PEAK OIL REVISITED PART 1

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Charting by Steve Ludlum

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on November 14, 2015

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Triangle of Doom from Steve Ludlum at Economic Undertow

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PEAK OIL REVISITED PART 1a: The Triangle of Doom and the Failure of Price as a Metric

 

Geoffrey Chia is an Australian physician with a long standing interest in Peak Oil. This essay on oil prices is a necessary prelude to Peak Oil Revisited Part 1b: Is an International Standardised Energy Dollar feasible? followed by Peak Oil Revisited Part 2: Why business as usual guarantees that global industrial collapse will be complete by 2030.

 

Is Peak Oil dead?

 

Quote:Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” – attributed to Samuel Clemens AKA Mark Twain, upon reading his own obituary in a newspaper

 

The delusionists who declared that the “theory” of Peak Oil is dead are simply demonstrating their profound ignorance, if not downright duplicity. Peak Oil is not a theory, it is an observation of a physical fact. It is a simple fact that this world has finite supplies of oil. It is a simple fact that every oil well has finite recoverable oil and will go through phases of rising production, peaking of production and terminal decline. Peak Oil refers to (and has always referred to) the maximum rate of production of conventional oil (applied in particular contexts to either a well, a field, a country or the entire world). Global conventional oil output hit a plateau around 2006 and is now on an inexorable downward trend and even the cornucopian EIA admit this.

Fudging current data by adding gas condensates (which cannot be used to derive diesel or kerosene) or other unconventional oils to the total liquid hydrocarbon output does not change the fact that the world is now well past the peak rate of production of conventional oil and we are entering terminal decline soon.

As an alternative tactic, the denialists have tried to change the definition of Peak Oil. They declared that since oil prices are now low, we cannot have gone past Peak Oil, which has therefore been disproved. They ignore the fact that Peak Oil is and was always defined as the peaking of the rate of production of conventional oil i.e. the maximum volume output per unit time (usually over a year) and was not and was never defined by price.

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The triangle of doom


 

As many readers will be aware, Steve Ludlum's triangle of doom http://www.economic-undertow.com/ refers to the post Peak Oil fluctuation of oil prices, which as time goes by is hypothetically expected to converge to a particular oil price (of say, US$100/- per barrel), above which customers cannot afford the oil, and below which it is uneconomic for vendors to produce the oil (they cannot recuperate their investment costs). In other words, oil which is too expensive leads to destruction of demand (or "demand destruction") and oil which is too cheap leads to destruction of production (or "production destruction"). If $100 per barrel oil is too much for customers to afford but is also too low to meet the cost of production, then in theory, market forces dictate that both oil consumption and production will cease, petroleum will no longer be available and industrial civilisation will collapse. One projection suggested this convergence would occur sometime in 2015 (see graph) however this has obviously not happened for a few reasons:

Firstly, not all oils are the same. Current low oil prices are certainly accelerating "production destruction" of expensive low EROEI oil. However, as long as substantial cheap-to-produce high EROEI oils remain, the latter will continue to supply the market until that high net energy source (Hi-NES) itself eventually transforms into Lo-NES (see explanation below).

Secondly, we have a fair way to go before all discretionary (or non-essential) oil consumption is eliminated from our bloated and wasteful system. Once that occurs, we are in for big trouble.

Furthermore, price is not an accurate predictor of collapse of the oil industry because it is not a reliable marker of whether, where, when and how oil will be produced or consumed, as price can be grossly distorted and manipulated by non-market forces to create perverse incentives.

In the longer term, price as a number is meaningless, unless corrected for inflation/deflation and related to a reference date, or related to a standard basket of goods and services.

The major concern about the current low oil price is that it is strangling upstream funding for oil production in the near future (even for conventional wells) which will eventually cause severe supply constraints in the near term. This will undoubtedly cause another oil price spike and even though restoration of production will take time and effort, it will eventually be done, albeit not to the same previous level. Petroleum will still continue to be produced and consumed in a fluctuating manner, irrespective of the hypothetical triangle of doom, until we run out of easy oil. Going by current trends however, oil will become completely unavailable to the vast majority of humanity within 15 years according to analysis of other parameters (not price) which we will discuss in part 2.

 

Production issues: Easy and Difficult oil:
The monetary price of a barrel of crude (whether WTI, Brent or Tapis) depends on a large number of factors which may partly be related to genuine physical and chemical issues (eg ease of extraction, ease of refinement) and partly related to genuine supply and demand issues. However price is also prone to all sorts of political and fraudulent distortions and manipulations. Consequently, the adjectives “cheap” and “expensive” are unhelpful and inaccurate, indeed they can lead to great confusion.

Whereas demand destruction in recent times has led to a fall in global oil prices1 , another major contributing factor was the US instructing their proxy Saudi Arabia to maintain maximum oil production2 regardless of reduced global demand, in an aggressive act of predatory pricing which is damaging the economies of Russia and Iran (who face higher production costs than the Saudis). Furthermore unconventional oil producers have been forced to sell at prices below their production costs, accelerating their demise (which was inevitable anyway), to the delight of the Saudis. This “expensive” oil is being sold artificially cheaply, hence the adjectives “expensive” and “cheap” have lost all meaning.

I propose we instead use the terms “easy” and “difficult” oil instead, the difference between them being the ENERGY costs of extracting and processing these types of oil.

Hence easy oil refers to oil from a conventional field of light sweet crude before (and shortly after) production peaks (when EROEI is high). Ultimately this easy oil will become progressively more difficult to extract (because oil extraction from a depleting well requires ever more energy). Even the Peak Oil deniers concede that the days of easy oil are over, however they refuse to acknowledge the underlying reason for this.

Difficult oil refers to low net energy or low EROEI oil, either:

– Unconventional oil of any sort (tar sands, ultra-deep oceanic oil, shale oil, Fischer-Tropf oil, biofuels etc.) or

– Conventional oil from a depleting field well past peak production.

Please note that the terms Easy oil and High EROEI oil are interchangeable, as are the terms Difficult oil and Low EROEI oil. However the adjectives “easy” and “difficult” are simpler and more intuitive to adopt and less of a mouthful.

My term “Hi-NES” is a general term for a high net energy source (or sources). Hi-NES embraces high EROEI conventional oil, high EROEI conventional natural gas and other high EROEI sources. In theory, wind generated electricity in a location where the wind blows strongly and continuously (e.g. the Antarctic coast) may offer an EROEI of more than 10:1 and is therefore potentially a hi-NES. However in practice that is seldom achievable.

The term Conventional oil (i.e. petroleum derived from a conventional oilfield) is not necessarily interchangeable with Easy oil for reasons explained above.

Use of the terms “easy” and “difficult”, rather than “cheap” and “expensive” helps to clarify our thought processes, but remains inadequate to enable deeper understanding of what is happening. Orwell, through the voice of Napoleon the pig, famously said that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. Accordingly we must appreciate that among difficult oils, some are more difficult than others, which is related to their EROEI. Similarly, among easy oils, some are easier than others, which is also related to their EROEI. Here is an example: Saudi Arabia and Russia as nations are both past Peak Oil, but Russia is further down the curve. Nevertheless both can still be said to possess easy oil, the difference being that the EROEI for Saudi Arabia may be (for example) 20:1 but the EROEI for Russia may be (for example) 18:1. This difference means that Saudi production costs are cheaper than Russia and enables the Saudis to engage in short term predatory pricing which causes trouble for the Russian economy.

The astute reader will naturally ask this question: what is the numerical dividing line between easy/high EROEI oils and difficult/low EROEI oils? We need to invoke the thoughts of Hall, Lambert and Murphy to help us answer this question in Part 2.

 

Consumption issues: demand destruction:

The confusing terms “cheap” and “expensive” oil will unfortunately continue to be used in common parlance. Most people will continue to focus on price as it can be a useful comparator when considering short term trends.

However even if we were to focus microscopically on just one household budget, price is not the important consideration, it is affordability. Affordability is related to one's income balanced against one's expenditure. Expenditure can be divided into discretionary or non-essential spending (which defines one's disposable income) and non-discretionary or essential spending (food, housing, utilities, transport for work/study, health expenses etc).

Similarly we can adopt the concept of discretionary and non-discretionary petroleum use. Discretionary use refers to frivolous or non-essential consumption of petroleum e.g. jet travel for overseas holidays, running a power boat on weekends etc. Non-discretionary use refers to essential use.

Let us take the example of a tradesman who must drive his pick-up truck (containing his heavy power tools, ladders, trestles, materials etc.) to his clients' locations to perform his work (he cannot use a bicycle or public transport for this purpose). Let us say he is just making ends meet. If two thirds of his petroleum use is discretionary and one third non-discretionary, then when faced with oil escalating in price from, say, $33 per barrel to $100 per barrel, he can initially cope by eliminating 2/3 of his total consumption to keep his petrol bill unchanged. If however the price then exceeds $100 per barrel, he cannot now afford to run his vehicle for work. Continuing work will mean he loses money. After losing money for a few months he is forced to stop work, sell his pick-up (then uses that capital to pay debts incurred when he lost money and for ongoing living expenses) and he drops out of the oil market completely. The latter represents demand destruction. Loss of his job releases the oil he previously consumed into the market. Widespread demand destruction in the general population "frees up" considerable oil supply into the market. Overall oil supply now exceeds demand and leads to a drop in the oil price. However the former tradesman cannot now afford to buy another vehicle to resume his old work. He cannot consume oil again as he did previously and the market price of oil stays low for the time being. Repeat this poor tradesman's story a million fold and you will get an idea of how depletion of the easy (high EROEI) oil will lead to the impoverishment of nations and why low oil prices will not necessarily reinvigorate economic activity3.

Eventually all discretionary oil use will be eliminated from all sectors of all economies, all around the world. All the fat will be cut from the system, leaving only absolutely essential oil use remaining (e.g. petroleum to run ambulances, to produce and distribute food etc.). Demand is now inflexible. As global conventional oil depletes further, oil supply will once again fall behind this fixed, inflexible demand and the oil price will escalate. Hyperinflation will now ensue. This will be the terminal phase of the industrial economy.

 

Prospects for future resurrection of low EROEI oil production:

The first flurry of low net energy oil production is all but over now. Many ultra deep water projects were shelved after Macondo blew up. The US tight oil producers in particular are now collapsing in droves, their investors, AKA suckers, are losing their shirts. Shell has pulled out of investing in Canadian tar sands. Other potential start-up low EROEI projects are being suppressed by the current low oil price as they need a price of at least $60 (more like $80 to $100) per barrel to get off the ground (price of WTI at the time this article is written is around $44 per barrel)

However in the future, after the eventual elimination of discretionary oil use from the global economy and with subsequent permanent escalation of oil prices, will low EROEI projects be attempted once again? It has been calculated that an EROEI of around 10:1 is required to run basic industrial civilisation and when EROEI drops under 5:1 our net energy availability falls off a cliff4, hence physical laws dictate that very low EROEI projects (especially unconventional oil projects which tend to have an EROEI of 3:1 or less) are for practical purposes useless (not to mention extremely harmful to the environment) and are extremely stupid. For Ponzi purposes however, lo-NES projects are useful scams for fraudsters to promote. We can never underestimate the stupidity of human beings. Hence it seems likely that stupid fucking fracking projects in new locations and other lo-NES projects will arise again, zombie-like in the future, funded by yet another cohort of greedy suckers with goldfish memories.

 

The failure of price as a metric:

You will note that the idea of the "triangle of doom" alluded to the post Peak oscillating price of oil (as a result of fluctuating supply and demand) which would progressively diminish in amplitude and eventually converge to the point where demand destruction meets production destruction, then the whole oil industry would vanish in a puff of smoke (at least in theory). Price on its own however can be extremely rubbery and is prone to all sorts of manipulation (e.g. inappropriate government subsidies for biofuels from grain) and distortion (e.g. speculation by futures traders). Hence oil prices consistently above $100 per barrel may still be possible in the future, particularly if there is government subsidy (AKA misappropriation of taxpayers money) to favour certain sectors. Expensive oil will not be affordable to all, but it will be affordable to a chosen few, enabling some (albeit diminished) part of the oil production system to continue functioning.

Prices in theory should reflect the simple interaction between supply and demand. Prices in a sane and rational market should be an honest representation of true cost and true value. Proper pricing should stimulate healthy (as opposed to harmful) economic activities. However in reality our markets are insane, irrational and dishonest. In reality prices are frequently distorted by TPTB to create perverse stimuli in the service of vested interests eg the fossil fuel industry or the corn lobby, irrespective of harm caused to ordinary people or the environment. Furthermore price comparisons between different years require corrections for inflationary or deflationary trends. Price as a number is an extremely noisy signal and interpreting circumstances or trends according to price is prone to all sorts of pitfalls.

Forces other than a "sane" market will guarantee future delivery of oil to certain favoured sectors, come hell or high water. The American military is one such sector, and the production and supply of oil to them will be given priority over, say, the allocation of petroleum to produce food for the poor5.This will be one way by which the US military will promote general population die-off, apart from the fact that they will kill poor people directly. When chaos on the streets ensues as a result of the limits to growth, the National Guard will be called in and will start shooting people.

Here is another reason why price, as a number, is essentially meaningless and must be related to some other objective index: any sum of money, say $100, must be related to the goods and services it can buy at that time. We know that $100 could go a lot further a hundred years ago than $100 today because of inflation, which is defined as the expansion of money supply relative to the available pool of goods and services. Accordingly if there is contraction of money supply in the future due to collapse of yet more debt bubbles, deflation will occur and $100 in that future will buy more than the $100 of today (at least until the pool of goods and services also contracts, which will lag behind the money supply contraction). In other words, quoted price must be referenced to a particular year (e.g. 2015) and price must always be corrected for purchasing power (i.e. corrected for inflation or deflation) to have any meaning.

Perhaps a better way to ascribe objective meaning to price is to relate it to a standard basket of goods and services. To simplify things further, the Economist magazine, originally as a joke, decided to relate price to one particular standardised product, the MacDonald's Big Mac burger, which is made to identical specifications in almost all locations around the world (although in India beef is not used). This was in fact found to be a useful means of comparing the true values of different currencies, such that the Economist now publishes its "Big Mac index" twice a year.

The "triangle of doom", being based on price (a variable which can be immensely rubbery), is not an accurate predictor for the global collapse of the oil industry although it does highlight industry difficulties. It was nevertheless an interesting concept because low oil prices can certainly destroy production in many (but not all) instances and high oil prices can certainly destroy demand in many (but not all) instances, however we must also take many other factors into consideration.

 

Energy as the “gold standard” for money

I previously wrote that money represents the promise of delivery of future useful goods and services. However FUGS can only be created and delivered through the application of energy. I also previously wrote that if Greece had their own hi-NES (such as a Leviathan gas field), they would have no problem leaving the Eurozone to print their own Drachma, which would then be backed up by their hi-NES.

Can we thus say that money is a proxy for energy? Well, yes and no. It is probably too simplistic a paradigm. If money was a true proxy for energy then net oil importing countries with low oil reserves such as the USA should have low currency values, and net oil exporting countries with high oil reserves such as Russia should have high currency values, however in real life the opposite is the case, for many economic and political reasons. Furthermore, it is impossible to accurately value a particular country's currency against its national energy reserves because it may be impossible to accurately estimate the recoverable energy reserves, which may be wrongly declared by that country for various economic and political reasons. For example we know the sudden escalation (on paper) of purported oil reserves in the OPEC countries in the 1980s had nothing to do with discovery of new oil resources but had everything to do with their greed (it was prompted by the then new OPEC oil exporting policy based on stated reserves).

Despite those shortcomings, will it still be worthwhile to use energy as the standard index for money? Should energy be the "gold standard" for money and not gold?

One may argue that this has already been attempted in the form of the US Petrodollar, which from the point of view of the USA has been a massive economic windfall, but from the point of view of the rest of the world has enabled America to become a global parasite, to leech oil and high value products from other countries for free. The Petrodollar scheme has also incentivised the US to keep the Middle East politically unstable, in order to perpetuate this military protection racket. The explanation for this has been previously detailed in this essay:

http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2015/08/14/how-the-world-works-part-ii/

As a thought experiment however, can we conceive of a global system in which we index money to energy in a more objective fashion? When all its ramifications are explored, such a system seems unlikely to be workable in practice. Even if potentially feasible however, it will almost certainly be sabotaged and violently opposed by the USA as it will threaten their Petrodollar status. (see Part 1b which discusses the ISED, to follow soon).

 

The Ehrlich-Simon wager:

On a slight tangent, let us briefly mention the famous bet in 1980 between the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon regarding the future prices of five selected minerals. After ten years it was found that all the prices had fallen, hence Simon was declared "winner" and economists around the world trumpeted their triumph over the scientists. Ehrlich's error was to make the bet on the basis of price, which as we mentioned is a rubbery variable prone to all sorts of fluctuations, distortions and manipulations. The point Ehrlich wanted to make was that as time goes by, it becomes progressively more difficult for us to harvest, process and deliver the same amount of product (e.g. metal ingots). This is because we would have previously harvested all the "low hanging fruit", the easy pickings, ab initio. We always transition from initially easily scooping up high concentration ores to eventually scrounging the depths for low grade dregs. If Ehrlich had bet that the ENERGY costs of delivering the same amount of product would be higher after ten years (actually a fifteen or twenty year bet would have been preferable), he would have made a better wager6. This is an example of how even the smartest of scientists can run into trouble when trying to extrapolate the future on the basis of that most unreliable of variables, price.

On the other hand, was Simon's victory a result of greater wisdom or intelligence with regard to how prices work? Actually, no, he was just lucky, as was explained in David Murphy's 2011 post in TOD: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7343

Moral of this story? Making judgements and predictions based on price is prone to all sorts of pitfalls.

 

Conclusion:

Making judgements and predictions about oil availability on the basis of price, is like trying to make sense of a conversation between two people at the far end of a crowded room during a noisy party, with music blaring at full volume. The voices are there, but they are drowned out by too much extra noise. If one has a parabolic microphone and electronic audio filtering mechanisms however, it may be possible to achieve clarity and eliminate the background noise. We may be able to do so with regard to petroleum availability issues by looking at parameters other than the extremely noisy variable of price. This is discussed in Part 2.

 

Geoffrey Chia, November 2015

 

Footnotes:

 

1. Another factor contributing to low oil prices is economic deflation. Default of irredeemable debt in many sectors, due to the failure of real economic growth as a result of Peak Oil, has resulted in a contraction of the money supply relative to the pool of goods and services available ie deflation. This results in a fall in commodity prices across the board, oil included.

 

2. Please note this does not refer to Saudi Arabia increasing their oil output (which they cannot significantly do in a post Peak Oil situation with limited spare capacity), it refers to them refusing to substantially reduce their oil output in an atmosphere of global demand destruction. A sane exporter would reduce oil output in order to preserve high prices for this non-renewable finite resource, to maximise their long term sovereign earning capacity. Indications are that this Saudi insanity was pursued at the behest of the USA http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/16/the-oil-coup/ Like most of America's foreign policy dirty tricks, this tactic will result in future unintended consequences which will return to bite them. The current predatory low oil pricing is based on the US gamble that loss of foreign revenue by Russia and Iran will lead to their economic collapse and chaos in the short term, which will enhance Washington's ability to covertly implement “regime change” – to appoint US friendly administrations – in those countries. There are numerous examples in history of this US modus operandi, including regime change inflicted by the CIA on Iran itself in 1953. This time it will fail because the world is now wise to their tactics. The other “benefit” of flooding the market with cheaper Saudi oil is this: either Saudi oil will be preferentially purchased over Russian oil by Europe or it will force Russia to sell their oil cheaply to Europe. Either way it will diminish Russia's leverage over Europe, at least in the short term. What the US/Saudi axis is now unintentionally doing is forcing the Russians and Iranians to conserve their petroleum reserves while Saudi Arabia depletes theirs, for a price lower than the Saudi's would otherwise earn if they were not insane. In due course when the Saudi oil becomes more difficult (and hence more expensive) to extract, as it inevitably will, the Russians and Iranians will then, with their huge remaining quantities of (relatively) easy oil, gain the upper hand and be able to dictate the terms of the Great Game in the future. Blowback yet again. Americans see the eclipse of their empire looming and are adopting all sorts of short term desperate measures to forestall the inevitable.

 

3. Admittedly, this simple story of a struggling tradesman is prone to many "what ifs". Let us ignore the fact that in a deflationary environment, credit usually dries up and obtaining a bank loan may be impossible for a small business such as his. What if he does manage to get a bank loan to purchase another pick-up truck? Even with temporarily low oil prices, resuming work in a new environment of economic contraction with fewer clients, who themselves are under financial stress (and may go bankrupt and default on their payments to this tradesman) is likely to render resumption of his work unviable, apart from the fact he will probably never earn enough to pay back the bank loan for his new pick-up, in which case he will become a permanent debt slave. Much better if the tradie sells all his assets and moves to an off-grid rural community where he can grow his own food and offer his handyman services to his neighbours in an exchange economy.

 

4. http://energyskeptic.com/2014/lambert-hall-energy-eroi-and-quality-of-life/

 

5. At almost $600 billion per year, the US government spends more on its military than the next eight ranked countries in the world spend on their military combined.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures

Just diverting 2% of the US military budget per year to feed the poor over 5 years will be sufficient to completely solve world poverty. (Estimated cost to solve global poverty today is $58 billion http://www.borgenmagazine.com/much-money-end-global-poverty/ ) This situation was as true a decade ago as it is today. Why was this not done and why is it not being done and why will it never be done? Because US military expenditure is given priority over saving lives of the poor.

 

6. The situation is more complicated however. Just like petroleum, minerals go through a phase of rising extraction, a peak of extraction then terminal decline. Even if extraction of a particular ore is entering terminal decline, if that time period coincides with increasing energy availability (as was the case around 1990 with abundant petroleum available pre Peak Oil), then even though ore extraction and processing require more energy, the product may be cheaper due to energy being cheap at the time.

 

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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To fight climate change, you need to get the world off of fossil fuels. And to do that, you need to [...]

Americans are good on the "thoughts and prayers" thing. Also not so bad about digging in f [...]

In the echo-sphere of political punditry consensus forms rapidly, gels, and then, in short order…cal [...]

Discussions with figures from Noam Chomsky and Peter Senge to Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama off [...]

Lefty Greenies have some laudable ideas. Why is it then that they don't bother to really build [...]

Top Commentariats
  • Our Finite World
  • Economic Undertow

we are programmed to be dissatisfied with our lot---most don't know why they are dissatisfied, [...]

Peg a cryptocurrency to the USD.... and each coin is worth a USD -- always -- Magic!!! https://www.z [...]

I can picture you ... a liberal koombaya more on ... laughing hysterically with drool running down y [...]

How about one where you publish the entire paper from John Bates on how he exposed his colleagues fa [...]

POTUS ... most powerful man on earth!!! https://nataliaantonova.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/cannot-h [...]

Here"s one: https://seekingalpha.com/article/4210065-shale-oil-ponzi-scheme-evidence-decline-cu [...]

@Dolf Can't disagree with your solution for many people. But f you are involved in producing an [...]

Yes, exactly, the solution is relatively straight forward, whether it takes place by official channe [...]

Great big picture post Steve, thanks. The reason that MMT will never be allowed to reach mainstream [...]

DOlf dude - Looks like you are trying reverse psychology to get the ball rolling. All those years of [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

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Simplifying the Final Countdown

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Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

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Singularity of the Dollar

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Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

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SWISSIE CAPITULATION!

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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Collapse Fiction
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Forest management based on sustainability and multifunctionality requires reliable and user-friendly [...]

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). Although it comprises only 0.03% of total GHGs [...]

This study presents a method to investigate meteorological drought characteristics using multiple cl [...]

El Niño–Southern Oscillation strongly influences rainfall and temperature patterns in Eastern Austra [...]

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