Articles tagged with "limits to growth"
In my view, wages are the backbone an economy. If workers have difficulty finding a job, or have difficulty earning sufficient wages, the lack of wages will be a problem, not just for the workers, but for governments and businesses. Governments will have a hard time collecting enough taxes, and businesses will have a hard time finding enough customers. There can be business-to-business transactions, but ultimately somewhere “downstream,” businesses need wage-earning customers who can afford to pay for goods and services. Even if a business produces a resource that is in very high demand, such as oil, it still needs wage-earning customers either to buy the resource directly (for example, as gasoline), or to buy the resource indirectly (for example, as food which uses oil in production and transport).
It is not just any wages that are important. It is the wages paid by private companies (rather than governments) that are important, as the backbone to the economy. Governments tend to get their revenues from private citizens and from businesses, both of which are dependent on wages of private citizens. There are a few pieces outside of this loop, such as taxes on imports from foreign countries. With the advent of free international trade, this source is disappearing. Another piece outside the US wage-loop is taxes on resource extraction, if these resources are exported.
Instead of using the analogy of a backbone, perhaps I should say that wages are the base that ultimately determines the quantity of goods and services an economy can afford.
Obviously there are other kinds of income, such as “rents,” but these, too, ultimately come from wage earners. Furthermore, businesses cannot earn money to pay dividends unless some consumer, somewhere, can afford to buy the goods and services their business is selling.
I have written recently about how the proportion of Americans with jobs rose to a peak, and since has been declining.
I decided in this post to look at the dollars these workers are earning. In particular, I decided to look at wages, other than government wages, adjusted to today’s cost level using the “CPI- Urban,” cost index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I discovered that these wages are doing very poorly. I also discovered a disturbing connection between high oil prices and flattening or declining wages. Putting all of these pieces together suggests a connection to “Limits to Growth.”
Globalization seems to be looked on as an unmitigated “good” by economists. Unfortunately, economists seem to be guided by their badly flawed models; they miss real-world problems. In particular, they miss the point that the world is finite. We don’t have infinite resources, or unlimited ability to handle excess pollution. So we are setting up a “solution” that is at best temporary.
Economists also tend to look at results too narrowly–from the point of view of a business that can expand, or a worker who has plenty of money, even though these users are not typical. In real life, the business are facing increased competition, and the worker may be laid off because of greater competition.
The following is a list of reasons why globalization is not living up to what was promised, and is, in fact, a very major problem.
1. Globalization uses up finite resources more quickly. As an example, China joined the world trade organization in December 2001. In 2002, its coal use began rising rapidly (Figure 1, below).
In fact, there is also a huge increase in world coal consumption (Figure 2, below). India’s consumption is increasing as well, but from a smaller base.
We are used to expecting that more investment will yield more output, but in the real world, things don’t always work out that way.
In Figure 1, we see that for several groupings, the increase (or decrease) in oil consumption tends to correlate with the increase (or decrease) in GDP. The usual pattern is that GDP growth is a little greater than oil consumption growth. This happens because of changes of various sorts: (a) Increasing substitution of other energy sources for oil, (b) Increased efficiency in using oil, and (c) A changing GDP mix away from producing goods, and toward producing services, leading to a proportionately lower need for oil and other energy products.
The situation is strikingly different for Saudi Arabia, however. A huge increase in oil consumption (Figure 1), and in fact in total energy consumption (Figure 2, below), does not seem to result in a corresponding rise in GDP.
At least part of problem is that Saudi Arabia is reaching limits of various types. One of them is inadequate water for a rising population. Adding desalination plants adds huge costs and huge energy usage, but does not increase the standards of living of citizens. Instead, adding desalination plants simply allows the country to pump less water from its depleting aquifers.
To some extent, the same situation occurs in oil and gas fields. Expensive investment is required, but it is doubtful that there is an increase in capacity that is proportional to its cost. To a significant extent, new investment simply offsets a decline in production elsewhere, so maintains the status quo. It is expensive, but adds little to what gets measured as GDP.
The world outside of Saudi Arabia is now running into an investment sinkhole issue as well. This takes several forms: water limits that require deeper wells or desalination plants; oil and gas limits that require more expensive forms of extraction; and pollution limits requiring expensive adjustments to automobiles or to power plants.
These higher investment costs lead to higher end product costs of goods using these resources. These higher costs eventually transfer to other products that most of us consider essential: food because it uses much oil in growing and transport; electricity because it is associated with pollution controls; and metals for basic manufacturing, because they also use oil in extraction and transport.
Ultimately, these investment sinkholes seem likely to cause huge problems. In some sense, they mean the economy is becoming less efficient, rather than more efficient. From an investment point of view, they can expect to crowd out other types of investment. From a consumer’s point of view, they lead to a rising cost of essential products that can be expected to squeeze out other purchases.
Posted by Gail the Actuary on April 18, 2012 - 10:50am
Topic: Alternative energy
Tags: alternative energy, biofuel, biophysical economics, book review, charles hall, kent klitgaard, limits to growth, peak oil, robert rapier [list all tags]
Today, I’d like to write about two fairly different books related to limited energy supply. Both are excellent, but intended for fairly different audiences, and focusing on different aspects of our dilemma.
1. “Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil” by Robert Rapier.
This book is written at a fairly introductory level, giving information about the many energy options we have, and the trade-offs we make as the result of our choices of energy options. The book is not about peak oil per se, but includes a chapter on peak oil as well as a chapter on climate change. The book ends with the chapter, “The Road Ahead." The book is inexpensive–$16.15 from Amazon.
2. “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy” by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard
This book is focused on energy and economics. This book seems to be aimed as a text book, or at an audience who is already familiar with some of the issues, and wants to dig deeper. This book is in two column format with questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate classroom discussion. It covers in depth a wide range of topics, from energy’s role throughout history, to the relationship of energy to wealth production, to energy return on investment, to how to do biophysical economics, to peak oil. It ends with the chapter, “Living a Good Life in a Lower EROI Future.”
Below the fold, I will talk a little more about each.
It looks to me as though 2012 is likely to be a truly awful financial year, with several crises converging:
- Either very high oil prices or recession,
- The US governmental debt limit crisis,
- The Euro crisis,
- The Chinese debt problem,
- Debt deleveraging in the US and elsewhere,
- Further MENA (Middle East/North Africa) political problems, and
- Conflict between need for greater resources and pollution issues.
It seems to me that we may be reaching “Limits to Growth,” as foretold in the book by the same name in 1972. The book modeled the consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies. A wide range of scenarios was tested, but the result in nearly all scenarios was overshoot and collapse, with the timing of collapse typically being in the 2010 to 2075 time period.
The authors of Limits to Growth did not model the full interactions of the system. One element omitted was how debt would impact the system. Another item omitted was how prices for oil and other resources would affect the system.
If a person follows through the expected effects of high oil prices and debt, the financial system would appear to be the most vulnerable part of the system. The financial system would also appear to be what telegraphs problems from one part of the system to another. Unless a solution is found, failure of the financial system could ultimately bring down the whole system.
The issues we are confronted with today seem to be a subset of the issues foretold in the book Limits to Growth back in 1972. At some point, the economy cannot continue to grow as rapidly as it did in the past. It appears to me that the most immediate limit we are hitting today is inadequate low-priced oil, but there are other limits lurking not far away–inadequate fresh water and excessive pollution, for example. When the economy cannot grow as fast, or actually starts declining, recession sets in. Governments start having debt problems. Financial markets start behaving strangely.
This issue is a difficult one to talk about, because there really is no good solution. I have talked to a couple of groups recently (one a church group; one a peak oil group), about this issue. This is a copy of the presentation I used (Bumping up against the Growth Ceiling (PDF) or Bumping up against the Growth Ceiling (PowerPoint). In this post, I will discuss my presentation, omitting the section at the end called, "Where do we go from here?" The full post and discussion can be read at Our Finite World.
This is a guest post by Tom Murphy. Tom is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. This article is Part 2 of a two-part assessment of the implications of continued growth. Part 1 appeared here. Both articles first appeared at Do The Math.
As we saw in the previous post, the U.S. has expanded its use of energy at a typical rate of 2.9% per year since 1650. We learned that continuation of this energy growth rate in any form of technology leads to a thermal reckoning in just a few hundred years (not the tepid global warming, but boiling skin!). What does this say about the long-term prospects for economic growth, if anything?
The figure above shows the rate of global economic growth over the last century, as reconstructed by J. Bradford DeLong. Initially, the economy grew at a rate consistent with that of energy growth. Since 1950, the economy has outpaced energy, growing at a 5% annual rate. This might be taken as great news: we do not necessarily require physical growth to maintain growth in the economy. But we need to understand the sources of the additional growth before we can be confident that this condition will survive the long haul. After all, fifty years does not imply everlasting permanence.
This is a guest post by Tom Murphy. Tom is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. This article is Part 1 of a two-part assessment of the implications of continued growth. The article first appeared at Do The Math.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have seen an impressive and sustained growth in the scale of energy consumption by human civilization. Plotting data from the Energy Information Agency on U.S. energy use since 1650 (1635-1945, 1949-2009, including wood, biomass, fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, etc.) shows a remarkably steady growth trajectory, characterized by an annual growth rate of 2.9% (see figure). It is important to understand the future trajectory of energy growth because governments and organizations everywhere make assumptions based on the expectation that the growth trend will continue as it has for centuries—and a look at the figure suggests that this is a perfectly reasonable assumption.
This is a guest post from Dolores García, an independent researcher based in Brighton, UK.
Recently Jorgen Randers (best known for being one of the co-authors of The Limits to Growth, 1972) asked me to do some modelling work on the World3-Energy model, an updated version of the classic World3 computer model that was used in The Limits to Growth that includes a much larger amount of information about energy. He’d like to use it for the next book that he intends to publish sometime in 2012.
I have published on The Oil Drum before the details of World3-Energy (a dynamic systems model), can be found in:
And a few answers to reader’s questions can be found here:
Part of the work I’m doing for Jorgen Randers is comparing the results of World3-Energy with IEA’s results. I thought the readers of The Oil Drum would be interested in this.