately planning the distribution of the (small amount of) work that needed doing.

Most difficult of all are the cultural implications, usually completely overlooked. If the economy cannot grow then all concern to gain must be abandoned. People would have to be content to work for stable incomes and abandon all interest in getting richer over time. If any scope remains for some to try to get more and more of the stable stock of wealth, then some will succeed and take more than their fair share of it and others will therefore get less…and soon it will end in chaos, or feudalism as the fittest take control. Sorry, but the 500 year misadventure Western culture has had with the quest for limitless individual and national wealth is over. If we have the sense we will realise greed is incompatible with a sustainable and just society. If, as is more likely we won’t, then scarcity will settle things for us. The few super privileged people, including Australians, will no longer be able to get the quantities of resources we are accustomed to, firstly because the resources are dwindling now, and secondly because we are being increasingly outmanoeuvred by the energetic and very hungry Chinese, Indians, Brazilians…

And, a minor point, you will also have to abandon the market system. It is logically incompatible with growth. You go into a market not to exchange things of equal value but to make money, to get the highest price you can, to trade in a way that will make you richer over time. There are “markets” where people don’t try to do this but just exchange the necessities without seeking to increase their wealth over time e.g., in tribal and peasant societies. However these are “subsistence” economies and they do not operate according to market forces. The economies of a zero-growth society would have to be like this. Again, if it remains possible for a few to trade their way to wealth they will end up with most of the pie. This seems to clearly mean that if we are to have a zero-growth economy then we have to work out how to make a satisfactory form of “socialism” work, so that at least the basic decisions about production, distribution and development can be made by society and not left to be determined by what maximises the wealth of individuals and the profits of private corporations competing in the market. Richard Smith (2010) points this out effectively, but some steady-staters, including Herman Daly and Tim Jackson (2009) seem to have difficulty accepting it.

Thus growth is not an isolated element that can be dealt with without remaking most of the rest of society. It is not that this society has a growth economy; it is that this is a growth society.

So in my view Dick has vastly underestimated the magnitude of the changes involved, and gives the impression that consumer-capitalist society can be adjusted, and then we can all go on enjoying high levels of material comfort (he does say we should reduce consumption), travel etc. But the entire socio-economic system we have prohibits the slightest move in this direction; it cannot tolerate slowdown in business turnover (unemployment, bankruptcy, discontent and pressure on governments immediately accelerate), let alone stable levels, let alone reduction to maybe one-fifth of present levels.

This gets us to the second issue on which I think Dick is clearly and importantly mistaken. He believes a zero growth economy can still be a capitalist economy. This is what Tim Jackson says too, in his very valuable critique of the present economy and of the growth commitment. Dick doesn’t offer any explanation or defence for his belief; it is just stated in four sentences. “Capitalism will still be able to thrive in this new system as long as legislation ensures a level playing field. Huge new industries will be created, and vast fortunes are still there to be made by the brave and the innovative.” (p. 173.) “I have no doubt that the dynamism and flexibility of capitalism can adjust to sustainability laws. The profit imperative would be maintained and, as long as there was an equitable base, competition would thrive.” (p. 177.)

Following is a sketch of the case that a zero growth economy is totally incompatible with capitalism.

Capitalism is by definition about accumulation, making more money than was invested, in order to invest the surplus to have even more…to invest to get even richer, in a never-ending upward spiral. Obviously this would not be possible in a steady state economy. It would be possible for a few to still own most capital and factories and to live on income from these investments, but they would be more like rentiers or landlords who draw a stable income from their property. They would not be entrepreneurs constantly seeking increasingly profitable investment outlets for ever-increasing amounts of capital.

Herman Daly believes that “productivity” growth would enable capitalism to continue in an economy with stable resource inputs. This is true, but it would be a temporary effect and too limited to enable the system to remain capitalist. The growth rate which the system, and capitalist accumulation, depends on is mostly due to increased production, not productivity growth. Secondly the productivity measure used (by economists who think dollars are the only things that matter) takes into account labour and capital but ignores what is by far the most important factor, i.e., the increasing quantities of cheap energy that have been put into new productive systems. For instance over half a century the apparent productivity of a farmer has increased greatly, but his output per unit of energy used has fallen alarmingly. From here on energy is very likely to become scarce and costly. Ayres (1999) has argued that this will eliminate productivity gains soon (which have been falling in recent years anyway), and indeed is likely to entirely stop GDP growth before long.

Therefore in a steady state economy the scope for continued capitalist accumulation via productivity gains would be very small, and confined to the increases in output per unit of resource inputs that is due to sheer technical advance. There would not be room for more than a tiny class, accumulating greater wealth very gradually until energy costs eliminated even that scope. Meanwhile the majority would see this class taking more of the almost fixed output pie, and therefore would soon see that it made no sense to leave ownership and control of most of the productive machinery in the hands of a few.

But the overwhelmingly important factor disqualifying capitalism has yet to be taken into account. As has been made clear above the need is not just for zero-growth, it is for dramatic reduction in the amount of producing and consuming going on. These must be cut to probably less than one-fifth of the levels typical of a rich country today, because the planet cannot sustain anything like the present levels of producing and consuming, let alone the levels 9 billion people would generate. This means that most productive capacity in rich countries, most factories and mines, will have to be shut down.

I suspect that Dick Smith is like Tim Jackson in identifying capitalism with the private ownership of firms, and in thinking that “socialism” means public ownership. This is a mistake. The issue of ownership is not central; what matters most is the drive to accumulate, which can still be the goal in socialism of the big state variety (“state capitalism”.) In my ideal vision of the future post-capitalist economy most production would take place within (very small) privately owned firms, but there would be no concern to get richer and the economy would be regulated by society via participatory democratic processes.

So I think Dick has seriously underestimated the magnitude of the change that is required by the global predicament and of what would be involved in moving to a zero-growth economy. The core theme detailed in The Transition… is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Dick seems to think you can retain it by just reforming the unacceptable growth bit. My first point above is that you can’t just take out that bit and leave the rest more or less intact. In addition you have to deal with the other gigantic faults in this society driving us to destruction, including allowing the market to determine most things, accepting competition rather than cooperation as the basic motive and process, accepting centralisation, globalisation and representative big-state “democracy”, and above all accepting a culture of competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness.

The Transition… argues that an inevitable, dreadful logic becomes apparent if we clearly grasp that our problems are primarily due to grossly unsustainable levels of consumption. There can be no way out other than by transition to mostly small, highly self-sufficient and cooperative local communities and communities which run their own economies to meet local needs from local resources… with no interest whatsoever in gain. They must have the sense to focus on the provision of security and a high quality of life for all via frugal, non-material lifestyles. In this “Simpler Way” vision there can still be (some small scale) international economies, centralised state governments, high-tech industries, and in fact there can be more R and D on important topics than there is now. But there will not be anything like the resources available to sustain present levels of economic activity or individual or national “wealth” measured in dollars.

I have no doubt that the quality of life in The Simpler Way (see the website, Trainer 2011) would be far higher than it is now in the worsening rat race of late consumer-capitalism. Increasing numbers are coming to grasp all this, for instance within the rapidly emerging Transition Towns movement. We see our task as trying to establish examples of the more sane way in the towns and suburbs where we live while there is time, so that when the petrol gets scarce and large numbers realise that consumer-capitalism will not provide for them, they can come across to join us.

It is great that Dick is saying a zero-growth economy is no threat to capitalism. If he had said it has to be scrapped then he would have been identified as a deluded greenie/commie/anarchist out to wreck society and his growth critique would have been much more easily ignored. What matters at this point in time is getting attention given to the growth absurdity; when the petrol gets scarce they will be a bit more willing to think about whether capitalism is a good idea. Well done Dick!

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Chris Martenson on insanity

5 08 2017

Published on 4 Aug 2017

Read the latest articles at Peak Prosperity: https://www.peakprosperity.com/

Our Brave New ”’Markets”’
https://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/1…

The Inevitability Of DeGrowth
https://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/1…

Suicide By Pesticide
https://www.peakprosperity.com/inside…

View the “Accelerated” Crash Course Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYyugz5wcrI





How Do You Degrow an Economy, Without Causing Chaos?

16 05 2017

An article written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jonathan Rutherford, who is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a ‘Simpler Way’ activist. Originally published at the Resillience website.  The real challenge for those in charge is not ‘jobs and growth’, it is how to best manage the looming contraction……

‘Houston, we have a problem’. On the one hand, there is growing acceptance among environmentally conscious people that rich nations and affluent regions of the global economy must dramatically reduce overall resource and energy consumption levels – that is, undergo a process of ‘degrowth’ – if humanity is to bring about a sustainable world order. On the other hand, we have a growth economy that cannot go two steps in this direction without causing huge economic and social problems.

If you doubt the first part of this statement (i.e. the need for ‘degrowth’), consider just one metric – the material footprint (MF) indicator. This measures consumption of all natural resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals) extracted from the environment. Humanity’s current MF is about 70 billion tonnes – a figure that has more than trebled since the 1970s. As we know, already this rate of consumption is generating waste, pollution and land-use change that are driving environmental problems such as global warming and species extinction. But now consider the fact that the per capita rich nation (i.e OECD) MF is about 30 tonnes. If the 9+ billion humans expected to be living on earth by 2050 rose to this level, we would need 270 billion tonnes per annum – that is, four times the present rate, which is unsustainable. Using similar figures in the 1990s Friedrich Schmidt Bleek estimated that rich nations need to make ‘factor 10’ reductions in overall resource use (renewable and non-renewable), if we are to move down to a globally fair share and at sustainable levels. And that estimate, it should be noted, does not factor in the likely increase in MF that, recent history suggests, will inevitably result from the continuous pursuit of economic growth by all nations, included the wealthiest.

Many people hope that we can make ‘factor 10’ reductions via technological advance and efficiency gains alone, without having to make cut overall rates of production, consumption (i.e. GDP). But, as argued in a recent peer reviewed article by Giorgos Kallis there are strong reasons to think that this will not be viable. Few want to admit it, but the kind of radical reductions we need to make will require GDP contraction i.e. de-growth.

But if we in the rich world need to degrow the economy, as it appears we do, how is that done without causing utter social chaos and breakdown?  The problem was recently illustrated in a series of articles run by the ABC. The first article highlighted the trend among some young Australians to adopt relatively frugal lifestyles of reduced income expenditure and increased savings. A follow up article, however, asked: what would happen to the economy if everyone did this? The answers were revealing, and implicitly revealed fundamental flaws in our existing economic system.

The article cited data which suggest every year Australians spend $955 billion on all forms of consumption. Of this about $416 billion (44%) is made up items such as ‘food, clothing, housing, utilities, health, transport, insurance’ which the article defined as ‘necessities’ (note: one, of course, may question whether i.e. all clothes consumption are truly ‘necessities’!). The other $523 billion was made up what the article defined as discretionary items. Economist, Saul Eslake pointed out that, even if we exclude from this discretionary figure the $100+ billion worth of imported goods & services, if  all Australian households ceased all the remaining discretionary spending, GDP would be immediately reduced by 25 per cent. But, as Eslake pointed out, the impact on the economy would eventually be far greater than this, due to knock-on effects. The reduced spending, for example, would result in firm bankruptcy and thus laid off workers which, in turn, would further reduce aggregate demand in a cycle of downward depression familiar to students of economic history.

But while all this is entirely correct, reducing societal consumption – degrowing the economy – need not necessarily result in chaotic economic breakdown, as the ABC article implicitly assumed. This is indeed an inevitable outcome within our present economic system, but possibly not others.

Our present system – both in Australia and now most of the world – is, of course, the capitalist market economy. This 500-year-old system has certain defining features that mark it out as unique compared to other economic systems humans have devised.  It is a system in which a) most (if not all) the major means of production are privately (these days corporately) owned by a small minority of the population; and b) where the fundamental economic problems (what, how, and for whom to produce) are solved “automatically”, through the price mechanism, rather than through conscious social decisions.

Importantly, for this discussion, the system is characterised by a growth compulsion. Due to competition, all firms – particularly large shareholder firms – are under constant pressure to invest in new techniques, methods of production and products, to improve competitiveness and their sales figures. If they fail to do this, they not only risk profits margins but also eventually being taken-over by other firms, or made bankrupt. Since no firm wants to perish, and since all must expand if they want to continue to exist, a general growth compulsion arises, not just for individual firms, but for the macro economy as whole. So, while almost everyone wants growth, it is also true that the system needs growth for its basic functioning.

In fact, the system cannot possibly tolerate even a slow-down in the rate of growth, let alone a contraction. Richard Smith points out that even when capitalism approaches a ‘steady state’ of zero GDP growth, such as what happened in the USA in the wake of the GFC, the outcome for society at large is ugly. The situation is characterised by “capital destruction, mass unemployment, devastated communities, growing poverty, foreclosures, homelessness and environmental considerations shunted aside in the all-out effort to restore growth.” Obviously, nobody wants this, including advocates of degrowth.

What then would be required to contract the economy, in an orderly and fair way? The influential ‘Steady-State’ theorist Herman Daly argues that we can do so, while retaining a basically capitalist system, on the condition that the state steps in to play a far more active regulatory role than at present. Among other policy suggestions, Daly proposes that the state impose escalating resource depletion quotes, that can be traded in a market, while retaining private enterprise and the market system.

An emerging school of eco-socialists argue, however, that this will not work. Saral Sarkar points out three flaws with Daly’s plan.

“1) The contraction of the economies of the world must occur in an orderly way. Otherwise there will be unbearable breakdowns of whole societies. An orderly contraction can only take place in a planned economy, not in a capitalist market economy. 2) Only a socialist political order can achieve, by means of egalitarian distribution of the costs and benefits, a broad acceptance of the necessary contraction, 3) Only in a planned socialist economy can the problem of unemployment be solved, which would otherwise become more and more acute in a contracting economy. To this end, a planned economy can consciously use labor-intensive technologies and methods, which, in addition, result in less use of resources.” (Sarkar, 2012, 325)

Let me just briefly elaborate on the first reason given by Sarkar (for greater detail see Sarkar 1999) – the idea that contracting the economy within a capitalist market system would result in chaotic breakdown. Sarkar points out that the famed ‘efficiency’ of the market system only works well (if at all) when there is a buyers’ market, leading to strong competition between suppliers to meet customer demand. But in a contractionary scenario, most markets would be ‘suppliers’ markets, as there would be, in general, a shortage of supply relative to demand. This would mean even poorly run, high cost firms would be able to survive. And, as with any market economy, you would still have a situation where increasingly scarce resources were tended to be allocated to meeting the money backed demands of the already wealthy, rather than to meeting the vital needs for all – a recipe for social chaos in a context of heightened scarcity.

For these reasons, and as unfashionable as it is today, Sarkar argues that a socialist economic framework will be necessary if we are to contract the economy in an orderly, peaceful and socially just way. This would involve a process in which the state nationalises and/or shuts down most large-scale firms in the economy and actively plans the process of contraction via mechanisms such as quantitative controls, price controls, a quota system etc. But what about smaller firms and co-ops, operating at the local level? Here, it is plausible that a quasi-market economy – albeit operating within a very different no-growth culture and firmly under social control –  would be viable. Another eco-socialist Richard Smith elaborates:

“In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.”

Eventually the goal will be to move to a situation in which most (if not all) people live and work within highly localised economies, using local resources to meet local needs. As Ted Trainer argues, this is not optional if we want to reduce our ecological footprint to sustainable one planet levels that all can share. Gladly, there is a case that the quality of life could be very high within such communities.

But herein lies a problem for the eco-socialist, and wider degrowth movement. Trainer points out that these new local communities will not work well unless they are based on the active participation and cooperation of most, if not all, ordinary citizens in the locality. This will be necessary to ensure that all are provided for and the economy works within local eco-system limits. Active and inclusive participation by all (or at least most), Trainer argues, is ‘the crucial prerequisite… that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to eventually run highly self-sufficient local communities well.’ Widespread civic participation and cooperation simply cannot be imposed ‘top-down’ via states, even if they wanted to. In any case, Trainer argues, only if movements for localism and simpler living emerge first, is there any chance of building the eventual political will that will make a process of societal degrowth at the national and global levels possible.

For this reason, we ‘Simpler Way’ advocates tend to see the eco-socialist state directed process described above as ‘only’ a final, albeit necessary, step in a long multi phased transition towards sustainability. The first (and hardest) phase of the revolution happens when ordinary citizens, not states or corporations, take it upon themselves to start building today, even in small ways, the new self-reliant economies in the towns and suburbs where they live.

Having said that, the above sets a parallel challenge for participants within existing localist movements such as Transition Towns, eco-village, permaculture, simpler living etc. For it is equally true that we will not make a successful transition to sustainability – and the new local communities and economies will not function well – unless participants within these movements become aware of, and begin advocating for, the eventual need for an orderly process of ‘de-growth’ – a process that, for reasons mentioned briefly above, is only likely to go well within an eco-socialist framework. Ultimately, unless both these local and national-global processors occur, will not make a successful transition to a sustainable society.

Of course, today, across the world we are miles away from the necessary political and cultural awareness needed for such a transition. It is likely that the coming oil crunch and global financial contraction will aid our cause and encourage more people to see the sense in localism and de-growth – but, until then, activists must doggedly go on raising awareness wherever they can. Even if it does not feel like it, every conversation counts!

Reference:

Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. 1999.





Consuming our future…….

13 03 2017

Hat tip to Sam who left the link to this “Must Hear” podcast.

From the ABC RN website….:

Only lowering our living standards will achieve sustainable growth. That’s the message from Satyajit Das, a former financier who anticipated the GFC. Debt, energy consumption, housing affordability or superannuation – it’s all based on a financial system that’s in fact a completely fictional model. This model was always doomed to fail – eventually.

Beyond growth as we know it – How can we stop consuming our future? was presented by The Rescope Project. 4 February 2017

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Satyajit Das

From 1977 to 1987, Das worked in banking with the Commonwealth Bank, CitiGroup and Merrill Lynch. From 1988 to 1994, Das was Treasurer of the TNT Transport Group.

 

Das is the author of Traders, Guns & Money and Extreme Money and reference books on derivatives and risk-management. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Extreme Money was long-listed for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year AwardThe Economist reviewed the book, stating that “Satyajit Das is well-placed to comment, having worked both for investment banks and as a consultant advising clients on their use of complex financial products”, however, “the book could have easily been 150 pages shorter without losing its thrust.”

A Banquet of Consequences was released in Australia in 2015. It was released in the United States in 2016 as The Age of Stagnation to avoid it being confused as a cookbook.

Das is a regular commentator on LNL (Late Night Live) on RN (ABC radio’s Radio National), hosted by Phillip Adams.

https://radio.abc.net.au/search?service_guid=RN-bia-20170309-8298030

OR download the mp3 file as I did with your favorite software…..





Nafeez Ahmed: Our Systems Are Failing

20 02 2017

IF you are not familiar with Chris Martenson’s immensely valuable work, then start here….

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nafeezThe most fascinating thing for me is how so much of what we take for granted becomes questionable as a result of the breakdown we’re seeing. When we begin questioning the exponential growth model then we begin questioning the value system driving our material production/consumption. It’s not that it hasn’t produced amazing knowledge of our environment and our place in the universe. It’s not that there haven’t been a huge amount of amazing technological developments, like the internet which has enabled people to be interconnected in ways that they never were able to before. In a way has paved the way for us to be able to think globally in a way that centuries ago would have never happened.

It’s not that everything about this paradigm is bad. It’s just that it has very clearly outlasted its usefulness and is now fundamentally responsible for escalating the biophysical rupture that we see happening and manifesting in so many different ways. What that tells me is that we have to grow up as a species. It’s an evolutionary moment.

When we apply systems theory to this, when we apply our knowledge of complex adaptive systems and the history of evolution, it does seem to me that it is absolutely clear really that we’re at an unprecedented moment. For the first time in human history, we are standing at a point where we need to basically undergo fundamental systemic adaptation. Exactly what that looks like we’re still trying to work out. But what is very clear is what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like seeing each other as separate material entities that just fend for themselves and produce and consume to an endless degree. It looks quite different.

The ideas and the values and the ethos of that different approach has been percolating in different civilizations in different ways. There’s evidence from indigenous civilizations, from tribal societies, and even from projects that are now being seeded here and now in our current context where people are trying different things. I think we are at a moment where we’re rewriting that story and making a new story of what it means to be human.

It’s particularly important because when people look at this with fresh eyes, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness. That’s being reflected now with the rise of Trump and everything else. There is this sense of things getting worse. And I think in many ways it is going to get worse before it gets better. All of this is symptomatic of the crisis that is at play.

A question we all need to be able to ask ourselves is To what extent can I make myself useful going forward, building and planting seeds for what comes after this moment?

https://www.peakprosperity.com/podcast/107221/nafeez-ahmed-our-systems-failing?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm

 





More gnashing of teeth

7 02 2017

The Über-Lie

By Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

heinbergNevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration…It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

This is an excellent article from Richard Heinberg, the writer who sent me on my current life voyage all those years ago. Hot on the heels of my attempt yesterday of explaining where global politics are heading, Richard (whom I met years ago and even had a meal with…) does a better job than I could ever possibly muster.  Enjoy……

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Our new American president is famous for spinning whoppers. Falsehoods, fabrications, distortions, deceptions—they’re all in a day’s work. The result is an increasingly adversarial relationship between the administration and the press, which may in fact be the point of the exercise: as conservative commentators Scott McKay suggests in The American Spectator, “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan, so feeding them . . . manufactured controversies over [the size of] inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done.”

But are some matters of real substance (such as last week’s ban on entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations) themselves being used to hide even deeper and more significant shifts in power and governance? Steve “I want to bring everything crashing down” Bannon, who has proclaimed himself an enemy of Washington’s political class, is a member of a small cabal (also including Trump, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner) that appears to be consolidating nearly complete federal governmental power, drafting executive orders, and formulating political strategy—all without paper trail or oversight of any kind. The more outrage and confusion they create, the more effective is their smokescreen for the dismantling of governmental norms and institutions.

There’s no point downplaying the seriousness of what is up. Some commentators are describing it as a coup d’etat in progress; there is definitely the potential for blood in the streets at some point.

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

Consider population. There were one billion of us on Planet Earth in 1800. Now there are 7.5 billion, all needing jobs, housing, food, and clothing. From time immemorial there were natural population checks—disease and famine. Bad things. But during the last century or so we defeated those population checks. Famines became rare and lots of diseases can now be cured. Modern agriculture grows food in astounding quantities. That’s all good (for people anyway—for ecosystems, not so much). But the result is that human population has grown with unprecedented speed.

Some say this is not a problem, because the rate of population growth is slowing: that rate was two percent per year in the 1960s; now it’s one percent. Yet because one percent of 7.5 billion is more than two percent of 3 billion (which was the world population in 1960), the actual number of people we’re now adding annually is the highest ever: over eighty million—the equivalent of Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London added together. Much of that population growth is occurring in countries that are already having a hard time taking care of their people. The result? Failed states, political unrest, and rivers of refugees.

Per capita consumption of just about everything also grew during past decades, and political and economic systems came to depend upon economic growth to provide returns on investments, expanding tax revenues, and positive poll numbers for politicians. Nearly all of that consumption growth depended on fossil fuels to provide energy for raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transport. But fossil fuels are finite and by now we’ve used the best of them. We are not making the transition to alternative energy sources fast enough to avert crisis (if it is even possible for alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of production and transport). At the same time, we have depleted other essential resources, including topsoil, forests, minerals, and fish. As we extract and use resources, we create pollution—including greenhouse gasses, which cause climate change.

Depletion and pollution eventually act as a brake on further economic growth even in the wealthiest nations. Then, as the engine of the economy slows, workers find their incomes leveling off and declining—a phenomenon also related to the globalization of production, which elites have pursued in order to maximize profits.

Declining wages have resulted in the upwelling of anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments among a large swath of the American populace, and those sentiments have in turn served up Donald Trump. Here we are. It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry and want change. Why not vote for a vain huckster who promises to “Make America Great Again”? However, unless we deal with deeper biophysical problems (population, consumption, depletion, and pollution), as well as the policies that elites have used to forestall the effects of economic contraction for themselves (globalization, financialization, automation, a massive increase in debt, and a resulting spike in economic inequality), America certainly won’t be “great again”; instead, we’ll just proceed through the five stages of collapse helpfully identified by Dmitry Orlov.

Rather than coming to grips with our society’s fundamental biophysical contradictions, we have clung to the convenient lies that markets will always provide, and that there are plenty of resources for as many humans as we can ever possibly want to crowd onto this little planet. And if people are struggling, that must be the fault of [insert preferred boogeyman or group here]. No doubt many people will continue adhering to these lies even as the evidence around us increasingly shows that modern industrial society has already entered a trajectory of decline.

While Trump is a symptom of both the end of economic growth and of the denial of that new reality, events didn’t have to flow in his direction. Liberals could have taken up the issues of declining wages and globalization (as Bernie Sanders did) and even immigration reform. For example, Colin Hines, former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit and author of Localization: A Global Manifesto, has just released a new book, Progressive Protectionism, in which he argues that “We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

But instead of well-thought out policies tackling the extremely complex issues of global trade, immigration, and living wages, we have hastily written executive orders that upend the lives of innocents. Two teams (liberal and conservative) are lined up on the national playing field, with positions on all significant issues divvied up between them. As the heat of tempers rises, our options are narrowed to choosing which team to cheer for; there is no time to question our own team’s issues. That’s just one of the downsides of increasing political polarization—which Trump is exacerbating dramatically.

Just as Team Trump covers its actions with a smokescreen of controversial falsehoods, our society hides its biggest lie of all—the lie of guaranteed, unending economic growth—behind a camouflage of political controversies. Even in relatively calm times, the über-lie was watertight: almost no one questioned it. Like all lies, it served to divert attention from an unwanted truth—the truth of our collective vulnerability to depletion, pollution, and the law of diminishing returns. Now that truth is more hidden than ever.

Our new government shows nothing but contempt for environmentalists and it plans to exit Paris climate agreement. Denial reigns! Chaos threatens! So why bother bringing up the obscured reality of limits to growth now, when immediate crises demand instant action? It’s objectively too late to restrain population and consumption growth so as to avert what ecologists of the 1970s called a “hard landing.” Now we’ve fully embarked on the age of consequences, and there are fires to put out. Yes, the times have moved on, but the truth is still the truth, and I would argue that it’s only by understanding the biophysical wellsprings of change that can we successfully adapt, and recognize whatever opportunities come our way as the pace of contraction accelerates to the point that decline can no longer successfully be hidden by the elite’s strategies.

Perhaps Donald Trump succeeded because his promises spoke to what civilizations in decline tend to want to hear. It could be argued that the pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant, constitutional democratic nation state is a political arrangement appropriate for a growing economy buoyed by pervasive optimism. (On a scale much smaller than contemporary America, ancient Greece and Rome during their early expansionary periods provided examples of this kind of political-social arrangement). As societies contract, people turn fearful, angry, and pessimistic—and fear, anger, and pessimism fairly dripped from Trump’s inaugural address. In periods of decline, strongmen tend to arise promising to restore past glories and to defeat domestic and foreign enemies. Repressive kleptocracies are the rule rather than the exception.

If that’s what we see developing around us and we want something different, we will have to propose economic, political, and social forms that are appropriate to the biophysical realities increasingly confronting us—and that embody or promote cultural values that we wish to promote or preserve. Look for good historic examples. Imagine new strategies. What program will speak to people’s actual needs and concerns at this moment in history? Promising a return to an economy and way of life that characterized a past moment is pointless, and it may propel demagogues to power. But there is always a range of possible responses to the reality of the present. What’s needed is a new hard-nosed sort of optimism (based on an honest acknowledgment of previously denied truths) as an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests. What that actually means in concrete terms I hope to propose in more detail in future essays.





2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

20 01 2017

Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

FOLLOWING ON from my last post exposing HSBC’s forecast of a peak oil caused economic collapse, along comes this piece from Gail Tverberg predicting it may all start this year…….

Most of this article is a rehash of things she’s said before all consolidated in one lengthy essay, and some of them were published here before. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to not recognise all our ducks are lining up on the wall…….

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), theearnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

[4] Because world population is rising, the forecast in Figure 4 suggests that per capita energy consumption is likely to shrink. Shrinking energy consumption per capita puts the world (or individual countries in the world) at the risk of recession.

Figure 5 shows indicated per capita energy consumption, based on Figure 4. It is clear that energy consumption per capita has already started shrinking, and is expected to shrink further. The last time that happened was in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

There tends to be a strong correlation between world economic growth and world energy consumption, because energy is required to transform materials into new forms, and to transport goods from one place to another.

In the recent past, the growth in GDP has tended to be a little higher than the growth in the use of energy products. One reason why GDP growth has been a percentage point or two higher than energy consumption growth is because, as economies become richer, citizens can afford to add more services to the mix of goods and services that they purchase (fancier hair cuts and more piano lessons, for example). Production of services tends to use proportionately less energy than creating goods does; as a result, a shift toward a heavier mix of services tends to lead to GDP growth rates that are somewhat higher than the growth in energy consumption.

A second reason why GDP growth has tended to be a little higher than growth in energy consumption is because devices (such as cars, trucks, air conditioners, furnaces, factory machinery) are becoming more efficient. Growth in efficiency occurs if consumers replace old inefficient devices with new more efficient devices. If consumers become less wealthy, they are likely to replace devices less frequently, leading to slower growth in efficiency. Also, as we will discuss later in this  post, recently there has been a tendency for fossil fuel prices to remain artificially low. With low prices, there is little financial incentive to replace an old inefficient device with a new, more efficient device. As a result, new purchases may be bigger, offsetting the benefit of efficiency gains (purchasing an SUV to replace a car, for example).

Thus, we cannot expect that the past pattern of GDP growing a little faster than energy consumption will continue. In fact, it is even possible that the leveraging effect will start working the “wrong” way, as low fossil fuel prices induce more fuel use, not less. Perhaps the safest assumption we can make is that GDP growth and energy consumption growth will be equal. In other words, if world energy consumption growth is 0% (as in Figure 4), world GDP growth will also be 0%. This is not something that world leaders would like at all.

The situation we are encountering today seems to be very similar to the falling resources per capita problem that seemed to push early economies toward collapse in [1]. Figure 5 above suggests that, on average, the paychecks of workers in 2017 will tend to purchase fewer goods and services than they did in 2016 and 2015. If governments need higher taxes to fund rising retiree costs and rising subsidies for “renewables,” the loss in the after-tax purchasing power of workers will be even greater than Figure 5 suggests.

[5] Because many countries are in this precarious position of falling resources per capita, we should expect to see a rise in protectionism, and the addition of new tariffs.

Clearly, governments do not want the problem of falling wages (or rather, falling goods that wages can buy) impacting their countries. So the new game becomes, “Push the problem elsewhere.”

In economic language, the world economy is becoming a “Zero-sum” game. Any gain in the production of goods and services by one country is a loss to another country. Thus, it is in each country’s interest to look out for itself. This is a major change from the shift toward globalization we have experienced in recent years. China, as a major exporter of goods, can expect to be especially affected by this changing view.

[6] China can no longer be expected to pull the world economy forward.

China’s economic growth rate is likely to be lower, for many reasons. One reason is the financial problems of coal mines, and the tendency of coal production to continue to shrink, once it starts shrinking. This happens for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty in obtaining loans for expansion, when prices still seem to be somewhat low, and the outlook for the further increases does not appear to be very good.

Another reason why China’s economic growth rate can be expected to fall is the current overbuilt situation with respect to apartment buildings, shopping malls, factories, and coal mines. As a result, there seems to be little need for new buildings and operations of these types. Another reason for slower economic growth is the growing protectionist stance of trade partners. A fourth reason is the fact that many potential buyers of the goods that China is producing are not doing very well economically (with the US being a major exception). These buyers cannot afford to increase their purchases of imports from China.

With these growing headwinds, it is quite possible that China’s total energy consumption in 2017 will shrink. If this happens, there will be downward pressure on world fossil fuel prices. Oil prices may fall, despite production cuts by OPEC and other countries.

China’s slowing economic growth is likely to make its debt problem harder to solve. We should not be too surprised if debt defaults become a more significant problem, or if the yuan falls relative to other currencies.

India, with its recent recall of high denomination currency, as well as its problems with low coal demand, is not likely to be a great deal of help aiding the world economy to grow, either. India is also a much smaller economy than China.

[7] While Item [2] talked about peak coal, there is a very significant chance that we will be hitting peak oil and peak natural gas in 2017 or 2018, as well.  

If we look at historical prices, we see that the prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The reason that fossil fuel prices tend to rise and fall together is because these prices are tied to “demand” for goods and services in general, such as for new homes, cars, and factories. If wages are rising rapidly, and debt is rising rapidly, it becomes easier for consumers to buy goods such as homes and cars. When this happens, there is more “demand” for the commodities used to make and operate homes and cars. Prices for commodities of many types, including fossil fuels, tend to rise, to enable more production of these items.

Of course, the reverse happens as well. If workers become poorer, or debt levels shrink, it becomes harder to buy homes and cars. In this case, commodity prices, including fossil fuel prices, tend to fall.  Thus, the problem we saw above in [2] for coal would be likely to happen for oil and natural gas, as well, because the prices of all of the fossil fuels tend to move together. In fact, we know that current oil prices are too low for oil producers. This is the reason why OPEC and other oil producers have cut back on production. Thus, the problem with overproduction for oil seems to be similar to the overproduction problem for coal, just a bit delayed in timing.

In fact, we also know that US natural gas prices have been very low for several years, suggesting another similar problem. The United States is the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. Its natural gas production hit a peak in mid 2015, and production has since begun to decline. The decline comes as a response to chronically low prices, which make it unprofitable to extract natural gas. This response sounds similar to China’s attempted solution to low coal prices.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

The problem is fundamentally the fact that consumers cannot afford goods made using fossil fuels of any type, if prices actually rise to the level producers need, which tends to be at least five times the 1999 price level. (Note peak price levels compared to 1999 level on Figure 6.) Wages have not risen by a factor of five since 1999, so paying the prices that fossil fuel producers need for profitability and growing production is out of the question. No amount of added debt can hide this problem. (While this reference is to 1999 prices, the issue really goes back much farther, to prices before the price spikes of the 1970s.)

US natural gas producers also have plans to export natural gas to Europe and elsewhere, as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hope, of course, is that a large amount of exports will raise US natural gas prices. Also, the hope is that Europeans will be able to afford the high-priced natural gas shipped to them. Unless someone can raise the wages of both Europeans and Americans, I would not count on LNG prices actually rising to the level needed for profitability, and staying at such a high level. Instead, they are likely to bounce up, and quickly drop back again.

[8] Unless oil prices rise very substantially, oil exporters will find themselves exhausting their financial reserves in a very short time (perhaps a year or two). Unfortunately, oil importerscannot withstand higher prices, without going into recession. 

We have a no win situation, no matter what happens. This is true with all fossil fuels, but especially with oil, because of its high cost and thus necessarily high price. If oil prices stay at the same level or go down, oil exporters cannot get enough tax revenue, and oil companies in general cannot obtain enough funds to finance the development of new wells and payment of dividends to shareholders. If oil prices do rise by a very large amount for very long, we are likely headed into another major recession, with many debt defaults.

[9] US interest rates are likely to rise in the next year or two, whether or not this result is intended by the Federal reserve.

This issue here is somewhat obscure. The issue has to do with whether the United States can find foreign buyers for its debt, often called US Treasuries, and the interest rates that the US needs to pay on this debt. If buyers are very plentiful, the interest rates paid by he US government can be quite low; if few buyers are available, interest rates must be higher.

Back when Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters were doing well financially, they often bought US Treasuries, as a way to retain the benefit of their new-found wealth, which they did not want to spend immediately. Similarly, when China was doing well as an exporter, it often bought US Treasuries, as a way retaining the wealth it gained from exports, but didn’t yet need for purchases.

When these countries bought US Treasuries, there were several beneficial results:

  • Interest rates on US Treasuries tended to stay artificially low, because there was a ready market for its debt.
  • The US could afford to import high-priced oil, because the additional debt needed to buy the oil could easily be sold (to Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, no less).
  • The US dollar tended to stay lower relative to other currencies, making oil more affordable to other countries than it otherwise might be.
  • Investment in countries outside the US was encouraged, because debt issued by these other countries tended to bear higher interest rates than US debt. Also, relatively low oil prices in these countries (because of the low level of the dollar) tended to make investment profitable in these countries.

The effect of these changes was somewhat similar to the US having its own special Quantitative Easing (QE) program, paid for by some of the counties with trade surpluses, instead of by its central bank. This QE substitute tended to encourage world economic growth, for the reasons mentioned above.

Once the fortunes of the countries that used to buy US Treasuries changes, the pattern of buying of US Treasuries tends to change to selling of US Treasuries. Even not purchasing the same quantity of US Treasuries as in the past becomes an adverse change, if the US has a need to keep issuing US Treasuries as in the past, or if it wants to keep rates low.

Unfortunately, losing this QE substitute tends to reverse the favorable effects noted above. One effect is that the dollar tends to ride higher relative to other currencies, making the US look richer, and other countries poorer. The “catch” is that as the other countries become poorer, it becomes harder for them to repay the debt that they took out earlier, which was denominated in US dollars.

Another problem, as this strange type of QE disappears, is that the interest rates that the US government needs to pay in order to issue new debt start rising. These higher rates tend to affect other rates as well, such as mortgage rates. These higher interest rates act as a drag on the economy, tending to push it toward recession.

Higher interest rates also tend to decrease the value of assets, such as homes, farms, outstanding bonds, and shares of stock. This occurs because fewer buyers can afford to buy these goods, with the new higher interest rates. As a result, stock prices can be expected to fall. Prices of homes and of commercial buildings can also be expected to fall. The value of bonds held by insurance companies and banks becomes lower, if they choose to sell these securities before maturity.

Of course, as interest rates fell after 1981, we received the benefit of falling interest rates, in the form of rising asset prices. No one ever stopped to think about how much of the gains in share prices and property values came from falling interest rates.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Now, as interest rates rise, we can expect asset prices of many types to start falling, because of lower affordability when monthly payments are based on higher interest rates. This situation presents another “drag” on the economy.

In Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

Things don’t look too bad right now, but the underlying problems are sufficiently severe that we seem to be headed for a crisis far worse than 2008. The timing is not clear. Things could start falling apart badly in 2017, or alternatively, major problems may be delayed until 2018 or 2019. I hope political leaders can find ways to keep problems away as long as possible, perhaps with more rounds of QE. Our fundamental problem is the fact that neither high nor low energy prices are now able to keep the world economy operating as we would like it to operate. Increased debt can’t seem to fix the problem either.

The laws of physics seem to be behind economic growth. From a physics point of view, our economy is a dissipative structure. Such structures form in “open systems.” In such systems, flows of energy allow structures to temporarily self-organize and grow. Other examples of dissipative structures include ecosystems, all plants and animals, stars, and hurricanes. All of these structures constantly “dissipate” energy. They have finite life spans, before they eventually collapse. Often, new dissipative systems form, to replace previous ones that have collapsed.