Blindspots and Superheroes

14 05 2017

I haven’t heard much from Nate Hagens in recent times, but when he does come out of the woodwork, his communications skills certainly come through….. We who follow the collapse of the world as we know it probably know most of what’s in this admirable presentation, but it is absolutely captivating, and you will learn something new, or see it in a different perspective. It’s an hour and twenty minutes long (I actually drove down town to use the library’s free wi-fi to download it, my mobile phone data allowance won’t stretch to a quarter Gig for one video!), so make yourself a cup of your favourite poison, and enjoy the show……

Nathan John Hagens is a former Wall Street analyst, turned college professor and systems-science advocate. Nate has an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources/Energy from the University of Vermont. He is on the Boards of Post Carbon Institute, Institute for Integrated Economic Research, and Institute for the Study of Energy and our Future. He teaches a class at the University of Minnesota called “Reality 101 – A Survey of the Human Predicament”.

Nate, partnering with environmental strategist DJ White, has created the “Bottleneck Foundation”, a nonprofit initiative designed to help steer towards better human and ecological futures than would otherwise be attained. The “Bottlenecks” are the cultural, biological, and technological challenges which will arise as energy and terrestrial biomass begin their long fall back toward sustainable-flow baselines this century. The “Foundation” part of the name is a tip of the hat to Asimov’s “Foundation” series of novels, about an organization designed to mitigate the negative effects of societal simplification. BF is dedicated to making “synthesis science” accessible to a new generation of engaged people, through educational materials and projects which demonstrate that reality is a lot different from our culture currently thinks it is.





Electric Cars and Happy Motoring

6 05 2017

KMO reads a question from Eric Boyd about the transition from fossil fuels to a transportation infrastructure built around solar power from suburban rooftops and autonomous electric cars. John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, Chris Martenson, Frank Morris, Kevin Lynn and James Howard Kunstler all give their reasons for dismissing Eric’s vision as wishful thinking……….





Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it

23 04 2017

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Time to get off the economic growth train?
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

What does genuine economic progress look like? The orthodox answer is that a bigger economy is always better, but this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, the economy can’t grow for ever. The Conversation

This week’s Addicted to Growth conference in Sydney is exploring how to move beyond growth economics and towards a “steady-state” economy.

But what is a steady-state economy? Why it is it desirable or necessary? And what would it be like to live in?

The global predicament

We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming more resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is likely to increase the burden on ecosystems still further.

Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Degrowth to a steady-state economy

The idea of the steady-state economy presents us with an alternative. This term is somewhat misleading, however, because it suggests that we simply need to maintain the size of the existing economy and stop seeking further growth.

But given the extent of ecological overshoot – and bearing in mind that the poorest nations still need some room to develop their economies and allow the poorest billions to attain a dignified level of existence – the transition will require the richest nations to downscale radically their resource and energy demands.

This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “degrowth”. To be distinguished from recession, degrowth means a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.

In a world of 7.2 billion and counting, we need to think hard about our fair share.
Karpov Oleg/Shutterstock

At this point, mainstream economists will accuse degrowth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. Everyone knows that we could produce and consume more efficiently than we do today. The problem is that efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

Despite decades of extraordinary technological advancement and huge efficiency improvements, the energy and resource demands of the global economy are still increasing. This is because within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than in reducing impact.

This is the defining, critical flaw in growth economics: the false assumption that all economies across the globe can continue growing while radically reducing environmental impact to a sustainable level. The extent of decoupling required is simply too great. As we try unsuccessfully to “green” capitalism, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.

The very lifestyles that were once considered the definition of success are now proving to be our greatest failure. Attempting to universalise affluence would be catastrophic. There is absolutely no way that today’s 7.2 billion people could live the Western way of life, let alone the 11 billion expected in the future. Genuine progress now lies beyond growth. Tinkering around the edges of capitalism will not cut it.

We need an alternative.

Enough for everyone, forever

When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress. Not so.

Degrowth would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess. We simply don’t need so much stuff – certainly not if it comes at the cost of planetary health, social justice, and personal well-being. Consumerism is a gross failure of imagination, a debilitating addiction that degrades nature and doesn’t even satisfy the universal human craving for meaning.

Do we really need to buy all this stuff anyway?
Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

Degrowth, by contrast, would involve embracing what has been termed the “simpler way” – producing and consuming less.

This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions – a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty.

The lifestyle implications of degrowth and sufficiency are far more radical than the “light green” forms of sustainable consumption that are widely discussed today. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, and recycling are all necessary parts of what sustainability will require of us, but these measures are far from enough.

But this does not mean we must live a life of painful sacrifice. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.

What would life be like in a degrowth society?

In a degrowth society we would aspire to localise our economies as far and as appropriately as possible. This would assist with reducing carbon-intensive global trade, while also building resilience in the face of an uncertain and turbulent future.

Through forms of direct or participatory democracy we would organise our economies to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then redirect our energies away from economic expansion. This would be a relatively low-energy mode of living that ran primarily on renewable energy systems.

Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.

We would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our simplicity, we would be rich.

Wherever possible, we would grow our own organic food, water our gardens with water tanks, and turn our neighbourhoods into edible landscapes as the Cubans have done in Havana. As my friend Adam Grubb so delightfully declares, we should “eat the suburbs”, while supplementing urban agriculture with food from local farmers’ markets.

Community gardens, like this one in San Francisco, can help achieve sufficiency.
Kevin Krejci/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

We do not need to purchase so many new clothes. Let us mend or exchange the clothes we have, buy second-hand, or make our own. In a degrowth society, the fashion and marketing industries would quickly wither away. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes.

We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.

But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful, even if it will also entail times of trial. The apparent scarcity of goods can also be greatly reduced by scaling up the sharing economy, which would also enrich our communities.

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as leading permaculturalist David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited.

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive.

Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

Making the change

A degrowth transition to a steady-state economy could happen in a variety of ways. But the nature of this alternative vision suggests that the changes will need to be driven from the “bottom up”, rather than imposed from the “top down”.

What I have written above highlights a few of the personal and household aspects of a degrowth society based on sufficiency (for much more detail, see here and here). Meanwhile, the ‘transition towns’ movement shows how whole communities can engage with the idea.

But it is critical to acknowledge the social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to re-imagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that “nice stuff” is the key to happiness.

Actions at the personal and household levels will never be enough, on their own, to achieve a steady-state economy. We need to create new, post-capitalist structures and systems that promote, rather than inhibit, the simpler way of life. These wider changes will never emerge, however, until we have a culture that demands them. So first and foremost, the revolution that is needed is a revolution in consciousness.

I do not present these ideas under the illusion that they will be readily accepted. The ideology of growth clearly has a firm grip on our society and beyond. Rather, I hold up degrowth up as the most coherent framework for understanding the global predicament and signifying the only desirable way out of it.

The alternative is to consume ourselves to death under the false banner of “green growth”, which would not be smart economics.

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Your Oil wake up call.

8 04 2017

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Ted Trainer

My old mate Ted Trainer has for decades been a limits to growth advocate. Ted lectured in limits to growth and other subjects during a long teaching career at the University of New South Wales. He is author of a number of books on living in a simpler way, including the book that changed my life, Abandon Affluence…… here is his latest offering.

ALMOST NO ONE has the slightest grasp of the oil crunch that will hit them, probably within a decade. When it does it will literally mean the end of the world as we know it. Here is an outline of what recent publications are telling us. Nobody will, of course, take any notice.

It is gradually being understood that the amount of oil reserves and increases in them due to, for instance, fracking, is of little significance and that what matters is their EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested). If you found a vast amount of oil, but to deliver a barrel of it you would need to use as much energy as there is in a barrel of oil, then there would be no point drilling the field.

When oil was first discovered the EROI in producing it was over 100/1. But Murphy (2013) estimates that by 2000 the global figure was about 30, and a decade later it was around 17. These approximate figures are widely quoted and accepted although not precise or settled.

Scarcer and difficult to produce

In other words, oil is rapidly getting scarcer and more difficult to find and produce. Thus, they are having to go to deep water sources (ER of 10 according to Murphy), and to develop unconventional sources such as tar sands (ER of 4 according to Ahmed), and shale (Murphy estimates an ER of 1.5, and Ahmed reports 2.8 for the oil and gas average.)

As a result, the capital expenditure on oil discovery, development and production is skyrocketing but achieving little or no increase in production. Heinberg and Fridley (2016) show that capital expenditure trebled in a decade, while production fell dramatically. This rapid acceleration in costs is widely noted, including by Johnson (2010) and Clarke (2017).

Why can’t we keep getting the quantities we want just by paying more for each barrel? Because the price of the oil in a barrel cannot be greater than the economic value the use of the barrel of oil creates.

Ahmed (2016) refers to a British government report that:

“…the decline in EROI has meant that an increasing amount of the energy we extract is having to be diverted back into getting new energy out, leaving less for other social investments … This means that the global economic slowdown is directly related to the declining resource quality of fossil fuels.”

Everything depends on how rapidly EROI is deteriorating. Various people, such as Hall, Ballogh and Murphy (2009), and Weisbach et al. (2013) do not think a modern society can tolerate an ER under 6 – 10. If this is so, how long have we got if the global figure has fallen from 30 to 18 in about a decade?

Several analysts claim that because of the deteriorating resource quality and rising production costs the companies must be paid $100 a barrel to survive. But oil is currently selling for c$50/barrel. Clarke details how the companies are carrying very large debt and many are going bankrupt: “The global oil industry is in deep trouble.”

Ignorance, debt bubble and catastrophic implosion

Why haven’t we noticed? Very likely for the same reason we haven’t noticed the other signs of terminal decay… because we don’t want to.

We have taken on astronomical levels of debt to keep the economy going. In 1994 the ratio of global debt to GDP was just over 2; it is now about 6, much higher than before the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), and it is continuing to climb.

Everybody knows this cannot go on for much longer. Debt is lending on the expectation that the loan will be repaid plus interest, but that can only be done if there is growth in the real economy, in the value of goods and services produced and sold …but the real economy (as distinct from the financial sector) has been stagnant or deteriorating for years.

The only way huge debt bubbles are resolved is via catastrophic implosion. A point comes where the financial sector realizes that its (recklessly speculative) loans are not going to be repaid, so they stop lending and call in bad debts … and the credit the real economy needs is cut, so the economy collapses, further reducing capacity to pay debts in a spiral of positive feedback that next time will deliver the mother of all GFCs.

There is now considerable effort going into working out the relationships between these factors, ie. deteriorating energy EROI, economic stagnation, and debt. The situation is not at all clear. Some see EROI as already being the direct and major cause of a terminal economic breakdown, others think at present more important causal factors are increasing inequality, ecological costs, aging populations and slowing productivity.

Whatever the actual causal mix is, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that within at best a decade deteriorating EROI is going to be a major cause of enormous disruption.

Peaking oil production, national income and resource detorioration

But there is a far more worrying aspect of your oil situation than that to do with EROI. Nafeez Ahmed has just published an extremely important analysis of the desperate and alarming situation that the Middle East oil producing countries are in, entitled Failing States, Collapsing Systems, (2016). He confronts us with the following basic points:

  • in several countries oil production has peaked, and energy return on oil production is falling; thus their oil export income is being reduced
  • in recent decades populations have exploded, due primarily to decades of abundant income from oil exports; the 1960 – 2014 multiples for Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Nigeria, Egypt, India and China have been 5.5, 4.6, 5.3, 4.2, 3.4, 3.0 and 2.1 respectively
  • there has been accelerating deterioration in land, water and food resources. If water use per capita is under 1700 m3 pa, there is water stress; the amounts for the above countries, (and the percentage fall since 1960), are Yemen 86 m3 (71% fall), Saudi Arabia 98 m3 (82% fall), Iraq 998 m3 (88% fall), Nigeria 1245 m3 (73% fall), Egypt 20 m3 (70% fall).

Climate change will make these numbers worse.

The consequences of these trends are:

  • more of the falling oil income now has to go into importing food
  • increasing amounts of oil are having to go into other domestic uses, reducing the amounts available for export to the big oil consuming countries.
  • in many of the big exporting countries these trends are likely to more or less eliminate oil exports in a decade or so, including Saudi Arabia.
  • these mostly desert countries have nothing else to earn export income from, except sand
  • falling oil income means that governments can provide less for their people, so they have to cut subsidies and raise food and energy prices
  • these conditions are producing increasing discontent with government as well as civil unrest and conflict between tribes over scarce water and land; religious and sectarian conflicts are fuelled; unemployed, desperate and hungry farmers and youth have little option but to join extremist groups such as ISIS, where at least they are fed; our media ignore the biophysical conditions generating conflicts, refugee and oppression by regimes, giving the impression that the troubles are only due to religious fanatics
  • the IMF makes the situation worse; failing states appeal for economic assistance and are confronted with the standard recipe — increased loans on top of already impossible debt, given on condition that they gear their economies to paying the loans back plus interest, imposing austerity, privatizing and selling off assets
  • local elite authoritarianism and corruption make things worse; rulers need to crack down on disruption and to force the belt tightening; the rich will not allow their privileges to be reduced in order to support reallocation of resources to mass need; the dominant capitalist ideology weighs against interfering with market forces, ie. with the freedom for the rich to develop what is most profitable to themselves.
  • thus there is a vicious positive feedback downward spiral from which it would seem there can be no escape because it is basically due to the oil running out in a context of too many people and too few land and water resources
  • there will at least be major knock-on effects on the global economy and the rich (oil consuming) countries, probably within a decade; it is quite likely that the global economy will collapse as the capacity to import oil will be greatly reduced; when the fragility of the global financial system is added (remember, debt now six times GDP), instantaneous chaotic breakdown is very likely
  • nothing can be done about this situation; it is the result of ignoring fifty years of warnings about the limits to growth.

A tightening noose

So, the noose tightens around the brainless, taken for granted ideology that drives consumer-capitalist society and that cannot be even thought about, let alone dealt with.

We are far beyond the levels of production and consumption that can be sustained or that all people could ever rise to. We haven’t noticed because the grossly unjust global economy delivers most of the world’s dwindling resource wealth to the few who live in rich countries. Well, the party is now getting close to being over.

You don’t much like this message? Have a go at proving that it’s mistaken. Nar, better to just ignore it as before.

A way out?

If the foregoing account is more or less right, then there is only one conceivable way out. That is to face up to transition to lifestyles and systems that enable a good quality of life for all on extremely low per capita resource use rates, with no interest in getting richer or pursuing economic growth.

There is no other way to defuse the problems now threatening to eliminate us, the resource depletion, the ecological destruction, the deprivation of several billion in the Third World, the resource wars and the deterioration in our quality of life.

Such a Simpler Way is easily designed, and built…if that’s what you want to do (see: thesimplerway.info/). Many in voluntary simplicity, ecovillage and Transition Towns movements have moved a long way towards it. Your chances of getting through to it are very poor, but the only sensible option is to join these movements.

Is the mainstream working on the problem? Is the mainstream worried about the problem? Does the mainstream even recognize the problem? I checked the Sydney Daily Telegraph yesterday and 20 percent of the space was given to sport.

References:

Ahmed, N. M., (2016); We Could Be Witnessing the Death of the Fossil Fuel Industry — Will It Take the Rest of the Economy Down With It?, Resilience, April, 26.

Ahmed, N. M., (2017); Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer. Alice Friedmann’s summary is at: http://energyskeptic.com/2017/book-review-of-failing-states-collapsing-systems-biophysical-triggers-of-political-violence-by-nafeez-ahmed/

Clarke, T., (2017); The end of the Oilocene; The demise of the global oil industry and the end of the global economy as we know it, Resilience, 17th Jan.

Friedmann, A., (2017); Book review of Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence by Nafeez Ahme, energyskeptic January 31: http://energyskeptic.com/2017/book-review-of-failing-states-collapsing-systems-biophysical-triggers-of-political-violence-by-nafeez-ahmed/

Hall, C. A. S., Balogh, S. Murphy, D. J. R., (2009); What is the minimum EROI that a sustainable society must have? Energies, 2, 25–47.

Heinberg, R., and D. Fridley, (2016); Our Renewable Future, Santa Rosa, California, Post Carbon Institute.

Johnson, C., (2010); Oil exploration costs rocket as risks rise, Industries, London, February 11.

Murphy, D. J., (2013), The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, December 2013.DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2013.0126

The Simpler Way website: http://thesimplerway.info/

Weisback, D., G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Cserski, S. Gottlleib and A. Hussein, (2013);Energy intensities, EROIs and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants, Energy, 52, 210- 221.





The End of the Oilocene

19 02 2017

The Oilocene, if that term ever catches on, will have only lasted 150 years. Which must be the quickest blink in terms of geological eras…… This article was lifted from feasta.org but unfortunately I can’t give writing credits as I could not find the author’s name anywhere. The data showing we’ll be quickly out of viable oil is stacking up at an increasing rate.

Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood (whose work I published here three years ago almost to the day) said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programs. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said”.

And if you don’t finish reading this admittedly long article, do not exit this blog without first taking THIS on board…….:

What people do not realise is that it takes oil to extract, refine, produce and deliver oil to the end user. The Hills Group calculates that in 2012, the average energy required by the oil production chain had risen so much that it was then equal to the energy contained in the oil delivered to the economy. In other words “In 2012 the oil industry production chain in total used 50% of all the energy contained in the oil delivered to the consumer”. This is trending rapidly to reach 100% early in the next decade.

So there you go…… as I posted earlier this year, do we have five years left…….?

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

End of the “Oilocene”: The Demise of the Global Oil Industry and of the Global Economic System as we know it.

(A pdf version of this paper is here. Please refer to my presentation for supporting images and comments. )

In 1981 I was sitting on an eroded barren hillside in India, where less than 100 years previously there had been dense forest with tigers. It was now effectively a desert and I was watching villagers scavenging for twigs for fuelwood and pondering their future, thinking about rapidly increasing human population and equally rapid degradation of the global environment. I had recently devoured a copy of The Limits to Growth (LTG) published in 1972, and here it was playing out in front of me. Their Business as Usual (BAU) scenario showed that global economic growth would be over between 2010 -2020; and today 45 years later, that prediction is inexorably becoming true. Since 2008 any semblance of growth has been fuelled by astronomically greater quantities of debt; and all other indicators of overshoot are flashing red.

clarke1

One of the main factors limiting growth was regarded by the authors of LTG as energy; specifically oil. By mid 1970’s surprisingly, enough was known about accessible oil reserves that not a huge amount has since been added to what is known as reserves of conventional oil. Conventional oil is (or was) the high quality, high net energy, low water content, easy to get stuff. Its multi-decade increasing rate in production came to an end around 2005 (as predicted many years earlier by Campbell and Laherre in 1998). The rate of production peaked in 2011 and has since been in decline (IEA 2016).

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The International Energy Agency (IEA) is the pre-eminent global forecaster of oil production and demand. Recently it admitted that its oil production forecasts were based on economic projections rather than geology or cost; ie on the assumption that supply will always meet projected demand.
In its latest annual forecast however (New Policies Scenario 2016) the IEA has also admitted for the first time a future in which total global “all liquids” oil production could start to fall within the next few years.

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As Kjell Aklett of Upsala University Global Energy Research Group comments (06-12-16), “In figure 3.16 the IEA shows for the first time what will happen if its unrealistic wishful thinking does not become reality during the next 10 years. Peak Oil will occur even if oil from fracked tight sources, oil sands, and other (unconventional) sources are included”.

In fact – this IEA image clearly shows that the total global rate of production of “all hydrocarbon liquids” could start falling anytime from now on; and this should in itself raise a huge red flag for the Irish Government.

Furthermore, it raises a number of vital questions which are the core subject of this post.
Reserves of conventional “easy” oil have mostly been used up. How likely is it that remaining reserves will be produced at the rate projected? Rapidly diminishing reserves of conventional oil are now increasingly being supplemented by the difficult stuff that Kjell Aklett mentions; including conventional from deep water, polar and other inaccessible regions, very heavy bituminous and high sulphur oil; natural gas liquids and other xtl’s, plus other “unconventional oil” including tar sands and shale oil.

How much will it cost to produce all these various types? How much energy will be required, and crucially how much energy will be left over for use by the economy?

The global industrial economy runs on oil.

Oil is the vital and crucial link in virtually every production chain in the global industrial world economy partly because it supplies over 96% of global transport energy – with no significant non-oil dependent alternative in sight.

clarke4

Our industrial food production system uses over 10 calories of oil energy to plough, plant, fertilise, harvest, transport, refine, package, store/refrigerate, and deliver 1 calorie of food to the consumer; and imagine trying to build infrastructure; roads, schools, hospitals, industrial facilities, cities, railways, airports without oil, let alone maintain them.

Surprisingly perhaps, oil is also crucial to production of all other forms of energy including renewables. We cannot mine and distribute coal or even drill for gas and install pipelines and gas distribution networks without lots of oil; and you certainly cannot make a nuclear power station or build a hydroelectric dam without oil. But even solar panels, wind and biomass energy are also totally dependent on oil to extract and produce the raw materials; oil is directly or indirectly used in their manufacture (steel, glass, copper, fibreglass/GRP, concrete) and finally to distribute the product to the end user, and install and maintain it.

So it’s not surprising that excluding hydro and nuclear (which mostly require phenomenal amounts of oil to implement), renewables still only constitute about 3% of world energy (BP Energy Outlook 2016). This figure speaks entirely for itself. I am a renewable energy consultant and promoter, but I am also a realist; in practice the world runs on oil.

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The economy, Global GDP and oil are therefore mutually dependent and have enjoyed a tightly linked dance over the decades as shown in the following images. Note the connection between oil, total energy, oil price and GDP (clues for later).

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Click on image to enlarge

Rising cost of oil production

Since 2005 when the rate of production of conventional oil slowed and peaked, production costs have been rising more rapidly. By 2013, oil industry costs were approaching the level of the global oil price which was more than $100/barrel at that time; and industry insiders were saying that the oil industry was finding it difficult to break even.

clarke7
Click on image to enlarge

A good example of the time was the following article which is worth quoting in full in the light of the price of oil at the time (~$100/bbl), and the average 2016 sustained low oil price of ~$50/bbl.

Oil and gas company debt soars to danger levels to cover shortfall in cash By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Telegraph. 11 Aug 2014

“The world’s leading oil and gas companies are taking on debt and selling assets on an unprecedented scale to cover a shortfall in cash, calling into question the long-term viability of large parts of the industry. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said a review of 127 companies across the globe found that they had increased net debt by $106bn in the year to March, in order to cover the surging costs of machinery and exploration, while still paying generous dividends at the same time. They also sold off a net $73bn of assets.

The EIA said revenues from oil and gas sales have reached a plateau since 2011, stagnating at $568bn over the last year as oil hovers near $100 a barrel. Yet costs have continued to rise relentlessly. Companies have exhausted the low-hanging fruit and are being forced to explore fields in ever more difficult regions.

The EIA said the shortfall between cash earnings from operations and expenditure — mostly CAPEX and dividends — has widened from $18bn in 2010 to $110bn during the past three years. Companies appear to have been borrowing heavily both to keep dividends steady and to buy back their own shares, spending an average of $39bn on repurchases since 2011”.

In another article (my highlights) he wrote

“The major companies are struggling to find viable reserves, forcing them to take on ever more leverage to explore in marginal basins, often gambling that much higher prices in the future will come to the rescue. Global output of conventional oil peaked in 2005 despite huge investment. The cumulative blitz on exploration and production over the past six years has been $5.4 trillion, yet little has come of it. Not a single large project has come on stream at a break-even cost below $80 a barrel for almost three years.

Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said”.

The following images give a good idea of the trend and breakdown in costs of oil production. Getting it out of the ground is just for starters. The images show just how expensive it is becoming to produce – and how far from breakeven the current oil price is.

clarke8
Click on image to enlarge

It is important to note that the “breakeven cost” is much less than the oil price required to sustain the industry into the future (business as usual).

The following images show that the many different types of oil have (obviously) vastly different production costs. Note the relatively small proportion of conventional reserves (much of it already used), and the substantially higher production cost of all other types of oil. Note also the apt title and date of the Deutsche Bank analysis – production costs have risen substantially since then.

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The global oil industry is in deep trouble

You do not need to be an economist to see that the average 2016 price of oil ~ $50/bbl was substantially lower than just the breakeven price of all but a small proportion of global oil reserves. Even before the oil price collapse of 2014-5, the global oil industry was in deep trouble. Debts are rising quickly, and balance sheets are increasingly RED. Earlier this year 2016, Deloitte warned that 35% of oil majors were in danger of bankruptcy, with another 30% to follow in 2017.

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Click on image to enlarge

In addition to the oil majors, shrinking oil revenues in oil-producing countries are playing havoc with national economies. Virtually every oil producing country in the world requires a much higher oil price to balance its budget – some of them vastly so (eg Venezuela). Their economies have been designed around oil, which for many of them is their largest source of income. Even Saudi Arabia, the biggest global oil producer with the biggest conventional oil reserves is quickly using up its sovereign wealth fund.

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It appears that not a single significant oil-producing country is balancing its budget. Their debts and deficits grow bigger by the day. Everyone is praying for higher oil prices. Who are they kidding? The average BAU oil price going forward for business as usual for the whole global oil industry probably needs to be well over $100/bbl; and the world economy is on its knees even at the present low oil price. Why is this? The indicators all spell huge trouble ahead. Could there be another fundamental oil/energy/financial mechanism operating here?

The Root Cause

The cause is not surprising. All the various new types of oil and a good deal of the conventional stuff that remains require far more energy to produce.

In 2015, The Hills Group (US Oil Engineers) published “Depletion – A Determination of the Worlds Petroleum Reserve”. It is meticulously researched and re-worked with trends double checked against published data. It follows on from the Hills Group 2013 work that accurately predicted the approaching oil price collapse after 2014 (which no-one else did) and calculated that the average oil price of 2016 would be ~$50/bbl. They claim theirs is the most accurate oil price indicator ever produced, with >96% accuracy with published past data. The Hills Group work has somewhat clarified my understanding of the core issues and I will try to summarise two crucial points as follows.

Oil can only be useful as an energy source if the energy contained in the product (ie transport fuel) is greater than the energy required to extract, refine and deliver the fuel to the end user.

If you electrolyse water, the hydrogen gas produced (when mixed with air and ignited), will explode with a bang (be careful doing this at home!). The hydrogen contained in the world’s water is an enormous potential energy source and contains infinitely more energy (as hydrogen) than humans could ever need. The problem is that it takes far more energy to produce a given amount of hydrogen from water than is available by combusting it. Oil is rapidly going the same way. Only a small proportion of what remains of conventional oil resources can provide an energy surplus for use as a fuel. All the other types of oil require more energy to produce and deliver as fuel to the end user (taking into account the whole oil production chain), than is contained in the fuel itself.

What people do not realise is that it takes oil to extract, refine, produce and deliver oil to the end user. The Hills Group calculates that in 2012, the average energy required by the oil production chain had risen so much that it was then equal to the energy contained in the oil delivered to the economy. In other words “In 2012 the oil industry production chain in total used 50% of all the energy contained in the oil delivered to the consumer”. This is trending rapidly to reach 100% early in the next decade.

At this point – no matter how much oil is left (a lot) and in whatever form (many), oil will be of no use as an energy source for transport fuels, since it will on average require more energy to extract, refine and deliver to the end-user, than the oil itself contains.

Because oil reserves are of decreasing quality and oil is getting more difficult and expensive to produce and transform into transport fuels; the amount of energy required by the whole oil production chain (the global oil industry) is rapidly increasing; leaving less and less left over for the rest of the economy.

In this context and relative to the IEA graph shown earlier, there is a big difference between annual gross oil production, and the amount of energy left in the product available for work as fuel. Whilst total global oil (all liquids) production currently appears to be still growing slowly, the energy required by the global oil industry is growing faster, and the net energy available for work by the end user is decreasing rapidly. This is illustrated by the following figure (Louis Arnoux 2016).

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The price of oil cannot exceed the value of the economic activity generated from the amount of energy available to end-users per barrel.

The rapid decline in oil-energy available to the economy is one of the key reasons for the equally rapid rise in global debt.

The global industrial world economy depends on oil as its prime energy source. Increasing growth of the world economy during the oil age has been exactly matched by oil production and use, but as Louis’ image shows, over the last forty years the amount of net energy delivered by the oil industry to the economy has been decreasing.

As a result, the economic value of a barrel of oil is falling fast. “In 1975 one dollar could have bought, on average, 42,348 BTU; by 2010 a dollar would only have bought 6,946 BTU” (The Hills Group 2015).

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This has caused a parallel reduction in real economic activity. I say “real” because today the financial world accounts for about 40% of global GDP, and I would like to remind economists and bankers that you cannot eat 0000’s on a computer screen, or use them to put food on the table, heat your house, or make something useful. GDP as an indicator of the global economy is an illusion. If you deduct financial services and account for debt, the real world economy is contracting fast.

To compensate, and continue the fallacy of endless economic growth, we have simply borrowed and borrowed, and borrowed. Huge amounts of additional debt are now required to sustain the “Growth Illusion”.

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In 2012 the decreasing ability of oil to power the economy intersected with the increasing cost of oil production at a point The Hills Group refers to as the maximum affordable consumer price (just over $100/bbl) and they calculated that the price of oil must fall soon afterwards. In 2014 much to everyone’s surprise (IEA, EIA, World Bank, Wall St Oil futures etc) the price of oil fell to where it is now. This is clearly illustrated by The Hills Group’s petroleum price curve of 2013 which correctly calculated that the 2016 average price of oil would be ~$50/bbl (Depletion – The Fate of the Oil Age 2013).

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In their detailed 2015 study The Hills Group writes (Depletion – A determination of the world’s petroleum reserve 2015);

“To determine the affordability range it is first observed that the price of a unit of petroleum cannot exceed the value of the economic activity (generated by the net energy) it supplies to the end consumer. (Since 2012) more of the energy from petroleum was being committed to the production of petroleum than was delivered to the consumer. This precipitated the 2014 price decline that reduced prices by 50%. The energy delivered to the end consumer will continue to decline and the end consumer maximum affordability will decline with it.

Dr Louis Arnoux explains this as follows: “In 1900 the Global Industrial World received 61% of the gross energy in a barrel of oil. In 2016 this is down to 7%. The global industrial world is being forced to contract because it is being starved of net energy from oil” (Louis Arnoux 2016).

This is reflected in the slowing down of global economic growth and the huge increase in total global debt.

Without noticing it, in 2012 the world entered “Emergency Red Alert”

In the following image, Dr Arnoux has reworked Hills Group petroleum price curve showing the impending collapse of thermodynamically driven oil prices – and the end of the oil age as we know it. This analysis is more than amply reinforced by the dire financial straits of the global oil industry, and the parlous state of the global economy and financial system.

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Oil is a finite resource which is subject to the same physical laws as many other commodities. The debate about peak oil has been clouded by the fact that oil consists of many different kinds of hydrocarbons; each of which has its own extraction profile. But conventional oil is the only category of oil that can be extracted with a whole production chain energy surplus. Production of this commodity (conventional oil) has undoubtedly peaked and is now declining. The amount of energy (and cost) required by the global oil industry to produce and deliver much of the remainder of conventional reserves and the many alternative categories of oil to the consumer, is rapidly increasing; and we are equally rapidly heading toward the day when we have used up those reserves of oil which will deliver an energy surplus (taking into account the whole production chain from extraction to delivery of the end product as fuel to the consumer).

The Global Oil Industry is one of the most advanced and efficient in the world and further efficiency gains will be minor compared to the scale of the problem, which is essentially one of oil depletion thermodynamics.

Humans are very good at propping up the unsustainable and this often results in a fast and unexpected collapse (eg Joseph Tainter: The collapse of complex societies). An example of this is the Seneca Curve/Cliff which appears to me to be an often-repeated defining trait of humanity. Our oil/financial system is a perfect illustration.

Debt is being used to extend the unsustainable and it looks as though we are headed for the “Mother of all Seneca Curves” which I have illustrated below:

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Because oil is the primary energy resource upon which all other energy sources depend, it is almost certain that a contraction in oil production would be reflected in a parallel reduction in other energy systems; as illustrated rather dramatically in this image by Gail Tverberg (the timing is slightly premature – but probably not by much).

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Energy and Money

Fundamental to all energy and economic systems is money. Debt is being used to prop up a contracting oil energy system, and the scale of money created as debt over the last few decades to compensate is truly phenomenal; amounting to hundreds of trillions (excluding “extra-terrestrial” amounts of “financials”), rising exponentially faster. This amount of debt, can never ever be repaid. The on-going contraction of the oil/energy system will exacerbate this trend until the financial system collapses. There is nothing anyone can do about it no matter how much money is printed, NIRP, ZIRP you name it – all the indicators are flashing red. The panacea of indefinite money printing will soon hit the thermodynamic energy wall of reality.

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The effects we currently observe such as exponential growth in debt (US Debt alone almost doubled from $10 trillion to nearly $20 trillion during Obama’s tenure), and the financial problems of oil majors and oil producing countries, are clear indicators of the imminent contraction in existing global energy and financial systems.

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The coming failure of the global economic system will be a systemic failure. I say “systemic” because for the last 150 years up till now there has always been cheap and abundant oil to power recovery from previous busts. This era is over. Cheap and abundant oil will not be available for recovery from the next crunch, and the world will need to adopt a completely different economic and financial model.

The Economics “profession”

Economists would have us believe it’s just another turn of the credit cycle. This dismal non-science is in the main the lapdog of the establishment, the global financial and corporate interests. They have engineered the “science” to support the myth of perpetual growth to suit the needs of their pay-masters, the financial institutions, corporations and governments (who pay their salaries, fund the universities and research, etc). They have steadfastly ignored all ecological and resource issues and trends and warnings such as LTG, and portrayed themselves as the pre-eminent arbiters of human enterprise. By vehemently supporting the status quo, they of all groups, I hold primarily responsible for the appalling situation the planet faces; the destruction of the natural world, and many other threats to the global environment and its ability to sustain civilisation as we know it.

I have news for the “Economics Profession”. The perpetual growth fantasy financial system based on unlimited cheap energy is now coming to an end. From the planet’s point of view – it simply couldn’t be soon enough. This will mark the end of what I call the “Oilocene”. Human activities are having such an effect on the planet that the present age has been classified by geologists as a new geological era “The Anthropocene”. But although humans had already made a significant impact on natural systems, the Anthropocene has largely been defined by the relatively recent discovery and use of liquid fossil energy reserves amounting to millions of years of stored solar energy. Unlimited cheap oil has fuelled exponential growth in human systems to the point that many of these are now greater than natural planetary ones.
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This cannot be sustained without huge amounts of cheap net oil energy, so we are inescapably headed for “the great deceleration”. The situation is very like the fate of the Titanic which I have outlined in my presentation. Of the few who had the courage to face the economic wind of perpetual growth, I salute the authors of LTG and the memory of Richard Douthwaite (The Growth Illusion 1992), and all at FEASTA who are working hard to warn a deaf Ireland of what is to come and why – and have very sensibly been preparing for it! We will all need a lot of courage and resilience to face what is coming down the line.

Ireland has a very short time available to prepare for hard times.

There are many things we could do here to soften the impact if the problem was understood for what it is. FEASTA publications such as the Before The Wells Run Dry and Fleeing Vesuvius; and David Korowicz’s works such as The Tipping Point and of course, The Hills Group 2015 publicationDepletion – a determination of the worlds petroleum reserve , and very many other references, provide background material and should be required urgent reading for all policy makers.

The pre-eminent challenge is energy for transport and agriculture. We could switch to use of compressed natural gas (CNG) as the urgent default transport/motive fuel in the short term since petrol and diesel engines can be converted to dual-fuel use with CNG; supplemented rapidly by biogas (since we are lucky enough to have plenty of agricultural land and water compared to many countries).

We could urgently switch to an organic high labour input agriculture concentrating on local self-sufficiency eliminating chemical inputs such as fertilisers pesticides and herbicides (as Cuba did after the fall of the Soviet Union). We could outlaw the use of oil for heating and switch to biomass.

We could penalise high electricity use and aim to massively cut consumption so that electricity can be supplied by completely renewable means – preserving our natural gas for transport fuel and the rapid transition from oil. The Grid could be urgently reconfigured to enable 100% use of renewable electricity within a few years. We could concentrate on local production of food, goods and services to reduce transport needs.

These measures would create a lot of jobs and improve the balance of payments. They have already been proposed in one form or another by FEASTA over the last 15 years.

Ireland has made a start, but it is insignificant compared to the scale and timescale of the challenge ahead as illustrated by the next image (SEAI: Energy in Ireland – Key Statistics 2015). We urgently need to shrink the oil portion to a small fraction of current use.

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Current fossil energy use is very wasteful. By reducing waste and increasing efficiency we can use less. For instance, a large amount of the energy used as transport fuels and for electricity generation is lost to atmosphere as waste heat. New technological solutions include a global initiative to mount an affordable emergency response called nGeni that is solely based on well-known and proven technology components, integrated in a novel way, with a business and financial model enabling it to tap into over €5 trillion/year of funds currently wasted globally as waste heat. This has potential for Ireland, and will be outlined in a subsequent post.

To finance all the changes we need to implement, quickly (and hopefully before the full impact of the oil/financial catastrophe really kicks in), we could for instance create something like a massive multibillion “National Sustainability and Renewable Energy Bond”. Virtually all renewables provide a better (often substantially better) return on investment compared to bank savings, government bonds, etc; especially in the age of zero and negative interest rate policies ZIRP, NIRP etc.

We may need to think about managing this during a contraction in the economy and financial system which could occur at any time. We certainly could do with a new clever breed of “Ecological Economists” to plan for the end of the old system and its replacement by a sustainable new one. There is no shortage of ideas. The disappearance of trillions of fake money and the shrinking of national and local tax income which currently funds the existing system and its social programmes will be a huge challenge to social stability in Ireland and all over the world.

It’s now “Emergency Red Alert”. If we delay, we won’t have the energy or the money to implement even a portion of what is required. We need to drag our politicians and policy makers kicking and screaming to the table, to make them understand the dire nature of the predicament and challenge them to open their eyes to the increasingly obvious, and to take action. We can thank The Hills Group for elucidating so clearly the root causes of the problem, but the indicators of systemic collapse have for many years been frantically jumping up and down, waving at us and shouting LOOK AT ME! Meanwhile the majority of blinkered clueless economists that advise business and government and who plan our future, look the other way.

In 1972 “The Limits to Growth” warned of the consequences of growing reliance on the finite resource called “oil” and of the suicidal economics mantra of endless growth. The challenge Ireland will soon face is managing a fast economic and energy contraction and implementing sustainability on a massive scale whilst maintaining social cohesion. Whatever the outcome (managed or chaotic contraction), we will soon all have to live with a lot less energy and physical resources. That in itself might not necessarily be such a bad thing provided the burden is shared. “Modern citizens today use more energy and physical resources in a month than our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime” (John Thackera; “From Oil Age to Soil Age”, Doors to Perception; Dec 2016). Were they less happy than us?

PDF of this article
Powerpoint presentation

Featured image: used motor oil. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stain-1507366





The implications of collapsing ERoEI

25 01 2017

Judging by the relatively low level of interest the past few articles published here regarding the collapse of fossil fuel ERoEI (along with PV’s) have attracted, I can only conclude that most people just don’t get it……. How can I possibly fix this……?

When I first started ‘campaigning’ on the issue of Peak Oil way back in 2000 or so, 2020 seemed like a veoileroeiry long way away. I still thought at the time that renewables would ‘save us’, or at the very least that energy efficiency would be taken up on a massive scale. None of those things happened.

Way back then, I gave many public powerpoint presentations, foolishly thinking that, presented with the facts, (NOT alternative facts like we have today…) people would wake up to themselves. I even foolishly believed that the Australian Greens would take this up as a major issue, because after all the ‘solutions’ to Peak Oil also happen to be the ‘solutions’ for Climate Change. Now you know why I have turned into such a cynic.

In that presentation, there was one important slide, shown above. It is indelible in my memory.

I’ve now come across a very similar chart, except this one has dates on it….. and 2020 no longer seems very far away at all….

COLLAPSING ERoEI IN ONE CHART

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I have selected three years; 2017, in red; 2020 in black; 2025 in green.

Each year has two lines. One for how much energy is being extracted, and the lower one of the same colour shows the net energy available from that extraction. The ‘missing’ energy, lost to crashing ERoEI, is the difference between the two lines of the same colour….  Already, in 2017, we probably only have the amount of energy that was available mid 1980.

By 2020 (which I happen to believe will be crunch time), net energy available is roughly equal to what we had in ~1975.

By 2025, we will be down to 1950 levels………

It doesn’t matter whether I’m out by 1, 2, 5, or even 10 years (which I very much doubt). The point is, the global economy will have shrunk dramatically by then. It simply cannot grow without energy, more and more of it every year in fact. Without growth, the entire money system will have collapsed, and it’s anyone’s guess how many banks will be left standing. Or governments for that matter, the electorate has recently proven itself to be very very fickle……

Why this isn’t mainstream news beggars belief….

Good luck.





2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

20 01 2017

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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