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.


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.


It’s Too Late to Brace for Impact

14 12 2018

Here, in the 18th year of the New Millennium, the 28th Year of Our Internet (delivering unlimited information to all), and the 30th year of the Great Harangue over Climate Change (dating it from James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate), this is where we are:

  • The world’s emissions of greenhouse gases — the kinds of pollution that trap solar radiation like greenhouse windows and heat the climate — not only increased in 2018, but increased faster, setting a new all time record — despite the wildly hyped growth of “renewable” energy sources — according to two new studies published last week. Scientists said the emissions’ growth and the resulting acceleration of climate change, resembles a “speeding freight train.”  
  • The world’s people bought more cars, and drove them farther, in 2018 than in any year in history, driving oil consumption up for the fifth consecutive year despite the advent of hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • In November the Trump White House published findings by 13 Federal agencies and hundreds of scientists concluding that climate change is well under way and will cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. Never mind the millions of deaths, the migrations, the homelessness, the dislocations — we have to put a dollar value on it to pay any attention to it. Asked what he thought of the report, President Trump said “I don’t believe it.”
  • In October the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an alarming report warning that greenhouse gas emissions are rising so fast that they will cause widespread food shortages, wildfires, coastal flooding and population displacement, not by the end of the century, but by 2040. One of the latest studies — the “speeding freight train” one — says all those effects may be seen by 2030. That would be just over 11 years from now
  • Last week, the Climate Change Conference meeting in Poland — this is among other things the conference of 200 nations that agreed to and is trying to implement the Paris Agreement on how to combat climate change — refused to adopt the October IPCC report on objections by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait. Thus what one major international UN organization had concluded about the facts of climate change were deliberately ignored by another major international UN organization working on climate change.
  • Last week, France cancelled a planned increase in taxation of fossil fuels, part of a four year effort to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. Carbon taxes have long been advocated as one of the few effective things government could to to reduce emissions. The prospect of this tax ignited violent protests by thousands of so-called “yellow vest” demonstrators who threatened to destabilize the country, and continue to do so after the cancellation of the fuel tax.  

The secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, told the climate change conference in Poland now in session, “We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change.” He went on to say, as hundreds of scientists and bureaucrats before him have said, that we are not doing enough. But he’s dead wrong about that. We are not doing anything. We are making it worse, faster. In part by jetting hundreds and thousands of people hither and yon around the world to conduct endless air-conditioned meetings on what we might think about doing, if we were ever going to do anything.  

Here’s how I would put it: forget Brace for Impact, it’s way too late for that. What we need to do now, collectively, is bend over, take a firm grip on our knees, and …. well, you know the rest.

From Tom Lewis’ Brace for Impact website….

Interesting times ahead…..

29 11 2018

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

Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil Prices Cannot Rise Endlessly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Situation with Oil Prices

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

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

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

Affordability Issues Affect All Commodity Prices, Not Just Oil

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

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

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

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

Interest Rate Policies Affect Affordability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting times seem to be ahead.

Italy and energy: a case study

22 10 2018

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


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

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

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

Primary data from World Bank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

12 10 2018

Jeremy LentJeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.


In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than doubleby mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecologypractices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.


28 09 2018


Ian Lowe

Professor Ian Lowe

August 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr Jonathon Sobels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 09 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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