Brilliant new talk by my favorite alien engineer, Jean-Marc Jancovici.
If you only have 90 minutes to spare, and you want to understand everything that matters about how the world works, and the nature of our overshoot predicament, and what we need to do to minimize future suffering, then this talk is the best use of your time.
Jean-Marc Jancovici is an advisor to the French government on climate change and energy as part of the French High Council for Climate. He is a founding partner of Carbon 4, a Paris-based data consultancy specializing in low carbon transition and the physical risks of climate change (www.carbone4.com). He is also the founder and president of The Shift Project, a Paris-based think tank advocating for a low carbon economy (www.theshiftproject.org). Jean-Marc Jancovici also serves as an associate professor at Mines ParisTech.
The thermo-industrial development of our society has been possible due to resource extraction and the transformation of our environment. Unfortunately, it has led to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse. Humanity is paying the consequences for technical and technological progress. Thus, can technology still save us from climate change?
Jean-Marc Jancovici will address this question through the paradigm of energy. He will first detail how modern society is structured around thermal and nuclear energies, and will then discuss the impact of this structure on global climate and society. Finally, Jean-Marc Jancovici will conclude by exploring the trade-offs between economic growth and sustainable climate stewardship.
Thank you to X for finding this new talk by professor Tim Garrett.
Garrett has developed the most significant and useful theory for explaining the relationship between climate change and the economy.
In this talk, Garrett explains his theory and tears a strip off climate scientists for their unscientific beliefs.
Garrett, in the Q&A, discusses the disgraceful manner that climate scientists have responded to his theory. I think the fact that almost all climate scientists ignore or deny Garrett’s theory is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence in support of Varki’s MORT theory.
Paraphrasing Garrett, an educated person would not infer from the above plot that human agency has an impact on climate trajectories. Instead, a naive person might reasonably conclude that CO2 emissions are caused by COP climate change accords. 🙂
Garrett used to summarize the conclusion of his theory as:
US$1 (1990) = 9.7 mW
Garrett is now expressing the same conclusion as:
5.8 gigawatts = US$1 trillion (2010)
Garrett observes that a single atmospheric chemist stationed on Mauna Loa would more accurately measure global GDP than the tens of thousands of idiot economists we employ.
One component of Biden’s climate change plan calls for more efficient appliances, machines, and buildings. Garrett shows that this piece of Biden’s plan will make climate change worse because the more efficient we are, the more we grow.
Garrett does not discuss it, but Biden’s plan would help if we tax away all of the savings that result from improved efficiency and use the taxes to pay down public debt. Biden of course would not have been elected if he included this in his plan.
Garrett also does not discuss the simplest solution for reducing CO2 emissions, which one person at a keyboard can implement: increase the interest rate. Garrett’s theory predicts a higher interest rate will reduce emissions because our wealth would reduce through defaults.
Garrett correctly observes that our current path of trying to switch to renewable energy will increase the combustion of fossil energy, but he doesn’t add the important caveat, until fossil energy depletion collapses our economy.
Garrett remains blind to one key piece of the puzzle: The depletion of affordable fossil energy has created a global debt bubble because the cost of extracting fossil energy is now higher than what consumers can afford. When this debt bubble pops, our wealth and CO2 emissions will decline, a lot. Curious minds want to know if the bubble will pop soon and fast enough to retain a climate compatible with a much poorer civilization.
My take away: The only path to maintaining our wealth and reducing CO2 emissions in time to possibly prevent a climate incompatible with civilization is to switch to nuclear power more quickly than we can possibly afford. And so our wealth will decline regardless of what we do.
One path, if we somehow breakthrough our genetic tendency to deny reality, might be a managed and civil decline. The other path will be chaotic and uncivil.
You can find more work by Garrett that I’ve posted here.
P.S. I note from the title slide that economist Steve Keen was a collaborator. Steve Keen, in case you’re not aware, is one of the only economists on the planet with a clue. The behavior of economists differs from climate scientists in that idiocy explains the former and denial the latter. Here is some of Steve Keen’s work that I’ve posted.
I watched the new documentary Hot Money by Susan Kucera tonight.
An intelligent world-wise father (General Wesley Clark) and his son discuss some of the problems we face with many smart participants. I don’t think they interviewed a single idiot, which was refreshing.
They know something is seriously wrong and make an honest attempt to connect the dots. They come tantalizingly close to a complete picture of reality, but miss the all important overshoot drivers of over population and declining returns from non-renewable energy.
Which of course means they understand everything, except what matters.
Nevertheless, Hot Money is excellent and worth watching because it has a lot of intelligent substance.
I also think it indicates a growing mainstream awareness of how close we are to collapsing, and I suspect herd awareness (coupled with denial of the real causes) may be the trigger.
Some of the important points made:
the financial system is a bomb waiting to explode, climate change may be the trigger
climate change is real and very serious
droughts, floods, and fires are a big problem now
it now takes more than 3 dollars of debt to create 1 dollar of growth, it used to take less than 1 dollar of debt to create 1 dollar of growth
farmers are struggling and failing due to climate change, debt, high input costs, and low crop prices
real incomes and living standards are falling despite lower taxes than the 50’s
some young couples are not having children because they see a terrible future
it was much easier to make a profit in the good old days, doubly so if you were early enough to steal land from the aboriginals
companies now invest more money in stock buy-backs than R&D
there is no such thing as trickle down economics
the financial system is now too complex for its players to understand – it’s like trying to understand quantum mechanics when you don’t have high school physics
the planet is a finite physical system and the financial system is unbounded – the two systems are incompatible
Venezuela is a preview of where the USA is headed
if the government isn’t competent enough to deal with homelessness in L.A., how can it possibly deal effectively with COVID?
Americans live under the illusion that they are different and could never descend into the savagery they’ve witnessed elsewhere in the world
the Kosovo genocide was committed by and against people with homes, refrigerators, cars, kids in college, and who spoke the same language
people are turning on each other because the capitalist system is breaking down and climate change is causing scarcity
there will be a billion displaced people within 30 years
it’s unlikely the Romans could give us advice on how to avoid collapse
the wealth gap increases as a civilization collapses
many nest eggs will be wiped out when insurance companies won’t insure homes because of sea level rise
much of the oil industry’s infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise
rich people are not investing enough in renewable energy because they can make better returns elsewhere
governments must step up to invest in what needs to be done
most authorities think we have 30 years to act before civilization collapses, some people think it’s already too late
the most valuable thing in the world is oil reserves in the ground, but the damage burning oil causes is even higher – we must tax carbon energy
we need a cultural change to accept less – but that’s hard
nothing comes for free, everything costs energy
renewable energy cannot replace fossil energy and satisfy our greed, but it can help us survive
the food system is a huge consumer of energy (lots of interesting detail here)
our energy system is highly dependent on water which is being disrupted by climate change
we need to democratize the electric grid to accelerate renewable energy, but that requires a long range plan which we don’t have
we should tax pollution and use the funds to improve the grid and to pay farmers to sequester carbon
we will not be able to re-order our system until it crashes, but if we wait until we crash we’ll be too poor to fight climate change – it’ll be like asking Somalia to fight climate change
the final scene has the son arguing that we’re not facing reality; and the father arguing that we can use our democracy to solve the problems, fade to “The End?”
there is no one driving the bus, our leaders don’t have a plan
no mention of population reduction or peak oil, not even a whisper
P.S. Ugo Bardi is featured in a couple clips discussing the collapse of the Roman empire, how we may be starting down a Seneca cliff, and the viability of renewable energy.
P.P.S. My favorite central banker, Canadian Mark Carney, has a clip in which he says the main role of central banks is to pull wealth from the future into the present.
P.P.P.S The cost of insurance for the small farm I assist more than doubled this year to over $6,000, I suspect due to climate change. We have to sell a lot of lettuce to earn $6,000. 😦
With wit, satire, and historical context, Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Wesley Clark and his son Wes Clark Jr. take us on a journey through the financial circulatory system connecting farmers, homeowners, bankers, academics, and business professionals in a tale that explains the knot of economic forces that can lead to collapse and how to untie it.
SYNOPSIS Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Wesley Clark and his son Wes Clark Jr. take us on a journey through the complicated realities of our financial system and its profound exposure to climate change. Hot Money outs the whole game, the whole charade, the whole crapshoot of the money system with all the humor and intelligence of a New Yorker cartoon. Combined with the wisdom of international business experts and academics, Hot Money is rich with historical context. It severs the knot of economic and political forces that may lead to societal collapse.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT I met General Clark and his son Wes Jr. while filming Living In the Future’s Past, then met the General again at a speaking engagement two years later and the kernel of a film planted itself in my mind – a conversation between a father and son on how climate change will affect our financial system. It seemed logical to follow up to the introspective Living In The Future’s Past with a nuts and bolts view of how the machinery of our money system contributes and reacts to climate change. We lined up a broad and diverse cast of experts who’ve spent their lives doing the work. What we could see emerging was an easy to understand story whose depth is masked by its light-hearted breeziness. The Covid 19 pandemic cut short our filming and I turned to a New Yorker cartoonist to visualize concepts so somebody like me, who doesn’t have an MBA or ever worked in finance, can be simultaneously entertained and enlightened about one of the prime forces driving our world – debt.
Hot Money is an important film for right now as America stands on the brink of conflict. Many people lack context interpreting the world and this documentary delivers it. Conversations taped more than a year ago about wildfires making homes impossible to insure and the ripple effect that will roar through the financial system seem as startlingly prescient as the scenes describing populist breakdown in a country like Venezuela and how it can happen here. Hot Money offers a glimpse into our future and a chance to avoid the dangerous course we are on. To solve a problem we have to understand it.
Thanks to friend and retired blogger Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End for bringing this excellent new talk by professor William Rees to my attention.
Rees discusses our severe state of ecological overshoot and the behaviors that prevent us from taking any useful action to make the future less bad.
Rees thinks there are two key behaviors responsible for our predicament:
Base nature, which we share with all other species, to use all available resources. Most people call this the Maximum Power Principle.
Creative nurture. Our learned culture defines our reality and we live this constructed reality as if it were real. “When faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” – Wexler.
I don’t disagree with Rees on the existence or role of these behaviors, but we also need Varki’s MORT theory to explain how denial of unpleasant realties evolved and is symbiotic with our uniquely powerful intelligence, and other unique human behaviors, such as our belief in gods and life after death.
Some interesting points made by Rees:
The 2017 human eco-footprint exceeds biocapacity by 73%.
Half the fossil fuels and many other resources ever used by humans have been consumed in just the past 30 years.
Efficiency enables more consumption.
The past 7 years are the warmest 7 years on record.
Wild populations of birds, fish, mammals, and amphibians have declined 60% since 1970. Populations of many insects are down about 50%.
The biomass of humans and their livestock make up 95-99% of all vertebrate biomass on the planet.
Human population planning has declined from being the dominant policy lever in 1969 to the least researched in 2018.
The annual growth in wind and solar energy is about half the total annual growth in energy. In others words, “renewable” energy is not replacing fossil energy, it’s not even keeping up.
The recent expansion of the human enterprise resembles the “plague phase” of a one-off boom/bust population cycle.
50 years, 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements, and various scientists’ warnings have not reduced atmospheric carbon concentrations.
We are tracking to the Limit to Growth study’s standard model and should expect major systemic crashes in the next 40 to 50 years.
This is the new “age of unreason”: science denial and magical thinking.
Climate change is a serious problem but a mere symptom of the greater disease.
ZeroHedge, the successful bad boy financial news reporting site, is shifting to a subscription model.
I might subscribe if ZeroHedge knew what the fuck was going on in the world, but they’re as much in denial about human overshoot as the mainstream news outlets.
Granted, ZeroHedge is at least willing to report on the daily insanities of our monetary and financial systems, which everyone else conveniently ignores, and I do value some of their observations, but they assume some evil cabal of elites is plotting to enrich themselves, rather than understanding that we’ve hit limits to growth caused by non-renewable energy depletion (and soon other non-negotiable constraints like climate change), and central banks are desperately printing money and using every slight of hand they can think of to extend and pretend a little longer our system that requires growth not to collapse.
Basically ZeroHedge doesn’t have a clue, and they make a living by feeding the conspiracy hungry crowd that congregates there. Not only do they not make the world a better place, they foment social unrest to make it a worse place.
So no, I won’t be subscribing.
Where can you go for intelligent apolitical reality based news?
It’s very hard to find.
Nobody important talks about what matters, and I guess they wouldn’t be important if they did, because most people don’t want to know the truth.
When this website launched 12 years ago, little did we know – or expect – that it would grow to become one of the most popular and trafficked financial blogs, let alone websites, in the world. Since then, ZeroHedge has expanded from being focused on purely esoteric concepts in finance and capital markets to covering geopolitics, social, political (and recently, healthcare) matters (if for no other reason than the central bank takeover of markets has made discussing centrally-planned “markets” borderline absurd and often painfully boring).
In those twelve years we have had the pleasure of sharing hundreds of thousands of notable news items, events and market absurdities with you, our readers, creating a magnificent support base of millions of fans who – for one reason or another – come to this site daily, sometimes dozens of times. In that period we have, of course, also spawned countless critics and haters, and that’s perfectly normal: that’s what free speech is all about – the ability to exchange opinions, often in a less than glorified manner, in order to reach a consensus or optimal conclusion. After all, that is one of the anchors that made America great.
Which is why what troubles us most, far more than the Fed’s vain and futile attempt to control the business cycle and plan markets (for the eventual outcome, see USSR), are the creeping attempts by various multinational entities and corporations to quash free speech, both elsewhere and here. It started with Facebook, which in May 2019 became the first “social network” to ban ZeroHedge, only to reverse shortly after (admitting it had made a mistake); this was followed a little over half a year later by Twitter, which “permanently” banned our account, only to admit 6 months later that it had “made a mistake” and reinstated us. But barely had the digital ink on these “mistaken” attempts to censor free speech dried, when the world’s biggest online advertising monopoly, Google, took the unprecedented step of demonetizing the website (following a similar step taken by PayPal). Why? Because it disapproved of the language in our comments (how or why it picked on this website’s comment section as opposed to millions of others, we will never know). To avoid a shutdown, and against our wishes, we were forced to implement comment moderation as the alternative was insolvency. Also, contrary to occasional laughable rumors, we don’t and have never had access to outside capital – be it political or financial – and have been reliant on the same advertising model we have used since inception.
Needless to say, whether due to “mistakes” or overt attempts to demonetize us, the writing on the wall was clear: while they may be entirely within their rights to do whatever they want as “private” companies, pardon monopolies, the ‘social’ and ad-based gatekeepers of online content – the twitters, the googles, the facebooks of the world – had launched an overt crusade to upend the uncensored internet, to snuff out independent thought, contrarian views, and inconvenient opinions and create one giant echo chamber of consent straight out of George Orwell. To do that they would use any and every tool they have access to, and unfortunately we had to comply with the whims of these monopolies which nobody in Congress has the guts to challenge directly and to strip them of their too-big-to-question powers.
When Google suspended us in June we said that a standalone website was in the works, one which is funded not by advertising – and is thus beholden to the biased internet titans of the world – but by you, our readers.
We are launching that website today, call it ZeroHedge Premium for lack of a better word.
Here’s what will happen next.
We will maintain the traditional zerohedge.com website as is, without a paywall and with ads… but since it has ads, it will also maintain the comment moderation – that, as we explained in June, was a prerequisite demand by Google. But parallel with that we are launching a “premium” website, where subscribers will not only never again have to see one more ad but more importantly will have access to a fully unmoderated comment section.
Our hope is to eventually have enough subscribers so we can do away with advertising altogether – call it a real-time experiment in media for the censorship age. Because “mistakes” and events in the past several years have made it clear to us – and we hope to you – that there is no such thing as free speech any more; if you really want “free speech” you have to pay for it (in the case of ZeroHedge, the premium subscription will be $1/day – less than the proverbial cup of coffee). We also hope that enough people sign up allowing us to aggressively grow our team and expand our coverage, both thematically and geographically, so we can provide you with better content, better coverage, better everything.
Here is my simplified summary of Berman’s analysis:
both supply and demand for oil have recently fallen
oil demand has fallen more than oil supply
this despite an all-time record amount of debt conjured to stimulate the economy
which means the global economy is contracting and is in serious trouble
the contraction was underway before the virus – the virus accelerated but did not cause the contraction
the problem began in 1974 when oil prices increased above the level that the economy can grow without debt growing faster
we’re not going to run out of oil, we’re going to run out of people that can afford oil
the problem being geologic and thermodynamic in nature, has no business as usual fix, and will continue to worsen
Berman’s analysis is consistent with the conclusions of the other leading minds on the energy-economy relationship: Gail Tverberg, Tim Morgan, Nate Hagens, and Tim Garrett.
The most interesting question, by far, when viewed from 10,000 feet is why do none of our political or intellectual or business leaders understand the most important influence (energy) on the thing they care most about (economic growth)?
As an aside, recall that Eric Weinstein, the brilliant physicist/hedge fund manager whom I recently wrote about as a case study in denial believes correctly that economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s, but he doesn’t understand the cause despite thinking about it a lot. It’s no wonder that the much lesser intellects of almost all economists don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Berman believes that our economy, being a dissipative structure, will either collapse or spontaneously re-organize itself into a simpler form that uses less energy. I suppose the virus lockdown is a good example of a spontaneous lower energy re-organization. I put my money though on some form of collapse in the not too distant future. Despite a surfeit of entitled citizens, we could weather a significant reduction in living standards because we in the developed world consume so much more than we need to survive, however, the unprecedented debt bubble we have created by denying reality blocks a civil contraction.
Berman concludes that as the economy necessarily simplifies and we live much poorer lives, our energy mix will shift to lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. My response to this is maybe. It’s more likely that Berman is denying the reality of his own analysis.
I can see solar panels being used for low power/high impact applications like, for example, LED lighting and pumping water into a gravity fed cistern. But it is unlikely and probably impossible that we will heat our homes, or cook our food, or cultivate and harvest our crops, or mine and smelt our minerals, or transport ourselves and our necessities with solar and wind.
When our solar panels and wind turbines wear out some decades in the future it is unlikely that the sophisticated factories and complex supply chains needed to manufacture and install replacements will exist. If some do exist to supply elite customers, like the military, most citizens probably won’t be able to afford their products.
I expect reality denial will prevent us from ever acknowledging peak oil and its offspring human overshoot. Instead, our consensus story all the way to a medieval lifestyle, at best, will likely be that there’s plenty of oil if the other tribes would stop using so much and we just need to elect someone tougher to deal with them and get our economy growing again.
Acknowledging our genetic tendency to deny reality would be a good thing because we might then focus on the best response to our overshoot predicament which is to rapidly reduce our population. Other wise responses can be found here.
Here’s the excerpted conclusion from Berman’s essay, but it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing for the data backing up these conclusions.
The Great Simplification
Energy is the economy. Money is a call on energy. Debt is a lien on future energy.
What is happening to oil markets and to the global economy is not because of a virus. The virus greatly accelerated what was already happening. Things won’t go back to normal when the virus ends.
The expansion of energy and debt have been leading toward some sort of reckoning for at least the last fifty years. That day of reckoning has been brought forward by coronavirus economic closures.
Oil prices had averaged $25 per barrel from the end of World War II until 1974 when average prices doubled (Figure 9). From 1979 through 1986, oil price soared to an average of $86 per barrel. These massive economic dislocations resulted in use of debt to maintain economic growth.
Excessive debt was the leading cause for the Financial Collapse of 2008. The crisis was resolved with more debt and monetary policies that ushered in the present era of central bank primacy in the world financial system.
Quantitative easing, near-zero interest rates and high oil prices led to the first wave of the tight oil boom. Over-investment resulted in over-supply and price collapse in 2014. By February 2016, WTI price reached $33 and investors rushed in to support the second wave of the tight oil boom.
WTI reached $72 by mid-2018 but by then, investors had begun to abandon tight oil as well as oil companies in general. The coronavirus economic closure brought monthly average prices to $17 in April, 2020—the lowest month on record. Unlike early 2016, investors weren’t writing any checks this time.
U.S. production may be 50% lower by mid-2021 than at year-end 2019. The implications for U.S. geopolitical power and balance of payments are staggering. It seems likely that the economy will weaken as government support for the unemployed decreases
I doubt that we are on the cusp of either a global energy crisis or the end of the oil age. It is more likely that both supply and demand will fall in tandem as the global economy contracts.
These observations are at odds with the mainstream view that both supply and demand are recovering. Some might concede that I am correct for the present but that things will improve and return to normal although it may some time.
Figure 10 shows credit growth and credit impulse for the United States from 1960 through the first quarter of 2020. Credit impulse is the change in flow of credit (debt) relative to economic activity (GDP).
Spikes in credit impulse correlate well with the oil-price shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. The extraordinary U.S. comparative inventory drawdown of early 2017 through the second quarter of 2018 also corresponds to credit impulse anomalies.
The chief feature of Figure 10, however, is that the magnitude of the first quarter 2020 credit impulse was more than twice as large as any previous increase. Moreover, GDP growth was either neutral or positive during previous spikes but was negative (-10%) for the first quarter of 2020. Also, oil prices were increasing during earlier periods but prices were decreasing in early 2020.
Ilya Prigogine was a chemist who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on dissipative structures and self-organization. Dissipative structures are physical systems that release considerable heat as they consume ever-greater energy to support their growth and increasing complexity. A crisis occurs when growth can no longer be supported by available energy resources. The system either collapses or spontaneously re-organizes itself into a simpler form that uses less energy.
Empires, organizations and economies are dissipative structures. So is the human brain.
My friend Nate Hagens has applied some of Prigogine’s ideas to his own research about world energy, economics and ecology. He believes that we are on the cusp of something quite different from the scenarios suggested by Ahmed, and Goehring and Rozencwajg.
Hagens predicted a global economic decline in the 2020s and publicly expressed that opinion before the Covid pandemic. The main reason for decline, he stated, was too much debt undertaken to continue consuming and growing the economy. The virus has accelerated its timing and may result in contraction greater than the 30% drop during the Great Depression.
The Great Simplification will occur when the credit-supported part of the economy is removed. Economic activity will contract and less energy will be needed because it will be increasingly unaffordable to many parts of the population. People will be forced to adjust living standards downward and self-organize around energy with greater emphasis on local supply chains and regional economies.
I expect that the mix of energy sources will be similar initially. That will probably change as declines to meet the decreased carrying capacity of a society deprived of fossil energy productivity. Then, I imagine the world will move increasingly toward lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. A viable economy may very well be created based heavily on wind and solar. It will, however, support a much poorer world than we have known for many decades in the world’s advanced economies.
Most ideas and analyses about future trends in energy and the economy fail to recognize that they are the two aspects of the same thing. That is why they are so far off the mark. This basic misalignment is painfully obvious because the energy sector represents only 2.5% of the S&P 500 valuation but underlies probably 95% of U.S. GDP.
Every year Nate Hagens gives a talk on Earth Day. I missed the announcement of his talk a month ago, perhaps because I killed my social media accounts, but better late than never.
Nate’s presentation as usual is excellent, and this year he provides thoughts on how the virus may influence our overshoot predicament.
Here are a few of Nate’s predictions and ideas I thought were noteworthy:
The virus gave our economy a heart attack, although it was already sick.
The Great Simplification has begun: a GDP decline of 12-20% is likely this year.
Global peak oil was, with no uncertainty, October 2018.
Diesel availability is at risk because of surplus gasoline (my note: big problem because diesel powers everything we need to survive: tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships).
The financial system has been nationalized: central banks are now both the lender AND buyer of last resort.
Global debt/GDP, which was before the virus already unsustainable at 350%, will now rocket to 450+%, which sets us up for another more acute crisis in the not too distant future.
Poverty will increase in all countries.
Renewable energy is in trouble.
25+% of higher education institutions will go bankrupt.
The experts don’t have answers: they do not understand energy or how our system works.
We need humans to have better bullshit filters: if we don’t use science to help us going forward we have no hope.
We should nationalize the oil industry and drain America last.
Nate concludes with many constructive and positive ideas on how we might respond to our predicament.
Unfortunately Nate did not mention the most important response needed: rapid population reduction. Yes I know that reality denial and the Maximum Power Principle, which govern our behavior, make voluntary population reduction highly improbable, but so do they make improbable all of Nate’s suggestions.
I’m thinking that since it’s unlikely we’ll do anything except react to crises as they unfold we might as well focus on the one and only action that would improve everything: population reduction. It simplifies the conversation, and makes it (theoretically) effective. Much better than talking about many things that we also probably won’t do, but even if we did wouldn’t address the core issue: overshoot.
Imagine this political platform: “We only need to do one thing, and there’s only one thing we need to do, don’t have children unless you win the lottery, so there can be future generations.”
You can find other excellent work by Nate that I’ve posted in the past here.
Gail Tverberg is one of my favorite thinkers and has been writing about our overshoot predicament for years. In today’s essay she makes the most specific predictions I’ve seen on the probable outcomes of the economic deceleration caused by the Wuhan virus.
I suspect most of her predictions will happen, but I’m not confident on the timeline. It’s possible money printing will buy us a few more years, or maybe not.
I think we should hope for the best, and plan for the worst.
Regardless, time is running out to make preparations.
Our basic problem is a finite world problem. World population has outgrown its resource base.
In this post, I suggest the possibility that some core parts of the world economy might temporarily be saved if they can be made to operate fairly independently of each other.
The COVID-19 actions taken to date, together with the poor condition the economy was in previously, lead me to believe that the world economy is headed for a major reset.
A reset world economy will likely end up with “pieces” of today’s economy surviving, but within a very different framework.
There are clearly parts of the world economy that are not working:
The financial system is way too large. There is too much debt, and asset prices are inflated based on very low interest rates.
World population is way too high, relative to resources.
Wage and wealth disparity is too great.
Too much of income is going to the financial system, healthcare, education, entertainment, and travel.
All of the connectivity of today’s world is leading to epidemics of many kinds traveling around the world.
Even with these problems, there may still be some core parts of the world economy that perhaps can be made to work. Each would have a smaller population than today. They would function much more independently than today, like mostly separate economic pumps. The nature of these economies will be different in different parts of the world.
In a less connected world, what we think of today as assets will likely have much less value. High rise buildings will be worth next to nothing, for example, because of their ability to transfer pathogens around. Public transportation will lose value for the same reason. Manufacturing that depends upon supply lines around the world will no longer work either. This means that manufacturing of computers, phones and today’s cars will likely no longer be possible. Products built locally will need to depend almost exclusively on local resources.
Pretty much everything that is debt today can be expected to default. Shares of stock will have little value. To try to save parts of the system, governments will need to take over assets that seem to have value such as farm land, mines, oil and gas wells, and electricity transmission lines. They will also likely need to take over banks, insurance companies and pension plans.
If oil products are available, governments may also need to make certain that farms, trucking companies and other essential users are able to get the fuel they need so that people can be fed. Water and sanitation are other systems that may need assistance so that they can continue to operate.
I expect that eventually, each separate economy will have its own currency. In nearly all cases, the currency will not be the same as today’s currency. The currency will be paid only to current workers in the economy, and it will only be usable for purchasing a limited range of goods made by the local economy.
These are a few of my ideas regarding what might be ahead:
(a) There will be a shake-out of governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations. Most intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and European Union, will disappear. Many governments of countries may disappear, as well. Some may be overthrown. Others may collapse, in a manner similar to the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governmental organizations take energy; if energy is scarce, they are dispensable.
(b) Some countries seem to have a sufficient range of resources that at least the core portion of them may be able to go forward, for a while, in a fairly modern state:
Big cities will likely become problematic in each of these locations, and populations will fall. Alaska and other very cold places may not be able to continue as part of the core, either.
(c) Countries, or even smaller units, will want to continue to limit trade and travel to other areas, for fear of contracting illnesses.
(d) Europe, especially, looks ripe for a big step back. Its fossil fuel resources tend to be depleted. There may be parts that can continue with the use of animal labor, if such animal labor can be found. Big protests and failing debt are likely by this summer in some areas, including Italy.
(e) Governments of the Middle Eastern countries and of Venezuela cannot continue long with very low oil prices. These countries are likely to see their governments overthrown, with a concurrent reduction in exports. Population will also fall, perhaps to the level before oil exploration.
(f) The making of physical goods will experience a major setback, starting immediately. Many supply chains are already broken. Medicines made in India and China are likely to start disappearing. Automobile manufacturing will depend on individual countries setting up their own manufacturing supply chains if the making of automobiles is to continue.
(g) The medical system will suffer a major setback from COVID-19 because no one will want to come to see their regular physician any more, for fear of catching the disease. Education will likely become primarily the responsibility of families, with television or the internet perhaps providing some support. Universities will wither away. Music may continue, but drama (on television or elsewhere) will tend to disappear. Restaurants will never regain their popularity.
(h) It is possible that Quantitative Easing by many countries can temporarily prop up the prices of shares of stock and homes for several months, but eventually physical shortages of many goods can be expected. Food in particular is likely to be in short supply by spring a year from now. India and Africa may start seeing starvation much sooner, perhaps within weeks.
(i) History shows that when energy resources are not growing rapidly (see discussion of Figure 3), there tend to be wars and other conflicts. We should not be surprised if this happens again.
We seem to be reaching the limit of making our current global economic system work any longer. The only hope of partial salvation would seem to be if core parts of the world economy can be made to work in a more separate fashion for at least a few more years. In fact, oil and other fossil fuel production may continue, but for each country’s own use, with very limited trade.
There are likely to be big differences among economies around the world. For example, hunter-gathering may work for a few people, with the right skills, in some parts of the world. At the same time, more modern economies may exist elsewhere.
The new economy will have far fewer people and far less complexity. Each country can be expected to have its own currency, but this currency will likely be used only on a limited range of locally produced goods. Speculation in asset prices will no longer be a source of wealth.
OPEC agreed on Thursday to cut oil output by an extra 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in the second quarter of 2020 to support prices that have been hit by the coronavirus outbreak, but made its action conditional on Russia and others joining in.
Notice that this and pretty much every other news report you read never explains the thermodynamic implications of what they report, because they are ignorant of, and/or deny, the relationships between wealth creation, credit availability, and fossil energy consumption.
Oil producers today cut production by about 1.5%.
Why? Because demand for oil is falling and the world has limited storage capacity. Oil must be burned at about the same rate it is produced. If they don’t curtail production prices will fall below the cost of production and everyone will lose money, except of course shale oil producers who have always lost money.
Why is oil demand falling? Because the oil powered machines that produce and deliver almost all of the things we use and eat are slowing down, which means economic growth is slowing or possibly declining.
What happens if economic growth stops or declines? Our banking system becomes fragile because the design of our debt backed fractional reserve monetary system requires growth to function.
Put more simply, money and debt retain value, and credit remains plentiful, only in the presence of economic growth.
Why are credit and debt important? Because our standard of living depends on them. For example, today you can save 5% of the price of a house, get credit for 95% in the form of a mortgage, and immediately enjoy 100% of the house. Your mortgage, in turn, funds someone else’s retirement portfolio. Without plentiful credit, most people will not enjoy their own home, or car, or iPhone, and most people will not be able to retire.
I explained the importance of growth and why we can’t have it forever in more detail here.
How have our leaders responded? Canada announced an emergency interest rate cut yesterday in the hope of stimulating economic growth. Our prime minister is planning to spend more printed money to stimulate growth.
Will it work? Does providing alcohol to an alcoholic work? Yes, for a while, unless he’s already too drunk, but doing so makes his bottom more painful.
How do you know when an alcoholic is too drunk? You offer him free liquor and he does not drink.
How do you know when an alcoholic has not yet bottomed out? He kills his hangover the next day with a drink.
How do you know when it’s too late to save an alcoholic? He dies from an overdose.
How do you know when an alcoholic is clean? He decides to promote and vote for a birth lottery.
<Edit Mar 8>
I’m going to go out on a limb and say the correction has begun that those of us with defective denial genes have anticipated since the rocket scientists that lead us “fixed” the too much debt crisis in 2008 with more debt. They’ll try again this time but I suspect the alcoholic is too drunk to drink. I don’t know if the drunk will respond if they try extreme measures like intravenous white lightning. Assuming he doesn’t, my guess is 20-50% of paper wealth will vaporize in this step down. There are more steps to follow in coming years until the alcoholic bottoms out when his preferred drink, oil, is gone. There’d be much less pain for all if he’d sober up now.
James, proprietor of the insightful Megacancer blog, is a rare individual who understands the energy flows that drive the issues that matter:
why we exist
why we behave as we do
why we are in deep trouble
why nothing will stop our demise
His year-end essay is brilliant and I have pasted it in full below.
I agree with everything James said but I thought I would add a few Christmas bobbles that help me to be less angry about our predicament.
When our leaders, scientists, friends, and family do not support the only actions that might reduce future suffering, namely rapid population reduction and a planned contraction of the economy, I know the reason as James explains, is that we, like yeast and all other life, evolved to maximize energy flows.
While true this is not, at least for me, a sufficient explanation because unlike yeast, we are highly intelligent and capable of impressive intellectual feats. How can such an intelligent creature not use its brain to at least try to do the right thing?
The answer, of course, was provided by Dr. Ajit Varki and his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.
The smart ethical people we see doing the wrong thing each and every day, despite obvious science and evidence they are capable of understanding, do so because their brains evolved to deny unpleasant realities.
When I look with despair, for example, at COP25 where our best and brightest not only accomplished nothing (except burning a bunch of kerosene to fly there), they didn’t even honestly discuss the problem, we know that thermodynamics, as James explains, is driving the insanity, but we also know that it is evolved denial of reality that blocks their intelligence.
Denial makes our intelligence ineffective on every issue that matters, and thermodynamics, expressed through genetics, does not permit intelligence to exist without denial, so it is what it is, and there is no way out.
Humans are not evil, nor are they stupid, they just can’t see reality.
This holiday season I am grateful to be alive to witness and understand a rare event in the universe, and I’m thankful for good health, good food, a warm dry home, and caring friends and family.
“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun…….. John Lennon
Undoubtedly you have struggled to consume some gradient and produce some entropy. Or maybe I should say “you all – plural” since its all of your cells that have created the shape-shifting and often grandiose “you “ within your brain to help your skin-enclosed system get around and get what it needs.
Hope your system is consuming much gradient this holiday season, your homeostasis is hunky-dory and your condition is one of great comfort and peace. I’m sure the new year will bring many surprises as you maneuver through the competitive landscape in search of new wealth-enhancing and energy-consuming opportunities. Provided below is a little commentary on our current predicament (also known as a rant).
The Universe as a single dense point of energy can be seen as the initial gradient. The Big Bang and inflation reduce the initial gradient as time and space expand according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Time and space are impossible without gradient dissipation. Gradient dissipation produces time and space and change. You can see this in a wrist watch which must dissipate gradient (battery/spring) to move and create a progression along a circular time line. The events of time can only occur because gradient can be dissipated and the heat can escape into the inflation of the Universe. Time is not possible without change (movement) or change in position which is inherent to the gradient dissipation process. Humans create time by burning energy gradient and dissipating it as heat. Like magnets aligning with the magnetic poles, all of life has evolved to align with the initial massive dissipation (Big Bang) as residual dissipating phenomena. There is no other way for life to behave than the way it does, consuming gradient. If species deviated from their role as reducers of gradients, they would simply disappear. They are constantly being realigned as gradient reducers in order to remain as dissipative structures and stand-out from the less active background. An individual’s “success” in life, in acquiring and consuming resources or having many offspring is the thermodynamic success of the Universe which uses and shapes humans and other life for its dissipative bidding. You think you are successful, but you have been used to further the apparent goals of an expanding Universe. It’s no accident that successful dissipation bolsters your self-image and gives you a good feeling as your homeostasis is maintained. More money, more food, more investments, more children, more dopamine, more………. it all feels good and that’s no accident. The Universe leads you through life in an endless quest for more free energy gradients and after each acquisition the happiness seems to fade until another is found.
All behavior and structure of life comes from and aligns with the Big Bang and expansion of the Universe which humans have logically described with the laws of thermodynamics and entropy. Humans and all other life are captives of these laws and struggle daily to acquire energy to create motion, structure and time with the hydrosphere, atmosphere and open space acting as willing heat sinks. Any organism that attempts to practice “freewill”, that somehow deviates from the program, will find itself realigned with reality or eliminated from existence. Freewill is bounded overall by the requirement of reducing gradients and humans have evolved to eliminate gradient as quickly and efficiently as possible (deriving profit) for reproduction or growth. These requirements can be summed-up in the Maximum Power Principle and/or Maximum Entropy Production principles. Faster, more powerful vehicles, faster computers, faster jets, more economies of scale, burn more faster, more profit, more growth, more gradient reduced and electromagnetic radiation sent into space. Humans have evolved to be such intense competitors for energy that they can’t seem to “just say no” to save themselves. It was never meant that they would be able to “just say no”. Extinction takes care of dissipative structures that run their course through extinction. It is only natural that capitalism should be the dominant economic system when the collapse occurs since it slavishly maximizes growth even making spurious promises of future gradient availability in exchange for burning gradient today and creating population overshoot conditions. Some people wonder what -ism comes next. I believe it will be a pervasive state of natural “terrorism”, the type observed in nature where all life forms are one mistake away from becoming someone else’ s meal.
To name itself “Homo sapiens” is only indicative of the hubris of humans as they slowly commit suicide by gradient reduction. “Smart” or “sapient” is defined by most humans as the ability to create tools to break open new gradients for dissipation while depriving other living organisms the same opportunity. Humans seem unable to imagine any other parameters of success besides consumption, growth and reproduction. No surprises there, it’s what complex dissipatives do. So, as the chimps fight in Washington, D.C. (mostly about power and money – dissipative matters) and the average family wonders how much money (gradient) they’ll have to spend to travel (motion) to Disney World and have a good (time), the biosphere degrades into a lifeless necrosphere similar to the slime found at the bottom of a yeast petri dish that has eaten itself into oblivion. Eventually only dust devils and their larger brethren, the hurricanes and typhoons will raise the formerly vital dust beyond its gravitational resting place as the Universe continues to expand without even tallying the insignificant contributions from the Earth’s extinct dissipative spinbots.
Humans should never think of themselves as smart or intelligent, they’re simply a thermodynamic event maintaining homeostasis through gradient reduction. Their entire mentality serves energy/wealth acquisition, consumption and reproduction. Being a social mammal (obtaining energy as a group) they are hierarchically organized and are constantly striving to improve their social standing by whatever means possible (if they haven’t yet seen the futility in such efforts). Those able to control the most money/energy are admired and envied by their sycophants while those with less success are regularly scorned and often deemed unworthy of reproduction or even living. Just as the human civilization will enslave, consume and/or deprive other species of their ability to live and reproduce, so too wealthy humans will enslave less avaricious humans and use them for self-enrichment.
Have you been transported to the nucleolus (school) for the last twelve-years to have your brain refined for information and tool use? You are an RNA destined for one of the the technological cells. Don’t be late. Did you get your college degree? Are you ready to function as an RNA “job” within a civilizational cancer for the rest of your life before you can retire to await the personal cancer your toxic “sapient” system has given you? I assure you that your local medical establishment and undertaker are ready to provide in your time of need and desperation if you can provide a life’s worth of savings in exchange (usually extracted in the form of monthly health insurance premiums the paying of which has put you into an early grave.) Are you satisfied that an oligarchy of bankers, government and corporations have initial claim upon society’s nutrients and thin the blood currency for the remainder of society which struggle to feed themselves, their cells and their vehicles? Is that the cost of survival vis-a-vis other equally exploitative nations? Perhaps if the thinning of the blood by inflation was not enough, the taxes and interest, fees and penalties are acceptable costs for enduring life as an expendable, productive molecule attached to an hedonically enhancing smart (not sapient) phone. And now that there’s not enough to share with the worker dissipatives, the electronic prison takes shape with various surveillance, monitoring, compliance, social credit, FICO scores, 5G and facial recognition.
Since the energy horizon is shrinking, those endowed with rights from which the rest have been alienated, will try to compensate for the loss of energy by introducing new “savings” to the system, a few low-cost behavioral and structural changes to hold society together for a while like a rationing of essentials and sharing. As the existing system is already strapped for metabolic energy and any major disruptions threaten collapse, a full conversion to “renewable energy” is not seen as workable, especially when we will likely need even more energy to heal wounds inflicted by an increasingly chaotic climate. We will eventually be overwhelmed by the inflicted damages and inherent contradictions of our “Black Friday” hyper-dissipative existence. Our slowly disintegrating arrangement will go extinct one way or another without a source of clean energy that meets current metabolic needs and provides enough net energy to re-stabilize the climate. The resource bill (if the technologies even existed) to accomplish this self-saving task will grow faster than the interest on the Federal debt and in any case the climate destabilization has likely already achieved positive-feedback, escape-velocity, well beyond any feasible means of addressing it. In the meantime those at the universities are earning their six-figure salaries arguing over political correctness as if being nice to each other and erasing or rewriting sordid chapters in human history is the challenge of the day.
And where will we find our CEOs, government officials and military when push comes to shove in the international competition for food and energy? With all the courage they can muster they will scurry into their fortified bunkers to wait-out the “winnable” nuclear war only to re-emerge when the stinkadelic cheese of next years’ appropriations comes wafting through their gold-standard air purification systems.
Let’s hope for a happy new year with smart algorithms, lightning fast trading computers, a massive pump-and-dump and lots of resources stripped away from those that can least afford it. I recommend working harder in the new year so we can eliminate the gradients and get to where we’re going faster.