Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Many people are concerned that we have an oil problem. Or they are concerned about recession and the need to lower interest rates.

As I see the situation, we have a problem of a networked economy that is not functioning well. A big part of this problem is energy-related. Strange as it may seem, energy prices (including oil prices) are too low for producers. If debt levels were growing more rapidly, this low-price problem would go away.

The “standard way” of encouraging more debt-based purchases is by lowering interest rates. But we are running out of room to do this now. We also seem to be running out of economic investments to make with debt. If expected returns on investment were greater, interest rates would be higher.

Without economic investments, demand for commodities of all kinds, including energy products, tends to stay too low. This is the problem we have today. Our debt problem and our energy problem are really different aspects of a networked economy that is no longer generating enough total return. History suggests that these periods tend to end badly.

In the following sections, I will explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

Oil: OPEC oil producers have cut back production because they view oil prices as too low. OPEC reports a cutback in production of 2.7 million barrels per day between November 2018 and July 2019 (from 32.3 million bpd to 29.6 million bpd).

In the US, there has been an increase in bankruptcies of oil producers during 2019, relative to 2018. There has also been a reduction in the number of oil drilling rigs of 17% since the week of November 16, 2018, according to reports by Baker Hughes. These are signs of producer distress.

Natural gas: While recent US natural gas prices have bounced up off their recent lows, as recently as August 8, 2019, we were reading:

U.S. gas futures this week collapsed to a three-year low, while spot prices were on track to post their weakest summer in over 20 years. In other markets, such lackluster pricing would cause investment to retrench and supply to contract.

But gas production is at a record high and expected to keep growing. Demand is rising as power generators shut coal plants and burn more gas for electricity, and as rapidly expanding liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals turn more of the fuel into super-cooled liquid for export.

Analysts believe the natural gas market is not trading on demand fundamentals because supply growth continues to far outpace rising consumption. Energy firms are pulling record amounts of oil from shale formations and with that oil comes associated gas that needs either to be shipped or burned off.

When we look worldwide, we see that the Wall Street Journal is reporting, “U.S. Glut in Natural Gas Supplies Goes Global.” A chart from that article shows falling natural gas prices in Europe and Asia, almost to the level of US natural gas prices.

Coal: The US Energy Information Administration writes, “More than half of US coal mines operating in 2008 have since closed.” USA Today writes, “Is President Trump losing his fight to save coal? Third major company since May files for bankruptcy.”

China has also been closing coal mines in response to low prices. Its coal production ramped up quickly after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, but since the 2012 to 2013 period, production has been close to level. An academic paper talks about a “de-capacity program” undertaken in China in 2016 in response to plunging coal prices and overall financial loss of coal enterprises.

Figure 1. China energy production by fuel, based on 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy data. “Other Ren” stands for “Renewables other than hydroelectric.” This category includes wind, solar, and other miscellaneous types, such as sawdust burned for electricity.

Uranium: A recent article says, “Plummeting global uranium prices hit Namibia hard.” Another article talks about the huge amount of capacity that has been taken off-line because of continued low uranium prices. The article estimates that 25% to 35% of global uranium production had already been taken off-line by the time the article was published (May 20, 2019).

Ethanol: According to the Wall Street Journal, the ethanol industry has been losing money since at least 2015, and is now closing ethanol plants in three states. The trade war has exacerbated its problems, but clearly its problems began before the trade war.

[2] The general trend in oil prices has been down since 2008. In fact, a similar trend applies for many other fuels.

Figure 2 shows that oil prices since 2008 have been trending downward.

Figure 2. Inflation adjusted weekly average Brent Oil price, based on EIA oil spot prices and US CPI-urban inflation.

Figure 3 shows that other energy prices have been following a similar price trend to that of oil. This situation happens because energy products are primarily used in finished goods and services of many kinds, such as cars, homes, vacation travel, and air conditioning. If demand for finished goods and services is high, prices for all commodities can be expected to be high; if demand for finished goods and services is low, prices for all commodities can be expected to be low. Thus, it shouldn’t be too shocking that the problem of prices that are too low for energy producers is very widespread.

Figure 3. Comparison of changes in oil prices with changes in other energy prices, based on time series of historical energy prices shown in BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. The prices in this chart are not inflation-adjusted. They are annual averages, so smooth out quite a few smaller bumps.

[3] The situation of prices being too low for many types of energy producers simultaneously is precisely the problem I found back in December 2008 when I wrote the article Impact of the Credit Crisis on the Energy Industry – Where Are We Now? 

The article mentioned was written in December 2008. If we look back at Figure 2, this was a time when oil prices were very low. I had first noticed a cutback in credit of various kinds (including credit card debt and mortgage debt) in the middle of 2008, about the time oil prices crashed. Later in the year, additional financial problems emerged, including the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Banks became less willing to offer credit to buyers who were deemed insufficiently creditworthy.

In my December 2008 article, I wrote about suppliers in various supply chains not being able to get credit. Without credit, supply chains could not operate. Businesses depending on supply chains were forced to cut back on their purchases. In fact, some suppliers went bankrupt. Workers were laid off in this process; these layoffs added to the lack of buyers for finished goods and services. Energy prices of many types crashed simultaneously because of the lack of demand for commodities used to make finished products of many kinds.

The fix for the problem back in late 2008 was for the US to begin Quantitative Easing. Quantitative Easing lowered longer-term interest rates and allowed more credit to get back to supply chains. By 2011, oil prices had risen to a level that was more tolerable for producers. These higher prices slowly slipped away, especially disappearing when the US discontinued its Quantitative Easing program in 2014.

If a person looks at the late 2008 situation, it is clear that a lack of debt availability indirectly led to low commodity prices. Prices dropped almost vertically when the debt bubble popped. This time, the situation is a little different. We arrived at low prices through the long diagonal black dotted line on Figure 2; this time other factors besides an obvious lack of debt have been involved.

One issue that seems to be involved this time is a shift in relativities between the dollar and other currencies, making energy products more expensive for those outside the US.

A second contributing issue this time is growing wage disparities, as goods are increasingly manufactured in low-wage countries. Low-wage workers (both in developing countries and in advanced economies trying to compete with developing countries) are less able to buy finished goods and services. This contributes to the lack of demand for finished goods and services using commodities of all kinds, including energy products.

[4] In the right circumstances, a rapidly growing supply of cheap energy products can help the world economy grow.

If we look back, there was a period of rapid growth in the world’s energy consumption between World War II and 1980. This was a period of rapid growth in the world economy.

Figure 4. Average growth in energy consumption for 10 year periods, based Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects (Appendix) together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent.

In fact, both population and energy consumption per capita were growing. This growing energy consumption per capita allowed living standards to grow as well (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Energy growth amounts shown in Figure 4, divided between amount that supported population growth (based on 2019 world population estimates and earlier estimates by Angus Maddison) and all other, which I have called “living standards.”

Most people would agree that a major increase in living standards took place between World War II and 1980. New buildings were constructed to replace those destroyed or damaged during World War II. Many people were able to buy cars for the first time. Interstate highway systems were built. Electric transmission lines were built, and oil and gas pipelines were laid. In rural areas, homes were often electrified for the first time. With the aid of energy saving appliances and birth control pills, many women joined the workforce. The US, Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union all saw their economies grow.

[5] It is striking that the period of rapid energy consumption growth between World War II and 1980 corresponds closely to the long-term rise in US interest rates between the 1940s and 1980 (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Three-month and ten-year interest rates through July 2019, in chart by Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

If interest rates rise, it becomes more expensive to borrow money. Monthly payments for homes, cars, and new factories all rise. Evidently, the US economy was growing robustly enough in the 1940 to 1980 timeframe that US short term interest rates could be raised without much economic harm. The big concern seemed to be an overheating economy as a result of too rapid growth.

The huge increase in interest rates in 1980-1981 put an end to any concern about an overheating economy (compare Figures 6 and 7). Oil prices came back down once the world economy was in recession from these high interest rates.

Figure 7. Historical inflation-adjusted Brent-equivalent oil prices based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

[6] Starting about 1980, the US economy began substituting rapidly growing debt for rapidly growing energy supplies. For a while, this substitution seemed to pull the economy forward. Now growth in debt is failing as well.

Figure 8 shows how the ratio of total US debt (including governmental, household, business and financial) has changed since 1946. It becomes clear that once the big “push” that the economy received from rising consumption of energy products began to fail about 1980, the US moved to the addition of debt as a substitute.

Figure 8. Ten-year average increase in US debt relative to GDP. Debt is “All Sectors, Liability Level” from FRED; GDP is in dollars of the day.

I think of debt as being one of many kinds of promises. Figure 9 illustrates that while the total amount of goods and services has been growing, debt levels and other kinds of promises have been growing even more rapidly.

Figure 9. Promises of future goods and services tend to rise much more rapidly than actual goods and services. Chart by Gail Tverberg.

Many things can go wrong with this system. If the growth in added debt slows too much, we can expect to start seeing financial problems similar to those we saw in 2008. Also, if the level of debt (such as student debt) gets too high, its payback interferes with the purchase of other needed goods, such as a home. If energy providers decide prices are too low and stop producing, then promised Future Goods and Services can’t really appear. Huge defaults on promises of all kinds can be expected. This happens because the laws of physics require the dissipation of energy for physical processes underlying GDP growth.

[7] Since 2001, world economic growth has been pulled forward by China with its growing coal supply and its growing debt. In the future, this stimulus seems likely to disappear. 

Figure 10. Figure similar to Figure 5, with bump that is primarily the result of China’s accelerated growth circled.

China has been financing its rapid economic growth since 2001 with growing debt.

Figure 11. China Debt to GDP Ratio, in figure by the IIF.

We know that low prices for coal have led to flattening production since the 2012 – 2013 period (Figure 1). In fact, part of the reason for the flattening of non-financial corporate debt in recent years in Figure 11 may reflect swaps of uncollectible coal mine debt for equity, removing part of coal mine debt from the chart.

The failure of coal production to grow rapidly puts China at an economic disadvantage because coal is a very low-cost energy source. Any substitution, even imported coal, is likely to raise its cost of making goods and services. This makes competition in a world economy more difficult. And China’s debt level is already very high, putting it at risk of the problems discussed in Section [6].

[8] The world economy needs much more rapidly growing debt if energy prices are to rise to a level that is acceptable to energy producers. 

Debt acts like a promise of future goods and services. Growing debt, plus increases in other types of promises of future goods and services, helps to keep energy prices high enough for energy producers. There are at least three reasons that growing debt helps an economy:

First, increasing debt can be used to build factories, and these factories hire large numbers of people. The factories utilize various raw materials and energy products themselves, raising demand for goods and services. Furthermore, the workers hired by the factories, with their incomes from their jobs, also raise the demand for goods and services. These goods and services are made with commodities. Growing debt thus raises demand for commodities, and thus their prices.

Second, increasing debt levels by governments are often used to hire workers or to raise benefits for the unemployed or the elderly. This has a very similar effect to building new factories. These workers and these beneficiaries can afford more goods and services, and these goods and services are made using commodities. Governments also use some of their funds to build schools, pave roads and operate police cars. All of these things require energy consumption.

Third, consumers can afford to buy more of the output of the economy, if their debt levels are increased. If debt can be structured so that anyone who walks into a car dealership can afford a new car (such as longer durations, lower interest rates, and no down payment), this added debt allows increasing demand for new cars. It also allows increasing demand for the energy products used to make and operate these new vehicles. Furthermore, if new homes can be made more affordable for young people, this works in the direction of adding more mortgage debt.

The Institute of International Finance (IIF) reports that the ratio of world debt to GDP (red line on Figure 12) has been falling since 2016. This falling ratio of debt to GDP no doubt contributes to the low-priced energy problem with which energy producers are now struggling.

Figure 12. IIF figure showing total world debt and the ratio of total world debt to GDP.

Non-debt promises of many types can also have an impact on energy prices, but it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss their impact. Some examples of non-debt promises are shown on Figure 9.

[9] The world economy seems to be running out of truly productive uses for debt. There are investments available, but the rate of return is very low. The lack of investments with adequate return is a significant part of what is preventing the economy from being able to support higher interest rates.

In a self-organizing networked economy, market interest rates (especially long-term interest rates) are determined by the laws of physics. Regulators do have some margin for action, however. They can raise or lower certain short-term interest rates. They can also use their central banks to purchase existing securities, thereby influencing both short- and long-term interest rates. In addition, they can indirectly affect the system by raising and lowering tax rates and by adopting stimulus programs.

Market interest rates, in some sense, tell us how productive investments truly are at a point in time. Years ago, investments that the economy was able to make were far more productive than the investments we are making today. For example, the first paved road in an area had a huge beneficial effect. New roads were able to open whole areas up to commerce. Once an area had been developed, later investments were much less beneficial. Fixing up a road that has many holes in it takes energy and materials of many types, but it doesn’t really add productivity to the system. It just keeps productivity from falling.

After a point, adding new roads or other infrastructure doesn’t add much of anything. This is especially the case if population is level or falling. If population is falling, it would likely make sense to reduce the number of roads, but this is difficult to do, once there are a few occupied homes along a road.

As another example, a car that gets a person from home to work is a great addition if the vehicle allows the person to take a job that he could not otherwise take. But added “bells and whistles” on cars, such as air conditioning, a musical system, sturdier bumpers, and devices to reduce emissions, are of more questionable value, viewed from the point of view of allowing the economy to function cheaply and efficiently.

Another type of investment is education. At one point, a high school education was sufficient for the vast majority of the population. Now additional years of schooling, paid for by the student himself, are increasingly expected. An investment in higher education can be “productive,” in the sense of helping to differentiate himself/herself from those with no post-secondary education. But the overall level of wages has not been rising enough to compensate for all of the extra education. It is the growing complexity of the system that is forcing the need for extra education upon us. In a sense, the extra education is a tax we are required to pay for having a more complex system.

The need for pollution control might be considered another kind of tax on the system.

Our hugely expensive health care system is another tax on the system. After paying the cost of health care, workers have less funding available for buying or renting a home, raising a family, food and transportation.

[10] Since 1981, regulators have been able to prop up the economy by reducing interest rates whenever economic growth was faltering. Now we have pretty much run out of this built-in source stimulus.

Many observers have noted that central bankers are running out of tools to fix our economic problems. The lack of room to take down interest rates can be seen in Figure 6.

Figure 13 shows that long-term patterns of reductions in interest rates (darker bands) have happened previously. These reductions in interest rates came to an end because they couldn’t go any lower, given inflation expectations and likely levels of defaults. We seem to be facing a similar situation today.

Figure 13. Chart from the Financial Times showing historic interest rates and periods during which interest rates fell.

According to Figure 13, there have been three periods of falling interest rates in the last 200 years:

  • 1817-1854
  • 1873-1909
  • 1985-2019

In the gap between the first two periods of falling interest rates (1854 to 1873), the US Civil War took place. This was a period of very poor return on investments. Somehow it ended in war.

Immediately after the second two periods of falling interest rates (after 1909), the world entered a very unstable period. First there was World War I, then the Great Depression, followed by World War II.

Now we are facing the possibility of yet another end-point for the take-down in interest rates.

[11] The total return of the economy seems to be too low now. This seems to be why we have problems of many types, ranging from (a) low interest rates to (b) low profitability for energy producers to (c) too much wage disparity. 

All of the problems listed above are manifestations of an economy that is not producing sufficient total return. The laws of physics distribute the problem to many areas of the economy, simultaneously.

A person wonders what could be ahead. We seem to be reaching the end of the line regarding the takedown of interest rates, as shown in Figure 13. If a takedown in interest rates is possible, it acts as a relief valve for some of the other problems the economy is facing, including too much wage disparity and energy prices that are too low for producers.

In Section [10], we saw that when the relief valve of lower interest rates had disappeared, wars and depressions have taken place. We can’t know the precise outcome this time, but our current situation doesn’t look good. Will we encounter wars, or a serious depression, or financial problems worse than 2008? We can’t know for certain. Or will we somehow find a way around serious problems?


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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1,325 Responses to Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

  1. Harry McGibbs says:

    Some great insights from Mac10:

    “The obligatory delusion that lower interest rates leads to more “investment”, assumes the economy is not going into recession. Despite the collapse in interest rates, it’s now a lack of real fixed investment that is exerting downward pressure on the economy.

    “However, hot money “investors” in secondary markets don’t care as long as they get lower interest rates.”


    • Harry McGibbs says:

      And his follow-up continues on the same theme:

      “Central banks are subsidizing rampant speculation. In a sane society not otherwise obsessed with zero sum gambling, the central bank incentives would drive economic investment in the real economy. Which would mean ending the self-destructing perverse addiction to low interest rates.

      “In a society over-flowing with capital, the cost of capital is not the problem, the lack of real return is the problem.”


      • Davidin100millionbilliontrillionzillionyears says:

        “In a society over-flowing with capital, the cost of capital is not the problem, the lack of real return is the problem.”

        and the lack of real return is because the world energy supply is not growing…

        energy is the base of all economics…

        energy makes the world go round…

        • Interesting it took so many decades to eventually becoming the mainstream analysis.
          This could be debated on many angles and facets, but for our purposes is also important:
          – the lag factor between wrong decision and consequences (yrs, decades)
          – the predicting power for future (access to energy and ability to leverage it)

    • GBV says:

      Good insights, yes, but sometimes I find his blog so biased that it pains me to make it all the way through his posts. I have to take a break from that blog for days or even weeks at a time before I can go back for another helping of half-decent insight slathered in unnecessary sarcasm, vitriolic diatribes on all things Trump / Alt-Right, and a self-righteous / belligerent insistence on how everything everyone does that he does not agree with is contributing to an eminent (for the past 10+ years?) crash of epic proportions.

      But it’s been about a week, so I guess I’ll go check out his blog again now 😀


      • Harry McGibbs says:

        He’s certainly rather fiery and political but he does have a wonderful way of encapsulating somewhat tricky economic and financial concepts into neat, easily digestible soundbites. Plus he can be very funny.

        I’m pretty good at filtering out the political noise these days – best for one’s psychological well-being to try to be non-reactive as the political climate grows ever more febrile, I think.

  2. poopypants says:

    Sorry off topic rant. These dems and their identity politics are not truthful. Here is the actual transcript of the phone conversation.

    I hope trump gets impeached and is re elected.


  3. Denial says:

    I think the above is one of the most ignorant comments I have seen in a long time. You must be a retired white man in America living off a system that is decrepit and failing….with so much time to play on the computer.; While the rest of us have to toil for no real future just to stay alive a little longer….damn I hate the baby boomer generation…..!!!!!

    • poopypants says:

      You prove my point. You immediately start your message of hate. That is what identity politics does. Your comments dont address the content of my post. You identify a race age group and supposed behavior and beliefs. All imaginary. Then you openly express hatred. You are a racist. You are a bigot. You are a hater.

    • Lastcall says:

      Wow ad hominen attack. Sadly, deeply ignorant. The Demo-crats seem to have no other policy/strategy than attack Trump. Where is the shining alternative? Hilary? Bernie? Green new idiots-deal?
      The rest of the world watches the US mafia-state in disbelief.

      Dam I hate people who condemn a generation ad hoc.
      No I am not a BB. Missed by a few years. I really doubt you would have been any different.

    • TIm Groves says:

      Denial, who are you addressing your disgust at? I thought all the above comments were delightful.

      I can well understand why you might hate the baby boomers. Although I was never a member myself, I’m contemporaneous with them and remember them when they were young and wet behind the ears. They were spoilt brats then and most of them never matured.

      In a lot of respects they are not much different to younger generations. They were the first generation to be exposed to TV from childhood and so they were far more effectively propagandized than their elders ever were. That’s how they got into sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll and absorbed a worldview emphasizing freedom, egoism, narcissism, lack of commitment and got stoned every weekend as if coke, weed, acid and speed were the new Holy Communion, not to mention credit card debt. That’s their collective excuse.

      Of course, that’s just my opinion man!

    • Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of people who think the system has failed them, and that the solutions that either the Democrats or the Republicans have put forth will save them. You seem to be one of them.

      We are dealing with limits of a finite world. Young people indeed very often do “have to toil for no real future just to stay alive a little longer.” There is very little that either political party can do to fix our problems, other than perhaps to shift the burden of today’s problems to a different group.

      The physics of the situation says that the there is not enough goods and services, some group has to be frozen out. (Or perhaps everyone has to be frozen out, but usually it is some group first.) The pension and retirement systems, in fact, do promise to give a lot of available goods and services to the older generation. These promises are a very vulnerable part of the system, especially when young people are not earning enough, net of all they need to pay for today’s requirements (health insurance, debt related to college education, transportation (generally by car) to work).

      There are an awfully lot of young people who feel as you do. I would not be at all surprised if eventually, there are huge cutbacks in all of the pension/retirement/ elder healthcare programs. They are just too expensive, relative to total resources available.

    • Country Joe says:

      How many dozen times did I hear some talking head say “We need to have all the healthy young people buy into Obama care to help pay for the sick old people”. Who could possibly not like that idea? These kids these days??? Hope the don’t find out about the guillotine.

  4. Davidin100millionbilliontrillionzillionyears says:

    third quarter of 2019 in the books…

    WTI about $54… high of $66 earlier this year…

    Brent about $59… high of $76 earlier this year…

    the theory is proving correct that oil prices are in a new normal where they will remain relatively low…

    not 100% certain, but sure looks likely…

  5. Harry McGibbs says:

    “[As in 2008], the key factor is weakness within a bank’s business model, and of course, whether that weakness is shared by other banks, either by practice or exposure. That’s where Germany’s Deutsche Bank, and indeed, other European banks find themselves today. The weakness isn’t so much from issuing and selling risky mortgages as much as from larger, systemic and business practice issues.

    “At the macro level, a weak European economy is a big factor. As the economy slows down, banking activity slows down as well… This recession pressure is seen in the low and even negative interest rates European banks charge for borrowing money…

    “Unfortunately, as in 2008, the interconnected global financial system results in major banks and financial institutions have exposure to financial risk in multiple markets. A whopping 41 percent of American banks’ foreign balance sheet exposure is to European banks.

    “That’s too big to ignore or to avoid. Problems that begin with Deutsche Bank will certainly be problematic for the Europe and America, which will, of course, impact the health of the entire global financial system.”


  6. Harry McGibbs says:

    “It has been a pivotal few months for financial markets. China and Europe have halted the global stocks rally, oil has cooled dramatically and rising recession worries have sent gold and government bonds charging again…

    “The switch back into support mode by the top global central banks has swollen the amount of bonds trading at negative rates — where investors pay rather than get paid to lend – to a record $17 trillion.”


  7. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Manufacturing sentiment throughout Asia remained mostly bleak in September amid trade tensions and waning global demand. Purchasing manager indexes for South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia were still in contraction territory, with South Korea’s slipped by one point to 48.”


  8. MG says:

    The World Championships in Doha fail:

    “World Championships brought to the brink of farce in Doha as almost half the field fail to complete women’s marathon in over 30 degree heat

    Extreme heat and humidity caused huge problems at the World Championships
    Only 40 of the 68 runners were able to finish the women’s marathon in Doha
    Ruth Chepngetich won with the slowest time in the history of the tournament”


    • MG says:

      The reason why the human civilizations could not achieve much in the tropical places of the origin of the human species is clear.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Conveniently forgetting the Aztecs, the Maya, the Inca, the Khmer, the Ceylonese, …

        • in general terms, they just piled stones on top of one another,

          gracefully I admit,
          but no more than that.

          Northern civilisations used explosive forces to make wheels go round

          disgracefully I admit

          but in that, the difference lies

          • MG says:

            There are better conditions for combustion in colder places – higher density of oxygen in the air. Also the higher density of oxygen in the air makes the athletes achieve better results.

          • Robert Firth says:

            Disgraceful in effect, but perhaps noble in aspiration. And the most aspiring was surely Francis Bacon, whose New Atlantis of 1627 launched the second scientific revolution: the one that sought not merely knowledge of Nature, but mastery over her:

            “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible”.

            For a most insightful discussion of this turning point, I recommend Sir Peter Medawar’s essay: http://bactra.org/Medawar/effecting/

            And, by the way, Machu Picchu was a lot more than stones piled atop each other; it was a sustainable city 8000 feet above sea level. I know: I have been there.

            • MG says:

              Maybe the higher altitudes provide more oxygen density than hot lowlands in tropical areas. We should not forget the presence of other gases that are products of decomposition of biomass in tropical forests. The air in the mountains is always cleaner.

            • Kowalainen says:

              If it were sustainable it would still be around. No, it collapsed precisely of the same reason as all past human civilizations collapsed, a lack or resources due to overspecialization eventually ending in abuse of power.

            • my comment about piled up stones was obviously a generalisation—it covers roman roads, pyramids, cathedrals and so on

              but it does not change what the structure is

              ie—stones cut hauled and built by muscle power

              there has never been mastery over nature.

              i recall when ”control of the weather” was the major scientific fantasy

              macchu Pichu is piled stones, staggering in concept—but still piled stones, as is stonehenge.
              it was sustainable because the population stabilised itself by whatever means—i don’t know,

              but expansion beyond a certain point was limited by geographical constraints

              An even more unlikely structure is on Skellig Island off Irish coast, a community of monks self sustaining for 100s of years, but still piles of stones put there by human dedication on a peak. It looks impossible, but there it is—again, limited by geographical constraints

      • DJ says:

        “achieving anything”? Humans beat the crap out of everything else by operating with limited capacity in heat where everything else laid down barely surviving.

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        If what the Northern civilizations have achieved so far is anything to go by, then let’s be frank, I’m not impressed and would far prefer the civilizations of the tropical regions.

        At least with them I won’t have to worry about our prospects for survival as an entire species being seriously compromised by things like energy depletion, environmental degradation, nuclear war etc. None of these ills were ever brought about by the tropical civilizations.

        • Once people got into the business of burning biomass for heat, they started working on making metals using charcoal. This seems to be what escalated the problems.

    • Doha is the capital of Qatar. Who would ever consider running a marathon in Qatar, except perhaps in December- January – February, when it is likely to be cooler?

  9. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Global shipping companies have spent billions rigging vessels with “cheat devices” that circumvent new environmental legislation by dumping pollution into the sea instead of the air, The Independent can reveal.

    “More than $12bn (£9.7bn) has been spent on the devices, known as open-loop scrubbers, which extract sulphur from the exhaust fumes of ships that run on heavy fuel oil… the sulphur emitted by the ships is simply re-routed from the exhaust and expelled into the water around the ships…

    “The change could have a devastating effect on wildlife in British waters and around the world, experts have warned.”


    • Instead of polluting the air, boats will pollute the sea! They certainly could not absorb the higher cost of diesel fuel, relative to the bunker fuel they were using previously.

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