Limits to Growth–At our doorstep, but not recognized

How long can economic growth continue in a finite world? This is the question the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others sought to answer. The computer models that the team of researchers produced strongly suggested that the world economy would collapse sometime in the first half of the 21st century.

I have been researching what the real situation is with respect to resource limits since 2005. The conclusion I am reaching is that the team of 1972 researchers were indeed correct. In fact, the promised collapse is practically right around the corner, beginning in the next year or two. In fact, many aspects of the collapse appear already to be taking place, such as the 2008-2009 Great Recession and the collapse of the economies of smaller countries such as Greece and Spain. How could collapse be so close, with virtually no warning to the population?

To explain the situation, I will first explain why we are reaching Limits to Growth in the near term.  I will then provide a list of nine reasons why the near-term crisis has been overlooked.

Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth in the Near Term

In simplest terms, our problem is that we as a people are no longer getting richer. Instead, we are getting poorer, as evidenced by the difficulty young people are now having getting good-paying jobs. As we get poorer, it becomes harder and harder to pay debt back with interest. It is the collision of the lack of economic growth in the real economy with the need for economic growth from the debt system that can be expected to lead to collapse. Continue reading

Why a Finite World is a Problem

Why is a finite world a problem? I can think of many answers:

1. A finite world is a problem because we and all of the other creatures living in this world share the same piece of “real estate.” If humans use increasingly more resources, other species necessarily use less. Even “renewable” resources are shared with other species. If humans use more, other species must use less. Solar panels covering the desert floor interfere with normal wildlife; the use of plants for biofuels means less area is available for planting food and for vegetation preferred by desirable insects, such as bees.

2. A finite world is governed by cycles. We like to project in straight lines or as constant percentage increases, but the real world doesn’t follow such patterns. Each day has 24 hours. Water moves in waves. Humans are born, mature, and die. A resource is extracted from an area, and the area suddenly becomes much poorer once the income from those exports is removed. Once a country becomes poorer, fighting is likely to break out. A recent example of this is Egypt’s loss of oil exports, about the time of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 (Figure 1). The fighting has not yet stopped. 

Figure 1. Egypt's oil production and consumption, based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 1. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The interconnectedness of resources with the way economies work, and the problems that occur when those resources are not present, make the future much less predictable than most models would suggest.

3.  A finite world means that we eventually run short of easy-to-extract resources of many types, including fossil fuels, uranium, and metals.  This doesn’t mean that we will “run out” of these resources. Instead, it means that the extraction process will become more expensive for these fuels and metals, unless technology somehow acts to hold costs down. If extraction costs rise, anything made using these fuels and metals becomes more expensive, assuming businesses selling these products are able to recover their costs. (If they don’t, they go out of business, quickly!) Figure 2 shows that a recent turning point toward higher costs came in 2002, for both energy products and base metals.

Figure 2. World Bank Energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) and Base Metals price indices, using 2005 US dollars, indexed to 2010 = 100.  Data source: World Bank.

Figure 2. World Bank Energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) and Base Metals price indices, using 2005 US dollars, indexed to 2010 = 100. Base metals exclude iron. Data source: World Bank.

Continue reading

Reaching Debt Limits

If an economy is growing, it is easy to add debt. The additional growth in future years provides money both to pay back the debt and to cover the additional interest. Promotions are common and layoffs are few, so a debt such as a mortgage can easily be repaid.

Figure 1. Author's image of an expanding economy.

Figure 1. Author’s image of an expanding economy.

The situation is fairly different if the economy is contracting. It is hard to find sufficient money for repaying the debt itself, not to mention the additional interest. Layoffs and business closings make repaying loans much more difficult.

Figure 2. Author's image of declining economy.

Figure 2. Author’s image of declining economy.

If an economy is in a steady state, with no growth, debt still causes a problem. While there is theoretically enough money to repay the debt, interest costs are a drag on the economy. Interest payments tend to move money from debtors (who tend to be less wealthy) to creditors (who tend to be more wealthy). If the economy is growing, growth provides at least some additional funds offset to this loss of funds to debtors. Without growth, interest payments (or fees instead of interest) are a drain on debtors. Changing from interest payments to fees does not materially affect the outcome.

Recently, the growth of most types of US debt has stalled (Figure 3, below). The major exception is governmental debt, which is still growing rapidly. The purpose of sequestration is to slightly slow this growth in US debt.

Figure 3. US debt, based on Federal Reserve Z1 data,

Figure 3. US debt, based on Federal Reserve Z1 data,

The growth in government debt occurs because of a mismatch between income and expenditures. There is a cutback in government revenue because high oil prices make some goods using oil unaffordable, causing a cutback in production, and hence employment. The government is affected because unemployed workers don’t pay much in taxes.  Government expenditures are still high because many unemployed workers are still collecting benefits.

What can we expect going forward? Will the debt situation get even worse? Continue reading