Jul 122017
 July 12, 2017  Posted by at 11:34 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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JMW Turner Vignette Study of a Ship in a Storm c.1830


Nicole sent me this video, which I know next to nothing about. I don’t know where it was filmed, or when, or why, nada. But, apart from the fact that listening to Nicole is always interesting, and I haven’t heard her talk nearly enough recently, because we live on opposite ends of the world these days, this is interesting because it relates directly to energy issues that have lately been a recurring theme at the Automatic Earth.

That is, once the net energy we gain from our energy sources falls by enough, our complex systems become untenable. This is not an easy-to-grasp thing for many, but it’s nevertheless true. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) on the vast majority of our present energy sources is already dangerously close to the point where we will have to make our lives, and our societies, simpler.

We can discuss whether that’s such a bad thing, but it doesn’t really matter. We can’t beat thermodynamics. The initial reactions to this will in all likelihood by very dramatic, and in cases violent, since many individuals will try to escape having to adapt, and since individuals, societies, nations will realize that energy provides political -and military- power. Trust is a delicate topic.

There can be no doubt that in the immediate future we will attempt to build even more complex systems and societies, just to solve the problems caused by complexity, only to find out later that these systems are all built around centers that cannot hold. And we can all imagine what this will mean for our economies.

Here’s Nicole:



Nicole Foss from Community Solutions on Vimeo.



Jun 262017
 June 26, 2017  Posted by at 11:49 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  12 Responses »
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Paul Klee Ghost of a Genius 1922


The Automatic Earth has written many articles on the topic of EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) through the years, there’s a whole chapter on it in the Automatic Earth Primer Guide 2017 that Nicole assembled recently, which contains 17 different articles.

Still, since EROEI is the most important energy issue there is at present, and not the price of oil or some new gas find or a set of windmills or solar panels or thorium, it can’t hurt to repeat it once again, in someone else’s words and from someone else’s angle. This one comes from Brian Davey on his site CredoEconomics, part of his book “Credo”.

It can’t hurt to repeat it because not nearly enough people understand that in the end everything, the survival of our world, our way of life, is all about the ‘quality’ of energy, about what we get in return when we drill and pump and build infrastructure, what remains when we subtract all the energy used to ‘generate’ energy, from (or at) the bottom line.

Anno 2017, our overall ‘net energy’ is nowhere near where it was for the first 100 years or so after we started using oil. And there’s no energy source that comes close to -conventional- oil (and gas) when it comes to what we are left with once our efforts are discounted, in calories or Joules.

The upshot of this is that even if we can ‘gain’ 10 times more than we put in, in energy terms, that won’t save our complex societies. To achieve that, we would need at least a 15:1 ratio, a number straight from our friend Charlie Hall, which is probably still quite optimistic. And we simply don’t have it. Not anymore.

Also, not nearly enough people understand that it has absolutely nothing to do with money. That you can’t go out and buy more or better energy sources. Which is why we use EROEI instead of EROI (Energy Return on Investment), because the latter leaves some sort of financial interpretation open that doesn’t actually exist, it suggests that a financial price of energy plays a role.

First, here’s Nicole from the Automatic Earth Primer Guide 2017. Below that, Brian Davey’s article.



Nicole Foss: Energy is the master resource – the capacity to do work. Our modern society is the result of the enormous energy subsidy we have enjoyed in the form of fossil fuels, specifically fossil fuels with a very high energy profit ratio (EROEI). Energy surplus drove expansion, intensification, and the development of socioeconomic complexity, but now we stand on the edge of the net energy cliff. The surplus energy, beyond that which has to be reinvested in future energy production, is rapidly diminishing.

We would have to greatly increase gross production to make up for reduced energy profit ratio, but production is flat to falling so this is no longer an option. As both gross production and the energy profit ratio fall, the net energy available for all society’s other purposes will fall even more quickly than gross production declines would suggest. Every society rests on a minimum energy profit ratio. The implication of falling below that minimum for industrial society, as we are now poised to do, is that society will be forced to simplify.

A plethora of energy fantasies is making the rounds at the moment. Whether based on unconventional oil and gas or renewables (that are not actually renewable), these are stories we tell ourselves in order to deny that we are facing any kind of future energy scarcity, or that supply could be in any way a concern. They are an attempt to maintain the fiction that our society can continue in its current form, or even increase in complexity. This is a vain attempt to deny the existence of non-negotiable limits to growth. The touted alternatives are not energy sources for our current society, because low EROEI energy sources cannot sustain a society complex enough to produce them.



Using Energy to Extract Energy – The Dynamics of Depletion


Brian Davey: The “Limits to Growth Study” of 1972 was deeply controversial and criticised by many economists. Over 40 years later, it seems remarkably prophetic and on track in its predictions. The crucial concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested is explained and the flaws in neoclassical reasoning which EROI highlights.

The continued functioning of the energy system is a “hub interdependency” that has become essential to the management of the increasing complexity of our society. The energy input into the UK economy is about 50 to 70 times as great as what the labour force could generate if working full time only with the power of their muscles, fuelled up with food. It is fossil fuels, refined to be used in vehicles and motors or converted into electricity that have created power inputs that makes possible the multiple round- about arrangements in a high complex economy. The other “hub interdependency” is a money and transaction system for exchange which has to continue to function to make vast production and trade networks viable. Without payment systems nothing functions.

Yet, as I will show, both types of hub interdependencies could conceivably fail. The smooth running of the energy system is dependent on ample supplies of cheaply available fossil fuels. However, there has been a rising cost of extracting and refining oil, gas and coal. Quite soon there is likely to be an absolute decline in their availability. To this should be added the climatic consequences of burning more carbon based fuels. To make the situation even worse, if the economy gets into difficulty because of rising energy costs then so too will the financial system – which can then have a knock-on consequence for the money system. The two hub interdependencies could break down together.

“Solutions” put forward by the techno optimists almost always assume growing complexity and new uses for energy with an increased energy cost. But this begs the question- because the problem is the growing cost of energy and its polluting and climate changing consequences.


The “Limits to Growth” study of 1972 – and its 40 year after evaluation

It was a view similar to this that underpinned the methodology of a famous study from the early 1970s. A group called the Club of Rome decided to commission a group of system scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore how far economic growth would continue to be possible. Their research used a series of computer model runs based on various scenarios of the future. It was published in 1972 and produced an instant storm. Most economists were up in arms that their shibboleth, economic growth, had been challenged. (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & BehrensIII, 1972)

This was because its message was that growth could continue for some time by running down “natural capital” (depletion) and degrading “ecological system services” (pollution) but that it could not go on forever. An analogy would be spending more than one earns. This is possible as long as one has savings to run down, or by running up debts payable in the future. However, a day of reckoning inevitably occurs. The MIT scientists ran a number of computer generated scenarios of the future including a “business as usual” projection, called the “standard run” which hit a global crisis in 2030.

It is now over 40 years since the original Limits to Growth study was published so it is legitimate to compare what was predicted in 1972 against what actually happened. This has now been done twice by Graham Turner who works at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Turner did this with data for the rst 30 years and then for 40 years of data. His conclusion is as follows:

The Limits to Growth standard run scenario produced 40 years ago continues to align well with historical data that has been updated in this paper following a 30-year comparison by the author. The scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment and subsequently, the population. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030 – with death rates reversing contemporary trends and rising from 2020 onward – the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. (Turner, 2012)

So what brings about the collapse? In the Limits to Growth model there are essentially two kinds of limiting restraints. On the one hand, limitations on resource inputs (materials and energy). On the other hand, waste/pollution restraints which degrade the ecological system and human society (particularly climate change).

Turner finds that, so far it, is the former rather than the latter that is the more important. What happens is that, as resources like fossil fuels deplete, they become more expensive to extract. More industrial output has to be set aside for the extraction process and less industrial output is available for other purposes.

With signficant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run (figure 1 to figure 3) shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century.(Turner, 2012, p. 121)


Energy Return on Energy Invested

A similar analysis has been made by Hall and Klitgaard. They argue that to run a modern society it is necessary that the energy return on energy invested must be at least 15 to 1. To understand why this should be so consider the following diagram from a lecture by Hall. (Hall, 2012)


The diagram illustrates the idea of the energy return on energy invested. For every 100 Mega Joules of energy tapped in an oil flow from a well, 10 MJ are needed to tap the well, leaving 90 MJ. A narrow measure of energy returned on energy invested at the wellhead in this example would therefore be 100 to 10 or 10 to 1.

However, to get a fuller picture we have to extend this kind of analysis. Of the net energy at the wellhead, 90 MJ, some energy has to be used to refine the oil and produce the by-products, leaving only 63 MJ.

Then, to transport the refined product to its point of use takes another 5 MJ leaving 58MJ. But of course, the infrastructure of roads and transport also requires energy for construction and maintenance before any of the refined oil can be used to power a vehicle to go from A to B. By this final stage there is only 20.5 MJ of the original 100MJ left.

We now have to take into account that depletion means that, at well heads around the world, the energy to produce energy is increasing. It takes energy to prospect for oil and gas and if the wells are smaller and more difficult to tap because, for example, they are out at sea under a huge amount of rock. Then it will take more energy to get the oil out in the first place.

So, instead of requiring 10MJ to produce the 100 MJ, let us imagine that it now takes 20 MJ. At the other end of the chain there would thus, only be 10.5MJ – a dramatic reduction in petroleum available to society.

The concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested is a ratio in physical quantities and it helps us to understand the flaw in neoclassical economic reasoning that draws on the idea of “the invisible hand” and the price mechanism. In simplistic economic thinking, markets should have no problems coping with depletion because a depleting resource will become more expensive. As its price rises, so the argument goes, the search for new sources of energy and substitutes will be incentivised while people and companies will adapt their purchases to rising prices. For example, if it is the price of energy that is rising then this will incentivise greater energy efficiency. Basta! Problem solved…

Except the problem is not solved… there are two flaws in the reasoning. Firstly, if the price of energy rises then so too does the cost of extracting energy – because energy is needed to extract energy. There will be gas and oil wells in favourable locations which are relatively cheap to tap, and the rising energy price will mean that the companies that own these wells will make a lot of money. This is what economists call “rent”. However, there will be some wells that are “marginal” because the underlying geology and location are not so favourable. If energy prices rise at these locations then rising energy prices will also put up the energy costs of production. Indeed, when the energy returned on energy invested falls as low as 1 to 1, the increase in the costs of energy inputs will cancel out any gains in revenues from higher priced energy outputs. As is clear when the EROI is less than one, energy extraction will not be profitable at any price.

Secondly, energy prices cannot in any case rise beyond a certain point without crashing the economy. The market for energy is not like the market for cans of baked beans. Energy is necessary for virtually every activity in the economy, for all production and all services. The price of energy is a big deal – energy prices going up and down have a similar significance to interest rates going up or down. There are “macro-economic” consequences for the level of activity in the economy. Thus, in the words of one analyst, Chris Skrebowski, there is a rise in the price of oil, gas and coal at which:

the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth at a given point in time.(Skrebowski, 2011)

This kind of analysis has been further developed by Steven Kopits of the Douglas-Westwood consultancy. In a lecture to the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy in February of 2014, he explained how conventional “legacy” oil production peaked in 2005 and has not increased since. All the increase in oil production since that date has been from unconventional sources like the Alberta Tar sands, from shale oil or natural gas liquids that are a by-product of shale gas production. This is despite a massive increase in investment by the oil industry that has not yielded any increase in “conventional oil” production but has merely served to slow what would otherwise have been a faster decline.

More specifically, the total spend on upstream oil and gas exploration and production from 2005 to 2013 was $4 trillion. Of that amount, $3.5 trillion was spent on the “legacy” oil and gas system. This is a sum of money equal to the GDP of Germany. Despite all that investment in conventional oil production, it fell by 1 million barrels a day. By way of comparison, investment of $1.5 trillion between 1998 and 2005 yielded an increase in oil production of 8.6 million barrels a day.

Further to this, unfortunately for the oil industry, it has not been possible for oil prices to rise high enough to cover the increasing capital expenditure and operating costs. This is because high oil prices lead to recessionary conditions and slow or no growth in the economy. Because prices are not rising fast enough and costs are increasing, the costs of the independent oil majors are rising at 2 to 3% a year more than their revenues. Overall profitability is falling and some oil majors have had to borrow and sell assets to pay dividends. The next stage in this crisis has then been that investment projects are being cancelled – which suggests that oil production will soon begin to fall more rapidly.

The situation can be understood by reference to the nursery story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks tries three kinds of porridge – some that is too hot, some that is too cold and some where the temperature is somewhere in the middle and therefore just right. The working assumption of mainstream economists is that there is an oil price that is not too high to undermine economic growth but also not too low so that the oil companies cannot cover their extraction costs – a price that is just right. The problem is that the Goldilocks situation no longer describes what is happening. Another story provides a better metaphor – that story is “Catch 22”. According to Kopits, the vast majority of the publically quoted oil majors require oil prices of over $100 a barrel to achieve positive cash flow and nearly a half need more than $120 a barrel.

But it is these oil prices that drag down the economies of the OECD economies. For several years, however, there have been some countries that have been able to afford the higher prices. The countries that have coped with the high energy prices best are the so called “emerging non OECD countries” and above all China. China has been bidding away an increasing part of the oil production and continuing to grow while higher energy prices have led to stagnation in the OECD economies. (Kopits, 2014)

Since the oil price is never “just right” it follows that it must oscillate between a price that is too high for macro-economic stability or too low to make it a paying proposition for high cost producers of oil (or gas) to invest in expanding production. In late 2014 we can see this drama at work. The faltering global economy has a lower demand for oil but OPEC, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, have decided not to reduce oil production in order to keep oil prices from falling. On the contrary they want prices to fall. This is because they want to drive US shale oil and gas producers out of business.

The shale industry is described elsewhere in this book – suffice it here to refer to the claim of many commentators that the shale oil and gas boom in the United States is a bubble. A lot of money borrowed from Wall Street has been invested in the industry in anticipation of high profits but given the speed at which wells deplete it is doubtful whether many of the companies will be able to cover their debts. What has been possible so far has been largely because quantitative easing means capital for this industry has been made available with very low interest rates. There is a range of extraction production costs for different oil and gas wells and fields depending on the differing geology in different places. In some “sweet spots” the yield compared to cost is high but in a large number of cases the costs of production have been high and it is being said that it will be impossible to make money at the price to which oil has fallen ($65 in late 2014). This in turn could mean that companies funding their operations with junk bonds could find it difficult to service their debt. If interest rates rise the difficulty would become greater. Because the shale oil and gas sector has been so crucial to expansion in the USA then a large number of bankruptcies could have wider repercussions throughout the wider US and world economy.


Renewable Energy systems to the rescue?

Although it seems obvious that the depletion of fossil fuels can and should lead to the expansion of renewable energy systems like wind and solar power, we should beware of believing that renewable energy systems are a panacea that can rescue consumer society and its continued growth path. A very similar net energy analysis can, and ought to be done for the potential of renewable energy to match that already done for fossil fuels.


Before we get over-enthusiastic about the potential for renewable energy, we have to be aware of the need to subtract the energy costs particular to renewable energy systems from the gross energy that renewable energy systems generate. Not only must energy be used to manufacture and install the wind turbines, the solar panels and so on, but for a renewable based economy to be able to function, it must also devote energy to the creation of energy storage. This would allow for the fact that, when the wind and the sun are generating energy, is not necessarily the time when it is wanted.

Furthermore, the places where, for example, solar and wind potential are at this best – offshore for wind or in deserts without dust storms near the equator for solar – are usually a long distance from centres of use. Once again, a great deal of energy, materials and money must be spent getting the energy from where it is generated to where it will be used. For example, the “Energie Wende” (Energy Transformation) in Germany is involving huge effort, financial and energy costs, creating a transmission corridor to carry electricity from North Sea wind turbines down to Bavaria where the demand is greatest. Similarly, plans to develop concentrated solar power in North Africa for use in northern Europe which, if they ever come to anything, will require major investments in energy transmission. A further issue, connected to the requirement for energy storage, is the need for energy carriers which are not based on electricity. As before, conversions to put a current energy flux into a stored form, involve an energy cost.

Just as with fossil fuels, sources of renewable energy are of variable yield depending on local conditions: offshore wind is better than onshore for wind speed and wind reliability; there is more solar energy nearer the equator; some areas have less cloud cover; wave energy on the Atlantic coasts of the UK are much better than on other coastlines like those of the Irish Sea or North Sea. If we make a Ricardian assumption that best net yielding resources are developed first, then subsequent yields will be progressively inferior. In more conventional jargon – just as there are diminishing returns for fossil energy as fossil energy resources deplete, so there will eventually be diminishing returns for renewable energy systems. No doubt new technologies will partly buck this trend but the trend is there nonetheless. It is for reasons such as these that some energy experts are sceptical about the global potential of renewable energy to meet the energy demand of a growing economy. For example, two Australian academics at Monash University argue that world energy demand would grow to 1,000 EJ (EJ = 10 18 J) or more by 2050 if growth continued on the course of recent decades. Their analysis then looks at each renewable energy resource in turn, bearing in mind the energy costs of developing wind, solar, hydropower, biomass etc., taking into account diminishing returns, and bearing in mind too that climate change may limit the potential of renewable energy. (For example, river flow rates may change affecting hydropower). Their conclusion: “We nd that when the energy costs of energy are considered, it is unlikely that renewable energy can provide anywhere near a 1000 EJ by 2050.” (Moriarty & Honnery, 2012)

Now let’s put these insights back into a bigger picture of the future of the economy. In a presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, Charles Hall showed a number of diagrams to express the consequences of depletion and rising energy costs of energy. I have taken just two of these diagrams here – comparing 1970 with what might be the case in 2030. (Hall C. , 2012) What they show is how the economy produces different sorts of stuff. Some of the production is consumer goods, either staples (essentials) or discretionary (luxury) goods. The rest of production is devoted to goods that are used in production i.e. investment goods in the form of machinery, equipment, buildings, roads, infrastracture and their maintenance. Some of these investment goods must take the form of energy acquisition equipment. As a society runs up against energy depletion and other problems, more and more production must go into energy acquisition, infrastructure and maintenance. Less and less is available for consumption, and particularly for discretionary consumption.


Whether the economy would evolve in this way can be questioned. As we have seen, the increasing needs of the oil and gas sector implies a transfer of resources from elsewhere through rising prices. However, the rest of the economy cannot actually pay this extra without crashing. That is what the above diagrams show – a transfer of resources from discretionary consumption to investment in energy infrastructure. But such a transfer would be crushing for the other sectors and their decline would likely drag down the whole economy.

Over the last few years, central banks have had a policy of quantitative easing to try to keep interest rates low. The economy cannot pay high energy prices AND high interest rates so, in effect, the policy has been to try to bring down interest rates as low as possible to counter the stagnation. However, this has not really created production growth, it has instead created a succession of asset price bubbles. The underlying trend continues to be one of stagnation, decline and crisis and it will get a lot worse when oil production starts to fall more rapidly as a result of investment cut backs. The severity of the recessions may be variable in different countries because competitive strength in this model goes to those countries where energy is used most efficiently and which can afford to pay somewhat higher prices for energy. Such countries are likely to do better but will not escape the general decline if they stay wedded to the conventional growth model. Whatever the variability, this is still a dead end and, at some point, people will see that entirely different ways of thinking about economy and ecology are needed – unless they get drawn into conflicts and wars over energy by psychopathic policy idiots. There is no way out of the Catch 22 within the growth economy model. That’s why degrowth is needed.

Further ideas can be extrapolated from Hall’s way of presenting the end of the road for the growth economy. The only real option as a source for extra resources to be ploughed into changing the energy sector is from what Hall calls “discretionary consumption” aka luxury consumption. It would not be possible to take from “staples” without undermining the ability of ordinary people to survive day to day. Implicit here is a social justice agenda for the post growth – post carbon economy. Transferring resources out of the luxury consumption of the rich is a necessary part of the process of finding the wherewithal for energy conservation work and for developing renewable energy resources. These will be expensive and the resources cannot come from anywhere else than out of the consumption of the rich. It should be remembered too that the problems of depletion do not just apply to fossil energy extraction coal, oil and gas) but apply across all forms of mineral extraction. All minerals are depleted by use and that means the grade or ore declines over time. Projecting the consequences into the future ought to frighten the growth enthusiasts. To take in how industrial production can hit a brick wall of steeply rising costs, consider the following graph which shows the declining quality of ore grades mined in Australia.


As ores deplete there is a deterioration of ore grades. That means that more rock has to be shifted and processed to refine and extract the desired raw material, requiring more energy and leaving more wastes. This is occurring in parallel to the depletion in energy sources which means that more energy has to be used to extract a given quantity of energy and therefore, in turn, to extract from a given quantity of ore. Thus, the energy requirements to extract energy are rising at the very same time as the amount of energy required to extract given quantities of minerals are rising. More energy is needed just at the time that energy is itself becoming more expensive.

Now, on top of that, add to the picture the growing demand for minerals and materials if the economy is to grow.

At least there has been a recognition and acknowledgement in recent years that environmental problems exist. The problem is now somewhat different – the problem is the incredibly naive faith that markets and technology can solve all problems and keep on going. The main criticism of the limits to growth study was the claim that problems would be anticipated in forward markets and would then be made the subject of high tech innovation. In the next chapter, the destructive effects of these innovations are examined in more depth.



Mar 032017
 March 3, 2017  Posted by at 1:41 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  14 Responses »
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Leonardo da Vinci Head of a Woman 1470s


This is turning into a very rewarding series, it opens up vistas I could never have dreamed of. First, in “Not Nearly Enough Growth To Keep Growing”, I posited that peak wealth for the west, and America in particular, was sometime in the early ’70s or late ’60s of the last century.

That led to longtime Automatic Earth reader Ken Latta, who’s old enough to have been alive to see it all, writing, in “When Was America’s Peak Wealth?”, that in his view peak wealth for America was earlier, more like late ’50s to early ’60s, a carefree period for which Detroit provided the design, and the Beach Boys the soundtrack.

And I know, for those who wrote to me about this, that there’s quite a bit of myopia involved in focusing on the US, or even the western world in general, when discussing these things. But at the same time, we’re all at our best when talking about our own experiences, something this thread has made abundantly clear. That said, I would absolutely love to get a view from other parts of the world, China, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Bloc, on the same topic. I just haven’t received any yet.

What I’ve absolutely adored is how -previously- anonymous Automatic Earth readers and commenters have felt the urge to share their life experiences because of what’s been written. This happened especially after Ken’s follow-up to his initial article, “Peak American Wealth – Revisited”, which saw many of his contemporaries, as well as younger readers after I ‘poked’ them, relate their views.

Then there was distinguished emeritus professor Charles A. Hall, who took offense with neither Ken nor I including energy as an explicit factor in determining wealth. Of course he was right. I have the creeping suspicion he often is. So Charlie wrote “Peak Wealth and Peak Energy”. Which not only set us straight, it also generated a -privately- emailed response from Belgian scientists- also Automatic Earth readers- about work he has earlier published on EROI of for instance Spanish solar PV (2.45:1? That must hurt!). As of this morning, it looks as if this may lead to further cooperation. What’s not to love?

And then all this has fired up Ken Latta to write yet another article, this time on ‘freely available’ energy before the age of oil -and after it!-, in the form of human slavery. In all of its forms and shapes, including wage slavery. Is it a coincidence that at the end of the age of oil, America’s -former- middle class appears to be descending -once more- into wage and debt slavery? Or is something entirely else – and darker- going on, as Ken seems to suggest below: The currently observable rapid decline in demand for wage slaves just happens to coincide with global peak energy.

Here once more is Ken Latta:



Ken Latta: Responses to the recent Charles Hall posting at the Automatic Earth, “Peak Wealth and Peak Energy”, parried with the idea that slaves were the original black gold that allowed society to build great wealth. Not only is that a fair statement, but what the finest historians tell us is that it was always thus. It seems that whenever a cluster of mud huts went up, taking slaves was soon placed on the to-do list.

When uncoerced human power is the highest EROEI source available, usually not much gets done beyond procuring food and making basic necessities. For such societies, peak wealth occurs when a herd of grazing animals happens by. The first rule of civilization building is: find a bunch of people you can force to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do.

In antebellum America (USA that is) there were three kinds of coerced laborers. Chattel slaves (held as real property) were the abducted Africans that made the plantation economy of the southern states possible. Something that was not well known was the practice of our colonial masters trading guns, powder and lead to the “Indians” to purchase captive natives for slave labor. They proved to be unwilling workers and frequently escaped back to their tribes.

Indentured servants were not property. Their coerced labor was legally imposed to work off a debt. Many of our ancestors got to the US by contracting to work for someone that would pay their fare. The main difference from chattel was that upon settlement of the debt they were free to leave.


That brings us to the thing known to wags in recent times as wage slavery. Us wrinklies may remember a bumper sticker [I can’t be fired, slaves must be sold]. Wage slaves are free to come and go and quit any time. They may also be fired. When they are trying not to be fired and not ready to quit, they must pretty much do as they are told and thus coerced labor. There could be a fourth class, in that some people refer to entrepreneurial souls as the self-exploited.

Once the infrastructure to fully exploit fossil fuels was in place, the most repugnant forms of forced servitude fell out of favor. The president known as Old Hickory outlawed chattel slavery. Not necessarily because he so loved his African constituents, who were politically considered to be two-thirds of a person, but in hopes they would do what they could to hinder the Confederate war effort.

The newly self-owned citizens often ended up doing much the same work as before except as either indentured or wage slaves. Most wage slaves have progressively gotten less back breaking work to do, though not necessarily less monotonous. Some have gotten to do quite exciting and satisfying work.

They also worked up to the point of having some effective leverage in dealing with their would-be slave masters.


James Gibson Group of contrabands [runaway slaves] at Foller’s house, Cumberland Landing, Virginia 1862


Wage slavery is categorically different in that its prevalence correlates with non animate sources of energy. Wage slaves have served as overseers of the energy slave economy according to the instructions of the bosses. Sadly, what this implies is that as fossil energy production declines, the demand for wage slaves also declines. We are observing it happening. The stagnation of wage earnings began at the time US oil production peaked. The currently observable rapid decline in demand for wage slaves just happens to coincide with global peak energy.

The actual rate of energy decline is accelerated by the associated trend of impoverishment of wage slaves and the growing pool of would-be wage slaves. And thus we will get to see the effect of Ugo Bardi’s Seneca Cliff. Named for 1st century Roman citizen Lucius Annaeus Seneca and based on this quotation:

“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
– Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Demand for energy is falling faster than production, causing even the mightiest producers to teeter on the edge of insolvency. The prediction a few years ago by petroleum geologist Jean Laherrere that the Bakken fields would be played out around 2020 appears to be on target.

The great NY Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is said to have quipped that “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I agree, but sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind.

Ugo Bardi, an estimable professor, and a whole pack of fellow academics joined by the usual crowd of entrepreneurial hustlers are pushing a pipe filled to the brim with Hopium that ruination can be avoided or mitigated by works worthy of a sorcerers apprentice.

We just have to assemble a vast armada of solar panels and wind turbines, plus a few billion tons of rechargeable batteries and turn every suitable topographic feature of the landscape into pumped storage, et voila!, energy slaves forever.

An admirable dream, but I’m gonna let that bandwagon go on down the street without me. I share the opinion that boat sailed for NeverneverLand quite a long time ago. What already exists and whatever still gets built will keep some lights on for awhile, but preservation of industrial civilization seems to me unattainable.


There must be a consequence right? Yes, I think there is and nobody is gonna like what I think it will be. At some threshold level of wage slave unwagedness the perfumed princes of the shrunken “protected class” (pace Peggy Noonan) will regretfully determine that a return to indentured servitude is necessary for the maintenance of moral fabric (and the preservation of their class). Rumor has it, this is already emerging as a feature of the injustice system. The next obvious step would be press gangs grabbing people off the streets and in their homes (hovels?) to sell at auction or gift to a powerful enemy, etc.

Sounds too far fetched? It is approximately what happened in Nazi Germany. The unemployed were rounded up and forced to work on public works projects. Jews weren’t just sent to camps to be gassed, they also went to camps next to industrial facilities to work as slaves to sustain the German economy and war effort. Even Auschwitz was a slave labor camp. Famous sign over the main gate says “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes free). If it isn’t already happening, something similar seems likely to emerge in the Nazi glorifying madhouse called Ukraine.

This was difficult to write. It can’t have been easy to read. But, to paraphrase one of recent history’s real shitheads, we must live the dark ages with the human species we have, not the one we might wish we had.

There is an ageless quip about not shooting the messenger, but who else ya gonna shoot when he’s the only one standing there.

Let the 10 minutes hate begin.



Feb 182017
 February 18, 2017  Posted by at 4:01 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  8 Responses »
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Jackson Pollock Shooting Star 1947


It’s amusing to see how views start to converge, at the same time that it’s tiresome to see how long that takes. It’s a good thing that more and more people ‘discover’ how and why austerity, especially in Europe, is such a losing and damaging strategy. It’s just a shame that this happens only after the horses have left the barn and the cows have come home, been fed, bathed, put on lipstick and gone back out to pasture again. Along the same lines, it’s beneficial that the recognition that for a long time economic growth has not been what ‘we’ think it should be, is spreading.

But we lost so much time that we could have used to adapt to the consequences. The stronger parties in all this, the governments, companies, richer individuals, may be wrong, but they have no reason to correct their wrongs: the system appears to work fine for them. They actually make good money because all corrections, all policies and all efforts to hide the negative effects of the gross ‘mistakes’, honest or not, made in economic and political circles are geared towards making them ‘whole’.

The faith in the absurd notion of trickle down ‘economics’ allows them to siphon off future resources from the lower rungs of society, towards themselves in the present. It will take a while for the lower rungs to figure this out. The St. Louis Fed laid it out so clearly this week that I wrote to Nicole saying ‘We’ve been vindicated by the Fed itself.’ That is, the Automatic Earth has said for many years that the peak of our wealth was sometime in the 1970’s or even late 1960’s.

Intriguing questions: was America at its richest right before or right after Nixon took the country off the gold standard in 1971? And whichever of the two one would argue for, why did he do it smack in the middle of peak wealth? Did he cause the downfall or was it already happening?

As per the St. Louis Fed report: “Real GDP growth fell and leveled off in the mid-1970s, then started falling again in the mid-2000s”. What happened during that 30-year period was that we started printing and borrowing with abandon, making both those activities much easier while we did, until the debt load overwhelmed even our widest fantasies ten years ago. And we’ve never recovered from that, if that was not obvious yet. Nor will we.

As the first graph below shows, there was still growth post-Gold Standard but the rate of growth fell and then “leveled off”, only to fall more after, to a point where Real GDP per Capita is presently 0.5% or so -little more than a margin error-. How one would want to combine that with talk of an economic recovery is hard to see. In fact, such talk should be under serious scrutiny by now.

Still, the numbers remain positive, you say. Yes, that’s true. But there’s a caveat, roughly similar to the one regarding energy and the return on it. Where we used to pump oil and get 100 times the energy in return that we needed to pump it, that ratio (EROEI) is now down to 10:1 or less. Alternative energy sources do little better, if at all. Whereas to run a complex society, let alone one like ours that must become more complex as we go along – or die-, we would need somewhere along the lines of a 20:1 to even 30:1 EROEI rate.

Another place where a similar caveat can be found is the amount of dollars it takes to produce a dollar of real growth. That amount has been increasing, and fast, to the point where it takes over $10 to create $1 or growth in the US and Europe, and China too moves towards such numbers.

Both our energy systems and our financial systems are examples of what happens when what we should perhaps call the rate of ‘productivity’ (rather than growth) falls below a critical mass: it becomes impossible to maintain, even keep alive, a society as complex as ours, which requires an increase in complexity to survive. In other words: a Real GDP per Capita growth rate of 0.5% is not enough to stand still, just like oil EROEI of 5:1 is not; there is growth, but not -nearly- enough to keep growing.

One does not get the impression that the St. Louis Fed economists who wrote the report are aware of this -though the title is suggestive enough-, they seem to lean towards the eternal desire for a recovery, but they did write it nonetheless. Do note the sharp drop that coincides with the 1973 oil crisis. We never ‘recovered’.

Why Does Economic Growth Keep Slowing Down?

The U.S. economy expanded by 1.6% in 2016, as measured by real GDP. Real GDP has averaged 2.1% growth per year since the end of the last recession, which is significantly smaller than the average over the postwar period (about 3% per year). These lower growth rates could in part be explained by a slowdown in productivity growth and a decline in factor utilization. However, demographic factors and attitudes toward the labor market may also have played significant roles.

The figure below shows a measure of long-run trends in economic activity. It displays the average annual growth rate over the preceding 40 quarters (10 years) for the period 1955 through 2016. (Hence, the first observation in the graph is the first quarter of 1965, and the last is the fourth quarter of 2016.)


Long-run growth rates were high until the mid-1970s. Then, they quickly declined and leveled off at around 3% per year for the following three decades. In the second half of the 2000s, around the last recession, growth contracted again sharply and has been declining ever since. The 10-year average growth rate as of the fourth quarter of 2016 was only 1.3% per year. Total output grows because the economy is more productive and capital is accumulated, but also because the population increases over time.

The same dynamics (or lack thereof) are reflected in a recent piece by Chris Hamilton, in which he argues that global growth -as expressed by growth in energy consumption- has largely been non-existent for years, other than in China. Moreover, China has added a stunning amount of debt to achieve that growth, and since its population growth is about to stagnate -and then turn negative-, this was pretty much all she wrote.

Global Growth is All About China…Nothing but China

Since 2000, China has been the nearly singular force for growth in global energy consumption and economic activity. However, this article will make it plain and simple why China is exiting the spotlight and unfortunately, for global economic growth, there is no one else to take center stage. To put things into perspective I’ll show this using four very inter-related variables…(1) total energy consumption, (2) core population (25-54yr/olds) size and growth, (3) GDP (flawed as it is), and (4) debt. First off, the chart below shows total global energy consumption (all fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro, renewable, etc…data from US EIA) from 1980 through 2014, and the change per period. The growth in global energy consumption from ’00-’08 was astounding and an absolute aberration, nearly 50% greater than any previous period.


[..] here is the money chart, pointing out that the growth in energy consumption (by period) has shifted away from “the world” squarely to China. From 2008 through 2014 (most recent data available), 2/3rds or 66% of global energy consumption growth was China. Also very noteworthy is that India nor Africa have taken any more relevance, from a growth perspective, over time. The fate of global economic growth rests solely upon China’s shoulders.


China’s core population is essentially peaking this year and beginning a decades long decline (not unlike the world. The chart below shows total Chinese core population peaking, energy consumption stalling, and debt skyrocketing.


The chart below shows China’s core population (annual change) again against total debt, GDP, and energy consumption. The reliance on debt creation as the core population growth decelerated is really hard not to see. This shrinking base of consumption will destroy the meme that a surging Chinese middle class will drive domestic and global consumption…but I expect this misconception will continue to be peddled for some time.


• China of ’85-’00 grew on population and demographic trends.

• China of ’00-’15 grew despite decelerating population growth but on accelerating debt growth…this growth in China kept global growth alive.

• China of ’15-’30 will not grow, will not drive the global economy and absent Chinese growth…the world economy is set to begin an indefinite period of secular contraction. China ceased accumulating US Treasury debt as of July of 2011 and continues to sell while busy accumulating gold since 2011.

Unfortunately, neither quasi-democracies nor quasi-communist states have any politically acceptable solutions to this problem of structural decelerating growth and eventual outright contraction…but that won’t keep them from meddling to stall the inevitable global restructuring.

I can only hope that these data will convince more people that all the times I’ve said that growth is over, it was true. And perhaps even make them think about what follows from there: that when growth is gone, so is all centralization, including globalization, other than by force. This will change the world a lot, and unfortunately not always in peaceful ways.

What seems to have started (but was in the air long before) with Brexit and Trump, is merely a first indication of what’s to come. People will not accept that important decisions that affect them directly are taken by anonymous ‘actors’ somewhere far away, unless this promises and delivers them very concrete and tangible benefits. In fact, many have lost all faith in the whole idea, and that’s why we have Trump and Brexit in the first place.

This turn inward -protectionism if you will-, in the UK, US and many other places, is an inevitable development that follows from declining growth and soaring debt. Entire societies will have to be re-built from the ground up, and people will want to do that themselves, not have it dictated by strangers. At the same time, of course, those who profit most from centralization want that to continue. They can’t, but they will try, and hard.

Equally important, people who wish to try and save existing ‘central institutions’ for less selfish and more peaceful reasons should think twice, because they will fail too. It’s centralization itself that is failing, and the demise of the structures that represent it is but a consequence of that. We will see local structures being built, and only after that possibly -and hopefully- connect to each other. This is a big change, and therefore a big challenge.

Jan 212017
 January 21, 2017  Posted by at 4:59 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  17 Responses »
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Workmen next to the screws of the RMS Titanic at Belfast shipyard, 1911


The people at Conflicts Forum, which is directed by former British diplomat and MI6 ‘ranking figure’ Alastair Crooke, sent me an unpublished article by Alastair and asked if the Automatic Earth would publish it. Since I like his work and I (re-)published two of his articles last year already, ‘End of Growth’ Sparks Wide Discontent in October 2016 and Obstacles to Trump’s ‘Growth’ Plans in November 2016, I’m happy to.

His arguments here are very close to much of what the Automatic Earth has been advocating for years, both when it comes to our financial crisis and to our energy crisis. Our Primers section is full of articles on these issues written through the years. It’s a good thing other people pick up too on topics like EROEI, and understand you can’t run our modern, complex society on ‘net energy’ as low as what we get from any of our ‘new’ energy sources. It’s just not going to happen.

Here’s Alastair:



Alastair Crooke: We have an economic crisis – centred on the persistent elusiveness of real growth, rather than just monetised debt masquerading as ‘growth’ – and a political crisis, in which even ‘Davos man’, it seems, according to their own World Economic Forum polls,is anxious; losing his faith in ‘the system’ itself, and casting around for an explanation for what is occurring, or what exactly to do about it. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF at Davos remarked  before this year’s session, “People have become very emotionalized, this silent fear of what the new world will bring, we have populists here and we want to listen …”.

Dmitry Orlov, a Russian who was taken by his parents to the US at an early age, but who has returned regularly to his birthplace, draws on the Russian experience for his book, The Five Stages of Collapse. Orlov suggests that we not just entering a transient moment of multiple political discontents, but rather that we are already in the early stages of something rather more profound. From his perspective that fuses his American experience with that of post Cold War Russia, he argues, that the five stages would tend to play out in sequence based on the breaching of particular boundaries of consensual faith and trust that groups of human beings vest in the institutions and systems they depend on for daily life. These boundaries run from the least personal (e.g. trust in banks and governments) to the most personal (faith in your local community, neighbours, and kin). It would be hard to avoid the thought – so evident at Davos – that even the elites now accept that Orlov’s first boundary has been breached.

But what is it? What is the deeper economic root to this malaise? The general thrust of Davos was that it was prosperity spread too unfairly that is at the core of the problem. Of course, causality is seldom unitary, or so simple. And no one answer suffices. In earlier Commentaries, I have suggested that global growth is so maddeningly elusive for the elites because the debt-driven ‘growth’ model (if it deserves the name ‘growth’) simply is not working.  Not only is monetary expansion not working, it is actually aggravating the situation: Printing money simply has diluted down the stock of general purchasing power – through the creation of additional new, ‘empty’ money – with the latter being intermediated (i.e. whisked away) into the financial sector, to pump up asset values.

It is time to put away the Keynesian presumed ‘wealth effect’ of high asset prices. It belonged to an earlier era. In fact, high asset prices do trickle down. It is just that they trickle down into into higher cost of living expenditures (through return on capital dictates) for the majority of the population. A population which has seen no increase in their real incomes since 2005 – but which has witnessed higher rents, higher transport costs, higher education costs, higher medical costs; in short, higher prices for everything that has a capital overhead component. QE is eating into peoples’ discretionary income by inflating asset balloons, and is thus depressing growth – not raising it. And zero, and negative interest rates, may be keeping the huge avalanche overhang of debt on ‘life support’, but it is eviscerating savings income, and will do the same to pensions, unless concluded sharpish.

But beyond the spent force of monetary policy, we have noted that developed economies face separate, but equally formidable ‘headwinds’, of a (non-policy and secular) nature, impeding growth – from aging populations in China and the OECD, the winding down of China’s industrial revolution,  and from technical innovation turning job-destructive, rather than job creative as a whole. Connected with this is shrinking world trade.

But why is the economy failing to generate prosperity as in earlier decades?  Is it mainly down to Greenspan and Bernanke’s monetary excesses?  Certainly, the latter has contributed to our contemporary stagnation, but perhaps if we look a little deeper, we might find an additional explanation. As I noted in a Comment of 6 January 2017, the golden era of US economic expansion was the ‘50s and ‘60s – but that era had begun to unravel somewhat, already, with the economic turbulence of the 70s. However, it was not so much Reagan’s fiscal or monetary policies that rescued a deteriorating situation in that earlier moment, but rather, it was plain old good fortune. The last giant oil fields with greater than 30-to-one, ‘energy-return’ on ‘energy-cost’ of exploitation, came on line in the 1980s: Alaska’s North Slope, Britain and Norway’s North Sea fields, and Siberia. Those events allowed the USA and the West generally to extend their growth another twenty years.

And, as that bounty tapered down around the year 2000, the system wobbled again, “and the viziers of the Fed ramped up their magical operations, led by the Grand Vizier (or “Maestro”) Alan Greenspan.”  Some other key things happened though, at this point: firstly the cost of crude, which had been remarkably stable, in real terms, over many years, suddenly started its inexorable real-terms ascent.  And from 2001, in the wake of the dot.com ‘bust’, government and other debt began to soar in a sharp trajectory upwards (now reaching $20 trillion). Also, around this time the US abandoned the gold standard, and the petro-dollar was born.


Source: Get It. Got It. Good, by Grant Williams


Well, the Hill’s Group, who are seasoned US oil industry engineers, led by B.W. Hill, tell us – following their last two years, or so, of research – that for purely thermodynamic reasons net energy delivered to the globalised industrial world (GIW) per barrel, by the oil industry (the IOCs) is rapidly trending to zero. Note that we are talking energy-cost of exploration, extraction and transport for the energy-return at final destination. We are not speaking of dollar costs, and we are speaking in aggregate. So why should this be important at all; and what has this to do with spiraling debt creation by the western Central Banks from around 2001?

The importance? Though we sometimes forget it, for we now are so habituated to it, is that energy is the economy.  All of modernity, from industrial output and transportation, to how we live, derives from energy – and oil remains a key element to it.  What we (the globalized industrial world) experienced in that golden era until the 70s, was economic growth fueled by an unprecedented 321% increase in net energy/head.  The peak of 18GJ/head in around 1973 was actually of the order of some 40GJ/head for those who actually has access to oil at the time, which is to say, the industrialised fraction of the global population. The Hill’s Group research  can be summarized visually as below (recall that these are costs expressed in energy, rather than dollars):


Source: http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2016/07/some-reflections-on-twilight-of-oil-age.html 


But as Steve St Angelo in the SRSrocco Reports states, the important thing to understand from these energy return on energy cost ratios or EROI, is that a minimum ratio value for a modern society is 20:1 (i.e. the net energy surplus available for GDP growth should be twenty times its cost of extraction). For citizens of an advanced society to enjoy a prosperous living, the EROI of energy needs to be much higher, closer to the 30:1 ratio. Well, if we look at the chart below, the U.S. oil and gas industry EROI fell below 30:1 some 46 years ago (after 1970):


Source: https://srsroccoreport.com/the-coming-breakdown-of-u-s-global-markets-explained-what-most-analysts-missed/ 


“You will notice two important trends in the chart above. When the U.S. EROI ratio was higher than 30:1, prior to 1970, U.S. public debt did not increase all that much.  However, this changed after 1970, as the EROI continued to decline, public debt increased in an exponential fashion”. (St Angelo).

In short, the question begged by the Hill’s Group research is whether the reason for the explosion of government debt since 1970 is that central bankers (unconsciously), were trying to compensate for the lack of GDP stimulus deriving from the earlier net energy surplus.  In effect, they switched from flagging energy-driven growth, to the new debt-driven growth model.

From a peak net surplus of around 40 GJ  (in 1973), by 2012, the IOCs were beginning to consume more energy per barrel, in their own processes (from oil exploration to transport fuel deliveries at the petrol stations), than that which the barrel would deliver net to the globalized industrial world, in aggregate.  We are now down below 4GJ per head, and dropping fast. (The Hill’s Group)

Is this analysis by the Hill’s Group too reductionist in attributing so much of the era of earlier western material prosperity to the big discoveries of ‘cheap’ oil, and the subsequent elusiveness of growth to the decline in net energy per barrel available for GDP growth?  Are we in deep trouble now that the IOCs use more energy in their own processes, than they are able to deliver net to industrialised world? Maybe so. It is a controversial view, but we can see – in plain dollar terms – some tangible evidence fo rthe Hill’s Groups’ assertions:  


Source: https://srsroccoreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Top-3-U.S.-Oil-Companies-Free-Cash-Flow-Minus-Dividends.png 

(The top three U.S. oil companies, ExxonMobil, Chevron andConocoPhillips: Cash from operations less Capex and dividends)


Briefly, what does this all mean? Well, the business model for the big three US IOCs does not look that great: Energy costs of course, are financial costs, too.  In 2016, according to Yahoo Finance, the U.S. Energy Sector paid 86% of their operating income just to service the interest on the debt (i.e. to pay for those extraction costs). We have not run out of oil. This is not what the Hill’s Group is saying. Quite the reverse. What they are saying is the surplus energy (at a ratio of now less than 10:1) that derives from the oil that we have been using (after the energy-costs expended in retrieving it) – is now at a point that it can barely support our energy-driven ‘modernity’.  Implicit in this analysis, is that our era of plenty was a one time, once off, event.

They are also saying that this implies that as modernity enters on a more severe energy ‘diet’, less surplus calories for their dollars – barely enough to keep the growth engine idling – then global demand for oil will decline, and the price will fall (quite the opposite of mainstream analysis which sees demand for oil growing. It is a vicious circle. If Hills are correct, a key balance has tipped. We may soon be spending more energy on getting the energy that is required to keep the cogs and wheels of modernity turning, than that same energy delivers in terms of calorie-equivalence.  There is not much that either Mr Trump or the Europeans can do about this – other than seize the entire Persian Gulf.  Transiting to renewables now, is perhaps too little, too late.

And America and Europe, no longer have the balance sheet ‘room’, for much further fiscal or monetary stimulus; and, in any event, the efficacy of such measures as drivers of ‘real economy’ growth, is open to question. It may mitigate the problem, but not solve it. No, the headwinds of net energy per barrel trending to zero, plus the other ‘secular’ dynamics mentioned above (demography, China slowing and technology turning job-destructive), form a formidable impediment – and therefore a huge political time bomb.

Back to Davos, and the question of ‘what to do’. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of  JPMorgan Chase, warned  that Europe needs to address disagreements spurring the rise of nationalist leaders. Dimon said he hoped European Union leaders would examine what caused the U.K. to vote to leave and then make changes. That hasn’t happened, and if nationalist politicians including France’s Marine Le Pen rise to power in elections across the region, “the euro zone may not survive”. “The bottom line is the region must become more competitive, Dimon said, which in simple economic terms means accept even lower wages. It also means major political overhauls: “I say this out of respect for the European people, but they’re going to have to change,” he said. “They may be forced by politics, they may be forced by new leadership.”

A race to the bottom in pay levels?  Italy should undercut Romanian salaries?  Maybe Chinese pay scales, too? This is politically naïve, and the globalist Establishment has only itself to blame for their conviction that there are no real options – save to divert more of the diminished prosperity towards the middle classes (Christine Lagarde), and to impose further austerity (Dimon). As we have tried to show, the era of prosperity for all, began to waver in the 70s in America, and started its more serious stall from 2001 onwards. The Establishment approach to this faltering of growth has been to kick the can down the road: ‘extend and pretend’ – monetised debt, zero, or negative, interest rates and the unceasing refrain that ‘recovery’ is around the corner.

It is precisely their ‘kicking the can’ of inflated asset values, reaching into every corner of life, hiking the cost of living, that has contributed to making Europe the leveraged, ‘high cost’, uncompetitive environment, that it now is.  There is no practical way for Italians, for example, to compete with ‘low cost’ East Europe, or  Asia, through a devaluation of the internal Italian price level without provoking major political push-back.  This is the price of ‘extend and pretend’.

It has been claimed at Davos that the much derided ‘populists’ provide no real solutions. But, crucially, they do offer, firstly, the hope for ‘regime change’ – and, who knows, enough Europeans may be willing to take a punt on leaving the Euro, and accepting the consequences, whatever they may be. Would they be worse off? No one really knows. But at least the ‘populists’ can claim, secondly, that such a dramatic act would serve to escape from the suffocation of the status quo. ‘Davos man’ and woman disdain this particular appeal of ‘the populists’ at their peril.



Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum, which advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West.



Oct 222016
 October 22, 2016  Posted by at 7:29 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on Why The Global Economy Will Disintegrate Rapidly
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Pamir, Last Commercial Sailing Ship To Round Cape Horn 1949


We have written little on the topic of energy lately, other than related to oil prices going up and down, empty OPEC ‘promises’ to cut oil production, and the incredible debt load threatening to crush US -and Canadian- unconventional oil and gas. It’s a logical outcome of focusing more on finance than energy, because we feel the former has a shorter timeline than the latter. Something that harks back to our Oil Drum days.

But that doesn’t mean that the idea and/or principle of peak oil has disappeared, or that we have completely forgotten it. It has just been snowed under by the financial crisis (and by unconventinal oil and gas). And while we continue to find that the financial world will dump us into a bigger crisis sooner than energy will, it’s useful to look at oil et al from time to time.

Please note: we don’t wish to deny that oil depletion has its own dynamics, but in our view those dynamics will be hugely affected by the financial crisis that is looming big and will strike first. A crisis that, by the way, will affect not just oil and gas, but solar and wind just as much. You can get only as much ‘alternative’ energy as you can pay for, and that is before we even mention solar and wind’s EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment).

What the world needs to do, but we very much doubt it will voluntarily, is not to look for other forms of energy to replace oil and gas, but to look for ways to use much less energy (90% or so) while still maintaining societies that function as best they can. We doubt this because man is no more made to volunteer for downsizing than any other species.

The interview below with Louis Arnoux by the SRSrocco Report, combined with an article Louis wrote in July on the site of our old friend Ugo Bardi (is Florence really 6 years ago already?), is an excellent opportunity to catch up on energy issues.

The discussion of energy relative to finance will no doubt continue, and Louis doesn’t seem to have the exact same view as us, but that’s fine, or at least it shouldn’t deter us from listening. This graph from his work, for instance, contains a great depiction of what EROEI really means, and how it works out, and that is important to know.

And yes, we are aware of the contradiction between the provocative title of this post (borrowed from SRSrocco Report) and our own view that it’s not energy that will bring the economy down; the internal dynamics of finance don’t need any help on their way towards crashing the system. But it’s a great title nonetheless.



First, here’s the SRSrocco Report interview, below it you’ll find the article. Note: this is part 1, links to parts 2 and 3 are provided.




Louis Arnoux: Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age – part I:
Alice looking down the end of the barrel



This three-part post was inspired by Ugo’s recent post concerning Will Renewables Ever ReplaceFossils? and recent discussions within Ugo’s discussion group on how is it that “Economists still don’t get it”?  It integrates also numerous discussion and exchanges I have had with colleagues and business partners over the last three years.


Since at least the end of 2014 there has been increasing confusions about oil prices, whether so-called “Peak Oil” has already happened, or will happen in the future and when, matters of EROI (or EROEI) values for current energy sources and for alternatives, climate change and the phantasmatic 2oC warming limit, and concerning the feasibility of shifting rapidly to renewables or sustainable sources of energy supply.  Overall, it matters a great deal whether a reasonable time horizon to act is say 50 years, i.e. in the main the troubles that we are contemplating are taking place way past 2050, or if we are already in deep trouble and the timeframe to try and extricate ourselves is some 10 years. Answering this kind of question requires paying close attention to system boundary definitions and scrutinising all matters taken for granted.

It took over 50 years for climatologists to be heard and for politicians to reach the Paris Agreement re climate change (CC) at the close of the COP21, late last year.  As you no doubt can gather from the title, I am of the view that we do not have 50 years to agonise about oil.  In the three sections of this post I will first briefly take stock of where we are oil wise; I will then consider how this situation calls upon us to do our utter best to extricate ourselves from the current prevailing confusion and think straight about our predicament; and in the third part I will offer a few considerations concerning the near term, the next ten years – how to approach it, what cannot work and what may work, and the urgency to act, without delay.

Part 1 – Alice looking down the end of the barrel

In his recent post, Ugo contrasted the views of the Doomstead Diner‘s readers  with that of energy experts regarding the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels within a reasonable timeframe.  In my view, the Doomstead’s guests had a much better sense of the situation than the “experts” in Ugo’s survey.  To be blunt, along current prevailing lines we are not going to make it.  I am not just referring here to “business-as-usual” (BAU) parties holding for dear life onto fossil fuels and nukes.  I also include all current efforts at implementing alternatives and combating CC.  Here is why.   

The energy cost of system replacement

What a great number of energy technology specialists miss are the challenges of whole system replacement – moving from fossil-based to 100% sustainable over a given period of time.  Of course, the prior question concerns the necessity or otherwise of whole system replacement.  For those of us who have already concluded that this is an urgent necessity, if only due to CC, no need to discuss this matter here.  For those who maybe are not yet clear on this point, hopefully, the matter will become a lot clearer a few paragraphs down.

So coming back for now to whole system replacement, the first challenge most remain blind to is the huge energy cost of whole system replacement in terms of both the 1st principle of thermodynamics (i.e. how much net energy is required to develop and deploy a whole alternative system, while the old one has to be kept going and be progressively replaced) and also concerning the 2nd principle (i.e. the waste heat involved in the whole system substitution process).  The implied issues are to figure out first how much total fossil primary energy is required by such a shift, in addition to what is required for ongoing BAU business and until such a time when any sustainable alternative has managed to become self-sustaining, and second to ascertain where this additional fossil energy may come from. 

The end of the Oil Age is now

If we had a whole century ahead of us to transition, it would be comparatively easy.  Unfortunately, we no longer have that leisure since the second key challenge is the remaining timeframe for whole system replacement.  What most people miss is that the rapid end of the Oil Age began in 2012 and will be over within some 10 years.  To the best of my knowledge, the most advanced material in this matter is the thermodynamic analysis of the oil industry taken as a whole system (OI) produced by The Hill’s Group (THG) over the last two years or so (http://www.thehillsgroup.org). 

THG are seasoned US oil industry engineers led by B.W. Hill.  I find its analysis elegant and rock hard.  For example, one of its outputs concerns oil prices.  Over a 56 year time period, its correlation factor with historical data is 0.995.  In consequence, they began to warn in 2013 about the oil price crash that began late 2014 (see: http://www.thehillsgroup.org/depletion2_022.htm).  In what follows I rely on THG’s report and my own work.
Three figures summarise the situation we are in rather well, in my view.
Figure 1 – End Game
For purely thermodynamic reasons net energy delivered to the globalised industrial world (GIW) per barrel by the oil industry (OI) is rapidly trending to zero.  By net energy we mean here what the OI delivers to the GIW, essentially in the form of transport fuels, after the energy used by the OI for exploration, production, transport, refining and end products delivery have been deducted. 
However, things break down well before reaching “ground zero”; i.e. within 10 years the OI as we know it will have disintegrated. Actually, a number of analysts from entities like Deloitte or Chatham House, reading financial tealeaves, are progressively reaching the same kind of conclusions.[1]

The Oil Age is finishing now, not in a slow, smooth, long slide down from “Peak Oil”, but in a rapid fizzling out of net energy.  This is now combining with things like climate change and the global debt issues to generate what I call a “Perfect Storm” big enough to bring the GIW to its knees.

In an Alice world

At present, under the prevailing paradigm, there is no known way to exit from the Perfect Storm within the emerging time constraint (available time has shrunk by one order of magnitude, from 100 to 10 years).  This is where I think that Doomstead Diner’s readers are guessing right.  Many readers are no doubt familiar with the so-called “Red Queen” effect illustrated in Figure 2 – to have to run fast to stay put, and even faster to be able to move forward.  The OI is fully caught in it.

Figure 2 – Stuck on a one track to nowhere

The top part of Figure 2 highlights that, due to declining net energy per barrel, the OI has to keep running faster and faster (i.e. pumping oil) to keep supplying the GIW with the net energy it requires.  What most people miss is that due to that same rapid decline of net energy/barrel towards nil, the OI can’t keep “running” for much more than a few years – e.g. B.W. Hill considers that within 10 years the number of petrol stations in the US will have shrunk by 75%…  

What people also neglect, depicted in the bottom part of Figure 2, is what I call the inverse Red Queen effect (1/RQ).  Building an alternative whole system takes energy that to a large extent initially has to come from the present fossil-fuelled system.  If the shift takes place too rapidly, the net energy drain literally kills the existing BAU system.[2] The shorter the transition time the harder is the 1/RQ.  

I estimate the limit growth rate for the alternative whole system at 7% growth per year.  

In other words, current growth rates for solar and wind, well above 20% and in some cases over 60%, are not viable globally.  However, the kind of growth rates, in the order of 35%, that are required for a very short transition under the Perfect Storm time frame are even less viable – if “we” stick to the prevailing paradigm, that is.  As the last part of Figure 2 suggests, there is a way out by focusing on current huge energy waste, but presently this is the road not taken.

On the way to Olduvai

In my view, given that nearly everything within the GIW requires transport and that said transport is still about 94% dependent on oil-derived fuels, the rapid fizzling out of net energy from oil must be considered as the defining event of the 21st century – it governs the operation of all other energy sources, as well as that of the entire GIW.  In this respect, the critical parameter to consider is not that absolute amount of oil mined (as even “peakoilers” do), such as Million barrels produced per year, but net energy from oil per head of global population, since when this gets too close to nil we must expect complete social breakdown, globally. 

The overall picture, as depicted ion Figure 3, is that of the “Mother of all Senecas” (to use Ugo’s expression).   It presents net energy from oil per head of global population.[3]  The Olduvai Gorge as a backdrop is a wink to Dr. Richard Duncan’s scenario (he used barrels of oil equivalent which was a mistake) and to stress the dire consequences if we do reach the “bottom of the Gorge” – a kind of “postmodern hunter-gatherer” fate.

Oil has been in use for thousands of year, in limited fashion at locations where it seeped naturally or where small well could be dug out by hand.  Oil sands began to be mined industrially in 1745 at Merkwiller-Pechelbronn in north east France (the birthplace of Schlumberger).  From such very modest beginnings to a peak in the early 1970s, the climb took over 220 years.  The fall back to nil will have taken about 50 years.

The amazing economic growth in the three post WWII decades was actually fuelled by a 321% growth in net energy/head.  The peak of 18GJ/head in around 1973, was actually in the order of some 40GJ/head for those who actually has access to oil at the time, i.e. the industrialised fraction of the global population.

Figure 3 – The “Mother of all Senecas”

In 2012 the OI began to use more energy per barrel in its own processes (from oil exploration to transport fuel deliveries at the petrol stations) than what it delivers net to the GIW.  We are now down below 4GJ/head and dropping fast.

This is what is now actually driving the oil prices: since 2014, through millions of trade transactions (functioning as the “invisible hand” of the markets), the reality is progressively filtering that the GIW can only afford oil prices in proportion to the amount of GDP growth that can be generated by a rapidly shrinking net energy delivered per barrel, which is no longer much.  Soon it will be nil. So oil prices are actually on a downtrend towards nil. 

To cope, the OI has been cannibalising itself since 2012.  This trend is accelerating but cannot continue for very long.  Even mainstream analysts have begun to recognise that the OI is no longer replenishing its reserves.  We have entered fire-sale times (as shown by the recent announcements by Saudi Arabia (whose main field, Ghawar, is probably over 90% depleted) to sell part of Aramco and make a rapid shift out of a near 100% dependence on oil and towards “solar”.

Given what Figure 1 to 3 depict, it should be obvious that resuming growth along BAU lines is no longer doable, that addressing CC as envisaged at the COP21 in Paris last year is not doable either, and that incurring ever more debt that can never be reimbursed is no longer a solution, not even short-term.  
Time to “pull up” and this requires a paradigm change capable of avoiding both the RQ and 1/RQ constraints.  After some 45 years of research, my colleagues and I think this is still doable.  Short of this, no, we are not going to make it, in terms of replacing fossil resources with renewable ones within the remaining timeframe, or in terms of the GIW’s survival.

Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question

Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff



Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.



Aug 172015
 August 17, 2015  Posted by at 1:28 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  13 Responses »
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Gustave Doré Dante before the wall of flames which burn the lustful 1868

We’re doing something a little different. Nicole wrote another very long article and I suggested publishing it in chapters; this time she said yes. Over five days we will post five different chapters of the article, one on each day, and then on day six the whole thing. Just so there’s no confusion: the article, all five chapters of it, was written by Nicole Foss. Not by Ilargi.

This is part 3. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
and part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

Energy – Demand Collapse Followed by Supply Collapse

As we have noted many times, energy is the master resource, and has been the primary driver of an expansion dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. In fossil fuels humanity discovered the ‘holy grail’ of energy sources – highly concentrated, reasonably easy to obtain, transportable and processable into many useful forms. Without this discovery, it is unlikely that any human empire would have exceeded the scale and technological sophistication of Rome at its height, but with it we incrementally developed the capacity to reach for the stars along an exponential growth curve.

We increased production year after year, developed uses for our energy surplus, and then embedded layer upon successive layer of structural dependency on those uses within our societies. We were living in an era of a most unusual circumstance – energy surplus on an unprecedented scale. We have come to think this is normal as it has been our experience for our whole lives, and we therefore take it for granted, but it is a profoundly anomalous and temporary state of affairs.

We have arguably reached peak production, despite a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. We still rely on the giant oil fields discovered decades ago for the majority of the oil we use today, but these fields are reaching the end of their lives and new discoveries are very small in comparison. We are producing from previous finds on a grand scale, but failing to replace them, not through lack of effort, but from a fundamental lack of availability. Our dependence on oil in particular is tremendous, given that it underpins both the structure and function of industrial society in a myriad different ways.

An inability to grow production, or even maintain it at current levels past peak, means that our oil supply will be constricted, and with it both the scope of society’s functions and our ability maintain what we have built. Production from the remaining giant fields could collapse, either as they finally water out or as production is hit by ‘above ground factors’, meaning that it could be impacted by rapidly developing human events having nothing to do with the underlying geology. Above ground factors make for unpredictable wildcards.

Financial crisis, for instance, will be profoundly destabilizing, and is going to precipitate very significant, and very negative, social consequences that are likely to impact on the functioning of the energy industry. A liquidity crunch will cause purchasing power to collapse, greatly reducing demand at personal, industrial and national scales. With production geared to previous levels of demand, it will feel like a supply glut, meaning that prices will plummet.

This has already begun, as we have recently described. The effect is exacerbated by the (false) propaganda over recent years regarding unconventional supplies from fracking and horizontal drilling that are supposedly going to result in limitless supply. As far as price goes, it is not reality by which it is determined, but perception, even if that perception is completely unfounded.

The combination of perception that oil is plentiful, falling actual demand on economic contraction, and an acute liquidity crunch is a recipe for very low prices, at least temporarily. Low prices, as we are already seeing, suck the investment out of the sector because the business case evaporates in the short term, economic visibility disappears for what are inherently long term projects, and risk aversion becomes acute in a climate of fear.

Exploration will cease, and production projects will be mothballed or cancelled. It is unlikely that critical infrastructure will be maintained when no revenue is being generated and money is very scarce, meaning that reviving mothballed projects down the line may be either impossible, or at least economically non-viable.

The initial demand collapse may buy us time in terms of global oil depletion, but at the expense of aggravating the situation considerably in the longer term. The lack of investment over many years will see potential supply collapse as well, so that the projects we may have though would cushion the downslope of Hubbert’s curve are unlikely to materialize, even if demand eventually begins to recover.

In addition, various factions of humanity are very likely to come to blows over the remaining sources, which, after all, confer upon the owner liquid hegemonic power. We are already seeing a new three-way Cold War shaping up between the US, Russia and China, with nasty proxy wars being fought in the imperial periphery where reserves or strategic transport routes are located. Resource wars will probably do more than anything else to destroy with infrastructure and supplies that might otherwise have fuelled the future.

Given that the energy supply will be falling, and that there will, over time, be competition for increasingly scarce energy resources that we can no longer take for granted, proposed solutions which are energy-intensive will lie outside of solution space.

Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity

It is not simply the case that energy production will be falling past the peak. That is only half the story as to why energy available to society will be drastically less in the future in comparison with the present. The energy surplus delivered to society by any energy source critically depends on the energy profit ratio of production, or or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).

The energy profit ratio is the comparison between the energy deployed in order to produce energy from any given source, and the resulting energy output. Naturally, if it were not possible to produce more than than the energy required upfront to do so (an EROEI equal to one), the exercise would be pointless, and ideally one would want to produce a multiple of the input energy, and the higher the better.

In the early years of the oil fuel era, one could expect a hundred-fold return on energy invested, but that ratio has fallen by something approximating a factor of ten in the intervening years. If the energy profit ratio falls by a factor of ten, gross production must rise by a factor ten just for the energy available to society to remain the same. During the oil century, that, and more, is precisely what happened. Gross production sky-rocketed and with it the energy surplus available to society.

However, we have now produced and consumed the lions’s share of the high energy profit ratio energy sources, and are depending on lower and lower EROEI sources for the foreseeable future. The energy profit ratio is set to fall by a further factor of ten, but this time, being past the global peak of production, we will not be able to raise gross production. In fact both gross production and the energy profit ratio will be falling at the same time, meaning that the energy surplus available to society is going to be very sharply curtailed. This will compound the energy crisis we unwittingly face going forward.

The only rationale for supposedly ‘producing energy’ from an ‘energy source’ with an energy profit ratio near, or even below, one, would be if one can nevertheless make money at it temporarily, despite not producing an energy return at all. This is more often the case at the moment than one might suppose. In our era of money created from nothing being thrown at all manner of losing propositions, as it always is at the peak of a financial bubble, a great deal of that virtual wealth has been pursuing energy sources and energy technologies.

Prior to the topping of the financial bubble, commodities of all kinds had been showing exponential price rises on fear of impending scarcity, thanks to the human propensity to extrapolate current trends, in this case commodity demand, forward to infinity. In addition technology investments of all kinds were highly fashionable, and able to attract investment without the inconvenient need to answer difficult questions. The combination of energy and technology was apparently irresistible, inspiring investors to dream of outsized profits for years to come. This was a very clear example of on-going dynamics in finance and energy intertwining and acting as mutually reinforcing drivers.

Both unconventional fossil fuels and renewable energy technologies became focii for huge amounts of inward investment. These are both relatively low energy profit energy sources, on average, although the EROEI varies considerably. Unconventional fossil fuels are a very poor prospect, often with an EROEI of less than one due to the technological complexity, drilling guesswork and very rapid well depletion rates.

However, the propagandistic hype that surrounded them for a number of years, until reality began to dawn, was sufficient to allow them to generate large quantities of money for those who ran the companies involved. Ironically, much of this, at least in the United states where most of the hype was centred, came from flipping land leases rather than from actual energy production, meaning that much of this industry was essentially nothing more than an elaborate real estate ponzi scheme.

Renewables, as we currently envisage them, unfortunately suffer from a relatively low energy profit ratio (on average), a dependence on fossil fuels for both their construction and distribution infrastructure, and a dependence on a wide array of non-renewable components.

We typically insist on deploying them in the most large-scale, technologically complex manner possible, thereby minimising the EROEI, and quite likely knocking it below one in a number of cases. This maximises monetary profits for large companies, thanks to both investor gullibility and greed and also to generous government subsidy regimes, but generally renders the exercise somewhere between pointless and counter-productive in long term energy supply terms.

For every given society, there will be a minimum energy profit ratio required to support it in its current form, that minimum being dependent on the scale and complexity involved. Traditional agrarian societies were based on an energy profit ratio of about 5, derived from their food production methods, with additional energy from firewood at a variable energy profit ratio depending on the environment. Modern society, with its much larger scale and vastly greater complexity, naturally has a far higher energy profit ratio requirement, probably not much lower than that at which we currently operate.

We are moving into a lower energy profit ratio era, but lower EROEI energy sources will not be able to maintain our current level of socioeconomic complexity, hence our society will be forced to simplify. However, a simpler society will not be able to engage in the complex activities necessary to produce energy from these low EROEI sources. In other words, low energy profit ratio energy sources cannot sustain a level of complexity necessary to produce them. They will not fuel the simpler future which awaits us.

Proposed solutions dependent on the current level of socioeconomic complexity do not lie within solution space.

This is part 3. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
and part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

Tune back in tomorrow for part 4: Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies