THE WAKING UP SYNDROME

2 08 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
To Learn More

Books

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

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

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

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

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

Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren

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

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

Reconnecting with Nature by Michael J. Cohen.

Documentary DVDs

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

Escape From Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

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

Crude Impact

Organizations

The Post-Carbon Institute www.postcarbon.org

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

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





Eight essential steps to transform our economy

30 07 2019

We’re running out of time. There’s spreading awareness of the institutional failure that is driving humans toward self-extinction, and related calls for a deep transformation of our economy. This is happening in every quarter, from college campuses to the Vatican to the U.S. presidential debates. Everywhere we hear calls for an economy that serves the well-being of people and Earth.

David Korten wrote this opinion piece for YES! Magazine as part of his series of biweekly columns on “A Living Earth Economy.” David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine and president of the Living Economies Forum. Follow him on Twitter @dkorten and on Facebook. As do all YES! columnists he writes here in his personal voice.

Pope Francis has spoken of the social and environmental failures of an economy devoted to the idolatry of moneyWorkers and their unions are joining in with the wrenching observation that, “There are no good jobs on a dead planet.”

There is a related rising awareness of the need for a serious update to how we study and think about economics and prepare our future leaders. With few exceptions, economics, as it’s taught in universities, relies on the same badly flawed theories and ethical principles that bear major responsibility for the unfolding crisis. It values life only for its market price; uses GDP growth as the defining measure of economic performance; assures students that maximizing personal financial return benefits society; recommends policies that prioritize corporate profits over human and planetary well-being; and ignores the natural limits of a finite planet.

Here are eight guiding principles for a reformed economic theory to guide our path to a new economy for the 21st century.

Principle 1: Evaluate the economy’s performance by indicators of the well-being of people and planet; not the growth of GDP.

Growing GDP serves well if our goal is only to increase the financial assets of the rich so they can claim an ever-growing share of the remaining real wealth of a dying Earth. If our priority is to meet the essential needs for food, water, shelter, and other basics for all the world’s people, then we must measure for those results so that we can get the outcomes we really want.

Principle 2: Seek only that which benefits life; not that which harms life.

We should seek to eliminate war, financial speculation, consumption of harmful or unnecessary products, and industrial agriculture that pollutes the soil, air, and water and produces food of questionable nutritional value. We can eliminate most driving by designing infrastructure to support people living close to where they work, shop, and play. We can eliminate most global movement of people and goods by keeping production and consumption local, using recycled materials, and substituting electronic communication for global business travel.

The labor and resources thus freed up can be redirected to raising and educating our children, caring for the elderly, restoring the health and vitality of Earth’s regenerative systems, rebuilding the social infrastructure of community, and rebuilding physical infrastructure in ways that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and simultaneously strengthen our beneficial connections with one another and nature.

Principle 3: Honor and reward all who provide beneficial labor, including nature; not those who exploit it to get rich.

Life depends on the labor of nature and people. Too often, the current economic system rewards those claiming ownership rather than those performing useful labor. Instead we should follow the model set by traditional societies, in which we earn our share in the surplus of the commons through our labor in service of it. Much of the current economy’s dysfunction can be overcome by eliminating the division of society between owners and workers—a problem corrected throughworker ownership combined with an ethical frame that recognizes our well-being depends on much more than just financial return.

Principle 4: Create society’s money supply through a transparent public process to advance the common good; not through proprietary processes that grow the profits of for-profit banks.

In a modern society, those who control the creation and allocation of money control the lives of everyone. It defies reason to assume that society benefits from giving this power to global for-profit banks dedicated to maximizing profits for the already richest among us. The system of money creation and allocation must be public, transparent, and accountable to the people. It must reside in democratic governments and be administered by public banks supplemented by individual community-owned, cooperative banks whose lending supports local home and business ownership.

Principle 5: Educate for a lifetime of learning in service to life-seeking communities; not for service to for-profit corporations.

Most university economics courses currently promote societal psychopathology as a human ideal and give legitimacy to institutions that serve only to make money, without regard for the common good. We must prepare youth for future leadership that builds on a moral foundation that recognizes our responsibility for one another and Earth, favors cooperation over competition, and prioritizes life over money and community well-being over corporate profits.

No one knows how to get where we now must go, and education cannot provide us with answers we do not have. Education can, however, prepare us to be lifelong learners, skilled in asking the right questions and in working together to find and share answers.

Principle 6: Create and apply technology only to serve life; not to displace or destroy it.

Technology must be life’s servant. Deciding how to apply technology based solely on what will produce the greatest short-term financial return is madness. Humans have the right and the means to assure that technology is used only to serve humanity as a whole, such as by eliminating destructive environmental impacts, restoring the regenerative capacity of Earth systems, facilitating global understanding, and advancing social justice, cooperation, and learning.

Principle 7: Organize as cooperative, inclusive, self-reliant, regenerative communities that share knowledge and technology to serve life; not as incorporated pools of money competing to grow by exploiting life.

We can meet our needs through constant cyclical flows of resources. That was our standard way of living until less than 100 years ago. We can do it again. Urban and rural dwellers can rediscover their interdependence as cities source food, timber, fiber, pulp, and recreational opportunities from nearby rural areas and rural areas regenerate their soils with biowastes from nearby urban areas and enjoy the benefits of urban culture. Suburbs can convert to urban or rural habitats.

Principle 8: Seek a mutually beneficial population balance between humans and Earth’s other species; not the dominance of humans over all others.

The health of any natural ecosystem depends on its ability to balance the populations of its varied species. This means maintaining free access to reproductive health care options and removing barriers to women in education and the workplace. Only starting from this point can we both maintain a free society and manage our population size.

The basic frame of 21st century economics contrasts sharply with that of the 20th century economics it must now displace. The new frame is far more complex and nuanced. Yet most people can readily grasp it because it is logical, consistent with foundational ethical principles, and reflects the reality that most people are kind, honest, find pleasure in helping others, and recognize that we all depend on the health of our Mother Earth.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.





Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

11 07 2019

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

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

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

Posted on July 10, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The situations behind these lagging growth rates vary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers play a double role in the economy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations and Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:

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





The need for a new Matrix…

9 04 2019

How many years have I been saying jobs are unsustainable? Here’s Tim Watkins explaining it better than me…

The (other) economic madness of the green new deal

Remind me again why you go to work in the morning?  Is it because you are so committed to the mission of your corporate employer that you would willingly work for nothing if they asked you to?  Does your job provide you with so high a degree of life-meaning and personal satisfaction that you would gladly do it in exchange for the minimum income required to feed and clothe yourself? 

No, I thought not.

For almost all of us, work is a means of obtaining money; and money is merely the means by which we are able to consume the goods and services we desire.

Now let me ask you a multiple choice question: why do you think that the oceans are currently so full of plastic that it has polluted the entire marine food chain?  Is it (a) because evil petrochemical companies simply dump plastic into the sea; or is it (b) because it is the inevitable product of mass consumption by 7.5 billion humans (especially those of us in developed states)?

Plastic pollution, along with all of the other fallouts from the globalised industrial economy, is the end consequence of our collective consumption of the goods and services that we desire.

The various versions of green new dealism that have hit the headlines recently have no alternative but to avoid both of these questions.  Instead, they reduce a human impact crisis – aka “the Anthropocene” or “the overshoot” crisis – to the single dimension of greenhouse gas emissions.  They then reduce the greenhouse gas emission crisis to a carbon dioxide crisis; which is further reduced to only the carbon dioxide emitted in the course of electricity generation.

The proposed solution – the mass deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels (and, tacitly, the grid infrastructure to support them) – has the primary aim of pulling the global economy out of the post-2008 doldrums by creating millions of new jobs.  Exactly how many new jobs has yet to be determined, although at least some proponents argue for a mobilisation on a par with the Second World War or landing humans on the Moon.  As Brian Murray at Forbes notes:

“Commentators have frequently compared the GND’s potential deployment to two examples from twentieth-century U.S. history that involved dramatic, rapid shifts: 1) the decision to send astronauts to the moon and 2) World War II.”

“The speed of progress toward the moonshot was staggering—and the effort was highly targeted, focusing on the specific technologies necessary to transport a single vehicle to and from the lunar landscape 240,000 miles away while keeping the occupants alive. At the height of the moon effort in 1966, relevant spending amounted to 0.7% of GDP.  In today’s dollars, that would be $150 billion.”

“By contrast, World War II consumed 35.8% of GDP at its peak (1945), an amount equal to $7.4 trillion today. The massive undertaking involved virtually every aspect of the economy. Over 17 percent of the work force was deployed in the armed forces and nearly five million women entered the work force (a 40 percent increase), many in place of men deployed overseas, to bolster domestic production to support war efforts.”

Murray argues that any attempt to implement the green new deal is likely to be closer to the Moon shot than the war.  Nevertheless, we are still talking about billions of dollars and millions of new construction jobs.  For Murray, the key economic problem here is that wind turbines and solar panels require very little labour to operate and maintain.  As a result, any jobs created would necessarily be temporary.  This, however is a secondary concern and is easily counter-critiqued by the proponents of green new dealism – the additional demand created in the wider economy by the new deal workers spending their wages will create a wider economic boom that will generate new jobs to employ these workers as the construction phase comes to an end.

Let us now revisit those awkward questions I posed at the beginning of this post.  What proportion of several millions of green new deal workers will be offering their labour for free?  What proportion will work in exchange for meals, clothing and a bed for the night?  Most will expect to be paid at least the minimum wage.  And if the promises of the green new dealers are to be realised, a large proportion of the jobs created will need to be high-skilled and high-paid.

Most workers do not simply save their wages every month.  Indeed, one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ observations which informed the original new dealism in the 1930s was that ordinary workers had a far greater propensity to spend than wealthier people.  That is, if someone who is currently only able to eat because of food stamps or a package from a foodbank is given a job at the current average wage – $56,500 (US) £28,600 (UK) – they are likely to spend almost all of it; whereas if the same average wage were given to the CEO of an international bank, they would be far more likely to save it.  So, from a demand point of view, creating lots of relatively well-paid jobs for people who are currently unemployed, underemployed or eking out a living on the minimum wage makes absolute economic sense.

Environmentally, not so much.  The technologies that the new jobs are created to deploy are intended to be greener than the technologies they replace – although they still necessarily involve fossil fuels in their manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance.  Nor – at least for now – are these technologies recyclable; indeed, solar panels contain toxic chemicals that prevent either recycling or landfill disposal.  And, of course, in the absence of seasonal grid-scale storage technologies nuclear baseload and gas stand-by capacity will continue to be needed to smooth out intermittency.  These, though, are again secondary problems.

The main issue that any green new deal has to overcome if it is to have any credibility is how we go about preventing millions of new workers from actually spending their additional income.  For all of its many flaws, one of the environmental benefits of quantitative easing since 2008 is that very little of the newly printed currency has seeped out into the real economy.  Most has been used for corporate share buy-backs or investment in various derivatives that do little to increase demand for goods and services across the real economy.  Indeed, this is one of the central criticisms of the current policies levelled by green new dealers.  Any green new deal, in contrast would be increasing global consumption of goods and services by billions – if not trillions – of dollars worldwide.  But mass consumption is precisely the cause of our environmental crisis in the first place.  Millions of new wage labourers are no less likely to purchase such things as single-use plastic containers, corn-fed beef, petrol cars and international travel than any of the current workforce.  The result is that as fast as the electricity generating industry is curbing carbon dioxide emissions, the manufacturing, transportation and industrialised agriculture sectors will be ramping up their emissions – and using up the planet’s remaining resources – to satisfy the new demand.

Far from being a means of sustaining a global economy built upon fossil fuels, a green new deal that creates new jobs and stimulates economic growth amounts to little more than a final blow-out binge before our once-and-done global economy comes crashing down around our ears.  The only means – assuming any is possible at this late stage – of mitigating the environmental catastrophe that is gathering pace around us is to engage in a managed process of de-growth (which may include some deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies) to create far smaller, localised and less consumptive economies than we have had for many decades.  By necessity, the process would also require a shrinking of the human population to a level in accordance both with what is sustainable and with the standard of living we consider acceptable – i.e., the more consumptive our lifestyles, the lower our life expectancy/birth rate will have to be.

This is not, of course, anything that is going to win votes at an election.  But any detailed examination of the environmental impact of millions of new workers spending their new wages on even more of the same patterns of consumption that have already brought our planet to the edge of extinction should – in any sane world – be no less acceptable.  It is a tribute to our propensity for denial that so many people regard green new dealism as an environmental good rather than the catastrophe it is likely to become.





2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

10 01 2019

Posted on January 9, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

Another incisive self explanatory article by Gail Tverberg explaining the recent volatility and what outcomes we can expect from that this coming year (and next) MUST READ.

Financial markets have been behaving in a very turbulent manner in the last couple of months. The issue, as I see it, is that the world economy is gradually changing from a growth mode to a mode of shrinkage. This is something like a ship changing course, from going in one direction to going in reverse. The system acts as if the brakes are being very forcefully applied, and reaction of the economy is to almost shake.

What seems to be happening is that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as predicted in the computer simulations modeled in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. In fact, the base model of that set of simulations indicated that peak industrial output per capita might be reached right about now. Peak food per capita might be reached about the same time. I have added a dotted line to the forecast from this model, indicating where the economy seems to be in 2019, relative to the base model.

Figure 1. Base scenario from The Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil with dotted line at 2019 added by author. The 2019 line is drawn based on where the world economy seems to be now, rather than on precisely where the base model would put the year 2019.

The economy is a self-organizing structure that operates under the laws of physics. Many people have thought that when the world economy reaches limits, the limits would be of the form of high prices and “running out” of oil. This represents an overly simple understanding of how the system works. What we should really expect, and in fact, what we are now beginning to see, is production cuts in finished goods made by the industrial system, such as cell phones and automobiles, because of affordability issues. Indirectly, these affordability issues lead to low commodity prices and low profitability for commodity producers. For example:

  • The sale of Chinese private passenger vehicles for the year of 2018 through November is down by 2.8%, with November sales off by 16.1%. Most analysts are forecasting this trend of contracting sales to continue into 2019. Lower sales seem to reflect affordability issues.
  • Saudi Arabia plans to cut oil production by 800,000 barrels per day from the November 2018 level, to try to raise oil prices. Profits are too low at current prices.
  • Coal is reported not to have an economic future in Australia, partly because of competition from subsidized renewables and partly because China and India want to prop up the prices of coal from their own coal mines.

The Significance of Trump’s Tariffs

If a person looks at history, it becomes clear that tariffs are a standard response to a problem of shrinking food or industrial output per capita. Tariffs were put in place in the 1920s in the time leading up to the Great Depression, and were investigated after the Panic of 1857, which seems to have indirectly led to the US Civil War.

Whenever an economy produces less industrial or food output per capita there is an allocation problem: who gets cut off from buying output similar to the amount that they previously purchased? Tariffs are a standard way that a relatively strong economy tries to gain an advantage over weaker economies. Tariffs are intended to help the citizens of the strong economy maintain their previous quantity of goods and services, even as other economies are forced to get along with less.

I see Trump’s trade policies primarily as evidence of an underlying problem, namely, the falling affordability of goods and services for a major segment of the population. Thus, Trump’s tariffs are one of the pieces of evidence that lead me to believe that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth.

The Nature of World Economic Growth

Economic growth seems to require growth in three dimensions (a) Complexity, (b) Debt Bubble, and (c) Use of Resources. Today, the world economy seems to be reaching limits in all three of these dimensions (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Complexity involves adding more technology, more international trade and more specialization. Its downside is that it indirectly tends to reduce affordability of finished end products because of growing wage disparity; many non-elite workers have wages that are too low to afford very much of the output of the economy. As more complexity is added, wage disparity tends to increase. International wage competition makes the situation worse.

growing debt bubble can help keep commodity prices up because a rising amount of debt can indirectly provide more demand for goods and services. For example, if there is growing debt, it can be used to buy homes, cars, and vacation travel, all of which require oil and other energy consumption.

If debt levels become too high, or if regulators decide to raise short-term interest rates as a method of slowing the economy, the debt bubble is in danger of collapsing. A collapsing debt bubble tends to lead to recession and falling commodity prices. Commodity prices fell dramatically in the second half of 2008. Prices now seem to be headed downward again, starting in October 2018.

Figure 3. Brent oil prices with what appear to be debt bubble collapses marked.

Figure 4. Three-month treasury secondary market rates compared to 10-year treasuries from FRED, with points where short term interest rates exceed long term rates marked by author with arrows.

Even the relatively slow recent rise in short-term interest rates (Figure 4) seems to be producing a decrease in oil prices (Figure 3) in a way that a person might expect from a debt bubble collapse. The sale of US Quantitative Easing assets at the same time that interest rates have been rising no doubt adds to the problem of falling oil prices and volatile stock markets. The gray bars in Figure 4 indicate recessions.

Growing use of resources becomes increasingly problematic for two reasons. One is population growth. As population rises, the economy needs more food to feed the growing population. This leads to the need for more complexity (irrigation, better seed, fertilizer, world trade) to feed the growing world population.

The other problem with growing use of resources is diminishing returns, leading to the rising cost of extracting commodities over time. Diminishing returns occur because producers tend to extract the cheapest to extract commodities first, leaving in place the commodities requiring deeper wells or more processing. Even water has this difficulty. At times, desalination, at very high cost, is needed to obtain sufficient fresh water for a growing population.

Why Inadequate Energy Supplies Lead to Low Oil Prices Rather than High

In the last section, I discussed the cost of producing commodities of many kinds rising because of diminishing returns. Higher costs should lead to higher prices, shouldn’t they?

Strangely enough, higher costs translate to higher prices only sometimes. When energy consumption per capita is rising rapidly (peaks of red areas on Figure 5), rising costs do seem to translate to rising prices. Spiking oil prices were experienced several times: 1917 to 1920; 1974 to 1982; 2004 to mid 2008; and 2011 to 2014. All of these high oil prices occurred toward the end of the red peaks on Figure 5. In fact, these high oil prices (as well as other high commodity prices that tend to rise at the same time as oil prices) are likely what brought growth in energy consumption down. The prices of goods and services made with these commodities became unaffordable for lower-wage workers, indirectly decreasing the growth rate in energy products consumed.

Figure 5.

The red peaks represented periods of very rapid growth, fed by growing supplies of very cheap energy: coal and hydroelectricity in the Electrification and Early Mechanization period, oil in the Postwar Boom, and coal in the China period. With low energy prices,  many countries were able to expand their economies simultaneously, keeping demand high. The Postwar Boom also reflected the addition of many women to the labor force, increasing the ability of families to afford second cars and nicer homes.

Rapidly growing energy consumption allowed per capita output of both food (with meat protein given a higher count than carbohydrates) and industrial products to grow rapidly during these peaks. The reason that output of these products could grow is because the laws of physics require energy consumption for heat, transportation, refrigeration and other processes required by industrialization and farming. In these boom periods, higher energy costs were easy to pass on. Eventually the higher energy costs “caught up with” the economy, and pushed growth in energy consumption per capita down, putting an end to the peaks.

Figure 6 shows Figure 5 with the valleys labeled, instead of the peaks.

Figure 6.

When I say that the world economy is reaching “peak industrial output per capita” and “peak food per capita,” this represents the opposite of a rapidly growing economy. In fact, if the world is reaching Limits to Growth, the situation is even worse than all of the labeled valleys on Figure 6. In such a case, energy consumption growth is likely to shrink so low that even the blue area (population growth) turns negative.

In such a situation, the big problem is “not enough to go around.” While cost increases due to diminishing returns could easily be passed along when growth in industrial and food output per capita were rapidly rising (the Figure 5 situation), this ability seems to disappear when the economy is near limits. Part of the problem is that the lower growth in per capita energy affects the kinds of jobs that are available. With low energy consumption growth, many of the jobs that are available are service jobs that do not pay well. Wage disparity becomes an increasing problem.

When wage disparity grows, the share of low wage workers rises. If businesses try to pass along their higher costs of production, they encounter market resistance because lower wage workers cannot afford the finished goods made with high cost energy products. For example, auto and iPhone sales in China decline. The lack of Chinese demand tends to lead to a drop in demand for the many commodities used in manufacturing these goods, including both energy products and metals. Because there is very little storage capacity for commodities, a small decline in demand tends to lead to quite a large decline in prices. Even a small decline in China’s demand for energy products can lead to a big decline in oil prices.

Strange as it may seem, the economy ends up with low oil prices, rather than high oil prices, being the problem. Other commodity prices tend to be low as well.

What Is Ahead, If We Are Reaching Economic Growth Limits?

1. Figure 1 at the top of this post seems to give an indication of what is ahead after 2019, but this forecast cannot be relied on. A major issue is that the limited model used at that time did not include the financial system or debt. Even if the model seems to provide a reasonably accurate estimate of when limits will hit, it won’t necessarily give a correct view of what the impact of limits will be on the rest of the economy, after limits hit. The authors, in fact, have said that the model should not be expected to provide reliable indications regarding how the economy will behave after limits have started to have an impact on economic output.

2. As indicated in the title of this post, considerable financial volatility can be expected in 2019if the economy is trying to slow itself. Stock prices will be erratic; interest rates will be erratic; currency relativities will tend to bounce around. The likelihood that derivatives will cause major problems for banks will rise because derivatives tend to assume more stability in values than now seems to be the case. Increasing problems with derivatives raises the risk of bank failure.

3. The world economy doesn’t necessarily fail all at once. Instead, pieces that are, in some sense, “less efficient” users of energy may shrink back. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the countries that seemed to be most affected were countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy that depend on oil for a disproportionately large share of their total energy consumption. China and India, with energy mixes dominated by coal, were much less affected.

Figure 7. Oil consumption as a percentage of total energy consumption, based on 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 8. Energy consumption per capita for selected areas, based on energy consumption data from 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy and United Nations 2017 Population Estimates by Country.

In the 2002-2008 period, oil prices were rising faster than prices of other fossil fuels. This tended to make countries using a high share of oil in their energy mix less competitive in the world market. The low labor costs of China and India gave these countries another advantage. By the end of 2007, China’s energy consumption per capita had risen to a point where it almost matched the (now lower) energy consumption of the European countries shown. China, with its low energy costs, seems to have “eaten the lunch” of some of its European competitors.

In 2019 and the years that follow, some countries may fare at least somewhat better than others. The United States, for now, seems to be faring better than many other parts of the world.

4. While we have been depending upon China to be a leader in economic growth, China’s growth is already faltering and may turn to contraction in the near future. One reason is an energy problem: China’s coal production has fallen because many of its coal mines have been closed due to lack of profitability. As a result, China’s need for imported energy (difference between black line and top of energy production stack) has been growing rapidly. China is now the largest importer of oil, coal, and natural gas in the world. It is very vulnerable to tariffs and to lack of available supplies for import.

Figure 9. China energy production by fuel plus its total energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 data.

A second issue is that demographics are working against China; its working-age population already seems to be shrinking. A third reason why China is vulnerable to economic difficulties is because of its growing debt level. Debt becomes difficult to repay with interest if the economy slows.

5. Oil exporters such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria have become vulnerable to government overthrow or collapse because of low world oil prices since 2014. If the central government of one or more of these exporters disappears, it is possible that the pieces of the country will struggle along, producing a lower amount of oil, as Libya has done in recent years. It is also possible that another larger country will attempt to take over the failing production of the country and secure the output for itself.

6. Epidemics become increasingly likely, especially in countries with serious financial problems, such as Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela. Historically, much of the decrease in population in countries with collapsing economies has come from epidemics. Of course, epidemics can spread across national boundaries, exporting the problems elsewhere.

7. Resource wars become increasingly likely. These can be local wars, perhaps over the availability of water. They can also be large, international wars. The timing of World War I and World War II make it seem likely that these wars were both resource wars.

Figure 10.

8. Collapsing intergovernmental agencies, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund, seem likely. The United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union in 2019 is a step toward dissolving the European Union.

9. Privately funded pension funds will increasingly be subject to default because of continued low interest rates. Some governments may choose to cut back the amounts they provide to pensioners because governments cannot collect adequate tax revenue for this purpose. Some countries may purposely shut down parts of their governments, in an attempt to hold down government spending.

10. A far worse and more permanent recession than that of the Great Recession seems likely because of the difficulty in repaying debt with interest in a shrinking economy. It is not clear when such a recession will start. It could start later in 2019, or perhaps it may wait until 2020. As with the Great Recession, some countries will be affected more than others. Eventually, because of the interconnected nature of financial systems, all countries are likely to be drawn in.

Summary

It is not entirely clear exactly what is ahead if we are reaching Limits to Growth. Perhaps that is for the best. If we cannot do anything about it, worrying about the many details of what is ahead is not the best for anyone’s mental health. While it is possible that this is an end point for the human race, this is not certain, by any means. There have been many amazing coincidences over the past 4 billion years that have allowed life to continue to evolve on this planet. More of these coincidences may be ahead. We also know that humans lived through past ice ages. They likely can live through other kinds of adversity, including worldwide economic collapse.





Big Picture article

14 12 2018

It’s so nice reading an article that joins the dots….  I get so sick of people concentrating on one issue or another, ignoring everything else troubling civilisation.  From Consciousness of Sheep, who else….?

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.

Two far greater symptoms of our predicament have gained at least some public traction this year.  First was an all too visible plastic pollution crisis that is increasingly difficult to ignore now that China has ceased acting as the West’s rubbish dump.  Second is the somewhat less visible insect apocalypse that has seen the near extinction of a raft of pollinating insect species; without which we humans are doomed to starvation.  Interestingly, while these two symptoms are only tenuously related to climate change, they have tended to be included under that shorthand heading.  Plastic certainly damages the environment, but its build up owes far more to the ongoing power of the petrochemicals industry and the myth of recyclingthan to changes in climate.  The same goes for the insects.  While there may have been some climactic impact on migrations and reproduction, the main cause is the vast quantities of chemical insecticides required by an industrialised agriculture tasked with feeding 7.5 billion humans on a planet that could barely feed one seventh of that without fossil fuels and agrochemicals.

In the affected areas, local populations have been stunned by a series of “red tide” events that result in the mass deaths of fish and other marine creatures.  Climate change is indirectly involved in these events because of the increased rainfall from warmer storms.  But once again it is our industrial agriculture that is the primary cause – the giant oxygen-free zones beneath algae and phytoplankton blooms that form because of artificial fertilisers washed off the land when it rains.  When marine creatures stray into these oxygen-free zones (which are pinkish-red in colour due to concentrated hydrogen sulphide) they suffocate before they can swim to safety.

Off most people’s radar is the ongoing sixth mass extinction, as we lose thousands of species every year.  Again, while some of this is directly due to the changing climate, the larger part is due to human activities like agriculture, deforestation and strip mining simply chewing up natural habitats to make way for the creation of the various resources – including food – required to sustain a human population that is projected to reach 10 billion by mid-century.

The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.

This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.

To be clear, since 1980 the western economic system has inflated a series of asset bubbles, each of which has subsumed and outgrown its predecessor.  In the 1980s companies bailed out failing companies to save themselves.  In the 1990s stock markets bailed out companies to save stock markets.  In the 2000s banks bailed out stock markets and then states and central banks bailed out banks.  Next time around it will be states and currencies that need bailing out.  And in the absence of space aliens, it is not clear who is going to be riding to the rescue.  What that means, dear reader, is that everything you depend upon (but didn’t know it) for life support – inter-bank lending systems, letters of credit and freight insurance, international trade arrangements, employment, state pensions, etc.  – is going to go away (at least until some kind of debt-write-off (either directly or via “helicopter money”) and a new currency system can be put into place.

The other legacy from this period of debt-based asset inflation is a series of grossly unequal societies; divided, ultimately, between those who get to spend the (uninflated) debt-based currency first and those (the 99 percent) who only get the currency after its value has been inflated away – primarily those who depend upon a wage/salary from employment rather than an income from shares and other investments.  Most people accept some inequality.  However a lack of economic growth (outside banking and tech) has created deep hostility to those political parties that cling to the pre-2008 neoliberal orthodoxy.  The result has been a growth in populist movements claiming to know how to restore the economy to rates of growth last seen in the 1990s.  Political economist Mark Blyth summed up the difference between the left and right wing variants of populism thus:

  • The right says neoliberalism ruined the economy and immigrants took your jobs
  • The left says neoliberalism ruined the economy and capitalists took your jobs.

Needless to say – as the boy Macron is learning to his cost – now is not a happy time to be a neoliberal politician.  The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.

Most green growth advocates imagine a switch from extraction and manufacturing to (largely digital) services that will somehow decouple resource and energy growth from GDP.  That is, we can all continue to prosper even as our use of planetary resources falls back to something like the amounts consumed in the 1750s.  Writing in Resilience, Jason Hickel gives the lie to this:

“This sounds reasonable on the face of it. But services have grown dramatically in recent decades, as a proportion of world GDP — and yet global material use has not only continued to rise, but has accelerated, outstripping the rate of GDP growth. In other words, there has been no dematerialization of economic activity, despite a shift to services.

“The same is true of high-income nations as a group — and this despite the increasing contribution that services make to GDP growth in these economies. Indeed, while high-income nations have the highest share of services in terms of contribution to GDP, they also have the highest rates of resource consumption per capita. By far.

“Why is this? Partly because services require resource-intensive inputs (cinemas and gyms are hardly made out of air). And partly also because the income acquired from the service sector is used to purchase resource-intensive consumer goods (you might get your income from working in a cinema, but you use it to buy TVs and cars and beef).”

And, of course, without the income derived from making all of that stuff for service providers to consume, nobody can afford to buy the services and the economy will collapse.  Not that anyone has noticed this for now, as we are descend into the politics of blame in which widening inequality and poverty at the bottom is blamed on one or other of a culture’s preferred out groups – Tories, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, migrants, the banks, the European Union, Israel, Angela Merkel, the Rothschild family, Donald Trump… choose your favourite pantomime villain; but don’t expect to be going anywhere but down.

Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.





Are Gilets Jaunes the new guillotine?

8 12 2018

POPULAR UNREST IN AN AGE OF FALLING PROSPERITY

Between my French origins and the opinions expressed within this little blog, I have taken more than a passing interest in the events happening in France, especially when it’s fuelled by passionate and restless wwoofers who come from there too! As you will or should know, I believe the real economy runs on energy, not money, and surplus energy in particular…… as a result, I have been following Tim Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics blog for a while, which I would encourage you all to follow too. This is Tim’s latest gem, which proves that when you do the math…….  the truth comes out!

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This weekend, the authorities plan to field 89,000 police officers across France in response to anticipated further mass protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’. In the capital, the Eiffel Tower will be closed and armoured cars deployed, whilst restaurateurs and shopkeepers are being urged to close their businesses at one of the most important times of their trading year.

Though the government has climbed down on the original cause célèbre – the rises in fuel taxes planned for next year – there seems to be no reduction in the worst protests experienced in the country since the 1960s. Reports suggest that as many as 70% of French citizens support the protestors, and that the movement may be spreading to Belgium and the Netherlands.

For the outside observer, the most striking features of the protests in France have been the anger clearly on display, and the rapid broadening of the campaign from fuel prices to a wider range of issues including wages, the cost of living and taxation.

The disturbances in France should be seen in a larger context. In France itself, Emmanuel Macron was elected president only after voters had repudiated all established political parties. Italians have entrusted their government to an insurgent coalition which is on a clear collision-course with the European Union over budgetary matters. The British have voted to leave the EU, and Americans have elected to the White House a man dismissed by ‘experts’ as a “joke candidate” throughout his campaign.

Obviously, something very important is going on – why?

Does economics explain popular anger?

There are, essentially, two different ways in which the events in France and beyond can be interpreted, and how you look at them depends a great deal on how you see the economic situation.

If you subscribe to the conventional and consensus interpretation, economic issues would seem to play only a supporting role in the wave of popular unrest sweeping much of the West. You would concede that the seemingly preferential treatment of a tiny minority of the very rich has angered the majority, and that some economic tendencies – amongst them, diminishing security of employment – have helped fuel popular unrest.

Beyond this, though, you would note that economies are continuing to grow, and this would force you to look for explanations outside the purely economic sphere. From this, you might conclude that ‘agitators’, from the right or left of the political spectrum, might be playing a part analogous to the role of “populist” politicians in fomenting public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy professed here, your view of the situation would concentrate firmly on economic issues.

Though GDP per capita may be continuing to improve, the same cannot be said of prosperity. According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), personal prosperity in France has deteriorated by 7% since 2000, a trend starkly at variance with the growth (of 12%) in reported GDP over the same period.

Not only is the average French person poorer now than he or she was back in 2000, but each person’s share of the aggregate of household, business and government debt has increased by almost 70% since 2000. These findings are summarised in the following table, sourced from SEEDS.

France prosperity snapshot

Two main factors explain the divergence between the conventional and the surplus energy interpretations of the economy. One of these is the pouring of enormous quantities of cheap debt and cheap money into the system, a process which boosts recorded GDP without improving prosperity (for the obvious reason that you can’t become more prosperous just by spending borrowed money). The other is the exponential rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), a process which impacts prosperity by reducing the share of output which can be used for all purposes other than the supply of energy itself.

In France, and with all sums expressed in euros at constant 2017 values, GDP grew by 23% between 2000 and 2017. But this growth, whilst adding €433bn to GDP, was accompanied by a €3.07tn increase in aggregate debt. This means that each €1 of reported growth in the French economy has come at a cost of more than €7 in net new debt. Put another way, whilst French GDP is growing at between 1.5% and 2.0%, annual borrowing is running at about 9.5% of GDP.

Cutting to the chase here, SEEDS concludes that very little (about €100bn) of the reported €433bn rise in GDP since 2000 has been sustainable and organic, with the rest being a simple function of the spending of borrowed money. Shorn of this credit effect, underlying or clean GDP per capita is lower now (at €29,550) than it was in 2000 (€30,777).

Meanwhile, trend ECoE in France is put at 7.8%. Though by no means the worst amongst comparable economies, this nevertheless represents a relentless increase, rising from 4.6% back in 2000. At the individual or household level, rising ECoE is experienced primarily in higher costs of household essentials. In the aggregate, ECoE acts as an economic rentdeduction from clean GDP.

Between 2000 and 2017, clean GDP itself increased by only 5.7%, and the rise in ECoE left French aggregate prosperity only marginally (2.2%) higher in 2017 than it was back in 2000. Over that same period, population numbers increased by 10%, meaning that prosperity per person is 7.1% lowernow than it was at the millennium.

In France, as elsewhere, the use of credit and monetary adventurism in an effort to deliver “growth” has added markedly to the aggregate debt burden, which is €3.1tn (86%) higher now than it was in 2000. The per capita equivalent has climbed by 69%, making the average person €41,800 (69%) more indebted than he or she was back in 2000.

The prosperity powder-keg

Gilets Jaunes Acte 3 – Samedi 1er Décembre – Perpignan

To summarise, then, we can state the economic circumstances of the average French citizen as follows.

First, and despite a rise in official GDP per capita, his or her personal prosperity is 7.1% (€2,095) lower now than it was as long ago as 2000.

Second, he or she has per capita debt of €102,200, up from €60,400 back in 2000.

Third, the deterioration in prosperity has been experienced most obviously in costs of household essentials, which have outpaced both wages and headline CPI inflation over an extended period.

This is the context in which we need to place changes in the workplace, and a perceived widening in inequality.

On this latter point, part of the explanation for the anger manifested in France can be grasped from this chart, published by the Institut des Politiques Publiques.

In the current budget, policy changes hurt the disposable incomes of the poorest 10% or so (on the left of the scale), but ought to be welcomed by most of the rest – and perhaps might be, were it not for the huge handouts seemingly being given to the very wealthiest. Moreover, these benefits aren’t being conferred on a large swathe of “the rich”, but accrue only to the wealthiest percentile.

French budget 2

This is part of a pattern visible throughout much of the West. Unfortunately, perceptions of hand-outs to a tiny minority of the super-rich have arisen in tandem with a deteriorating sense of security. Security is a multi-faceted concept, which extends beyond security of employment to embrace prosperity, wages, living costs and public services.

Even in the euphoric period immediately following his election, it seemed surprising that French voters would back as president a man committed to ‘reform’ of French labour laws, a process likely to reduce workers’ security of employment. Add in further deterioration in prosperity, and an apparent favouring of the super-rich, and the ingredients for disaffection become pretty obvious.

Where next?

The interpretation set out here strongly indicates that protests are unlikely to die down just because the government has made some concessions over fuel taxes – the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement might have found its catalyst in diesel prices, but now embraces much wider sources of discontent.

Given the context of deteriorating prosperity, it’s hard to see how the government can respond effectively. Even the imposition of swingeing new taxes on the super-rich – a wildly unlikely initiative in any case – might not suffice to assuage popular anger. It seems likelier that the authorities will ramp up law enforcement efforts in a bid to portray the demonstrators as extremists. The scale of apparent support for the movement – if not for some of its wilder excesses – suggests that such an approach is unlikely to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the French predicament is by no means unique. Deteriorating prosperity, a sense of reduced security and resentment about the perceived favouring of the super-rich are pan-European trends.

In the longer term, trends both in prosperity and in politics suggest that the West’s incumbent elites are fighting a rear-guard action. The credibility of their market economics mantra suffered severe damage in 2008, when market forces were not allowed to run to their logical conclusions, the result being a widespread perception that the authorities responded to the global financial crisis with rescues for “the rich” and “austerity” for everyone else.

This problem is exacerbated by the quirks of the euro system. In times past, a country like Italy would have responded to hardship by devaluation, which would have protected employment at the cost of gradual increases in the cost of living. Denied this option, weaker Euro Area countries – meaning most of them – have been forced into a process of internal devaluation, which in practice means reducing costs (and, principally, wages) in a way popularly labelled “austerity”. The combination of a single monetary policy with a multiplicity of sovereign budget processes was always an exercise in economic illiteracy, and the lack of automatic stabilisers within the euro system is a further grave disadvantage.

Finally, the challenge posed by deteriorating prosperity is made much worse by governments’ lack of understanding of what is really happening to the economy. If you were to believe that rising GDP per capita equates to improving prosperity – and if you further believed that ultra-low rates mean that elevated debt is nothing to worry about – you might really fail to understand what millions of ordinary people are so upset about.

After all, as somebody might once have said, they can always eat brioche.