Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems

The world economy seems to be seriously ill. The problem is not overly high oil prices, but that does not rule out energy as being a major underlying problem.

Two of the symptoms of the economy’s malaise are slow wage growth and increasing wage disparity. Tariffs are being used as solutions to these issues. Radical leaders are increasingly being elected. The Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund have raised concerns about the world’s aggregate debt levels. The IMF has even suggested that a second Great Depression might be ahead if major banks should fail in the manner that Lehman Brothers did in 2008.

Figure 1. Ratio of Core Debt Growth (non-financial debt including governmental debt) to GDP, based on data of the Bank of International Settlements.

If the economy were a human being, we would send it to a physician for a diagnosis regarding what is wrong. What really is needed is a physician who has a wide overview, and thus can understand the many symptoms. Hopefully, the physician can also provide a reasonable prognosis of what lies ahead.

Individual specialists studying the world’s economic and energy problems tend to look at these problems from narrow points of view. Some examples include:

  •  Curve fitting and cycle analysis using economic data by country since World War II, as is often performed by economists
  • Analysis of oil supply based on technically recoverable reserves or resources
  • Analysis of fresh water supply problems
  • Analysis of population problems, including rising population relative to arable land, and rising retiree population relative to working population
  • Analysis of ocean problems, including rising acidity and depleting fish stocks
  • Analysis of the expected impact of CO2 production from fossil fuels on climate
  • Analysis of rising debt levels

In fact, we are facing a combined problem, but most analysts/economists are looking at only their own piece of the problem. They assume that the other aspects have little or no influence on their particular result. What we really need is an analysis of the overall economic malady from a broader perspective.

In some ways, the situation is analogous to having no physician with a sufficient overview of where the world economy is headed. Instead, we have a number of specialists (perhaps analogous to a psychiatrist, a urologist, a podiatrist, and a dermatologist), none of whom really understands the underlying problem the patient is facing.

One point of confusion regarding whether today’s oil prices should be of concern is the fact that the maximum affordable oil price seems to decline over time. This happens because workers around the world increasingly cannot afford to buy the goods and services that the world economy produces. Inadequate wage growth within countries, growing globalization and rising interest rates all contribute to this growing affordability problem. To make matters confusing, this growing affordability problem corresponds to “falling demand” in the way economists frame the issues we are facing.

If we believe the technical analysis shown in Figure 2, the maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate oil price has declined from $147 per barrel in July 2008 to $76 per barrel recently. The current price is about $62 per barrel. The chart suggests that downward price resistance might be reached at $55 per barrel, assuming no major event occurs to change the current trend line. Any upward price bounce would appear to leave the price still much lower than oil producers need in order to reinvest sufficiently to allow future oil production to be maintained at current levels.

Figure 2. Down sloping diagonal line at the top of chart gives an estimate of the trend in maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices. The downward trend line starts in July 2008, when oil prices hit a maximum. This high point occurred when the US real estate debt bubble started unwinding. Later maximum points correspond to points when oil prices stopped rising and crude oil reservoirs started refilling. Chart prepared by Amit Noam Tal.

Thus, our concern about adequate future oil supplies should perhaps be focused on keeping oil prices high enough. It takes a growing debt bubble to keep oil demand high; perhaps our concern should be keeping this debt bubble high enough to allow extraction of commodities of all kinds, including oil. Figure 1 seems to show a recent downward trend in Debt to GDP ratios for the Eurozone, the United States and China. This may be part of today’s low price problem for commodities of all types.

Needless to say, climate analyses do not consider the severity of our energy problems, nor do they consider the extent to which there is a connection between energy supply and the ability of the economy to operate as usual. If the real issue is a near-term financial crash that will radically affect future fossil fuel consumption, the climate analysis will certainly miss this event.

The Real Nature of the Limits to Growth Problem

To truly understand the headwinds that the economy is facing, we should be looking at the combined effect of all of the limits that the individual specialists have been studying. We might also include other issues not listed. The 1972 book The Limits to Growth presents an early computer model of how at least some of the limits of a finite world might be expected to play out.

Figure 3. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil” http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/2009-05Hall0327.pdf

This early approach reflected an engineering view of the problem, considering expected diminishing returns with respect to resources of all types. Other considerations included likely resource needs based on prior economic and population growth trends and efficiency gains. The Base Scenario shown in the 1972 book (Figure 3) showed collapse taking place about now–in other words, in the early part of the 21st century.

In the time since the 1972 Limits to Growth analysis was prepared, there has been a major discovery relating the importance of energy to the economy. Ilya Prigogine tackled the problem of the physics of thermodynamically dynamic open systems, earning a Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1977. When energy flows are available, many structures, called dissipative structures, can grow and change over time. Examples include plants and animals, hurricanes, stars (they expand in size, then collapse at the end of their lives), ecosystems, and economies. These structures are utterly dependent on energy flows. The economy needs energy in almost the same way that humans need food. Without sufficient energy flows, the world economy will collapse.

It is because of the laws of physics and energy flows that markets are able to set price levels. Indirectly, physics sets the maximum affordable price for energy products based upon the total quantity of goods and services individual workers can afford. These maximum affordable prices may be invisible, but they are very real. Economists may talk about “demand” for energy products, but the real issue is affordability: “Will the laws of physics allow prices to stay high enough to provide the commodities the world economy needs?”

It is because of the laws of physics that debt can play a major role in the economy. Debt can provide time-shifting services if an economy does not have sufficient energy supplies to permit the equivalent of bartering of finished goods and services for new capital goods. Debt can allow future goods and services (manufactured with energy products) to serve as payment for capital goods and other goods purchased using debt. Thus, debt acts as a promise of future energy supplies. These future energy supplies may not, in fact, actually be available at prices that consumers can afford. This is why debt bubbles so often collapse and have a devastating impact on economies.

In theory, the new physics discoveries might also be added to the Limits to Growth model. If this were done, I would expect the downslopes in Figure 3 to be much steeper. Also, the date when the population decline starts would likely move forward, relative to other declines. The actual dates of the declines would of course be expected to change as well, because of updated knowledge regarding resources, population, and other factors.

Including the physics aspect of the economy would lead to many periods when sharp changes take place. When these sharp changes take place, there might be wars, collapsing governments, and epidemics, all causing large numbers of deaths. Debt bubbles might pop, causing deflation and widespread banking problems. These types of events are similar to those that economies have experienced in the past. There is no reason to expect that today’s world economy will have unusual lasting power.

Of course, modeling one piece of the economy at a time, as described at the beginning of this post, leaves out such troublesome implications. Economists tell us all we need to worry about is price fluctuations as the economy substitutes one product for another. If a person has blinders on, perhaps this a good description of the world we live in. Otherwise, the model leaves a lot to be desired.

Implication of the Laws of Physics Being in Charge of How the Economy Operates

Politicians would very much like us to believe that they are in charge. They would like us to believe that adding more technology can solve all of our problems. They would like us to believe that citizens can make a significant difference by voluntarily cutting back on their own energy consumption. They would also like us to believe that countries can cut back on their debt levels without the whole Ponzi Scheme unraveling.

Anyone who has watched bread rise in a bowl can see the implications of growth within a finite structure. It doesn’t take very long for the volume growth of bread dough to exceed the space available. Even if the bread maker pushes the dough back down again, the effect is only temporary. The bread dough quickly rises again to overfill the bowl it is in.

One possible implication of the 2008 financial (and oil price) crash is that we are very close to limits, right now. Regulators can try to fine tune how the economy operates by raising and lowering interest rates (sometimes using Quantitative Easing (QE) in the process), but they are, in some sense, playing with fire. Figure 4 shows the dramatic impact that popping the real estate debt bubble seems to have had in 2008. It also shows the impact that adding and removing QE has had.

Figure 4. Figure showing collapsing debt bubble at the time US oil prices peaked. Figure also shows the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) to stimulate the economy, and thus bring oil prices back up again. Ending US QE seems to have had the reverse effect.

By raising interest rates, regulators could easily send part, or all, of the world’s economy to a financial crash that is worse than 2008’s. Or the economy could again reach limits, by itself, with just a little economic growth. In some sense, the world economy is very close to filling the bread bowl, as it was before the 2008 crash pushed it back down.

The World Economy Is Reaching Limits in Many Areas Simultaneously

Many people believe that we are reaching limits in at most a few areas of the economy, such as “running out of oil.” The evidence suggests that because of the networked nature of the economy, we are really reaching limits in many places, simultaneously. The following represent some problem areas:

(1) Too Low a Return on Labor for Workers Whose Jobs Are Easily Exportable. With globalization, workers are indirectly competing with workers around the world regarding who can produce goods and services most cheaply. They are also competing with computers and robots that can easily replicate their functions. The net impact is a world where a large share of the citizens find themselves living at a level not much above the subsistence level. In more developed countries, young people may live with their parents longer and may delay having children almost indefinitely, because wages are not keeping up with living costs. Many studies have shown rising wage disparity. In some ways, the wage disparity now seems to be as bad as in the 1930s.

Figure 5. U. S. Income Shares of Top 1% and Top 0.1%, Wikipedia exhibit by Piketty and Saez.

(2) Interest Rates. Interest rates are the lever that economists like to adjust upward or downward to try to stimulate the economy or push the economy downward. Short term interest rates, up until about the end of 2015, were at the level they were at during the Depression of the 1930s.

Figure 6. Monthly average 3-month term treasury bill rates in chart prepared by FRED. Amounts shown through October 2018. Grey bars indicate recessions.

Raising interest rates is like adding a little more dough to the already over-full bread bowl. With these higher interest rates, borrowers need to pay more for monthly payments, making the strain on their finances even worse than it was previously. Figure 6 shows that raising interest rates very often creates a recession. In fact, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 seems to be the result of an increase in short term interest rates. This time we are being told that the increase will be gentle, but if the bread bowl is already overly full (in the sense that affordability of the output of the economy is already way too low, for many workers), what difference does “gentle” make?

(3) Return on Capital Investment/Added Debt. Falling long-term interest rates between 1981 and 2016 seem to be an indirect reflection of falling long-term return on capital investment. If capital returns had been higher, there would be more demand for debt, forcing interest rates up to levels closer to where they had been when the economy was growing more quickly.

Figure 7. Monthly average 10-year US Treasury interest rates in chart prepared by FRED. Amounts shown through October 2018. Grey bars indicate recessions.

Another way we can look at how productive the addition of debt has been is by comparing the debt increase each year with the GDP increase (including inflation) each year. We use current year GDP as the denominator in both calculations. Figure 8 shows the indications for what the Bank for International Settlements calls “Core Debt” (that is, Total Non-Financial Debt, Including Government Debt).

Figure 8. Dollar Increase in US Core Debt as % of GDP, shown beside GDP dollar increase, as percentage of ending GDP. Amounts based on FRED data.

Comparing the red and blue lines on Figure 8, GDP rose fairly reliably in the pre-1981 period, as the amount of core debt rose. The core debt increases tended to be higher than the GDP increases, but not a great deal higher. Thus, the US ratios on Figure 1 could be close to 1.0 in early years.

Once interest rates started falling after 1981 (see Figures 6 and 7), core debt growth and GDP growth greatly diverged. I expect that quite a bit of this change was related to asset price inflation as interest rates fell. With lower interest rates, assets of all types started becoming more affordable. Thus, a greater number of buyers could be expected, driving up prices of assets of all kinds, including homes, stores, and factories. Owners of these assets could “take the equity out” as prices rose and could use the equity to purchase other goods and services. In theory, these activities might somewhat stimulate the economy. Figure 8 suggests that the benefits of these activities with respect to the “goods and services” portion of the economy (red line) were slight at best, however.

Figure 9. Dollar Increase in US Financial Debt as % of GDP, shown beside GDP dollar increase % of ending GDP. Amounts based on FRED data.

Figure 9 shows Financial Debt amounts corresponding to the Core Debt amounts shown in Figure 8. At first glance, it appears that Financial Debt (blue line ) has provided no benefit whatsoever for the Goods and Services part of the economy (red line). But clearly the bankers who created these financial products benefitted from the income they received from them. So did the low-income home buyers who bought homes that they could not really afford in the early 2000s. Home building was stimulated, and inflation in home prices was stimulated. Banks benefitted by being able to transfer their problem home loans to unsuspecting buyers. Whether this whole arrangement had any net benefit to the economy, other than to create pseudo-solutions for people who could not really afford the homes they were purchasing, is doubtful. But when the economy is near limits, strange solutions to stimulating the economy are attempted.

(4) Commodity Prices. If we have a supply problem with one kind of commodity, we likely have a supply problem with many kinds of commodities at the same time. The reason why this happens is because the prices of many types of commodities tend to move together, in response to general market conditions. This is why the US government talks about inflation in oil and food prices as a separate category of Consumer Price Inflation.

If prices for commodities are generally low, as they have been since 2014, this means that commodity investors have received low rates of return for several years. With low rates of return, producers of many commodities have cut back on reinvestment. With inadequate reinvestment, supply crunches are likely to occur across a broad spectrum of commodities simultaneously. A recent Wall Street Journal article says, Supply Crunch Looms in Commodities Markets. The article mentions copper, zinc, aluminum and nickel. Other articles talk about oil in a similar fashion.

The question becomes, “Can consumers bid up the prices of all of these minerals sufficiently, to encourage enough reinvestment to solve the world’s commodity supply problem?” Food prices would likely need to be bid up as well, because oil is used heavily in the production and transport of food.

It was possible to bid up commodity prices in the 1970s, because the economies of the United States, Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union were all growing rapidly. Also, women were joining the labor force in large numbers. It was possible to bid up commodity prices in the 2002 to 2008 era, because China and other Asian nations were rapidly ramping up their demand for goods and services of all kinds.

Figure 10. China energy production by fuel plus its total energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 data. The difference between the production figures shown and the black line consumption total is imports.

Now we are facing a much different situation. China is in much worse shape than most people recognize because its coal supply seems to have passed peak production. This has happened because the cheap-to-extract coal is mostly depleted, making it unprofitable to increase coal production without significantly higher prices. Imported coal and natural gas are expensive options. China also has a serious debt problem.

Because of China’s problems, the country will necessarily need to cut back on manufacturing, road building and home building in the years ahead. (This would happen, with or without Trump’s tariffs!) For some minerals, China currently represents over 50% of the world’s demand. China is the largest oil importer in the world. It is doubtful that China can make major cutbacks in its use of commodities without lowering prices for many commodities worldwide.

Persistence of Outdated Models

We are dealing with a situation where a large number of people suspect, at least vaguely, that the world economy is like bread dough about to outgrow its bowl, but this is not an issue anyone really wants to quantify. Everyone wants solutions; they don’t want a better delineation of the problem. Repeated publication of climate change forecasts is, in a sense, a denial of the possibility that we may be facing resource limits that are close at hand. Such publication is saying, in effect, that the closest limit that citizens need to worry about is the climate limit.

Also, the reliance of researchers on the past work by others in the same field tends to reinforce what are essentially incorrect models. Cross-pollination across fields is difficult, given the technical nature of today’s academic research. Furthermore, it becomes increasingly difficult to properly model a situation that is very complex and depends upon non-linear interactions.

Putting All of These Issues Together

The focuses of today’s narrow research can give a surprisingly distorted overview of where the economy is. A few areas in particular stand out:

(a) The choice of the word “Demand” instead of “Affordable Quantity” makes it sound like the buyer has more control over purchases than he really does. Growing demand seems to depend on continually increasing debt. This is the reason for the debt bubble problem.

(b) Framing the energy problem as “running out of oil” makes it sound like searching for substitutes will be a fruitful area for solution. Because of the affordability issue, this search is futile unless the substitutes are truly cheaper, when all costs are considered. Declining availability of many minerals because of persistently low commodity prices could be an issue as well.

(c) If limits are being reached in many areas simultaneously, incentives for countries to co-operate seem likely to go downhill quickly. Bullies who claim to be able to obtain a bigger share of the shrinking total supply will tend to be elected.

(d) The physics tie between energy and the economy makes major energy consumption cutbacks virtually impossible, without risking economic collapse.

(e) Adding technology isn’t really a solution to the debt problem, because it tends to make the affordability problem worse. The problem is that while adding technology seems to lead to more employment for a few elite workers, it tends to displace lower-wage workers at the same time. The spending of lower-wage workers is really needed if adequate demand for commodities is to be maintained. Additionally, the ownership of the technology-related capital goods tends to be concentrated among the elite; this further shifts wealth from the non-elite to the elite.

The long term prognosis for the world economy seems pretty grim, when all of these issues are put together. Defaulting debt and a resulting collapse in asset prices of all kinds is of particular concern. The default of subprime housing debt was an issue in the US at the time of the Great Recession; the next round of defaults is likely to start elsewhere. Debt defaults could start fairly soon, perhaps in the next 6 to 12 months. The more hostile political situation we have been seeing recently seems to be evidence that limits are close at hand.






About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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2,136 Responses to Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems

  1. Harry McGibbs says:

    “China has dropped its national currency’s reference rate against the US dollar by nearly 10%, in a bit to boost its exports. The Central Bank aims to determine the real value of the Yuan on the world market, in order to take into account its supply and demand on the foreign exchange market.”


  2. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Growth will decelerate across advanced and emerging market economies, according to Moody’s research released yesterday. In the US, the ongoing removal of monetary accommodation, waning fiscal stimulus, and restrictive trade policies will start weighing on financial markets and economic activity, the company said.”


  3. Harry McGibbs says:

    “German electrical giant Siemens says profits for the last quarter slumped 46 percent. Thousands of jobs have been slashed and the “power and gas” branch is being restructured.”


    • Harry McGibbs says:

      “BMW has reported that its profit dropped by 27 per cent in the third quarter of 2018. In a statement, the German premium car-maker blamed currency fluctuations, raw material costs, the high cost of electric- and autonomous-vehicle R&D and US president Donald Trump’s trade wars for the fall in profit…

      ““Along with the rest of the industry, we are increasingly confronted with adverse external factors, the negative impact of which cannot be fully offset,” BMW’s Chief Financial Officer, Nicolas Peter, said.”


  4. CTG says:

    Thanks Gail for the new post. I was reading through the comments and did not have the opportunity to post. Life is great and fill with things to do and I do lead a full but busy life.

    Pertaining to “Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems”, let me share few thoughts.

    I felt that there are two “big thing” that we have humans that were not present a long time ago

    1. Entitled or entitlement
    2. There is no survival or the fittest or the best

    From the onset on humans a few hundred thousand (less than 1m) years ago, there is no such thing as “being entitled”. (Separate food for thought – nature took millions/billions of years to evolve from cells to some rudimentary lifeform but for humans just less than 1m years, we can have a magnificent, super complex brain that is capable of conceptualization, visualization, communication, etc? maybe some help from somewhere?)
    Do the early humans felt entitled? Definitely. However, as we “advanced” from hunter gatherer to farming, fossil fuel, humans felt that they are entitled to something. In the early days of farming, they felt entitled that they don’t need a hard hunter’s life and entitled that if they stay in the city, they are not going to be mauled by tigers. Fast forward to modern day, with the help of fossil fuel, everything is taken for granted and everyone is entitled to something (pension, healthcare, transportation, work, food, etc). I have never met anyone who says that he is not entitled to something. Mothers felt that they child are entitled to every luxury in life and that infant mortality is not even thinkable. Every child must be saved (this leads to the second issue – survival of best/strongest/fittest) and every child is entitled to have a great life in future.

    The current social issue in USA is probably fully attributed to “entitlement”, be it giving or maintaining these entitlements. Some goes for Europe and probably every developed country. House prices are always going up, stock markets are not going to crash and I am entitled to that. These are the many forms of entitlement.
    The farther we deviate from our true nature, the worse it will be when we revert to mean. Those are living a life full of entitlement will be horribly surprised when they are taken away.

    So, how does this entitlement thing has to do with “Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems”?
    If you are poor, be it in the developing or developed world, you really don’t care about all these issues because they are way way above you. You are not very “entitled” anyway as you are poor. You are more worried about your next meal or you might be the next meal for the animals that roam around.

    It is those who are “entitled” like financiers, engineers, bankers, professionals, etc who will think about these issues because they are fully fed and are entitled to the nice things of life. Since they have free time (like the senate in Roman times), they will think “great things” that will influence social, make them feel great, honourable and want to leave a great legacy. However, humans have a nasty habit, they don’t want to talk about sad things or things that make people “dislike” you. Try to talk about death, disease, etc and you will be labeled Debbie Downer. You need people like Debbie Downer as a feedback to the real issues faced by people. However, as people do not like distressing news, they will only accept fake “good news” even though many of the professionals doubted them (like renewables), they play along. Politicians have something to gain and so are some businesses. As time goes on, it grew on itself among the entitled. The poor just could not care less about it as they are still worried about the next meal. The average joe or poorer people of developing countries like India, China, South America, Africa, etc (who are not entitled) may not even understand renewables.

    Just like 2 straight parallel lines, if one of the lines deviates a little, you an adjust it back early and it takes a little effort to do it. However, with the entitled society, some people see the deviation and warned but were laughed at because they are being Debbie Downer. So, many kept quiet, played along and some of them outright believe it (I never believe in “diversity is good”). The lines kept on deviating from being parallel and as of today, the deviation is so far off that it is just not possible to put them back together again unless a tremendous amount of energy is put in.
    “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

    The second part is the survival of the fittest/strongest/best adapted
    As humans leads a more sedentary lifestyle, the lifespan increases. More lives were saved, and infant mortality dropped. This goes against the wishes of nature where for the last billions of years, it is survival of the fittest. The weak were weeded out and all life form on earth is based on this fact. In fact, mutation (that leads to cancer) is part of this stuff and that cure for cancer is just an impossible task.

    With the introduction of fuel (wood) and fossil fuel hundreds of years ago, many of the diseases that should have died away flourished. Genetic diseases spread far and wide as we defy nature by saying “we should save everyone”.

    When you mix “entitlement” and “survival of not the fittest’, you basically have a recipe for disaster and that disaster will only be realized much later. If you have a “not so smart” entitled relative of a nobleman or king, he/she may take up key positions and whatever decisions he/she makes will impact everyone much later or even impact the entire civilization (i.e. like planting at the wrong time, etc). Those who are under him are also entitled and will just follow his orders and at the end, everyone suffers.

    Currently, the culture of entitlement is so prevalent that it is not possible to find otherwise. From the enrolment of playschool (so that your child can mix with some big shots so that he can get a nice position later on in life) to corruption or cronyism. Everyone wants to have a pie and at the end, the person who is taking up responsible positions are those who are not fit to do it. This is similar to genetic diseases, it does not show up early but when it shows up, it is “game over”.

    So, with people who are not suitable for the jobs and commanding those below to do a good job, it does not work. That is why you ended up with “Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems”

    • We are all equal says:

      A lot of the entitlement is coming from women who are demanding things previously provided to them by their husbands, and extended family. Technology, and a reduction in birth-rates made them less needed at home. Falling wages made them more expensive to keep at home. They did not enter the workplace in large numbers because they wanted to compete with men for jobs, but because they had to.
      Since they, and society are convinced that gender and other differences don’t matter despite a lot of research saying that they do, including assessment tests, we have a lot of make-work programs for them but not enough. There are men who are entitled but they tend to think more like women–it’s about what society can do for them. How society is cruel to them and others.

      “entitlement” and “survival of not the fittest’,
      This was the major problem with Communism. With a few exceptional sectors in Communist economies (think of Russian rocket science), there was no mechanism for selecting the best worker. It was either forced labor camps, nepotism, and ignorance. The whole thing hinged on the quality of the central planners, who often weren’t people with experience making products or managing large businesses.

      • xabier says:

        Or under the Soviet system, good workers were in fact selected, and then found themselves dealing with entrenched corruption and nepotism.

      • CTG says:

        Entitlement comes in when you have surplus energy. People have more free time and they start to think about “how to make life better” which is not possible in a finite world if everyone wants their piece of cake, especially those who don’t deserve it (of course many will ask who determines this). Without surplus energy, none of these would come to pass.

        What happens to Soviet Union? Check out yourself. We are just barreling towards that path without any brakes. All this is destined, one way or another once homo sapiens start using their brains “to make things better”

      • jupiviv says:

        “With a few exceptional sectors in Communist economies (think of Russian rocket science), there was no mechanism for selecting the best worker.”

        That’s not the problem. The “best workers” would only comprise a minute fraction of the economy/production process, by definition. I would sum it up as not enough access to resources, tech and labour via “free trade” arbitrage/dollar preference, plus not enough time/resources/local expertise to build up and upgrade industrial infrastructure in tandem with the capitalist West beyond the initial boom of the 20s-30s. The US had those so could fund and attract much more innovation => efficiency improvement => consumption, thus managing to outlive the Soviet system by a few decades.

    • A Real Black Person says:

      So, you’re agreeing with the mismanagement theory, that mismanagement is a significant reason for why previous complex societies collapsed.

      It doesn’t seem to occur to you that the bad diagnoses are deliberately spread by the Professional Class to keep people from panicking. It doesn’t seem to occur to you that unqualified people are deliberately put into management who really believe the bad diagnoses are good diagnoses. Bad diagnoses are part of the global industrial society belief system. You can find many of its preachers here.
      The aim of bad diagnoses isn’t to do anything but to keep people believing in the system.
      Confidence in the system is all the elites believe is holding the system together.

      I don’t think mismanagment is a problem in developed countries—YET. In developing countries and undeveloped countries there is a bad mix of incompetence and scarcity.

      • CTG says:

        ARBP, my contention in my writings is not pertaining to civilization collapse per say but rather complementing what Gail has written on “Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems”. To me, generally, it is the environment has collapses the civilization but mismanagement (all forms of mismanagement) hasten the collapse. All things being equal if there is continuous excess energy, civilization will flourish. Instead of needing one joule to do the work, the inefficient civilization may need 10 joules.But hey! energy is limitless in this scenario, thus, it does not matter.

        Mismanagement is one of the reasons why we have that situation.

        • Tim Groves says:

          Agreed. Mismanagement is a huge factor in destroying civilization. Also, I have observed that the more energy we use as a society, the more we tend to waste, abuse and mismanage our surroundings. We have already reached the point where we have become a poor parody of a civilization.

          Tiny personal example: A colleague of mine has gone through 12 smartphones in the past 10 years (11 are probably in landfill now) and his efforts have helped keep the economy ticking over, while I, by continuing to use the same flip-phone for the past 12 years (and I only bought that under pressure from the nagging wife!), am considered part of the problem of declining consumer sentiment.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            Old Jevon would say … if he didn’t waste his energy on mobile phones… he’d have used it on something else equally not needed…

            • DJ says:

              He spent enormous amount of money on booze , chicks and cars. The rest he wasted on smartphones.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Someone needs to tell him he could a very nice rubber s ex doll for the price of 10 smart phones… very nice… very nice indeed…

          • A Real Black Person says:

            You guys keep puffing up mismanagement as a big menace without providing one concrete example of mismanagement in developed industrial economies. Using what is available is not mismanagement.

            A good example of mismanagement, in my opinion, would be intentionally burning oil fields–petroleum that could have been used be used but is wasted and no one got to use it


            You can’t really use war unless the war was over something trivial, like someone stepping on someone’s shoe. Wars produce winners and losers. There is always some thing from a political group to gain from warfare.

            An example of mismanagement has to be, like setting oil fields on fire, has to be a lose-lose situation.

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Dead on!

    • Thanks CTG,

      I think you have some good points.

      Our self organizing system, when we have a certain level of energy, makes sure that we use all of what is available. Also, our way of thinking somehow gets adapted to, “The system will always get better. We will always have as much as we do now. So any program/entitlement that has been in place will always be available.” Of course, the models on which all of the giveaways were based (put together by the folks who don’t understand the limits of a finite system) always a show the program working indefinitely. The economists have played into this with all of their ridiculous models.

      The actuaries followed the economists and put together totally unrealistic stories as well. Of course, with respect to Social Security and Medicare, they always said privately and to those close to the situation: “These benefits are not guaranteed. We can always change the system, to reduce benefits or to raise taxes. The systems are basically pay-as-you go. If the fortunes of the country change, we can always change the system.” This really wasn’t explained to people depending on the system. But Angela Merkel understood the part about needing young workers to pay for the retirees, even if it is necessary to import them.

      Regarding doing away with survival of the fittest, I think that this is a big part of what our healthcare system is designed to work around. We save all kinds of children with genetically inherited diseases, so that they can pass them on to the next generation. We save people who cannot fight off infections. We save people who are becoming very frail, and will be a problem to take care of for many years in the future.

      Also, if we were to go backward, the genetic adaptions that have been built in, such as light skin versus dark skin, or ability to deal with high altitude, will be completely messed up with all of our travel and intermarriage. I live fairly fair south, for example. My light skin would not be the correct adaptation here.

      • A Real Black Person s says:

        Race is not just skin color. It is a set of genetic adaptations to a given area.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          Case in point… J-Roc is a white black man:

        • xabier says:

          I know, skin colour, so absurd: there are not a few Italians and Spaniards as dark – or darker – than Asian Indians – but we are told that one group must be classified as ‘white’ and the latter as ‘black’, and assigned the appropriate moral status.

          And now we have the insane umbrella concept of ‘BAME’ – all groups which have historically loathed and enslaved one another (if they ever came into contact ) in the age of empires……

          I’m still looking into compenstion for historic Roman enslavement of Saxons and Basques. I just can’t get over the pain of thinking about it…..Wish me luck I’ll share the millions, I promise.

          • Harry McGibbs says:

            And surely the Cornish deserve compensation from the North African states for the 16th century raids by Barbary pirates, too.

            In fact everyone deserves compensation from *everyone*. Like MMT for bleeding hearts.

        • doomphd says:

          correct, and white skin is actually a genetic defect protected in populations living in the cloudy northern latitudes, initially with fur clothes and caves to hide in from the sun’s harmful UV. uncovered and in southern latitudes, the fair-skinned ones get skin cancer and go blind with cataracks at a comparatively early age. there is no such thing as a healthy tan, just sun-damaged skin.

          • Tim Groves says:

            Inability to manufacture vitamin C in the liver can also be regarded as a genetic defect as it means humans never get enough of the stuff unless they live on nuts and berries or take their supplements religiously. Dogs, cats, pigs, crows and many other animals can eat rotten or rancid food or germ-infested carrion that would poison humans and yet they manage quite well on it. They don’t need clothes to keep warm or baths to stay fresh. They never floss. And they don’t have to wipe their behinds when they take a dump. How’s that for genetic fitness?

      • CTG says:

        There is an old saying of “An idle mind’s is a de-vil’s workshop”. With surplus energy, people, in just the last 2 decades start to think about equaility for everyone. Without surplus energy, no one will even bother about the stu-pid social situation we are in now.

        This is what NOT nature wanted us to do. We are at the level where the system actually stops me if I use sensitive words like de-vil or stu-pid. We have deviated so far from what nature intended us to be that we will in a total wipe out when the reset comes. Those who are so entitled will be totally lost because “this thing is not suppose to happen to them”.

        As I have said many times here on this forum for many years, humans are not made equal. Whoever has the advantage will exploit it and wipe out the opposite faction, usually mercilessly because it is either “you or me” who will survive. It has been like that for hundreds of millennia. And there are people who think that we can change that in the last 20 years. That is really beyond arrogance

        • Slow Paul says:

          We have a similar saying in my country which would translate to “idleness is the root of all evil”. Your writings here are spot on, CTG. I just shake my head when I listen to all the people expressing their entitlements.
          “They won’t give me a mortgage to buy the house I want”
          “They won’t give me the medicines I need” (which costs $100k p.a.)
          “They didn’t give me a raise this year”

          I see this every day, especially in the health biz I work in. The health care in my country is basically free and universal. Boy oh boy people are in for a rude awakening as the funds get slashed each year.

          • xabier says:

            The most ludicrous expression of a sense of personal entitlement turned up,of course, in The Guardian.

            A young women was complaining in an article that while she was not homeless, and had a nice little apartment, she was ‘houseless’.

            That’s it, she had a Right to a house, with a garden, in order ‘to lead a full and fulfilling life.Society was failing her. Capitalism was oppressing her, and so on.

            O Universe, gimme, gimme, gimme! And be quick about it!

            • We are all equal says:

              Women have been like that for millions of years. Half of what we “waste” our surplus on is on making them feel comfortable and making them feel valuable.

              Men spend a great deal of effort trying to make women feel comfortable and valuable, whether they are gay or straight.

            • Slow Paul says:

              Yes, the maximum power principle in action. Dissipating resources to attract mating partners.

          • jupiviv says:

            So you are annoyed by the very sense of entitlement that enables your job? That is more entitled than any of the examples you listed!

            • Slow Paul says:

              Most jobs are enabled by entitlement, but you are entitled to your opinion 🙂

            • jupiviv says:

              Some jobs are far more dependent upon the entitlements – of oneself and others – allowed due to BAU than others, and yours and admittedly mine as well are of the former variety.

      • xabier says:

        Unfortunately politicians, to get voted in, generally promise that things will get better and better, and encourage this popular misunderstanding of how welfare, pensions, etc, really work and are funded.

        The language used doesn’t help. In Spain, the Left refer to them as ‘social conquests’, ie the historic struggle of the workers resulted in the pension and welfare system. This is of course partly true, but not the whole truth, and totally ignores our old friend here, Physics.

        The policy of importing cheap workers from Africa and Asia is being pursued everywhere in the West, and to some extent it works; in London recently I observed that nearly all the lower-tier jobs at a hospital were staffed by Asians and above all Africans, and a very high % of doctors were also immigrants. An incredible number of nurses were Irish, for some reason.

        I also saw lots of Columbians on the street near the hospital, but curiously none as workers -maybe an African ‘mafia’ at work in hospital recruitment?

        However, in many of these ethnic segments there are very high unemployment rates: in Spain for instance 100% unemployment among gypsies -many newly arrived from Eastern Europe – and an average of 37% unemployment among all ‘new Spaniards’.

        Even if they don’t work much or ad any real value, they do temporarily maintain consumption.

        Of course, many -particularly traditionalist Muslims – want to keep their womenfolk at home and out of the labour force: but ,again, they still help consumption.

        • A Real Black Person says:

          I dunno. I thought the appeal of importing cheap labor from poorer countries was that the imported cheap labor and their children would be less entitled–and would consume less than native workers.

          In any case, what Europe has done is that it has imported more working age people than it can provide jobs for, and stay-at-home-traditional-Muslim wife is a job that requires a Muslim husband to have a job to support a family. Putting an unemployed Muslim family on social welfare, adds to costs for social welfare…and doesn’t do much for consumption. Socially, I get the feeling it is humiliating for Muslim men in their prime to not be working.

          Population replacement doesn’t solve Europe’s economic problems. Socially, many immigrants do not consider themselves British if they are in Britain. or Irish if they are in Ireland. Some of them don’t want to assimilate–which raises a lot of questions on where their loyalties lie. It remains to be seen whether European immigrants from the Middle East and Africa can be counted on to serve the country in case of a war or preserve defining cultural institutions like democracy, multiculturalism, etc.

          Importing cheap labor without any real guidelines has been a disaster for most European countries.

          • DJ says:

            Immigration, working or not, makes current population, native or more recently arrived, wanting to leave the neighborhood. Very good for debt, consumption and gdp.

          • DJ says:

            Why would immigrants who have fled conscription in Hellholeistan go to war for a european country?

            • A Real Black Person says:

              The willingness to go to war for a country has been part of citizenship in European countries for a long time.
              They should not be considered citizens if all they’re there for is jobs and social welfare. Citizenships is more than consumption and working.
              They should be considered “guest workers”, slaves, anything but citizens.

          • zenny says:

            I get the feeling it is humiliating for Muslim men in their prime to not be working.
            No just no

      • Fast Eddy says:

        That said….

        People like this…

        are not breeding with people like this

    • Theophilus says:

      The Death of Entitlement

      If you are in a lifeboat and there are enough supplies to care for everyone, people in the boat have an expectation of receiving their fair share. When the supplies in the life boat can only provide for half the people, the concept of Entitlement is thrown overboard…. along with the weakest half of the people.

    • jupiviv says:

      The problem with this theory is that it begs the question. You describe the current status of the human race as a product of defying nature or evolution or whatever then proclaim “defying nature” as a recipe for collapse.

      How do you or can you even know what the wishes of “Nature” are? Nature isn’t a god, just reality in general. “Survival of the fittest” is just a description of cause and effect. Some things – including things defined as “life” – keep existing, while others do not, depending on the existence or nonexistence of other things and conditions. Have you seen *any* thing lately? Behold survival of the fittest. Everything in nature is entitled to existing just as it does, and clearly nature has no problem with that because otherwise those things wouldn’t exist in the first place. Sure some things exist longer than others, but how can there be a pattern or rationale in that? Consider the immortal jellyfish:


      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        Largely agree with jupiviv here (though I do disagree with him on a couple points on account of my ‘religious’ leanings). Here I’ll just add a few thoughts of mine…

        As I see it, thinking you’re entitled to something need not go against the order of things and bring about the sorry state of affairs we all now face, provided (1) one does not ask for too much (which is possible if one is raised on values like frugality and contentment), and (2) there’s a reasonably equitable distribution of resources (so that I won’t feel that I’m missing out on what my super-rich neighbors have).

        It is one thing — and entirely reasonable IMHO — to think that (a) I’m entitled to basic safety measures against things like predatory animals. It is another thing altogether to think (b) I’m entitled to more, more and more. (b) will always be unreasonable as long as we live in a finite world, but if we were to go so far as to dispute (a) I think we would need to ask ourselves if human society might not simply unravel as a result. (I know, human society is now unravelling anyway, but is that because of (a) or (b)? Can we view (a) and (b) as being basically the same?)

        I maintain it is perfectly possible for a society to achieve a humane and sustainable state while staying within the limits imposed by its resource base. Premodern China is our witness. She pulled through for millennia and as recently as the 17th and 18th centuries was able to feed up to three hundred million souls, with enough surplus energy for some to engage in cultural pursuits like composing novels spanning more than a hundred chapters in length. There were admittedly hiccups roughly every three to four hundred years, but she was always able to recover and get back on track. And the very fact that she could recover again and again shows that she had never overexploited her resource base. Before the 20th century, that is.

        Many here seem to think that we humans are basically hard-wired to pursue a path leading down to what James Howard Kunstler calls the Long Emergency. I’m sorry but on this point I part company with you fellas. If we’re headed for a Long Emergency (which I agree we are), it’s because some of us repeatedly made the wrong choices based on wrong views of the world and forced the rest of us to do so (and now we can no longer turn back), not because of any predestined inclinations on our part.

        If you can’t and won’t accept what I’ve said, so be it; let’s agree to disagree, no hard feelings. Certainly I’d like to see more serious evidence against my stand before I change it.

        My two cents.

        • A Real Black Person says:

          It’s always been possible for a tiny group of people to live lavishly provided that they have thousands of slaves. It’s not individual consumption that matters but the sum of all the consumption of a group of humans in a given area.

          China is an exceptional situation.
          I think they have more topsoil than other places.
          Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are not discussed by ofw people but I’m sure humans have lived unsustainably in all those areas.

          All of those areas have been affected by the industrial revolution and will have trouble going back to self-sufficiency given the larger populations that now exist because of access to food grown with fossil fuels. Lost knowledge and environmental degradation pose additional challenges.

          “any here seem to think that we humans are basically hard-wired to pursue a path leading down to what James Howard Kunstler calls the Long Emergency. ” If given abundant resources or, in the case of hunter-gathering societies, easy game humans will consume a lot of what is available. You may not be hard-wired to maximize your consumption, and therefore your status, but you and people like you are a minority. Most people want to increase their material situation.

          • doomphd says:

            Geologically, or more specifically, past climate conditions, have gifted China and the USA with abundant topsoil scrapped and washed down from higher latitudes by melting ice sheets. This was also the case for Northern Europe. There have been many cycles.

        • jupiviv says:

          “Many here seem to think that we humans are basically hard-wired to pursue a path leading down to what James Howard Kunstler calls the Long Emergency.”

          Not hard-wired per se but certainly genetically inclined towards. We could still be living like the African hunter-gatherers today or the paleolithic Europeans before the Indo-Aryans moved in, but the immorality of a few bad apples is an insufficient explanation for why we do not.

          BTW Ugo Bardi’s recent article has a graph showing the Chinese pop going exponential after c. 1500s.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            I doubt that…. if given the choice of a comfortable bed… a warm/cool home…. a shop selling food and the money to buy it …. the hunter gatherer would have jumped at the opportunity…

            This is not a choice….

            Just like when I put the fire on… my dog plonks down in front of it…. or like when my dog is in a cold room … she will seek out the smallest ray of warming sunlight … and settle in beneath it…

            • xabier says:

              A hunter-gatherer was quoted by Jared Diamond, who when asked why he’d move to a mission station, replied:

              ‘More food, fewer flies.’

              Trading thousands of years of ‘noble’, eco-friendly, self-sufficiency for an always-full belly seemed a pretty good deal to him!

              Man will always seek the optimum comfort possible within the technological means at his disposal.

              Danger sports and the joys of roughing in primitive simplicity it are manifestations of the boredom and luxury of rich societies.

              Less hard work, more heat and food? Count me in! Could be the motto of mankind.

      • We are all equal says:

        Repeat after me.
        as perpetual motion

        There is no observation of a jellyfish as having lived a long, long time. They can potentially live for a long time by reverting to a sexually immature version of themselves but that act,t is not, in itself, immortality.

        The rest of your post is very defensive.
        “How can you know what nature wants?
        We are all the fittest! We’re all entitled to exist..
        .Nature has no problem with that…it told me so itself.”

        • Fast Eddy says:

          This would not exist … without fossil fuels

        • jupiviv says:

          The jellyfish of that species are biologically immortal. None of them are actually immortal, which was my point. Yes, we are indeed all equally fit from a broad enough perspective (Nature).

          And I am not the one sounding “defensive”.

          • We are all equal says:

            What am I being defensive of, again? You are the one who is uncomfortable with the notion that many of us would not exist outside the artificial environment of industrial civilization, and are therefore, not fit.

            And no, we are not all equally fit. Redefining fitness so that it applies broadly doesn’t mean the majority of people are fit. A heavy reliance on technology is not indicative of fitness. Someone in reliant on expensive medical treatments to stay alive is not fit as a hunter-gatherer who doesn’t have access to much medical treatment .

            • jupiviv says:

              “What am I being defensive of, again?”

              The nonsense idea of a metaphysical natural standard for judging the validity of “entitlement”. Our environment is as natural as the hunter gatherers’. There is a trivial difference in duration, but no universal principle or will is at work.

              There is only reality, and some things last longer than others due to a numberless variety of causes over which a single thing exerts no influence or control.

            • Kowalainen says:

              Said the aspiring Buddhist. 👍

              It is music to my ears. Have you found Alan Watts yet on YT? 😎

        • zenny says:

          I beg to differ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCuf86tbbXs
          I am working on this for a space elevator power supply.
          Please watch to the end It gets good

      • Kowalainen says:

        It is human chauvinism in combination with a superficial distinctiveness dichotomy between man and nature.

        This stance is very confusing for people not severely programmed by society and the desert religions.

  5. Oil prices need to be high enough:

    Oil reserves and resources as function of oil price

    • While I didn’t look at the article in detail, one thing I noticed is that the Rystad chart of quantities of oil that are available at various prices leaves out is the needed taxes by the countries in which the oil reserves are located. Without these taxes, the countries cannot keep order. Their government will be overthrown without food subsidies people are used to, for example. There is probably also an increment needed for reinvestment as well, if the company is to stay in business. I doubt that they have necessary dividends to shareholders included as well.

      So the real needed oil prices, in order to keep the whole operations going, is probably $100 or more per barrel in most places in the world.

      The numbers reported to AM Best are hugely optimistic, at today’s prices.

  6. A Real Black Person says:

    “The problem is that while adding technology seems to lead to more employment for a few elite workers, it tends to displace lower-wage workers at the same time. ”

    Worker displacement was fine as long as workers could move into an industry with similar or higher paying wages such as manufacturing, or information technology in the 1980s and 1990s, where they could leverage technology to increase their productivity.

    The productivity increasing technology that we have now is so complex and requires workers with a particular personality traits and IQ. set to use them.

    The productivity increasing technology that we have now is similar to a jackhammer, not everyone can operate a jackhammer.

    The productivity increasing technology that we have now requires the skill level of a surgeon to operate. Not everyone can perform surgery or be sent to school long enough to become a surgeon.

    The productivity increasing technology we have now requires more and more specialization.

    The fact that many people can not go back to school and retrain to become buff enough to use a jackhammer or learn how to become a surgeon makes labor wages artificially higher than they normally would have been, which contributes to the high prices of products made with productivity increasing technology. This is probably why the elites are so dead-set on automation. We are reaching the limits of human capital. Schools are becoming make-work programs for the most part. They are no longer expected to train the workers of the future, outside of the top ones.

    • The schools, besides being make work programs, act to keep young people occupied, and out of the labor force for quite a while. In some ways, schools act as birth control, because the would-be parents are too poor to care for children.

  7. Kurt says:

    Oil at 59.75. Gosh, oil goes up, it goes down. So confusing. Shouldn’t it just be the same price all the time? I mean, economic theory states that, “Oil should always be the same price.” Obviously, the economists can’t be wrong.

    • Harry McGibbs says:

      But we are – if we agree with Gail’s thesis – quite specifically looking for an overall downward trend in prices amidst all this volatility, which is of course in defiance of conventional economic wisdom.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        CBs continue to apply the brakes… and the gas pedal…. pump in more stimulus if the price falls too much (threatening oil produces)…. pull back on stimulus if the price spikes too much (threatening the consumer with bankruptcy)….

        There is also the need to spike oil from time to time to excite would be shale investors

    • jupiviv says:

      It can’t be the same all the time because then it will never crash on a Monday, which is impossible.

  8. Phil Damjanovic says:

    Great article – just one pointer I’d like to leave: it’s better to use Brent than WTI as a marker of oil prices. WTI has become a logistically constrained crude oil (it has difficulty getting out to consumer markets in sufficient quantities), and so its price is disconnected and depressed from the rest of the global market. It doesn’t reliably represent the global average price of oil and hasn’t done so for 6-7 years now.

  9. Baby Doomer says:

    There will be an oil shortage in the 2020’s, Goldman Sachs says


    • Greg Machala says:

      I say there will be a deflationary debt collapse in the 2020’s leading to a global financial crisis or outright collapse. Maybe even before 2020.

      • Chrome Mags says:

        I say the Yankees will spend hundreds of millions trying to win another world series, Trump will spout a lot of lies, oil will go up and down in price, interest rates will stabilize and more people will become vegans, because owning a Tesla and using LED bulbs just isn’t enough. Those are my predictions.

      • CTG says:

        Stock index is not a representation of the economy but unfortunately, that is the only tool/gauge that the politicians love to use. In 2008, it was the subprime can caused the stocks to collapse, not the other round. Again, we are so interconnected that one small ripple can cause a tsunami in some other parts of the world.

        Think GE. It has gone from bad to worse. If there is someone who bought tons and tons CDS (bond insurance) on GE bonds many years ago when it was “still AAA”. When it goes belly up (very soon) and that person claimed like tens of billions in CDS claims, it could easily start a cascade of failures among the underwriters. I could be the one who caused the whole economic edifice to collapse. Think it will not happen? ask the same guy who said that subprime is contained. It is either they cannot see it or they cannot cause panic. Either way, we are cooked.

  10. adonis says:

    is 11th of November a monday in the US ?

Comments are closed.