Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops

Does a fish know that its nose is wet? Probably not. It swims in water, and assumes that is the only way any animal lives.

We live in an economic world. Economic models that were developed years ago were created based on observations of how the economy seemed to work at the time. As time goes on, it is becoming clear that early economists missed important connections. The most important of these is the role of energy and its connection to the economy. It takes energy to make anything, from a piece of steel to a loaf of bread. It takes energy to transport anything. Humans need energy in the form of food to continue to live. Clearly, energy should have a place in economic models.

In this post, I explain some of the basic principles as I see them:

1. Humans have evolved to be dependent on external energy.

2. Humans now supplement their own limited energy supply with external energy of various types. In general, the more external energy used, the more humans are able to control their environment.

3. Over the 1 million+ years during which humans have been able to control fire, humans have generally been in situations with favorable feedback loops, due to increasing efficiency in producing goods and services required to meet basic needs. Such loops allowed continued population growth and economic growth.

4. We are now reaching limits on these feedback loops. The result is feedback loops that are changing from favorable feedbacks to contraction.

5. Part of the change in feedback loops relates to the cost of energy sources, such as oil. A rise in the price of oil tends to reduce salaries of workers (because of layoffs) as well as reduce discretionary income (because of higher price of food and commuting), contributing to the trend toward contraction.

All of this is very concerning, because in the past, adverse feedback loops of this type  seem to have led to collapse.

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Inflation, Deflation, or Discontinuity?

A question that seems to come up quite often is, “Are we going to have inflation or deflation?” People want to figure out how to invest. Because of this, they want to know whether to expect a rise in prices, or a fall in prices, either in general, or in commodities, in the future.

The traditional “peak oil” response to this question has been that oil prices will tend to rise over time. There will not be enough oil available, so demand will outstrip supply. As a result, prices will rise both for oil and for food which depends on oil.

I see things differently. I think the issue ahead is deflation for commodities as well as for other types of assets. At some point, deflation may “morph” into discontinuity. It is the fact that price falls too low that will ultimately cut off oil production, not the lack of oil in the ground.

Even with little oil, there will still be some goods and services produced. These goods and services will not necessarily be available to holders of assets of the kind we have today. Instead, they will tend to go to those who produced them, and to those who win them by fighting over them.

Up and Down Escalator Economies

It seems to me that economies operate on two kinds of escalators–an up escalator, and a down escalator. The up escalator is driven by a favorable feedback cycle; the down escalator is driven by an unfavorable feedback cycle.

For a long time, the US economy has been on an up escalator, fueled by growth in the use of cheap energy. This growth in cheap energy led to rising wages, as humans learned to use external energy to leverage their own meager ability to “perform work”–dig ditches, transport goods, perform computations, and do many other tasks that machines (powered by electricity or oil) could do much better, and more cheaply, than humans.

Debt helped lever this growth up even faster than it would otherwise ramp up. Continued growth in debt made sense, because growth seemed likely for as far in the future as anyone could see. We could borrow from the future, and have more now.

Unfortunately, there is also a down escalator for economies, and we seem to be headed in that direction now. Such down escalators have hit local economies before, but never a networked global economy. From this point of view, we are in uncharted territory.
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