And the oil rout continues unabated..

26 02 2017

Paul Gilding, whose work I generally admire, has published a new item on his blog after quite some time off. “It’s time to make the call – fossil fuels are finished. The rest is detail.” Sounds good, until you read the ‘detail’. Paul is still convinced that it’s renewable energy that will sink the fossil fuel industry. He writes…..:

The detail is interesting and important, as I expand on below. But unless we recognise the central proposition: that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end, and within 15 to 30 years – not 50 to 100 – we risk making serious and damaging mistakes in climate and economic policy, in investment strategy and in geopolitics and defence.

Except the fossil fuel age may be coming to an end within five years.. not 15 to 30.

The new emerging energy system of renewables and storage is a “technology” business, more akin to information and communications technology, where prices keep falling, quality keeps rising, change is rapid and market disruption is normal and constant. There is a familiar process that unfolds in markets with technology driven disruptions. I expand on that here in a 2012 piece I wrote in a contribution to Jorgen Randers book “2052 – A Global Forecast” (arguing the inevitability of the point we have now arrived at).

This shift to a “technology” has many implications for energy but the most profound one is very simple. As a technology, more demand for renewables means lower prices and higher quality constantly evolving for a long time to come. The resources they compete with – coal, oil and gas – follow a different pattern. If demand kept increasing, prices would go up because the newer reserves cost more to develop, such as deep sea oil. They may get cheaper through market shifts, as they have recently, but they can’t keep getting cheaper and they can never get any better.

In that context, consider this. Renewables are today on the verge of being price competitive with fossil fuels – and already are in many situations. So in 10 years, maybe just 5, it is a no-brainer that renewables will be significantly cheaper than fossil fuels in most places and will then just keep getting cheaper. And better.

With which economy Paul….? Come the next oil crisis, the economy will simply grind to a halt. Paul is also keen on electric cars….

Within a decade, electric cars will be more reliable, cheaper to own and more fun to drive than oil driven cars. Then it will just be a matter of turning over the fleet. Oil companies will then have their Kodak moment. Coal will already be largely gone, replaced by renewables.

When the economy crashes, no one will have any money to buy electric cars. It’s that simple….. Peak Debt is only just starting to make its presence felt…:

The carnage continues in the U.S. major oil industry as they sink further and further in the RED.  The top three U.S. oil companies, whose profits were once the envy of the energy sector, are now forced to borrow money to pay dividends or capital expenditures.  The financial situation at ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips has become so dreadful, their total long-term debt surged 25% in just the past year.

Unfortunately, the majority of financial analysts at CNBC, Bloomberg or Fox Business have no clue just how bad the situation will become for the United States as its energy sector continues to disintegrate.  While the Federal Government could step in and bail out BIG OIL with printed money, they cannot print barrels of oil.

Watch closely as the Thermodynamic Oil Collapse will start to pick up speed over the next five years.

According to the most recently released financial reports, the top three U.S. oil companies combined net income was the worst ever.  The results can be seen in the chart below:

Can the news on the collapse of the oil industry worsen…..? You bet……

According to James Burgess,

A total of 351,410 jobs have been slashed by oil and gas production companies worldwide, with the oilfield services sector bearing much of this burden, according to a new report released this week.

The report, based on statistical analysis by Houston-based Graves & Co., puts the number of jobs lost in the oilfield services sector at 152,015 now—or 43.2 percent of the global total since oil prices began to slump in mid-2014.

And then there are the bankruptcies……

A report published earlier this month by Haynes and Boone found that ninety gas and oil producers in the United States (US) and Canada have filed for bankruptcy from 3 January, 2015 to 1 August, 2016.

Approximately US$66.5 billion in aggregate debt has been declared in dozens of bankruptcy cases including Chapter 7, Chapter 11 and Chapter 15, based on the analysis from the international corporate law firm.

Texas leads the number of bankruptcy filings with 44 during the time period measured by Haynes and Boone, and also has the largest number of debt declared in courts with around US$29.5 billion.

Forty-two energy companies filed bankruptcy in 2015 and declared approximately US$17.85 billion in defaulted debt. The costliest bankruptcy filing last year occurred in September when Samson Resources filed for Chapter 11 protection with an accumulated debt of roughly US$4.2 billion.

Then we have Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut production to manipulate the price of oil upwards. So far, it appears to have reached a ceiling of $58 a barrel, a 16 to 36 percent increase over the plateau it had been on for months last year. But this has also come at a cost.

The world hasn’t really caught on yet, but OPEC is in serious trouble.  Last year, OPEC’s net oil export revenues collapsed.  How bad?  Well, how about 65% since the oil price peaked in 2012.  To offset falling oil prices and revenues, OPEC nations have resorted to liquidating some of their foreign exchange reserves.

The largest OPEC oil producer and exporter, Saudi Arabia, has seen its Foreign Currency reserves plummet over the past two years… and the liquidation continues.  For example, Saudi Arabia’s foreign exchange reserves declined another $2 billion in December 2016 (source: Trading Economics).

Now, why would Saudi Arabia need to liquidate another $2 billion of its foreign exchange reserves after the price of a barrel of Brent crude jumped to $53.3 in December, up from $44.7 in November??  That was a 13% surge in the price of Brent crude in one month.  Which means, even at $53 a barrel, Saudi Arabia is still hemorrhaging.

Before I get into how bad things are becoming in Saudi Arabia, let’s take a look at the collapse of OPEC net oil export revenues:

The mighty OPEC oil producers enjoyed a healthy $951 billion in net oil export revenues in 2012.  However, this continued to decline along with the rapidly falling oil price and reached a low of $334 billion in 2016.  As I mentioned before, this was a 65% collapse in OPEC oil revenues in just four years.

Last time OPEC’s net oil export revenues were this low was in 2004.  Then, OPEC oil revenues were $370 billion at an average Brent crude price of $38.3.  Compare that to $334 billion in oil revenues in 2016 at an average Brent crude price of $43.5 a barrel…….

This huge decline in OPEC oil revenues gutted these countries foreign exchange reserves.  Which means, the falling EROI- Energy Returned On Investment is taking a toll on the OPEC oil exporting countries bottom line.  A perfect example of this is taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia was building its foreign exchange reserves for years until the price of oil collapsed, starting in 2014.  At its peak, Saudi Arabia held $797 billion in foreign currency reserves:

(note: figures shown in SAR- Saudi Arabia Riyal currency)

In just two and a half years, Saudi Arabia’s currency reserves have declined a staggering 27%, or roughly $258 billion (U.S. Dollars) to $538 billion currently.  Even more surprising, Saudi Arabia’s foreign currency reserves continue to collapse as the oil price rose towards the end of 2016:

The BLUE BARS represent Saudi Arabia’s foreign exchange reserves and the prices on the top show the average monthly Brent crude price.  In January 2016, Brent crude oil was $30.7 a barrel.  However, as the oil price continued to increase (yes, some months it declined a bit), Saudi’s currency reserves continued to fall.

This problem is getting bad enough that for the first time ever, the Saudi government has, shock horror,  started taxing its people….

Tax-free living will soon be a thing of the past for Saudis after its cabinet on Monday approved an IMF-backed value-added tax to be imposed across the Gulf following an oil slump.

A 5% levy will apply to certain goods following an agreement with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council in June last year.

Residents of the energy-rich region had long enjoyed a tax-free and heavily subsidised existence but the collapse in crude prices since 2014 sparked cutbacks and a search for new revenue.

How long before Saudi Arabia becomes the next Syria is anyone’s guess, but I do not see any economic scenario conducive to Paul Gilding’s “Great Disruption”. The great disruption will not be the energy take over by renewables, it will be the end of freely available energy slaves supplied by fossil fuels. I believe Paul has moved to Tasmania, in fact not very far from here….. I hope he’s started digging his garden.

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On the Thermodynamic Black Hole…..

23 09 2016

I recently heard Dmitry Orlov speaking to Jim Kunstler regarding the Dunbar Number in which he came up with the term ‘Thermodynamic Trap’. As the ERoEI of every energy source known to humanity starts collapsing over the energy cliff, I thought it was more like a thermodynamic black hole, sucking all the energy into itself at an accelerating pace… and if you ever needed proof of this blackhole, then Alice Friedemann’s latest book, “When the trucks stop running” should do the trick.

alice_friedemann

Alice Friedemann

Chris Martenson interviewed Alice in August 2016 about the future of the trucking industry in the face of Peak Oil, especially now the giant Bakken shale oil field in the US has peaked, joining the conventional oil sources. This podcast is available for download here.trucks_stop_running

Alice sees no solutions through running trucks with alternative energy sources or fuels. I see an increasing number of stories about electric trucks, but none of them make any sense because the weight of the batteries needed to move such large vehicles, especially the long haul variety, is so great it hardly leaves space for freight.

A semi trailer hauling 40 tonnes 1000km needs 1000L of liquid fuel to achieve the task. That’s 10,000kWh of electric energy equivalent. Just going by the Tesla Wall data sheet, a 6.4kWh battery pack weighs in at 97kg. So at this rate, 10,000kWh would weigh 150 tonnes….. so even to reduce the weight of the battery bank down to the 40 tonne carrying capacity of the truck, efficiency would have to be improved four fold, and you still wouldn’t have space for freight..

There are not enough materials on the entire planet to make enough battery storage to replace oil, except for Sodium Sulfur batteries, a technology I had never heard of before. A quick Google found this…..:

The active materials in a Na/S battery are molten sulfur as the positive electrode and molten sodium as the negative. The electrodes are separated by a solid ceramic, sodium alumina, which also serves as the electrolyte. This ceramic allows only positively charged sodium-ions to pass through. During discharge electrons are stripped off the sodium metal (one negatively charged electron for every sodium atom) leading to formation of the sodium-ions that then move through the electrolyte to the positive electrode compartment. The electrons that are stripped off the sodium metal move through the circuit and then back into the battery at the positive electrode, where they are taken up by the molten sulfur to form polysulfide. The positively charged sodium-ions moving into the positive electrode compartment balance the electron charge flow. During charge this process is reversed. The battery must be kept hot (typically > 300 ºC) to facilitate the process (i.e., independent heaters are part of the battery system). In general Na/S cells are highly efficient (typically 89%).

Conclusion

Na/S battery technology has been demonstrated at over 190 sites in Japan. More than 270 MW of stored energy suitable for 6 hours of daily peak shaving have been installed. The largest Na/S installation is a 34-MW, 245-MWh unit for wind stabilization in Northern Japan. The demand for Na/S batteries as an effective means of stabilizing renewable energy output and providing ancillary services is expanding. U.S. utilities have deployed 9 MW for peak shaving, backup power, firming windcapacity, and other applications. Projections indicate that development of an additional 9 MW is in-progress.

I immediately see a problem with keeping batteries at over 300° in a post fossil fuel era… but there’s more….

Alice has worked out that Na/S battery storage for just one day of US electricity generation would weigh 450 million tons, cover 923 square miles (2390km², or roughly the area of the whole of the Australian Capital Territory!), and cost 41 trillion dollars….. and according to European authorities, 6 to 30 days of storage is what would be required in the real world.

The disruption to the supply lines of our ‘just in time’ world caused by trucks no longer running is too much to even think about.

Empty supermarket shelves, petrol stations with no petrol, even ATMs with no money and pubs with no beer come to mind. I remember seeing signs on the Bruce highway back in Queensland stating “Trucks keep Australia going”.  Well, oil keeps trucks running; for how much longer is the real question.

 





Deflationary Collapse Ahead?

24 07 2016

The big thing that is happening is that the world financial system is likely to collapse. Back in 2008, the world financial system almost collapsed. This time, our chances of avoiding collapse are very slim.

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tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Both the stock market and oil prices have been plunging. Is this “just another cycle,” or is it something much worse? I think it is something much worse.

Back in January, I wrote a post called Oil and the Economy: Where are We Headed in 2015-16? In it, I said that persistent very low prices could be a sign that we are reaching limits of a finite world. In fact, the scenario that is playing out matches up with what I expected to happen in my January post. In that post, I said

Needless to say, stagnating wages together with rapidly rising costs of oil production leads to a mismatch between:

  • The amount consumers can afford for oil
  • The cost of oil, if oil price matches the cost of production

This mismatch between rising costs of oil production and stagnating wages is what has been happening. The unaffordability problem can be hidden by a rising amount of debt for a while (since adding cheap debt helps make unaffordable big items seem affordable), but this scheme cannot go on forever.

Eventually, even at near zero interest rates, the amount of debt becomes too high, relative to income. Governments become afraid of adding more debt. Young people find student loans so burdensome that they put off buying homes and cars. The economic “pump” that used to result from rising wages and rising debt slows, slowing the growth of the world economy. With slow economic growth comes low demand for commodities that are used to make homes, cars, factories, and other goods. This slow economic growth is what brings the persistent trend toward low commodity prices experienced in recent years.

A chart I showed in my January post was this one:

Figure 1. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

The price of oil dropped dramatically in the latter half of 2008, partly because of the adverse impact high oil prices had on the economy, and partly because of a contraction in debt amounts at that time. It was only when banks were bailed out and the United States began its first round of Quantitative Easing (QE) to get longer term interest rates down even further that energy prices began to rise. Furthermore, China ramped up its debt in this time period, using its additional debt to build new homes, roads, and factories. This also helped pump energy prices back up again.

The price of oil was trending slightly downward between 2011 and 2014, suggesting that even then, prices were subject to an underlying downward trend. In mid-2014, there was a big downdraft in prices, which coincided with the end of US QE3 and with slower growth in debt in China. Prices rose for a time, but have recently dropped again, related to slowing Chinese, and thus world, economic growth. In part, China’s slowdown is occurring because it has reached limits regarding how many homes, roads and factories it needs.

I gave a list of likely changes to expect in my January post. These haven’t changed. I won’t repeat them all here. Instead, I will give an overview of what is going wrong and offer some thoughts regarding why others are not pointing out this same problem.

Overview of What is Going Wrong

  1. The big thing that is happening is that the world financial system is likely to collapse. Back in 2008, the world financial system almost collapsed. This time, our chances of avoiding collapse are very slim.
  2. Without the financial system, pretty much nothing else works: the oil extraction system, the electricity delivery system, the pension system, the ability of the stock market to hold its value. The change we are encountering is similar to losing the operating system on a computer, or unplugging a refrigerator from the wall.
  3. We don’t know how fast things will unravel, but things are likely to be quite different in as short a time as a year. World financial leaders are likely to “pull out the stops,” trying to keep things together. A big part of our problem is too much debt. This is hard to fix, because reducing debt reduces demand and makes commodity prices fall further. With low prices, production of commodities is likely to fall. For example, food production using fossil fuel inputs is likely to greatly decline over time, as is oil, gas, and coal production.
  4. The electricity system, as delivered by the grid, is likely to fail in approximately the same timeframe as our oil-based system. Nothing will fail overnight, but it seems highly unlikely that electricity will outlast oil by more than a year or two. All systems are dependent on the financial system. If the oil system cannot pay its workers and get replacement parts because of a collapse in the financial system, the same is likely to be true of the electrical grid system.
  5. Our economy is a self-organized networked system that continuously dissipates energy, known in physics as a dissipative structureOther examples of dissipative structures include all plants and animals (including humans) and hurricanes. All of these grow from small beginnings, gradually plateau in size, and eventually collapse and die. We know of a huge number of prior civilizations that have collapsed. This appears to have happened when the return on human labor has fallen too low. This is much like the after-tax wages of non-elite workers falling too low. Wages reflect not only the workers’ own energy (gained from eating food), but any supplemental energy used, such as from draft animals, wind-powered boats, or electricity. Falling median wages, especially of young people, are one of the indications that our economy is headed toward collapse, just like the other economies.
  6. The reason that collapse happens quickly has to do with debt and derivatives. Our networked economy requires debt in order to extract fossil fuels from the ground and to create renewable energy sources, for several reasons: (a) Producers don’t have to save up as much money in advance, (b) Middle-men making products that use energy products (such as cars and refrigerators) can “finance” their factories, so they don’t have to save up as much, (c) Consumers can afford to buy “big-ticket” items like homes and cars, with the use of plans that allow monthly payments, so they don’t have to save up as much, and (d) Most importantly, debt helps raise the price of commodities of all sorts (including oil and electricity), because it allows more customers to afford products that use them. The problem as the economy slows, and as we add more and more debt, is that eventually debt collapses. This happens because the economy fails to grow enough to allow the economy to generate sufficient goods and services to keep the system going – that is, pay adequate wages, even to non-elite workers; pay growing government and corporate overhead; and repay debt with interest, all at the same time. Figure 2 is an illustration of the problem with the debt component.Figure 2. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Where Did Modeling of Energy and the Economy Go Wrong?

  1. Today’s general level of understanding about how the economy works, and energy’s relationship to the economy, is dismally low. Economics has generally denied that energy has more than a very indirect relationship to the economy. Since 1800, world population has grown from 1 billion to more than 7 billion, thanks to the use of fossil fuels for increased food production and medicines, among other things. Yet environmentalists often believe that the world economy can somehow continue as today, without fossil fuels. There is a possibility that with a financial crash, we will need to start over, with new local economies based on the use of local resources. In such a scenario, it is doubtful that we can maintain a world population of even 1 billion.
  2. Economics modeling is based on observations of how the economy worked when we were far from limits of a finite world. The indications from this modeling are not at all generalizable to the situation when we are reaching limits of a finite world. The expectation of economists, based on past situations, is that prices will rise when there is scarcity. This expectation is completely wrong when the basic problem is lack of adequate wages for non-elite workers. When the problem is a lack of wages, workers find it impossible to purchase high-priced goods like homes, cars, and refrigerators. All of these products are created using commodities, so a lack of adequate wages tends to “feed back” through the system as low commodity prices. This is exactly the opposite of what standard economic models predict.
  3. M. King Hubbert’s “peak oil” analysis provided a best-case scenario that was clearly unrealistic, but it was taken literally by his followers. One of Hubbert’s sources of optimism was to assume that another energy product, such as nuclear, would arise in huge quantity, prior to the time when a decline in fossil fuels would become a problem.Figure 2. Figure from Hubbert's 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

    The way nuclear energy operates in Figure 2 seems to me to be pretty much equivalent to the output of a perpetual motion machine, adding an endless amount of cheap energy that can be substituted for fossil fuels. A related source of optimism has to do with the shape of a curve that is created by the sum of curves of a given type. There is no reason to expect that the “total” curve will be of the same shape as the underlying curves, unless a perfect substitute (that is, having low price, unlimited quantity, and the ability to work directly in current devices) is available for what is being modeled–here fossil fuels. When the amount of extraction is determined by price, and price can quickly swing from high to low, there is good reason to believe that the shape of the sum curve will be quite pointed, rather than rounded. For example we know that a square wave can be approximated using the sum of sine functions, using Fourier Series (Figure 4).

    Figure 3. Source: Wolfram Mathworld.

  4. The world economy operates on energy flows in a given year, even though most analysts today are accustomed to thinking on a discounted cash flow basis.  You and I eat food that was grown very recently. A model of food potentially available in the future is interesting, but it doesn’t satisfy our need for food when we are hungry. Similarly, our vehicles run on oil that has recently been extracted; our electrical system operates on electricity that has been produced, essentially instantaneously. The very close relationship in time between production and consumption of energy products is in sharp contrast to the way the financial system works. It makes promises, such as the availability of bank deposits, the amounts of pension payments, and the continuing value of corporate stocks, far out into the future. When these promises are made, there is no check made that goods and services will actually be available to repay these promises. We end up with a system that has promised very many more goods and services in the future than the real world will actually be able to produce. A break is inevitable; it looks like the break will be happening in the near future.
  5. Changes in the financial system have huge potential to disrupt the operation of the energy flow system. Demand in a given year comes from a combination of (wages and other income streams in a given year) plus the (change in debt in a given year). Historically, the (change in debt) has been positive. This has helped raise commodity prices. As soon as we start getting large defaults on debt, the (change in debt) component turns negative, and tends to bring down the price of commodities. (Note Point 6 in the previous section.) Once this happens, it is virtually impossible to keep prices up high enough to extract oil, coal and natural gas. This is a major reason why the system tends to crash.
  6. Researchers are expected to follow in the steps of researchers before them, rather than starting from a basic understudying of the whole problem. Trying to understand the whole problem, rather than simply trying to look at a small segment of a problem is difficult, especially if a researcher is expected to churn out a large number of peer reviewed academic articles each year. Unfortunately, there is a huge amount of research that might have seemed correct when it was written, but which is really wrong, if viewed through a broader lens. Churning out a high volume of articles based on past research tends to simply repeat past errors. This problem is hard to correct, because the field of energy and the economy cuts across many areas of study. It is hard for anyone to understand the full picture.
  7. In the area of energy and the economy, it is very tempting to tell people what they want to hear. If a researcher doesn’t understand how the system of energy and the economy works, and needs to guess, the guesses that are most likely to be favorably received when it comes time for publication are the ones that say, “All is well. Innovation will save the day.” Or, “Substitution will save the day.” This tends to bias research toward saying, “All is well.” The availability of financial grants on topics that appear hopeful adds to this effect.
  8. Energy Returned on Energy Investment (EROEI) analysis doesn’t really get to the point of today’s problems. Many people have high hopes for EROEI analysis, and indeed, it does make some progress in figuring out what is happening. But it misses many important points. One of them is that there are many different kinds of EROEI. The kind that matters, in terms of keeping the economy from collapsing, is the return on human labor. This type of EROEI is equivalent to after-tax wages of non-elite workers. This kind of return tends to drop too low if the total quantity of energy being used to leverage human labor is too low. We would expect a drop to occur in the quantity of energy used, if energy prices are too high, or if the quantity of energy products available is restricted.
  9. Instead of looking at wages of workers, most EROEI analyses consider returns on fossil fuel energy–something that is at least part of the puzzle, but is far from the whole picture. Returns on fossil fuel energy can be done either on a cash flow (energy flow) basis or on a “model” basis, similar to discounted cash flow. The two are not at all equivalent. What the economy needs is cash flow energy now, not modeled energy production in the future. Cash flow analyses probably need to be performed on an industry-wide basis; direct and indirect inputs in a given calendar year would be compared with energy outputs in the same calendar year. Man-made renewables will tend to do badly in such analyses, because considerable energy is used in making them, but the energy provided is primarily modeled future energy production, assuming that the current economy can continue to operate as today–something that seems increasingly unlikely.
  10. If we are headed for a near term sharp break in the economy, there is no point in trying to add man-made renewables to the electric grid. The whole point of adding man-made renewables is to try to keep what we have today longer. But if the system is collapsing, the whole plan is futile. We end up extracting more coal and oil today, in order to add wind or solar PV to what will soon become a useless grid electric system. The grid system will not last long, because we cannot pay workers and we cannot maintain the grid without a financial system. So if we add man-made renewables, most of what we get is their short-term disadvantages, with few of their hoped-for long-term advantages.

Conclusion

The analysis that comes closest to the situation we are reaching today is the 1972 analysis of limits of a finite world, published in the book “The Limits to Growth” by Donella Meadows and others. It models what can be expected to happen, if population and resource extraction grow as expected, gradually tapering off as diminishing returns are encountered. The base model seems to indicate that a collapse will happen about now.

Figure 5. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today's graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in "Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil" http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/2009-05Hall0327.pdf

The shape of the downturn is not likely to be correct in Figure 5.  One reason is that the model was put together based on physical quantities of goods and people, without considering the role the financial system, particularly debt, plays. I expect that debt would tend to make collapse quicker. Also, the modelers had no experience with interactions in a contracting world economy, so had no idea regarding what adjustments to make. The authors have even said that the shapes of the curves, after the initial downturn, cannot be relied on. So we end up with something like Figure 6, as about all that we can rely on.

Figure 6. Figure 5, truncated shortly after production turns down, since modeled amounts are unreliable after that date.

If we are indeed facing the downturn forecast by Limits to Growth modeling, we are facing  a predicament that doesn’t have a real solution. We can make the best of what we have today, and we can try to strengthen bonds with family and friends. We can try to diversify our financial resources, so if one bank encounters problems early on, it won’t be a huge problem. We can perhaps keep a little food and water on hand, to tide us over a temporary shortage. We can study our religious beliefs for guidance.

Some people believe that it is possible for groups of survivalists to continue, given adequate preparation. This may or may not be true. The only kind of renewables that we can truly count on for the long term are those used by our forefathers, such as wood, draft animals, and wind-driven boats. Anyone who decides to use today’s technology, such as solar panels and a pump adapted for use with solar panels, needs to plan for the day when that technology fails. At that point, hard decisions will need to be made regarding how the group will live without the technology.

We can’t say that no one warned us about the predicament we are facing. Instead, we chose not to listen. Public officials gave a further push in this direction, by channeling research funds toward distant theoretically solvable problems, instead of understanding the true nature of what we are up against. Too many people took what Hubbert said literally, without understanding that what he offered was a best-case scenario, if we could find something equivalent to a perpetual motion machine to help us out of our predicament.





INDUSTRY IN A LOW ENERGY FUTURE: TURNING TO NETWORK THEORY FOR SOLUTIONS

15 03 2016

This is Simon Michaux’s follow up to his article on the Implications of Peak Energy

Simon Michaux

SIMON MICHAUX

Dr Simon Michaux has a Bach App Sc in Physics and Geology and a PhD in mining engineering. He has worked in the mining industry for 18 years in various capacities. He has worked in industry funded mining research, coal exploration and in the commercial sector in an engineering company as a consultant. Areas of technical interest have been: Geometallurgy; mineral processing in comminution, flotation and leaching; blasting; mining geology; geophysics; feasibility studies; mining investment; and industrial sustainability.

There is a macro-scale pattern unfolding under all of us. Every non-renewable natural resource we depend upon is now depleting to the point of peak extraction, or will soon. Industrial systems that are heavily dependent on energy reserves and metal resources are now at serious risk of collapse as production of those raw materials will soon not be able to meet demand, since easy to access reserves will be exhausted, leaving low-grade stocks that are expensive or technically challenging to extract. All living systems on the planet are under stress and are also heavily degrading. Natural systems of all kinds are being depleted in the name of economic development, and the planet’s climate is also undergoing change.

Our culture’s fundamental belief that there are no limits and growth is good, is related to the belief that all resources are infinite. Humans, like all animals on the planet, are biologically driven to consume and expand – it’s a built-in survival mechanism. Yet, as this is a finite planet and our exploitation of these natural resources is exponential in form, there will come a point where severe volatility and resource scarcity will become a reality.

Energy is the rate determining step, which facilitates the continued application of technology with economies of scale. As studies have shown, total world fossil fuel supply is close to peak, driven by peak of oil production. What’s more, putting all energy sources together gives a snapshot of our industrial capability and suggests that peak total energy is projected to be approximately in the year 2017.

energy sources

The industrial systems vital for our society to function are supported by each of these energy sources in quite different ways, and they are not interchangeable easily. A compelling case can be made that that our society and its industrial sector energy supply faces a fundamental problem, that is systemic in nature.

Our industrial requirements will have to be met with a fundamentally different approach to anything we have achieved before. We need to stop depending on non-renewable natural resources and stop the material requirements of the human societal footprint growing exponentially. Mining will continue but according to a radically different business model, and with a very different mandate.

NETWORK SYSTEMS THEORY

Network theory and systems thinking has some insights to what the required new system of industrialisation could look like. Our human society, its economic and social interactions could be modelled as a system, where each activity could be a connection, for example the transport of goods, or the consumption of electricity. Nodes are where many connections intersect. For example, most activities involve a finance transfer thus will engage the services of a bank. The bank is a node, where many connections are able to function through. Not all nodes are equal though in regard to the number of connections they facilitate. The node of a car manufacturing business, for instance, will have many fewer connections than, say, the European Union Bank.

Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0
Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

If connections are broken due to circumstance (using a city example, heavy storms and flooding could temporarily interrupt power supply to an individual neighbourhood) then the network is smaller in size but it still functions (power is still being supplied to other parts of the power grid). But if that same storm causes the power station used for electricity generation (a node) to shut down, then every consumer attached to that power station will lose power. The whole grid will crash.

The complexity of a network is supported by and defined by the energy inputs that support it. Our current complex system is supported by cheap abundant high density energy – oil. Complex system networks are not made ‘in situ’, but are grown over time from simple system networks.

What does all this mean for the current industrial grid? Peak total energy means the node of energy supply is about to be disrupted. All links in the network system supported by energy will be logistically traumatized. As it stands, any replacement energy is less dense per unit volume than oil, and requires extensive infrastructure to be built. Think of the amount of energy invested in the creation of our current system over time – without plentiful, easy to access energy, the replacement network system will need to be less complex than the current one, once fully operational. It will also take time for the network to reach full complexity.

The old system cannot function because input energy is sourced from non-renewable natural resources, all of which are depleting or soon will. As energy is the master resource, it defines what happens with all other resource systems. Any replacement system that is a practical option will have to have certain signatures.

PROGNOSIS

Due to energy constraints, all industrial output would have to be sourced from a geographically local area. This would affect everything from raw material consumption, water consumption to waste disposal. Product delivery to market would also be changed. All of this would have to become as close to net zero footprint in terms of source material and waste disposal. Industrial output would have to be simpler. Technology cannot be as complex as it is now. This implies that manufacturing goods will require more effort on our part, which means that we would have to value ‘stuff’ differently. All waste products will also require greater effort to dispose of, meaning that if they could be recycled, reused or repurposed, there would be less strain on the system to function. Maintaining QA/QC material standards and equipment maintenance would all have to be done within a relatively local geographic region. These challenging statements represent practical limits of a low energy future. As this represents quite a paradigm shift from our current state of exponential consumption based on whim, the most difficult but significant task in front of us is a revolution in perception and a restructuring of governance.

Political systems like capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, etc. are all built in the context of unlimited natural resources. Whatever the new system looks like, it won’t be anything like what has been seen before. We can call it what we like. Planning will have to be projected over 50 to 60 years into the future but be flexible to evolve organically to its environs. The current system is very centralised, whereas the new system would have to be very decentralised due to energy constraints. The flow of information will become very important.

The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre
The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre

From a civilisation network systems footprint viewpoint, we must ask ourselves how we can develop an economy that offers enough for everyone, forever. Real world systems and their inputs must reflect this, and the familiar exponential curves of today’s economy must move to flat line or sinusoidal wave functions. We also need to ask what profile human civilisation has amongst the natural environment. Dynamic natural systems must be able to operate unhindered, where natural capital and biodiversity is allowed to recover. The new economic framework must appreciate that inputs and outputs to all systems must be stable over time.

There are two related conceptual ideas which could be a starting point to help us develop the above requirements: the circular economy and the steady state economy. In a future in which peak energy has dramatically changed the rules of the game, these concepts are required to maintain our industrial capacity. It is not a question of choice, as our natural resources are being depleted at an exponential rate. The timing is now. The next 100 years will be very different to the last 100 years.





Stuff about energy to listen to…

5 01 2015

Following that outrageous article about solar’s ERoEI of 50:1, along comes this piece that has Paul Gilding frothing at the mouth…

http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2015/01/ssw_20150103_1209.mp3

And for an antidote, if you haven’t read any of Zehner’s work, you can listen to him here, but I warn you he’s just repeating what I published last year….

http://www.ecoshock.info/2014/12/green-illusions-ozzie-zehner.html





The End of Endless Growth: Part 2

4 01 2015

THIS is the follow up to part 1 published a little while ago…

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Written by Nafeez Ahmed

Worried about the shit hitting the fan on climate change and other major crises? Good. Because those crises prove that we have an unprecedented opportunity to change the world.

Yesterday, I ​pointed to the groundbreaking work of University of Turin economist Mauro Bonaiuti on the deeper roots of the ongoing crisis of capitalism in a wider environmental crisis. The ‘endless growth’ model of unlimited material accumulation that we take for granted is increasingly breaching natural and environmental limits of the biosphere, with devastating consequences. 

Yet Bonauiti is hardly a lone voice. He represents a widening ​movement of econo​mists and scient​ists who are pointing to the need to re-e​ngineer capitalism as we know it if we want to sustain prosperity while sav​ing the planet. The pseudo-debate over whether 2015 entails recession or recovery overlooks the bigger picture: that the global economic crisis is simply a stage in the long decline of a paradigm that has outlasted its usefulness.

“Far from being all doom and gloom, continuing global economic fragility is symptomatic of a fundamental shift”

Far from being all doom and gloom, continuing global economic fragility is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the very nature of civilization itself. The new era of slow growth and austerity has emerged because the biosphere is forcing us to adapt to the consequences of breaching environmental limits.

This fundamental shift has also brought about significant changes that offer profound opportunities for systemic transformation that could benefit humanity and the planet. These five interlinked revolutions in information, food, energy, finance and ethics are opening up opportunities for communities to co-create new ways of being that work for everyone. This year we could discover that the very disruption of capitalism itself is part of a major tipping point in the transition to a new post-industrial, post-capitalist paradigm.

The information revolution

The world is currently, quite clearly, at the dawn of a huge technological revolution in information that has already in the space of a few years transformed the way we do things, and is pitched to trigger ongoing changes in coming decades. A glimpse of some of those changes, and the possibility of weaponizing them, can be found in my article on the Pentagon’s plans for defense reform.

The main impact of the information revolution so far has been the decentralization of communications infrastructure across the world, the increasing interconnection of different countries and communities, and as a consequence, the opening up of myriad sources of information, often for free, to the public.

Of course, this is no global village. Access to the internet remains massively unequal between rich and poor, and new battle-lines have been drawn—illustrated by the impunity and unaccountability of mass surveillance by intelligence agencies in cahoots with corporations, as well as ongoing efforts by telecoms giants and governments to explore ways of controlling and censoring the internet.

But this is largely a regressive response to the increasing inability to control the inherently uncontrollable and decentralized dynamic of the information revolution. We now know that intelligence agencies are playing catch-up as it has become clear that social media is an enabler of radical political messaging and, thus, an amplifier for social movements capable of facilitating the toppling of repressive military regimes that happen to be our closest allies (Egypt, anyone?).

Similarly, the attempt to shut-down Pirate Bay has been futile. The moment legislation was introduced to kill the site, instead of disappearing, hundreds of Pirate Bay mirror sites proliferated in a manner demonstrating the literal impossibility of ever being able to eliminate the flagship pirating portal. The latest raid on the Pirate Bay’s servers in Sweden resulted in the immediate ​launch of a Pirate Bay “clone” site by competitor Isohunt. In 2012, the site had become more portable and easier to clone. Now Bruno Kra​mm, Berlin chairman of the Pirate Party which was founded after the first Pirate Bay shut-down in 2005 to promote online information sharing, promised that the site would simply re-open by multiplying servers. “Basically, each time you shut the Pirate Bay down, we will multiply,” he said.

It is this freedom of information, both in accessibility and cost, that is also eating into the traditional business models of the broadcast and print media.

Those models are walking dead. The members of the next ge​neration do not read newspapers, and they don’t watch TV news. They get their info from YouTube shows, curate their news from across multiple mainstream and alternative digital sources, while sharing and communicating news across social networ​ks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Vine, Tumblr, and so on. And this is a big reason why the conventional business models of the mainstream media are experiencing rapid​ decline.

Despite its pitfalls, the information revolution has thus opened up previously unthinkable opportunities for alternative media, accessibility of information, and interconnections between different people, communities, social movements, and nations. Hence, the rapid​ proliferation in the last decade of alternative news sites and sources such as blogs, community news platforms, and reader-supported models of digital journalism.

This is already undermining the relevance of traditional centralized information highways, and creating sp​ace for public engagement and new digital media models, in a process that will only accelerate and become increasingly unstoppable as encryption and privacy tools become cheaper and more common.

The energy revolution

As I’ve shown ​elsewhere, the fossil fuel system is already in its death throes. Costs of production have rocketed for oil, gas and coal, and the market simply cannot afford to pay prices high enough for the big fossil fuel majors to sustain increasing profits.

Mark Lewis, former head of energy research at Deutsche Bank, points out that the industry is investing “at exponentially higher rates for increasingly small incremental yields of energy.”

This year the US Energy In​formation Administration found that as a consequence of this shift to expensive energy, the world’s leading oil and gas companies were sinking into a debt ​trap even before the latest oil price crash. Their net debt increased by $106 billion in the year up to March, while they sold off $73 billion of assets to cover surging production costs. “Alarm bells are ringing. Investors can see that this is unsustainable,” Lewis recently told the Telegraph. “They are starting to ask whether it wouldn’t be better to return cash to shareholders, and wind down the companies.”

As the fossil fuel empire crumbles, in contrast, the cost of renewable energy technologies (especially solar and wind) is dramatically falling even as efficiency gains are rapidly increasing. According to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Stanford business studies lecturer Tony Seba, who forecasts the dominance of solar within just 15 years, the Energy Return On Energy Investment or EROEI of solar is far superior over the long-term than fossil fuels.

Seba told me that conventional EROIE calculations are potentially misleading because they ignore critical costs and externalities, especially in land and water usage, waste and pollution. Applying the concept of Energy Payback Time (EPBT) to photovoltaic (PV) solar panels—where EPBT is how long it takes to produce the same quantity of energy that was used to create and install the panels—Seba notes that recent thin film technologies will payback this energy in around just one year. After that point, effectively, energy is generated for free. If a thin film panel produces energy for 25 years, then its EROEI is 25. “This is far higher than the published results for most forms of energy today, including oil, gas, wind, and nuclear,” Seba said.

But Seba also pointed out that PV panels are likely to last many decades after 25 years. Panel performance degrades at around 0.5 percent per year, which means that even after 60 years, they would produce at 70 percent capacity. EROEI would therefore be on the order of 50 or 60. Given that by 2020, PV costs are expected to drop by another two thirds or so, this suggests that by then EROIE for solar would be even higher, potentially as much as 150. And as the efficiency and capacity of PV technology continues to improve (at a rate of 22% every 2-3 years), EROEI of solar PV technology is pitched to reach triple digits and exponentially improve, rather than degrade.

Fossil fuels simply cannot compete with this. As costs continue to drop, businesses and communities are already shifting rapidly to cheaper, decentralized solar, where post-EPBT energy is literally free. When combined with the fast emerging storage solutions diminishing prices, the old model of being dependent on expensive, centralized and dirty oil, gas and coal will be increasingly displaced by the relentless momentum of cheap, distributed clean energy.

The food revolution

As we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, one of the most energy-intensive pursuits ripe for transition is industrial agriculture. In the US alone, 19 percent of fossil fuel consumption goes to the food system for pesticides, fertilizers, on-site machinery, processing, packaging and transport. But as industrial agriculture continues to degrade t​he soil, the productivity of land in key food basket regions is steadily d​eclining.

With global food prices at record levels in the context of these challenges, combined with the pressures of climate-induced extreme weather, volatile oil prices, and speculation by investors, the incentive to develop greater resilience in locally accessible food production is also growing.

In the UK and US, for instance, demand for local​ly grown food production is ris​ing fast. The US Departm​ent of Agriculture reports that between 1992 and 2007, demand for local produce grew twice as fast as total agricultural sales, and the number of local food outlets has quadrupled from 1994 to 2013.

Transition initiatives across the western world are pioneering community efforts to grow their own food, organically and outside of the industrial food system. Preliminary studies show that the reloc​alization of food economies is a viable option that could have huge benefits to local economies and create a wide range of jobs—although this would involve less meat consumption, with greater numbers of people living on and working the land.

Recently, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been exploring the potential to scale-up agroec​ology—a specialized farming method which combines organic agriculture with an ecologically-conscious social, economic and political structure. Successive UN special rapporteurs on the right to food, drawing on a rich peer-reviewed literature, have endorsed agroecology as a viable solution for increasing crop yields for the small farmers that provide 70 percent of global food production.

A Masters t​hesis in Environment and Planning completed this year by Zainil Zainuddin, a food and agriculture researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, conducted a case study of 15 households doing urban farming on a 1,096 square meter sized collective plot in Melbourne city. Eleven of the participating households farmed using Permaculture design principles, including no-dig, raised beds for food growing, the use of compost and/or worm-farm castings for soil improvement (and the use of animal manure for those engaged in poultry or fowl raising), companion planting for organic pest management and rainwater harvesting. In one year, the project produced a total yield of 388.73 kg worth of fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey and meat, along with a total of 1,015 eggs. The study found that, “All participants register a surplus of between 5 per cent to 75 per cent, depending upon the crops and seasons,” which was shared among immediate family, and local communities” through local swap and share networks.

In ensuing years, more and more food will be pro​duced and consumed locally in both urban and rural environments, as the industrial food system becomes more unsustainable and costly. Real-world cases like Park​ 2020 in the Netherlands show that with the right design principles, large-scale urban agriculture to sustain a community food system and local businesses based on “closed cycles for materials, energy, waste and water,” represents a viable future for converting modern cities into regenerative ecologies.

The finance revolution

The information, food and energy revolutions are being facilitated by a burgeoning revolution in finance. Once again, the emerging trend is for new models that give greater power to the crowd, and undermine the authority and legitimacy—and even necessity—of the traditional, centralized banking infrastructure.

This has been enabled by the information revolution. According to the technology market research firm Forrester, the avalanche of new mechanisms for potential lenders and borrowers, or funders and receivers, to interact online without the intermediation of traditional banks and financial institutions, poses a huge threat to conventional banking. Of these new mechanisms, peer2peer lending has experienced particularly rapid growth.

Forrester Research’s new r​eport shows that since 2005, over $6 billion has been generated in loans. Although peer2peer remains tiny in the context of banks’ larger balance sheets, Forrester forecasts that the long-term trend is for these new forms of social lending—including digital investment management and crowdfunding—to “continue to grow, chipping away at banks’ profits, diverting deposits, and disintermediating banks.”

“Banks have now been brought to the edge of the disruption abyss.”

As the Aust​ralian Business Review recently noted, “banks have now been brought to the edge of the disruption abyss” where “the media, mail and music businesses” are already on the verge of toppling over. These new social lending and finance mechanisms will “break the business of banking into its parts, each with its own set of disrupters.”

This has also opened the way for new digital currencies and new digital wallet systems, which many forecast will disrupt billions of dolla​rs a year in banking, especially in less developed markets where banking infrastructures are not well established. While Bitcoin is often the most hyped, others are quickly emerging which promise greater stability, transparency, and public accountability, such as M​axCoin and St​artCoin.

According to Walter Isa​acson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN, “digital currencies and micropayments are likely to be the disruptive innovation of 2015.”

One of the most significant potential developments in finance is in the concept and practice of the “circular economy,” which focuses on the need to recycle resources in an economic system, rather than simply generate escalating quantities of waste in the name of endless growth. A major report to the Club of Rome this year by Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence’s Earth Sciences Department showed that recycling, conservation and efficiency in the management of the planet’s mineral resources could enable a prosperous​ and high technology society, though not one indulging in the sort of mass consumerism we take for granted today.

Corporations are leading the way in exploring the circular economy purely for business reasons. Resource costs have rocketed since 2009 more quickly than global economic output. A r​eport put out earlier this year by the financial consultancy McKinsey noted that businesses are being forced to find “novel ways to reuse products and components” in managing access to “valuable natural resources.” The relative success of these efforts led by companies like Renault evoke the possibility of “an industrial system that is regenerative by design,” which “restores material, energy, and labour inputs.”

In the age of expensive energy, McKinsey points out that the incentives to shift to a circular economy are huge. Savings in materials alone could exceed $1 trillion a year by 2025. While the corporate and business sectors see the circular economy as a necessary means to sustain growth in a new age of resource scarcity, Bardi points out that endless material growth is a simple impossibility. The rise of the circular economy being led by some of the world’s largest compan​ies represents an unwitting but accelerating shift to a post-growth economic system.

The ethical revolution

Perhaps the most profound shift of all, implicit in these seemingly disparate, but inherently interwoven revolutions, is the ethical revolution.

The old paradigm, which is facing increasing disruption by the emerging revolutions described above, is premised on a model of centralized, hierarchical control focused on unlimited material accumulation, and premised on the values of individualism, self-interest, competition, and conflict.

The model that is fast developing and disrupting this paradigm from within, is one premised on open access to information; distributed and effectively free, clean energy; local, community and democratic ownership over planetary resources; and a form of prosperity and well-being that is ultimately decoupled from the imperative for endless material accumulation.

The old and new paradigms can be clearly related to two quite different value systems. The first paradigm, which is currently in decline, is that of egoism, crude materialism, and selfish consumerism. It is a value system that, we now know from our best scientific minds, is on course to potentially lead to an uninhabitable planet, and thus, perhaps even species extinction (with many scientists arguing we appear to be at the dawn of the planet’s six​th mass extinction event). This suggests that this value system is actually dislocated from human nature, our biophysical environment, and the relationship between them.

In contrast, a value system associated with the emerging paradigm is also supremely commensurate with what most of us recognize as ‘good’: love, justice, compassion, generosity. This has the revolutionary implication that ethics, often viewed as ‘subjective’, in fact have a perfectly objective and utilitarian function in the fundamental evolutionary goal of species survival. In some sense, ethics provide us a value-driven benchmark to recognize the flaws in the old paradigm, and glimpse the opportunities for better social forms.

This ethical revolution is ultimately rooted in a profound fundamental shift in our scientific understanding of life and the world, from the old Newtonian/Cartesian paradigm to the n​ew paradigm represented by relativity, quantum physics, evolutionary biology and epigenetics. This shift has on the one hand brought to light curious parallels between Eastern mysticism and Western science which occupied the minds of the very foun​ders of quantum mechanics, and on the other highlighted conc​epts like “nonlocality” and quantum interconnections, the inherent relationship between observer and observed, and the complex irreducibility of mind-body interactions. These point to an emerging scientific worl​dview in which human beings are intimately interwoven with our biophysical environment, and where ethical values therefore in some way provide us a means to objectively navigate this relationship in our day-to-day moral choices, regardless of religious dogma.

As these five revolutions accelerate and disrupt the old paradigm, as they are already doing—resulting in the increasing eruption of social movements that challenge and overthrow states and systems—the phase shift to a new era also accelerates. The birth pangs of this new era are premised on the escalating disruption of the old paradigm, a process that invokes chaos, uncertainty, and violence. Yet it is precisely in the ashes of that great disruption that the opportunities for these revolutions to take flight will become ever greater.​





Revolution, Part 1: The End of Growth?

2 01 2015

By Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

New research suggests that the ongoing global economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature. The continuation of the crisis, though, does not imply the end of the world – but rather is part of major phase shift to a new form of civilization that could either adapt to post-carbon reality and prosper, or crumble in denial.

We are on the verge of a major tipping point in the way civilization works. Even as so many global crises are accelerating, a range of interconnected systemic revolutions are converging in a way that could facilitate a transformation of the global economy from one that maximizes material accumulation for the few, to one that caters for the needs and well being of all.

That’s the conclusion of a major new book published as part of the ‘Routledge Studies in Ecological Economics’ series, The Great Transition, by Prof Mauro Bonaiuti, an economist at the University of Turin in Italy. Bonaiuti’s book applies the tools of complexity science to diagnose the real dynamic and implications of the global economic crisis that most visibly erupted in 2008.

That crisis, Bonaiuti argues, is not simply a part of the cyclical boom and bust process, but is a symptom of a longer “passage of civilization.” Advanced capitalist societies are in a “phase of declining returns” measured across the period after the Second World War, including GDP growth, energy return on investment (how much energy is put in compared to what we get out), manufacturing productivity, among others.

Fig1

Fig1 – Bonaiuti’s graph of GDP growth rate in Europe from 1961 to 2011, illustrating a fluctuating but consistent long decline

Fig2


Fig 2. Bounaiuti points out that Energy Return On Energy Investment(EROIE) is also declining for major fossil fuels
But compared to these declines, in the same period and on a global scale we have faced near exponential increases in energy consumption, public debt, population growth, greenhouse gas emissions, and species extinctions. For Bonaiuti, the declines we are seeing are a consequence of the “the interaction between limitations of a biophysical nature (the exhaustion of resources, global warming, etc.) and the increasing complexity of social structures (bureaucratisation, the reduction in the productivity of innovation and in the educational, health and productive systems, etc.).”

Fig3

Fig 3. Global population growth and energy consumption plotted in one graph (Source: The Oil Drum)

Fig4

Fig 4. Global rise in debt to GDP ratio from 2000 to 2013(Source: The Telegraph)
Fig5

Fig. 5 Correlation between exponential increase in consumption, C02 emissions, species extinctions, and environmental degradation (Source: Skeptical Science)

The economic crisis is therefore not just about debt, or deregulation, or market volatility or whatever. Fundamentally, the crisis is due to the global economy’s ongoing breaching of the limits of the biosphere. Ironically, as Bonauiti points out, after a certain point as material accumulation measured by GDP continues, well-being and happiness have not only stopped growing, they are now also in decline as depression and other psychological ailments are proliferating – a phenomenon that mainstream economists are at a loss to explain.

But it begins to make sense when we re-frame the crisis as not simply an economic one, but as a “bio-economic” one, in which exponential material consumption is increasingly destabilizing the biosphere. This environmental ‘overshoot’ explains “the inability on the part of the capitalist system to continue to produce social well-being and to face the ecological question with any efficaciousness.”

Collapse? Or renewal! (or both…?)

Civilization is thus undergoing a huge, momentous ‘phase shift’ to a new era as the current form of global predatory capitalism crumbles beneath the weight of its own mounting unsustainability. As this process unfolds, it simultaneously opens up a range of scenarios for new forms of society, within which there is an opportunity for “a great transition towards new institutional forms” that could include greater “democratic self-government of communities and their territories.”

Despite the very real disruptions this phase shift entails, many of which have been explored in-depth at Motherboard (the unprecedented spate of global unrest being a major example),the Italian economist is cautiously optimistic about the potential long-term outcomes.

“When the framework changes, as the sciences of complexity teach us, there will be other forms of economic and social organisation more suited to the new situation,” said Bonaiuti. “In particular, in a context of global crisis, or even stagnant growth, cooperation among decentralized, smaller scale economic organisations, will offer greater chances of success. These organizations can lead the system towards conditions of ecological sustainability, more social equity and, by involving citizens and territories, even increase the level of democracy.”

Bonauiti uses the term ‘degrowth’ to describe this new framework – but degrowth does not simply mean no growth, or even negative growth. It actually entails a new science of ‘post-growth economics’ in which the obsession with measuring material accumulation as the prime signifier of economic health is jettisoned, in which it is recognized that endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and relatedly entropy.

If Bonauiti is right, then we should expect to be seeing more and more signs of this changing framework, and with it, the emergence of potential new forms of economic and social organization that work far better than the old industrial paradigm we take for granted. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

In part 2, I will round up five major ‘revolutions’ that are developing now, which are already undermining the old paradigm, and paving the way for viable alternative approaches: the information revolution, the energy revolution, the food revolution, the finance revolution, and the ethical revolution. The big shifts constituted by these revolutions are developing disparately, tentatively, and often incoherently – but despite that, they are evolving inexorably, and in coming years will be increasingly difficult to contain and co-opt.

All of them involve an increasing dispersion of power to people and communities, away from traditional centralized hierarchies of control. As they accelerate and begin to interact, the opportunities for transition will also open up. That’s not to say any of this will happen in a simplistic, easy-peasy manner. Prof Bonauiti identifies four potential scenarios for the future, and one of them involves ‘collapse’, while another leads to ‘resilience’.

The old paradigm, and those who benefit from it the most, will also resist the most, and their resistance and disbelief in the reality of change – and the people’s response to it – will quite literally define the future of our species, and of the planet, in ways that will remain entirely unpredictable.

_________________

Nafeez Ahmed is currently setting up the people-powered independent media platform “Insurge Intelligence: Watchdog Journalism for the Global Commons