Russell Lee Hammond Ranch general store, Chicot, Arkansas Jan 1939
“For most people, the effect of these problems is unemployment, reduced job security, the deskilling of many professions and stagnant incomes. Home ownership is increasingly out of reach for many. Retirement may become a luxury for all but a few..”
Like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the world awaits the return of wealth and prosperity. But the global economy may be entering a period of stagnation. Over the last 35 years, the economic growth necessary to increase living standards, increase wealth and manage growing inequality has been based increasingly on rising borrowings and financial rather than real engineering. There was reliance on debt-driven consumption. It resulted in global trade and investment imbalances, such as that between China and the US or Germany and the rest of Europe. Everybody conspires to ignore the underlying problem, cover it up, or devise deferral strategies to kick the can down the road.
Citizens demanded and governments allowed the build-up of retirement and healthcare entitlements as well as public services to win or maintain office. The commitments were rarely fully funded by taxes or other provisions. The 2008 global financial crisis was a warning of the unstable nature of these arrangements. But there has been no meaningful change. Since 2007, global debt has grown by US$57 trillion, or 17% of the world’s GDP. In many countries, debt has reached unsustainable levels, and it is unclear how or when it is to be reduced without defaults that would wipe out large amounts of savings. Imbalances remain. Entitlement reform has proved politically difficult. Financial institutions and activity dominate many economies. The official policy is “extend and pretend”, whereby everybody conspires to ignore the underlying problem, cover it up, or devise deferral strategies to kick the can down the road.
The assumption was that government spending, lower interest rates and supplying abundant cash to the money markets would create growth. While the measures did stabilise the economy, they did not lead to a full recovery. Instead, they set off dangerous asset price bubbles in shares, bonds, real estate and even fine arts and collectibles. Economic problems are now compounded by lower population growth and ageing populations; slower increases in productivity and innovation; looming shortages of critical resources, such as water, food and energy; and man-made climate change and extreme weather conditions.
Slower growth in international trade and capital flows is another retardant. Emerging markets, such as China, that have benefited from and recently supported growth are slowing. Rising inequality affects economic activity. For most people, the effect of these problems is unemployment, reduced job security, the deskilling of many professions and stagnant incomes. Home ownership is increasingly out of reach for many. Retirement may become a luxury for all but a few, reflecting increasing difficulty in building sufficient savings. In effect, living standards will decline. Future generations will bear the bulk of the cost as they are left to tackle the unresolved problems of their forebears.
Empty rethorical lies.
Stronger growth will pull inflation higher in the U.S. and Europe, according to three top central bankers who voiced confidence that their regions will escape from headwinds that are keeping inflation too low. Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer joined ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio and BoE Governor Mark Carney Saturday on a panel at the Kansas City Fed’s annual retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, dedicated to discussing inflation dynamics. Their optimism has not been shared up until now by investors, trading in inflation-protected bonds shows. “Given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further,” Fischer said in his prepared remarks.
“With inflation low, we can probably remove accommodation at a gradual pace,” Fischer said. “Yet, because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2 percent to begin tightening.” While Fischer has left open the option of an interest-rate increase when policy makers meet next month, he didn’t express a preference for acting that soon. “I do not plan to upset your rational expectation that I cannot tell you what decision the Fed will reach by Sept. 17,” he told the symposium Saturday. Price increases in the U.S. and Europe have been running well below levels targeted by the central banks, where officials are debating what slower Chinese growth and weaker commodity prices could mean for future inflation.
While U.S. officials are weighing the timing of their first interest-rate increase since 2006, and the Bank of England may tighten in early 2016, the ECB has heard calls to extend its quantitative easing program to provide more protection against potential deflation. “The link between inflation and real activity appears to have strengthened in the euro area recently,” the ECB’s Constancio said in a paper delivered at Jackson Hole. “Provided our policies are able to significantly reduce the output gap, we can rely on a material effect to help bring the inflation rate closer to target.” Investors may not share this optimism. 5-year, 5-year inflation swaps in the euro area – which reflect expectations for the five-year path of inflation five years from now – show that market-based inflation expectations slid to about 1.65%in August from about 1.85% at the beginning of the month. That’s almost as low as when the ECB started its quantitative easing program in March.
But who says they’re trying? I often think they’re trying to cause crashes instead.
The meeting of the world’s most important central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this weekend only confirmed the need for Britain, Japan, the eurozone and the US to keep monetary policy loose. Yet the palliative offered by the Fed is akin to a parent soothing fears with another round of ice-creams despite expanding waistlines and warnings from the dentist and the doctor. According to some City analysts, the stock markets are pumped with so much cheap credit that a crash is just around the corner. And they worry that when that crash comes, the central banks are all out of moves to prevent the aftershocks from causing a broader collapse.
Since 2008 the Fed has pumped around $4.5 trillion into the financial system. The Bank of England stopped at £375bn. The Bank of Japan is still adding to its post-crash stimulus with around $700bn a year and the ECB will have matched its cousin in Tokyo by the end of the year. In each case, the central bank has adopted quantitative easing, which involves buying government debt to drive up its price. A higher price lowers the returns and encourages investors to go elsewhere in search of gains. It has meant a big shift in the portfolios of fund managers in favour of shares. Apart from a few blips due to the Greek crisis, stock markets have boomed. This summer, the FTSE 100 soared past 2008 levels to top its 1999 peak.
But China, which has borrowed heavily to keep its economy moving, is running out of steam. Beijing has said it does not want to encourage another borrowing boom. But to prevent a crash, it is doing just that. In the last two weeks it has cut interest rates and loosened borrowing limits. It has even invested directly in the market, buying the shares of smaller companies. So we face the shocking prospect of central bankers, in thrall to stock market gyrations, making the world a more unstable place with promises of yet more cheap credit.
Disregard everything Bloomberg has published on the issue over the past two weeks?!
China’s deepening struggles are starting to make a bigger dent in the global economic outlook. Moody’s Investors Service on Friday cut its 2016 growth forecast in Group of 20 economies to 2.8%, down 0.3 percentage point from the company’s call less than two weeks ago. China is projected to grow 6.3% in 2016, down from 6.5% previously, the credit-rating company said in a report. Citigroup Inc. last week pared its projection for world growth in 2016 to 3.1% from 3.3%, the third straight time the bank has cut the forecast. Recent Chinese data including numbers on credit expansion and fixed-asset investment suggest a sharper slowdown this quarter than Moody’s previously judged, while Citigroup said the worsening outlook was driven by “significant” downgrades for China, the euro area, Japan and several other major countries.
“We’re seeing evidence that the slowdown is broader than expected” in China, said Marie Diron, a London-based senior vice president at Moody’s and one of the report’s authors. “It’s long been clear that there’s a slowdown in the manufacturing and construction sector, but the service sector was more resilient. That’s still the case, but we’re seeing some signs of weakness in the labor market.” Efforts to boost growth by the People’s Bank of China, which eased its main policy rate this week, will only partly offset the slowdown, Moody’s said in the research report. Moody’s said it cut its global projection because of “information that has become available” since the Aug. 18 publication of its previous forecast. In addition to China, Moody’s lowered outlooks for nations including Brazil and Russia.
The depreciation of the yuan will probably be “fairly modest” in coming months, meaning the world’s second-largest economy won’t get much of a boost from a cheaper currency, Mark Schofield at Citigroup Global Markets, wrote in an Aug. 21 report. China shocked markets on Aug. 11 by devaluing the yuan and aligning its exchange-rate policy more with market forces. The currency is down 2.8% against the dollar this month, while the Shanghai Composite Index of stocks has plunged 12%. “We continue to believe that the greatest risks to our growth forecasts remain to the downside,” Schofield wrote. Actual growth is “probably even lower” because of “likely mis-measurement in China’s official data,” he wrote. Even with the weaker outlook, Moody’s dismissed the impact of China’s stock-market rout, saying it happened after a “long period of price increases” and will have limited effects on consumer spending and financial-industry profit.
Newsweek finds this fit to print.
Over the past month, there has been a lot of “China drama.” The volatility in the Chinese stock market, the yuan devaluation and now the Tianjin warehouse explosion have all raised China chatter to a new level of anxiety. Some of the anxiety is understandable. These events have real consequences—above all for the Chinese people. At the urging of the Chinese government, tens of millions of Chinese moved to stake their fortunes not on real estate but on the stock market—the most unfortunate used their real estate as leverage to invest in the market and are now desperate for some good news. The Tianjin warehouse explosion has thus far left 121 Chinese dead, more than seven hundred injured and over fifty still missing.
Globally, the yuan devaluation has triggered a rate rethink by central bankers in Europe and the United States and the stock market slide has contributed to steep drops in Asian and U.S. markets. Events such as these in any country would garner international attention. In the case of China, however, the noise around such events is amplified by the absence of three mitigating factors:
Transparency. A lack of transparency in China compounds the challenge of understanding what is going on. What, for example, is behind China’s devaluation of the yuan? Is it part of Beijing’s bid to push forward on its economic reforms by making the currency more responsive to the market? Is it an effort to persuade the International Monetary Fund that the yuan should become part of its basket of currencies before Beijing has to wait another five years for its currency to be considered? Is it an effort to prop up China’s ever-declining export numbers? Or is it a confluence of all three?
Context. While the human toll inflicted by the Tianjin warehouse explosion was devastating, no one should be surprised by the disaster itself or the political aftermath. The pattern of Chinese behavior—including the corrupt environmental impact assessment system that allowed for the placement of the factory so close to people’s residences, the lack of knowledge of what precisely the warehouse stored, the generosity of the Chinese people trying to help those affected and the attention paid by the Chinese government to assigning blame and shutting down information transmission and popular commentary via the Internet—is one that repeats itself frequently.
Perspective. Drama surrounding China is also heightened by the tendency of outside observers to lose a bit of perspective. The media, as well as China analysts—and those who play them on TV— are rewarded for bold statements and predictions. I looked back at what people were saying about the Chinese stock market at the end of 2014 and early 2015 when the market was surging. At that time, unsurprisingly, there was a lot of triumphalism punctuated by a few dark warnings. The Economist, for example, produced a piece, “Super-bull on the rampage,” that focused 95% of its attention on all the excitement the stock market was generating, with only 5% at the end mentioning some of the potential weaknesses underpinning the rise in the market.
Everyone was part of the Ponzi.
The commodities giant BHP Billiton spent heavily for years, mining iron ore across Australia, digging for copper in Chile, and pumping oil off the coast of Trinidad. The company could be confident in its direction as commodities orders surged from its biggest and best customer, China. Now, BHP is pulling back, faced with a slowing Chinese economy that will no longer be the same dominant force in commodities. Profit is falling and the company is cutting its investment spending budget by more than two-thirds. China’s rapid growth over the last decade reshaped the world economy, creating a powerful driver of corporate strategies, financial markets and geopolitical decisions. China seemed to have a one-way trajectory, momentum that would provide a steady source of profit and capital.
But deepening economic fears about China, which culminated this week in a global market rout, are now forcing a broad rethinking of the conventional wisdom. Even as markets show signs of stabilizing, the resulting shock waves could be lasting, by exposing a new reality that China is no longer a sure bet. China, while still a large and pervasive presence in the global economy, is now exporting uncertainty around the world with the potential for choppier growth and volatile swings. The tectonic shift is forcing a gut check in industries that have built their strategies and plotted their profits around China’s rise. Industrial and commodity multinationals face the most pressing concerns, as they scramble to stem the profit slide from weaker consumption.
Caterpillar cut back factory production, with industry sales of construction equipment in China dropping by half in the first six months of the year. Smartphone makers, automobile manufacturers and retailers wonder about the staying power of Chinese buyers, even if it is not shaking their bottom line at this point. General Motors and Ford factories have been shipping fewer cars to Chinese dealerships this summer. It is not just companies reassessing their assumptions. Russia had been turning to China to fill the financial gap left by low oil prices and Western sanctions. Venezuela, Nigeria and Ukraine have been heavily dependent on investments and low-cost loans from China.
The pain has been particularly acute for Brazil. The country is already faltering, as weaker Chinese imports of minerals and soybeans have jolted all of Latin America. The uncertainty over China could limit the maneuvering room for officials to address the sluggish Brazilian economy at a time when resentment is festering over proposed austerity measures.
After next Thursday’s military parade things may change.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said there was no basis for a continued depreciation of the yuan after the central bank allowed the currency to devalue 2.8% this month. The yuan can remain “basically” stable on a “reasonable and equilibrium level,” said Li, according to a statement posted on the State Council’s website Saturday. Li made the comments at a state council meeting on Friday. The assurances came after the central bank on Aug. 25 cut interest rates for the fifth time since November and lowered the amount of cash banks must set aside to stem the biggest stock-market rout since 1996. Deflation risks, over-capacity and a debt overhang remain a cloud over the Chinese economy, which is forecast for its slowest expansion since 1990.
China will continue to carry out proactive fiscal policy and prudent monetary policy and will use “more precise” measures to cope with downward pressure on the economy, said Li in the statement. The government will prevent regional and systematic risks, according to the statement. Policy makers want to stabilize Chinese shares before a Sept. 3 military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the World War II victory over Japan, two people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the intervention wasn’t publicly announced, said Thursday.
Long good read. Still too soft though.
As China’s stock markets started nose-diving, the government almost immediately intervened, forbidding state-owned enterprises to sell shares, buying hundreds of billions of dollars worth of stocks and lowering interest rates to stimulate buying. It was a fatal decision: Their interventions immediately turned the markets into an institution they owned. Henceforth, the party’s reputation would rise or fall with those markets. And as the markets roil, as they undoubtedly will, the way that ordinary Chinese citizens see their leaders is likely to change significantly. The plunge was all the more unnerving because it belied the party leadership’s conceit that their superior formula of governance could safely guide the economy through just such cyclical shocks.
This pretension had not only helped create a mythology of can-do omnipotence and invincibility around party leaders but also helped silence foreign critics of the slow pace of economic reform and the complete absence of political reform. Worse, the market crash came alongside a rash of other unsettling news. Earlier this month, a key gauge of China’s nationwide manufacturing activity showed the lowest level in 77 months. Steel production and consumption are both notably off. Exports slid sharply in July. The renminbi has been devalued.
And on Aug. 12, a chemical warehouse serving the port city of Tianjin blew up in a devastating explosion that incinerated whole lots full of export vehicles, demolished thousands of apartments, killed some 140 people and spewed untold quantities of toxic chemicals into densely populated neighborhoods. The party suddenly no longer seemed infallible. For China’s leaders, the most profound problem with this string of events isn’t simply the monetary loss or the body count but the overall psychological effect. Because Mr. Xi’s China is such a brittle, tightly wound society, it is especially vulnerable to such shocks. Moreover, because the party leadership and central government purport to control so many aspects of Chinese life—from economics and financial markets to culture and politics—they get blamed first whenever anything goes awry.
Since China today already has a serious trust deficit, blame can be instant and uncompromising. And China’s leaders have been laid low by their own venture, not Western gunboats. The debacle was nothing that could be convincingly blamed on the outside world; it was made in China. The party would have been better off to have just left the stock markets alone. Party leaders could not have tangled with a more free-willed and insubordinate jousting partner. Markets answer to their own value-driven drummers. Unlike dissident Nobel Peace Prize laureates, who can always be silenced or jailed, there is no obvious way to bring a market to heel—something the party evidently remains ill-equipped to understand.
Debt done it.
After two days of trouble and strife in global stock markets, the Federal Reserve’s New York President William Dudley said in remarks to reporters that a September interest rate hike seemed “less compelling” now than in recent weeks. These two words alone calmed global financial markets, and pushed up the price of oil. So everything’s going to be all right then? That is what some would have you believe. “Relax. Its just a correction” say the analysts. “The stock market always goes up and up and up. Hang on in there.” However, I do worry. Where there’s volatility and instability, the causes are ultimately fundamental. Given this week’s events what can they be? Is it all to do with China?
I doubt it. When the governors of the People’s Bank of China announced a cut in interest rates – stock markets continued to fall. When a Fed governor uttered two words off the cuff – markets rallied. So when looking for a cause we need to look west, not east. Most agree that the panic was sparked by a slowdown in China. The question then becomes: why is China slowing down? Some put it down to China’s credit binge, and the rise in debt hobbling local governments and property developers. Demographic change is another. Others believe that China’s extraordinary investment levels will now dive lower.
I don’t buy these analyses as causal. Instead I see them as consequential, and would point the finger at the following: first an overhang of global debt, largely in Anglo-American economies ($57trillion has been added since 2009). Second, the deficiency in global demand for goods and services caused by austerity, low levels of investment and wage repression. Third, the glut of unsold Chinese goods (e.g. cars and rubber tyres) caused by falling demand for these goods, and resulting in falls in prices (disinflation or deflation). The deficiency of demand and resulting disinflation or deflation originates, I would argue, in the United States, the world’s biggest consumer but also one in which private debt levels remain high, and wages remain repressed.
“Capitalism is dead. The markets have become too big to fail..”
The volatility sweeping world markets over the past week is a sign an impending global economic crisis and the imperfections of capitalism run amok, Trends Research Institute head Gerald Celente told Sputnik. “Capitalism is dead. The markets have become too big to fail,” Celente said on Friday. “It’s a rigged game.” Celente, who is also the publisher of Trends Journal, noted that markets behave more like a casino than a free market system. “It is like a casino that plays with two different sets of cards and in one of them it keeps putting its own new wild cards and jokers in the deck,” Celente, who is also the head of Trends Research Institute, continued. Stock market managers and major financial interests were rigging the market to protect their institutions and profits, Celente argued.
The expert said it was false to blame China for setting off the chain reaction through the volatility on the Shanghai stock exchange. He argued instead this was a symptom of the underlying problems, not their cause. “The US and Europeans are buying less products, so China has to export less and therefore its demand for raw materials from developing countries around the world falls,” he pointed out. “This is a response to global stagnation,” he argued. The US, China, Japan and other countries have tried to stave off multiple crises by printing vast sums of money through QE and other monetary policies, but they have been unable to jump-start growth, Celente observed. “This is a global crisis. It is a Ponzi scheme,” he said. He argued the global financial system and central banks tried to resolve the crash of 2008 by printing cheap money and the cracks in that policy are now revealing themselves.
“We were close enough in 2008 and what’s coming is on 20 times that scale.”
Damian McBride is the former head of communications at the British treasury and former special adviser to Gordon Brown, erstwhile Prime Minister of the U.K. Yesterday he tweeted some surprising advice in response to the plunge in global equities markets:
Advice on the looming crash, No. 1: get hard cash in a safe place now; don’t assume banks & cashpoints will be open, or bank cards will work.
Crash advice No. 2: do you have enough bottled water, tinned goods & other essentials at home to live a month indoors? If not, get shopping.
Crash advice No. 3: agree a rally point with your loved ones in case transport and communication gets cut off; somewhere you can all head to.
Evidently, McBride interprets the wipe-out of over $3 trillion in total global market cap during the three-day rout as a prelude to a much broader and deeper financial crash that will precipitate civil unrest. According to McBride,
“We were close enough in 2008 and what’s coming is on 20 times that scale.”
Lagarde drops the ball several times in just a few sentences. Let’s hope her minions call her on it.
A form of debt restructuring rather than outright forgiveness should enable Greece to handle its “unviable” debt burden, the head of the IMF was quoted as telling a Swiss newspaper. The IMF has yet to make clear if it will participate in the third €86 billion international bailout that Greece signed up to in early August, having argued in favor of a partial writedown of a debt burden it considers unsustainable in its current form. Greece’s euro zone creditors, notably Germany, have ruled out a writedown but are willing to consider other forms of restructuring such as a lengthening maturities. Asked about those differences, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told Le Temps: “The debate on cancelling the debt has never been open I don’t think it is necessary to open it if things go well…
“We are talking about extending maturities, reducing rates, (making) exemptions for a certain period of time. We are not speaking about cancelling debt.” The interview made no mention of whether the IMF will take part in the new bailout, which Lagarde has previously said it will make a decision on by October. Turning to China, Lagarde said she expected the country’s economic growth rate to remain close to previous estimates even if some sort of slowdown was inevitable after its rapid expansion. China devalued its yuan currency this month after exports tumbled in July, spooking global markets worried that a main driver of growth was running out of steam. “The slowdown was predictable, predicted, unavoidable,” Lagarde was quoted as saying. “We expect that China will have a growth rate of 6.8%. It may be a little less.” The IMF did not believe growth would fall to 4 or 4.5%, as some foresaw.
Nice little history lesson.
It was Saturday, March 14, 1998, when Theodoros Pangalos traveled to Edinburgh for an informal council of European Union foreign ministers. The top item on the agenda was negotiations for the accession into the bloc of 11 new candidate states, including Cyprus. Before he entered the meeting, Greek correspondents asked Pangalos whether Athens would resist pressure to link Cyprus’s EU accession to the progress of reunification talks. Once the meeting ended and that issue was resolved, to the benefit of both Greek and Cypriot interests, Pangalos was blindsided by a barrage of questions on an issue he knew nothing about: News has leaked from Brussels of the devaluation of the drachma and its entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).
The fact that the Greek foreign minister had not been briefed on this development is indicative of the government’s secrecy, aimed at thwarting speculation. Five years earlier, when Greece had been on the brink of a major exchange rate crisis, the ERM accession would have seemed impossible to achieve. Greece, however, had managed to overshoot the targets of the revised Convergence Program over four consecutive years from 1994 to 1997 both in the area of growth and in its fiscal deficit, which was reduced from 13.6% of gross domestic product in 1993 to 4% of GDP in 1997. Inflation dropped from 14.1% in 1993 to 9% in 1995, down to single digits for the first time since 1972, and then to 5.6% in 1997.
Prime Minister Costas Simitis had set a goal for himself to get Greece into the Economic and Monetary Union by 2001 at the latest – two years after the other states but before the euro was introduced in physical form. The former premier tells Kathimerini he expressed “our determination for accession to the euro” in all of his first meetings with the European Union heavyweights – Germany’s Helmut Kohl, France’s Jacques Chirac, Italy’s Romano Prodi and the UK’s John Major. While they all appeared positively inclined initially, they stressed that the Greek economy needed to be adequately prepared for such an important step.
The new logic of the marketplace.
The number of homes being sold in England and Wales has fallen significantly, according to figures from the Land Registry. In May this year, there were 65,619 transactions in total, a 15% fall on the same month in 2014. However, prices in some property hotspots are still rising by up to 13% a year, due to lack of supply. The number of homes being sold for more than a million pounds dropped dramatically – down by 21%. The Land Registry figures include cash sales, as well as properties bought with mortgages. Some experts have welcomed what they see as a cooling of the market.
“Normality has returned to the market, with the panic that has driven it in the past no longer present,” said Guy Meacock, head of the London office of buying agency Prime Purchase. “It is more level and sensible, which is good news for buyers.” However, the fall in transactions appears to be putting further pressure on house prices. Earlier this month, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) reported that the number of homes for sale was at a record low. As a result it said demand was outstripping supply, and prices were likely to rise as a result. The Land Registry has already reported that house prices in England and Wales rose by 4.6% in the year to July 2015.
Not terribly innovative, but nice graphics.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released data on the history of America’s energy supply, sorted by the share of each energy source. We’ve taken that data to create the chart associated with today’s post. The early settlers to North America relied on organic materials on the surface of land for the vast majority of their energy needs. Wood, brush, and other biomass fuels were burned to warm homes, and eventually to power steam engines. Small amounts of coal were found in riverbeds and other such outcrops, but only local homes in the vicinity of these deposits were able to take advantage of it for household warmth. During the Industrial Revolution, it was the invention of the first coal-powered, commercially practical locomotives that turned the tide.
Although wood would still be used in the majority of locomotives until 1870, the transition to fossil fuels had begun. Coke, a product of heating certain types of coal, replaced wood charcoal as the fuel for iron blast furnaces in 1875. Thomas Edison built the first practical coal-fired electric generating station in 1882, which supplied electricity to some residents in New York City. It was just after this time in the 1910s that the United States would be the largest coal producer in the world with 750,000 miners and blasting 550 million tons of coal a year. The invention of the internal combustion engine and the development of new electrical technologies, including those developed by people like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, were the first steps towards today’s modern power landscape.
Fuels such as petroleum and natural gas became very useful, and the first mass-scale hydroelectric stations were built such as Hoover Dam, which opened in 1936. The discovery and advancement of nuclear technology led to the first nuclear submarine in 1954, and the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States in Pennsylvania in 1957. In a relatively short period of time, nuclear would have a profound effect on energy supply, and it today 99 nuclear reactors account for 20% of all electricity generated in the United States. In more recent decades, scientists found that the current energy mix is not ideal from an environmental perspective. Advancements in renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind, and geothermal were made, helping set up a potential energy revolution.
Battery technology, a key challenge for many years, has began to catch up to allow us to store larger amounts of energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Companies like Tesla are spending billions of dollars on battery megafactories that will have a great impact on our energy use. Today, the United States gets the majority of its energy from fossil fuels, though that percentage is slowly decreasing. While oil is still the primary fuel of choice for transportation, it now only generates 1% of the country’s electricity through power plants. Natural gas has also taken on a bigger role over time, because it is perceived as being cleaner than oil and coal. Today, in 2015, wind and solar power have generated 5% and 1% of total electricity respectively. Hydro generates 7%.
“We are only alive because we are not dead.”
While the world’s attention is fixed on the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees swarming into Europe, a potentially far more profound crisis is unfolding in the countries of the Middle East that have borne the brunt of the world’s failure to resolve the Syrian war. Those reaching Europe represent a small percentage of the 4 million Syrians who have fled into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, making Syria the biggest single source of refugees in the world and the worst humanitarian emergency in more than four decades. As the fighting grinds into a fifth year, the realization is dawning on aid agencies, the countries hosting the refugees and the Syrians themselves that most won’t be going home anytime soon, presenting the international community with a long-term crisis that it is ill-equipped to address and that could prove deeply destabilizing, for the region and the wider world.
The failure is first and foremost one of diplomacy, said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The conflict has left at least 250,000 people dead in the strategic heart of the Middle East and displaced more than 11 million overall, yet there is still no peace process, no discernible solution and no end in sight. Now, the humanitarian effort is failing, too, ground down by dwindling interest, falling donations and spiraling needs. The United Nations has received less than half the amount it said was needed to care for the refugees over the past four years. Aid is being cut and programs are being suspended at the very moment when those who left Syria in haste, expecting they soon would go home, are running out of savings and wearing out the welcome they initially received.
“It is a tragedy without parallel in the recent past,” Guterres said in an interview, warning that millions could eventually end up without the help they need to stay alive. “There are many battles being won,” he added. “Unfortunately, the number of battles being lost is more.” It is a crisis whose true cost has yet to be realized. Helpless, destitute refugees are strewn around the cities, towns and farms of the Middle East, a highly visible reminder of the world’s neglect. They throng the streets of Beirut, Istanbul, Amman and towns and villages in between, selling Kleenex or roses or simply begging for change. Mothers clutching children sleep on traffic circles, under bridges, in parks and in the doorways of shops.
Families camp out on farmland in shacks made of plastic sheeting, planks of wood and salvaged billboards advertising restaurants, movies, apartments and other trappings of lives they may never lead again. “This is not a life,” said Jalimah Mahmoud, 53, who lives on handouts with her 7-year-old granddaughter in Al-Minya, a settlement of crudely constructed tents alongside the coastal highway in northern Lebanon. “We are only alive because we are not dead.”