While there are no new ideas in this essay, I decided to post it because it is a well written primer on the intersecting issues of wealth, energy, debt, and limits to growth.
Even though we don’t know precisely how the future will unfold, we know a few things about it:
- Of the 7.5 billion humans on the planet, virtually every individual wants to enjoy a high-energy consumption “middle-class” lifestyle. As a generous estimate, 1.5 billion people enjoy a high-energy consumption lifestyle today; the remaining six billion are aspirants hungry for all the goodies enjoyed by the 1.5 billion—all goodies based on affordable, abundant energy.
- Our dependence on debt to fuel growth—more extraction of resources, more energy, more manufacturing, more consumption and more earned income to pay for all this expansion of debt and consumption—has built-in limits: debt accrues interest and principal payments, which reduce the remaining income available to spend on consumption. Our dependence on fast-rising debt just to maintain low rates of growth eventually limits our ability to pay for more consumption/growth. When most income is devoted to servicing debt, there isn’t enough left to buy more stuff or support additional debt.
- The debt needed to move the growth needle is expanding at a much higher rate than the growth it generates. While growth is stagnant, debt is expanding by leaps and bounds to unprecedented levels. (Global Debt Hits A New Record High Of $217 Trillion; 327% Of GDP)
- Wages are stagnating for the bottom 90% of the workforce. We can quibble about the causes, but there is no plausible evidence to support a belief that this trend will magically reverse.
- The cost of the most valuable energy–high-density, easy to transport—will slowly but surely become more expensive as the cheap, easy-to-extract energy sources are depleted, notwithstanding the temporary boost provided by the fast-depleting wells of the fracking “miracle.”
- There are limits on our exploitation of resources such as fresh water and wild fisheries. Humans can print currency (money) but we can’t print fresh water, energy, wild fisheries, etc. If one unit of currency currently buys one liter of petrol, printing 10 more units of money doesn’t create 10 more liters of fuel.
- Creating currency out of thin air isn’t free in our system: all new currency is loaned into existence and accrues interest. As a result, all currency is a claim on future earnings. If we borrow enough from the future, and earnings remain flat or decline, eventually there’s not enough income left to support the debt service and the expanding consumption the status quo needs to keep itself glued together.