A Video Game Analogy to Our Energy Predicament

The way the world economy is manipulated by world leaders is a little like a giant video game. The object of the game is to keep the world economy growing, without too many adverse consequences to particular members of the world economy. We represent this need for growth of the world economy as being similar to making a jet airplane fly at ever-higher altitudes.

Figure 1. Author’s view of the situation we are facing. World leaders look at their video screens and adjust their controllers to try to make the world economy fly at ever-higher levels.

World leaders look at their video game screens for indications regarding where the world economy is now. They also want to see whether there are specific parts of the economy that are doing badly.

The game controllers that the world leaders have are somewhat limited in the functions they can perform. Typical adjustments they can make include the following:

  • Add or remove government programs aimed at providing jobs for would-be workers
  • Add or remove government sponsored pension plans and payments to those without jobs
  • Add or remove laws regulating efficiencies of new vehicles
  • Change who or what is taxed, and the overall level of taxation
  • Through the above mechanisms, change government debt levels
  • Change interest rates

There are numerous problems with this approach. For one thing, the video game screen doesn’t give a very complete picture of what is happening. For another, the aspects of the economy that can be controlled are rather limited. Furthermore, the situation is very complex–there seem to be several “sides” of the economy that need to “win” at the same time, for the economy to continue to grow: (a) oil importers and oil exporters, (b) businesses and their would-be customers, (c) governments and their would-be taxpayers, and (d) asset holders and the would-be buyers of these assets, such as families needing new homes.

An even bigger problem is a physics problem that is hidden from the view of those operating the control mechanism. Jet airplanes in the real world cannot rise beyond a certain altitude (varying depending upon the plane), because the atmosphere becomes “too thin.” There is a parallel problem in the economic world. The atmosphere that allows an economy to grow is provided by a combination of (a) an increasing supply of cheap-to-produce energy, and (b) increased technology to put this growing energy supply to use. This atmosphere can become too thin for several reasons, including the higher cost of energy production, rising population, and growing wage disparity.

We know that in the real world, a jet airplane cannot rise ever-higher. Instead, at some point, the airplane hits what has been called its “coffin corner.”

Figure 2. Diagram of Coffin Corner by Aleks Udris of Boldmethod. On the chart, Vs is the velocity; MMO is the Maximum Mach Number.

According to Aleks Udris, “The region is deadly. Get too slow, and you’ll stall the jet at high altitude. Get too fast, and you’ll exceed your critical mach number. The air over your wings will go supersonic, you’ll pitch down, the aircraft will accelerate, and your wings will fall off. Also bad.”

What Happens As Coffin Corner Limits Are Reached in the Economic World?

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Energy limits: Why we see rising wealth disparity and low prices

Last week, I gave a fairly wide-ranging presentation at the 2016 Biophysical Economics Conference called Complexity: The Connection Between Fossil Fuel EROI, Human Energy EROI, and Debt (pdf). In this post, I discuss the portion of the talk that explains several key issues:

  1. Why we are right now seeing so many problems with respect to wealth disparity and low commodity prices (Answer: World per capita energy consumption is already falling, and the energy/economy system needs to reflect this problem somehow.)
  2. Why the quest for growing technology leads to growing wealth disparity (Answer: The economy must be configured in more of a hierarchical pattern to support growing “complexity.” Growing complexity is the precursor to growing technology.)
  3. Why rising debt is an integral part of the energy/economy system (Answer: We could not pay workers for making long-lasting goods and services without using debt to “pull forward” the hoped-for benefit of these goods and services to the present, using debt and other equivalent approaches.)
  4. Why commodity prices can suddenly fall below the cost of production for a wide range of products (Answer: Prices of commodities depend to a significant extent on debt levels. A major problem is that when commodity prices rise, wages do not rise in a corresponding manner. Rising debt levels can mask the growing lack of affordability for a while, but eventually, debt levels cannot be raised sufficiently, and commodity prices fall too low.)
  5. The Brexit vote may be related to falling energy per capita in the UK. Given that this problem occurs in many countries, it may be increasingly difficult to keep the Eurozone and other similar international organizations together.
  6. My talk also touches on the topic of why a steady state economy is not possible, unless we can live like chimpanzees.

My analysis has as its premise that the economy behaves like other physical systems. It needs energy–and, in fact, growing energy–to operate. If the system does not get the energy it needs, it “rebalances” in a way that may not be to our liking. See my article, “The Physics of Energy and the Economy.”

An outline of my talk is shown as Slide 2, below. I will omit the EROI and Hubbert model portions of the presentation.   Continue reading

Putting the Real Story of Energy and the Economy Together

What is the real story of energy and the economy? We hear two predominant energy stories. One is the story economists tell: The economy can grow forever; energy shortages will have no impact on the economy. We can simply substitute other forms of energy, or do without.

Another version of the energy and the economy story is the view of many who believe in the “Peak Oil” theory. According to this view, oil supply can decrease with only a minor impact on the economy. The economy will continue along as before, except with higher prices. These higher prices encourage the production of alternatives, such wind and solar. At this point, it is not just peak oilers who endorse this view, but many others as well.

In my view, the real story of energy and the economy is much less favorable than either of these views. It is a story of oil limits that will make themselves known as financial limits, quite possibly in the near term—perhaps in as little time as a few months or years. Our underlying problem is diminishing returns—it takes more and more effort (hours of workers’ time and quantities of resources), to produce essentially the same goods and services.

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