Economic growth: How it works; how it fails; why wealth disparity occurs

Economists have put together models of how an economy works, but these models were developed years ago, when the world economy was far from limits. These models may have been reasonably adequate when they were developed, but there is increasing evidence that they don’t work in an economy that is reaching limits. For example, my most recent post, “Why ‘supply and demand’ doesn’t work for oil,” showed that when the world is facing the rising cost of oil extraction, “supply and demand” doesn’t work in the expected way.

In order to figure out what really does happen, we need to consider findings from a variety of different fields, including biology, physics, systems analysis, finance, and the study of past economic collapses. Since I started studying the situation in 2005, I have had the privilege of meeting many people who work in areas related to this problem.

My own background is in mathematics and actuarial science. Actuarial projections, such as those that underlie pensions and long term care policies, are one place where historical assumptions are not likely to be accurate, if an economy is reaching limits. Because of this connection to actuarial work, I have a particular interest in the problem.

How Other Species Grow 

We know that other species don’t amass wealth in the way humans do. However, the number of plants or animals of a given type can grow, at least within a range. Techniques that seem to be helpful for increasing the number of a given species include:

  • Natural selection. With natural selection, all species have more offspring than needed to reproduce the parent. A species is able to continuously adapt to the changing environment because the best-adapted offspring tend to live.
  • Cooperation. Individual cells within an organism cooperate in terms of the functions they perform. Cooperation also occurs among members of the same species, and among different species (symbiosis, parasites, hosts). In some cases, division of labor may occur (for example, bees, other social insects).
  • Use of tools. Animals frequently use tools. Sometimes items such as rocks or logs are used directly. At other times, animals craft tools with their forepaws or beaks.

All species have specific needs of various kinds, including energy needs, water needs, mineral needs, and lack of pollution. They are in constant competition with both other members of the same species and with members of other species to meet these needs. It is individuals who can out-compete others in the resource battle that survive. In some cases, animals find hierarchical behavior helpful in the competition for resources.

There are various feedbacks that regulate the growth of a biological system. For example, a person or animal eats, and later becomes hungry. Likewise, an animal drinks, and later becomes thirsty. Over the longer term, animals have a reserve of fat for times when food is scarce, and a small reserve of water. If they are not able to eat and drink within the required timeframe, they will die. Another feedback within the system regulates overuse of resources: if any kind of animal eats all of a type of plant or animal that it requires for food, it will not have food in the future.

Energy needs are one of the limiting factors, both for individual biological members of an ecosystem, and for the overall ecosystem. Energy systems need greater power (energy use per period of time) to out-compete one another. The Maximum Power Principle by Howard Odum says that biological systems will organize to increase power whenever system constraints allow.

Another way of viewing energy needs comes from the work of Ilya Prigogine, who studied how ordered structures, such as biological systems, can develop from disorder in a thermodynamically open system. Prigogine has called these ordered structures dissipative systems. These systems can temporarily exist as long as the system is held far from equilibrium by a continual flow of energy through the system. If the flow energy disappears, the biological system will die.

Using either Odum’s or Prigogine’s view, energy of the right type is essential for the growth of an overall ecosystem as well as for the continued health of its individual members.

How Humans Separated Themselves from Other Animals

Animals generally get energy from food. It stands to reason that if an animal has a unique way of obtaining additional energy to supplement the energy it gets from food, it will have an advantage over other animals. In fact, this approach seems to have been the secret to the growth of human populations.

Human population, plus the domesticated plants and animals of humans, now dominate the globe. Humans’ path toward population growth seems to have started when early members of the species learned how to burn biomass in a controlled way. The burning of biomass had many benefits, including being able to keep warm, cook food and ward off predators. Cooking food was especially beneficial, because it allowed humans to use a wider range of foodstuffs. It also allowed bodies of humans to more easily get nutrition from food that was eaten. As a result, stomachs, jaws, and teeth could become smaller, and brains could become bigger, enabling more intelligence. The use of cooked food began long enough ago that our bodies are now adapted to the use of some cooked food.

With the use of fire to burn biomass, humans could better “win” in the competition against other species, allowing the number of humans to increase. In this way, humans could, to some extent, circumvent natural selection. From the point of the individual who could live longer, or whose children could live to maturity, this was a benefit. Unfortunately, it had at least two drawbacks:

  1. While animal populations tended to become increasingly adapted to a changing environment through natural selection, humans tend not to become better adapted, because of the high survival rate that results from more adequate food supplies and better healthcare. Humans might eventually find themselves becoming less well adapted: more overweight, or having more physical disabilities, or having more of a tendency toward diabetes.
  2. Without a natural limit to population, the quantity of resources per person tends to decline over time. For example, such a tendency tends to lead to less farmland per person. This would be a problem if techniques remained the same. Thus, rising population tends to lead to constant pressure to raise output (more food per arable acre or technological advancements that allow the economy to “do more with less”).

How Humans Have Been Able to Meet the Challenge of Rising Population Relative to Resources

Humans were able to meet the challenge of rising population by taking the techniques many animals use, as described above, and raising them to new levels. The fact that humans figured out how to burn biomass, and later would learn to harness other kinds of energy, gave humans many capabilities that other animals did not have.

  • Co-operation with other humans became possible, through a variety of mechanisms (learning of language with our bigger brains, development of financial systems to facilitate trade). Even as hunter-gatherers, researchers have found that economies of scale (enabled by co-operation) allowed greater food gathering per hectare. Division of labor allowed some specialization, even in very early days (gathering, fishing, hunting).
  • Humans have been able to domesticate many kinds of plants and animals.  Generally, the relationship with other species is a symbiotic relationship–the animals gain the benefit of a steady food supply and protection from predators, so their population can increase. Chosen plants have little competition from “weeds,” thanks to the protection humans provide. As a result, they can flourish whether or not they would be competitive with other plants and predators in the wild.
  • Humans have been able to take the idea of making and using tools to an extreme level. Humans first started by using fire to sharpen rocks. With the sharpened rocks, they could make new devices such as boats, and they could make spears to help kill animals for food. Tools could be used for planting the seeds they wanted to grow, so they did not have to live with the mixture of plants nature provided. We don’t think of roads, pipelines, and lines for transmitting electricity as tools, but as a practical matter, they also provide functions similar to those of tools. The many chemicals humans use, such as herbicides, insecticides, and antibiotics, also act in way similar to tools. The many objects that humans create to make life “better” (houses, cars, dishwashers, prepared foods, cosmetics) might in some very broad sense be considered tools as well. Some tools might be considered “capital,” when used to create additional goods and services.
  • Humans created businesses and governments to enable better organization, including division of labor and hierarchical behavior. A single person can create a simple tool, just as an animal can. But there are economies of scale, such as when many devices of a particular kind can be made, or when some individuals learn specialized skills that enable them to perform particular tasks better. As mentioned previously, even in the days of hunter-gatherers, there were economies of scale, if a larger group of workers could be organized so that specialization could take place.
  • Financial systems and changing systems of laws and regulations provide additional structure to the system, telling businesses and customers how much of a given product is required at a given time, and at what prices. In animals, appetite and thirst determine how important obtaining food and water are at a given point in time. Financial systems provide a somewhat similar role for an economy, but the financial system doesn’t operate within as constrained a system as hunger and thirst. As a result, the financial system can give strange signals, including prices that at times fall below the cost of extraction.
  • Humans have tended to put resources of many kinds (arable land, land for homes and businesses, fresh water, mineral resources) under the control of governments. Governments then authorize particular individuals and business to use this land, under various arrangements (“ownership,” leases, or authorized temporary usage). Governments often collect taxes for use of the resources. The practice is in some ways similar to the use of territoriality by animals, but it can have the opposite result. With animals, territoriality is used to prevent crowding, and can act to prevent overuse of shared resources. With human economies, ownership or temporary use permits can lead to a government sanctioned way of depleting resources, and thus, over time, can lead to a higher cost of resource extraction.

Physicist François Roddier has described individual human economies as another type of dissipative structure, not too different from biological systems, such as plants, animals, and ecosystems. If this is true, an adequate supply of energy is absolutely essential for the growth of the world economy.

We know that there is a very close tie between energy use and the growth of the world economy. Energy consumption has recently been dropping (Figure 1), suggesting that the world is heading into recession again. The Wall Street Journal indicates that a junk bond selloff also points in the direction of a likely recession in the not-too-distant future.

Figure 1. Three year average growth rate in world energy consumption and in GDP. World energy consumption based on BP Review of World Energy, 2015 data; real GDP from USDA in 2010$.

Figure 1. Three year average growth rate in world energy consumption and in GDP. World energy consumption based on BP Review of World Energy, 2015 data; real GDP from USDA in 2010$.

What Goes Wrong as Economic Growth Approaches Limits?

We know that in the past, many economies have collapsed. In fact, if Roddier is correct about economies being dissipative structures, then we know that economies cannot be expected to last forever. Economies will tend to run into energy limits, and these energy limits will ultimately bring them down.

The symptoms that occur when economies run into energy limits are not intuitively obvious. The following are some of the things that generally go wrong:

Item 1. A slowdown in economic growth.

Research by Turchin and Nefedov regarding historical collapses shows that growth tended to start in an economy when a group of people discovered a new energy-related resource. For example, a piece of land might be cleared to allow more arable land, or existing arable land might be irrigated. At first, these new resources allowed economies to grow rapidly for many years. Once the population grew to match the new carrying capacity of the land, economies tended to hit a period of “stagflation” for another period, say 50 or 60 years. Eventually “collapse” occurred, typically over a period of 20 or more years.

Today’s world economy seems to be following a similar pattern. The world started using coal in quantity in the early 1800s. This helped ramp up economic growth above a baseline of less than 1% per year. A second larger ramp up in economic growth occurred about the time of World War II, as oil began to be put to greater use (Figure 2).

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil's Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

Worldwide, the economic growth rate hit a high point in the 1950 to 1965 period, and since then has trended downward. Figure 2 indicates that in all periods analyzed, the increase in energy consumption accounts for the majority of economic growth.

Since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, world economic growth has been supported by economic growth in China. This growth was made possible by China’s rapid growth in coal consumption (Figure 3).

Figure 3. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Figure 3. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

China’s growth in energy consumption, particularly coal consumption, is now slowing. Its economy is slowing at the same time, so its leadership in world economic growth is now being lost. There is no new major source of cheap energy coming online. This is a major reason why world economic growth is slowing.

Item 2. Increased use of debt, with less and less productivity of that debt in terms of increased goods and services produced.  

Another finding of Turchin and Nefedov is that the use of debt tended to increase in the stagflation period. Since growth was lower in this period, it is clear that the use of debt was becoming less productive.

If we look at the world situation today, we find a similar situation. More and more debt is being used, but that debt is becoming less productive in terms of the amount of GDP being provided. In fact, this pattern of falling productivity of debt seems to have been taking place since the early 1970s, when the price of oil rose above $20 per barrel (in 2014$). It is doubtful that that economic growth can occur if the price of oil is above $20 per barrel, without debt spiraling ever upward as a percentage of GDP. It is supplemental energy that allows the economy to function. If the price of energy is too high, it becomes unaffordable, and economic growth slows.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See author’s post on debt for explanation of methodology.

China has been using debt to fund its recent expansion. There is evidence that it, too, is encountering falling productivity of additional debt.

We mentioned that appetite controls how much an animal eats. Debt helps control demand for energy products, and in fact, for products of all kinds in the economy. Appetite is different from debt as a regulator of demand. For one thing, debt can be used for an almost unlimited number of purposes, whether or not these purposes have any real possibility of adding GDP to the economy. (This is especially true if interest rates are close to 0%, or even negative.) There are few controls on debt. Governments have discovered that in some instances, debt stimulates an economy. Because of this, governments have tended to be very liberal in encouraging growth in debt. Often, when a debtor is near default, this problem is hidden by extending the term of the loan and pretending that no problem exists.

With respect to biological organisms, energy is often stored up as fat and used later when there is a shortfall of energy. This is the opposite of the way financing for human “tools” generally works. Here financing is often obtained when a tool is put into operation, with the hope that the new tool will pay back its worth, plus interest, over the life of the tool. Much debt doesn’t even have such a purpose; sometimes it is used simply to make an expensive object easier to purchase, or to give a young person (perhaps with poor grades) an opportunity to attend college. When debt has such poor regulation, we cannot expect it to work as reliably as biological mechanisms in feeding back information regarding true “demand” through the price system.

Item 3. Increased disparity of wages; non-elite workers earning less.

Item 3 is another problem that Turchin and Nefedov encountered in reviewing economies that collapsed. One of the reasons for the increased disparity of wages is the increased need for hierarchical relationships if an economy wants to work around a shortfall in goods and services by adding new “tools”. Businesses and governments need to grow larger if they are to accommodate these more complex processes. In such a case, the natural tendency is for these organizations to become more hierarchical in nature. Also, if there is growth, followed by a temporary need to shrink back, the cutbacks are likely to come disproportionately from the lower ranks of workers, reinforcing the hierarchical structure.

Figure 5. Chart by Pavlina Tscherneva, in Reorienting Fiscal Policy, as reprinted by the Washington Post.

Figure 5. Chart by Pavlina Tscherneva, in Reorienting Fiscal Policy, as reprinted by the Washington Post.

Funding arrangements for the new “tools” to work around shortages add to the hierarchical behavior. Typically, businesses must expand to fund the development of the new tools. This expansion may be funded by debt, or by stock programs. Regardless of which approach is used for funding, the programs tend to funnel an increasing share of the wealth of the economy to the wealthier members of the economy. This happens because interest payments and dividend payments both go disproportionately to benefit those who are already high up on the wealth hierarchy.

Furthermore, the inherent problem of fewer resources per person is not really solved, so an increasingly large share of jobs become “service” jobs, using only a small quantity of energy products, but also providing little true benefit to the economy. The wages for these jobs are thus low. The addition of these low-paid jobs to the economy further reinforces the hierarchical nature of the system.

In a sense, what is happening is that the economy as a whole is growing very little in output of goods and services. An ever-larger share of the output is going to the wealthier members of the economy, because of increased hierarchical behavior and because of growth in debt and dividend payments. Non-elite members of the economy find their wages falling in inflation adjusted terms, because, in a sense, the productivity of their labor as leveraged by a falling amount of energy resources is gradually contracting, rather than increasing. It becomes increasingly difficult for the low-paid members of the economy to “pay the wages” of the high-paid members of the economy, so overall demand for goods and services tends to contract. As a result, the increasingly hierarchical behavior of the economy pushes the economy even more toward contraction.

Item 4. Increased difficulty in obtaining adequate funding for government programs.

Governments operate on the surpluses of an economy. As an economy finds itself in a squeeze (job loss, more workers with lower wages, fewer goods and services being produced), governments find themselves increasingly called upon to deal with these problems. Governments may need larger armies to try to obtain resources elsewhere, or they may be needed to build a public works project (like a dam, to get more water and hydroelectric power), or they may need to make transfer payments to displaced workers. Here again, Turchin and Nefedov found governmental funding to be one of the problems of economies reaching limits.

Energy products are unique in that their value to society can be quite different from their cost of extraction. A third value, which may be different from either of the first two values, is the selling price of the energy product. When the cost of producing energy products is low, the wide difference between the value to society and the cost of extraction can be used to fund government programs and to raise the wages of workers. In fact, this difference seems to be a primary reason why economic growth occurs. (This difference is not recognized by most economists.)

As the cost of extraction of energy products rises, the difference between the value to society and the cost of extraction falls, because the value to society is pretty close to fixed (except for changes taking place because of energy efficiency changes), based on how far a barrel of oil can move a truck or how many British thermal units of energy it can provide. As the cost of energy extraction rises, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain enough tax revenue, either from taxing energy products directly, or from taxing wages. Wages tend to reflect the energy consumption required to support each job because supplemental energy acts to leverage the abilities of workers, and thus improves their productivity.

Energy selling prices may behave in a strange manner, as an economy increasingly reaches limits. Falling prices redistribute what gain is available, so that energy importers get more, while energy exporters get less. Of course, the problem we are now seeing is that oil exporting countries are having difficulty obtaining sufficient revenue for their programs.

Debt is different this time

This time truly is different. We should have learned from past experience that debt tends not to be very permanent; it often defaults. We should therefore expect huge periods of debt defaults, and we should expect to need frequent debt jubilees. Economist Michael Hudson reports that the structure of debt was very different in the past (Killing the Host or excerpt). In early times, he found that by far the major creditors were the temples and palaces of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, not private individuals acting on their own. Because of the top-down nature of the debt, it was easy for the temples and palaces to forgive debt and restore balance to the social structure.

Now, especially since World War II, there is a new belief in the permanency of debt, and about its suitability for funding insurance companies, banks, and pension plans. The rise in economic growth after World War II was important in this new belief in permanency, because without economic growth, it is extremely difficult to pay back debt with interest, unless debt is used for a truly productive purpose. (See also Figures 2 and 4, above)

FIgure 6. Ngram showing frequency of words over a period of years, by Google searches in books.

Figure 6. Ngram showing frequency of words over a period of years, by Google searches of a large number of books. Words searched from top to bottom are “economic growth, IRA, financial services, MBA, and pension plans.”

The Ngram chart above, showing the frequency of word searches for “economic growth, IRA (Individual Retirement Accounts), financial services, MBA (Master of Business Administration), and pension plans” indicates that economic growth was essentially a new concept after World War II. Once it became clear that the economy could grow, financial services began to grow, as did the training of MBAs. Pension plans grew at first, but once companies with pension programs found that it was difficult to keep them adequately funded, there was a shift to IRAs. With IRAs, employees are expected to fund their own retirements, generally using a combination of stock and debt purchases.

Now that debt is “reused” and integrated into the economy, it becomes much more difficult to forgive. We have a situation where insurance companies, banks, and pension plans are all tied together. They all depend on the current economic growth paradigm, including use of debt with interest, continued dividend plans, and rising stock market prices. We have a major problem if widespread debt defaults start.

Demographic Bubble

The other problem we are up against, making government funding even more difficult than it would otherwise be, is the retirement of the baby boomers, born soon after World War II. This by itself would be a problem for maintaining adequate government funding. When it is added to multiple other problems, including bailing out banks, insurance companies, and pension plans if there are debt defaults, the demographic bubble leaves us in much worse shape than economies that reached limits in the past.

Note that High Energy Prices Are Not on the List of Expected Problems

The idea that as we approach limits, we should expect ever-higher energy prices, is simply not true. It should be viewed as a superstition, or as an erroneous understanding of our current situation, based on a poor model of energy supply and demand. Turchin and Nefedov found evidence of spiking food prices, perhaps similar to the spiking we saw in energy prices as we approached the peak in prices in 2008. But with wages of non-elite workers falling too low, especially on an after-tax basis, it was hard for prices to continue to spike.

The idea that collapse can come from low prices, rather than high, is something that is not obvious, unless a person thinks through the situation carefully. Prices seem to be primarily influenced by two factors:

(1) Wages of non-elite workers. These wages are important because there is such a large number of them. If their wages are high enough, they buy homes, cars, and other products that are big users of commodities, both when they are made, and as they are operated.

(2) Increases or decreases in the amount of debt outstanding. If debt defaults start to rise, it is very easy for growth in the quantity of debt outstanding to slow, or even to fall. In such a case, low commodity prices, rather than high, become a problem. As economic growth slows, we should expect more debt defaults, not fewer. There is also a limit to how high Debt/GDP ratios can rise before many suspect that the world economy functions much like a Ponzi Scheme.

Mark Twain wrote, “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure, that just ain’t so.” This is especially a problem for academic researchers who depend on the precedents of past academic papers. A researcher may have come to a conclusion years ago, based on a narrow set of research that didn’t cover today’s conditions. The belief can get carried forward endlessly, even though it isn’t really true in today’s situation.

If we are going to figure out the real answer to how the economy operates, we need to look closely at indications from many areas of research. Such an approach can allow us to see the situation in a broader context and thus “weed out” firmly held beliefs that aren’t really true.

1,034 thoughts on “Economic growth: How it works; how it fails; why wealth disparity occurs

  1. Dear Finite Worlders

    I was immobilized yesterday, so had some quiet time to think. I offer the following model as something which may help us see our human situation through the eyes of another species.

    Consider the Carolina Chickadee. It survives the winter just fine on its diet with lots of seeds. Can we, therefore, assume that, so long as there are plenty of seeds, the Carolina Chickadee will do fine? And the answer is not straightforward. For any specific Chickadee, the answer is ‘Yes’, but for the species, the answer is ‘No’. The reason is that during the breeding season, seeds are no longer an adequate supply of protein and energy in the form of carbohydrates. The baby birds must be fed caterpillars. It requires 6 to 11 thousand caterpillars to fledge a single clutch of chickadees. This has several consequences. For one, the nesting pair are working at an unbelievable pace to supply all those caterpillars. Second, we know that exotic species generally host far fewer caterpillars than native species of plants. If the homeowners in Fancy Suburb A have fallen in love with the exotic appearance and low maintenance of foreign plants, then there will be fewer caterpillars and consequently more of the baby birds will die. Third, if the homeowners in Fancy Suburb A resort to toxic sprays to keep the caterpillars off their plants, there will be starvation in the nests. Likewise, if the homeowners in Fancy Suburb A cut down and dispose of plants as soon as they have flowered, leaving no seed heads for the winter, then the adult birds will die. Countless birds die in the names of ‘tidiness and low maintenance’.

    If we examine the life cycle of chickadees, we find that they follow the energy. They are high in the canopy looking for caterpillars during the nesting season, but move into meadows seeking seeds in the winter. We will also find that the energy balance is never hugely in favor of the chickadees. They can never take the winter off and sit by a warm fire. They will be out in the snow foraging for seeds, and they will be working very hard in June to feed their children.

    Now, let’s run a few thought experiments:
    *If the supply of caterpillars shrinks, then either the adults will have to find substitute foods for their young, or else the young will die. As a matter of fact, the adult chickadees have not been successful in finding substitutes for caterpillars. As a consequence, the number of young who grow to maturity is declining, and the number of chickadees in the world is declining.
    *Chickadee parents can go farther afield in searching for caterpillars. However, the farther they have to fly to find caterpillars, the more energy they use themselves, and the less energy they will bring back for their children. Once again, the population of chickadees will decline.
    *Humans who like to see Chickadees going about their business might begin to see the stupidity of behaving the way people in Fancy Suburb A behave, and begin to plant bird friendly plants and stop using toxins. This is the project that Darke and Tallamy promote in their book The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden.

    I want to call your attention to the observation that the energy balance is NEVER strongly in favor of the chickadees. European humans, in contrast, have had a strongly favorable energy balance since Fourteen Ninety Two. In that year, Columbus and those who followed spread the germs which wiped out most of the population in North and South America. Leaving two fertile continents to be exploited. And then, the Europeans hit on the Mother Lode with the exploitation of fossil fuels.

    According to Adrian Bejan and his Constructal Law, we should expect that the Europeans (and those who copy them) will have figured out ways to exploit more of the benefits of the new continents and also the abilities given to us by fossil fuels. And so we see an enormous increase in the number of humans and in the production per capita.

    But now, the thermodynamics doom-sayers point out, it takes about half the oil produced to produce another barrel of oil. Much of the oil used to produce oil is accounted for by a sophisticated refining system, in addition to the production of the raw material and the distribution of the consumer products such as gasoline and diesel fuel Furthermore, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation produces pie charts showing that almost all of the energy contained in the gasoline and diesel is used to move humans or freight from Point A to Point B. Depending on how you count infrastructure, oil as a transportation enabler may now be negative. Consequently, we find ourselves in a position not unlike that of the Chickadees. If we are using half the oil we produce to process the oil into products, then we can no longer increase the production of oil using the same technologies (akin to the Chickadees and their technology of feeding caterpillars to their children). And if we are using the energy in the products of oil inefficiently, then we would be like the baby bird which is killed if it contracts diarrhea and cannot really use the caterpillars it is fed.

    Likewise, we have long since passed the time when agriculture produced net energy. As Bejan would have predicted, the surplus energy from fossil fuels has been marshaled to increase agricultural production, even at the expense of destroying natural capital.

    Humans DO have bigger brains than Chickadees, and perhaps we can figure out some ways to escape or at least buy some time for our species. In the worst case, we just give up on future generations and do the human equivalent of eating seeds year around and forgetting about raising any young. The evidence seems to me to indicate that humans have less concern for their young than Chickadees have concern for theirs.

    Or, maybe we can copy ISIS and use very primitive methods for refining oil (RT published some pictures of ISIS ‘refineries’ in Syria recently). Or, a little more sophisticated, we come up with a ‘regional refinery’ which deals with local oil, all pretty much with the same specifications. Both of these would be stop-gap measures…not long term solutions.

    Maybe we try to substitute electric vehicles (cars or locomotives) for internal combustion engines, avoiding some of the losses incurred by the ICEs. Barring fusion and some other necessary innovations, electrified transport is also a stop-gap measure.

    The most radical approach is to foreswear the whole fossil fuel mirage and revert back to a very much more biologically based existence. I’ll quote from the final thoughts expressed by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle in The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health:

    ‘’Making a garden taught us things we never could have imagined. First and foremost, a garden is never really done. Soil needs long-term care and feeding to get what you need from it. In our case, we started from scratch and had to restore life to our soil. It’s hard work, frustrating at times, and as in all dances with Nature, rarely dull. In our garden we came to see a microcosm of a could be world—feed the soil and it will keep feeding us. Not just our bellies, but our minds and spirits too.’

    I hope that the exploration of the life of the Chickadee may put certain questions into perspective. For instance, Chickadees apparently can’t decide to do things differently just in order to preserve the population of Chickadees. Humans have, at least theoretically, more options. Whether we can invent social structures which permit us to effectively use our big brains is an open question.

    Don Stewart

    • Don, a very thoughtful essay and somewhat revealing on the unawareness of modern households in the web of nature. Uplifting message we, humans, have the means to expand our direction toward a better relation with the whole universe

    • The Chickadee example is in an interesting one.

      I would remind you, “the thermodynamics doom-sayers point out, it takes about half the oil produced to produce another barrel of oil” is very speculative. At most, it is a view of what happens on barrels of oil that are high-priced to extract, not on what it costs to add a new barrel of oil extraction to Iraq or Iran, which is where new production really is coming from.

      • Gail
        Most thermodynamic models are global. While production is increasing in Iran and Iraq, that is offset by countries with declining production. It is also worth noting that Iraq and Iran production is coming from established fields which have been idle for a time due to wars and sanctions.

        I believe it was Rockman who recently recounted his experience with some strripper wells in Tesas. They have extremely low costs…but they don’t produce a lot of oil. Which leads some of the thermodynamic people to think that stripper wells are our future, in terms of oil. Plus simplified processing.

        Don Stewart

        • My bet; they are going to continue to produce more oil than we can use. The price will continue to go down.

          • Creedon
            Some thermodynamics based models indicate that you are correct. A cleverly formulated model can feature feedback loops which lead to results which are counter-intuitive to people schooled in supply and demand curves. One of the key factors which permits the destructive loops to operate is finance. It is ZIRP and futures markets and contango which is keeping a lot of shale companies alive.

            Don Stewart

            • If they continue to produce tons of oil at 15 to 20 dollars a barrel, my hat is off to them. They are amazing.

      • I like the stripper well-as-future principle. Using less energy to get at the oil. Getting less benefit from the oil. The system goes on, but has to learn to adapt to having less.

        Then there is the getting rid of waste. I don’t know what is meant by waste in that context, and would welcome an explanation. I can see nothing but waste all around me, but that’s probably not what is meant here.

        People can get a whole lot more utility from what we throw away than they do. And if more people learn to make useful things from trash, they can get by with less money (if they can’t actually sell or trade what they make). A lot of people have too much. In a crisis, there is no need to produce anything but food, clothing and shelter. The megafauna in the world is being poached for show or to sell ivory for vanity. Sure, it makes money for somebody, but it’s clearly suicidal madness at the same time.

        Why can’t people do without those extras for the sake of staying alive? Why is the lack of imagination to see the beauty in simple things so absent?

          • “Why is the lack of imagination to see the beauty in simple things so PREVALENT?”
            The cultural cover does not favor appreciation of beauty.
            The cultural cover does not value simple things.
            The cultural cover puts high value on complexity.

            The cultural cover is GET SUM GET SUM STEP RIGHT UP.

            Abandon the collective neurosis. Do not participate. Puke it up. Bury it and mark it with a warning beacon for alien visitors.

    • We leave cardoon stalks and heads up all winter; they provide a lot of oily seeds for large birds (jays mostly).

      Thanks for your erudite posts.

      • Stilgar,

        Yes, of course, its El Nino again! I feel much better now. Not climate chaos, just your standard comforting El Nino. It would be funny if it weren’t pathetic how much people will avert their eyes to avoid seeing. You can equate the El Nino rationale with the “commodities supercycle” theory. Both convenient, but reassuring maladies, that may be inconvenient but are certainly not indicative of system change and failure.

  2. “The Least Surprising Stat Of The Week: Corporate Insiders Are Dumping Their Stock”
    By: John Rubino | Thu, Dec 10, 2015

    “Here’s one for the “actions speak louder than words” file:
    Massive insider selling spurs stock market concerns
    (CNBC) – Corporate insiders have been selling their shares at near-record levels, and according to some, this could be a sign for outside investors to start selling as well.
    Investment research firm TrimTabs reported on Wednesday that insider selling reached $7.6 billion for the month of November, the fourth-highest monthly level on record. For some this may be an alarming indicator, as corporate insiders tend to have more knowledge than public shareholders on the inner workings of the company, and what may drive stock prices up or down.
    “Historically when insiders are selling heavily it’s not the greatest sign,” TrimTabs’ chief executive, David Santschi, told CNBC in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m surprised given the valuations in the market that they’re not selling more than they are.”
    (…) ”

    • Nice find.

      That graph explains why I think the day of reckoning is near…. we grow or collapse…. if that trend cannot be reversed then I cannot see how we go 12 more months like this…

      There have to be massive bankruptcies…

  3. Charles Hugh Smith: “The inescapable conclusion is that Fed policies (ie rocketing money supply since 2008) have effectively crashed the velocity of money.”

    TAE’s Ilargi says “it ain’t so” and explains in detail why there isn’t any correlation between money supply and its velocity. He thinks the crash in money velocity is much more related to the purchasing power and confidence of customers: “Simply because if and when people have a lot less to spend, velocity comes down. That there is even the very heart of deflation.” I tend to subscribe to this opinion.

    IMHO the newly created money tends to inflate stranded unproductive assets, or fuel Ponzi schemes such as shale oil, and is not injected into the real -productive- economy. The core reason for that being that the energy and resource supply is no longer able to grow at sufficient pace. That was temporarily masked by debt increase, but now becomes obvious, as even more debt is less and less able to simulate fake growth of GDP.

    • According to Investopedia,

      A measure of money supply that includes cash and checking deposits (M1) as well as near money. “Near money” in M2 includes savings deposits, money market mutual funds and other time deposits, which are less liquid and not as suitable as exchange mediums but can be quickly converted into cash or checking deposits.

      If return on investment is doing poorly in most sectors, I know I tend to leave money “parked,” in M2 type accounts. So this may be part of the slowdown. Why risk a not-very-high rate of return, when insured accounts can receive almost an identical rate of return, without fees involved?

      Also, the increased disparity of wages affects M2 supplies. A person would expect increased disparity of funds in M2 accounts. The well-to-do will spend only a small fraction of their M2 money; the poor will tend to keep their balances very low. On average, less gets spent.

      I didn’t check when the limit on FDIC amounts insured went up, and how this correlates with the M2 turn-over rate, but it may be a factor as well.

      • Yes Gail,
        decreasing ROI and rising inequalities are surely among the main* proximal causes for crashing money velocity (*: can’t see any other right now, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any!).

        The root cause is, as you say in Item 3 of this article: “Non-elite members of the economy find their wages falling in inflation adjusted terms, because, in a sense, the productivity of their labor as leveraged by a falling amount of energy resources is gradually contracting, rather than increasing.”

      • “Why risk a not-very-high rate of return, when insured accounts can receive almost an identical rate of return, without fees involved?”

        That’s a good point, Gail. More incentive to park the stuff which slows velocity, especially since US bonds are a legal way of delaying tax paid on that income, corporate or personal.

    • That is quite a review and summary of the state of our financial situation, Rodster. Below is a section of quotes mostly on the overinvested stock markets.

      “On balance there’s no margin of safety.”
      ~Mario “The Bull” Gabelli, founder of Gamco Investors Inc.

      “We’re in the middle of a disastrous market mania . . . historically, these kinds of gaps get closed in one of three ways: by revolution, higher taxes, or wars. None are on my bucket list.”
      ~Paul Tudor Jones, Tudor Investment Management

      “The good times are over.”
      ~Bill Gross, Janus Funds

      “The median New York Stock Exchange stock is currently at a postwar record high P/E multiple, a record high relative to cash flow, and near a record high relative to book value!”
      ~Jim Paulsen, Wells Capital’s perennial bull

      “[G]lobal financial markets are more distorted than ever before.”
      ~Felix Zulauf, Zulauf Asset Management and Barrons Round Table

      “Sadly, I don’t think anybody’s capable of telling you precisely how and when the whole thing will come unstuck. Nevertheless, you know that at some point, it has to.”
      ~William White, Bank of International Settlements

      “Markets will discover that they have been pushing asset prices to an excessively high level, and there will be a major downward shock to asset prices.”
      ~Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England

  4. Dear Finite Worlders
    I misattributed the remarks on the inexpensive Texas stripper wells. It was actually Shallow Sand. Here is his quote from Peak Oil…Don Stewart

    I will say I hate to see these wells plugged, given the number we reactivated that were just as economic many times as ones continuously produced. As long as they can be safely T’A, I say short term that makes sense. Two of the most efficient leases we operate are ones we reactivated after them being shut in many years. Others had them, went BK, and they went idle. Many times leases are shut in more based on the overall solvency of the operator, than on how economic they are on their own. I just looked and one is running $9 per Bbl OPEX, the other $16 OPEX for 2015. Wish it was all in that ballpark!

  5. In Alaska

    Thanks very much for the reply about the dogs, just found it.

    What use in mind? Oh, I’ve just been thinking about guard dogs and had just read a good article on Inuit habits by an Inuit woman – quite a lot about blood feuds and the usefulness of dogs for giving warnings and also sinking their teeth into raiders, so it seemed to me that such dogs might have good instincts. I also like active dogs that need lots of exercise.

    Most interesting about the cross-breeding to get the right temperament.

    I have to say that my big English Springer is an exceptionally good warning system although of course not bred for it, as he is silent with routine sounds and people, but goes nuts when anything new and unusual occurs.

    • xabier,
      yes dogs are man’s best friend with good cause: companionship, warning system, guard dog, hunting buddy, herding dog, and when the chips are down I guess you could even eat them if things got tough. Alaska sled dogs are great animals, but I think just about any well-trained animal can do the jobs.

      • In Alaska

        And even amusing comics (terriers and spaniels)! There is really no end to the good points of hunting and working dogs.

  6. Dear Finite Worlders
    Several months ago I expressed some criticisms of the internet discussion groups in terms of their ability to bring about consensus among people who initially had disagreements. A few weeks ago I reiterated my misgivings. I referred to a new nook on Spooky Action At A Distance.

    Here is a review of the book, along with references to a number of other relevant experiments and books, by Adam Gopnik…Don Stewart

  7. Taking into account the genetic entropy (as described by John C. Sanford), the energy is more and more important for the human species. Thanks to the energy, the degenerating human population can continue functioning. The robots are not only replacing costly human resources, but they can assist the disabled people, as there is not enough of the physically fit people for those tasks and not enough money to pay those people.

    The reason why the human population stops rising despite the increasing use of energy is not only the fact that we use more and more costly resources, but also the fact that there are more and more mutants or the ill or the physically weak people in the human population, as the healthcare system can fight more and more mutations and keep the affected individuals alive.

    The fact that we are loosing the cheap energy and at the same time the degeneration of the human race continues makes the whole picture of our destiny even more terrible: if we loose the energy, the human race is doomed to extinction.

    There is really no way back. Preserving the food production is nothing in comparison to our rising need of healthcare and repair of our defects and weaknesses caused by the accumulation of the mutations of the genome.

    Once we loose our external energy, we must either migrate to other places (like the people from Syria or the regions, where the energy poverty is rising), or we have to arrange new energy sources to meet our needs.

    • Well you make some good points. Much of the population of this world are now dependents. But are dependents really needed? You see, in any human society, the young and the fit live, and the old and the sick die. This is naturally true, it was true thousands of years ago, it is true now, and it will be true forever.

      This is unspeakable in today’s world, which looks at the fight against the Nazis as part of its origin myth. Combined with our seemingly limitless energy, we now believe in infinite life and resources, for everyone (except for the pesky Muslims who are sitting on top of the oil). In today’s world, if you merely make a statement like, the mortality rate of everyone is 100%, then you are considered worse than Hitler.

      That is why I insist we don’t really face an energy problem immediately, we face a political/social problem, the age old problem of how to organize society. More energy merely delays the inevitable reckoning, because more energy would mean more waste really.

      The Limits to Growth needs to become our new origin myth. We need a new recognition of limits, and everything that follows from that.

      What peak oil means is nature smacking us silly. Billions of people around the world are going to realize they aren’t going to live forever, they aren’t going to become rich, they aren’t special, they aren’t God’s gift to the universe, etc. etc.

      How great is that! I look forward to it, I’m sick of people.

      • I really wonder whether the authors of The Limits to Growth had not overestimated the population aspect of their predictions. The quality of the human race in the depleted and polluted world will be terribly low, as cancer, allergies, body malformations etc. can not be cured without the high-tech medicne.

        The end of the cheap energy will bring the end of the human race, as the intermittent costly energy will not be enough to sustain the human populations.

        • The authors of The Limits to Growth admit that after the peak is hit, they really don’t know how things will work out. They could just as well cut off the graphs early, because it is all a guess after a point. The authors didn’t understand our financial problem. In some sense, the population estimate is an optimistic estimate, because of what was omitted.

      • Dolph

        For you:

        ‘I wish I liked the human race;
        I wish I liked the way it walks;
        I wish I liked the way it talks.
        And when I’m introduced to one,
        I wish I thought ‘What jolly fun!”

        Can’t recall who wrote it, some misanthropic Englishman I think.

    • Sanford is a creationist…
      which doesn’t mean that some of his statements cannot be true,
      but the basic principles underlying his theory are flawed, for sure.

      This is what happens when people look at only one side of a problem, and favor arguments that point towards the desired conclusion.
      Evolution is a complex topic, and studying it requires humility and persistence. Shortcuts often lead to total misinterpretations, potentially dangerous (e.g. ‘social darwinsm’).

      • Dear Stefeun,

        well, as regards your mentioning of social darwininsm: without the people with high IQ we would not be able to construct the complex machines, invent new technologies. The difference in IQ is something which is specific for human race: the human race consists of individuals that are very sophisticated, but also contains indiviudals that are more like animals. However, the degeneration is a process that destroys both intellectual and physical health. The cheap energy allowed us to use the brains also of those people who would otherwise die due to their physical weakness. That is the main thing: the higher amounts of the human intellectual power thanks to the cheap energy.

        When there is a lack of the individuals with high IQ, the degenerating society collapses sooner. Not everybody can be a physician. You need a higher IQ. The rising costs of caring for the mutated individuals with the end of the cheap energy mean that we sustain individuals that make no contribution for the society, but, on the other hand, there is not enough resources for sustaining and education of the people with higher IQ.

        Finally, your brain is completely useless to you, when you die of an illness that can not be cured due to the lack of the resources or due to other degenerations that destroy your important physical abilities, e.g. muscles needed for breathing.

        • MG,
          I don’t think IQ is a reliable metric.
          Maybe it’s useful for determining those of us who are most able to make machines and use technology (your words), but this is only a small part of our brains’ abilities.
          And look where technology has led us!

          I think it was a big mistake that we based our social structure on such technical skills (together with a remaining feudal idea of property and heritage), neglecting personal development and mutual respect, for example.
          OTOH, I must admit that we probably didn’t have any choice, as our very survival required an ever increasing use of external energy, enabled by technology.

          And I totally disagree with the idea that people or populations could be sorted out and judged, based only on IQ measurements or genetic profile, or length of the nose, or what have you. We already know the story.

          • Dear Stefeun,

            when our life more and more depends on the technology, then those who create and use the technology are the ruling class. Those (other groups or nations), who do not have the technology and can not/do not know to use it, are subordinated. Without the technology, the majority of us would be already dead.

            The aggresive nature of the mutations affects everybody and the technology is the way to fight them. The real fight of the todays world is not so much about the resources, but about the technology to get the resources out of the ground and the distant places and to use them for fighting the degeneration of the human race.

            The fact that some populations are more degenerated than others is a simple fact of the reality: those populations are dependent on the healthier populations and their mastery of the technology. The more degenerated populations can not continue functioning without the capital injections providing them the energy and resources and the help from the less degenerated populations.

            The story about the exploitation of the weaker by the stronger is not completely true: the only thing the stronger population can take from the weaker population is the resources. But the stronger population can not rob you of your genome, which can be e.g. healthier than the genome of the population that is stronger thanks to the abundant use of the technology.

            The story about the good poor people and the bad rich is absolutely flawed. Because, in the end, it is not about owning something, but about the survival, which is a more complicated thing than having accounts full of money and tons of gold in vaults.

            • Sorry MG, I won’t argue anymore on this topic.
              I don’t buy your theory of degenerating human race, with some -whole- popuations more degenerated than others (!).
              I think it’s irrelevant, flawed and dangerous ; and very convenient for scapegoating.
              We know we disagree, that’s enough.

    • This is a good point.
      I have been reading in an article some time ago that it is perfectly possible that we split as homo sapiens in one breed that has the resources and technology and intelligence at hand an one breed that is bound to the dirt as I would frame it.
      The genetic selection also applies to bacteria and virusses that threaten our existence. I read that polio was showing up in syria again. If there is no vaccination available you can possibly end up dying from cutting your finger in the garden.
      Also the meat you hunt can be infected and you do not see it and you do not have the petri dishes to test it. We are not at the best starting point for a way back to an earthy life…

      • Dear MM,

        your reasoning about the division of the society based on the occurence of mutations can be right.

        The poverty is connected with the degeneration of the population. The cummulation of the mutations does not improve social status. The following thesis about the Roma population in Slovakia, which is known having various hereditary degenerative diseases, admits such connections:

        “This thesis summarizes the existing research into Roma intelligence in Slovakia, evaluates it, compares it with findings from abroad and suggests future directions of research. From the available data, it seems that the Roma differ substantially from the non-Roma in their measured intelligence and attain values of about 80 IQ points. The tests are probably not biased against them. However, more research is needed to unequivocally confirm these conclusions. These differences have to date been interpreted as of purely environmental origin. The influence of genetic factors seems to be a plausible hypothesis, though, but it can be neither confirmed nor rejected based on the present data. It is, therefore, suggested that further research on representative samples and also on determinants (both genetic and non-genetic) of the difference in intelligence be carried out.”


        Another article states the following fact:

        “The Slovakian Romani is a population with the highest coefficient of inbreeding in Europe, which increases the probability of recessive hereditary diseases.”


        Some people propose sterilization of certain Roma women to prevent spread of mutated individuals that creates burden for the healthy part of the society.

        Not only resources limit civilizations, but also the fact that their genome degenerates and they die out, the same ways as the families affected by the hereditary diseases die out.

        • What is also interesting is the fact that “The measured average IQ values of the Slovak Roma roughly correspond with the IQ values of the Roma and their related populations in other countries.” (page 17 of the abovementioned thesis), which is in line with the ideas of John C. Sanford that the new generations bring further decline in genome.

          • The caste system of India (the country of origin of the Roma people) could also promote the higher levels of hereditary diseases:

            “The caste system, which restricts marriage to people of different groups, gave rise to populations that were genetically isolated, and therefore may be more likely to harbor rare genetic diseases.”


            The populations that are isolated are prone to degeneration. As the energy and resources go down, these degenerative trends become stronger, as the implosion of the economy causes also the rise of the isolationism.

            • Dear kesaro,

              this is eugenics today:


              “2. New Eugenics
              Artificial insemination by donor.[94]
              Egg donation.[95]
              Prenatal diagnosis of genetic disorders and pregnancy terminations of defective fetuses.[96]
              Embryo selection.[97]
              Genetic engineering.[98]
              Gene therapy.[99]

              So, when the technology collapses, there will be no technology based eugenics that helps to survive the human race, all mutated individuals unable to survive without the technology will die, which is the majority of the mankind. We take too many things for granted…

              There is no pure race, every race degenerates not only due to the genetic entropy, but also due to the poluted environment, and is susceptible to mutations like cancer etc. that can not be cured without the technology.

            • Ivy league grads only marrying other ivy league grads…

              Hamptons dwellers only marrying Hamptons dwellers…

              I think I mentioned previously I dated a girl from an ultra wealthy family in Asia — met the dad and he probed my background — clearly looking for some aristocratic blood…. at least a club membership (with tongue in cheek I claimed that I had a membership at the local gym — there were no oohs or aaahs… so I guess that wasn’t as impressive as I had expected…)

              He was noticeably disappointed when he all he found was a long line of degenerates, alcoholics, truck drivers, and miners….

              That’s another form of eugenics at work…. filtering out the riff raff…

              Although in this case some riff raff blood might have done the gene pool some good … too much poshness in the DNA can cause genetic abnormalities….

          • Dear kesaro,

            today, eugenics is a topic of more and more people: the rising problems with natural conception show the need for artificial insemination and selection of embryos. The eugenics became a completely personal problem of many people who have to decide whether they want children (artificial insemination) or not (impossibility of the natural conception). It is no more a kind of fascist ideology, directed against others, but a matter of surival of individual families.

            • MG, I’m not judging here. I’m just stating the fact. We all know the history of ideas creating Ubermensch.
              I know that eugenics might be rational from personal point of view. Every man wants his children to have more chances of survival and good life. This is a basic prerogative of our genom. It’s even rational on the society level. The societies want to have healthy citizens to have lower cost of “maintenance” – less healthcare, more productivity, etc.
              What these concepts are lacking is the understanding of general law of genetics Regression to the Mean

              Every population has its genetic flaws due to historical inbreeding. Every one. Interguru pointed to Jews genetical diseases. Just imagine someone saying we should get rid of them (some did 100 years ago). And look at the Nobel Prize laureate list. I can guarantee that before WW2 at least one-third of that list had jewish roots.

              The best strategy – from humanity perspective – would be to mix all genom populations into one specie. That’s what genetic science says.

            • In the sci-fi novel I envision — a post BAU world identifies anyone with traits that might contribute to ‘progress’ — and smothers such people under pillows at an early age.


              Because ‘progress’ is what caused the epic suffering and death that was experienced when BAU collapsed.

              Yes I see how it makes no sense — that it is a populist thing…. but as with most populist policies.. it would be well received.

            • Post-BAU people who can’t concieve without help will be gone in one generation, women needing cesarian within a few. That’s not nazism.

    • I think our bodies are adapted to eating at least some cooked food. (Perhaps a small population could live without cooked food, living on fish, worms, fruit, and water from clean sources), but not very many. So I think we are pretty much stuck. New energy sources are difficult to create–the require a big economy.

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