2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

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

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

Figure 1

Figure 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Financial Implications | Tagged , , , , , | 1,607 Comments

EROEI Calculations for Solar PV Are Misleading

The Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) concept is very frequently used in energy studies. In fact, many readers seem to think, “Of course, EROEI is what we should be looking at when comparing different types of energy. What else is important?” Unfortunately, the closer to the discussions of researchers a person gets, the more problems a person discovers. People who work with EROEI regularly say, “EROEI is a tool, but it is a blunt tool. An EROEI of 100 is good compared to an EROEI of 10. For small differences, it is not so clear.”

Because of the idiosyncrasies of how EROEI works, different researchers using EROEI analyses come to very different conclusions. This issue has recently come up in two different solar PV analyses. One author used EROEI analysis to justify scaling up of solar PV. Another author published an article in Nature Communications that claims, “A break-even between the cumulative disadvantages and benefits of photovoltaics, for both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, occurs between 1997 and 2018, depending on photovoltaic performance and model uncertainties.”

Other EROEI researchers with whom I correspond don’t agree with these conclusions. They recognize that in complex situations, EROEI analyses cannot cover everything. Somehow, the user needs to be informed enough to realize that these omissions result in biases. Researchers need to work around these biases when coming to conclusions. They themselves do it (or try to); why can’t everyone else?

The underlying problem with EROEI calculations is that EROEI is based on a very simple model. The model works passably well in simple situations, but it was not designed to handle the complexities of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar PV. Indirect costs, and costs that are hard to measure, tend to get left out. The result is a serious bias that tends to make the EROEIs of solar PV (as well as other intermittent energy sources, such as wind) appear far more favorable than they would be, if a level playing field were used. In fact, published EROEIs for solar PV (and wind) might be called misleading. This issue also exists for other similar calculations, such as Life Cycle Analyses and Energy Payback Periods.

Continue reading

Posted in Financial Implications | Tagged , , , , | 1,372 Comments

What has gone wrong with oil prices, debt, and GDP growth?

Our economy is a mystery to almost everyone, including economists. Let me explain the way I see the situation:

(1) The big thing that pulls the economy forward is the time-shifting nature of debt and debt-like instruments.

If we want any kind of specialization, we need some sort of long-term obligation that will make that specialization worthwhile. If one hunter-gatherer specializes in finding flints that will start fires, that hunter-gatherer needs some sort of guarantee that others, who are finding food, will share some of their food with him, so that the group, as a whole, can prosper. Others, who specialize in gathering firewood, or in childcare, also need some kind of guarantee that their efforts will be rewarded.

At first, these obligations were enforced by social norms such as, “If you don’t follow the rules of the group, we will throw you out.” Gradually, reciprocal obligations became more formalized, and included more time shifting, “If you will work for me, I will pay you at the end of the month.” Or, “If you will pay my transportation costs to a land of more opportunity, I will repay you with 10% of my wages for the first five years.” Or, “I will sell you this piece of land, if you will pay me x amount per month for y years.”

In some cases, the loan (or loan-like agreements) takes the form of stock ownership of an enterprise. In this case, the promise is for future dividends, and the possibility of growth in the value of the stock, in return for the use of funds. Even though we generally refer to one type of loan-like agreement as “equity ownership” and the other as “debt,” they have a great deal of similarity. Funds are being provided to the enterprise, with the expectation of greater return in the future.

As another example, governments make promises for future benefits, such as Social Security, healthcare, and payments to the unemployed. These payments are not guaranteed, so are not considered debt. Even without a guarantee, they act in many ways like debt. Citizens plan their lives around these payments, even though they may be reduced or eliminated.

Surprisingly, even “cash” is debt. It is similar to a bond that pays zero interest and has no redemption date; this type of bond can also be easily transferred from person to person. Since cash can be hidden under mattresses, it too can be used as a device for time-shifting.

(2) The big thing that goes wrong in this time-shifting approach to operating the economy is the loss of what I would call an “opportunity gradient.”

Continue reading

Posted in Financial Implications | Tagged , , , , | 1,637 Comments

The Energy Problem behind Trump’s Election

The energy problem behind Trump’s election is not the one people have been looking for. Instead, it is an energy problem that leads to low wages for many workers in the US, and high unemployment rates in the European Union. (The different outcomes reflect different minimum wage laws. Higher minimum wages tend to lead to higher unemployment rates; lower minimum wages tend to lead to higher employment, but unsatisfactory wage levels for many.) The energy problem is also reflected as low prices of oil and other commodities.

To try to solve the energy problem, we use approaches that involve increasing complexity, including new technology and globalization. As we add more and more complexity, these approaches tend to work less and less well. In fact, they can become a problem in themselves, because they tend to redistribute wealth toward the top of the employment hierarchy, and they increase “overhead” for the economy as a whole.

In this material, I explain how inadequate energy supplies can appear as either low wages or as high prices. Basically, if energy supplies are inadequate, workers tend to be less productive because they have fewer or less advanced tools to work with. Their lower wages reflect lower productivity (Slide 20).  Slide 6 offers some additional insights.

Trump’s election seems to reflect the cooling effect that our energy problems are having on the economy as a whole. Citizens are increasingly unhappy with their wage situation, and want a major change. Trump’s election may at least temporarily have a beneficial effect, since it may work in the direction of reducing complexity.

Long term, however, it is hard to see that the policies of any elected official will be able to fix our underlying energy problems.

I wrote up my post as a presentation. It can be downloaded at this link: The Energy Problem Behind Trump’s Election. I thought this might be a way of putting together quite a bit of material into one place. I have displayed the images of the PDF below the fold, for those who would like to read them as a post.

I hope the large number of images does not cause viewing problems. Let me know if you have suggestions for making this material more accessible.

Continue reading

Posted in Financial Implications | Tagged , , , , , | 1,893 Comments

How Researchers Could Miss the Real Energy Story

I have been telling a fairly different energy story from most energy researchers. How could I possibly be correct? What have other researchers been missing?

The “standard” approach is to start from the amount of resources that we have of a particular type, for example, oil in the ground, and see how far these resources will go. Growing development of technology seems to allow increasing amounts of these resources to be extracted. Thus, limits seem to be farther and farther in the distance, especially if a person starts out with an optimistic bias. It is easy to get this optimistic bias, with all research funds going in the direction of, “What can we do to solve our energy problems?”

Approaches for forecasting future supply problems that start from the amount of resources in the ground suffer from the problem that it is hard to draw a sharp line regarding when we will run into difficulties. It is clear that at some point, there will be a problem–EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment) will be too low–but exactly when is hard to pinpoint. If a person starts from an optimistic viewpoint, it is easy to assume that as long as Energy Output is greater than Energy Input for a given process, that process must be helpful for solving our energy problem.

In fact, in my opinion, the story is very different. The very thing that should be saving us–technology–has side effects that bring the whole system down. 

The only way we can keep adding technology is by adding more capital goods, more specialization, and more advanced education for selected members of society. The problem, as we should know from research regarding historical economies that have collapsed, is that more complexity ultimately leads to collapse because it leads to huge wage disparity. (See TainterTurchin and Nefedov.) Ultimately, the people at the bottom of the hierarchy cannot afford the output of the economy. Added debt at lower interest rates can only partially offset this problem. Governments cannot collect enough taxes from the large number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy, even though the top 1% may flourish. The economy tends to collapse because of the side effects of greater complexity.

Our economy is a networked system, so it should not be surprising that there is more than one way for the system to reach its end.

Slide 5

Figure 1

I have described the problem that really brings down the economy as “too low return on human labor,” at least for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. The wages of the non-elite are too low to provide an adequate standard of living. In a sense, this is a situation of too low EROEI: too low return on human energy. Most energy researchers have been looking at a very different kind of EROEI: a calculation based on the investment of fossil fuel energy. The two kinds of EROEI are related, but not very closely. Many economies have collapsed, without ever using fossil fuel energy,

While what I call “fossil fuel EROEI” was a reasonable starting place for an analysis of our energy problems back in the 1970s, the calculation now gets more emphasis than it truly deserves. The limit we are reaching is a different one: falling return on human labor EROEI, at least for those who are not among the elite. Increasing wage disparity is becoming a severe problem now; it is the reason we have very divisive candidates running for political office, and many people in favor of reduced globalization.

Overly Simple Models Give Misleading Answers Continue reading

Posted in Financial Implications | Tagged , , , , , | 1,836 Comments