Why Collapse Occurs; Why It May Not Be Far Away

Collapse is a frightening subject. The question of why collapse occurs is something I have pieced together over many years of study from a number of different sources, which I will attempt to explain in this post.

Collapse doesn’t happen instantaneously; it happens many years after an economy first begins outgrowing its resource base. In fact, the resource base likely declines at the same time from multiple causes, such as soil erosion, deforestation and oil depletion. Before collapse occurs, there seem to be warning signs, including:

  • Too much wage disparity
  • Riots and protests by people unhappy with low wages
  • Prices of commodities that are too low for producers that need to recover their costs of production and governments that require tax revenue to fund programs for their citizens
  • An overstretched financial system; conditions ripe for debt defaults
  • Susceptibility to epidemics

Many people have the misimpression that our most important problem will be “running out” of oil. Because of this, they believe that oil prices will rise high if the system is reaching its limits. Since oil prices are not very high, they assume that the problem is far away. Once a person understands what the real issue is, it is (unfortunately) relatively easy to see that the current economy seems to be quite close to collapse.

In this post, I provide images from a recent presentation I gave, together with some comments. A video of the presentation is available on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, here. A PDF of the presentation can be downloaded here:

Slide 1
Slide 2
Slide 3
Slide 4

In some ways, a self-organizing system is analogous to a dome that might be built with a child’s toy building set (Slide 4). New layers of businesses and consumers are always being added, as are new regulations, more or less on top of the prior structure. At the same time, old consumers are dying off and products that are no longer needed are being discontinued. This happens without central direction from anyone. Entrepreneurs see the need for new products and try to satisfy them. Consumers decide on what to buy, based upon what their spendable income is and what their needs are.

Slide 5

Resources of many kinds are needed for an economy. Harnessing energy of many types is especially important. Early economies burned biomass and used the labor of animals. In recent years, we have added other types of energy, such as fossil fuels and electricity, to supplement our own human energy. Without supplemental energy of various kinds, we would be very limited in the kinds of goods and services that could be produced. Our farming would be limited to digging in the ground with a stick, for example.

The fact that there is almost an equivalence between employees and consumers is very important. If the wages of consumers are high, relative to the prices of the goods and services available, then consumers are able to buy many of those goods and services. As a result, citizens tend to be happy. But if there are too many low paid workers, or people without work at all, consumers are likely to be unhappy because they cannot afford the basic necessities of life.

Slide 6

The problem civilizations are facing is a two-sided problem: (1) Growing population and (2) Resources that often degrade or deplete. As a result, the amount of resources per person falls. If this were carried to the limit, all of us would starve.

Slide 7

As resources deplete and population grows, local leaders can see that problems are on the horizon. At first, adding technology, such as a new dam to provide water to make farms more productive, helps. As more and more technology and other complexity is added, there is less and less “bang for the buck.” We can easily see this in the healthcare field. Early antibiotics had a very big payback; recent medical innovations that help a group of 500 or 1000 people with a particular rare disease can be expected to have a much smaller payback.

A second issue with added complexity is that it increasingly leads to a society of the very wealthy plus many very low paid workers. Joseph Tainter identified the combination of these two issues as leading to collapse in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Slide 8

Françios Roddier is an astrophysicist who writes primarily in French. His book Thermodynamique de l’évolution was published in 2012; it is now available in English as well.

The issue of starving people in Yemen is an issue today. In fact, hunger is an increasing problem in poor countries around the world. The world tourism industry is dead; the industry of making fancy clothing for people in rich countries is greatly reduced. People who formerly made a living in these industries in poor countries increasingly find it difficult to earn an adequate living with other available jobs. Rich countries tend to have better safety nets when there are widespread reductions in job-availability.

Slide 9

Businesses often make long lasting goods such as machines to be used in factories or automobiles to be used by consumers. Governments often make long-lasting goods such as paved roads and school buildings. When making these goods, they take some combination of commodities, built machinery, and human labor to make goods and services that people will use for many years into the future. The future value of these goods is hoped to be significantly greater than the value of the inputs used to create these goods and services.

There are at least three reasons that time-shifting devices are needed:

  1. Workers need to be paid as these goods are made.
  2. Businesses need to build factories in advance.
  3. Businesses, governments and individuals are all likely to find the future payments more manageable, even with interest added, than they are as a single payment upfront.

I don’t mention the issue in Slide 9, but once time-shifting devices are created, they become very easy to manipulate. For example, no one knows precisely what the future value of a particular investment will be. Governments, especially, are prone to make investments in unneeded infrastructure, simply to provide jobs for people. We also know that there are diminishing returns to added technology, but stocks of technology companies tend to be valued as if complexity will save the world. Third, interest rate manipulations (lower!) and the offering of debt to those who seem unlikely to be able ever to repay the debt can be used to make the economy of a country appear to be in better shape than it really is. Many of us remember the collapse of the US subprime housing debt bubble in 2008.

Slide 10

The purpose of a financial system is to allocate goods and services. High wages allocate a larger share of the output of an economy to a particular person than low wages. Appreciation in asset values (such as prices of shares of stock, or value of a home or piece of land) also act to increase the share of the goods and services produced by the economy to an individual. Payment of interest, dividends and rents are other ways of allocating goods and services that the economy makes. Governments can print money, but they cannot print goods and services!

As the economy gets more complex, the non-elite workers increasingly get left out of the distribution of goods and services. For one thing (not mentioned on Slide 10), as the economy becomes more complex, an increasing share of the goods and services produced by the economy need to go into making all of the intermediate goods that make that industrial economy work. Intermediate goods would include factories, semi-trucks, hydroelectric dams, oil pipelines and other goods and services that don’t directly benefit an individual consumer. They are needed to make the overall system work.

As the economy gets bigger and more complex, the non-elite workers increasingly find themselves left out. Besides losing an increasing part of the output of the intermediate goods and services mentioned in the prior paragraph, there are other pieces that take slices of the total output of goods and services:

  • High paid workers take their quite-large slices of the total output. These individuals tend to be the ones who get the benefit of asset appreciation, as well.
  • Pension programs and other programs to help the elderly and unemployed take a cut.
  • Health insurance costs, in the US at least, tend to be very high, relative to wages, for lower-paid workers.
  • The work of some employees can be replaced by low-paid overseas employees or by robots. If they are to keep their jobs, their wages need to be suitably low to compete.

With all of these issues, the workers at the bottom of the employment hierarchy increasingly get left out of the distribution of goods and services made by the economy.

Slide 11

We know some of the kinds of things that happen when economies are close to collapse from the writings of researchers such as Peter Turchin, lead author of Secular Cycles, and Joseph Tainter, mentioned earlier. One approach is for governments to try to work around the resource problem by starting wars with other economies whose resources they might gain. Probably a more likely outcome is that these low-resource-per-capita economies become vulnerable to attack by other economies because of their weakened condition. In any event, more conflict is likely as resource limits hit.

If the low incomes of non-elite workers persist, many bad outcomes can be expected. Local riots can be expected as citizens protest their low wages or pensions. Governments are likely to find that they cannot collect enough taxes. Governments will also find that they must cut back on programs, or (in today’s world) their currencies will sink relative to currencies of other countries. Intergovernmental organizations may fail for lack of funding, or governments may be overthrown by unhappy citizens.

Debt defaults can be expected. Governments have a long history of defaulting on their debts when conditions were bad according to Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.

It becomes very easy for epidemics to take hold because of the poor eating habits and the close living quarters of non-elite workers.

With respect to inflation-adjusted commodity prices, it is logical that they would stay low because a large share of the population would be impoverished and thus not able to afford very many of these commodities. A person would expect gluts of commodities, as occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s in the United States because many farmers and farm-hands had been displaced by modern farming equipment. We also find that the book of Revelation from the Bible seems to indicate that low prices and lack of demand were problems at the time of the collapse of ancient Babylon (Revelation 18:11-13).

Slide 12

Much of what peak oil theory misunderstands is what our society as a whole misunderstands. Most people seem to believe that our economy will grow endlessly unless we somehow act to slow it down or stop it. They cannot imagine that the economy comes with built-in brakes, provided by the laws of physics.

Armed with a belief in endless growth, economists assume that the economy can expand year after year at close to the same rate. Modelers of all kinds, including climate modelers, miss the natural feedback loops that lead to the end of fossil fuel extraction without any attempt on our part to stop its extraction. A major part of the problem is that added complexity leads to too much wage and wealth disparity. Eventually, the low wages of many of the workers filter through to oil and other energy prices, making prices too low for producers.

Collapse isn’t instantaneous, as we will see on Slide 26. As resources per capita fall too low, there are several ways to keep problems hidden. More debt at lower interest rates can be added. New financial techniques can be developed to hide problems. Increased globalization can be used. Corners can be cut on electricity transmission, installation and maintenance, and in the building of new electricity generating structures. It is only when the economy hits a bump in the road (such as a climate-related event) that there suddenly is a major problem: Electricity production fails, or not enough food is produced. In fact, California, Florida, and China have all encountered the need for rolling blackouts with respect to electricity in the past year; China is now encountering difficulty with inadequate food supply, as well.

Economists have played a major role in hiding problems with energy with their models that seem to show that prices can be expected to rise if there is a shortage of oil or other energy. Their models miss the point that adequate supplemental energy is just as important for demand as it is for supply of finished goods and services. The reason energy is important for demand is because demand depends on the wages of workers, and the wages of workers in turn depend on the productivity of those workers. The use of energy supplies to allow workers to operate tools of many kinds (such as computers, trucks, electric lights, ovens, and agricultural equipment) greatly influences the productivity of those workers.

A person who believes energy prices can rise endlessly is likely to believe that recycling can increase without limit because of ever-rising prices. Such a person is also likely to believe that the substitution of intermittent renewables for fossil fuels will work because high prices for scarce electricity will enable an approach that is inherently high-cost, if any continuity of supply is required.

Thus, the confusion isn’t so much that of peak oilers. Instead, the confusion is that of economists and scientists building models based on past history. These models miss the turning points that occur as limits approach. They assume that future patterns will replicate past patterns, but this is not what happens in a finite world. If we lived in a world without limits, their models would be correct. This confusion is very much built into today’s thinking.

In fact, we are living in an economic system/ecosystem that has brakes to it. These brakes are being applied now, even though 99%+ of the population isn’t aware of the problem. The system will protect itself, quite possibly using the approach of evicting most humans.

Slide 13

The opinions expressed in Slide 13 reflect some of the views I have heard expressed speaking with peak oilers and with people looking into issues from a biophysical economics perspective. Obviously, views differ from person to person.

Many people believe that resources in the ground provide a good estimate of the quantity of fossil fuels that can be extracted in the future. Peak oilers tend to believe that the available resources will need to have sufficiently high “Energy Returned on Energy Invested” (EROEI) ratios to make extraction feasible. Politicians and climate modelers tend to believe that prices can rise endlessly, so low EROEI is no obstacle. They seem to believe that anything that we have the technical skill to extract, even coal under the North Sea, can be extracted.

If a person believes the high estimates of fossil fuel resources that seem to be available and misses the point that the economy has built-in brakes, climate change becomes the issue of major concern.

My view is that most of the resources that seem to be available will be left in the ground because of low prices and problems associated with collapse, such as failing governments and broken supply lines. In any event, we do not really have the ability to fix the climate; the laws of physics will provide their own adjustment. We will simply need to live with whatever climate is provided. Humans lived through ice-ages in the past. Presumably, whatever humans remain after what seems to be an upcoming bottleneck will be able to live in suitable areas of the world in the future.

Slide 14

On Slide 14, note that today’s industrial economy must necessarily come to an end, just as the lives of hurricanes and of people come to an end.

Also note that with diminishing returns, the cost of producing many of the things listed on Slide 14 is rising. For example, with rising population, dry areas of the world eventually need to use desalination to get enough fresh water for their growing populations. Desalination is expensive. Even if the necessary workaround is simply deeper wells, this still adds costs.

With diminishing returns affecting many parts of the economy simultaneously, it becomes increasingly difficult for efforts in the direction of efficiency to lead to costs that are truly lower on an inflation-adjusted basis. Advanced education and health care in particular tend to have an ever-rising inflation-adjusted costs of production. Some minerals do as well, as the quality of ores depletes.

Slide 15

An important issue to note is that wages need to cover all the rising costs, even the rising cost of health care. The paychecks of many people, especially those without advanced education, fall too low to meet all of their needs.

Slide 16

Slides 16 and 17 describe some of the reasons why oil prices don’t necessarily rise with scarcity.

Slide 17
Slide 18

I was one of the co-authors of the Ke Wang paper mentioned in Slide 18. We developed three different forecasts of how much oil would be extracted in China, depending on how high oil prices would be able to rise. The Red Line is the “Stays Low” Scenario, with prices close to $50 per barrel. The Yellow Line is the “Ever-Rising Prices” Scenario. The Best Estimate reflects the expectation that prices would be in roughly the $100 to $120 barrel range, from 2015 onward.

Slide 19

In fact, oil prices have stayed fairly low, and China’s oil production has declined, as our paper predicted.

Slide 20
Slide 21

Note that the chart on Slide 21 shows wage disparity only in the US. On this basis, the share of wages going to the top 1% and top 0.1% are back at the levels that they were in the 1920s. Now, our economy is much more global. If we consider all of the low income people in the world, the worldwide wage disparity is much greater.

Slide 22

There are two things to note on Slide 22. The first is that producers, in inflation-adjusted terms, seem to need very high prices, approximately $120 per barrel or more. This is based on a presentation made by Steve Kopits, which I wrote up here: Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

The other thing to note is that oil prices tend to bounce around a great deal. Prices seem to depend on the amount of debt and on interest rates, as well as the wages of workers. The peak in oil prices in mid-2008 came precisely at the time the debt bubble broke with respect to mortgage and credit card debt in the US. I wrote about this in an article in the journal Energy called, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.

The US instituted Quantitative Easing (QE) at the end of 2008. QE acted to lower interest rates. With the help of QE, the price of oil gradually rose again. When the US discontinued QE in late 2014, oil prices fell. Recently, there has been a great deal of QE done, as well as direct spending by governments, but oil prices are still far below the $120 per barrel level. Middle Eastern oil producers especially need high oil prices, in order to collect the high tax revenue that they depend upon to provide programs for their citizens.

Slide 23

Coal prices (Slide 23) tend to follow somewhat the same pattern as oil prices (Slide 22). There is very much the same balancing act with coal prices as well: Coal prices need to be high enough for producers, but not too high for customers to buy products made with coal, such as electricity and steel.

China tries to keep its coal prices relatively high in order to encourage production within the country. China has been limiting imports to try to keep prices high. The relatively high coal prices of China make it an attractive destination for coal exporters. There are now a large number of boats waiting outside China hoping to sell coal to China at an attractive price.

Slide 24

The blue line on Figure 24 represents total energy consumption up through 2020. The red dotted line is a rough guesstimate of how energy consumption might fall. This decline could happen if people wanting energy consumption coming only from renewables were able to succeed by 2050 (except I am doubtful that these renewable energy types would really be of much use by themselves).

Alternatively, this might also be the decline that our self-organizing economy takes us on. We are already seeing a decrease in energy consumption related to the current pandemic. I think governmental reactions to the pandemic were prompted, in part, by the very stretched condition of our oil and other energy supplies. Countries were experiencing riots over low wages. They also could not afford to import as much oil as they were importing. Shutdowns in response to COVID-19 cases seemed like a sensible thing to do. They helped restore order and saved on energy imports. Strangely enough, the pandemic may be a part of the collapse that our self-organizing economy is arranging for us.

Slide 25

Slide 25 takes the blue line from Slide 24 and looks at what happened in more detail. On Slide 25, we are looking at the average annual increase in energy consumption, for a given 10 year period. This is split between the rate of population growth (blue), and the energy consumption growth that went into other things, which I equate to change in “standard of living” (red). The big red humps represent very good times, economically. The post-World War II bump is especially high. The valleys are times of disturbing changes, including wars and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of course, all of these situations occurred during periods when energy consumption was generally rising. If these unfortunate things happened when oil consumption was rising, what might possibly happen when energy consumption is falling?

Slide 26

We now seem to be hitting the Crisis Stage. In the past, collapse (which takes place in the Crisis Stage) has not been instantaneous; it has taken place over quite a number of years, typically 20 or more. The world economy is quite different now, with its international trade system and heavy use of debt. It would seem likely that a collapse could happen more quickly. A common characteristic of collapses, such as avalanches, is that they often seem to start off fairly slowly. Then, suddenly, a large piece breaks away, and there is a big collapse. Something analogous to this could possibly happen with the economy, too.

Slide 27

One of the major issues with adding intermittent renewables to the electric grid is a pricing problem. Once wind and solar are given subsidies (even the subsidy of “going first”), all of the other types of electricity production seem to need subsidies, as well. It is the pricing systems that are terribly detrimental, although this is not generally noticed. In fact, researchers who are looking only at energy may not even care if the pricing is wrong. Ultimately, the low pricing for electricity can be expected to bring the electric grid down, just as inadequate prices for fossil fuels can be expected to lead to the closure of many fossil fuel producers. Both Texas and California are having difficulty because they have not been collecting enough funds from customers to build resilient systems.

Slide 28
Slide 29

The focus of EROEI research is often with respect to whether the EROEI of a particular type of energy production is “high enough,” relative to some goal, such as 3:1 or 10:1. I believe that there needs to be more focus on the total quantity of net energy produced. If there is an EROEI goal for highly complex energy types, it needs to be much higher than for less complex energy types.

Slide 30

Today, it is common to see the EROEIs of a number of different types of energy displayed side-by-side as if they were comparable. This type of comparison is also made with other energy metrics, such as “Levelized Cost of Electricity” and “Energy Payback Period.” I think this approach makes highly complex types of energy production, such as intermittent wind and solar, look better than they really are. Even intermittent hydroelectric power generation, such as is encountered in places with rainy seasons and dry seasons and in places that are subject to frequent droughts, is not really comparable to electricity supply that can be provided year-around by fossil fuel providers, if adequate storage is available.

Slide 31

Earlier in this post, I documented a number of reasons why we should expect low rather than high energy prices in the future. I am reiterating the point here because it is a point energy researchers need especially to be aware of. Production is likely to come to an end because it is unprofitable.

Slide 32

One characteristic of human-made complexity is that it has very little redundancy. If something goes wrong in one part of one system, it is likely to ripple through that system, as well as other systems to which the first system is connected. An outage of oil is likely to indirectly affect electricity because oil is needed to fix problems with electricity transmission lines. An electricity outage may cause disruption in oil drilling and refining, and even in filling up automobiles at service stations. An international trade disruption can break supply lines and leave shipping containers at the wrong end of the globe.

We know that collapse tends to lead to less complex systems. We should expect fewer jobs requiring advanced education. We should expect to start losing battles against infectious diseases. We should expect a reduction in international trade; in the future, it may primarily take place among a few trusted partners. Some intergovernmental organizations are likely to disappear. Peak oil cannot happen by itself; it can only happen with disruptions and shrinkage in many other parts of the economy, as well.

Slide 33

The climate is indeed changing. Unfortunately, we humans have little ability to change what is happening, especially at this late date. Arguably, some changes could have been made much earlier, for example in the 1970s when the modeling included in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Donnela Meadows and others showed that the world economy was likely to hit limits before 2050.

It is clear to many people that the world economy is now struggling. There is too much debt; young people are having trouble finding jobs that pay well enough; people in poor countries are increasingly more food insecure. Leaders everywhere would like solutions. The “easy” solution to offer is that intermittent wind and solar will solve all our problems, including climate change. The closer a person looks at the situation, the more the solution seems like nonsense. Wind and solar work passably well at small concentrations within electric systems, if it is possible to work around their pricing problems. But they don’t scale up well. Energy researchers especially should be aware of these difficulties.

The book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee points out that there have been an amazing number of what seem to be coincidences that have allowed life on Earth to flourish for four billion years. Perhaps these coincidences will continue. Perhaps there is an underlying plan that we are not aware of.

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Where Energy Modeling Goes Wrong

There are a huge number of people doing energy modeling. In my opinion, nearly all of them are going astray in their modeling because they don’t understand how the economy really operates.

The modeling that comes closest to being correct is that which underlies the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others. This modeling was based on physical quantities of resources, with no financial system whatsoever. The base model, shown here, indicates that limits would be reached a few years later than we actually seem to be reaching them. The dotted black line in Figure 1 indicates where I saw the world economy to be in January 2019, based on the limits we already seemed to be reaching at that time.

Figure 1. 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,” with dotted line added corresponding to where I saw the world economy to be in January 2019, based on how the economy was operating at that time.

The authors of The Limits to Growth have said that their model cannot be expected to be correct after limits hit (which is about now), so even this model is less than perfect. Thus, this model cannot be relied upon to show that population will continue to rise until after 2050.

Many readers are familiar with Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) calculations. These are favorites of many people following the Peak Oil problem. A high ratio of Energy Returned to Energy Invested is considered favorable, while a low ratio is considered unfavorable. Energy sources with similar EROEIs are supposedly equivalent. Even these similarities can be misleading. They make intermittent wind and solar appear far more helpful than they really are.

Other modeling, such as that by oil companies, is equally wrong. Their modeling tends to make future fossil fuel supplies look far more available than they really are.

This is all related to a talk I plan to give to energy researchers later in February. So far, all that is pinned down is the Summary, which I reproduce here as Section [1], below.

[1] Summary: The economy is approaching near-term collapse, not peak oil. The result is quite different.

The way a person views the world economy makes a huge difference in how one models it. A big issue is how connected the various parts of the economy are. Early researchers assumed that oil was the key energy product; if it were possible to find suitable substitutes for oil, the danger of exhaustion of oil resources could be delayed almost indefinitely.

In fact, the operation of the world economy is controlled by the laws of physics. All parts are tightly linked. The problem of diminishing returns affects far more than oil supply; it affects coal, natural gas, mineral extraction in general, fresh water production and food production. Based on the work of Joseph Tainter, we also know that added complexity is also subject to diminishing returns.

When a person models how the system works, it becomes apparent that as increasing complexity is added to the system, the portion of the economic output that can be returned to non-elite workers as goods and services drops dramatically. This leads to rising wage disparity as increasing complexity is added to the economy. As the economy approaches limits, rising wage disparity indirectly leads to a tendency toward low prices for oil and other commodities because a growing number of non-elite workers are unable to afford homes, cars and even proper nutrition. 

A second effect of added complexity is growing use of long-lasting goods available through technology. Many of these long-lasting goods are only affordable with financial time-shifting devices such as loans or the sale of shares of stock. As non-elite workers become increasingly unable to afford the output of the economy, these time-shifting devices provide a way to raise demand (and thus prices) for commodities of all types, including oil. These time-shifting devices are subject to manipulation by central banks, within limits.

Standard calculations of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) ignore the fact that added complexity tends to have a very detrimental impact on the economy because of the diminishing returns it produces. To correct for this, today’s EROEI calculations should only be used to compare energy systems with similar complexity. The least complex energy systems are based on burned biomass and power from animals. Fossil fuels represent a step upward in complexity, but they still can be stored until their use is required. Intermittent renewables are far ahead of fossil fuels in terms complexity: they require sophisticated systems of storage and distribution and therefore cannot be considered equivalent to oil or dispatchable electricity.

The lack of understanding of how the economy really works has led to the failure to understand several important points:

(i) Low oil prices rather than high are to be expected as the economy reaches limits,

(ii) Most fossil fuel reserves will be left in the ground because of low prices,

(iii) The economy is experiencing the historical phenomenon of collapse, rather than peak oil, and 

(iv) If the economy is not to collapse, we need energy sources providing a larger quantity of net energy per capita to offset diminishing returns.   

[2] The world’s energy problem, as commonly understood by researchers today

It is my observation that many researchers believe that we humans are in charge of what happens with future fossil fuel extraction, or with choosing to substitute intermittent renewables for fossil fuels. They generally do not see any problem with “running out” in the near future. If running out were imminent, the problem would likely be announced by spiking prices.

In the predominant view, the amount of future fossil fuels available depends upon the quantity of energy resources that can be extracted with available technology. Thus, a proper estimate of the resources that can be extracted is needed. Oil seems to be in shortest supply based on its reserve estimates and the vast benefits it provides to society. Thus, it is commonly believed that oil production will “peak” and begin to decline first, before coal and natural gas.

In this view, demand is something that we never need to worry about because energy, and especially oil, is a necessity. People will choose energy over other products because they will pay whatever is necessary to have adequate energy supplies. As a result, oil and other energy prices will rise almost endlessly, allowing much more to be extracted. These higher prices will also enable higher cost intermittent electricity to be substituted for today’s fossil fuels.

A huge amount of additional fossil fuels can be extracted, according to those who are primarily concerned about loss of biodiversity and climate change. Those who analyze EROEI tend to believe that falling EROEI will limit the quantity of future fossil fuels extracted to a smaller total extracted amount. Because of this, energy from additional sources, such as intermittent wind and solar, will be required to meet the total energy demand of society.

The focus of EROEI studies is on whether the EROEI of a given proposed substitution is, in some sense, high enough to add energy to the economy. The calculation of EROEI makes no distinction between energy available only through highly complex systems and energy available from less complex systems.

EROEI researchers, or perhaps those who rely on the indications of EROEI researchers, seem to believe that the energy needs of economies are flexible within a very wide range. Thus, an economy can shrink its energy consumption without a particularly dire impact.

[3] The real story seems to be that the adverse outcome we are reaching is collapse, not peak oil. The economy is a self-organizing system powered by energy. This makes it behave in very unexpected ways.

[3a] The economy is tightly connected by the laws of physics.

Energy consumption (dissipation) is necessary for every aspect of the economy. People often understand that making goods and services requires energy dissipation. What they don’t realize is that almost all of today’s jobs require energy dissipation, as well. Without supplemental energy, humans could only gather wild fruits and vegetables and hunt using the simplest of tools. Or, they could attempt simple horticulture by using a stick to dig a place in the ground to plant a seed.

In physics terms, the economy is a dissipative structure, which is a self-organizing structure that grows over time. Other examples of dissipative structures include hurricanes, plants and animals of all types, ecosystems, and star systems. Without a supply of energy to dissipate (that is, food to eat, in the case of humans), these dissipative structures would collapse.

We know that the human body has many different systems, such as a cardiovascular system, digestive system and nervous system. The economy has many different systems, too, and is just as tightly connected. For example, the economy cannot get along without a transportation system any more than a human can get along without a cardiovascular system.

This self-organizing system acts without our direction, just as our brain or circulatory system acts without our direction. In fact, we have very little control over these systems.

The self-organizing economy allows common belief systems to arise that seem to be right but are really based on models with many incorrect assumptions. People desperately need and want a “happily ever after” solution. The strong need for a desirable outcome favors the selection of models that lead to the conclusion that if there is a problem, it is many years away. Conflicting political views seem to be based on different, equally wrong, models of how world leaders can solve the energy predicament that the world is facing.

The real story is that the world’s self-organizing economy will determine for us what is ahead, and there is virtually nothing we can do to change the result. Strangely enough, if we look at the long term pattern, there almost seems to be a guiding hand behind the result. According to Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in Rare Earth, there have been a huge number of seeming coincidences that have allowed life on Earth to take hold and flourish for four billion years. Perhaps this “luck” will continue.

[3b] As the economy reaches limits, commodities of many types reach diminishing returns simultaneously.

It is indeed true that the economy reaches diminishing returns in oil supply as it reaches limits. Oil is very valuable because it is energy dense and easily transported. The oil that can be extracted, refined, and delivered to needed markets using the least amount of resources (including human labor) tends to be extracted first. It is later that deeper wells are built that are farther from markets. Because of these issues, oil extraction does tend to reach diminishing returns, as more is extracted.

If this were the only aspect of the economy that was experiencing diminishing returns, then the models coming from a peak oil perspective would make sense. We could move away from oil, simply by transferring oil use to appropriately chosen substitutes.

It becomes clear when a person looks at the situation that commodities of all kinds reach diminishing returns. Fresh water reaches diminishing returns. We can add more by using desalination and pumping water to where it is required, but this approach is hugely expensive. As population and industrialization grows, the need for fresh water grows, making diminishing returns for fresh water a real issue.

Minerals of all kinds reach diminishing returns, including uranium, lithium, copper and phosphate rock (used for fertilizer). The reason this occurs is because we tend to extract these minerals faster than they are replaced by the weathering of rocks, including bedrock. In fact, useable topsoil tends to reach diminishing returns because of erosion. Also, with increasing population, the amount of food required keeps increasing, putting further pressure on farmland and making it harder to retain an acceptable level of topsoil.

[3c] Increased complexity leads to diminishing returns as well.

In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter points out that complexity reaches diminishing returns, just as commodities do.

As an example, it is easy to see that added spending on healthcare reaches diminishing returns. The discovery of antibiotics clearly had a huge impact on healthcare, at relatively little cost. Now, a recent article is entitled, The hunt for antibiotics grows harder as resistance builds. The dollar payback on other drugs tends to fall as well, as solutions to the most common diseases are found, and researchers must turn their attention to diseases affecting only, perhaps, 500 people globally.

Similarly, spending on advanced education reaches diminishing returns. Continuing the medical example above, educating an increasing number of researchers, all looking for new antibiotics, may eventually lead to success in discovering more antibiotics. But the payback with respect to the education of these researchers will not be nearly as great as the payback for educating the early researchers who found the first antibiotics.

[3d] Wages do not rise sufficiently so that all of the higher costs associated with the many types of diminishing returns can be recouped simultaneously.

The healthcare system (at least in the United States) tends to let its higher costs flow through to consumers. We can see this by looking at how much higher the Medical Care Consumer Price Index (CPI) rises compared to the All Items CPI in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Consumer price index for Medical Care versus for All Items, in chart made by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

The high (and rapidly rising) cost of advanced education is another cost that is being passed on to consumers–the students and their parents. In this case, loans are used to make the high cost look less problematic.

Of course, if consumers are burdened with higher medical and educational costs, it makes it difficult to afford the higher cost of energy products, as well. With these higher costs, young people tend to live with their parents longer, saving on the energy products needed to have their own homes and vehicles. Needless to say, the lower net income for many people, after healthcare costs and student loan repayments are deducted, acts to reduce the demand for oil and energy products, and thus contributes to the problem of continued low oil prices.

[3e] Added complexity tends to increase wage disparities. The reduced spending by lower income workers tends to hold down fossil fuel prices, similar to the impact identified in Section [3d].

As the economy becomes more complex, companies tend to become larger and more hierarchical. Elite workers (ones with more training or with more supervisory responsibility) earn more than non-elite workers. Globalization adds to this effect, as workers in high wage countries increasingly compete with workers in lower wage countries. Even computer programmers can encounter this difficulty, as programming is increasingly moved to China and India.

Figure 3. Figure by Pew Research Center in Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality, published January 9, 2020. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/

Individuals with low incomes spend a disproportionately large share of their incomes on commodities because everyone needs to eat approximately 2,000 calories of food per day. In addition, everyone needs some kind of shelter, clothing and basic transportation. All of these types of consumption are commodity intensive. People with very high incomes tend to buy disproportionately more goods and services that are not very resource intensive, such as education for their children at elite universities. They may also use part of their income to buy shares of stock, hoping their value will rise.

With a shift in the distribution of incomes toward those with high earnings, the demand for commodities of all types tends to stagnate or even fall. Fewer people are able to buy new cars, and fewer people can afford vacations involving travel. Thus, as more complexity is added, there tends to be downward pressure on the price of oil and other energy products.

[4] Oil prices have been falling behind those needed by oil producers since 2012.

Figure 4. Figure created by Gail Tverberg using EIA average monthly Brent oil price data, adjusted for inflation using the CPI Index for All Items for Urban Consumers.

Back in February 2014, Steven Kopits gave a presentation at Columbia University explaining the state of the oil industry. I wrote a post describing this presentation called, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. Oil companies were reporting that prices had been too low for them to make an adequate profit for reinvestment, back as early as 2012. In inflation-adjusted terms, this was when oil prices were about $120 per barrel.

Even Middle Eastern oil exporting countries need surprisingly high oil prices because their economies depend on the profits of oil companies to provide the vast majority of their tax revenue. If oil prices are too low, adequate taxes cannot be collected. Without funds for jobs programs and food subsidies, there are likely to be uprisings by unhappy citizens who cannot maintain an adequate standard of living.

Looking at Figure 4, we see that there has been very little time that Brent oil prices have been above $120 per barrel. Even with all of the recent central bank stimulus and deficit spending by economies around the world, Brent oil prices remain below $60 per barrel.

[5] Interest rates and the amount of debt make a huge difference in oil prices, too.

Based on Figure 4, oil prices are highly irregular. Much of this irregularity seems to be associated with interest rate and debt level changes. In fact, in July 2008, what I would call the debt bubble associated with subprime housing and credit cards collapsed, bringing oil prices down from their peak abruptly. In late 2008, Quantitative Easing (QE) (aimed at bringing interest rates down) was added just prior to an upturn on prices in 2009 and 2010. Prices fell again, when the United States discontinued QE in late 2014.

If we think about it, increased debt makes purchases such as cars, homes and new factories more affordable. In fact, the lower the interest rate, the more affordable these items become. The number of purchases of any of these items can be expected to rise with more debt and lower interest rates. Thus, we would expect oil prices to rise as debt is added and fall as it is taken away. Now, there are many questions: Why haven’t oil prices risen more, with all of the stimulus that has been added? Are we reaching the limits of stimulus? Are interest rates as low as they can go, and the amount of debt outstanding as high as it can go?

[6] The growing complexity of the economy is contributing to the huge amount of debt outstanding.

In a very complex economy, a huge number of durable goods and services are produced. Examples of durable goods would include machines used in factories and pipelines of all kinds. Durable goods would also include vehicles of all types, including both vehicles used for businesses and vehicles used by consumers for their own benefit. As broadly defined here, durable goods would include buildings of all types, including factories, schools, offices and homes. It would also include wind turbines and solar panels.

There would also be durable services produced. For example, a college degree would have lasting benefit, it is hoped. A computer program would have value after it is completed. Thus, a consulting service is able to sell its programs to prospective buyers.

Somehow, there is a need to pay for all of these durable goods. We can see this most easily for the consumer. A loan that allows durable goods to be paid for over their expected life will make these goods more affordable.

Similarly, a manufacturer needs to pay the many workers making all of the durable goods. Their labor is adding value to the finished products, but this value will not be realized until the finished products are put into operation.

Other financing approaches can also be used, including the sale of bonds or shares of stock. The underlying intent is to provide financial time-shifting services. Interest rates associated with these financial time-shifting services are now being manipulated downward by central banks to make these services more affordable. This is part of what keeps stock prices high and commodity prices from falling lower than their current levels.

These loans, bonds and shares of stock are providing a promise of future value. This value will exist only if there are enough fossil fuels and other resources to create physical goods and services to fulfill these promises. Central banks can print money, but they cannot print actual goods and services. If I am right about collapse being ahead, the whole debt system seems certain to collapse. Shares of stock seem certain to lose their value. This is concerning. The end point of all of the added complexity seems to be financial collapse, unless the system can truly add the promised goods and services.

[7] Intermittent electricity fits very poorly into just-in-time supply lines.

A complex economy requires long supply lines. Usually, these supply lines are operated on a just-in-time basis. If one part of a supply line encounters problems, then manufacturing needs to stop. For example, automobile manufacturers in many parts of the world are finding that they need to suspend production because it is impossible to source the necessary semiconductor chips. If electricity is temporarily unavailable, this is another way of disrupting the supply chain.

The standard way to work around temporary breaks in supply chains is to build greater inventory, but this is expensive. Additional inventory needs to be stored and watched over. It likely needs financing, as well.

[8] The world economy today seems to be near collapse.

The self-organizing economy is now pushing the economy in many strange ways that indirectly lead to less energy consumption and eventually collapse. Even prior to COVID-19, the world economy appeared to be reaching growth limits, as indicated in Figure 1, which was published in January 2019. For example, recycling of many renewables was no longer profitable at lower oil prices after 2014. This led China to discontinue most of its recycling efforts, effective January 1, 2018, even though this change resulted in the loss of jobs. China’s car sales fell in 2018, 2019, and 2020, a strange pattern for a supposedly rapidly growing country.

The response of world leaders to COVID-19 has pushed the world economy further in the direction of contraction. Businesses that were already weak are the ones having the most difficulty in being able to operate profitably.

Furthermore, debt problems are growing around the world. For example, it is unclear whether the world will require as many shopping malls or office buildings in the future. A person would logically expect the value of the unneeded buildings to drop, reducing the value of many of these properties below their outstanding debt level.

When these issues are combined, it looks likely that the world economy may not be far from collapse, which is one of my contentions from Section [1]. It also looks like my other contentions from Section [1] are true:

(i) Low oil prices rather than high are to be expected as the economy reaches limits,

(ii) Most fossil fuel reserves will be left in the ground because of low prices, and

(iv) If the economy is not to collapse, we need energy sources providing a larger quantity of net energy per capita to offset diminishing returns. 

Regarding (iv), the available energy supply from wind and solar (net or otherwise) is tiny relative to the total energy required to operate the world economy. This issue, alone, would disqualify a Great Reset using wind and solar from truly being a solution for today’s problems. Instead, plans for a Great Reset tend to act as a temporary cover-up for collapse.

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2021: More troubles likely

Most people expect that the economy of 2021 will be an improvement from 2020. I don’t think so. Perhaps COVID-19 will be somewhat better, but other aspects of the economy will likely be worse.

Back in November 2020, I showed a chart illustrating the path that energy consumption seems to be on. The sharp downturn in energy consumption has occurred partly because the cost of oil, gas and coal production tends to rise, since the portion that is least expensive to extract and ship tends to be removed first.

At the same time, prices that energy producers are able to charge their customers don’t rise enough to compensate for their higher costs. Ultimate customers are ordinary wage earners, and their wages are not escalating as rapidly as fossil fuel production and delivery costs. It is the low selling price of fossil fuels, relative to the rising cost of production, that causes a collapse in the production of fossil fuels. This is the crisis we are now facing.

Figure 1. Estimate by Gail Tverberg of World Energy Consumption from 1820 to 2050. Amounts for earliest years based on estimates in Vaclav Smil’s book Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and BP’s 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy for the years 1965 to 2019. Energy consumption for 2020 is estimated to be 5% below that for 2019. Energy for years after 2020 is assumed to fall by 6.6% per year, so that the amount reaches a level similar to renewables only by 2050. Amounts shown include more use of local energy products (wood and animal dung) than BP includes.

With lower energy consumption, many things tend to go wrong at once: The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Protests and uprisings become more common. The poorer citizens and those already in poor health become more vulnerable to communicable diseases. Governments feel a need to control their populations, partly to keep down protests and partly to prevent the further spread of disease.

If we look at the situation shown on Figure 1 on a per capita basis, the graph doesn’t look quite as steep, because lower energy consumption tends to bring down population. This reduction in population can come from many different causes, including illnesses, fewer babies born, less access to medical care, inadequate clean water and starvation.

Figure 2. Amounts shown in Figure 1, divided by population estimates by Angus Maddison for earliest years and by 2019 United Nations population estimates for years to 2020. Future population estimated to be falling half as quickly as energy supply is falling in Figure 1. World population drops to 2.8 billion by 2050.

What Is Ahead for 2021?

In many ways, it is good that we really don’t know what is ahead for 2021. All aspects of GDP production require energy consumption. A huge drop in energy consumption is likely to mean disruption in the world economy of varying types for many years to come. If the situation is likely to be bad, many of us don’t really want to know how bad.

We know that many civilizations have had the same problem that the world does today. It usually goes by the name “Collapse” or “Overshoot and Collapse.” The problem is that the population becomes too large for the resource base. At the same time, available resources may degrade (soils erode or lose fertility, mines deplete, fossil fuels become harder to extract). Eventually, the economy becomes so weakened that any minor disturbance – attack from an outside army, or shift in weather patterns, or communicable disease that raises the death rate a bit – threatens to bring down the whole system. I see our current economic problem as much more of an energy problem than a COVID-19 problem.

We know that when earlier civilizations collapsed, the downfall tended not to happen all at once. Based on an analysis by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov in their book, Secular Cycles, economies tended to first hit a period of stagflation, for perhaps 40 or 50 years. In a way, today’s economy has been in a period of stagflation since the 1970s, when it became apparent that oil was becoming more difficult to extract. To hide the problem, increasing debt was issued at ever-lower interest rates.

According to Turchin and Nefedov, the stagflation stage eventually moves into a steeper “crisis” period, marked by overturned governments, debt defaults, and falling population. In the examples analyzed by Turchin and Nefedov, this crisis portion of the cycle took 20 to 50 years. It seems to me that the world economy reached the beginning of the crisis period in 2020 when lockdowns in response to the novel coronavirus pushed the weakened world economy down further.

The examples examined by Turchin and Nefedov occurred in the time period before fossil fuels were widely used. It may very well be that the current collapse takes place more rapidly than those in the past, because of dependency on international supply lines and an international banking system. The world economy is also very dependent on electricity–something that may not last. Thus, there seems to be a chance that the crisis phase may last a shorter length of time than 20 to 50 years. It likely won’t last only a year or two, however. The economy can be expected to fall apart, but somewhat slowly. The big questions are, “How slowly?” “Can some parts continue for years, while others disappear quickly?”

Some Kinds of Things to Expect in 2021 (and beyond)

[1] More overturned governments and attempts at overturned governments.

With increasing wage disparity, there tend to be more and more unhappy workers at the bottom end of the wage distribution. At the same time, there are likely to be people who are unhappy with the need for high taxes to try to fix the problems of the people at the bottom end of the wage distribution. Either of these groups can attempt to overturn their government if the government’s handling of current problems is not to the group’s liking.

[2] More debt defaults.

During the stagflation period that the world economy has been through, more and more debt has been added at ever-lower interest rates. Much of this huge amount of debt relates to property that is no longer of much use (airplanes without passengers; office buildings that are no longer needed because people now work at home; restaurants without enough patrons; factories without enough orders). Governments will try to avoid defaults as long as possible, but eventually, the unreasonableness of this situation will prevail. The impact of defaults can be expected to affect many parts of the economy, including banks, insurance companies and pension plans.

[3] Extraordinarily slow progress in defeating COVID-19.

There seems to be a significant chance that COVID-19 is lab-made. In fact, the many variations of COVID-19 may also be lab made. Researchers around the world have been studying “Gain of Function” in viruses for more than 20 years, allowing the researchers to “tweak” viruses in whatever way they desire. There seem to be several variations on the original virus now. A suicidal/homicidal researcher could decide to “take out” as many other people as possible, by creating yet another variation on COVID-19.

To make matters worse, immunity to coronaviruses in general doesn’t seem to be very long lasting. According to an October 2020 article, 35-year study hints that coronavirus immunity doesn’t last long. Analyzing other coronaviruses, it concluded that immunity tends to disappear quite quickly, leading to an annual cycle of illnesses such as colds. There seems to be a substantial chance that COVID-19 will return on an annual basis. If vaccines generate a similar immunity pattern, we will be facing an issue of needing new vaccines every year, as we do with the flu.

[4] Cutbacks on education of many kinds.

Many people getting advanced degrees find that the time and expense did not lead to an adequate financial reward afterwards. At the same time, universities find that there are not many grants to support faculty, outside of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. With this combination of problems, universities with limited budgets make the financial decision to reduce or eliminate programs with reduced student interest and no outside funding.

At the same time, if local school districts find themselves short of funds, they may choose to use distance learning, simply to save money. This type of cutback could affect grade school children, especially in poor areas.

[5] Increasing loss of the top layers of governments.

It takes money/energy to support extra layers of government. The UK is now completely out of the European Union. We can expect to see more changes of this type. The UK may dissolve into smaller regions. Other parts of the EU may leave. This problem could affect many countries around the world, such as China or countries of the Middle East.

[6] Less globalization; more competition among countries.

Every country is struggling with the problem of not enough jobs that pay well. This is really an energy-related problem. Instead of co-operating, countries will tend to increasingly compete, in the hope that their country can somehow get a larger share of the higher-paying jobs. Tariffs will continue to be popular.

[7] More empty shelves in stores.

In 2020, we discovered that supply lines can break, making it impossible to purchase products a person expects. In fact, new governmental rules can have the same impact, for example, if a country bans travel to its country. We should expect more of this in 2021, and in the years ahead.

[8] More electrical outages, especially in locations where reliance on intermittent wind and solar for electricity is high.

In most places in the world, oil products were available before electricity. On the way down, we should expect to see the reverse of this pattern: Electricity will disappear first because it is hardest to maintain a constant supply. Oil will be available, at least as long as is electricity.

There is a popular belief that we will “run out of oil,” and that renewable electricity can be a solution. I do not think that intermittent electricity can be a solution for anything. It works poorly. At most, it acts as a temporary extender to fossil fuel-provided electricity.

[9] Possible hyperinflation, as countries issue more and more debt and no longer trust each other.

I often say that I expect oil and energy prices to stay low, but this doesn’t really hold if many countries around the world issue more and more government debt as a way to try to keep businesses from failing, debt from defaulting, and stock market prices inflated. There is a danger that all prices will inflate, and that sellers of products will no longer accept the hyperinflated currency that countries around the world are trying to provide.

My concern is that international trade will break down to a significant extent as hyperinflation of all currencies becomes a problem. The higher prices of oil and other energy products won’t really lead to any more production because prices of all goods and services will be inflating at the same time; fossil fuel producers will not get any special benefit from these higher prices.

If a significant loss of trade occurs, there will be even more empty shelves because there is very little any one country can make on its own. Without adequate goods, population loss may be very high.

[10] New ways of countries trying to fight with each other.

When there are not enough resources to go around, historically, wars have been fought. I expect wars will continue to be fought, but the approaches will “look different” than in the past. They may involve tariffs on imported goods. They may involve the use of laboratory-made viruses. They may involve attacking the internet of another country, or its electrical distribution system. There may be no officially declared war. Strange things may simply take place that no one understands, without realizing that the country is being attacked.

Conclusion

We seem to be headed for very bumpy waters in the years ahead, including 2021. Our real problem is an energy problem that we do not have a solution for.

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2020: The Year Things Started Going Badly Wrong

How today’s energy problem is different from peak oil

Many people believe that the economy will start going badly wrong when we “run out of oil.” The problem we have today is indeed an energy problem, but it is a different energy problem. Let me explain it with an escalator analogy.

Figure 1. Holborn Tube Station Escalator. Photo by renaissancechambara, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy is like a down escalator that citizens of the world are trying to walk upward on. At first the downward motion of the escalator is almost imperceptible, but gradually it gets to be greater and greater. Eventually the downward motion becomes almost unbearable. Many citizens long to sit down and take a rest.

In fact, a break, like the pandemic, almost comes as a relief. There is suddenly a chance to take it easy; not drive to work; not visit relatives; not keep up appearances before friends. Government officials may not be unhappy either. There may have been demonstrations by groups asking for higher wages. Telling people to stay at home provides a convenient way to end these demonstrations and restore order.

But then, restarting doesn’t work. There are too many broken pieces of the economy. Too many bankrupt companies; too many unemployed people; too much debt that cannot be repaid. And, a virus that really doesn’t quite go away, leaving people worried and unwilling to attempt to resume normal activities.

Some might describe the energy story as a “diminishing returns” story, but it’s really broader than this. It’s a story of services that we expect to continue, but which cannot continue without much more energy investment. It is also a story of the loss of “economies of scale” that at one time helped propel the economy forward.

In this post, I will explain some of the issues I see affecting the economy today. They tend to push the economy down, like a down escalator. They also make economic growth more difficult.

[1] Many resources take an increasing amount of effort to obtain or extract, because we use the easiest to obtain first. Many people would call this a diminishing returns problem.

Let’s look at a few examples:

(a) Water. When there were just a relatively few humans on the earth, drinking water from a nearby stream was a reasonable approach. This is the approach used by animals; humans could use it as well. As the number of humans rose, we found we needed additional approaches to gather enough potable water: First shallow wells were dug. Then we found that we needed to dig deeper wells. We found that lake water could be used, but we needed to filter it and treat it first. In some places, now, we find that desalination is needed. In fact, after desalination, we need to put the correct minerals back into it and pump it to the destination where it is required.

All of these approaches can indeed be employed. In theory, we would never run out of water. The problem is that as we move up the chain of treatments, an increasing amount of energy of some kind needs to be used. At first, humans could use some of their spare time (and energy) to dig wells. As more advanced approaches were chosen, the need for supplemental energy besides human energy became greater. Each of us individually cannot produce the water we need; instead, we must directly, or indirectly, pay for this water. The fact that we have to pay for this water with part of our wages reduces the portion of our wages available for other goods.

(b) Metals. Whenever some group decides to mine a metal ore, the ore that is taken first tends to be easy to access ore of high quality, close to where it needs to be used. As the best mines get depleted, producers use lower-grade ores, transported over longer distances. The shift toward less optimal mines requires more energy. Some of this additional energy could be human energy, but some of the energy would be supplied by fossil fuels, operating machinery in order to supplement human labor. Supplemental energy needs become greater and greater as mines become increasingly depleted. As technology advances, energy needs become greater, because some of the high-tech devices require materials that can only be formed at very high temperatures.

(c) Wild Animals Including Fish. When pre-humans moved out of Africa, they killed off the largest game animals on every continent that they moved to. It was still possible to hunt wild game in these areas, but the animals were smaller. The return on the human labor invested was smaller. Now, most of the meat we eat is produced on farms. The same pattern exists in fishing. Most of the fish the world eats today is produced on fish farms. We now need entire industries to provide food that early humans could obtain themselves. These farms directly and indirectly consume fossil fuel energy. In fact, more energy is used as more animals/fish are produced.

(d) Fossil Fuels. We keep hearing about the possibility of “running out” of oil, but this is not really the issue with oil. In fact, it is not the issue with coal or natural gas, either. The issue is one of diminishing returns. There is (and always will be) what looks like plenty left. The problem is that the process of extraction consumes increasing amounts of resources as deeper, more complex oil or gas wells need to be drilled and as coal mines farther away from users of the coal are developed. Many people have jumped to the conclusion that this means that the price that buyers of fossil fuel will pay will rise. This isn’t really true. It means that the cost of production will rise, leading to lower profitability. The lower profitability is likely to be spread in many ways: lower taxes paid, cutbacks in wages and pension plans, and perhaps a sale to a new owner, at a lower price. Eventually, low energy prices will lead to production stopping. Without adequate fossil fuels, the whole economic system will be disrupted, and the result will be severe recession or depression. There are also likely to be many job losses.

In (a) through (d) above, we are seeing an increasing share of the output of the economy being used in inefficient ways: in creating deeper water wells and desalination plants; in drilling oil wells in more difficult locations; in extracting metal ores that are mostly waste products. The extent of this inefficiency tends to increase over time. This is what leads to the effect of an escalator descending faster and faster, just as we humans are trying to walk up it.

Humans work for wages, but they find that when they buy a box of corn flakes, very little of the price actually goes to the farmer growing the corn. Instead, all of the intermediate parts of the system are becoming overly large. The buyer cannot afford the end products, and the producer feels cheated by the low wholesale prices he is being paid. The system as a whole is pushed toward collapse.

[2] Increasing complexity can help maintain economic growth, but it too reaches diminishing returns.

Complexity takes many forms, including more hierarchical organization, more specialization, longer supply chains, and development of new technology. Complexity can indeed help maintain economic growth. For example, if water supply is intermittent, a country may choose to build a dam to control the flow of water and produce electricity. Complexity tends to reach diminishing returns, as noted by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies. For example, economies build dams in the best locations first, and only later build them at less advantageous sites. These are a few other examples:

(a) Education. Teaching everyone to read and write has significant benefits because it allows the use of books and other written materials to disseminate information and knowledge. Teaching a few people advanced subjects has significant benefits as well. But after a certain point, the need for additional people to study a subject such as art history is low. A few people can teach the subject but doing more research on the subject probably won’t increase world GDP very much.

When we look at data from about 1970, we find that people with advanced education earned much higher incomes than those without advanced degrees. But as we add an increasing large share of people with these advanced degrees, jobs that really need these degrees are not as plentiful as the new graduates. Quite a few people with advanced degrees end up with low-paying jobs. The “return on investment” for higher education drops increasingly lower. Some students are not able to repay the debt that they took out in order to pay for their education.

(b) Medicines and Vaccines. Over the years, medicines and vaccines have been developed to treat many common illnesses and diseases. After a while, the easy-to-find medicines for the common unwanted conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure and inflammation) have already been found. There are medicines for rare diseases that haven’t been found, but these will never have very large total sales, discouraging investment. There are also conditions that are common in very poor countries. While expensive drugs could be developed for these conditions, it is likely that few people could afford these drugs, so this, too, becomes less attractive.

If research is to continue, it is important to keep expanding work on expensive new drugs, even if it means completely ignoring old inexpensive drugs that might work equally well. A cynical person might think that this is the reason why vitamin D and ivermectin are generally being ignored in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Without an expanding group of high-priced new drugs, it is hard to attract capital and young workers to the field.

(c) Automobile Efficiency. In the US, the big fuel efficiency change that took place was that which took place between 1975 and 1983, when a changeover was made to smaller, lighter vehicles, similar to ones that were already in use in Japan and Europe.

Figure 2. Estimated Real-World Fuel Economy, Horsepower, and Weight Since Model Year 1975, in a chart produced by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Source.

The increase in fuel efficiency between 2008 and 2019 (an 11 year period) was only 22%, compared to the 60% increase in fuel efficiency between 1975 and 1983 (an 8 year period). This is another example of diminishing returns to investment in complexity.

[3] Today’s citizens have never been told that many of the services we take for granted today, such as suppression of forest fires, are really services provided by fossil fuels.

In fact, the amount of energy required to provide these services rises each year. We expect these services to continue indefinitely, but we should be aware that they cannot continue very long, unless the energy available to the economy as a whole is rising very rapidly.

(a) Suppression of Forest Fires. Forest fires are part of nature. Many trees require fire for their seeds to germinate. Human neighbors of forests don’t like forest fires; they often encourage local authorities to put out any forest fire that starts. Such suppression allows an increasing amount of dry bush to build up. As a result, future fires spread more easily and grow larger.

At the same time, humans increasingly build homes in forested areas because of the pleasant scenery. As population expands and as fires spread more easily, forest fire suppression takes an increasing amount of resources, including fossil fuels to power helicopters used in the battles. If fossil fuels are not available, this type of service would need to stop. Trying to keep forest fires suppressed, assuming fossil fuels are available for this purpose, will take higher taxes, year after year. This is part of what makes it seem like we are trying to move our economy upward on a down escalator.

(b) Suppression of Illnesses. Illnesses are part of the cycle of nature; they disproportionately take out the old and the weak. Of course, we humans don’t really like this; the old and weak are our relatives and close friends. In fact, some of us may be old and weak.

In the last 100 years, researchers (using fossil fuels) have developed a large number of antibiotics, antivirals and vaccines to try to suppress illnesses. We find that microbes quickly mutate in new ways, defeating our attempts at suppression of illnesses. Thus, we have ever-more antibiotic resistant bacteria. The cost of today’s US healthcare system is very high, exceeding what many poor people can afford to pay. Introducing new vaccines results in an additional cost.

Closing down the system to try to stop a virus adds a huge new cost, which is disproportionately borne by the poor people of the world. If we throw more money/fossil fuels at the medical system, perhaps it can be made to work a little longer. No one tells us that disease suppression is a service of fossil fuels; if we have an increasing quantity of fossil fuels per capita, perhaps we can increase disease suppression services.

(c) Suppression of Weeds and Unwanted Insects. Researchers keep developing new chemical treatments (based on fossil fuels) to suppress weeds and unwanted insects. Unfortunately, the weeds and unwanted insects keep mutating in a way that makes the chemicals less effective. The easy solutions were found first; finding solutions that really work and don’t harm humans seems to be elusive. The early solutions were relatively cheap, but later ones have become increasingly expensive. This problem acts, in many ways, like diminishing returns.

(d) Recycling (and Indirectly, Return Transport of Empty Shipping Containers from Around the World). When oil prices are high, recycling of used items for their content makes sense, economically. When oil prices are low, recycling often requires a subsidy. This subsidy indirectly goes to pay for fossil fuels used to facilitate the recycling. Often this goes to pay for shipment to a country that will do the recycling.

When oil prices were high (prior to 2014), part of the revenue from recycling could be used to transport mixed waste products to China and India for recycling. With low oil prices, China and India have stopped accepting most recycling. Instead, it is necessary to find actual “goods” for the return voyage of a shipping container or, alternatively, pay to have the container sent back empty. Europe now seems to have a difficult time filling shipping containers for the return voyage to Asia. Because of this, the cost of obtaining shipping containers to ship goods to Europe seems to be escalating. This higher cost acts much like diminishing returns with respect to the transport of goods to Europe from Asia. This is yet another part of what is acting like a down escalator for the world economy.

[4] Another, ever higher cost is pollution control. This higher cost also exerts a downward effect on the world economy, because it acts like another intermediate cost.

As we burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels, increasing amounts of particulate matter need to be captured and disposed of. Capturing this material is only part of the problem; some of the waste material may be radioactive or may include mercury. Once the material is captured, it needs to be “locked up” in some way, so it doesn’t pollute the water and air. Whatever approach is used requires energy products of various kinds. In fact, the more fossil fuels that are burned, the bigger the waste disposal problem tends to be.

Burning more fossil fuels also leads to more CO2. Unfortunately, we don’t have suitable alternatives. Nuclear is probably as good as any, and it has serious safety issues. In my opinion, the view that intermittent wind and solar are a suitable replacement for fossil fuels represents wishful thinking. Wind and solar, because of their intermittency, can only partially replace the coal or natural gas burned to generate electricity. They cannot be relied upon for 24/7/365 generation. The unsubsidized cost of producing intermittent wind and solar energy needs to be compared to the price of coal and natural gas, not to wholesale electricity prices. There are a lot of apples to oranges comparisons being made.

[5] Among other things, the growth of the economy depends on “economies of scale” as the number of participants in the economy gradually grows. The response to COVID-19 has been extremely detrimental to economies of scale.

The economies of many countries changed dramatically, with the initial spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, we cannot expect these changes to be completely reversed anytime soon. Part of the reason is the new virus mutation from the UK that is now of concern. Another reason is that, even with the vaccine, no one really knows how long immunity will last. Until the virus is clearly gone, vestiges of the cutbacks are likely to remain in place.

In general, businesses do well financially as the number of buyers of the goods and services they provide rises. This happens because overhead costs, such as mortgage payments, can be spread over more buyers. The expertise of the business owners can also be used more widely.

One huge problem is the recent cutback in tourism, affecting almost every country in the world. This cutback affects both businesses directly related to tourism and businesses indirectly related to tourism, such as restaurants and hotels.

Another huge problem is social distancing rules that lead to office buildings and restaurants being used less intensively. Businesses find that they tend to have fewer customers, rather than more. Related businesses, such as taxis and dry cleaners, find that they also have fewer customers. Nursing homes and other care homes for the aged are seeing lower occupancy rates because no one wants to be locked up for months on end without being able to see other members of their family.

[6] With all of the difficulties listed in Items [1] though [5], debt based financing tends to work less and less well. Huge debt defaults can be expected to adversely affect banks, insurance companies and pension plans.

Many businesses are already near default on debt. These businesses cannot make a profit with a much reduced number of customers. If no change is possible, somehow this will need to flow through the system. Defaulting debt is likely to lead to failing banks and pension plans. In fact, governments that depend on taxes may also fail.

The shutdowns taken by economies earlier this year were very detrimental, both to businesses and to workers. A major solution to date has been to add more governmental debt to try to bail out citizens and businesses. This additional debt makes it even more difficult to maintain promised debt payments. This is yet another force making it difficult for economies to move up the growth escalator.

[7] The situation we are headed for looks much like the collapses of early civilizations.

With diminishing returns everywhere, and inadequate sources of very inexpensive energy to keep the system going, major parts of the world economic system appear headed for collapse. There doesn’t seem to be any way to keep the world economy growing rapidly enough to offset the down escalator effect.

Citizens have not been aware of how “close to the edge” we have been. Low energy prices have been deceptive, but this is what we should expect with collapse. (See, for example, Revelation 18: 11-13, telling about the lack of demand for goods of all kinds when ancient Babylon collapsed.) Low prices tend to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They also tend to discourage high-priced alternatives. Unfortunately, all the wishful thinking of the World Economic Forum and others advocating a Green New Deal does not change the reality of the situation.

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Humans Left Sustainability Behind as Hunter-Gatherers

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Many people believe that humans can have a sustainable future by using solar panels and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the only truly sustainable course, in terms of moving in cycles with nature, is interacting with the environment in a manner similar to the approach used by chimpanzees and baboons. Even this approach will eventually lead to new and different species predominating. Over a long period, such as 10 million years, we can expect the vast majority of species currently alive will become extinct, regardless of how well these species fit in with nature’s plan.

The key to the relative success of animals such as chimpanzees and baboons is living within a truly circular economy. Sunlight falling on trees provides the food they need. Waste products of their economy come back to the forest ecosystem as fertilizer.

Pre-humans lost the circular economy when they learned to control fire over one million years ago, when they were still hunter-gatherers. With the controlled use of fire, cooked food became possible, making it easier to chew and digest food. The human body adapted to the use of cooked food by reducing the size of the jaw and digestive tract and increasing the size of the brain. This adaptation made pre-humans truly different from other animals.

With the use of fire, pre-humans had many powers. They spent less time chewing, so they could spend more time making tools. They could burn down entire forests, if they so chose, to provide a better environment for the desired types of wild plants to grow. They could use the heat from fire to move to colder environments than the one to which they were originally adapted, thus allowing a greater total population.

Once pre-humans could outcompete other species, the big problem became diminishing returns. For example, once the largest beasts were killed off, only smaller beasts were available to eat. The amount of effort required to kill these smaller beasts was not proportionately less, however.

In this post, I will explain further the predicament we seem to be in. We have deviated so far from the natural economy that we really cannot go back. At the same time, the limits we are reaching are straining our economic system in many ways. Some type of discontinuity, or collapse, seems to be not very far away.

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