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The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope | Our Finite World

The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope | Our Finite World.

There is a lot of confusion about which limit we are reaching with respect to oil supply. There seems to be a huge amount of “reserves,” and oil production seems to be increasing right now, so people can’t imagine that there might be a near term problem. There are at least three different views regarding the nature of the limit:

  1. Climate Change. There is no limit on oil production within the foreseeable future. Oil prices can be expected to keep rising. With higher prices, alternative fuels and higher cost extraction techniques will become available. The main concern is climate change. The only reason that oil production would drop is because we have found a way to use less oil because of  climate change concerns, and choose not to extract oil that seems to be available.
  2. Limit Based on Geology (“Peak Oil”). In each oil field, production tends to rise for a time and then fall. Therefore, in total, world oil production will most likely begin to fall at some point, because of technological limits on extraction. In fact, this limit seems quite close at hand. High oil prices may play a role as well.
  3. Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough. We need high oil prices to keep oil extraction up, but as we reach diminishing returns with respect to oil extraction, oil prices don’t rise high enough to keep extraction at the required level. If oil prices do rise very high, there are feedback loops that lead to more recession and job layoffs and less “demand for oil” (really, oil affordability) among potential purchasers of oil. One major cut-off on oil supply is inadequate funds for reinvestment, because of low oil prices.

Why “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough” Is the Real Limit

In my view, our real concern should be the third item above, “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough.” The problem is caused by a mismatch between wages (which are not growing very quickly) and the cost of oil extraction (which is growing quickly). If oil prices rose as fast as extraction costs, they would leave workers with a smaller and smaller percentage of their wages to spend on food, clothing, and other necessities–something that doesn’t work for very long. Let me explain what happens.

Because of diminishing returns, the cost of oil extraction keeps rising. It is hard for oil prices to increase enough to provide an adequate profit for producers, because if they did, workers would get poorer and poorer. In fact, oil prices already seem to be too low. In years past, oil companies found that the price they sold oil for was sufficient (a) to cover the complete costs of extraction, (b) to pay dividends to stockholders, (c) to pay required governmental taxes, and (d) to provide enough funds for investment in new wells, in order to  keep production level, or even increase it.  Now, because of the rapidly rising cost of new extraction, oil companies are finding that they are coming up short in this process.

Oil companies have begun returning money to stockholders in increased dividends, rather than investing in projects which are likely to be unprofitable at current oil prices. See Oil companies rein in spending to save cash for dividends. If our need for investment dollars is escalating because of diminishing returns in oil extraction, but oil companies are reining in spending for investments because they don’t think they can make an adequate return at current oil prices, this does not bode well for future oil extraction.

A related problem is debt limits for oil companies. If cash flow does not provide sufficient funds for investment, increased debt can be used to make up the difference. The problem is that credit limits are soon reached, leading to a need to cut back on new projects. This is particularly a concern where high cost investment is concerned, such as oil from shale formations. A rise in interest rates would also be a problem, because it would raise costs, leading to a higher required oil price for profitability. The debt problem affects high priced oil investments in other countries as well.  OGX, the second largest oil company in Brazil, recently filed for bankruptcy, after it ran up too much debt.

National oil companies don’t explain that they are finding it hard to generate enough cash flow for further investment. They also don’t explain that they are having a hard time finding sites to drill that will be profitable at current prices.  Instead, we are seeing more countries with national oil companies looking for outside investors, including Brazil andMexico. Brazil received only one bid, and that for the minimum amount, indicating that oil companies making the bids do not have high confidence that investment will be profitable, either. Meanwhile, newspapers spin the story in a totally misleading way, such as, Mexico Gears Up for an Oil Boom of Its Own.

US natural gas is another product with a similar problem: the price is not high enough to justify new production, especially for shale gas producers. The huge resource that some say is there is simply too expensive to extract at current prices. Would-be natural gas producers cannot tell us this. Instead, we find a recent quote in the Wall Street Journal saying:

“We are not dealing with an era of scarcity, we are dealing with a situation of abundance,” Ken Cohen, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, said in an interview. “We need to rethink the regulatory scheme and the statutory scheme on the books.”

Cohen could explain that without natural gas exports, there is no way the natural gas price will rise high enough for Exxon-Mobil to extract the resource at a profit. Without exports, Exxon Mobil will lose money on the extraction, or more likely, will have to leave the natural gas in the ground. With low prices, the huge resource that Obama has talked about is simply a myth–the prices need to be higher. Of course, no one tells us the real story–it seems better to let people think that the issue is too much natural gas, not that it can’t be extracted at the current price. The stories offered to the news media are simply ways to convince us that exports make sense. Readers are not aware how much stories can be “spun” to make the current situation sound quite different from what it really is.

What Goes Wrong with “Climate Change” and “Limit Based on Geology” Views

The Illusion of Reserves. Oil and gas reserves may seem to be “be there,” but a lot of conditions need to be in place for them to actually be extracted. Clearly, the price needs to be high enough, both for current extraction and to fund new investment. Other conditions need to be in place as well: Debt needs to be available, and it needs to be available at a sufficiently low rate of interest to keep costs down. There needs to be political stability in the country in question. Something as simple as a continuation of the uprisings associated with the Arab Spring of 2010 could lead to the inability to extract reserves that seem to be present. Other requirements include availability of water for fracking and the availability of skilled workers and drilling rigs.

In the past, we have been far enough away from limits that issues such as these have not been a big problem. But as we get closer to limits and stretch our capabilities, these become more of a problem. Right now, availability of debt at low interest rates is a particularly important issue, as is the need for adequate oil company profitability–things that are easy to overlook.

Wrong Economic Views Leading to Wrong Oil Views. Economists have put together economic models based on a world without limits. A world without limits is the easy approach, because mathematical relationships are much simpler in a world without limits: a relationship which held in 1800 is expected to hold in 1970 or in 2050.  A world without limits never offends politicians, because growth always seems to be possible, meaning a never-ending supply of jobs and of goods and services for constituents. A model without limits produces the simple relationships that we are accustomed to, such as “Inadequate supply will lead to a rise in price, and this in turn will tend to create greater supply or substitutes.” Unfortunately, these models omit many important variables and thus are inadequate representations of the world we live in today.

In a world with limits, there are feedback loops that cause high oil prices to lead to lower wages and more unemployment in oil importing countries. Thus “demand” can’t keep rising, because workers can’t afford the higher oil prices. Oil prices stagnate at a level that is too low to maintain adequate investment. High oil prices also feed back into slower economic growth and a need for ultra-low interest rates to raise demand for high-priced goods such as cars and homes.

When prices remain in the $100 barrel range, they are still high enough to damage the economy. Businesses are not much damaged, because they have ways they can work around higher oil prices, especially if interest rates are low.  Most of the ways businesses can work around high oil prices involve reducing wages to US workers–for example, outsourcing production to a lower cost country, or cutting the pay of workers, or laying off workers to match lower demand for goods. (Lower demand for goods tends to occur when oil prices rise, and businesses raise their prices to reflect the higher oil costs.)

Workers are still affected by costs in the $100 barrel range, and so are governments. Governments must pay out higher benefits than in the past, to keep the economy afloat. They must also keep interest rates very low, to try to keep demand for homes and cars as high as possible. The situation becomes very unstable, however, because very low interest rates depend on Quantitative Easing, and it does not appear to be possible to continue Quantitative Easing forever. Thus, interest rates will need to rise. Such a rise in interest rates is likely to push the country back into recession, because taxes will need to be higher (to cover the government’s higher debt costs) and because monthly payments on homes and new car purchases will tend to rise. The limit on oil production then becomes something very remote from geology–something like, “How long can interest rates remain low?” or “How long can we make our current economy function?”

The Interconnected Nature of the Economy. In my last post, I talked about the economy being a complex adaptive system. It is built from many parts (many businesses, laws, consumers, traditions, built infrastructure). It can operate within a range of conditions, but beyond that range it is subject to collapse. An ecosystem is a complex adaptive system. So is a human being, or any other kind of animal. Animals die when their complex adaptive system moves out of its range.

It is this interconnectedness of the economy that leads to the strange situation where something very remote from the real problem (oil limits) can lead to a collapse. Thus, it can be a rise in interest rates or a political collapse that ultimately brings the system down. The path of the downslope can be very different from what a person might expect, based on the naive view that the problems will simply relate to reduced supply of oil.

A Case Study of the Collapse of the Former Soviet Union 

The Soviet Union was major oil exporter and a military rival of the United States in the 1950s through 1980s. It also was the center of a huge economic system, involving many other countries. One thing that bound the countries together was the use of communism as its method of government; another was trade among countries. In effect, the group of communist countries had their own complex adaptive system. Things seemed to go fine for many years, but then in December 1991, the central government of the Soviet Union was dissolved, leaving the individual republics that made up the Former Soviet Union (FSU) on their own.

While there are many theories as to what all caused the collapse, it seems to me that low prices of oil played a major role. The reason why low oil prices are important is because in an oil exporting country, such as the FSU, oil export revenues represent a major part of government funding. If oil prices drop too low, there is a double problem: (1) it becomes unprofitable to drill new wells, so production drops and, (2) the revenue that is collected on existing wells drops too low. The problem is then a huge financial problem–not too different from the financial problem the US and many of the big oil importing countries are experiencing today.

Figure 1. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Figure 1. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

In this particular situation, oil prices (in inflation adjusted prices) hit a peak in 1980. Once oil prices hit a peak, FSU oil production very much flattened. There was a continued small rise until 1983, but without the very high prices available until 1980, aggressive investment in new oil extraction dropped back.

Not only did FSU oil production flatten, but FSU oil consumption also flattened, not long after oil production stopped rising (Figure 2). This flattening helped maintain exports and the taxes that could be collected on these exports.

Figure 2. Former Soviet Union Oil Production and Consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2013.

Figure 2. Former Soviet Union Oil Production and Consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2013.

Even though total exports were close to flat in the 1980s (difference between consumption and production), there were some countries where exports that were rising–for example North Korea, shown in Figure 4. This mean that oil exports for some allies needed to be cut back as early as 1981. Figure 3 shows the trend in oil consumption for some of FSU’s allies.

Figure 3. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 consumption for Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, based on EIA data.

Figure 3. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 consumption for Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, based on EIA data.

A person can see that oil consumption dropped off slowly at first, and increased around 1990. All of these countries saw their oil consumption drop by at least 40% by 2000. Bulgaria saw is oil consumption drop by 65% to 70%.

The FSU exported oil to other countries as well.  Two countries that we often hear about, Cuba and North Korea, were not affected in the 1980s (Figure 4). In fact, Cuba’s oil consumption never seems to have been severely affected. (It is possible that exports of manufactured goods from the FSU dropped, however.) Cuba’s drop-off in oil consumption since 2005 may be price-related.

Figure 4. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 oil consumption for Cuba and North Korea, based on EIA data.

Figure 4. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 oil consumption for Cuba and North Korea, based on EIA data.

North Korea’s oil consumption continued growing until 1991. Its drop-off was then very severe–a total of an 83% reduction between 1991 and 2010. In most of the countries where oil consumption dropped, consumption of other fossil fuels dropped as well, but generally not by as large percentages. North Korea experienced nearly a 50% drop in other fuel (mostly coal) consumption by 1998, but this has since somewhat reversed.

By 1991, the FSU was in poor financial condition, partly because of the low oil prices, and partly because its oil exports had started dropping. FSU’s oil production left its plateau and started dropping about 1988 (Figure 2).  The actual drop in FSU oil production meant that oil consumption for the FSU needed to drop as well–a big problem because industry depended upon this oil. The break-up of the FSU was a solution to these problems because (1) it eliminated the cost of the extra layer of government and (2) it made it easier to shift oil consumption among the member republics, so that those republics that produced more oil could keep it for their own use, rather than sending it to republics which did not produce oil. This shortchanged non-oil producing republics, such as the Ukraine and Belarus.

If we look at oil consumption for a few of the republics that were previously part of the FSU, we see that oil consumption was fairly flat, then dropped off quickly, after 1991.

Figure 5. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1985 oil production for Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Figure 5. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1985 oil production for Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

By 1996 (only 5 years after 1991), oil consumption had dropped by 78% for the Ukraine, by 61%  for Belarus, and by “only” 47% for Russia, which is an oil-producing state. At least part of the reason for the fast drop off was the fact that in the years immediately after 1991, oil production for the FSU dropped by about 10% per year, necessitating a quick drop off in consumption, especially if the country was to continue to make some money from exports. The 10% drop-off in oil production suggests that the decline in oil production was more than would be expected from geological decline alone. If the decline were for geological reasons only, without new drilling, one might the expect the drop off to be in the 4% to 6% range.

When oil consumption dropped greatly, population tended to decline (Figure 6). The decline started earliest in the countries where the oil consumption drop was earliest (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria). The steepest drop-offs in population occur in the Ukraine and Bulgaria–the  countries with the largest percentage drops in oil consumption.

Figure 6. Population as percent of 1985 population, for selected countries, based on EIA data.

Figure 6. Population as percent of 1985 population, for selected countries, based on EIA data.

Some of the population drop is from emigration. Some of it is from poorer health conditions. For example, Russia used to provide potable water for its citizens, but it no longer does. Some is from conditions such as alcoholism. I haven’t shown the population change for North Korea. It actually continued to increase, but at a much lower rate of growth than previously. Cuba’s population has begun to fall since 2005.

GDP growth for the countries shown has tended to lag behind world economic growth (Figure 7).

Figure 7. GDP compared to world GDP - Change since 1985, based on USDA Real GDP data.

Figure 7. GDP compared to world GDP – Change since 1985, based on USDA Real GDP data.

Nearly all of the countries listed above have had financial problems, at different times.

Belarus’s GDP seems to be doing better than the rest on Figure 7. Belarus, like the Ukraine, is a pipeline transit country for Russia. In Belarus, natural gas consumption has increased, even as oil consumption has decreased. This increase is likely helping the  country industrialize. Inflation occurred at the rate of 51.9% in 2012 according to the CIA World Fact Book. This high inflation rate may be distorting indications.

Conclusion

We can’t know exactly what path our economy will follow in the future. I expect, though, that the path of the FSU and its trading partners is closer to the path we will be following than most forecasts we hear today. Most of us haven’t followed the FSU story closely, because we wrote off most of their problems to deficiencies of communism, without realizing that there was a major oil component as well.

The FSU situation may, in fact, be better that what the Industrialized West is facing in the next few years. The FSU had the rest of the world to support it, offering investment capital and new models for development. Oil production for Russia was able to rebound when oil prices rose again in the early 2000s. As situations around the world decline, it will be harder to “bootstrap.”

One of the things that hampered the recovery of the FSU was the fact that the communist economic model proved not to be competitive with the capitalistic model. In a way, the situation we are facing today is not all that different, except that our challenge this time is competition from Asian economies that we have not had to compete with until the early 2000s.

Asian economies have several cost advantages relative to the Industrialized West:

(1) Asian competitor countries are generally warmer than the industrialized West. Because of this, Asian workers can live more comfortably in flimsy homes. They also don’t need much salary to cover heating and can more easily commute by bicycle. It is often possible to produce two crops a year, making productivity of land and of farmers higher than it otherwise would be. In other words, Asian competitor countries have an energy subsidy from the sun that the Industrialized West does not.

(2) Asian competitors are often willing to ignore pollution problems, reducing their costs relative to the West.

(3) Asian competitors generally depend on coal to a greater extent than we do, keeping their costs down, relative to countries that use higher-priced fuels.

(4) Asian competitors are less generous with employee benefits such as health care and pensions, also holding costs down.

Economists, through their wholehearted endorsement of globalization, have pushed industrialized countries into a competitive situation which we are certain to lose. While oil prices tend to push wages down, competition with Asian countries makes the downward push on wages even greater. These lower wages are part of what are pushing us toward collapse.

To solve our problems, economists have proposed a shift toward renewable energy and the implementation of carbon taxes. Unless these changes are done in a way that actually reduces costs, these “solutions” are likely to make us even less competitive with low-cost competitors such as those in Asia. Thus, they are likely to push us toward collapse more quickly.

To support this position, economists point to climate change models based on the view that the burning of fossil fuels will increase greatly in the decades again. In fact, if collapse occurs in the next few years in the Industrialized West, carbon emissions are likely to fall quickly. Because of the interconnectedness of the world system, the rest of the world will likely also encounter collapse in not many more years, and their carbon emissions are likely to fall quickly, as well. Even the “Peak Oil” emissions that are used in climate change models are way too high, relative to what seems likely to be the case.

If I am right about collapse being a possibility for the Industrialized West, then our problem will be that we as nations become so poor that we can no longer find goods to trade with Asian countries. Most of our goods will not be competitive as exports, and we won’t be able to simply add more debt to rectify the situation. Thus, we will become unable to buy many goods we depend on, including computers and replacement parts for wind turbines.

Breakups of many types are possible. The European Union may cease to operate in the way it does today. The International Monetary Fund is likely to cease operating in the way it does today, because of the collapse of many of its members who provide funding. The US will be subject to strains of the type that lead to break up. If nothing else, oil producing states will want to withdraw, so that they are not, in effect, subsidizing the rest of the US economy.

It is unfortunate that economists are tied to their hopelessly out-of-date economic models.  Part of the problem is that the story of “collapse around the corner” doesn’t sell well. The alternate story economists have come up with really isn’t right, but it is pleasing to the many who benefit from subsidies for renewables, and it makes politicians look like they are doing something. The specter of climate change in the distance gives an excuse to cut back oil use, among other things, so has at least some theoretical benefit.

It is unfortunate, however, that we cannot look at the real problem. Unless we can understand the problem as it really is, it is impossible to find solutions that might actually be helpful.

 

Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession; Eventually Collapse | Our Finite World

Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession; Eventually Collapse | Our Finite World. (source)

How does the world reach limits? This is a question that few dare to examine. My analysis suggests that these limits will come in a very different way than most have expected–through financial stress that ultimately relates to rising unit energy costs, plus the need to use increasing amounts of energy for additional purposes:

  • To extract oil and other minerals from locations where extraction is very difficult, such as in shale formations, or very deep under the sea;
  • To mitigate water shortages and pollution issues, using processes such as desalination and long distance transport of food; and
  • To attempt to reduce future fossil fuel use, by building devices such as solar panels and electric cars that increase fossil fuel energy use now in the hope of reducingenergy use later.

We have long known that the world is likely to eventually reach limits. In 1972, the bookThe Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others modeled the likely impact of growing population, limited resources, and rising pollution in a finite world. They considered a number of scenarios under a range of different assumptions. These models strongly suggested the world economy would begin to hit limits in the first half of the 21st century and would eventually collapse.

The indications of the 1972 analysis were considered nonsense by most. Clearly, the world would work its way around limits of the type suggested. The world would find additional resources in short supply. It would become more efficient at using resources and would tackle the problem of rising pollution. The free market would handle any problems that might arise.

The Limits to Growth analysis modeled the world economy in terms of flows; it did not try to model the financial system. In recent years, I have been looking at the situation and have discovered that as we hit limits in a finite world, the financial system is the most vulnerable part because of the system because it ties everything else together. Debt in particular is vulnerable because the time-shifting aspect of debt “works” much better in a rapidly growing economy than in an economy that is barely growing or shrinking.

The problem that now looks like it has the potential to push the world into financial collapse is something no one would have thought of—high oil prices that take a slice out of the economy, without anything to show in return. Consumers find that their own salaries do not rise as oil prices rise. They find that they need to cut back on discretionary spending if they are to have adequate funds to pay for necessities produced using oil. Food is one such necessity; oil is used to run farm equipment, make herbicides and pesticides, and transport finished food products. The result of a cutback in discretionary spending is recession or near recession, and less job availability. Governments find themselves in  financial distress from trying to mitigate the recession-like impacts without adequate tax revenue.

One of our big problems now is a lack of cheap substitutes for oil. Highly touted renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV are not cheap. They also do not substitute directly for oil, and they increase near-term fossil fuel consumption. Ethanol can act as an “oil extender,” but it is not cheap. Battery powered cars are also not cheap.

The issue of rising oil prices is really a two-sided issue. The least expensive sources of oil tend to be extracted first. Thus, the cost of producing oil tends to rise over time. As a result, oil producers tend to require ever-rising oil prices to cover their costs. It is the interaction of these two forces that leads to the likelihood of financial collapse in the near term:

  1. Need for ever-rising oil prices by oil producers.
  2. The adverse impact of high-energy prices on consumers.

If a cheap substitute for oil had already come along in adequate quantity, there would be no problem. The issue is that no suitable substitute has been found, and financial problems are here already. In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.

The Role of Inexpensive Energy

The fact that few stop to realize is that energy of the right type is absolutely essential for making goods and services of all kinds.  Even if the services are simply typing numbers into a computer, we need energy of precisely the right kind for several different purposes:

  1. To make the computer and transport it to the current location.
  2. To build the building where the worker works.
  3. To light the building where the worker works.
  4. To heat or cool the building where the worker works.
  5. To transport the worker to the location where he works.
  6. To produce the foods that the worker eats.
  7. To produce the clothing that the worker wears.

Furthermore, the energy used needs to be inexpensive, for many reasons—so that the worker’s salary goes farther; so that the goods or services created are competitive in a world market; and so that governments can gain adequate tax revenue from taxing energy products. We don’t think of fossil fuel energy products as being a significant source of tax revenue, but they very often are, especially for exporters (Rodgers map of oil “government take” percentages).

Some of the energy listed above is paid for by the employer; some is paid for by the employee. This difference is irrelevant, since all are equally essential. Some energy is omitted from the above list, but is still very important. Energy to build roads, electric transmission lines, schools, and health care centers is essential if the current system is to be maintained. If energy prices rise, taxes and fees to pay for basic services such as these will likely need to rise.

How “Growth” Began

For most primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the number of the species fluctuates up and down within a range. Total population isn’t very high. If human population followed that of other large primates, there wouldn’t be more than a few million humans worldwide. They would likely live in one geographical area.

How did humans venture out of this mold? In my view, a likely way that humans were able to improve their dominance over other animals and plants was through the controlled use of fire, a skill they learned over one million years ago  (Luke 2012).  Controlled use of fire could be used for many purposes, including cooking food, providing heat in cool weather, and scaring away wild animals.

The earliest use of fire was in some sense very inexpensive. Dry sticks and leaves were close at hand. If humans used a technique such as twirling one stick against another with the right technique and the right kind of wood, such a fire could be made in less than a minute (Hough 1890). Once humans had discovered how to make fire, they could use it to leverage their meager muscular strength.

The benefits of the controlled use of fire are perhaps not as obvious to us as they would have been to the early users. When it became possible to cook food, a much wider variety of potential foodstuffs could be eaten. The nutrition from food was also better. There is even some evidence that cooking food allowed the human body to evolve in the direction of smaller chewing and digestive apparatus and a bigger brain (Wrangham 2009). A bigger brain would allow humans to outsmart their prey. (Dilworth 2010)

Cooking food allowed humans to spend much less time chewing food than previously—only one-tenth as much time according to one study (4.7% of daily activity vs. 48% of daily activity) (Organ et al. 2011). The reduction in chewing time left more time other activities, such as making tools and clothing.

Humans gradually increased their control over many additional energy sources. Training dogs to help in hunting came very early. Humans learned to make sailboats using wind energy. They learned to domesticate plants and animals, so that they could provide more food energy in the location where it was needed. Domesticated animals could also be used to pull loads.

Humans learned to use wind mills and water mills made from wood, and eventually learned to use coal, petroleum (also called oil), natural gas, and uranium. The availability of fossil fuels vastly increased our ability to make substances that require heating, including metals, glass, and concrete. Prior to this time, wood had been used as an energy source, leading to widespread deforestation.

With the availability of metals, glass, and concrete in quantity, it became possible to develop modern hydroelectric power plants and transmission lines to transmit this electricity. It also became possible to build railroads, steam-powered ships, better plows, and many other useful devices.

Population rose dramatically after fossil fuels were added, enabling better food production and transportation. This started about 1800.

Figure 1. World population based on data from "Atlas of World History," McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978  and Wikipedia-World Population.

Figure 1. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and UN Population Estimates.

 

All of these activities led to a very long history of what we today might call economic growth. Prior to the availability of fossil fuels, the majority of this growth was in population, rather than a major change in living standards. (The population was still very low compared to today.) In later years, increased energy use was still associated with increased population, but it was also associated with an increase in creature comforts—bigger homes, better transportation, heating and cooling of homes, and greater availability of services like education, medicine, and financial services.

How Cheap Energy and Technology Combine to Lead to Economic Growth

Without external energy, all we have is the energy from our own bodies. We can perhaps leverage this energy a bit by picking up a stick and using it to hit something, or by picking up a rock and throwing it. In total, this leveraging of our own energy doesn’t get us very far—many animals do the same thing. Such tools provide some leverage, but they are not quite enough.

The next step up in leverage comes if we can find some sort of external energy to use to supplement our own energy when making goods and services.  One example might be heat from a fire built with sticks used for baking bread; another example might be energy from an animal pulling a cart. This additional energy can’t take too much of (1) our human energy, (2) resources from the ground, or (3) financial capital, or we will have little to invest what we really want—technology that gives us the many goods we use, and services such as education, health care, and recreation.

The use of inexpensive energy led to a positive feedback loop: the value of the goods and service produced was sufficient to produce a profit when all costs were considered, thanks to the inexpensive cost of the energy used. This profit allowed additional investment, and contributed to further energy development and further growth. This profit also often led to rising salaries. The additional cheap energy use combined with greater technology produced the impression that humans were becoming more “productive.”

For a very long time, we were able to ramp up the amount of energy we used, worldwide. There were many civilizations that collapsed along the way, but in total, for all civilizations in the world combined, energy consumption, population, and goods and services produced tended to rise over time.

In the 1970s, we had our first experience with oil limits. US oil production started dropping in 1971. The drop in oil production set us up as easy prey for an oil embargo in 1973-1974, and oil prices spiked. We got around this problem, and more high price problems in the late 1970s by

  1. Starting work on new inexpensive oil production in the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico.
  2. Adopting more fuel-efficient cars, already available in Japan.
  3. Switching from oil to nuclear or coal for electricity production.
  4. Cutting back on oil intensive activities, such as building new roads and doing heavy manufacturing in the United States.

The economy eventually more or less recovered, but men’s wages stagnated, and women found a need to join the workforce to maintain the standards of living of their families.  Oil prices dropped back, but not quite a far as to prior level. The lack of energy intensive industries (powered by cheap oil) likely contributed to the stagnation of wages for men.

Recently, since about 2004, we have again been encountering high oil prices. Unfortunately, the easy options to fix them are mostly gone. We have run out of cheap energy options—tight oil from shale formations isn’t cheap. Wages again are stagnating, even worse than before. The positive feedback loop based on low energy prices that we had been experiencing when oil prices were low isn’t working nearly as well, and economic growth rates are falling.

The technical name for the problem we are running into with oil is diminishing marginal returns.  This represents a situation where more and more inputs are used in extraction, but these additional inputs add very little more in the way of the desired output, which is oil. Oil companies find that an investment of a given amount, say $1,000 dollars, yields a much smaller amount of oil than it used to in the past—often less than a fourth as much. There are often more up-front expenses in drilling the wells, and less certainty about the length of time that oil can be extracted from a new well.

Oil that requires high up-front investment needs a high price to justify its extraction. When consumers pay the high oil price, the amount they have for discretionary goods drops.  The feedback loop starts working the wrong direction—in the direction of more layoffs, and lower wages for those working. Companies, including oil companies, have a harder time making a profit. They find outsourcing labor costs to lower-cost parts of the world more attractive.

Can this Growth Continue Indefinitely?

Even apart from the oil price problem, there are other reasons to think that growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world.  For one thing, we are already running short of fresh water in many parts of the world, including China, India and the Middle East.  Topsoil is eroding, and is being depleted of minerals. In addition, if population continues to rise, we will need a way to feed all of these people—either more arable land, or a way of producing more food per acre.

Pollution is another issue. One type is acidification of oceans; another leads to dead zones in oceans. Mercury pollution is a widespread problem. Fresh water that is available is often very polluted. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to concerns about climate change.

There is also an issue with humans crowding out other species. In the past, there have been five widespread die-offs of species, called “Mass Extinctions.” Humans seem now to be causing a Sixth Mass Extinction. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge  describes the Sixth Mass Extinction as follows:

  • Phase One began when first humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago. [We were still hunter-gatherers at that point, but we killed off large species for food as we went.]
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago, when humans turned to agriculture.

According to Eldredge, once we turned to agriculture, we stopped living within local ecosystems. We converted land to produce only one or two crops, and classified all unwanted species as “weeds”.  Now with fossil fuels, we are bringing our attack on other species to a new higher level. For example, there is greater clearing of land for agriculture, overfishing, and too much forest use by humans (Eldredge 2005).

In many ways, the pattern of human population growth and growth of use of resources by humans are like a cancer. Growth has to stop for one reason or other—smothering other species, depletion of resources, or pollution.

Many Competing Wrong Diagnoses of our Current Problem

The problem we are running into now is not an easy one to figure out because the problem crosses many disciplines. Is it a financial problem? Or a climate change problem? Or an oil depletion problem? It is hard to find individuals with knowledge across a range of fields.

There is also a strong bias against really understanding the problem, if the answer appears to be in the “very bad to truly awful” range. Politicians want a problem that is easily solvable. So do sustainability folks, and peak oil folks, and people writing academic papers. Those selling newspapers want answers that will please their advertisers. Academic book publishers want books that won’t scare potential buyers.

Another issue is that nature works on a flow basis. All we have in a given year in terms of resources is what we pull out in that year. If we use more resources for one thing–extracting oil, or making solar panels, it leaves less for other purposes. Consumers also work mostly from the income from their current paychecks. Even if we come up with what looks like wonderful solutions, in terms of an investment now for payback later, nature and consumers aren’t very co-operative in producing them. Consumers need ever-more debt, to make the solutions sort of work. If one necessary resource–cheap oil–is in short supply, nature dictates that other resource uses shrink, to work within available balances. So there is more pressure toward collapse.

Virtually no one understands our complex problem. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we can fix our problem, none of which make sense:

“Humans don’t need fossil fuels; we can just walk away.” – But how do we feed 7 billion people? How long would our forests last before they are used for fuel?

“More wind and solar PV” – But these use fossil fuels now, and don’t fix oil prices.

“Climate change is our only problem.”—Climate change needs to be considered in conjunction with other limits, many of which are hitting very soon. Maybe there is good news about climate, but it likely will be more than offset by bad news from limits not considered in the model.

 

Resource Insights: Of boiling frogs and oil prices

Resource Insights: Of boiling frogs and oil prices.

 

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