Feb 282017
 
 February 28, 2017  Posted by at 2:33 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


Willem de Kooning Gotham News 1955

 

You could perhaps say that this is part 4 in a series on -America’s- peak wealth, even if it was never intended to be such a series; it just happened. First, in a February 18 essay about declining economic growth, “Not Nearly Enough Growth To Keep Growing”, I said “..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”.

That prompted a reply from long-time Automatic Earth reader Ken Latta, which he turned into an article a few days later which I published on February 23 as “When Was America’s Peak Wealth?” Ken reasoned that America’s peak wealth was sometime in the late ’50s to early 60’s.

Then yesterday, I posted “Peak American Wealth – Revisited”, which contains Ken’s responses to what various readers had written in the Comments section of the second piece. I remarked that many of the commenters seemed, like Ken, to be in their 70s. All this led to an even livelier and more personal Comments section for that article, including quite a few by younger readers.

Not that I ever had the impression that the Automatic Earth had become an old folks home, I just figured ‘older’ people are more likely to be triggered by talking about the 1960s, a period the younger only know from second-hand accounts. Still, it’s good to see, also in private emails, that there are quite few in their 20s and 30s who’ve been reading us for many years, and who do understand quite a bit about the crisis we’re in.

One of the mails I received was from long time acquaintance (for lack of a better word, I don’t think we ever met) Charles A. Hall. I’ve been familiar with Charlie’s work as systems ecologist on energy -in a very broad sense- for a long time, and have always held him in high esteem. That he reads the Automatic Earth on a regular basis is of course a privilege for us. That what he sees as my mistakes urge him to write an article is an even greater honor.

I’ll let Charlie do his own PR line: “Dr. Hall is Emeritus Professor at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse. Author of 13 books and nearly 300 scientific papers on these topics including Energy and the wealth of Nature (with Kent Klitgaard) and his new Energy Return on Investment: a Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics and Sustainabiity (both from Springer Press).”

And I do agree with the honorable professor that discussing peak US wealth without giving energy a prominent position in that discussion is far from ideal. At the same time, economic systems can fall apart of their own accord and/or through human hubris. Even with equal or growing energy availability, no everlasting growth is guaranteed -or even possible.

Interesting detail is that Dr. Hall puts the ‘peak wealth time’ in the late 70s to early 80s. That’s quite a bit later than either Ken Latta or I did, and than most of our commenters seem to do. But point taken: absent energy no wealth can be created. Here’s Charlie:

 

 

Charles A. Hall: I keep being amazed at the inability of economists, commentators and most regular citizens to fail to understand the importance of resources in general and petroleum (oil and gas) in particular to the material well being of society. This is exemplified by the recent posts of Latta and Meijer. I provide a few simple graphs to make my point, and then below add some excerpts lifted and slightly modified from our book (Hall and Klitgaard, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Springer).

John Hickenlooper, when he was Mayor of Denver, understood the importance of oil and its restrictions. He said: “This land was originally settled by the Sioux. Everything that the Sioux depended upon, their food, clothing, shelter, implements and so on, came from the bison. They had many ceremonies giving thanks and appreciation to the Bison. We today are as dependent upon oil as the Sioux were on the bison, but not only do we not acknowledge or celebrate that, but most people do not have a clue”. Since 2010 global oil production is no longer increasing and may indeed be decreasing. Almost certainly it will decrease substantially in the future as we enter, in the words of geologist Colin Campbell, “the second half of the age of oil”.

The American dream was the product of industrious and clever people working hard within a relatively benign political system that encouraged business in various ways, but that all of these things also required a large resource base relative to the number of people using it. A key issue was the abundance of oil and gas in the United States, which was the world’s largest producer in 1970. But in 1970 (and 1973 for there was a clear peak in US oil production, and while the continued increase in oil production worldwide buffered the United States (and other countries) from the local peak it seems clear by 2017 that global oil production has reached its own peak while demand from around the world continues to grow.

This mismatch between supply and demand resulted in a sharp increase in the price of oil and many economic problems that we believe it caused, at least in part, including the stock market decline of 2008, the sub-prime real estate bust, the failure of many financial corporations, the fact that some 40 odd of 50 states are officially broke and that there is a substantial decrease in discretionary income for many average Americans. As developed later …. all of these economic problems are a direct consequence of the beginning of real shortages of petroleum in a petroleum-dependent society.

 

 

The historical ability to achieve wealth in the United States is in large part a consequence of the incredible resource base once found on the North American continent. These include initial endowments of huge forests, immense energy and other geological resources, fish, grass and, perhaps of greatest importance, rich deep soils where rain falls during the growing season.

While many other regions of the world also have, or had, a similarly huge resource base the United States has several other somewhat unique important attributes. The fact that these resources have been exploited intensely for only a few hundred years (vs. many thousand as in Europe or Asia), the presence of large oceans separate us from others who might want our resources; results in resources per capita that is relatively large, an extremely low human population density in the past and even now, so that the resources per capita is still relatively high.

A critical component of these patterns was the large increase in labor productivity during the first two thirds of the 20th century. This allowed both industry owners and labor, especially of the largest corporations, to do better and better. What was less emphasized but enormously clear in retrospect was that to allow the economy to expand it was possible to massively increase the production from oil, gas and coal fields, some new, and some old but barely tapped previously, so that once the economic engine was started there was a great deal of high quality energy available. The United States began using many times as much energy per person as had been the case relatively few decades before or was the case in Europe.

But in 1973 the United States experienced the first of several “oil shocks” that seemed, for the first time, to inject a harsh note of vulnerability into the united chorus of the American Dream for all. Before the 1970s nearly all segments of American society – including labor, capital, government, and civil rights groups – were united behind the agenda of continuous economic growth. The idea that growth could be limited by resource or environmental constraints, or, more specifically, that we could run short of energy-providing fossil fuels was simply not part of the understanding or dialog of most of this country’s citizens. But this was to change in the 1970s.

 

 

In retrospect, we can now say that the pillars of post-war prosperity began to erode in the 1970s and early 1980s, and that changes in the social sphere also began to complicate and add to the biophysical changes derived from the decline in the availability of cheap oil. Even though the oil market had stabilized and cheap energy returned to the United States in the late 1980’s, the changes in the structure of the economy were long lasting. The economy ceased growing exponentially, although it continued to grow linearly but at a decreasing rate, from 4.4 percent per year in the 1960s to 3.3, 3.0, 3.2 to 2.4 percent to close to one percent in the following decades.

Many formerly “American” companies became international and moved production facilities overseas where labor was cheaper and oil, no longer cheaper in the US compared to elsewhere, was the same price, although cheap enough to pay for the additional transport required. The decrease in labor costs when production facilities were moved to other countries outweighed the costs and the process of globalization accelerated. Productivity growth (formerly strongly linked to increasing energy used per worker hour) in manufacturing industries began to slow, falling from 3.3% per year in the 1966-1973 period to 1.5% from 1973-1979 to essentially zero in the early 1980s.

 

 

Mainstream economists seemed at a loss to explain this phenomenon. Their statistical models, which relied on the amount of equipment per worker, education levels and workforce experience left more factors unexplained than explained. Even the profession’s productivity guru, Edward Denison, had to admit that the seventeen best models explained only a fraction of the problem, leaving half of the increase in wealth unexplained. But Denison’s model did not include energy, but only capital and labor. When Reiner Kummel and his colleagues included energy in the same model they found that the unexplained residual disappeared and that energy was even more important than either Capital or Labor.

My point, and this could be emphasized with many more citations and analyses, is that humans for some peculiar reason are unable or unwilling to give natural resources, the biophysical basis of real economies, their proper due. The days of abundant, cheap, exponentially growing availability and use of many resources, including especially high quality fossil fuels, is forever behind us. Fracked oil is expensive and already declining, we still import about half our oil, and consequently our economy cannot physically grow as readily as in the past. While there are many reasons beyond resources (such as concentration of wealth) for the failure of our economy to grow, we must first start with biophysical reality.

 

See also my new book “Energy Return on Investment: A unifying principle for Biology, Economics and Sustainability (Springer)

 

 

Nov 222015
 
 November 22, 2015  Posted by at 2:56 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on Nicole Foss presents: Challenge and Choices


Theodor Horydczak Washington Monument 1933

The Automatic Earth today releases its newest video presentation by Nicole Foss. Entitled ‘Challenge and Choices’, it deals with the problems presented to us by the earth’s limits to growth, in finance, energy and the natural world, and with the options and answers that exist in face of these problems.

To purchase the 3-hour video download of Challenge and Choices, go to our store. Click this image to get there:

Nicole Foss: After more than 30 years of exponential growth, gargantuan resource demand and increasingly frenetic consumption, we have now reached, or are reaching, an array of limits to growth. During our long, debt-fuelled boom, we reached out spatially through globalisation to monetise as much global production as possible, in order to facilitate the efficient transfer of wealth from the global periphery to its economic heartland.

We also, through the profligate use of credit and debt, reached forward in time to borrow from the future in order to stage an orgy of consumption in the present. This spectacularly successful modern form of economic imperialism delivered unprecedented wealth concentration, the like of which previous imperial structures could not have dreamed of attaining.

We are facing limits in terms of finance, energy, water, soil fertility, food web integrity on both land and sea, biodiversity, carrying capacity and the environment’s ability to absorb waste streams, among others. All of these factors, and the interactions between them, constitute parts of the reality jigsaw which we have been developing here at the Automatic Earth for the past eight years. Although we focus primarily on finance, as this is the first limit many will face, all limiting factors, and their relative timeframes, are vital to an understanding of the way the next several decades can be expected to play out.

This understanding of the big picture is crucial, but even more important is the ability to apply the knowledge in practice. This involves working through a complex decision tree process, spanning the assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, vulnerabilities and potential courses of action at different scales, from the individual to the regional. Our latest Automatic Earth video offering – Challenge and Choices – is designed to offer guidance in working through this process.

The video is divided into chapters, beginning in Chapter 1 with a broad overview of the limits to growth scenario, expanded to include a wider range of factors than we generally focus on at the Automatic Earth. The elements to be considered in an assessment of dependencies, or vulnerabilities, naturally lend themselves to actions at different scales. A vulnerability assessment typically begins with personal or family circumstances, hence the initial segments of the presentation focus on these aspects, beginning in Chapter 2 with financial circumstances.

As we have discussed many times at the Automatic Earth, we are facing the bursting of a major financial bubble and this is leading us directly into a state of economic depression, where people can expect many of the assumptions upon which their lives have been built to be invalidated in a short space of time. Such a period is characterised by high unemployment, sharply rising interest rates, taxes and rates (property taxes), falling incomes, cuts to benefits and entitlements, falling asset prices, major government spending cuts and increasingly aggressive debt collection, among other factors.

Being aware of these risks in advance allows for people to minimise the impact. The factors under consideration in our new presentation include leverage (what you owe compared to what your own), consequent interest rate risk, the potential for bankruptcy protection, margin call potential, access to and control over liquidity reserves, personal stores of value, risk management strategies and extended family issues.

The security of both liquidity and of stores of value will be extremely important, and extremely challenging. During a liquidity crunch, there will be very little money in circulation, leading to very little economic activity, and under such circumstances, cash will be exceptionally important. Managing risks to liquidity (cash) makes the difference between being at the mercy of changing circumstances and having the freedom of action to respond to both opportunities and threats as they develop. It is therefore important to avoid the large risks beyond one’s own control that are associated with assets inside the financial system, while learning to manage the risks associated with being outside of it.

Income streams will vary greatly in terms of reliability in economically contractionary times, given that the quantity of money available will decline sharply, and money in circulation will diminish even more quickly as increasingly risk-averse people cease spending and hold on to cash reserves, if they are lucky enough to have some. Many current employment opportunities will dry up or cease to exist entirely, and holding on to such a position now may mean being economically stranded at a time when available employment niches are much reduced in scope and already filled to capacity.

In an ideal world, one would therefore seek to be positioned in advance in a trade or profession likely to continue to deliver an income stream even in times when disposable income will be very scarce. This involves looking at one’s own skill set and personal inclinations, and moving towards using these to provide essential goods or services locally. Either employment or self-employment can be viable options, with running one’s own business raising many additional considerations. Although the complications may be greater, so is the potential for adding usefully to the economic and social fabric of one’s local environment.

Major decisions for everyone surround the issue of shelter – the appropriate form, the means of obtaining it and where it is located. The question of ownership versus renting deserves much greater consideration than most people allow for, given the degree of leverage involved in most cases. Property is drastically over-valued in many locations.

Purchasing property will not necessarily be the right decision, especially under circumstances where the financial value of the asset is set to fall substantially, but the debt will remain the same, leading to a rash of negative equity. Since the burden the debt represents will grow as both interest rates and unemployment rise, and social safety nets are withdrawn, there is a considerable incentive to remain debt-free through renting rather than ownership. Renting also allows for valuable flexibility as to location.

Chapter 3 goes into considerable detail as to the advantages and disadvantages of different types of locations – urban, rural, suburban, small town and intentional community. It is important to realise that the status quo is an active choice, not just a default option, and it may well not be a good one for one’s circumstances. All alternative options, including the status quo, should be thought through in order to avoid becoming stuck in the wrong place, facing risks that might have been avoidable. Becoming stuck is a very real risk under depression conditions, when freedom of action is likely to be very sharply limited, hence positioning in advance in highly advantageous.

The best choice will vary for different people with different circumstances, so there is no one right answer as to the best place, or set of circumstances, to be located. Each option is presented with suggestions as to which might suit what kind of individuals and families, and case-studies are provided as to workable approaches in each different environment. There are many quite inspiring examples from around the world to choose from.

In choosing a good location, carrying capacity and natural factors such as local resource availability need to be taken into account. These factors are considered in Chapter 4. For instance, a reliable water supply of predictable quality will be of particular importance, and one might not be able to rely on current sources that may be vulnerable under depression conditions. Similarly the potential impact of natural threats – wildfires, flooding, drought, earthquakes, cyclones, blizzards, extreme cold – needs to be understood as these are highly variable and represent a wide range of risk scenarios. The risks one feels comfortable with, or can tolerate, manage or mitigate, will be individual choices.

The most obviously good places are probably already over-crowded and expensive, whereas more marginal places may well have been overlooked and may represent both much better financial value and a greater range of opportunities. A given area can only support a certain number of people, and those limits can only be circumvented if large-scale trade is feasible and affordable energy readily available.

As we have pointed out at the Automatic Earth many times before, trade is very vulnerable when the credit it relies on dries up, meaning that economically contractionary times typically lead to trade collapses. At that point, local circumstances such as carrying capacity for a given local resource base become paramount. However, living close to a rich resource base is not necessarily the answer. One only has to look at the resource-rich geopolitical hotspots in the world to know that living on top of coveted resources is not necessarily an advantage.

Energy supply will be a major issue in many, if not most, regions. As we have noted many times here at the Automatic Earth, gross energy production is flat to falling globally, and the average energy profit ratio (energy returned on energy invested) is falling sharply. A greater and greater percentage of energy produced is being reinvested in energy production, leaving less and less to serve all society’s other purposes.

Both unconventional oil and gas and most forms of ‘renewable’ energy have low energy profit ratios and are also critically dependent on conventional oil gas gas production to enable them to be developed at all. As such they represent nothing more than an extension of the high energy profit ratio conventional fossil fuel era that we are now moving beyond. Being capital intensive as well as trade-dependent, they also depend on the continued expansion of the financial bubble, but this is on the verge of implosion. The future will be one of far less energy available, and consequently much reduced socio-economic complexity.

Families would do well to take a hard look at their energy-dependent essential functions (such as cooking, climate control, transport, and equipment operation), and think about what energy sources are required to fulfil these functions, what vulnerabilities different sources of supply may be subject to, whether each function is truly essential, and whether there may be more than one way to perform truly essential functions. One may require specifically electricity, liquid fuel or solid fuel, but there may be some capacity for substitution, perhaps with some additional or modified equipment.

The energy required may come from overseas or may require a large-scale centralised distribution system. Both of these represent significant threats to continued supply under conditions of credit contraction, trade collapse and reduced socio-economic complexity. Conversely, local energy sources which can be relatively simply obtained are a far more secure source of supply. Local dependency creates considerably less vulnerability, hence moving over to local supply in advance of supply problems would be advisable. Redefining essentials and moving away from requiring external energy sources would reduce vulnerability even further.

The local climate will determine how many aspects of life play out in practice, notably energy demand for climate control. Climate not requiring external energy inputs would eliminate a substantial dependency, but only a minority would have the choice to live in such a place. For the rest, thinking through how truly essential climate control is, and how this might be achieved in a low energy environment, will be important.

The development of tolerance for a wider range of indoor temperatures is likely to be necessary. Climate and water availability will, of course, determine what food can be grown locally, and in the sharp reduction of trade will reduce the potential for bringing food in from elsewhere. Relative proximity to the poles determines growing season, and is therefore a strong influence on the balance between plant and animal foodstuffs under a locavore scenario.

Health, healthcare care, social circumstances and political culture are also important factors in determining a good location for a given individual or family group. They are highly variable now, and can be expected to become more so as regions become more isolated with reduced trade. Human connections will grow greatly in importance in difficult times, hence being in a location where one is socially and culturally embedded can be expected to make a substantial difference to family fortunes. Any contemplation of relocation must take these aspects into account as they may ultimately matter more than physical circumstances. These factors are covered in depth in the Challenge and Choices presentation.

The scale of the community in which a family is socially involved will determine the range of choices available beyond the scale of individuals and families themselves. Isolation limits the range of options considerably, meaning that attempting to ‘go it alone’ is not advisable. Communities, whether urban, suburban, small town, village or rural, all offer the advantages of being able to work with others for mutual benefit. Chapter 5 is devoted to exploring the options available at larger scale, beginning with emphasis on community scale potential for pooling resources and building valuable social capital.

Relationships of trust are the foundation of society, enabling collective human endeavours to function. Building them in advance of difficult times creates a critical advantage, allowing existing constructive initiatives to flourish and new ones to gain traction rapidly once the need for them becomes clear. A range of examples of communal possibilities is given in the presentation, including community hubs, maker spaces, community projects, local network building and peer to peer coordination and funding activities.

Several are then discussed in greater depth, notably those in the economic sphere which will be necessary to navigate a period of liquidity crunch. These include time banking, savings pools, alternative currencies, alternative trading arrangements and the slow money movement. These are initiatives reducing the dependence on the existing monetary system, thereby reducing exposure to the risk of that system being disrupted.

Periods of economic depression create a situation of artificial scarcity, where a society has all the resources it had before, but due to the lack of money in circulation, can no longer make use of them. As those who lived through the great depression of the 1930s said – “We had everything but money”. Finance represents the operating system for our societies, and when that system crashes, it it necessary to ride out the acute phase of the crunch, and then to reboot the system into a more workable form.  The initial phase creates an urgent need to substitute for the missing liquidity in the larger system with alternative forms of liquidity at the local level, in other words to relocalise finance in order to ride out the period of hardship.

Such systems emerge spontaneously at times and in places where economic depressions have been or are now in force, for instance Austria during the 1930s, Argentina following 2001 or Greece today. However, they can be initiated in advance, functioning in parallel with the larger system, and then are well positioned to stand more or less alone when the need arises. Examples of alternative currencies functioning under normal circumstances and under depression conditions are discussed in Challenge and Choices.

The need for financial relocalisation is but one aspect of the general need for much greater decentralisation. The contraction of the trust horizon during times of economic and financial contraction results in the need for all manner of activities, very much including finance, to operate at much smaller scale in order to function. Trust determines effective organizational scale, hence in contractionary times, working within the trust horizon implies working at substantially smaller scale. Governance mechanisms will be no exception.

Dependence on larger scale organizations to deliver essential goods and services, or to maintain a functioning socio-economic system, will represent a considerable vulnerability at a time when those entities are ceasing to be able to perform the functions for which they currently hold responsibility. Over time those responsibilities will come to vest in whichever organizations are positioned in practice to assume them, whether or not such organizations have the legal responsibility to do so.

Smaller scale governing institutions and regulatory mechanisms, which have been substantially disempowered in recent years, can therefore expect to inherit greater responsibility in the future. Being informed and well-positioned in advance to step into any power vacuum once it appears will be advantageous.

Centralised systems often struggle already to deliver what they are supposed to, hence decentralisation initiatives are already underway in many fields. These are commonly opposed by a top-down system critically dependent on continued growth, and the increasingly complete buy-in required to maintain it. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to opt out, even as doing so is coming to make more and more sense because the cost burden associated with the larger system is increasingly disproportionate to the benefits it is able to deliver.

In many ways the essentials can be provided independently at far lower cost, thanks to the absence of large and complex bureaucracies to support. This makes them a threat to a larger system reliant on holding hostage the provision of essentials by closing off independent options. Trying to achieve independence in any sphere therefore faces obstacles which make it more difficult than it should be, but it will be necessary to move in that direction in any case.

The existing level of socio-economic complexity allowing larger scale systems to function is itself dependent on trust, political legitimacy, cheap money and cheap energy, all of which are threatened in a limits to growth scenario. The future will be simpler and more local whether we like it or not, so we must position ourselves for that future. In doing so we generate resilience – the ability to cope under a wide range of circumstances, to bounce back from system shocks and to thrive in the meantime. This capacity is what working through the limits to growth decision tree process is capable of establishing.

Challenge and Choices provides the basis for being proactive at both the individual and collective levels, allowing us to face the approaching limits and navigate a near future fraught with risk and uncertainty. Challenging circumstances are much less daunting when equipped with information, analysis and the tools required to adapt to a changing big picture. We can replace a destructive mindset with a constructive one grounded in a solid sense of purpose, replacing fear of the unknown with empowerment.


Nicole Foss

To purchase the 3-hour video download of Challenge and Choices, go to our store. Click this image to get there:

Aug 202015
 
 August 20, 2015  Posted by at 3:56 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Gustave Doré Dream of the Eagle (from Dante’s Purgatory) 1868

We’ve come to the end of our little ‘chapters experiment’, using Nicole’s long article. Do let us whether you like things this way, posted in shorter parts rather than one long article. And by all means read through the whole thing one more time. It’s not going to hurt you.

This is the entire article. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
Part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity
Part 4 is here:
Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies
and part 5 is here:
Solution Space


Intro

A great deal of intelligence is invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Saul Bellow, 1976

More and more people (although not nearly enough) are coming to recognise that humanity cannot continue on its current trajectory, as the limits we face become ever more obvious, and their implications starker. There is a growing realisation that the future must be different, and much thought is therefore being applied to devising supposed solutions for that future.

These are generally attempts to reconcile our need to make changes with our desire to continue something very much resembling our current industrial-world lifestyle, with a view to making a seamless transition between the now and a comfortably familiar future. The presumption is that it is possible, but this rests on foundational assumptions which vary between the improbable and the outright impossible. It is a presumption grounded in a comprehensive failure to understand the nature and extent of our predicament.

We are facing limits in many ways simultaneously – not surprising since exponential growth curves for so many parameters have gone critical in recent decades, and of course even more so in recent years. Some of these limits lie in human systems, while others are ecological or geophysical. They will all interact with each other, over different timeframes, in extremely complex ways as our state of overshoot resolves itself (to our dissatisfaction, to put it mildly) over many decades, if not centuries. Some of these limits are completely non-negotiable, while others can be at least partially mutable, and it is vital that we know the difference if we are to be able to mitigate our situation at all. Otherwise we are attempting to bargain with the future without understanding our negotiating position.

The vast majority has no conception of the extent to which our modernity is an artifact of our discovery and pervasive exploitation of fossil fuels as an energy source. No species in history has had easy, long term access to a comparable energy source. This unprecedented circumstance has facilitated the creation of turbo-charged civilization.

Huge energy throughput, in line with the Maximum Power Principle, has led to tremendous complexity, far greater extractive capacity (with huge ‘environmental externalities’ as a result), far greater potential to concentrate enormous power in the hands of the few with destructive political consequences), a far higher population, far greater burden on global carrying capacity, and the ability to borrow from the future to satisfy the insatiable greed of the present. The fact that we are now approaching so many limits has very significant implications for our ability to continue with any of these aspects of modern life. Therefore, any expectation that a future in the era of limits is likely to resemble the present (with a green gloss) are ill-founded and highly implausible.

The majority of the Big Ideas with which we propose to bargain with our future of limits to growth rests on the notion that we can retain our modern comforts and conveniences, but that somehow we will do so with far less resource use, and with a fraction of the energy we currently employ. The most mainstream discussions revolve around ‘green growth’, where it is suggested that eternal economic growth can occur on a finite planet, and that we will magically decouple of that growth from the physical basis upon which it rests. Proponents argue that we have already accomplished this to an extent, as the apparent energy intensity of developed state economies has fallen.

In actuality, all that has happened is that the energy deployed to provide developed world comforts has been used in the emerging markets where goods destined for our markets are manufactured, so that the consumption falls within someone else’s energy budget. In reality there has been no decoupling at all. Economic growth requires energy, and there is an exceptionally high correlation between the two. Even the phantom growth of the bubble era, based on the expansion of virtual wealth, requires energy in order to maintain the complexity of the system that generates it.

It is crucial that we understand the boundaries of solution space, in order to be able to focus our finite resources (in every sense of the word) on that which is inherently workable, at least in theory. ‘Workable In theory’ implies that, while there is no guarantee of success given a large number of unpredictable factors, there is also no obvious prima facie barrier to success. If, however, we throw our resources at ideas that are subject to such barriers, and therefore lie beyond solution space, we guarantee that those initiatives will fail and that the resources so committed will have been wasted. It is important to note that ‘success’ does not mean being able to maintain anything remotely resembling business as usual. It refers to being able to achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

Sculptors work by carving away excess material in order to reveal the figure within the block they are working with. Similarly, we can carve away from the featureless monolith of conceivable approaches those that we can see in advance are doomed to fail, leaving us with a figuratively coherent group of potentially workable ideas.

In order to carve away the waste material and get closer to a much smaller set of viable possibilities, we need to understand some of the non-negotiable factors we will be facing, each of which has implications restrictive of viable solution space. Many of these issues are the fundamental substance of the message we have been propagating at the Automatic Earth since its inception and will therefore constitute a review for our regular readership. For more detail on these topics, check out our primers section.


Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression

As we have maintained since the Automatic Earth’s launch in early 2008, we have lived through a gigantic monetary expansion over the last 30 years or so –  the largest financial departure from reality in human history. In doing so we have created a crisis of under-collateralization. This period was highly inflationary, as we saw a vast increase in the supply of money and credit versus available goods and services. Both currency printing and credit hyper-expansion constitute inflation, but the outcome, and therefore prescription, for each is very different. While currency printing cuts the real wealth pie into many more pieces, each of which will be very small, credit expansions such as this one create multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of pie, hence we have generated a vast quantity of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

In other words, we have created a bubble of virtual wealth, with no substance to back up the pile of promises to repay that it rests upon. As we have said before, this amounts to playing a giant game of musical chairs where there is perhaps one chair for every hundred people playing the game. When the music stops, those best positioned to understand the rules of the game will grab a chair as quickly as possible. Everyone else will be out of the game. The endgame of credit expansion is always a credit implosion, where the excess claims are rapidly and messily extinguished. This is, of course, deflation by definition – a contraction in the supply of money and credit relative to available goods and services – through the collapse of the credit supply, where credit is of the order of 99% of the effective money supply.

A credit implosion crashes both the money supply and the velocity of money – the rate at which money circulates in the economy. Together these factors determine how much economic activity can be sustained. With both the money supply and the velocity of money very low, a state of liquidity crunch exists, where there is insufficient liquidity in the economy to connect buyers and sellers, or producers and consumers. Nothing moves, so there is little or no economic activity. Note that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for, so with little purchasing power available, demand will be very low under such circumstances.

During the expansion, both the money supply and the velocity of money increased dramatically, and the resulting artificial stimulation of demand led to an increase in supply, with the ability to sustain a much larger than normal amount of economic activity. But once the limit is reached, where all the income streams of the productive economy can no longer service the debt created, and there are no more willing borrowers or lenders, the demand stimulation disappears, leaving a great deal of supply without a market. The demand that had been effectively borrowed from the future, must be ‘repaid’ once the bubble bursts, leading to a prolonged period of low demand. The supply that had arisen to service it no longer has a reason to exist and cannot be maintained.

The economy moves into a period of seizure under such cIrcumstances. We have frequently compared attempting to run an economy with too small a money supply in circulation to trying to run an automobile with the oil warning light on, indicating too little lubricant. Engines seize up when run with too little lubricant, a role played by money in the case of the engine of the economy. The situation created can also be compared to a computer operating system crash, where nothing functions until the system has been rebooted. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people noted that they had plenty of everything except money. Liquidity crunch creates a condition of artificial scarcity, where even being surrounded by resources is of little use for a period of time once the operating system has crashed and has yet to be ‘rebooted’.

We will be looking at a period of acute liquidity crunch followed by a long period of chronic financial instability. The initial contraction will be driven by fear and that fear will persist for a long time. This will result in little credit being made available, and only at high cost. In other words, interest rates, which are a risk premium, will be very high as we move beyond the initial phase of contraction and fear is in the drivers seat. Deflation and economic depression are mutually reinforcing, hence once that downward spiral, or vicious circle, dynamic has taken hold, we will remain in its grip for many years.

Given that the cost of capital will be very high, and there will be little purchasing power, proposed solutions which are capital-intensive will lie outside solution space.


The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

The collective mood shifts rapidly from optimism and greed to pessimism and fear as the bubble bursts, and as it does so, the financial system moves from expansion to contraction. Financial contraction involves the breaking of promises right left and centre, with credit instruments drastically revalued downwards in the process. As the promises that back them cease to be credible, value disappears extremely rapidly. This is deflation and the elimination of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

Instruments once regarded as money equivalents will lose that status through the loss of confidence in them, causing the supply of what retains sufficient confidence to still be regarded as money to collapse. The more instruments lose the confidence that confers value upon them, the smaller the effective money supply will be, and the more confidence will become a rare ‘commodity’. Being grounded in psychology is the primary reason that deflation cannot be overcome through policy adaptations which are inherently too little and too late. Nothing moves as quickly as a collective loss of confidence in human promises, and nothing destroys value as comprehensively.

The same abrupt change in collective mood will also drive contraction in the real economy, but more slowly, since the time constant for change in the real world is much slower than in the virtual world of finance. This process will also result in broken promises as structural dependencies fracture when there is no longer enough to go around. There will be wage and benefit cuts, layoffs, strikes, strike-breaking, breaches of contract, business failures and more on a huge scale, and these will fuel further fear, anger and the destruction of trust.

In the political realm, trust, such as it is, will be an early casualty. Political promises have been regarded as highly suspect for a long time in any case, but considering that the electorate tends consistently to vote for whomever tells them the largest number of comforting lies, this is not particularly surprising. Our political system selects for mendaciousness by design, since no party is normally elected by telling the truth, yet we have still collectively retained some faith in the concept of democracy until relatively recently. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the political institutions in supposedly democratic nations have largely been bought by big capital. More often than not, and more blatantly than ever, the political machinery has come to serve those special interests, not the public interest.

The public is increasingly realizing that ‘representative democracy’ leaves them unrepresented, as they see more and more examples of austerity for the masses combined with enormous bailouts guaranteeing that the large scale gamblers of casino capitalism will not take losses on the reckless bets they made gambling with other people’s money. In the countries subjected to austerity, where the contrast is the most stark, a wave of public anger is already depriving national governments, or supranational governance institutions where applicable (ie Europe), of political legitimacy. As more and more states slide into the austerity trap as a result of their unsustainable debt burdens, this polarization process will continue, driving wedges between the governors and the governed which will make governance far more difficult.

Governments struggling with the loss of political legitimacy are going to find that people will no longer follow rules once they feel that the social contract has been violated, and that rules no longer represent the public interest. When the governed broadly accept that society functions under the rule of law, in other words that all are equally subject to the same rules, then they tend to internalize those rules and follow them without the need for negative incentives or outright enforcement. However, once the dominant perception becomes that rules are imposed only on the powerless, to their detriment and for the benefit of the powerful, while the well connected can do as they please, then general compliance can cease very quickly.

Without compliance, force would become necessary, and we are indeed likely to see this occur as a transitional phase as social polarization increases in a climate of increasing anger. The transitional element arises from the fact that force, especially as exercised technologically at large scale, requires substantial resources which are unlikely to remain available. Force produces reaction, straining the fabric of society, quite possibly to breaking point.

As contagion propagates the impact of financial and economic contraction, we will rapidly be moving from a long era of high trust in the value of promises to one of low trust. The trust horizon will contract sharply, leaving supranational and national governments lying beyond its reach, as stranded assets from a trust perspective. Trust determines effective organizational scale, so when the trust horizon draws in, withdrawing political legitimacy in its wake, larger scale entities, whether public or private, are going to find it extremely difficult to function. Effective organizational scale had been increasing for the duration of our long economic expansion, forcing an across the board scaling up of all manner of organizations by increasing the competitiveness accruing to large scale. As we scaled up, we formed structural dependencies on these larger scale entities’ ability to function.

While the scaling-up process was reasonable smooth and seamless, the scaling-down process will not be, as the lower rungs of the figurative ladder we climbed to reach this pinnacle have been kicked out as we ascended. Structural dependencies are going to fail very painfully as large scale ceases to be effective and competitive, leading to abrupt dislocations with ricocheting impacts.

Proposed solutions to our predicament that depend on the functioning of large-scale organizations operating in a top-down manner do not lie within viable solution space.


Instability and the ‘Discount Rate’

The pessimism-and-fear-driven psychology of contraction differs dramatically from the optimism-and-greed-driven psychology of expansion. The extreme complacency as to systemic risk of recent years will be replaced by an equally extreme risk aversion, as we move from overshoot in one direction to undershoot in the other. The perception of economic visibility is gong to change substantially, as we move from a period where people thought they knew where things were headed into an era where fear and confusion reign, and the sense of predictability evaporates abruptly.

This is an important psychological shift, as it affects an aspect known as the ‘discount rate’, which reflects the extent to which we think in the short term rather than the long term, or the extent to which we value the present over the future. The perceived rate of change is an important factor in determining the discount rate, and fear, being a very sharp emotion, causes the rate of change to accelerate markedly, driving the discount rate sharply higher in contractionary times.

True long term thinking is relatively rare. We manage an approximation of it at times when all immediate needs, along with many mere ‘wants’, are met and we are not concerned about this condition changing, in other words at times when we take a comfortable situation for granted. At such times, the longer term view is a luxury we can afford, and we find it relatively simple to summon the presence of mind to think abstractly and constructively, and to ponder circumstances which are are neither personal nor immediate. Even at such times, however, it is not particularly common for humans to transcend mere contemplation and actually act in the interests of the long term, especially if it involves aspects beyond the personal, or perhaps familial.

As the financial bubble bursts, and we rapidly begin to pick up on the fear of others and feel the consequences of contagion in our own lives, our collective discount rates are going to sky-rocket. In a relatively short period of time, a large percentage of the population is going to begin worry about immediate needs, let alone wants, not being met. A short time later those worries are likely to transition into reality, as has already happened in the countries, like Greece, in the forefront of the bursting bubble. As discount rates go through the roof, the luxury of the longer term view, which is always quite ephemeral, is likely to disappear altogether.

Where people have no supply cushions and find themselves abruptly penniless, cold, thirsty, hungry or homeless, the likelihood of them considering anything much beyond the needs of the day at hand is very low. Under such circumstances, the present becomes the only reality that matters, and societies are abruptly pitched into a panicked state of short term crisis management. This of course underlines the need to develop supply cushions and contingency plans in advance of a bubble bursting, so that a greater percentage of people might be able to retain a clear head and the ability to plan more than one day at a time. Unfortunately, few are likely to heed advance warnings and we can expect society to shift rapidly into a state of short-termism.

Given the coming rise in collective discount rates, if proposed solutions depend on the ability for societies to engage in rational planning for longer term goals, then those solutions are not part of solution space.


The Psychology of Contraction and Social Context

Expansionary times are times of relative peace and prosperity. If those conditions persist for a relatively long time, trust builds slowly and societies become more inclusive and cooperative, tending to perceive common humanity and focus on similarities rather than differences. In such times we reach out and interact with distant people, even if we have no relationship of personal trust with them, as we have, over time, vested our trust in stable institutional frameworks for managing our affairs. This institutional trust replaces the need for trust at a personal level and is a key factor in our ability to scale up our economies and their governance structures. Individuals raised in such an environment tend to show a presumption of trust towards others, and their inclination is generally to act cooperatively.

There is a sharp contrast between this stable state of affairs and the circumstances which pertain when suddenly the pie is shrinking and there is not enough to go around. As difficult as it can be to share gains in a way perceived to be fair, it is infinitely more difficult to share losses in a way that is not extremely divisive. As elucidated above, a deflationary credit implosion involved the wholesale destruction of excess claims to underlying real wealth, meaning that a majority of people who thought they had a valid claim to something of tangible value are going to find that they do not. The losses will be very widespread, but uneven, and the perception of unfairness will be almost universal.

Under such circumstances a sense of common humanity is much less prevalent, and the focus shifts from similarities to the differences upon which social divisions are founded and then inflamed. An ‘us versus them’ dynamic is prone to take hold, where ‘us’ becomes ever more tightly defined and ‘them’ becomes an ever more pejorative term. People build literal and figurative walls and peer suspiciously at each other over them. Rather than working together in the attempt to address concerns common to all, division shifts the focus from cooperation to competition. A collectively constructive mindset can easily morph into something far more motivated by negative emotions such as jealousy and revenge and therefore far more destructive of perceived commonality.

The kind of initiatives which capture the public imagination in expansionary times are not at all the type which get traction once a contractionary dynamic takes hold. Attempts to build cooperative projects are going to be facing a rising tide of negative social mood, and will struggle to get off the ground. Sadly, negative ideas are far more likely to go viral than positive ones. Novel movements grounded in anger and fear may arise to feed on this new emotional context and thereby be empowered to wreak havoc on the fabric of society, notably through providing a political mandate to extremists with an agenda of focusing blame on to some identifiable, and marginalizable, social group.

While it will not be the case that cooperative endeavours will be impossible to achieve, they will require additional effort, and are likely to succeed only at a much smaller scale in a newly fractured society than might previously have been expected. It is very much a worthwhile effort, and will be far simpler if begun prior to the end of the period of cooperative presumption. All the more reason to adapt to a major trend change adapt in advance. There is nothing so dangerous as collectively dashed expectations.

If proposed solutions depend on a cooperative social context at large scale, they will not be part of solution space.


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 to 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 thought 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 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.


Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies

The majority of proposals made by those who acknowledge limits fail on at least one of the previous criteria, and often several, if not all of them. Solution space is smaller than we typically think. The most common approach is to insist on government policies intended to implement meaningful change by fiat. Even in the best of times, government policy is a blunt instrument which all too often achieves the opposite of its stated intention, and in contractionary times the likelihood of this increases enormously.

Governments are reactive – and slowly – not proactive. Policies typically reflect the realities of the past, not the future, and are therefore particularly maladaptive at times of large scale trend change, particularly when that change unfolds rapidly. Those focusing on government policy are mostly not thinking in terms of crisis, however, but of seamless proactive adjustment – the kind of which humanity is congenitally incapable.

There is a common perception that government policy and its effect on society depends critically on who holds the seat of power and what policies they impose. The assumption is that elected leaders do, in fact, wield the power to determine and implement their chosen policies, but this has become less and less the case over time. Elected leaders are the public face of a system which they do not control, and increasingly act merely as salesmen for policies determined behind the scenes, mostly at the behest of special interest groups with privileged political access.

It actually matters little who is the figure-head at any given time, as their actions are constrained by the system in which they are embedded. Even if leaders fully understood the situation we face, which is highly unlikely given the nature of the leadership selection process, they would be unable to change the direction of a system so much larger than themselves.

Where public pressure on elected governments develops around a specific issue, for whatever reason, the political response is generally to act in such a way as to appear to do something meaningful, while actually making no substantive change at all. Often the appearance of action is nothing more than vacuous political spin, assuaging public opinion while doing nothing to threaten the extractive interests driving the system in the same direction as always. We cannot expect truly adaptive initiatives to emerge from a system hostage to powerful vested interests and therefore locked into a given direction.

Public understanding of the issues agitated for or against tends, unfortunately, to be limited and one-dimensional, meaning that it is essentially impossible to create public pressure for truly informed policy changes, and it is relatively simple to claim that the appearance of action constitutes actual action. A short public attention span makes this even simpler. People are also extremely unlikely to vote for policies which, if they were to make a meaningful difference, would amount to depriving those same people of the outsized consumption habits to which they have become accustomed. The insurmountable obstacles to achieving change through government policy become obvious.

Planned degrowth assumes the possibility of a smooth progression towards a lower consumption future, but this is not how contractions unfold following the bursting of a bubble. What we can expect is a series of abrupt dislocations that are going to wreak havoc with our collective ability to plan anything at all for many years, by which time we will already be living in a lower consumption future arrived at chaotically. Effective planning for an epochal shift requires the capacity for top-down policy implementation at large scale, combined with social cohesion, the ability to maintain complexity, and the energy to maintain control over a myriad distinct aspects simultaneously. It is simply not going to happen in the manner that proponents envisage.

Similarly, a steady state economy is not a realistic construct in light of many non-negotiable realities. Human history, and in fact the non-human evolution which preceded it, is a dynamic history of boom and bust, of niches opening up, being exploited, being over-exploited and collapsing. It is a history of opportunism and the consequences following from it. In the human experience, boom and bust in the form of the rise and fall of empire is an emergent property of civilizational scale. A steady state at this scale is prima facie impossible.

An approximation of steady state can exist under certain circumstances, where a population well below ecological carrying capacity, and surrounded by abundance, is left in isolation for a very long period of time. The Australian aboriginal existence prior to the European invasion is probably the best example, having persisted for tens of thousands of years. The circumstances which permitted it were, however, diametrically opposite to those we currently face.

Proponents of the steady state economy do not seem to appreciate the extent to which we have long since transgressed the point of no return from the perspective of being able to maintain what we have built. Even if we were merely approaching limits, instead of having moved substantially into overshoot, we would not be able to hold society in stasis just below those limitations.

Populations grow and expansion proceeds with it. Intentionally preventing population growth globally is unrealistic. Even China, as a single country, has struggled with population control policies, and has had to take drastic and dictatorial measures in order to slow population growth. This clearly relies on strong top-down control, which is only barely possible at a national level and will never be possible at a global level.

In China we are also going to see that the outcome of population control has challenging consequences, and that a policy supposedly designed to foster stability can have the opposite effect. The desire for a male child has dangerously distorted the gender ratio in ways which will leave the country with a large excess of young men with no prospects for either work or marriage. That is a guarantee of trouble, either at home or abroad, or possibly both. There will also be far too few employed young people to look after a burgeoning elderly population, meaning a rapid die-off of the elderly cohort at some point.

Even then China is unlikely to have managed to get itself back below the carrying capacity it has done so much to destroy during its frantic dash for growth. The tremendous modernity drive China has engaged in essentially undone any benefit curbing population growth might have had, by increasing energy and resource consumption per capita by an enormous margin. It is population times consumption which determines impact, and in China the ecological impact has in many ways been catastrophic. That has to some extent been compensated for by obtaining access to a great deal of land in other countries, but economic colonialism has done nothing for global stability.

While it is possible to conceive, as some steady-state and degrowth proponents do, of a world in which civilization and large-scale urbanism have been dismantled in favour of autonomous, yet networked, village-scale settlements, that does not make it even remotely realistic. Humanity may, in the distant future, after the overshoot condition has been resolved by nature, as it will eventually be, find itself living in villages once again, but they would not be networked in the modern, technological sense, and the population they housed would be very smaller smaller than at present.

If it is below carrying capacity, then it will grow again, restarting the cycle of expansion and contraction rather than settling for a steady-state. Reaching for the stars again would not be possible however, as the necessary energy and resources have already been consumed or dissipated.

People are often inclined to think that a different trajectory is a matter of choice – for instance that we must collectively choose to live differently in order to prevent an ecological catastrophe. In fact it is not a matter of choice at all. There is no basis for top-down control capable of delivering meaningful change, nor would humanity ever collectively choose to scale back its consumption pattern, although individuals can and do. Given opportunities as a species, we take them, as evolution has shaped us to do.

Groups which made a habit of forgoing opportunities in the past would quickly have been out-competed by those who did not. We are the descendants of a long long line of opportunists, selected over millennia for our flexibility in turning an incredibly wide range of circumstances to our advantage. But, in this instance we will have no choice – the shift to lower consumption will be imposed on us by circumstance. The element of choice will be only in how we choose to face that which we cannot change.

Another class of ideas for ways forward is grounded in techno-optimism, suggesting that because human beings are clever and creative, and have tended to push back apparent limits before, that we will be able to do so indefinitely. The notion is that changing our trajectory is unnecessary because limits can always be circumvented. Needless to say, such a view is not grounded in physical reality. These ‘solutions’ are entrepreneurial rather than policy-driven, although they may expect to be facilitated through policy.

Ideas in this category would include such things as smart renewables-based power grids, high-performance electric cars, high-tech energy storage systems, thorium reactors, fusion reactors, biofuels, genetically modified (pseudo)foodstuffs, geoengineering, enhanced automation, high-tech carbon sequestration, global carbon trading platforms, electronic crypto-currencies, clean-tech, vertical farming skyscrapers and many other notions.

Notice that all of these presume the ready availability of cheap energy and resources, along with large quantities of capital, and all assume that technological complexity can be maintained or even increased. Options such as these also have a substantial dependence on the continuation of globalized trade in both goods and services in order to satisfy their complex supply chains. However, globalization depends on the ability to operate at large scale in extremely complex ways, it depends on cheap energy, it depends on maintaining trust in trading partners, and it depends on the ability to travel without facing unacceptable levels of physical risk from piracy or conflict.

Trade does very poorly in times of financial and economic contraction. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade fell by 66% in two years. Trust collapses, and with it the contractual ability to agree on risk-sharing arrangements. Letters of credit become impossible to obtain in a credit crunch, and without them goods do not move.

Many goods will in any case have no market, as there will be little purchasing power for anything but essentials, and possibly not even sufficient for those. As we move from the peak of globalized trade, there will be an enormous excess of transport capacity, which will drive prices down relentlessly to the point where transporting goods becomes uneconomic. Much transport capacity will be scrapped. Without credit to oil the wheels of trade, our highly leveraged economic system will grind to a halt.

It is natural that we regard our current situation as being normal, and take for granted that the march of technological progress – the only reality most of us have known – will continue. Few question very deeply the foundations of our societies, and even those who do recognize that change must occur rarely realize the extent to which that change will inevitably strike at the fundamental basis of modern existence. Globalization has peaked and will shortly be moving into reverse. The world will be a very different place as a result.


Solution Space

To use the word ‘solution’ is perhaps misleading, since it could be said to imply that circumstances exist which could allow us to continue business as usual, and this is not, in fact, the case. A crunch period cannot be avoided. We face an intractable predicament, and the consequences of overshoot are going to manifest no matter what we do. However, while we may not be able to prevent this from occurring, we can mitigate the impact and lay the foundation for a fundamentally different and more workable way of being in the world.

Acknowledging the non-negotiable allows us to avoid beating our heads against a brick wall, freeing us to focus on that which we can either influence or change, and acknowledging the limits within which we must operate, even in these areas, allows us to act far more effectively without wasting scarce resources on fantasies. There are plenty of actions which can be taken, but those with potential for building a viable future will be inexpensive, small-scale, simple, low-energy, community-based initiatives. It will be important to work with natural systems in accordance with permaculture principles, rather than in opposition to them as currently do so comprehensively.

We require viable ways forward across different timeframes, first to navigate the rapid-onset acute crisis which the bursting of a financial bubble will pitch us into, and then to reboot our global operating system into a form less reminiscent of a planet-killing ponzi scheme. The various limits we face do not manifest all at the same time, and so to some extent can be navigated sequentially. The first phase of our constrained future, which will be primarily financial and social, will occur before the onset of energy supply difficulties for instance. Some initiatives are of particular value at specific times, and other have general value across timescales.

Moving into financial contraction is going to feel like having the rug pulled out from under our feet, and all the assumptions upon which we have based our lives invalidated all at once. Preparing in advance can make all the difference to the impact of such an event. At an individual level, it is important to avoid holding debt and to hold cash on hand. It is also very useful to have prepared in advance by developing practical skills, obtaining control over the essentials of one’s own existence where possible and being located in an auspicious place. Human skills such as mediation and organizational ability will be very useful for calming inevitable social tensions.

However, community initiatives will have far greater impact than individual actions. The most effective paths will be those we choose to walk with others, as even in times when effective organizational scale is falling, it does not fall far enough to make acting individually the most adaptive strategy. Even in contractionary times, cooperation is not only possible, but vital. In the absence of lost institutional trust, it must occur within networks of genuine interpersonal trust, and these are of necessity small. Building such networks in advance of crisis is exceptionally important, as they are very much more difficult to construct after the fact, when we will be facing an unforgiving social atmosphere.

Cohesive communities will act together in times of crisis, and will be able to offer significant support to each other. The path dependency aspect is important – the state we find ourselves in when crisis hits will be an major determinant of how it plays out in a given area. Anything people come together to do will build social capital and relationships of trust, which are the foundation of society. Community gardens, perma-blitzes (permaculture garden make-overs), maker-spaces, time-banks, savings pools, local currency initiatives, community hub developments, skills training programmes, asset mapping and contingency planning are but a few of the possibilities for bringing people together.

Essential functions can be reclaimed locally, providing for far greater local self-sufficiency potential. The existence of locally-focused businesses, with local supply chains and local distribution networks for supplying essential goods and services will be a major advantage, hence establishing these in advance will be highly adaptive. Choosing to form them as cooperatives is likely to increase their resilience to external shocks as risks are shared. Where they can function at least partially through alternative trading arrangements, or as part of a local currency network, they can be even more beneficial.

Alternative trading arrangements are a particularly important component of local self-sufficiency during times of financial crisis, as they are able to mitigate the acute state of liquidity crunch which will be creating artificial scarcity. Implementing alternative means of trading will allow a much larger proportion of economic activity to survive, and this will allow many more people to be able to provide for themselves and their families. This in turn creates much greater social stability. Alternative currencies in particular are already being relied on in the countries at the forefront of financial crisis, which already find themselves facing liquidity shortage.

It is by no means necessary to wait until crisis hits before establishing such systems. Indeed they can have considerable value locally even in stable times. Since they only constitute money in one area, and, being fiat currencies, must necessarily operate within the trust horizon, they help to retain purchasing power locally, rather than allowing it to drain away continually. Once well established, alternative currencies can go from being parallel systems to being the major form of liquidity available locally.

Beyond a close-knit community, it will be very helpful to have an informed layer of local government, as this confers the potential for a top-down/bottom-up partnership between local government and the grass roots. Local government is capable of removing barriers to people looking after themselves, assisting with the propagation of successful grass roots initiatives and acting facilitate adaptive responses with the resources at its disposal, even though these will be for more limited than currently.

Contingency planning in advance for the distribution of scarce local resources would be wise. With the trust horizons drawing inwards, local government may be the largest scale of governance still lying within it, and therefore still effective. It operates at a far more human scale than larger political structures, and is far more likely to have the potential for transparency, accountability and reflexive learning.

That is not to say local government is necessarily endowed with these qualities at present. The odds of it becoming so will increase if informed and public spirited individuals get involved in local government as soon as possible, rather than setting their sights on regional or national government. Presiding over contraction will, however, be a thankless task, as constituents will tend to blame those in power for the fact that the pie is shrinking. The job will be a delicate balancing act under very trying circumstances as the fabric os society becomes tattered and torn, but as difficult as it will be, it will remain essential, and getting it right can make a very substantial difference.

Higher levels of government may currently appear to be the relevant seats of power, but are far less likely to be as important in a period of crisis as their response time is far too slow. It is possible that higher levels of government may temporarily be involved in useful rationing programmes, but beyond a certain point, the most important initiatives in practice are likely to be those profoundly local. National governments are more likely to generate additional problems rather than solutions, as they crack down on angry populations during an on-going loss of political legitimacy.

Given the fragility of trade in the future we are facing, programmes of import substitution could be useful, if there would be time to implement them before financial crisis deepens too substantially for the necessary larger-scale organizational capacity to fucntion. Being able to provide for the essentials, without having to rely on vulnerable international supply chains, is extremely beneficial, and food sovereignty in particular is critical.

Once trade withers, we will once again see tremendous regional disparities of fortune, based on differing local circumstances. It would be wise to research in advance what one’s own local circumstances are likely to be, in order to work out in advance how one might live within local limits. Getting expectations aligned with what reality can hope to deliver is a major part of adaptation without unnecessary stress.

In the longer term, we can expect to move through economic depression into some form of relative recovery, although we may see large scale conflict first, and will not, in any case, see a return to present circumstances. We will instead be adapting to the age of limits, mostly in an ad hoc manner due to on-going instability and consequent inability to plan for the long term. The bursting of a bubble on the scale of the one we have experienced has far reaching consequences that are likely to be felt for decades at least. In addition, our current condition of extreme carrying capacity overshoot means that we will actively be tightening our own limits, even as the population declines, by further cannibalizing remaining natural capital.

The operating system reboot which could lead to relative recovery would involve the restoration of some level of trust in the financial system, following the elimination of the huge mass of excess claims to underlying real wealth, and very likely the subsequent destabliization of a currency hyperinflation some years later (timeframe location dependent). We are very likely to see financial innovation, which is nothing more than another name for ponzi scheme, banned for a very long time, and likely the creation of money as interest bearing debt as well.

Humanity is in the habit of locking the door after the horse has bolted, so to speak, only restoring financial regulatory controls once it is too late. Once restored, regulations requiring plain vanilla finance will probably persist until  we have once again had time to forget the inevitable consequences of laissez faire. This will be measured in generations.

The small-scale initiatives which we need to navigate the crunch period could be scaled up as trust is slowly re-established. The speed at which this might happen, and the scale that might eventually be workable, are unclear, but it is not likely to be a rapid process, and scale is likely to remain small relative to today. Society will be lower-energy and therefore significantly simpler by then, with far smaller concentrations of population.

While some fossil fuels will no doubt be used for essential functions for quite some time to come, the majority of society will be excluded from what remains of the hydrocarbon age. We will likely have renewable energy systems, but not in the form of photovoltaic panels and high-tech electricity systems. Diffuse renewable energy can give us thermal energy, or motive power, or the ability to store energy as compressed air, all relatively simply, but at that point it will not be a technological civilization.

We are heading for a profoundly humbling experience, to put it mildly. Technological man is not the demigod he supposed himself to be, but merely the beneficiary of a fortuitous energy bonanza which temporarily allowed him to turn dreams into reality. We would do well, if we could summon up sufficient humility in advance, to learn from the simple and elegant technologies of the distant past, which we have largely discarded or forgotten.

We could also learn from present day places already constrained by limits – places which already operate simply and on a shoe-string budget both in terms of money and energy. It takes practice to learn to function without the structural dependencies we have constructed for ourselves, and the sooner we begin the learning curve, the better off we will be. Focusing on solution space for our ways forward would save us from countless blind alleys in the meantime.

This is the entire article. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
Part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity
Part 4 is here:
Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies
and part 5 is here:
Solution Space

Aug 182015
 
 August 18, 2015  Posted by at 2:32 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Gustave Doré Dante and Virgil among the gluttons 1868

In case you missed it, we’re doing something a little different. Nicole wrote a very lenghty article and we decided to publish it in chapters. Over five days we are posting 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 4. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
and part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity


Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies

The majority of proposals made by those who acknowledge limits fail on at least one of the previous criteria, and often several, if not all of them. Solution space is smaller than we typically think. The most common approach is to insist on government policies intended to implement meaningful change by fiat. Even in the best of times, government policy is a blunt instrument which all too often achieves the opposite of its stated intention, and in contractionary times the likelihood of this increases enormously.

Governments are reactive – and slowly – not proactive. Policies typically reflect the realities of the past, not the future, and are therefore particularly maladaptive at times of large scale trend change, particularly when that change unfolds rapidly. Those focusing on government policy are mostly not thinking in terms of crisis, however, but of seamless proactive adjustment – the kind of which humanity is congenitally incapable.

There is a common perception that government policy and its effect on society depends critically on who holds the seat of power and what policies they impose. The assumption is that elected leaders do, in fact, wield the power to determine and implement their chosen policies, but this has become less and less the case over time. Elected leaders are the public face of a system which they do not control, and increasingly act merely as salesmen for policies determined behind the scenes, mostly at the behest of special interest groups with privileged political access.

It actually matters little who is the figure-head at any given time, as their actions are constrained by the system in which they are embedded. Even if leaders fully understood the situation we face, which is highly unlikely given the nature of the leadership selection process, they would be unable to change the direction of a system so much larger than themselves.

Where public pressure on elected governments develops around a specific issue, for whatever reason, the political response is generally to act in such a way as to appear to do something meaningful, while actually making no substantive change at all. Often the appearance of action is nothing more than vacuous political spin, assuaging public opinion while doing nothing to threaten the extractive interests driving the system in the same direction as always. We cannot expect truly adaptive initiatives to emerge from a system hostage to powerful vested interests and therefore locked into a given direction.

Public understanding of the issues agitated for or against tends, unfortunately, to be limited and one-dimensional, meaning that it is essentially impossible to create public pressure for truly informed policy changes, and it is relatively simple to claim that the appearance of action constitutes actual action. A short public attention span makes this even simpler. People are also extremely unlikely to vote for policies which, if they were to make a meaningful difference, would amount to depriving those same people of the outsized consumption habits to which they have become accustomed. The insurmountable obstacles to achieving change through government policy become obvious.

Planned degrowth assumes the possibility of a smooth progression towards a lower consumption future, but this is not how contractions unfold following the bursting of a bubble. What we can expect is a series of abrupt dislocations that are going to wreak havoc with our collective ability to plan anything at all for many years, by which time we will already be living in a lower consumption future arrived at chaotically. Effective planning for an epochal shift requires the capacity for top-down policy implementation at large scale, combined with social cohesion, the ability to maintain complexity, and the energy to maintain control over a myriad distinct aspects simultaneously. It is simply not going to happen in the manner that proponents envisage.

Similarly, a steady state economy is not a realistic construct in light of many non-negotiable realities. Human history, and in fact the non-human evolution which preceded it, is a dynamic history of boom and bust, of niches opening up, being exploited, being over-exploited and collapsing. It is a history of opportunism and the consequences following from it. In the human experience, boom and bust in the form of the rise and fall of empire is an emergent property of civilizational scale. A steady state at this scale is prima facie impossible.

An approximation of steady state can exist under certain circumstances, where a population well below ecological carrying capacity, and surrounded by abundance, is left in isolation for a very long period of time. The Australian aboriginal existence prior to the European invasion is probably the best example, having persisted for tens of thousands of years. The circumstances which permitted it were, however, diametrically opposite to those we currently face.

Proponents of the steady state economy do not seem to appreciate the extent to which we have long since transgressed the point of no return from the perspective of being able to maintain what we have built. Even if we were merely approaching limits, instead of having moved substantially into overshoot, we would not be able to hold society in stasis just below those limitations.

Populations grow and expansion proceeds with it. Intentionally preventing population growth globally is unrealistic. Even China, as a single country, has struggled with population control policies, and has had to take drastic and dictatorial measures in order to slow population growth. This clearly relies on strong top-down control, which is only barely possible at a national level and will never be possible at a global level.

In China we are also going to see that the outcome of population control has challenging consequences, and that a policy supposedly designed to foster stability can have the opposite effect. The desire for a male child has dangerously distorted the gender ratio in ways which will leave the country with a large excess of young men with no prospects for either work or marriage. That is a guarantee of trouble, either at home or abroad, or possibly both. There will also be far too few employed young people to look after a burgeoning elderly population, meaning a rapid die-off of the elderly cohort at some point.

Even then China is unlikely to have managed to get itself back below the carrying capacity it has done so much to destroy during its frantic dash for growth. The tremendous modernity drive China has engaged in essentially undone any benefit curbing population growth might have had, by increasing energy and resource consumption per capita by an enormous margin. It is population times consumption which determines impact, and in China the ecological impact has in many ways been catastrophic. That has to some extent been compensated for by obtaining access to a great deal of land in other countries, but economic colonialism has done nothing for global stability.

While it is possible to conceive, as some steady-state and degrowth proponents do, of a world in which civilization and large-scale urbanism have been dismantled in favour of autonomous, yet networked, village-scale settlements, that does not make it even remotely realistic. Humanity may, in the distant future, after the overshoot condition has been resolved by nature, as it will eventually be, find itself living in villages once again, but they would not be networked in the modern, technological sense, and the population they housed would be very smaller smaller than at present.

If it is below carrying capacity, then it will grow again, restarting the cycle of expansion and contraction rather than settling for a steady-state. Reaching for the stars again would not be possible however, as the necessary energy and resources have already been consumed or dissipated.

People are often inclined to think that a different trajectory is a matter of choice – for instance that we must collectively choose to live differently in order to prevent an ecological catastrophe. In fact it is not a matter of choice at all. There is no basis for top-down control capable of delivering meaningful change, nor would humanity ever collectively choose to scale back its consumption pattern, although individuals can and do. Given opportunities as a species, we take them, as evolution has shaped us to do.

Groups which made a habit of forgoing opportunities in the past would quickly have been out-competed by those who did not. We are the descendants of a long long line of opportunists, selected over millennia for our flexibility in turning an incredibly wide range of circumstances to our advantage. But, in this instance we will have no choice – the shift to lower consumption will be imposed on us by circumstance. The element of choice will be only in how we choose to face that which we cannot change.

Another class of ideas for ways forward is grounded in techno-optimism, suggesting that because human beings are clever and creative, and have tended to push back apparent limits before, that we will be able to do so indefinitely. The notion is that changing our trajectory is unnecessary because limits can always be circumvented. Needless to say, such a view is not grounded in physical reality. These ‘solutions’ are entrepreneurial rather than policy-driven, although they may expect to be facilitated through policy.

Ideas in this category would include such things as smart renewables-based power grids, high-performance electric cars, high-tech energy storage systems, thorium reactors, fusion reactors, biofuels, genetically modified (pseudo)foodstuffs, geoengineering, enhanced automation, high-tech carbon sequestration, global carbon trading platforms, electronic crypto-currencies, clean-tech, vertical farming skyscrapers and many other notions.

Notice that all of these presume the ready availability of cheap energy and resources, along with large quantities of capital, and all assume that technological complexity can be maintained or even increased. Options such as these also have a substantial dependence on the continuation of globalized trade in both goods and services in order to satisfy their complex supply chains. However, globalization depends on the ability to operate at large scale in extremely complex ways, it depends on cheap energy, it depends on maintaining trust in trading partners, and it depends on the ability to travel without facing unacceptable levels of physical risk from piracy or conflict.

Trade does very poorly in times of financial and economic contraction. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade fell by 66% in two years. Trust collapses, and with it the contractual ability to agree on risk-sharing arrangements. Letters of credit become impossible to obtain in a credit crunch, and without them goods do not move.

Many goods will in any case have no market, as there will be little purchasing power for anything but essentials, and possibly not even sufficient for those. As we move from the peak of globalized trade, there will be an enormous excess of transport capacity, which will drive prices down relentlessly to the point where transporting goods becomes uneconomic. Much transport capacity will be scrapped. Without credit to oil the wheels of trade, our highly leveraged economic system will grind to a halt.

It is natural that we regard our current situation as being normal, and take for granted that the march of technological progress – the only reality most of us have known – will continue. Few question very deeply the foundations of our societies, and even those who do recognize that change must occur rarely realize the extent to which that change will inevitably strike at the fundamental basis of modern existence. Globalization has peaked and will shortly be moving into reverse. The world will be a very different place as a result.

This is part 4. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
and part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity

Tune back in tomorrow for part 5: Solution Space

Aug 172015
 
 August 17, 2015  Posted by at 1:28 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


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

Aug 152015
 
 August 15, 2015  Posted by at 1:54 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Gustave Doré Dante and the Angel of the Church before the Door of Purgatory 1868

We’re going to try something a little different. Nicole wrote another very long article and I suggested publishing it in chapters; this time she said yes. So in the next five days we will post five different chapters of the article, one on each day, and then on day six the whole thing. That way, you will have some time left over to spend with your families… 😉

Just so there’s no confusion: the article, all five chapters of it, was written by Nicole Foss. Not by Ilargi.


Intro

A great deal of intelligence is invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Saul Bellow, 1976

More and more people (although not nearly enough) are coming to recognise that humanity cannot continue on its current trajectory, as the limits we face become ever more obvious, and their implications starker. There is a growing realisation that the future must be different, and much thought is therefore being applied to devising supposed solutions for that future. These are generally attempts to reconcile our need to make changes with our desire to continue something very much resembling our current industrial-world lifestyle, with a view to making a seamless transition between the now and a comfortably familiar future. The presumption is that it is possible, but this rests on foundational assumptions which vary between the improbable and the outright impossible. It is a presumption grounded in a comprehensive failure to understand the nature and extent of our predicament.

We are facing limits in many ways simultaneously – not surprising since exponential growth curves for so many parameters have gone critical in recent decades, and of course even more so in recent years. Some of these limits lie in human systems, while others are ecological or geophysical. They will all interact with each other, over different timeframes, in extremely complex ways as our state of overshoot resolves itself (to our dissatisfaction, to put it mildly) over many decades, if not centuries. Some of these limits are completely non-negotiable, while others can be at least partially mutable, and it is vital that we know the difference if we are to be able to mitigate our situation at all. Otherwise we are attempting to bargain with the future without understanding our negotiating position.

The vast majority has no conception of the extent to which our modernity is an artifact of our discovery and pervasive exploitation of fossil fuels as an energy source. No species in history has had easy, long term access to a comparable energy source. This unprecedented circumstance has facilitated the creation of turbo-charged civilization.

Huge energy throughput, in line with the Maximum Power Principle, has led to tremendous complexity, far greater extractive capacity (with huge ‘environmental externalities’ as a result), far greater potential to concentrate enormous power in the hands of the few with destructive political consequences), a far higher population, far greater burden on global carrying capacity, and the ability to borrow from the future to satisfy the insatiable greed of the present. The fact that we are now approaching so many limits has very significant implications for our ability to continue with any of these aspects of modern life. Therefore, any expectation that a future in the era of limits is likely to resemble the present (with a green gloss) are ill-founded and highly implausible.

The majority of the Big Ideas with which we propose to bargain with our future of limits to growth rests on the notion that we can retain our modern comforts and conveniences, but that somehow we will do so with far less resource use, and with a fraction of the energy we currently employ. The most mainstream discussions revolve around ‘green growth’, where it is suggested that eternal economic growth can occur on a finite planet, and that we will magically decouple of that growth from the physical basis upon which it rests. Proponents argue that we have already accomplished this to an extent, as the apparent energy intensity of developed state economies has fallen.

In actuality, all that has happened is that the energy deployed to provide developed world comforts has been used in the emerging markets where goods destined for our markets are manufactured, so that the consumption falls within someone else’s energy budget. In reality there has been no decoupling at all. Economic growth requires energy, and there is an exceptionally high correlation between the two. Even the phantom growth of the bubble era, based on the expansion of virtual wealth, requires energy in order to maintain the complexity of the system that generates it.

It is crucial that we understand the boundaries of solution-space, in order to be able to focus our finite resources (in every sense of the word) on that which is inherently workable, at least in theory. ‘Workable In theory’ implies that, while there is no guarantee of success given a large number of unpredictable factors, there is also no obvious prima facie barrier to success. If, however, we throw our resources at ideas that are subject to such barriers, and therefore lie beyond solution space, we guarantee that those initiatives will fail and that the resources so committed will have been wasted. It is important to note that ‘success’ does not mean being able to maintain anything remotely resembling business as usual. It refers to being able to achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

Sculptors work by carving away excess material in order to reveal the figure within the block they are working with. Similarly, we can carve away from the featureless monolith of conceivable approaches those that we can see in advance are doomed to fail, leaving us with a figuratively coherent group of potentially workable ideas. In order to carve away the waste material and get closer to a much smaller set of viable possibilities, we need to understand some of the non-negotiable factors we will be facing, each of which has implications restrictive of viable solution space. Many of these issues are the fundamental substance of the message we have been propagating at the Automatic Earth since its inception and will therefore constitute a review for our regular readership. For more detail on these topics, check out our primers section.


Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression

As we have maintained since the Automatic Earth’s launch in early 2008, we have lived through a gigantic monetary expansion over the last 30 years or so –  the largest financial departure from reality in human history. In doing so we have created a crisis of under-collateralization. This period was highly inflationary, as we saw a vast increase in the supply of money and credit versus available goods and services. Both currency printing and credit hyper-expansion constitute inflation, but the outcome, and therefore prescription, for each is very different. While currency printing cuts the real wealth pie into many more pieces, each of which will be very small, credit expansions such as this one create multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of pie, hence we have generated a vast quantity of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

In other words, we have created a bubble of virtual wealth, with no substance to back up the pile of promises to repay that it rests upon. As we have said before, this amounts to playing a giant game of musical chairs where there is perhaps one chair for every hundred people playing the game. When the music stops, those best positioned to understand the rules of the game will grab a chair as quickly as possible. Everyone else will be out of the game. The endgame of credit expansion is always a credit implosion, where the excess claims are rapidly and messily extinguished. This is, of course, deflation by definition – a contraction in the supply of money and credit relative to available goods and services – through the collapse of the credit supply, where credit is of the order of 99% of the effective money supply.

A credit implosion crashes both the money supply and the velocity of money – the rate at which money circulates in the economy. Together these factors determine how much economic activity can be sustained. With both the money supply and the velocity of money very low, a state of liquidity crunch exists, where there is insufficient liquidity in the economy to connect buyers and sellers, or producers and consumers. Nothing moves, so there is little or no economic activity. Note that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for, so with little purchasing power available, demand will be very low under such circumstances.

During the expansion, both the money supply and the velocity of money increased dramatically, and the resulting artificial stimulation of demand led to an increase in supply, with the ability to sustain a much larger than normal amount of economic activity. But once the limit is reached, where all the income streams of the productive economy can no longer service the debt created, and there are no more willing borrowers or lenders, the demand stimulation disappears, leaving a great deal of supply without a market. The demand that had been effectively borrowed from the future, must be ‘repaid’ once the bubble bursts, leading to a prolonged period of low demand. The supply that had arisen to service it no longer has a reason to exist and cannot be maintained.

The economy moves into a period of seizure under such cIrcumstances. We have frequently compared attempting to run an economy with too small a money supply in circulation to trying to run an automobile with the oil warning light on, indicating too little lubricant. Engines seize up when run with too little lubricant, a role played by money in the case of the engine of the economy. The situation created can also be compared to a computer operating system crash, where nothing functions until the system has been rebooted. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people noted that they had plenty of everything except money. Liquidity crunch creates a condition of artificial scarcity, where even being surrounded by resources is of little use for a period of time once the operating system has crashed and has yet to be ‘rebooted’.

We will be looking at a period of acute liquidity crunch followed by a long period of chronic financial instability. The initial contraction will be driven by fear and that fear will persist for a long time. This will result in little credit being made available, and only at high cost. In other words, interest rates, which are a risk premium, will be very high as we move beyond the initial phase of contraction and fear is in the drivers seat. Deflation and economic depression are mutually reinforcing, hence once that downward spiral, or vicious circle, dynamic has taken hold, we will remain in its grip for many years.

Given that the cost of capital will be very high, and there will be little purchasing power, proposed solutions which are capital-intensive will lie outside solution space.

Tune back in tomorrow for The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon .