How Energy Shapes the Economy

In the beginning, the Master Economist created the Economy.  He created businesses large and small, consumers, governments with their regulation, and financial institutions of all types. And the Master Economist declared that the economy should grow. And it did grow, but only for a while. Then it stalled. Then He declared that stimulus of various types should fix it, and it did, for a while. Then He declared that if humans would just wait for a while, it would fix itself, but it wouldn’t.

We all know that the foregoing isn’t the real story about the economy, but what is the real story?

I think if we dig deeper, we discover that energy plays an all-powerful role, just as it does in the natural world in general.

Population: How Inadequate Energy Acts as a Limiting Factor 

Human population is of course an important part of the economy. If population keeps growing, it helps the economy grow, because more consumers mean more demand.  Can human population keep growing?

Figure 1. World Population Growth, based on summary data provided by US Census. Population growth became much more rapid after fossil fuels began adding to food supply, in the 1800s. Coal enabled much greater use of metal and glass, allowing changes which permitted horses to do more work on farms, and innovations such as electric light bulbs.

The answer seems to be no. Here we find that researchers have found an extremely important role for energy. The relationship they have found relates to any species, not just to homo sapiens. Continue reading

Reaching financial limits–What kinds of solutions are available?

We live in a finite world. At this point, we seem to be reaching limits in several different areas:

  • Cheap oil. Our economy runs on cheap oil, but there is a limit to the amount of cheap oil that can be pulled out of the ground. There is still a lot of expensive-to-produce oil left, but this is not a substitute for cheap oil.
  • Fresh water. Fresh water is used for drinking, for growing food, for producing oil and gas, and for creating electricity, among other things. In many parts of the world, we are using fresh water faster than aquifers can replenish.
  • Climate Change. Our agricultural system depends on relatively constant climate. Changes to climate, whether caused by humans or not, are a problem. It is possible that this year’s hot summer is caused by climate change.
  • Soil fertility. Soil fertility depends on adequate depth of top soil, adequate humus content, suitable bacteria in the soil, and proper mineral balance. We have been able to hide soil fertility problems through greater use fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, but these are not permanent “fixes”.
  • Pollution. There are many types of pollution that are problems, from excessive carbon dioxide, to mercury in food sources, to endocrine disruptors, to algal blooms.
  • Human population. The number of humans on earth is out of balance with world ecosystems and keeps growing, year after year.
  • Financial system. Our financial system depends on growth, but growth in a finite world system cannot continue forever. High oil prices tend to lead to recession, and reduced economic growth–hence the need for cheap oil, rather than expensive oil.

The question then becomes, “What can we do?”  Are there any solutions available, even if they are only partial solutions, as high oil prices and other limits squeeze the economy?

Many of us sense that we likely are not too far away from a contraction imposed by nature–something that looks like a severe recession that will help bring the world back into balance. While we probably cannot completely “fix” the situation, there seem to  be several things we can do, in the way of mitigation. Continue reading