Energy Is the Economy; Shrinkage in Energy Supply Leads to Conflict

It takes energy to accomplish any of the activities that we associate with GDP. It takes energy to grow food: human energy, solar energy, and–in today’s world–the many types of energy used to build and power tractors, transport food to markets, and provide cooling for food that needs to be refrigerated. It takes energy to cook food and to smelt metals. It takes energy to heat and air condition offices and to power the internet. Without adequate energy, the world economy would come to a halt.

We are hitting energy limits right now. Energy per capita is already shrinking, and it seems likely to shrink further in the future. Reaching a limit produces a conflict problem similar to the one in the game musical chairs. This game begins with an equal number of players and chairs. At the start of each round, a chair is removed. The players must then compete for the remaining chairs, and the player who ends the round without a chair is eliminated. There is conflict among players as they fight to obtain one of the available chairs. The conflict within the energy system is somewhat hidden, but the result is similar.

A current conflict is, “How much energy can we spare to fight COVID-19?” It is obvious that expenditures on masks and vaccines have an impact on the economy. It is less obvious that a cutback in airline flights or in restaurant meals to fight COVID-19 indirectly leads to less energy being produced and consumed, worldwide. In total, the world becomes a poorer place. How is the pain of this reduction in energy consumption per capita to be shared? Is it fair that travel and restaurant workers are disproportionately affected? Worldwide, we are seeing a K shaped recovery: The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.

A major issue is that while we can print money, we cannot print the energy supplies needed to run the economy. As energy supplies deplete, we will increasingly need to “choose our battles.” In the past, humans have been able to win many battles against nature. However, as energy per capita declines in the future, we will be able to win fewer and fewer of these battles against nature, such as our current battle with COVID-19. At some point, we may simply need to let the chips fall where they may. The world economy seems unable to accommodate 7.8 billion people, and we will have no choice but to face this issue.

In this post, I will explain some of the issues involved. At the end of the post, I include a video of a panel discussion that I was part of on the topic of “Energy Is the Economy.” The moderator of the panel discussion was Chris Martenson; the other panelists were Richard Heinberg and Art Berman.

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