Published on The Doomstead Diner on January 8, 2017
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The First Law of Thermodynamics:
Energy is neither created nor destroyed, only transformed from one form to another.
How is wealth created? Is it created at all? An important idea in capitalist epistemology is that the capitalist system creates wealth, and that those who become wealthy within the system do so by creating that wealth. Do they really?
The issue here is the idea that some people are "Wealth Creators". Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, they all got incredibly wealthy, right? So they must have "created" wealth, right? This concept depends a whole lot on whether you view the idea of "wealth" from the POV of the Individual or from the POV of the System as a whole. Which lens you use on this microscope on makes a HUGE difference on how you view the distribution of wealth in the society at large.
In order to better elucidate my POV, I am going to use 3 different examples of biznesses that supposedly "create wealth". I will look at my own last bizness of the many I have been involved with first, the Gymnastics Bizness. Then I will look at the Dental Bizness, which is my friend Eddie's type of biz. Then I will look at Tesla, Elon Musk's really BIG bizness, currently creating tons of wealth for Elon. lol.
The Gymnastics Bizness
Now, in the case of the Gym Biz, what the Gym Owner does is to insert himself in between well to do parents of kids who can afford a pretty high price tag of around $400/mo to be on the Team and coaches who know how to teach gymnastics. Then there are lots of recreational gymnasts who come for 1 class a week for around $100/mo. The typical gym has between 500-1000 gymmies running through it at any given time. Because it is such a pricy sport to be putting your kid into and it is an optional thing to do (you don't absolutely NEED to do gymnastics like you need to have your teeth drilled when you have a toothache), the clientele has a pretty high average income. Poor people do not send their kids to a gymnastics school. So I put the average income for the Victims here at around $100K.
Now, if out of the 1000 Gymmies you have 200 on Team, that is $400 X 200 =$80K/mo income, x12 = $960K/year. Your 800 other Rec gymmies are paying $100/mo for another $80K/mo, another $960K/year. Total gross income here around $2M for a well organized gymnastics school.
On the outflow end of this conduit, the gym owner has the cost of his facility, equipment, salaries for coaches and the taxes & insurance he has to pay. Facility costs can vary tremendously from old warehouses to custom buildings. Equipment also varies from old beat up stuff bought used to brand spanking new stuff from Spieth-Anderson or AAI. Coaches are almost universally paid low wages, often teenage ex-gymnasts are used as coaches at Min Wage before they even go to college. You gotta be a really first class coach to get out of this Min Wage level and actually make a living at coaching the sport. Even so, you never get into 6 figures as a coach unless you own the gym and run the conduit scheme.
Depending on the market they insert themselves into, Gym Owners can both become exceedingly rich or they can fail miserably, I've known both types over the last 30 years. In neither case though did anyone "create" any wealth. All they did was sieve wealth from one end, the victims, on the way to it's other end downhill in this process. The gym owners who got rich were the ones who were best at soaking their victims, but they never created any wealth here.
Where did that wealth come from? Well, many of the parents here are professional, doctors, dentists, lawyers and so forth. They in turn were using their own conduit schemes to sieve wealth from their victims. They have nice big paychecks incoming, so they can afford to pitch $400/mo after tax income to keep gymmie happy. In fact it costs a good deal more than that when you include all the meet fees, team leos and warmups, private lessons etc.
The Dental Racket
So now let us look at one of the Victims of the Gym Biz, the Dentist with his prized young daughter with this quite rare talent of extreme coordination, strength and flexibility and also pychological qualities of fearlessness and a drive to succeed, who sees Simone Biles/Mary Lou Retton/Shannon Miller/Shawn Johnson/Nadia Comanice on TV at the Olympics and wants to make her a STAR! How is he "creating wealth" to do this?
In order to analyze the Dental Biz in detail,, I made a new Infographic to examine how the Dental Conduit Scheme works!
There are 3 basic Nodes here, the Dental Victims, The Dentist and the higher level extractors taking profit from the Dentist, which makes him a second level Victim.
I used some average numbers here, giving the low level Victims an average take home salary of $50K (which is probably a high estimate) and the Dentist an average take home salary of $250K (which is probably a low estimate). I put the tax bill for the Dentist at a 50% rate, so it costs also $250K in taxes for the dentist every year.
For the wage slaves working for the dentist answering the phones, filling out the medical records and dealing with regulations and insurance companies, I figured 8 employees each making around $60K average, for around a total of $500K. A dental hygenist might make a bit more, a records clerk less.
The dentist also has to buy a lot of expensive stuff to run his bizness, those gold fillings don't come cheap these days you know! Nor does the hardware for implants or aything else. You also gotta upgrade all the time and buy those expensive new Digital X-Ray Cameras, and you gotta fly all the time all over the country to Utah and other spots for getting your continuing education credits to maintain your license. Then there are the Malpractice Insurance bills.
So, in order to maintain a $250K/year income here in this Conduit Scheme, the Dentist needs a Gross Income of around $2M before expenses, taxes, insurance, materials etc etc etc. All of that money has to come from the Victims of the Dentist, each making an average of $50K.
So one way to look at this is how many Victims the Dentist needs to cover $2M in costs, and how much they have to pay him each year? If the Dentist has 100 Victims, then each Victim would need to pay the Dentist $20,000 every year to keep this conduit scheme going. Obviously, people making $50K a year cannot afford to pay $20K of that to a Dentist! So really the Dentist needs more like 1000 Victims to be successful with the conduit scheme. Now you are down to $2000 per victim, which is a bit more affordable at a $50K salary. BUT, can a single dentist really drill the teeth of 1000 different people every year?
I Googled the cost of Dental Fillings in TX.
On average, a silver filling costs between $50 and $150 for one or two dental surfaces. However, the price increases to the $120 to $300 range, if three or more surfaces require a filling. The good news is that dental insurance covers a majority of the cost since a filling is considered a necessary procedure.Sep 20, 2013
Mansfield, TX Dentist Explains the Cost of Dental Fillings | Mansfield, TX
Call the average cost $200. To work up a $2000 bill, each patient of the 1000 needs 10 fillings every year. So the dentist needs to drill 10,000 teeth each year, in 250 working days. That's 40 a day, 5/hr in an 8 hour day. So he has to drill & fill a tooth every 10 minutes, with a 10 minute break every hour to check for Doom on the Diner. lol.
Another way to look at it is how much money the Dental Biz needs to bring in each day to cover those $2M in bills. If you figure the dentist works 5 days a week 50 weeks out of the year, he has 250 days of extracting money from the Victims. That means that every last day of that 250 days, he has to bring in $8000 from the Victims. If he is working 8 hour days, that works out to $1000/hr!
Now, since I do not have PRECISE numbers on this to work with, these are all just estimates. BUT, even if you knocked my numbers down by half, you can see why it is not sustainable. The folks who pay the bills at the BOTTOM cannot retire the debt and costs that the Dentist has! They just don't make enough money to do that! Somebody somewhere is working up a nice debt bill. No wealth has been created, just an ever increasing pile of debt!
The only way this shit gets paid for these days is through ever increasing debt, and the asset in this example goes on the side of the Dentist and the liability goes on the side of the Victim. That is straight economics. You cannot make something from nothing.
Clearly here, the Dentist has created no wealth, all he has done is insert himself into a position where he can serve as a conduit between people who have dental pain or issues and those free of dental pain or issues. Unlike the Gymnastics Biz, it is not optional to visit or not visit a Dentist when you have a bad enough toothache. You have no options here within the borders of the FSoA, you MUST pay whatever the Dentist will charge to relieve your pain. Unless you cross the border into Mexico, you will bankrupt yourself if you make an average salary trying to pay off the dentists for fixing your teeth. I have visited at least a dozen different dentists over the course of my life trying to repair teeth here in the FSoA that other dentists in Brazil ruined in my childhood and adolescence. Every root canal and every cap cost me $thousands$ on a very average salary of median income for the time period. You are talking at least a dozen of these things over the time period. In the end, all that money went to waste, every single one of those teeth had to be pulled out of my mouth by a Mexican Dentist, who did it at the Bargain Basement price of $25 a tooth, whereas a Dentist here in Alaska would have charged me $300 a tooth to do the same job. It's a great racket here in the FSoA if you can get licensed to do it. Every last Dentist that I ever visited owned a Mercedes and had a nice huge McMansion to live in. I paid for that, along with all the other Dental Victims.
Why can dentists here in the FSoA charge such high prices for these tasks? Because they run a gated profession with few Dental Schools relative to population size and they make it EXTREMELY difficult for a foreign trained dentist to get licensed to practice dentistry in the FSoA. So there exist a LARGE pool of victims (basically everyone since everyone has some kind of dental problem at some point), and a relatively SMALL number of dentists licensed to do the job on your teeth that needs to be done. So they can pretty much set the price as they please, the only constraint on this being what the other local dentist will charge, since most people will not cross the border into Mexico. As a Dental Pain Sufferer, you are over a barrel if you cannot make the border crossing to Mexico, you MUST pay whatever the Dentist charges or else suffer agonizing pain until you figure out how to yank the offending tooth out of your mouth yourself. This is called a contract under DURESS, and it is illegal in Tort Law. In reality, you are not obligated to pay any of these charges by tort law. In reality, all dental patients shoudl file a Class Action Lawuit against all Dentists and strip them of their criminally stolen money and property.
The Elon Musk Flim-Flam
OK, we have now moved through 2 types of Small Biz, the Gymnastics Biz and the Dental Biz. To finish off for the day here, let us look at BIG BIZNESS, Elon Musk's Tesla, Gigafactory Battey facility and Rocket Ship Biz.
Not a single one of these biz makes any profit at all, but they have a Market Cap of $BILLIONS$ WTF did all the money come from so Elon could build his toys without making a dime of profit for YEARS? Can you imagine going for years with a negative net income and still getting credit to keep going?
Like all of the really large corporations and big biz of our society, it is all run on CREDIT, and if you are well enough connected the credit has been quite endless. The "money" flowing down through the society into all the small biz like Gymnastics Schools and Dental Offices actually begins with these very large corporations and their associated banking industry, they are all created through the massive issuance of debt in the form of corporate bonds. The other big money creation mechanism is from Goobermint bonds, debt which the population is supposed to retire through paying their taxes. The debt of corporate bonds is supposed to be retired by profits from the industry, again which the population at large is supposed to provide the money for by buying the products. In reality, in neither case can the population ever make enough money to retire the debt either created by the corporations or by da goobermint. This can be masked for a long time, but if you notice just about every large corporate entity eventually goes bankrupt. The railroads all went bankrupt, the big automotive companies like GM and Chrysler went bankrupt, and the airlines like TWA and PanAm also went bankrupt. Then new ones pop up with new issuance of debt and reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions, but they too will all go BK in the bye and bye. No wealth was created here in any of these industries, only an ever increasing pile of debt along with a lot of landfill.
Similarly, Da Goobermint never created any wealth either by issuing out its vast quantities of debt. While certainly Goobermints have built many roads, bridges, tunnels, power plants, sports stadiums etc, the maintenance cost on all of it is always greater than the revenue brought iin through taxation to pay for it. So the only way to keep going with it is to issue out still more debt. Which they do as long as they can, but eventually smaller countries like Greece get cut off from the bond market, at which time their economy immediately tanks. Similarly, any large corporation cut of from the corporate bond market immediately goes BK.
The "wealth" Elon creates is simply a bigger pile of debt somewhere else, bur unlike the gym owner or dentist, he has inserted himself into the very TOP of the food chain, getting his debt money directly from the folks in charge of manufacturing money, the TBTF banks. Elon hardly needs Victims to bilk at all selling Teslas, hell he's only sold around 150,000 of them since 2008! In the end, he's really bilking the taxpayer, who will end up with all the bad debt he has created on their balance sheet.
Nobody in this whole chain of events ever creates wealth. They only sieve wealth in various types of schemes and rackets on it's way down the thermodynamic hill. So where then IS the wealth "created"?
It's not created, it's EXTRACTED. The wealth is the resources of the earth, and all that debt money that is created are little tickets (or now digibits) which allow you to buy some of the resources, most particularly the energy resource of oil. Those little tickets trickle down through the rest of the economy, and various types of biznesses and rackets insert themselves along the way as the energy moves its way down the thermodynamic hill. Who gets the privilege of creating these little debt tickets? The folks who control the energy of course, which is why the Energy Industry and Bankstering Biz are so closely related. It's why the Rockefellers who controlled Standard Oil ALSO founded the Chase Manhattan Bank, now JP Morgan Chase. They issue the credit to buy the Oil, and it gets burned up all the way down the line in various stages as it moves through all the rackets. The BEST rackets are at the very top of the food chain here, like Elon Musk or Mark Suckerbug's rackets. Neither one creates any wealth though.
By the time you get down to small time rackets like the Gym Biz and Dental Biz, you're getting close to the end of the line on the way down to the final stop, the end consumer of everything that happened above in the chain. The end consumer DEFINITELY creates no wealth, but rather destroys what is left of it on its way to its final destination as waste in the landfill or CO2 in the atmosphere.
What wealth there was in the Earth was captured over billions of years by photosynthetic organisms collecting energy from the sun. Animal life just extracts that energy from the plant, then eventually both die and sequester carbon, and then after that Homo Saps evolve to burn up all that energy, and develop an economic system which does that. Very rapidly too!
How long does the game last? Only as long as there is a big enough thermodynamic gradient to support a downhill flow of the energy. It appears we are getting quite close to the point where no work can be done exploiting the energy flow left. At least not on the scale globally we have been doing it anyhow.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 15, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
Michael Klare has published an extensive comment on "Tomgram" about what appear to be the current policy choices by Donald Trump on energy and he correctly notes how contradictory they are. Basically,
The main thrust of his approach couldn’t be clearer: abolish all regulations and presidential directives that stand in the way of unrestrained fossil fuel extraction, including commitments made by President Obama in December 2015 under the Paris Climate Agreement.
In other words, Trump seems to be locked in a market-only vision of the problem, thinking that physical realities have no role in the extraction of fossil resources. On this, he is surely not alone, but the problem is that deregulation is not so important as Trump seems to think. It was not because the market was over-regulated that oil prices spiked up to $150 dollars/barrel in 2008 and kept hovering at around $100/barrel from 2011 up to late 2014. And it was not because oil production was suddenly deregulated that prices collapsed to below $40 in 2015. The oil market, as all markets, suffers from instabilities that may be, sometimes, cured by regulations. Eliminating all the regulations may well cause further price swings and wild oscillations, rather than increase production.
If oil companies are in trouble, right now, is because the oil prices are too low, not because oil extraction is over-regulated and Trump's policies – if they were to work – may damage the fossil fuel industry even more. That, in itself, would not be a bad thing – especially in terms of the effects on climate. The problem is that Trump's ideas to revitalize the fossil fuel industry may not be limited to deregulation, but could involve actively discouraging renewable energy, a policy that, for instance, the Italian government has been successfully applying during the past few years.
So, why does Trump want to do such a thing? Here, we can only imagine what passes in the mind of a 70-year old man who is not known to be especially expert in anything. Klare puts forward a possible explanation as:
To some degree, no doubt, it comes, at least in part, from the president-elect’s deep and abiding nostalgia for the fast-growing (and largely regulation-free) America of the 1950s. When Trump was growing up, the United States was on an extraordinary expansionist drive and its output of basic goods, including oil, coal, and steel, was swelling by the day. The country’s major industries were heavily unionized; the suburbs were booming; apartment buildings were going up all over the borough of Queens in New York City where Trump got his start; cars were rolling off the assembly lines in what was then anything but the “Rust Belt”; and refineries and coal plants were pouring out the massive amounts of energy needed to make it all happen.
And don’t forget one other factor: Trump’s vindictiveness — in this case, not just toward his Democratic opponent in the recent election campaign but toward those who voted against him. The Donald is well aware that most Americans who care about climate change and are in favor of a rapid transformation to a green energy America did not vote for him,
Given his well-known penchant for attacking anyone who frustrates his ambitions or speaks negatively of him, and his urge to punish greens by, among other things, obliterating every measure adopted by President Obama to speed the utilization of renewable energy, expect him to rip the EPA apart and do his best to shred any obstacles to fossil fuel exploitation. If that means hastening the incineration of the planet, so be it. He either doesn’t care (since at 70 he won’t live to see it happen), truly doesn’t believe in the science, or doesn’t think it will hurt his company’s business interests over the next few decades.
This interpretation by Michael Klare may or may not be correct but it underlies a basic problem: elections give power to people on the basis of their promises, but nobody really knows how they will behave once they have power in their hands. The world's history is full of leaders who had mental problems of all kinds or even just had a vision of the world that was completely out of touch with reality. The result was normally unmitigated disasters as leaders, in most cases, refuse to learn from their mistakes. And not just that, they tend to double down, worsening things.
Published on The Doomstead Diner on November 27, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
I gave a mini presentation at a Griffith University “sustainable economy” seminar on 29 November 2016 https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B21KVqpkTSnrQ2haWFAwaU5MRjQ/view As the themes were slanted towards “business opportunities”, I chose this title for my talk: “Tiny House Communities: grassroots solutions for those with sufficient initiative to exit a collapsing industrial civilisation”. In my pre-conference paper/abstract submission to the GCSE, I made it clear I was going to talk about much more than just tiny houses. Ultimately I spent only 5 minutes talking about tiny house communities and 15 minutes talking about our collapsing industrial civilisation. I focused especially on the sudden global energy descent we will soon be facing and tried to explain the key concepts with my “post peak oil” slides http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2016/11/12/post-peak-oil-slides-for-diners/
I received the usual denialism response I have come to expect from one individual in particular, a person who in a previous session advocated that if only we use objective science to persuade the public, we can transform society and create a great future. That person also said we should not convey negative messages to the public because that would alienate them. I had neither the time nor inclination to engage with that person. I did not bother to point out the obvious contradiction in his position: that objective science unequivocally shows our future to be dire, which by necessity will convey a “negative” message to the public.
At a subsequent main session, Professor Susanne Becken, a highly acclaimed professor of “sustainable tourism”, spoke about Peak Oil and Aviation and projected this slide from the International Energy Agency on the screen:
To her credit she couched those IEA future oil projections in cautionary terms and advised the audience NOT to invest in the aviation industry.
As an audience member at the Q&A session, I made this comment and posed this question to her (I paraphrase here. The event was recorded and my exact words may be audible if Griffith eventually post the session as a webcast):
“I was amused to see the IEA slide you displayed, which included “oil yet to be found” and “oil yet to be developed” in the projection of future oil available, which made the future total oil curve look flat or even rising. Such wild speculation brings to mind the thought that if pigs had wings, pigs could fly and flying pigs will solve all our aviation problems. IEA are well known for always overestimating future oil availability, then having to revise those figures downward when reality proves them wrong. In terms of deceit they are second only to Daniel Yergin's CERA, a stooge of the fossil fuel industry. I am sure you know who I am talking about. I am sure you are familiar with David Murphy's Net Hubbert curve which takes into account energy returned over energy invested. I am sure you are familiar with Jeffrey Brown's export land model, which looks at future oil availability for oil importing countries. If you superimpose the ELM on the Net Hubbert curve, which you must do if you believe in basic physics and mathematics, you will realise that Australia will have no more conventional oil available to import within ten years. Do you not think such a graph is more accurate and appropriate to use?”
To her credit, the professor did not take offence at my “flying pigs” comment and acknowledged the validity of my points. She really had no choice, otherwise she would be denying basic physics and mathematics, which would make her look foolish. She accepted that proper assessment of actual oil availability should subtract the amount of oil needed to produce that oil. To her credit she stated that unconventional oils such as tar sands have such poor EROEI that in reality they are not worth pursuing. However with regard to the short term prospects for her particular fields of interest (aviation and tourism), she was sanguine. She expressed a “Realpolitik” view that when there are competing interests for diminishing oil supplies in the future, such as whether to allocate oil to produce food for the poor or to fuel the aviation industry, the business interests of aviation will win out and the poor will starve. She made a valid, if cynical point there. That view is not dissimilar to my own view about how the “five fingers” of net energy will be allocated in the future when we tumble even further down the net Hubbert cliff: Military activities will be given priority over everything else, thus promoting human die-off. Gotta love the human race.
My ongoing concern is that such “peak oil experts” continue to use fraudulent fantasy graphs based on cornucopian speculative projections in their presentations, which to a less critical audience will otherwise be accepted and go unchallenged. Here is one solution to this conundrum: make the audience less critical by getting rid of troublemakers.
Needless to say I do not expect to be invited back by that particular department of Griffith University in the future. And so it goes.
G. Chia Dec. 2016
Published on the Doomstead Diner on October 8, 2016
Discuss this article at the Geopolitics Table inside the Diner
Many commentators have sought explanations and solutions for the Syrian debacle. Only by accurately identifying the underlying cause(s) of a situation can we begin to craft workable solutions, if any solutions are possible at all.
To me, this is akin to making an accurate diagnosis when faced with a complex pathological condition, then trying to shape a management plan to achieve a cure (or at least to aim for symptomatic relief and palliation, if the situation is irredeemable). As I have stated before in my essay "How to cure Terrorism" 1 it is essential to identify not only the underlying cause(s) of a situation and any predisposing factors, but should also (in the case of sudden collapse), identify any proximate triggers.
How do we know a diagnosis is accurate? Because the correct paradigm bears all the hallmarks of Truth, viz:
It is supported by the best evidence
It is coherent (internally and externally consistent), with plausible underlying mechanisms operating within its framework
It offers the best explanation for the situation
It may have useful predictive value for future outcome(s) ie it can offer a prognosis
The elimination/resolution of properly identified underlying cause(s), predisposing factors(s) and proximate trigger(s) will offer the best prospect of a cure.
Again, I have used these principles in past essays when outlining the epidemiological truth that smoking causes lung cancer (even though it is impossible to demonstrate a one-to-one cause and effect relationship in any individual lung cancer case). I also used these principles to prove that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had nothing to do with WMDs or the pursuit of "freedom" or "democracy" nor was it about deposing a tyrant "for the sake of the Iraqi people". The truth was that the invasion of Iraq was about OIL: specifically about the US pursuit of oil related economic, political and military global power. The ideology of US neoconartist global dominance mediated by the control over the flow of oil and the enforced continuity of the petrodollar scheme.
I cannot delve into the Syrian situation in detail here, which would require a lengthy Phd type thesis. Instead I will simply outline various useful lenses through which the Syrian situation may be viewed. Lenses are meant to help us see better. They may help us see clearly various portions of a jigsaw puzzle which make up our "big picture" of Truth. However some lenses may be fabricated for political purposes and cause complete distortion. They are contrived propaganda, crafted to serve the agenda of the angloeurozionist "GIMME" (Government, Industrial, Military, Media & Economic) establishment. Intellectual Kool Aid to keep the masses brain dead (to mix several metaphors).
Let us first cast aside a couple of blatantly bogus paradigms:
The Syrian situation is a revolution against tyranny by the common Syrians who are clamouring for democracy and freedom, which was what the "Arab Spring" was all about.
This utterly bullshit paradigm was best demolished by Tom Lewis with his inimitable wry manner in a podcast I have referenced in the past. 2
The Syrian situation is a religious civil war, mainly a domestic Sunni versus Alawite/Shi'ite conflict. As I mentioned in a previous essay, Bashar Al-Assad, nominally an Alawite, was a member of the Baathist secular party and he himself married a Sunni lady. There are NO clearcut religious lines here. Nor is it a particularly domestic dispute. The so-called Syrian Sunni rebel groups include among their numbers many foreign intruders. ISIS is a foreign invasion force. The most effective fighters against ISIS are the Kurds and most of those in Syria are indeed Syrian. Kurds are nominally Sunni and may be genuinely religious, but their outlook is fairly progressive and they take pride in their courageous female soldiers who do not wear headscarves. ISIS claim to be pious Sunni Muslims, which is a complete lie. ISIS are fake Muslims, they are primarily terrorists, rapists and gangsters who hide behind the bogus banner of a religion to legitimise their anti-human activities in pursuit of their unrestrained lust for power. This is identical to how the US corporate owned politicians hide behind the bogus banner of "freedom" or "democracy" to legitimise their anti-human agenda of global ecocide, in pursuit of their unrestrained lust for power. ISIS was in fact the creation of the US GIMME establishment. The "religious civil war in Syria" paradigm ignores the numerous external operators who are major players. The so-called "moderate" Sunni rebels in Syria are deeply intertwined with many Salafist extremists including the notorious Jabhat Al Nusra (who are Al Qaeda in Syria). US State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau admitted this fact at a press conference on 3 October, which was held to announce the breakdown of discussions between Russia and the US over Syria. Trudeau said the US had been unable to "demarble" (her word) the "moderate" Sunni rebels from entities such as Al Nusra, who she admits are Al Qaeda terrorists. Hence by their own admission, ongoing US support for these rebels represents support for terrorist criminals. I have provided other references for these facts in previous essays.
Evidence-based "lenses" with good explanatory power, which confer better understanding of the Syrian situation:
The events leading up to the collapse of Syria were manifestations of the Limits to Growth. In a previous essay I outlined the problem of declining Syrian petroleum production which intersected with their increased domestic oil consumption (Peak Oil combined with the ELM) which resulted in zero oil income and hence contributed to their economic demise. 3 A smaller Syrian population of the past could have been sustained by fewer resources, but the large population of 23 million by 2011 faced severe per capita shortfalls of everything. The worst drought in living memory from 2006 to 2010, which was aggravated by climate change, led to agricultural collapse, the mass migration of impoverished farmers to the cities, food shortages, conflicts and the breakdown of society.
The LtG re-ignited old tribal and sectarian conflicts which were greatly magnified by the post colonial legacy of egregious gerrymandering (Sykes-Picot "treaty") 3. Each sect is largely motivated by their own self interest, irrespective of whatever religious banner they may claim live under, whether they be the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (who have a long history of striving to gain power in Syria), the Kurds (who are struggling for an independent homeland), the Alawites (who initially hoped to maintain control over Syria but are now engaged in an existential struggle for survival) and so forth.
Syria is a proxy war in the new Great Game. The US has more than 800 overseas military bases 4 around the world. In contrast, Syria is the last remaining foreign outpost of Russian military influence in the world, with the port of Tartus and the airfield at Latakia hosting Russian warships and planes. Since the end of the Cold War, the unbridled US hegemonic agenda of complete global dominance has been characterised by their mindless and destructive policy of foreign regime change to install puppet leaders under US control. This agenda was exemplified by the US / NATO covert regime change imposed on Ukraine with resultant civil war and the ongoing encirclement of Russia by US nuclear missles. Ukraine, formerly the bread basket of Europe, has now become the basket case of Europe. Let is not even delve into Iraq or Libya. In the case of Syria, the US have been trying to get rid of Russian ally Bashar Al-Assad and replace him with a US puppet. Why did Russia begin their foray into Syria by dramatically launching low flying, contour hugging "under the radar" cruise missiles from ships far, far away in the Caspian sea? Why not just use their bombers based in Latakia? ISIS may have copped the cruise missiles, but the Russians were primarily sending a message to Uncle Sam: your super expensive high tech US aircraft carrier fleets are now completely obsolete. Russia these days is able to deploy unstoppable massive conventional force from a distance which the US cannot possibly counter (the same capability is certainly true for China, who spend far more on their military than Russia). The USA is now railroading the entire world into a possible Hot War which can easily turn into a global thermonuclear war, for no reason other than their crazed hunger for power.
Apart from Russia and the US, there are other "lesser puppet masters" who have their own reasons for meddling in Syria. In the "Russian" camp there are Iran, Shi'ites from Iraq and Hezbollah. In the "US" camp there are Saudi Arabia and Qatar (and to a lesser extent other Gulf players such as Kuwait), who have also employed foreign mercenaries such as Chechens.
The schizophrenic involvement of a particular proxy player, Turkey: Turkey, as a NATO member, nominally claims to be on the US side and against ISIS. However under the wily maneuvering of the duplicitous Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the reality is much more complex. What Erdogan says and does are often contradictory and discordant. One fact is crystal clear however: Erdogan's actions are always in the service of his own self interest and in that sense he cannot be regarded as a true US puppet. Recent events in Turkey have been thoroughly fascinating and warrant detailed analysis far beyond the scope of this short essay. Some examples:
Erdogan had been buying cheap oil illegally from ISIS, oil which had been stolen from Iraq. This oil entered Turkey via road trains through the (intentionally) porous Turkish-Syrian border. Erdogan was therefore in fact financing ISIS, his nominal enemy. This fact was patently obvious to the USA from satellite images, which America chose to ignore, which adds credence to the view that the US actually supports ISIS while pretending to oppose it. This illegal oil trade was abruptly terminated by Russian bombing, in response to which Erdogan petulantly shot down a Russian plane, a reckless act of despicable bastardry which could have triggered wider scale war if not for Russian restraint.
Last year, Turkish media exposed the fact that the Erdogan government had been illegally supplying weapons to extremist insurgents across the (intentionally) porous Turkish-Syrian border. Such a domestic media expose will not happen again, not because Erdogan has changed his ways, but because he has now muzzled the Turkish media.
Erdogan regards his primary enemy as the Kurds because the Turkish Kurds threaten to secede from his neo-Ottoman aspirational empire to form an independent Kurdistan in conjuction with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. Therefore he does not hesitate to use a secondary enemy, ISIS, as a tool against his primary enemy. This explains his partial support for ISIS, even as he fights against ISIS at other times and in other places that suit him. Note that the Turks, Kurds and ISIS are all supposedly Sunni, hence none of this has anything to do with religion.
We do not know for sure who masterminded the recent "failed coup" in Turkey, but we do know who has benefited the most from it. Erdogan has since been able to cast aside any pretence of due process and has summarily purged more than a hundred thousand potential dissidents and opponents from all positions of influence in Turkey. He has thoroughly entrenched his power and is essentially now a totalitarian dictator. He embarrassed the US with the accusation that America was harbouring and supporting the purported coup organiser Fetullah Gulen. It is true that America will stand to gain by installing a more US compliant puppet leader in Turkey, hence this accusation is not one which can be easily dismissed by US propaganda, given America's well known repetitive policy of foreign regime change.
Being irate (or pretending to be irate) with the US, Erdogan then decided to kiss and make up with Putin, who then allowed the resumption of Russian tourism into Turkey, an extremely valuable source of income for Ankara. That, as well as the future possibility of a Russian gas pipeline through Turkey to Europe, another money spinner.
It is true that Turkey has taken on more than its fair share of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, now harbouring more than three million 5. On the other hand, Erdogan has cynically used the Syrian refugees as human bargaining chips to get what he wants from the EU. He has shown he is willing and able to open and close the floodgates of refugees from Turkey into Europe and thereby has been able to extort money from the EU and prise out freedom of movement privileges for Turks into the EU.
By offering Turkish citizenship to more than 2 million Syrian Sunni Muslims, Erdogan will be able to increase his support and power base in Turkey, as he is aligned with the Sunni fundamentalists. Erdogan opposes and is opposed by secular Turks (especially those in the military who had traditionally been faithful to the secular principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk).
The Machiavellian Erdogan has repeatedly demonstrated a nimble ability to have his cake and eat it (that is, until such future time when an jackal can find a way to penetrate his security detail and assassinate him). Any serious coup organiser worth their salt would have commenced their operation by assassinating the incumbent. The fact that Erdogan escaped such a fate indicates that either the coup planners were utterly incompetent or that it may indeed have been a false flag event engineered by Erdogan himself.
Syria is a proxy war over natural gas pipelines: In order to understand the geopolitical considerations about this proxy pipeline war, it is essential to understand the physical properties of natural gas, which render it a far inferior source of energy (and source of money) compared with petroleum. Nevertheless if sold in vast quantities to a vast market, the money to be made can be mind boggling. Key considerations:
If a natural gas field straddles a political border and is "shared" by two parties, the party which extracts the gas first and fastest will be able to harvest most, if not all the wealth from that field, because the gas will rapidly move through the field towards the extraction point. Contrast that characteristic with viscous crude oil, which can only sluggishly migrate at a maximum rate of 6% per year through porous rock.
Early gas extraction is of no value unless you have an immediate market to offload the gas. Natural gas is just too energy sparse to economically store above ground in significant quantities for any length of time.
The optimal market for the gas is one close to the gas field. The further away the market, the more expensive it is to transport the gas and hence the lower the profit margin. Even if the market is thousands of kilometers away however, profit margins can still be good, so long as the gas can be transported by pipeline in gaseous form. Export to far distant locations (eg another continent) is only feasible by liquefaction to render it far more energy dense. Making energy dense liquid natural gas requires refrigeration down to about minus 163 degrees Celsius, cryogenic storage and transportation in highly insulated, massive, purpose built LNG tankers which require continuous refrigeration. Refrigeration energy requirements are particularly high when the tankers sail through the tropics. Any power failure will be catastrophic. The LNG trade requires special facilities at the importing port which can accept and process this tricky commodity. All those factors amount to huge energy expenditure, huge capex, custom construction of port facilities and tankers and also requires a cashed up customer with advanced infrastructure. If the market price for natural gas falls, the whole system collapses financially, hence LNG schemes can be likened to unconventional oil scams. LNG export in lifecycle analysis has very poor EROEI compared with piped gas export.
The above considerations form the foundation for an understanding of the Syrian pipeline proxy war. The South Pars / North Dome gas field is the largest conventional natural gas field in the world. It is mostly located under the seabed of the Persian Gulf and straddles the borders of Iran to the NorthEast and Qatar to the SouthWest who are bitter enemies. Even though it has been in production for more than a decade, the party who accelerates their extraction will effectively steal most of that remaining resource away from the other party. However that gas cannot be quickly harvested without first ensuring there is a big market for it. A big market cannot be assured unless there are pipelines in place to supply that market. Qatar does export LNG (mainly to East Asia), but this is subject to the substantial constraints outlined above, with limited profit margins. The most prized gas market from the view of both Qatar and Iran, is Western Europe. The party that can establish a pipeline to Europe first will win that prize. The critical territory the pipeline must cross, determined by geography, is Syria. In 2009 Qatar, a Sunni client state of the US, approached Bashar Al Assad proposing such a pipeline through Aleppo province. Not surprisingly, Assad knocked back Qatar's proposal because it ran counter to his political alliances. A Qatari pipeline would undermine the price of Russian gas exported to Western Europe and would scuttle Iran's chance of benefiting from South Pars. When Iran subsequently approached Assad about such a pipeline, economic circumstances in Syria had by then greatly deteriorated. This new pipeline proposal from Iran, a Shi'ite state and ally of both Syria and Russia, came with the promise they would turn Syria into an energy processing, money making hub. Assad was therefore ready to proceed with Iran's deal. Shortly thereafter, the "civil war" in Syria broke out, instigated by so-called "Syrian" rebel groups which actually consisted of many foreign mercenaries funded largely by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
At the time of writing of this essay in early October, Aleppo city is on the verge of being recaptured from ISIS by Syrian government forces with the help of Russia. That did not stop Turkey from moving troops into Aleppo province last month under operation "Euphrates shield", Turkey's proposal being to create and occupy a "neutral" buffer zone. Of course, it is nonsensical to regard such a zone in Northern Syria as neutral: if defacto occupied by Turkey, it is defacto neo-Ottoman empire annexed territory. Perhaps we should rename Erdogan's country "Vulture" rather than "Turkey", or perhaps Turkey Vulture. Of course such an occupation will also mean that Turkey Vulture may benefit financially in future by renting a gas pipeline corridor in Aleppo province to the highest bidder. No mention about that lucrative prospect from Turkey Vulture though, whose motives, so we are told, are purely altruistic, as is true for all Vultures.
Enter another player, Israel, into this sorry saga of greed. In December 2010 a gas field off the Levantine coast was discovered so massive that Israel called it "Leviathan". Whereas there is little risk of another country tapping into that field, there is a risk that either Qatari or Iranian gas piped through Syria to Europe will seriously undermine the price of gas exported to Western Europe. And what will be the natural market for gas from the Leviathan field? Why Western Europe of course. It is obvious that Israel will stand to benefit from ongoing chaos in Syria, chaos which will ensure that both Qatar and Iran cannot establish a pipeline to Europe, thus allowing Israel to develop its own Leviathan field for export to Europe at a premium price (expected start of production is 2017). America's failed agenda of "regime change" in Syria has resulted in nothing but chaos, however Israel is more than happy to support and maintain that chaos. Let us recall Netanyahu's squealing insistence that the US should bomb the crap out of Syria during his rabid rant to an insane Republican audience at the US congress in March last year. Who gives a shit about 23 million Syrian lives anyway if there is gas money to be made.
The gas story does not quite end there however. Get ready for an anticlimax. Only last year, an even larger offshore gas field, much bigger than Leviathan, possibly even larger than South Pars, was discovered off the coast of Egypt, the Zohr field 6. Due to Egypt's greater experience with the fossil fuel and gas industries, they have good prospects of fast tracking the gas production which will offer stiff competition with Israel's fledgling gas industry and severely blunt Israel's expected economic windfall. Oy vey, enough already!
Any astronomer will tell you that to properly study the true nature of a star, it is necessary to examine it using all the different electromagnetic spectra available to us, whether radiowave, microwave, infrared, visible light, UV, Xrays or gamma rays. That is the best way for us to build up a comprehensive and accurate overall picture of that star. Furthermore it is necessary to eliminate or compensate for other factors which may distort or falsify our interpretation, such as atmospheric interference or doppler shifts or gravity distortions by dense bodies (eg black holes) which may bend the incoming electromagnetic beams.
Similarly in order to properly understand Syria, we must view the situation through all evidenced based lenses available to us, while simultaneously discarding bent and bogus paradigms fabricated by the Murdoch/mainstream media and their fee-for-opinion prostitute talking heads, even though they may hold "impeccable" ivy league "qualifications".
US and Australian rightwing nuts will undoubtedly accuse me of being a greenie commie freedom hating eco-terrorist. Anyone who has read my articles will know I strongly support open, liberal democratic processes which must be guided by evidence, reason and fairness with particular emphasis on transparency and accountability. I strongly support responsible free speech based on facts and reason. I strongly oppose irresponsible deceitful speech based on blatant lies such as Holocaust denial or global warming denial. Opposing and suppressing such deceitful Neonazi or Orwellian speech does NOT contradict the principle of free speech, it removes noise and promotes the process of constructive dialogue and the transmission of useful information. I strongly support the original stated ideals of America; the ideals of Abraham Lincoln, of Franklin Roosevelt and of Martin Luther King. I view Americans (or Australians or any other nationality) with similar values as my natural allies, my friends. The America of Lincoln, FDR and MLK that I admired, with all the promise it held, no longer exists. It has been replaced by a perverse mockery of what might have been. The beacon on the hill has been extinguished, not from without, but from within.
The voices of ordinary Syrian people have been drowned out in all these proceedings. We can only imagine what they must want, be they Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze, Yazidi or any other group. Is it so difficult to imagine that they simply want peace, security, shelter, food, clean water, education for their children, health care? That they simply want what we, in more stable societies take for granted? Simple human requirements that the so-called "leaders of the free world", through their despicable foreign policy, have deprived them of? The best thing the USA can do, to allow any prospect of any beneficial outcome for the Syrian people, is for the USA and its client states to fuck off.
G. Chia, October 2016
Published on Peak Surfer on September 24, 2016
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"“There is a bottleneck right here … and today I am directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority.”— Barack Obama, March 22, 2012."
On April 1, in the last phase of istawicayazan wi, the moon of sore eyes, acting with love and fierce determination, the youth of the Standing Rock reservation stood together in prayer at the place called Sacred Stone. At the close of their prayer, they remained. Figuratively, they drove stakes into the ground and tied their legs to them. They might be killed there, but they would not leave.
Facing them were the arrayed forces of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the White House, four state governments, and the corporations and banks that form Energy Transfer Partners. ETP (NYSE:ETP) owns and operates Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Company, successor to Southern Union Company, and Lone Star NGL. ETP also owns 67.1 million common units of Sunoco Logistics Partners (NYSE:SXL) a company that hopes to see the United States become an oil-exporting nation once more.
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter steel pipe that will connect the million-barrel-per-day Bakken and Three Forks fracked oilfields of North Dakota to a bigger pipeline in Illinois for transportation to Louisiana and Texas SXL crude oil terminal facilities and there to be loaded onto ocean-going tankers.
DAPL will carry 570,000 barrels per day. Unless one of those supertankers sinks, one hundred percent of that will go to the atmosphere as deadly, human-extinction-intending, greenhouse gases. So will the oil and gas flowing through the other 71,000 miles of pipelines owned by ETP.
It will cost more to build capacity, produce, refine and burn that oil than to provide the same energy from clean, solar power sources.
On March 12, 2012, two years and three months after successfully derailing the Copenhagen climate agreement, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum ordering federal agencies to expedite the licensing of new oil and gas projects.
Two months before the Standing Rock youth assembled, the US Army Corps of Engineers, acting for the Obama Administration, gave DAPL an allotment of NWP “fast track” permits. These permits are usually reserved for powerlines or other utility right-of-ways that do not threaten water supplies. NWP approval meant that ETP could legally bypass public notice and regulatory review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, several 350.org local chapters, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Corporate Ethics International, and others used the comment process on the KXL/Transcanada pipeline to detail the flow of abuses to environmental and native sovereign rights that issued from the White House “all of the above” policy.
Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns count ETP and its allies as major funders. Harold Hamm, founder and CEO of fracking giant Continental Resources, is an energy aide to the Trump campaign and potential future U.S. Secretary of Energy. Hillary Clinton has remained studiously silent on the Dakota pipeline protests but openly supports the Obama fast track policy.
On September 3, only a day after the Standing Rock Sioux filed action in court identifying their sacred sites, ETP brought in bulldozers to raze the land named in that complaint and affidavits and render the issue moot. To prevent that, entire families left their homes on the reservation and went onto the sacred sites in an attempt to block the bulldozers. Pipeline security workers responded by letting loose dogs and pepper spray.
There have been at least 58 arrests thus far at the #NoDAPL protests, with arrest warrants pending against both journalist Amy Goodman, who filmed the dog attacks and was charged with trespass, and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who spray-painted a bulldozer blade and was charged with vandalism.
When a federal judge denied a tribal motion to halt pipeline construction, the Obama administration stepped in to ask that ETP voluntarily cease other construction than in the area in controversy. Most news media, including ourselves, mistook this for meaning the White House was coming to the aid of the Sioux. In fact, it was exactly the opposite, and anyway the ETP voluntarily chose not to stop.
Construction continues. ETP just purchased the ranch where the Sacred Stone Camp is located and where additional native burial grounds and sacred sites have just been identified.
The tactics chosen by the Standing Rock Sioux could have come straight from the rules for satyagraha by Mohandas Gandhi. The Nation followed the letter of the law in making its timely public comments and administrative interventions, in filing for an injunction, and in opposing this assault on its safety and sovereignty by physically standing in the way. Its protests are peaceful and nonviolent. It invited the whole world to watch as military blockades re-routed traffic and kept away the press, the National Guard was brought up to support the corporate goons and then praying children were uprooted with attack dogs, their mouths filmed dripping with the blood of those children.
When individuals are betrayed by a government, they can sue or protest. When the treaty protections of an occupied nation are betrayed by their occupier, their recourse must be to the international legal system. This week, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II addressed the 49-member United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva Switzerland. He invoked the memory of Sitting Bull:
Sitting Bull came from Standing Rock and one the most famous quotes that he has is, “Let’s put our minds together and see what we can build for our children.” So today as this is the topic, something that guides us in our decision-making as leaders: We are putting our minds together so that the kids, the ones not yet born, have something better than what we have today.
Were you born too late to be a suffragette or freedom rider? To march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma? To encircle the Pentagon with the Yippies and try to levitate it? To sail with Albert Bigelow on Golden Rule and later Earle Reynolds aboard Phoenix, and still later Peter Willcox on Rainbow Warrior or David McTaggert on Vega, into the Pacific test zone to block the H-bombs?
Climate change is coming to the plains. Mother Nature doesn’t care how many dogs the oil barons have.
This is our moment. We are this season’s people. Its a good day to die.
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Published on The Daily Impact on September 12, 2016
When an oil well like Deepwater Horizon explodes, the images are unforgettable. When the entire industry starts to collapse, it’s hard to see and to remember.
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In a recent essay I proposed the existence of a new human subspecies – homo sapiens ephemera — that is smart (thus sapiens) but severely afflicted by attention deficit disorder and long-term memory loss. Thus ephemera may understand, for example, the connection between a burning fuse at his feet and an imminent explosion, but almost immediately forgets it, goes on to something else, and is surprised by the blast. Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in the U.S. oil patch, whose collapse, predicted here and elsewhere for years, is now described by none other than Moody’s Investors Service, quoted in Bloomberg News as “catastrophic” and perhaps “the worst bust of any industry this century.”
Does anybody remember the Savings and Loan debacle? The Enron (“smartest guys in the room”) implosion? The Dot-Com collapse? And the Sub-Prime Mortgages that Ate the World? After each of these episodes, Ephemera slapped his slanted forehead and said, “Boy, that was dumb. But nobody could have seen it coming.” Put on your protective headgear, because it’s happening again.
When they came to you, Ephemera, and asked you to invest gazillions of dollars up front in the New American Oil Revolution, they talked about energy independence! and America, Number One! and everything back the way it was in 1950! But the burning fuse at your feet was about fracking wells that cost ten times that of a conventional oil well and play out nearly ten times faster, about exploding trains and polluted water and earthquakes, in a market that would soon devalue the product by 50%.
Of course you gave them the money. You bought their stock, you bought their bonds, you bought their junk bonds. You lent them money, and when they couldn’t pay it back you lent them more to roll over the debt, which almost immediately became enormous because every one of those expensive wells had to be replaced every three years. You let them convert your secured debt to unsecured debt, or to watered down stock, or to fairy dust. Now, according to Moody’s, there has finally been an explosion. Who could have seen that coming?
Moody’s reports that twice as many oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt so far this year than did so in all of last year. Investors affected by these failures have seen an average 21 percent return. No, that’s not return on their investment, it’s return of their investment; they lost 80 per cent of their money. And those were secured lenders; junk-bond holders got back 6 cents for every dollar they invested.
Yet the fuse burns on. In the Bakken fracking field in North Dakota, for example, where no oil company has made any money, even when oil was priced at over $100 a barrel, where the total accumulated debt of the players is north of $30 billion, where production has been declining for over a year with oil prices below $50 and well below the cost of production — the zombie companies, almost all of them technically insolvent, continue to borrow operating money through such creative pitches as “distressed exchanges.”
The fuse burns faster, smokes even more, and doesn’t have much farther to go. What’s that? Hillary sneezed? Tell me more…..
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on September 13, 2016
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– the real cause of the growing social inequality in the US
In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Stan Sorscher reports the graph above and asks the question of what could have happened in the early 1970s that changed everything. Impressive, but what caused this "something" that happened in the early 1970s? According to Sorscher,
X marks the spot. In this case, “X” is our choice of national values. We abandoned traditional American values that built a great and prosperous nation.
Unfortunately, this is a classic case of an explanation that doesn't explain anything. Why did the American people decide to abandon traditional American values just at that specific moment in time?
In reality, the turning point of that time has been known for a long time. The first to notice it were Harry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison with their 1988 book "The Great U-turn: Corporate Restructuring And The Polarizing Of America." They noted that a lot of economic parameters had completely reversed their historical trends in the early 1970s, including the overall inequality measured in terms of the Gini coefficient. For nearly a century, the US society had been moving toward a higher degree of equality. From the early 1970s, the trend changed direction, bringing the US to an inequality level similar to that of the average South-American countries.
So, what was that "something" that changed everything in the early 1970s? Nobody really knows for sure, but at least there was a major measurable change that took place in 1970: peak oil in the US. (image below, from Wikipedia).
It was a true asteroid that hit the US economy and that changed a lot of things. Possibly the most important change was that the US ceased to be an oil exporter and became an oil importer. That change was "user transparent," in the sense that the Americans who were filling up the tanks of their cars didn't know where the oil that had produced their gasoline was coming from (and mostly didn't even care). But the change implied a major transfer of capital from the US to foreign producers, while a large part of it returned to the US in the form of investments. It was the "petrodollar recycling" phenomenon that mainly affected the financial system; all that money never really trickled down to the poorer sections of the US society. That may well explain the increasing inequality trend that started in the early 1970s.
But, if the oil peak of 1970 explains the inequality trends, shouldn't the new reversal of the trend – the "shale oil revolution" change everything again? Perhaps surprisingly, there is some evidence that this may be the case
The data from the World Bank indicate that the Gini coefficient for the US has peaked in 2006 and has remained constant, or slightly declining, ever since. Again, that makes some sense; one wouldn't have expected a return to the low inequality values of the 1960s since the great shale oil boom didn't transform the US into an oil exporter. At present, with the recent peaking of the Bakken field, it looks like that the good times of half a century ago will never return.
All this would require a lot of work to be better quantified and proven. But it is not a surprise that our life depends so much and so deeply on the production of that vital black liquid that we call "crude oil". And with the probable downturn of the US production that seems to be starting right now, we are going to see more, and more radical, changes in our society. What these changes will be, we have to see, but it is hard to think that they will be for better equality.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on September 8, 2016
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Peak oil by any other name is still peak oil.
Published on the Doomstead Diner on August 25, 2016
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This open letter to The Zeitgeist Movement replaces an essay I originally promised to Diners, "Peak Oil Revisited Part 2: Why business as usual guarantees that global industrial collapse will be complete by 2030". I have not had the time to elucidate all aspects of my argument in detail and Dr Louis Arnoux is probably doing a better job with his articles on this topic anyway. He is a true energy expert, I am merely a lay person trying to interpret the thoughts of the experts for the general public.
The other "Peak Oil Revisited" essay I promised, "Part 1b: Is an International Standardised Energy Dollar feasible?" has proved to be much more complicated than originally envisioned and is the lowest of my priorities at the moment. Even if an ISED is feasible it is unlikely to ever see the light of day for political reasons.
Graph 1 Graph 2 Graph 3
OPEN LETTER TO TZM:
by G. Chia, August 2016
Dear L and C (Queensland TZM organisers),
As you know I ran sustainability meetings for doctors and scientists from 2006 to 2013. I note your Zeitgeist group is holding a meeting on sustainability on 10 September 2016. As a starting point for your discussion you may wish to display on your projection screen the letter I wrote earlier this year to "Doctors for the Environment Australia" (see attached pdf). When I subsequently met with the Queensland DEA representative, Dr David King, he could not offer any factual or logical objections against my letter. His only comments were that although my views were consistent with those of many scientists, he felt he had to give DEA members "hope". DEA are operating on the false hope they can fix rampant global warming which has now spiralled out of control. They have completely ignored more immediate energy and economic issues.
Energy analyst Dr Louis Arnoux has informed me that world average1 EROI (energy return over invested, or to use the proper mathematical description for this ratio, energy return divided by energy invested) for petroleum fell below 10:1 a few years ago. Dr David Murphy's figure for world average EROI of 17:1 for 2013 was an overestimate because Murphy himself wrote in his paper (published by the Royal Society) that his figure did not account for the energy costs of fuel refinement and transportation2.
According to other EROI luminaries, Drs Hall and Lambert3, a ratio of 10:1 is the minimum required for a complex industrial economy to function properly.
Some parts of the industrial world can continue to function at present because they have captured4 the few remaining high EROI (>10:1) sources for themselves. Others areas eg Southern Europe are losing or have lost access to such high net energy sources ("Hi-NES")5, hence they are now deindustrialising and collapsing. The rest of the world will never industrialise. We have no significant liquid hydrocarbon replacements for conventional petroleum. Unconventional petroleum, with its woeful EROI of 3:1 or less, is an environmentally devastating scam and a stock market Ponzi scheme.
Decline in Hi-NES is the primary reason for the current global economic contraction6, a fact that conventional economists are too venal or too stupid to acknowledge. The present low price of oil is deeply misleading and is hiding the fact that oil has become less affordable/available for most people around the world due to demand destruction and deflation, temporarily freeing up more oil for "lucky" countries such as Australia.
Dr Jeffrey Brown's export land model (ELM) shows that oil availability for oil importing countries will eventually fall off a cliff (see graph 1 from postpeakliving.com in which I have corrected a caption: the red line shows GROSS world oil production, which does NOT take into account the energy invested in that oil production. Hence the yellow circle is an overestimate of when zero oil will be available to oil importing countries). A more accurate curve on which to superimpose the ELM should be downslope of the Net Hubbert curve as shown in graph 2. Prior to me doing this, I do not believe anyone else has combined ELM and EROI concepts and it is high time someone did so.
A most vital concept to understanding why global industral societies will soon suddenly and catastrophically collapse, just as a teetering Jenga tower suddenly collapses, is the mathematical fact that the net energy available (= energy return minus energy invested) falls off a cliff when EROI declines to 5:1 (see graph 3).
Sudden catastrophic collapse is consistent with the view of Dr Ugo Bardi, one of the original "Limits to Growth" scientists, who calls this phenomenon the "Seneca cliff". Dr Bardi is an incredibly smart scientist whose dire warnings over many years have been blithely ignored by all the stupid sheeple around him, hence he titled his blog "Cassandra's Legacy".
In human terms, plummeting EROI in the absence of any plan to transition to a post carbon lifestyle, will mean social breakdown, war, starvation7 and mass die off on a monumental scale. No part of the world which depends on petroleum will be spared.
We can understand why TPTB promote false hopes for the future to the clueless sheeple, using extravagant bread and circuses like the Olympics. Such theatrics keep the herd distracted and subdued. Be assured that once the masses revolt, the drones will be deployed.
On the other hand, offering intelligent people false hope for the future is in my view deeply inappropriate, especially if useful measures can be taken right now to mitigate impending hardships. Unfortunately the window of opportunity is closing fast. What is your transition plan?
You may vehemently reject my warnings and choose to ignore this letter because everything seems "fine" to you now, however denial will not make a looming catastrophe magically disappear.
One of your previous speakers promoted manned space travel to Mars. How useful, do you think, is that sort of meeting?
Geoffrey Chia, August 2016
Global "average" EROI of below 10:1 at present means that most oil fields now yield EROI below 10:1 (eg perhaps only 8:1 or 6:1). However there are a few oil fields which continue to yield a high EROI (eg perhaps 20:1), oil fields which the vultures are now circling.
Murphy DJ. 2014 The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 372: 20130126.
Lambert, Jessica G., Hall Charles A. S. et al. 2014. Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy 64:153–167 "There is evidence…that once payments for energy rise above a certain threshold at the national level (e.g. approximately 10 percent in the United States) that economic recessions follow. "
Such capture can be accomplished by fair means (eg providing useful products to the oil vendors in exchange for their oil), or foul (eg the criminal protection racket known as the Petrodollar).
Being starved of credit
In China, intolerable pollution has been a major factor for their economic slowdown, as well as the marked reduction in overseas demand for their industrial output
Mass agriculture is crucially dependent on petroleum (also natural gas)
Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation August 22, 2016
What the world is witnessing, without actually paying much attention, is the death of our debt-based economy — that is, borrowing the means to thrive in the now from a future that can’t really furnish it anymore. The illusion that the future would always provide was a legacy of the cheap energy era. That era ended in 2005. The basic promise is broken and with it the premise for living as we had been. The energy available today, especially oil, is no longer cheap enough to run the industrial economies designed to run on it. Any way that you look at the dynamic, Modernity loses.
With oil under $50 a barrel, and gasoline under $3 a gallon (back east), the public apparently thinks that the Peak Oil story is dead and gone. But when it costs $75 a barrel to pull the stuff out of the ground, and the stuff only sells for $47 a barrel, the oil companies’ business model doesn’t really work. The shale oil companies especially have been gaming the system by issuing bonds that pay relatively high interest rates in an investment climate where almost nothing else offers enough yield to live on, especially for pension funds and insurance companies. Two little upward bumps this year in the price of oil toward the $50 range prompted a wish that the good old days of high-priced oil were coming back, that the oil business would be profitable again.
The trouble is that high oil prices — say, over $100 a barrel, as it was in 2014 — crush advanced economies, so that demand for oil crashes, and with it productive activity. Without productivity, the debts issued by companies (and even governments) don’t get repaid. There really is no “sweet spot” in this energy cost equation.
A lot of wishful thinkers would like to believe that you can run contemporary life on something beside oil. But the usual “solutions,” solar and wind energy, don’t pencil out, especially when you consider that the hardware for running them — the photovoltaics, charge controllers, batteries, turbines, and blades, can’t be mass-produced and distributed without the very fossil fuels they are supposed to replace.
These matters add up to the essential quandary of our time. It has expressed itself in falling standards of living for what used to be the middle class, most particularly in the USA. European countries have tried to work around this problem with their rigid bureaucracies for keeping those already employed from losing their jobs. In France, Spain, and Italy, this has only made it much harder for people under 30 to get a job. The jobs picture for millennials in the USA is not much better, though there’s no structural job-protection for their elders who are still working here. They live in abject fear of termination by the HR ghouls of the big corporations.
Sooner or later the younger generation will explode in rage at the system and there is no telling what the result will be. We’re already seeing it in the black ghettos, where decades of accrued social dysfunction make the anomie and purposelessness — of young men especially — much worse. The newer loser class of people who once had good jobs and now have poor prospects of ever getting them back gets swept up in the mania for their incoherent champion, Trump, who shows no sign of understanding the essential quandary of our time. The tragedy of Trumpism is that the man so poorly represents a large group of Americans with genuine woes and grievances. And the larger tragedy of our country these days is that events did not prompt better leaders to step forward.
The explanation may be that people who actually understand the dark dynamics spinning out are rather pessimistic about the our ability to carry on under the familiar disposition of things. Hillary represents the forces in our national life that want to pretend that nothing is wrong, that all the splendid rackets of the day — Federal Reserve interventions, corporate debt-fueled stock buybacks, military log-rolling, medical racketeering, the college loan Ponzi, pension fund levitation, primary dealer bank interest rate arbitrage, agribiz Frankenfood proliferation — can just grind along like some old riverboat banger engine keeping the garbage barge of American life afloat. Thus, Hillary is shaping up to be the patsy of the century, likely to preside, if elected, over the biggest blowup of established arrangements that world has ever seen.
The debt problem alone is absolutely certain to express itself in at least three major ways: the crash of equity markets, the collapse of the bond markets, and the loss of faith in the value and meaning of whatever money you’re using. Any of those events would turn the economic life of the linked advanced economies upside down. Any of them could occur during the 2016 US election season.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.
The Ongoing Collapse of Turkey’s Secular Democracy and… the Backstory to the Attempted Turkish Coup (part 2/3)
Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Published on From Filmers to Farmers on August 19th, 2016
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (photo courtesy of rene de paula jr)
So where did I leave off in part 1? Oh yeah. Erdoğan and Putin are now BFF-FAW (Best Friends Forever For A While), Erdoğan’s Turkey has quite possibly been helping ISIS unload its oil, the United States / Europe / NATO has purportedly been turning a blind eye to it all, and Turkey is trying to avoid joining its western neighbour for as long as it can before embarking on its journey to the endarkenment. But before I continue from where I left off and address whether or not a local supply of fossil fuels from the north could be enough to sway Erdoğan “from the bad guys to the bad guys,” a little bit of Turkish history is in order. And fortunately, having introduced my Turkish confidant to the Turkish (falafel) joint I frequent, in return I was introduced by him to the work of Turkish writer Efe Aydal, whose writings went a long way in clearing things up for me.
As Aydal explained it in May of 2016, when the AKP first came into power “The American media was calling Erdoğan ‘second Atatürk.'” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in case you aren’t aware, is sometimes described as Turkey’s George Washington. In the 1920s he became the first president of the country, and upon putting through various political, economic and cultural reforms meant to transform Turkey’s religiously-oriented Ottoman caliphate into a secular, democratic, and modern nation-state, he also went out of his way to make sure that the military would not be answerable to the government. The purpose behind the latter move was to ensure that above all else the military would uphold its mandate of protecting Turkey’s new constitutional principles of secularism. This is why Turkey has had six coups/attempted coups since 1960, the military moving in when it believes that civilian governments are violating its secular principles (although it’s possible that outside interests played some roles in those coups).
On top of that, Atatürk had thousands of new schools built, primary education was made free, taxation on peasants was reduced, the use of Western attire was promoted, and women were given equal civil and political rights. And contrary to what I initially thought, none of this is to say that Atatürk was some kind of Western stooge. Unbeknownst to me, and as my Turkish confidant filled me in, the ANZAC holiday which many Australians and Kiwis celebrate every year was originally in reference to Australia’s and New Zealand’s failed invasion of Constantinople (in what is now Turkey) back in World War I – and which Kiwi mates of mine see as a ridiculous thing to celebrate since ANZAC Day is essentially about glorifying the (attempted) invasion of another country and of sending our young men to needlessly fight and die in a banker’s war. But regardless of all that, it just so happens that the commander of the Turkish army that held back the Aussie and Kiwi minions of British bankers was none other than Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
It’s been nearly a century since Atatürk’s time though, and while Atatürk’s image is currently being paraded around Turkey by the AKP – even though it’s been talking about abandoning the constitution’s tenet of secularism, and so is likely just jumping on the bandwagon because it now needs the support of the secularists after having split with the Gülenists – “democracy” also seems to have become a mostly-empty buzzword as well.
Where the world’s finest go to shine (photo by United Nations Photo)
First off there’s the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who after supporters he was addressing outside his Istanbul residence began chanting for the death penalty to be restored, summarily stated that “We cannot ignore this demand… In democracies whatever the people say has to happen.” Or in other words, mob rules.
(As an aside to that, if Turkey reinstates the death penalty, which it scrapped in 2004 as a condition for eventually gaining admittance to the European Union, its chances for gaining passage onto the Titanic drop to zero. Furthermore, even if Turkey could squeeze its way in onto the lower decks of the EU, admittance to the club pales in comparison to the allure of a new imperial Turkey that could dominate the region. Granted, the EU is Turkey’s biggest trade partner, but with possibility of membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union [EEU – a two-year-old, five-member free trade zone], and with the BRICS consortium a possible trading partner as well, a turn away from the EU may not actually be as bad as it sounds – as far as these things go, that is.)
Moving on in this darlings-of-democracy showcase (which is certainly giving the United States’ Democratic Party a run for its money – to the bottom), next in line is Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who the mainstream media likes to portray as a “staunch advocate of democracy,” who is then said to have “left Turkey in 1999 just ahead of a treason charge,” but from what I’ve strangely noticed hardly ever seems to get explained any further.
But according to an old BBC article I came across, it turns out that shortly after Gülen left to the United States in 1999 for what he claimed were medical reasons, Turkish television channels broadcast recordings of comments by Gülen “in which he urges his followers in the judiciary and public service to work patiently to take control of the state.” Gülen dismissed the allegations (from the United States) and said his comments were taken out of context. He was tried in absentia in 2000 by Turkey’s then-secular courts, but ultimately cleared in 2008 by Erdoğan’s more Islamic-leaning courts, his acquittal possibly a gesture of gratitude for his support of Erdoğan’s election to prime minister in 2003. Nonetheless, Gülen has remained in self-imposed exile ever since his initial departure.
Apparently not everyone is a fan of Fethullah Gülen
(photo courtesy of SHOTbySUSAN)
To make things even murkier, United States immigration authorities had planned to expel Gülen in 2006, but plans for such were rescinded following a letter of recommendation written to the FBI and the United States Department of Homeland Security by former Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, Graham Fuller (who openly admits to this, and which is part of the public record anyhow).
As it turns out, and as Aydal also states,
In Turkey, the governments come and go, the one thing which doesn’t change is every government had to get the approval of Fethullah Gülen until now. Because he had so much vote potential, if he didn’t approve a party, that party wouldn’t be able to win. When AKP came to lead [in 2003], it was made possible by the Gülen power again.
However, and as Aydal also states, “Something I never expected happened” (which an article in Foreign Policy delved into):
[In 2013] AKP and the Fethullah cult started fighting. And everything you see today in Turkey is the result of that. AKP has the government advantage, but Fethullah has the advantage that it’s backed by USA.
Moreover, and as Aydal put it a couple of months before the attempted coup shenanigans,
[I]n the future AKP will eventually lose. Because ever since they broke the bonds with USA based Fethullah cult, they’re not useful for USA anymore. And they will be replaced by one which is useful. That’s why in recent months the foreign press started attacking him [Erdoğan] and calling him a dictator, whereas they used to hail and love him.
“Love him”? And refer to him as the “second Atatürk”? Well sure, if – and contrary to the wishes of most of the world’s global Muslim population – you sign up as a full supporter of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and even pen an article for the Wall Street Journal, you’re the United States’ latest BFF-FAW. (Just don’t get too uppity, lest you want to end up like the United States’ former BFF-FAW, Saddam Hussein.)
Regardless, that’s pretty much all changed now. For as Aydal concludes,
You guys have to understand, for Turkey this is HISTORY. It’s the day when USA lost total control over Turkey. I was always wondering how long can Erdoğan resist the Gülen cult, but he actually waged straight-up war. And every party who’s against Gülen is supporting Erdoğan in this.
And not just every party, but many – most – run-of-the-mill Turks. Although Erdoğan is generally a divisive figure, his recent purges of Gülenitsts from judiciaries, police forces, and other government sectors is being praised by Turks of all political stripes, even those who normally oppose him. Post coup, his approval ratings have shot up to 68% from 47% prior to the coup, and a recent rally saw more than two million Turks, of various political persuasions, join together in solidarity. As one attendee put it, “We came together to save our nation from outside forces, so we are here for the love of our country and flag.”
While the west generally sees Erdoğan’s purges as a witch hunt and Erdoğan as little more than an authoritarian, many Turks are frustrated that the West isn’t taking the Gülen network (FETO) seriously. As an article in the Intercept put it, for years Gülentists have been using “clandestine methods to sneak into the military schools” as well as recruit in the police, judicial, and other government agencies. (According to the article’s informant, military pilots who could fly the American-made F-16 fighter jets were the most prized of all.) Anybody who spoke up about what was going on was swiftly punished. And while it was (secular) Kemalists that were the first targets of the Gülen network due to their sought after positions in public offices, Erdoğan’s AKP became the most recent target after the fallout in 2012.
Granted, prior to 2012 the AKP had actually assisted the Gülenist take-over of the judiciary, and so in return had any laws it wanted passed done so. Likewise, the government also turned a blind eye to the Gülenist infiltration of the army. That being so, even though (secular) Kemalists are generally supportive of the purges, they are nonetheless concerned that after Erdoğan is finished with the Gülenists he will set his sights on them and it will be back to the old divisive ways, if not worse. As someone by the name of “actual turk” stated in the comment section of part 1 in this Turkey series, “Erdogan is no angel – he is a scumbag – but this purge is getting rid of an islamic cancer far worse than Erdogan.”
Having said all that, the West has not been all to happy with the outcome of the attempted coup. As the not-conspiracy-oriented Oil Price put it, “European leaders were not too enthusiastic when the attempted coup failed, despite official declarations in support of Erdogan’s government.” Taking it a bit further, others have even stated that “Only when it became clear the coup was in fact smashed President Obama and the ‘NATO allies’ officially proclaimed their ‘support for the democratically elected government’.” The Unites States’ government obviously denies this, and while some simply dismiss the United Statesian government’s retort as “damage control,” it’s perhaps not too hard to imagine who the United States was likely rooting for.
In the meantime, the Erdoğan/AKP government has been vehemently calling for the United States to extradite Gülen back to Turkey so he can face charges of treason (since they see him as the mastermind of the failed coup), but the United States is having no part in this. Following that, Western media sources have repeatedly reported that the United States’ government is demanding evidence of Gülen’s involvement before any judicial process can begin, full stop. But look outside the bubble, and you’ll see it stated that
According to Erdogan, “Documents have been sent to the U.S.” establishing Gulen’s guilt. But the Obama administration remains unmoved, even though Turkey has handed over terrorists to the US in the past without evidence.
And as Erdoğan has also apparently stated (and which I’ve never seen quoted in any Western mainstream media source),
Now I ask, does the West give support to terror or not? Is the West on the side of democracy or on the side of coups and terror? Unfortunately, the West gives support to terror and stands on the side of coups… We have not received the support we were expecting from our friends, neither during nor after the coup attempt.
Like the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” which is perhaps useful when you know which one of them you know better than the other.
Nearly everybody likes a good Ponzi scheme
Anyhow, what has now emerged following Erdoğan’s displeasure with the United States is an ultimatum over the delayed visa-free access for Turks to the European Union. That is, in return for Turkey stemming the flow of illegal migrants to Europe, Turks were to receive a free pass to the land of not-exactly-plenty. But despite Turkey working on its end of the bargain (five of seventy-two demands are still to be met), the visa-free access still eludes Turks, and the recent post-coup crackdowns have added a bit of a sore-spot to the whole thing. But as Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently stated, Turkey could renege on its efforts to hold back said migrants. As Reuters put it,
Asked whether hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey would head to Europe if the EU did not grant Turks visa freedom from October, Çavuşoğlu told Bild: “I don’t want to talk about the worst case scenario – talks with the EU are continuing but it’s clear that we either apply all treaties at the same time or we put them all aside… It can’t be that we implement everything that is good for the EU but that Turkey gets nothing in return.”
To drive the point home even further, Çavuşoğlu has also stated that
We worked very hard to have good relations with Europe for 15 years. If the West one day loses Turkey – whatever our relations with Russia and China – it will be its own fault.”
Working off of a few things I mentioned in part 1, if Turkey’s demands aren’t met, this may very well mean Turkey will turn a blind eye to Syrians and other refugees flooding into Europe, some of which may very well be jihadi-wannabes from neighbouring countries. On the other hand, if Turkey does somehow get its way and its citizens are granted visa-free access to the European Union, the 2.7 million Syrians that Erdoğan plans on granting citizenship to may very well gain a form of access to Europe anyhow – and some of which, again, may be jihadi-wannabes from other countries. So the solution is…?
In other words, the story in Turkey is a whole lot messier than what those of us in the West are being led to believe. And when penultimate control of energy supplies is the hidden agenda, the devil you know is apt to partake in actions contrary to what might be expected. I’ll finish off the story in part 3.
EDIT 29/08/2016: Upon completion of the last part of this Turkish trilogy a few changes were made to better clarify things and improve its overall structure. In part 2 the only significant change was the addition of three paragraphs describing the rather favourable reaction Turks have had to Erdoğan’s purges, why that is so, and what some fear could transpire following said purges.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 15, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question
Crude oil prices are dropping to the floor
The Oil Fizzle Dragon-King
The Tooth Fairy Syndrome
Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business. His profile is available on Google+ at: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115895160299982053493/about/p/pub
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 12, 2016
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Part 1 – Alice looking down the end of the barrel
The energy cost of system replacement
The end of the Oil Age is now
If we had a whole century ahead of us to transition, it would be comparatively easy. Unfortunately, we no longer have that leisure since the second key challenge is the remaining timeframe for whole system replacement. What most people miss is that the rapid end of the Oil Age began in 2012 and will be over within some 10 years. To the best of my knowledge, the most advanced material in this matter is the thermodynamic analysis of the oil industry taken as a whole system (OI) produced by The Hill's Group (THG) over the last two years or so (http://www.thehillsgroup.org).
In an Alice world
At present, under the prevailing paradigm, there is no known way to exit from the Perfect Storm within the emerging time constraint (available time has shrunk by one order of magnitude, from 100 to 10 years). This is where I think that Doomstead Diner's readers are guessing right. Many readers are no doubt familiar with the so-called “Read Queen” effect illustrated in Figure 2 – to have to run fast to stay put, and even faster to be able to move forward. The OI is fully caught in it.
I estimate the limit growth rate for the alternative whole system at 7% growth per year.
On the way to Olduvai
In my view, given that nearly everything within the GIW requires transport and that said transport is still about 94% dependent on oil-derived fuels, the rapid fizzling out of net energy from oil must be considered as the defining event of the 21st century – it governs the operation of all other energy sources, as well as that of the entire GIW. In this respect, the critical parameter to consider is not that absolute amount of oil mined (as even “peakoilers” do), such as Million barrels produced per year, but net energy from oil per head of global population, since when this gets too close to nil we must expect complete social breakdown, globally.
In 2012 the OI began to use more energy per barrel in its own processes (from oil exploration to transport fuel deliveries at the petrol stations) than what it delivers net to the GIW. We are now down below 4GJ/head and dropping fast.
Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question
Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff
Published on the Our Finite World on July 6, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
Last week, I gave a fairly wide-ranging presentation at the 2016 Biophysical Economics Conference called Complexity: The Connection Between Fossil Fuel EROI, Human Energy EROI, and Debt (pdf). In this post, I discuss the portion of the talk that explains several key issues:
- Why we are right now seeing so many problems with respect to wealth disparity and low commodity prices (Answer: World per capita energy consumption is already falling, and the energy/economy system needs to reflect this problem somehow.)
- Why the quest for growing technology leads to growing wealth disparity (Answer: The economy must be configured in more of a hierarchical pattern to support growing “complexity.” Growing complexity is the precursor to growing technology.)
- Why rising debt is an integral part of the energy/economy system (Answer: We could not pay workers for making long-lasting goods and services without using debt to “pull forward” the hoped-for benefit of these goods and services to the present, using debt and other equivalent approaches.)
- Why commodity prices can suddenly fall below the cost of production for a wide range of products (Answer: Prices of commodities depend to a significant extent on debt levels. A major problem is that when commodity prices rise, wages do not rise in a corresponding manner. Rising debt levels can mask the growing lack of affordability for a while, but eventually, debt levels cannot be raised sufficiently, and commodity prices fall too low.)
- The Brexit vote may be related to falling energy per capita in the UK. Given that this problem occurs in many countries, it may be increasingly difficult to keep the Eurozone and other similar international organizations together.
- My talk also touches on the topic of why a steady state economy is not possible, unless we can live like chimpanzees.
My analysis has as its premise that the economy behaves like other physical systems. It needs energy–and, in fact, growing energy–to operate. If the system does not get the energy it needs, it “rebalances” in a way that may not be to our liking. See my article, “The Physics of Energy and the Economy.”
An outline of my talk is shown as Slide 2, below. I will omit the EROI and Hubbert model portions of the presentation.
Peak World Coal Seems To Be Happening, Right Now
In the view of most of the researchers I was talking to at this conference, oil is likely to be the first problem, not coal. And the issue is likely to be high prices, not low. So peak coal now, as shown in Slide 3, doesn’t seem to make sense. Yet, my analysis of recent data strongly suggests that peak coal is exactly what is happening, right now.
I will show later in this presentation why peaking coal production does seem to make sense–price levels of all fossil fuels seem to vary together. The extent to which debt levels are growing seems to be a major factor in price levels. When the debt level is not growing rapidly enough, “demand” is not high enough, and prices for all fossil fuels tend to fall simultaneously. A related issue is the extent to which the world economy is growing; if world economic growth is too slow, this will also tend to hold down demand, and thus energy prices.
China’s rate of growth in coal production started falling back in 2012, which is when coal prices started falling. This is before China’s new leadership took over in March 2013. We know that coal production in China is likely to continue falling, because China’s energy bureau is reporting that China plans to close over 1000 coal mines in 2016, because of a “price-sapping supply glut.” See my article, “China: Is peak coal part of its problem?” for additional information.
World Per Capita Energy Consumption Seems To Have Already Started Falling
The reason why I say that world per capita energy consumption may have reached a peak in 2013 is partly because coal consumption appears to have peaked. If coal has peaked, it will be hard to make up the shortfall using other fuels, such as renewables, or even natural gas. Furthermore, recent world figures (shown above) already show a small drop in per capita energy consumption. If world coal production continues to drop, we can expect world per capita energy consumption to continue to drop.
Energy Consumption Trends for a Few Countries
The figure below is not actually in the presentation–I thought I would add it now, to show energy consumption varies for a few economies. The upper chart in the Supplemental Slide shows the trend in per capita energy consumption in UK, Japan, Spain, and Greece. We know that Japan, Spain, and Greece have been experiencing economic problems for several years, something that perhaps should not be too surprising, given their falling energy consumption per capita. The UK shows a similar pattern to these three countries. Such a pattern is likely to lead to rising wage disparities, for reasons we will discuss later in this presentation, when we talk about “complexity.”
China’s energy consumption shows a contrasting pattern. China experienced rapid growth in energy consumption after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Recently, China’s growth in energy consumption has been slowing, suggesting slowing growth in the economy–perhaps even more than reported in official GDP reports.
Why Peak Per Capita Energy Matters
In Slide 5, I give an overview of why peak energy per capita matters. My view is the second one shown on this slide. It is not that every segment of the economy will necessarily have problems. Instead, un-favored segments are likely to be first to have problems. Most conference attendees came with the first view.
How the Economy Is Affected by Growing Complexity
Joseph Tainter in the Collapse of Complex Societies tells us that the way economies that are in danger of reaching limits can sometimes solve their problems is through increased complexity.
Economists today seem to believe that technology will solve our problems. I see complexity and technology as being related, with complexity being a precursor to technology. Economies that hope to adopt higher levels of technology need to take steps in the direction of growing complexity, to achieve this goal.
When I thought about what makes up complexity, this is the list of elements I came up with:
Regarding concentration of energy, the use of concentrated energy seems to be what sets humans apart from other animals.
If we want a steady-state economy, “all” we need to do is set aside our use of concentrated energy, and live like chimpanzees. I am not sure how we keep our bigger brains adequately nourished. A couple of slides related to this are Slides 9 and 10.
Another type of concentration of energy is capital goods. Capital goods are all of the goods that we expect to last for a fairly long time–things like homes, vehicles, and factories. The big issue is how to pay for capital goods.
The problem is that we need to pay workers now, but the benefit of these capital goods is spread over many years in the future. Somehow, the future benefit of these capital goods must be “pulled back” to today. The obvious answer to this predicament is the use of debt (or debt-like instruments) to fund capital goods. We will get back to the issue of debt later.
The next few slides (12 to 14) show other ways that concentrations of energy can be developed. One way is through the creation of businesses. Even larger concentrations of energy can be formed by creating bigger businesses, including international businesses. Governments can also be used to concentrate the use of energy resources, because of government’s ability to build roads, schools, and many other projects. International organizations can also act to concentrate wealth, by easing trade among members (Eurozone and World Trade Organization) and by lending money to member countries (International Monetary Fund and World Bank). All of these organizations can benefit from the use of debt to fund their growing organizations.
We said that concentration of energy was the first element of complexity (see outline at top). The second element of complexity is pure elements and compounds. In many ways, this requirement is similar to concentrations of energy, in the way it allows technology to work.
The third element of complexity (see outline at top) is leveraging of human energy through hierarchical organization. In many ways, this is the idea of concentrated energy, as applied to humans.
Historically, the big problem has been populations that grew too large for their resource bases. In a way, we are reaching a similar predicament. Not too surprisingly, when this happens, it is the people at the bottom of the hierarchy who tend not to receive enough.
Why Debt Is Required
One of the fundamental benefits of debt is time shifting.
Of course, the value of these capital goods is speculative, when debt is used to price them in advance. As long as capital goods, and other uses of debt, provide sufficient benefits to the economy so that debt can be repaid with interest, the system tends to work as planned.
One key aspect of debt is its ability to determine demand, and thus prices, of commodities such as oil and natural gas. The reason why debt has almost magical power is because if a potential buyer is given a loan for any kind of capital good, say a house, or car, or factory, the potential buyer can purchase the capital good far sooner than if he or she needed to save up for it. Each of these capital goods requires commodities of various kinds, such as steel, copper, oil, coal, and natural gas. Thus, we would expect rising debt levels to raise the prices of a broad range of commodity prices, simultaneously.
We can think of the situation as follows: An economy that keeps growing is (in energy terms) an out-of-balance system. Rising debt levels help maintain this out-of-balance condition by providing ever-higher commodity prices. These higher prices encourage greater extraction of energy products, even when the cost of extraction is rising because of diminishing returns. Even if extraction costs keep rising, the situation of ever-rising commodity prices cannot go on endlessly. At some point, prices become too high for workers to afford. Demand tends to fall at some point because workers at the bottom of the hierarchy find themselves “priced out” of buying goods such as houses and cars that would help maintain commodity demand.
What causes debt levels to stop rising? One reason why debt levels stop rising is that debt reaches absurd levels, making it difficult to repay debt with interest. Several examples of absurd debt levels are given in Slide 21. An additional example is excessive use of student loans. If incomes after student loans are not high enough, student debt may create a huge burden, preventing former students from buying homes and cars and starting families. The problem is that incomes after the educational experience are not sufficiently high to both pay back debt with interest and leave adequate funds for other needs.
Growing wage disparity can also lead directly to falling energy prices:
Both growing wage disparity and lack of growth in debt are signs that an economy is not growing very fast–in some sense, that the economy is not hot enough. Some of the would-be workers tend to drop out of the system, because wages are not high enough to cover commuting and childcare expenses. In some sense, they “condense out,” similar to the way that water turns to ice when there is not enough heat in the system.
The situation with prices of fossil fuels is similar; low prices are a sign that the economy is not growing fast enough. The system is forcing a reduction in the production of many kinds of commodities, including fossil fuels, by reducing prices below the cost of production for quite a few producers. This situation can be thought of as some of the production “condensing out,” because the energy products consumed are not causing the world economy to grow fast enough to maintain a “hot” demand level.
More Thoughts on Energy Prices and Debt Levels
The thing that is confusing is that for many years, energy and commodity costs were very similar to energy and other commodity prices. It has been only very recently–when prices rose too high for consumers to afford–that the difference has appeared.
Looking at historical data in Slide 26, we can see two recent sharp drops in oil prices. Both occurred when debt levels were no longer rising.
In fact, prices of oil, coal, and natural gas tend to rise and fall together–just as we would expect, if they are all responding to the same changes in debt levels, and indirectly, the same changes in world economic growth rates.
If energy prices are based on debt levels, our concern should be that all fossil fuels will peak within a few years of each other. The cause of the peak will be low prices, not “running out” of energy products.
In fact, the problems of the economy may be quite different from “running out.”
Supplemental Information on Income Disparity
A few slides giving additional information on income disparity are shown as slides 38-40. Please check the end of my presentation for these.
One topic I did not specifically discuss in this presentation is the possibility of slowing world economic growth. If we are seeing falling world energy consumption per capita, it should not be surprising if world GDP growth per capita is falling as well. I have talked about the link between energy consumption and GDP growth many times, including in my paper, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.
It was not until I sat down to write up this presentation that I realized how closely the timing of the recent sharp drop of world oil prices corresponds with the decrease in world per capita energy consumption shown on Slide 4. World per capita energy consumption hit a peak in 2013, and dropped slightly in 2014, with a greater change in 2015. Mid-2014 is when oil prices began their major slide, so the timing of the two events matches up almost precisely. Thus, the drop in coal consumption may be resulting in low world economic growth, which in turn is holding down both oil and natural gas prices.
The apparent coincidence in timing may simply reflect the fact that the same forces that cause falling commodity prices are also causing low economic growth. Growing wage disparity and lack of growth in debt seem to be factors in causing both. If workers at the bottom of the hierarchy could better afford the output of the world economy, with or without additional debt, the world economy would have a better chance of growing.
I don’t see much hope for fixing a world whose economy is moving in the direction of shrinkage. Instead, the situation is likely to get worse, until the financial system collapses, or one of the issues shown on Slide 31 starts to become too great a problem.
I see the big push for renewables to be mostly a waste of time and resources. The major exception is perhaps hydroelectric, in parts of the world with good locations for new installations. EROI analyses are often used to justify renewables, but in my view (shown in the part of the presentation not discussed), EROI is too “blunt” a tool to properly evaluate resources that differ greatly in quality of output and in debt requirements. A major goal needs to be to maintain the functionality of the electric grid; evaluations of intermittent renewables should consider real-life experiences of other countries. For example, current pricing approaches seem to exacerbate the problem of falling wholesale electricity prices, and thus falling fossil fuel prices. (See this or this article.)
A major impediment to getting a rational discussion of the issues is the inability of a large share of the population to deal with what appears to be a potentially dire outcome. Textbook and journal editors recognize this issue, and gear their editorial guidelines accordingly. I was reminded of this again, when the question came up (again) of whether I would consider writing a book for a particular academic book publisher. The main thing I would need to do to make the book acceptable would be find a way of sidestepping any unpleasant outcome–or, better yet, I should come up with a “happily ever after” ending.
Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Published on From Filmers to Farmers on June 21, 2016
Living in highly technological civilizations that generally place the greatest importance and value upon the material gadgetry and inventiveness of our societies, it should come as little surprise that the luminaries and household names that we can readily conjure and associate with are those related to the technological aspects of our lives. For example, when one mentions the telephone, the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, or nuclear bombs, it's likely that many a grade-schooler can rhyme off the names Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and, perhaps, Albert Einstein.
But segue into more ecological matters and the fathers and mothers of these vocations are certainly not household names the way the aforementioned are. For what comes to mind when we think of organic farming, climate change, the environmental movement, or limits to growth? For most of those who flick light switches on and off as much as they eat food and depend on stable planetary ecological balances, the answers are probably little more than a shrug. While children can quite easily conjure up the aforementioned names, you'd be hard pressed to find even an adult who could easily slip off of their tongues the names Sir Albert Howard, Svante Arrhenius, Rachel Carson, and the team of Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers.
But while the topics of organic farming, climate change, and the environmental movement can certainly elicit recognition in the average citizen, the reality of peak oil quite often does not, with even less of a recognition expected in reference to the person that initially brought it to our attention. That largely unknown individual would be M. King Hubbert, the subject of Mason Inman's timely new biography, The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist's Quest for a Sustainable Future.
As Inman describes it, after having spent his early formative years on a farm in the Hill Country of Central Texas, and gone through two years of community college, a young Hubbert ended up making his way through various hardscrabble jobs on his way to the University of Chicago. It was there that the mathematically inclined Hubbert got exposed to a variety of disciplines that would aid him in his future endeavours, those ranging from geology to physics to math.
It was while still an undergrad that the first inklings of Hubbert's future interest can be seen, that moment when he first glimpsed a chart depicting the exponential growth of coal extraction rates. After a following lecture on petroleum extraction, Hubbert apparently couldn't help but muse to himself, "How long will it last?" For now, as he put it, it was "Difficult to estimate reserves."
By no means though was Hubbert afflicted with a one-track kind of mind, for as Inman astutely weaves within his story, Hubbert, and at only 26-years-of-age, accepted a job offer to teach geophysics at Columbia University in New York City, the place where he became an original member of what would become the second focus of his life – the nascent movement soon to be known as Technocracy. In short, Technocracy was a not-quite totalitarian system whereby government-owned industries were envisioned as being managed by scientists, engineers and technicians. In fact, all of North America, even all the way down to Venezuela (because it had oil?) would be under the "continental control" of a united government, known as a "Technate." Technocracy also disdained "the price system" in favour of "energy certificates," a highly relevant notion that Inman fortunately repeatedly returns to.
In the meantime, Hubbert was all the while dissatisfied with the supposedly common sense notion that the extraction of a given mineral increases exponentially until one day, poof!, there's nothing left. As he understood it, extraction and depletion rates could be related to the so-called S-curve that can be seen in an isolated pair of breeding fruit flies: their population soars and eventually tapers off at a plateau (or a flattened peak). And as Hubbert was in the minority with his belief that there were limits to growth, he similarly saw various facets of industrial society as fitting on this S-curve.
Being one of the leading proponents of Technocracy and an ardent writer on its workings, it was in Technocracy publications that Hubbert dabbled in writing about peaks and declines of resources. Come 1938, Hubbert came up with his first, but somewhat unsubstantiated (and rather off), estimate of the year that US oil extraction rates would peak: 1950. But having moved from academia to the government in the early 40s, it wasn't until he then took a job at the US branch of Royal Dutch Shell in 1943 (eventually becoming the top geologist in a new lab it created) that Hubbert would have the resources and access to information that would allow him to formulate a more detailed analysis which led to his ground-breaking predictions.
For it was on March 8th, 1956, that Hubbert gave his talk "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," his revelatory paper that laid out his thoroughly analysed prediction that US oil extraction rates would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970 (to go along with a global peak in 2000). I won't spoil things with a recitation of the rather humorous tensions, but I will point out that Hubbert was in fact correct, and that US oil extraction rates peaked in 1970. Furthermore, while much derision of Hubbert's findings resulted both before and after 1970 (to go along with a smattering of praise), what may come as surprising to those thoroughly familiar with peak oil but too young to have been around back then (such as I, who was busy being born while President Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigans and having solar panels placed on the White House) is the amount of media attention given to estimates of US oil supplies, including both before and after Hubbert's famous paper.
For while peak oil is nowadays generally dismissed – and more commonly ignored – by the mainstream media in lieu of financial abracadabra and/or dreams of a 100% replacement of fossil fuel energy with renewable ("renewable") energy, the amount of serious talk that domestic US oil supplies garnered in the mid to late-mid 20th century is comparatively astounding. Inman's surprising historical account relays the fact that the topic made the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post on more than one occasion, while the New York Times even visited Hubbert at his home to interview him! And even more absurd is Inman's account of the US administration's – all the way up to President Jimmy Carter's – interest in Hubbert's work, President Carter even making a quasi-reference to Hubbert's work in one of his talks.
The question(s) that these shocking revelations (shocking to me at least) that Inman conveys is, What happened? Why were oil supplies and extraction rates such a big issue a few decades ago, when today the talk, if anything, is all about energy prices?
As Inman points out, one of the ordeals that began to drown out talk of oil extraction rates was the Watergate scandal of 1973. Following that, the "doom and gloom" of President Jimmy Carter (Carter's sources called for worldwide oil extraction rates to peak in the mid-1980s [!?], while Hubbert's calculations saw 2000 as the peak year) was no match for the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, resulting in a new President and the removal of the White House's interloping solar panels.
Jump ahead a few decades, and from what I can tell, not only does it seem that this Reagan-esque sunny optimism continues to reign supreme, but that it has imbued itself into the thinking of many progressives and environmentalists today, through the optimistic attitude of the "clean and green" notion that "renewables" can provide a 100% substitution for fossil fuels. As far as I can see it, it is this techno-optimist attitude of technology-as-saviour, to go along with another round of obeisance to financialization as itinerant saviour, that has convinced many people that energy supplies, and thus peak oil, need not be an issue (anymore, supposing that they ever really were).
But as Inman's account also explains, Hubbert wasn't quite averse to the techno-optimist way of thinking either. Although he did eventually do away with his staunch support for nuclear power, Hubbert ended up trading a reliance on nuclear power for a rather oversized belief in solar power. That is, Hubbert envisioned deserts covered in solar panels that would generate electricity of which could be converted into methanol or to generate hydrogen, and that such ventures could power high-energy societies (New York City!) for thousands of years. It was thus Hubbert's belief that
with our technology and with adequate supplies of energy, we ought to have a lot of leisure. And the proper use of this leisure can bring us an intellectual renaissance.
This attitude gels with the stated Technocratic "embrace [of] the abundance created by machines," which for me is hard to equate with the notion that peak oil and diminishing energy supplies in general imply less energy to power those machines, unless you believe in the sunny optimism of solar-panel-covered-deserts (to go along with other "renewables") that can match the energetic output of fossil fuels (which the low EROEI levels of, say, solar panels, says isn't quite feasible).
Having said all that, Hubbert did fortunately have the all-too-rare understanding that
One of the most ubiquitous expressions in the language right now is growth – how to maintain our growth. If we could maintain it, it would destroy us.
So although, and from my understandings, Hubbert had the questionable belief that nuclear power, and then solar panels, could provide not quite infinite growth but (rather conveniently?) a kind of infinite steady state of what the current energetic usage happened to be at the time, he did nonetheless realize that none of this could do anything for the problems of overpopulation and diminishing water supplies.
Bringing things into the present, Inman conveys the fact that worldwide conventional oil extraction rates peaked (or perhaps hit their plateau) in 2006 at 70 million barrels per year, finally dropping down to 69 million barrels per year in 2014. As it is, the only thing keeping overall oil extraction rates increasing – and giving the last push to the economic growth which Hubbert so despised – are the unconventional oil supplies of tight oil (via fracking) and tar sands oil.
This brings us back to Technocracy's disdain for "the price system" (or as Hubbert put it, "the monetary culture"), which was the status quo and scarcity-based economics system that measures everything in dollars and cents, and which ignores physical limits. For as Technocracy conversely saw it, money would be abandoned for "energy certificates," allowing for everything to be paid in their energy equivalent.
Upon first coming across the name M. King Hubbert some ten years ago I happened to read about Hubbert's disagreement with our practice of fractional-reserve banking, of which I've never seen mentioned again until Inman's book (kind of, as Inman doesn't mention fractional-reserve banking directly). It is from this knowledge that I've come to understand the situation of diminishing energy supplies: since money is a proxy for energy, limits on energy supplies will imply limits to the continuance of our economic (Ponzi scheme) system, leading to an inability for sufficient payments to service even the interest payments on previous loans – which implies and will contribute to the collapse (implosion) of economies, be it slowly or quickly. As Hubbert put it, "exponential growth is about over. We're entering something new."
But not being much of a fan of a grandiose Technate myself (nor of the belief that there would ultimately be enough alternative energy supplies to maintain such a massive and centralized system anyway), we could still work off of Hubbert's disdain for "the monetary culture" towards something like the Ecological Economics of Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, a discipline which is also in favour of moving away from fractional-reserve banking and the notion of infinite growth. And since peak oil means growth is coming to an end, perhaps a look to biophysical economics (see Energy and the Wealth of Nations by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, or the new journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, edited by Hall, Ugo Bardi, and Gaël Giraud) could help us to envision a worthy alternative to Technocracy's monetary substitution.
Regardless, there does seem to be merit for Hubbert's belief in perhaps a partially planned economy, supposing that that would even be politically possible. Market forces are quite obviously doing little to nothing to ween us away from the usage of fossil fuels (be they diminishing or not), and the primary effect that high oil prices (reaching $147 a few years back) had was to spur investment in the higher costing unconventionals.
In the meantime, supposing that conventional and unconventional oil supplies continue their slight overall increase for years to come, this also poses a problem in light of carbon dioxide levels contributing to climate change. Inman thus poses the ultimately unavoidable and extremely pertinent questions: Do we really think market forces will come to our rescue? And if not, are we going to impose limits on ourselves, or are we simply going to sit back and wait until nature imposes those limits for us?
So whether you're new to the notion of peaking oil supplies or rather familiar with it, I can certainly say that The Oracle of Oil has much new to shine on the story – and now history – of peak oil. With oil supplies being what they currently are, and with no off-planet supply to make up for what will this time not just be a US shortfall but a planetary shortfall, Inman's book could certainly do us a favour by helping us to familiarize ourselves with the reality of peak oil, and by helping us to make M. King Hubbert the household name it ought to be.
That is of course a lot to ask, and after the virtual silence on peak oil that occurred after the global peak of conventional oil extraction rates in 2006 (to go along with all that has ensued since), one couldn't be blamed for expecting little different upon the reaching of the global peak of conventional and unconventional oil extraction rates in the coming months or years (?). But one can always hope of course.
Godspeed the overall global peak?
Published on the Our Finite World on June 20, 2016A coal train once supplied the city of Holland, Michigan with fuel for its electric generating plant. They converted the plant to natural gas. Their costs are down, their emissions are down, and coal is down for the count. (Photo by wsilver/Flickr)
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The world’s coal resources are clearly huge. How could China, or the world in total, reach peak coal in a timeframe that makes a difference?
If we look at China’s coal production and consumption in BP’s 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy (SRWE), this is what we see:
Figure 2 shows that the quantities of other fuels are increasing in a pattern similar to past patterns. None of them is large enough to make a real difference in offsetting the loss of coal consumption. Renewables (really “other renewables”) include wind, solar, geothermal, and wood burned to produce electricity. This category is still tiny in comparison to coal.
Why would a country selectively decide to slow down the growth of the fuel that has made its current “boom” possible? Coal is generally cheaper than other fuels. The fact that China has a lot of low-cost coal, and can use it together with its cheap labor, has allowed China to manufacture goods very inexpensively, and thus be very competitive in world markets.
In my view, China really had no choice regarding the cutback in coal production–market forces were pushing for less production of goods, and this was playing out as lower commodity prices of many types, including coal, oil, and natural gas, plus many types of metals.
China is mostly self-sufficient in coal production, but it is a major importer of natural gas and oil. Lower oil and natural gas prices made imported fuels of these types more affordable, and thus encouraged more importing of these products. At the same time, lower coal prices made many of China’s mines unprofitable, leading to a need to cut back on production. Thus we see the rather bizarre result: consumption of the cheapest energy product (coal) is falling first. We will discuss this issue more later.
China’s Overall Historical Production of Energy Products
With the pattern of energy consumption shown in Figure 2, growth in China’s total fuel consumption has slowed, as shown in Figure 3.
The indicated increases in total fuel consumption in Figure 3 are as follows: 8.1% in 2011; 4.0% in 2012; 3.9% in 2013; 2.3% in 2014; 1.5% in 2015.
Unless there is a huge shift to a service economy, we would expect China’s GDP to decrease rather rapidly as well, perhaps staying 1% or 2% higher than the growth in fuel consumption. Such a relationship would suggest that China’s reported GDP for 2014 and 2015 may be overstated.
The Problem of Low Coal Prices
Most of us don’t pay attention to coal prices around the world, but according to BP data, coal prices have been following a similar pattern to those of oil and natural gas.
Oil prices tend to cluster more closely than those of coal and natural gas because there is more of a world market for oil than for the other fuels. Coal and natural gas have relatively high delivery costs, making it more expensive to trade these products internationally.
The one place where natural gas prices failed to follow the same pattern as oil and coal prices was in the United States. After 2008, shale producers extracted more natural gas for the US market than it could easily absorb. This overproduction, together with a lack of export capacity, led to falling US prices. By 2014 and 2015, prices were falling everywhere for oil, coal and natural gas.
Why Prices of Fossil Fuels Move Together
The reason why prices of fossil fuels tend to move together is because commodity prices reflect “demand” at a given time. This demand is determined by a combination of wage levels and debt levels. When wage levels are high and debt levels are increasing, consumers can afford more goods, such as new homes and new cars. Building these new homes and cars takes many different kinds of materials, so commodity prices of many kinds tend to rise together, to encourage production of these diverse materials.
Why Fossil Fuel Prices Don’t Necessarily Rise Indefinitely
Rising fossil fuel prices depend on rising demand. Wages are not really rising fast enough to increase fossil fuel prices to the levels shown in Figures 4, 5, and 6, so the world has had to depend on rising debt levels to fill the gap. Unfortunately, there are diminishing returns to adding debt. We can witness the poor impact that Japan’s rising debt level has had on raising its GDP.
Adding more debt is like using an elastic rubber band to increase the world output of goods and services. Adding debt works for a while, as the relatively elastic economy responds to growing debt. At some point, however, the amount of debt required becomes too high relative to the benefit obtained. The system tends to “snap back,” and prices fall for many commodities at the same time. This seems to be what happened recently in late 2008, and what has happened again recently. The challenge is to restore world economic growth, since it is really robust world economic growth that allows commodity prices to rise to high levels.
Some Historical Perspective on Rising Energy Prices and Rising Debt
In “normal” times, a small increase in demand will increase production of fossil fuels by several percentage points–generally enough to handle the rising demand. Prices can then fall back again and there is no long-term rise in prices. This situation occurred for quite a long time prior to about 1970.
After about 1970, we found that it became more difficult to raise production levels of energy products, without permanently raising prices. US oil production began to decline in 1970. This started an energy crisis that has been simmering beneath the surface for 45 years. Various workarounds for our energy shortage problem were tried, such as adding nuclear, drilling for oil in new areas such as the North Sea, and building more energy efficient cars. Another approach used was reducing interest rates, to make high-priced homes, cars and factories more affordable.
By the late 1990s, even these workarounds were no longer providing the benefit needed. Another idea was tried: encourage more international trade. This would allow the world access to untapped energy sources, including coal, in the less developed parts of the world, such as China and India.
This too, worked for a while, but resource depletion tended to continue to raise the cost of energy extraction. Also, the competition with low-cost labor in India, China, and other countries tended to hold down the wages of the less-educated workers in the developed countries. Higher prices at the same time that wages for some of the workers were depressed is, of course, a bad mismatch.
One way of “fixing” the problem was with cheaper debt, and more debt, so that consumers could buy homes and cars with lower incomes. This fix of more debt stopped working in 2008, as repayment on “subprime” debt faltered, and all fossil fuel prices collapsed.
To “re-inflate” the world economy, world leaders began to try to add even more debt. They did this by fixing interest rates even lower, starting in late 2008, using a program called Quantitative Easing (QE). This program was successful in raising commodity prices again, although its effect seemed to diminish with time. China’s huge growth in debt during this period helped as well.
Energy prices turned downward again in mid-2014, when the United States discontinued its QE program, and China (under new leadership), decided not to continue increasing debt as quickly as before. The result was a second sharp drop in commodity prices, without a corresponding drop in the cost of producing these fossil fuels. This shift was devastating from the point of view of energy supply producers.
Impact of Lower Prices on China’s Coal Producers
China has a lot of coal resources, but not all of these resources can be produced cheaply. Generally, the least expensive resources tend to be produced first. When prices are high, it may look like deeper, thinner seams can be extracted, in addition to the easier and cheaper to extract seams, but this is never certain. At some point, prices may fall and thus issue a “stop mining” instruction.
When coal prices drop, producers are likely to encounter debt problems, as loans related to coal operations become due. The reason why this happens is because loans taken out when coal prices were high are likely to reflect an optimistic view of how much can be extracted. Once prices drop, operators discover that they have committed themselves to paying back more in loans than their coal mines can actually produce. This seems to be happening now.
What Are the Implications for Future World Coal Production?
If we look at a chart showing world consumption of energy products by fuel, we see that world coal production has turned down in a similar manner to the downturn in Chinese coal production.
There are many large areas of the world that seem to be beyond their peak in coal production, including the United States, the Eurozone, the Former Soviet Union, and Canada. Note that the United States’ coal production “peaked” in 1998. This added to pressures for globalization.
If we consider the rest of the world excluding the areas shown separately in Figure 9 as the “Non-Peaking Portion of the World,” we find that China’s current coal production far exceeds that of the Non-Peaking portion of world production.
Figure 10 indicates that even the non-peaking portion of the world is showing a downturn in production in 2015, no doubt relating to current low prices.
Another issue is that India’s coal production now falls far short of its consumption. Thus, India is becoming a major coal importer. In 2015, India’s consumption of coal slightly exceeded that of the United States, making it the second largest consumer of coal after China, and the largest coal importer. If China should decide to increase its coal consumption by adding imports, it would need to compete with India for supplies.
India’s hope for continued economic growth is also tied to coal, even though it doesn’t produce enough itself. India’s use of natural gas is declining, because its own locally-produced natural gas supplies are declining, and imports are expensive.
Imported coal is more expensive than locally produced coal, because of the transportation costs involved. Thus, adding an increasing portion of imported coal will eventually make India’s products less price competitive. India started from a lower wage level than China, so perhaps it can temporarily withstand a somewhat higher average coal price. At some point, however, it will reach limits on how much of its mix can be imported, before workers cannot afford its products made with this high-priced coal.
As noted above, India and China will be competing for the same exports, if they both expect to grow using imported coal. We can modify Figure 9 to show what the size pool producing imports might now look like, if the countries needing imports is “China + India,” and the part with perhaps extra coal to export is the Non-Peaking Areas from Figure 9, less India.
This comparison shows an even a worse mismatch between the peaking areas, and the current production of areas that might raise their supply.
Is Future Coal Production a Function of Resources Available, or of Prices?
Future coal production is clearly a function of both the amount of resources available and future prices. If there are no resources available, it is pretty clear that no resources can be extracted.
What most researchers have not understood is that future prices are important as well. We can’t expect that prices will rise indefinitely, because low-paid workers, especially, find themselves in a squeeze. They find homes and cars increasingly unaffordable, unless the government can somehow manipulate interest rates down to never heard of levels. Because of this lack of understanding of the role of prices, most of today’s models don’t consider the possibility that price levels may cut back production, at what seems to be an early date relative to the amount of resources in the ground.
Part of the confusion comes from the view economists have regarding prices, innovation, and substitution. Economists seem to be firmly convinced that prices will always rise to fix the problem of future shortages, but their models do not seem to take into account the major role that energy plays in the economy, and the lack of available substitutes. Certainly, the history of energy prices does not support this claim.
If I am correct in saying that prices cannot rise indefinitely, then all three of the fossil fuels are likely to peak, more or less simultaneously, when prices can no longer stay high enough to enable extraction. The downslope after the peak will be based on financial outcomes, such as the bankruptcies of coal operators, not on the exhaustion of reserves or resources in the ground. This dynamic can be expected to produce a much sharper downturn than modeled by the Hubbert Curve.
If analysts consider the possibility that prices will never again rise very high for very long, they realize such a low-price scenario would be a catastrophe. That is why we hear very little about this possibility.
It appears likely that China’s coal production has “peaked” and has begun to decline. This is especially likely if energy prices stay low, or never rise very high for very long.
If I am correct about energy prices not rising high enough in the future, all fossil fuels may reach peak production more or less simultaneously in the not too distant future. Widespread debt defaults seem likely if this happens.
If we are, in fact, reaching peak coal, even before peak oil, this is disconcerting for those who believe that the Hubbert Model is the only way of viewing the world. Maybe we are expecting too much from the model; maybe we need a model that considers prices, and how prices depend on wages and rising debt. Falling energy prices are especially bad for the system; they seem to lead to debt defaults.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 19, 2016
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A poll among experts…and YOU TOO!
Take the Renewable Energy Survey HERE
I am reporting here the results of a small survey that I carried out last week among the members of a discussion forum; mainly experts in renewable energy (*). It was a very informal poll; not meant to have statistical value. But some 70 people responded out of a total of 167 members; so I think these results have a certain value in telling us how the experts feel in this field. And I was surprised by the remarkable optimism that resulted from the poll.
This is what I asked the members of the list
The question is about the possibility of a society not too different from ours (**) but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?
1. It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)
2. It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable.
3. It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.
4. It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.
5. It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.
As I said, it was a very informal poll and these questions could have been phrased differently, and probably in a better way. And, indeed, many people thought that their position was best described by something intermediate, some saying, for instance, "I am between 4 and 5". Because of this, it was rather difficult to make a precise counting of the results. But the trend was clear anyway.
Out of some 70 answers, the overwhelming majority was for option 4, that is, the transition is not only technologically possible, but within reach at a reasonable cost and fast enough to avoid major damage from climate change. The second best choice was option 3 (the transition is possible but very expensive). Only a few respondents say that the transition is technologically impossible without truly radical changes of society. Some opted for option 5, even suggesting an "option 6", something like "it will be faster than anyone expects".
I must confess that I was a little surprised by this diffuse optimism, being myself set on option 3. In part, it is because I tend to frequent "doomer" groups, but also on the basis of the quantitative calculations that I performed with some colleagues. But I think that these results are indicative of a trend that's developing among energy experts. It is an attitude that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but the experts are clearly perceiving the rapid strides forward of renewable technologies and reacting accordingly. They feel that there is a concrete chance to be able to create a cleaner world fast enough to avoid the worst.
I understand that this is the opinion of just a tiny group of experts, I understand that experts may well be wrong, I understand that there exist such things as the "bandwagon effect" and the "confirmation bias." I know all this. Yet, I believe that, in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, we can't go anywhere if we keep telling people that we are doomed, no matter what we do. What we need in order to keep going and fight the climate crisis is a healthy dose of hope and of optimism. And these results show that there is hope, that there is reason for optimism. Whether the transition will turn out to be very difficult, or not so difficult, it seems to be within reach if we really want it.
(*) Note: the forum mentioned in this post is a private discussion group meant to be a tool for professionals in renewable energy. It is not a place to discuss whether renewable energy is a good thing or not, nor to discuss such thing as the incoming near term extinction of humankind and the like. Rather, the idea of the forum is to discuss how to make the renewable energy transition happen as fast as possible; hopefully fast enough to avoid a climate disaster. If you are interested in joining this forum, please write me privately at ugo.bardi(zingything)unifi.it telling me in a few lines who you are and why you would like to join. It is not necessary that you are a researcher or a professional. People of good will who think they have something to contribute to the discussion are welcome.
(**) The concept of a society "not too different from ours" is left purposefully vague, because it is, obviously subjected to many different interpretations.Personally, I would tend to define it in terms of what such a society would NOT be. A non-exhaustive list could be, in no particular order,
- Not a Mayan style theocracy, complete with human sacrifices
- Not a military dictatorship, Roman style, complete with a semi-divine imperial ruler
- Not a proletarian paradise, complete with a secret police sending dissenters to very cold places
- Not a hunting and gathering society, complete with hunting rituals and initiation rites
- Not a society where you are hanged upside down if you tell a joke about the dear leader
- Not a society where, if you can't afford health care, you are left to die in the street
- Not a society where you are worried every day about whether you and your children will have something to eat
- Not a society where slavery is legal and the obvious way things ought to be
- Not a society where women are supposed to be the property of men
- Not a society where most people spend most of their life tilling the fields
- Not a society where you are burned at the stake if you belong to a different sect than the dominant one
Published on the Our Finite World on May 12, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
For a long time, a common assumption has been that the world will eventually “run out” of oil and other non-renewable resources. Instead, we seem to be running into surpluses and low prices. What is going on that was missed by M. King Hubbert, Harold Hotelling, and by the popular understanding of supply and demand?
The underlying assumption in these models is that scarcity would appear before the final cutoff of consumption. Hubbert looked at the situation from a geologist’s point of view in the 1950s to 1980s, without an understanding of the extent to which geological availability could change with higher price and improved technology. Harold Hotelling’s work came out of the conservationist movement of 1890 to 1920, which was concerned about running out of non-renewable resources. Those using supply and demand models have equivalent concerns–too little fossil fuel supply relative to demand, especially when environmental considerations are included.
Virtually no one realizes that the economy is a self-organized networked system. There are many interconnections within the system. The real situation is that as prices rise, supply tends to rise as well, because new sources of production become available at the higher price. At the same time, demand tends to fall for a variety of reasons:
- Lower affordability
- Lower productivity growth
- Falling relative wages of non-elite workers
The potential mismatch between amount of supply and demand is exacerbated by the oversized role that debt plays in determining the level of commodity prices. Because the oil problem is one of diminishing returns, adding debt becomes less and less profitable over time. There is a potential for a sharp decrease in debt from a combination of defaults and planned debt reductions, leading to very much lower oil prices, and severe problems for oil producers. Financial institutions tend to be badly affected as well. If a person looks at only past history, the situation looks secure, but it really is not.
Substitutes aren’t really helpful; they tend to be high-priced and dependent on the use of fossil fuels, including oil. They cannot possibly operate on their own. They add to the “oversupply at high prices” problem, but don’t really fix the need for low-priced supply.
Why supply tends to rise as prices rise
For any non-renewable commodity, there are a wide variety of resources that will “sort of” work as substitutes, if the price is high enough. If the price can be raised to a very high level, the funds available will encourage the development of more advanced (and expensive) technology.
If it is possible to raise the price to a very high level, it is likely that a very large quantity of oil will be available. Figure 1 shows some of the types of oil available:
I got my idea for Figure 2 from a natural gas resource triangle by Stephen Holditch.
A similar resource triangle is available for coal (from National Academies Press; Coal Resource, Reserve, and Quality Assessments):
Because of the availability of an increasing amount of resources, we are likely to get more oil, natural gas, and coal, if prices rise. We associate high prices with scarcity; instead, high prices tend to make a larger quantity of energy product available.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has a different way of illustrating the likelihood of huge future oil supply, if prices can only rise high enough.
The implication of this chart is that the IEA believes that oil prices can rise to $300 per barrel, giving the world plenty of oil to extract for many years ahead.
Can consumers really afford very high-priced energy products?
In my view, the answer is “No!” If oil is high priced, then the many things made with oil will tend to be high priced as well. Wages don’t rise with oil prices; most of us remember this from the oil price run-up of 2003 to 2008.
Because of this affordability issue, the limit to oil production is really an invisible price limit, represented as a dotted line. We can’t know in advance where this is, so it is easy to assume that it doesn’t exist.
The higher cost of extraction is equivalent to diminishing returns.
As we are forced to seek out ever more expensive to extract resources, the economy is in some sense becoming less and less efficient. We are devoting more of our human labor and other resources to extracting fossil fuels, and to extracting minerals from ever-lower-quality ores. In some sense, we could just as well be putting these resources into a pit and burying them–they no longer help us grow the rest of the economy. Using resources in this way leaves fewer resources to “grow” the rest of the economy. As a result, we should expect economic contraction when the cost of oil extraction rises.
In fact, economic contraction seems to happen when oil prices rise, at least for oil importing countries. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 post-World War II recessions were associated with oil price spikes. A 2004 IEA report says, “. . . a sustained $10 per barrel increase in oil prices from $25 to $35 would result in the OECD as a whole losing 0.4% of GDP in the first and second years of higher prices. Inflation would rise by half a percentage point and unemployment would also increase.”
Energy products play a critical role in the economy.
Economic activity is based on many kinds of physical changes. For example:
- Using heat to transform materials from one form to another;
- Using energy products to help move goods from one place to another;
- Moving electrons in such a way that light is provided
- Moving electrons in such a way that Internet transmission can be provided.
A human being, by himself, exerts only about 100 watts of power. A human being is also quite limited in what he can do; he can provide a little heat, but no light, for example. Energy products are very helpful for making capital goods such as buildings, machines, roads, electricity transmission lines, cars and trucks.
We can think of energy products, and capital goods made using energy products, as ways of leveraging human energy. If per capita energy consumption increases over time, leveraging of human labor can grow. As a result, humans can become ever more productive–think of new and better machines to help humans do their work. Dips in this leveraging tend to correspond to economic contraction (Figure 7).
To have a growing economy, wages of non-elite workers need to be growing.
Our economy is in a sense a “circular economy,” in which non-elite workers (less educated, non-managerial workers) play a pivotal role because they are both producers of goods and potential consumers of the output of the economy. Because there are so many non-elite workers, their demand for homes, cars, and electronic goods plays a critical role in maintaining the total demand of the economy.
If the wages of these non-elite workers are growing, thanks to increased productivity, the economy as a whole can grow. If the wages of these workers are shrinking or are flat (in inflation-adjusted terms), the economy is in trouble. The recycling process cannot work very well.
If there is not enough economic growth–often caused by not enough growth in energy consumption to leverage human labor–then we tend to get a growing imbalance between the sector on the left with businesses, governments, and elite workers, and the sector on the right, with non-elite workers. Part of this wage imbalance comes from sending jobs to low-wage countries. As jobs are shifted to low-wage countries, the workers of the world increasingly cannot afford the goods that they and other workers are producing.
If the wages of non-elite workers are not rising sufficiently, rising debt can be used to hide this problem for a while. The way this is done is by allowing workers to buy goods at ever-lower interest rates, over ever-longer time periods. This strategy has an endpoint, which we seem to be close to reaching.
Debt is a key factor in creating an economy that operates using energy.
A generally overlooked problem of our current system is the fact that we do not receive the benefit of energy products until well after they are used. This is especially the case for energy used to make capital investments, such as buildings, roads, machines, and vehicles. Even education and health care represent energy investments that have benefits long after the investment is made.
The reason debt (and close substitutes) are needed is because it is necessary to bring forward hoped-for future benefits of energy products to the current period if workers are to be paid. In addition, the use of debt makes it possible to pay for consumer products such as automobiles and houses over a period of years. It also allows factories and other capital goods to be financed over the period they provide their benefits. (See my post Debt: The Key Factor Connecting Energy and the Economy.)
When debt is used to move forward hoped-for future benefits to the present, oil prices can be higher, as can be the prices of other commodities. In fact, the price of assets in general can be higher. With the higher price of oil, it is possible for businesses to use the hoped-for future benefits of oil to pay current workers. This system works, as long as the price set by this system doesn’t exceed the actual benefit to the economy of the added energy.
The amount of benefits that oil products provide to the economy is determined by their physical characteristics–for example, how far oil can make a truck move. These benefits can increase a bit over time, with rising efficiency, but in general, physics sets an upper bound to this increase. Thus, the value of oil and other energy products cannot rise without limit.
Using hoped-for benefits to set oil prices is likely to lead to oil prices that overshoot their maximum sustainable level, and then fall back.
A debt-based system of setting oil prices is different from what most of us would have considered possible. If wages of non-elite workers had been growing fast enough (Figure 9), increasing debt would not even be needed, because the whole system could grow thanks to the increased buying power of the many non-elite workers. These workers could buy new houses and cars, have more meat in their diet, and travel on international vacations, adding to demand for oil and other energy products, thereby keeping prices up.
As wages of non-elite workers fall behind, an increasing amount of debt is needed. For the US, the ratio of the increase in debt to the increase in GDP (including the rise in inflation) is as shown in Figure 10:
Thus, the increase in debt has never been less than the corresponding increase in GDP over five-year periods, even when oil prices were low prior to 1970. In general, the pattern would suggest that the higher the oil price, the higher the increase in debt needs to be to generate one dollar of GDP. This is to be expected, if economic growth depends on Btus of energy, and higher prices lead to the need for more debt to cover the purchase of necessary Btus of energy.
We are reaching a head-on collision between (1) the rising cost of energy production and (2) the falling ability of non-elite workers to pay for this high-priced energy.
The head-on collision we are reaching is what causes the potential instability referred to at the beginning of this article, as illustrated in Figure 1. Of course, such a collision has the potential to cause debt defaults, as it becomes impossible to repay debt with interest.
Turchin and Nefedov in the academic book Secular Cycles analyzed eight agricultural economies that eventually collapsed. The problem that these economies encountered was exactly the same one we are now encountering: falling wages of non-elite workers at the same time that the cost of producing energy products (food, at that time) was rising. Rising costs were often an end result of too many people for the arable land. A workaround could be found, such as building irrigation or adding a larger army to conquer a neighboring land, but it would add costs.
As the problems of these economies progressed, debt defaults became more of a problem. Governments found it hard to collect enough taxes, because so many of the workers were increasingly impoverished. Often, workers became sufficiently weakened by an inadequate diet that they became vulnerable to epidemics. Governments often collapsed.
In the economies analyzed by Turchin and Nefedov, food prices temporarily spiked, but it is not clear that this was the final outcome, given the inability of workers to pay the high prices. Debt defaults would tend to further reduce ability to pay. Thus, it would not be surprising if prices ended up low (from lack of demand), rather than high. We know that ancient Babylon is an example of one economy that collapsed. Revelation 18:11-13 seems to describe the situation after Babylon’s collapse as one of lack of demand.
11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
Other parts of the oil limits story that researchers have missed
As I have previously mentioned, most researchers begin with the view that soon there will be a problem with energy scarcity. The real issue that tends to bring the system down is related, but it is fairly different. It is the fact that as we use energy, the system necessarily generates entropy. This entropy takes the form of rising debt and increased pollution. It is these entropy-related issues, rather than a shortage of energy products per se, that tends to bring the system down. See my post, Our economic growth system is reaching limits in a strange way.
We could, in theory, fix our problems by adding infinite debt at the same time that wages of non-elite workers tend toward zero. We could then use this additional debt to fight pollution problems and pay all of the workers. All of us know that this solution would not work in the real world, however.
The two-sided economy I have described in Figures 8 and 9 is one part of our problem. There is a popular saying, “We pay each other’s wages.” Unfortunately, paying each other’s wages does not work well, if the wage level of elite workers differs too much from the wage level of the non-elite workers. A worker making $7.50 per hour in a part-time job is not going to be able to pay the wages of a surgeon making $300,000 per year, no matter how an insurance policy is designed to spread costs evenly. A worker in India or Africa will not be able to afford goods made by human workers in the United States, because of wage differences.
Governments can try to fix the problem of non-elite workers getting too small a share of the output of the system, but this is not easy to do. The real problem is that the system as a whole is not producing enough goods and services. This happens because the high cost of energy extraction (plus related issues–pollution control; need for more education for workers; need for ever-larger government and more elite workers) is removing too many resources from the system. The result is that the economy as a whole tends to grow ever more slowly. The quantity of goods and services produced by the economy does not rise very rapidly. When there are not enough goods produced in total, non-elite workers tend to find that their allocation has been reduced.
If governments attempt to add debt to fix the problems with the system, the addition of debt tends to raise asset prices on the left side of Figures 8 and 9. Unfortunately, the additional debt usually has little impact on the wages of non-elite workers (that is, the right hand part of the system).
Governments have talked about minimum income programs to raise incomes of those who are not elite workers. Whether or not this approach can work depends on many things–how much additional debt can be added to the system; whether this debt will actually raise the total amount of goods and services produced; how tolerant those in the left-hand side of Figures 8 and 9 are of losing their share of goods and services; the impact on relative currency levels.
Research involving Energy Returned on Energy Investment (EROEI) ratios for fossil fuels is a frequently used approach for evaluating prospective energy substitutes, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Unfortunately, this ratio only tells part of the story. The real problem is declining return on human labor for the system as a whole–that is, falling inflation adjusted wages of non-elite workers. This could also be described as falling EROEI–falling return on human labor. Declining human labor EROEI represents the same problem that fish swimming upstream have, when pursuit of food starts requiring so much energy that further upstream trips are no longer worthwhile.
Falling fossil fuel EROEI is a contributor to falling EROEI with respect to human labor, but there are other contributors as well (Figure 12). (My list is probably not exhaustive.)
If our problem is a shortage of fossil fuels, fossil fuel EROEI analysis is ideal for determining how to best leverage our small remaining fossil fuel supply. For each type of fossil fuel evaluated, the fossil fuel EROEI calculation determines the amount of energy output from a given quantity of fossil fuel inputs. If a decision is made to focus primarily on the energy products with the highest EROEI ratios, then our existing fossil fuel supply can be used as sparingly as possible.
If our problem isn’t really a shortage of fossil fuels, EROEI is much less helpful. In fact, the EROEI calculation strips out the timing over which the energy return is made, even though this may vary greatly. The delay (and thus needed amount of debt) is likely to be greatest for those energy products where large front-end capital expenditures are required. Nuclear would tend to be a problem in this regard; so would wind and solar.
To evaluate the extent to which a given energy product tends to raise debt levels, a better approach might be to look at debt levels directly. Another measure might be to compare the required system-wide capital expenditures for a particular purpose, for example, to provide sufficient non-intermittent electricity for the state of California over a period of say, 50 years, using different electricity generation scenarios.
Our academic system of inquiry, with its peer reviewed literature system, has let us down.
Our peer reviewed academic system is not telling this story. Part of the problem is that this is a difficult story. It has taken me most of the last ten years to figure it out.
Part of the problem with our academic system seems to be excessive reliance on past analyses. Once one direction has been set, it is hard to change. Another part of the problem is that the focus of each researcher tends to be quite narrow. The result can be that it is hard to “see the forest for the trees.”
Furthermore, politicians and academic publishers tend to “push” results in the direction of a desired outcome. Grant money goes to researchers who follow the government-preferred fields of inquiry; publishers prefer books that are not too alarming to students.
I am coming at this issue from “out in left field.” I don’t have a Ph.D., although I am a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society, which many would consider similar. I also have an M. S. in Mathematics. I do not work in a university setting. I do not have a strong background in subjects a person might expect, such as geology, economic theory, or physics. I do have a fair amount of practical experience with financial modeling from my actuarial background, however.
My approach is very different from that of most researchers. I come to the problem from the point of view of how a finite world might be expected to operate. I write most of my articles on the Internet, where I get the benefit of comments from readers. Many of these commenters point me in the direction of articles or books I should read, or raise additional issues I should consider.
Over the years, I have become acquainted with many researchers in related fields. These people have generally reached out to me–invited me to speak at their conferences, or corresponded with me about issues they considered important. As a result of this collaboration, I have been able to put together a more complete story than others.
I have stayed away from publishers and funding sources that might try to influence what I say. I have not been taking donations, and do not run ads on my website. The story is one that needs to be told, but it easily gets distorted if the person telling the story is influenced by what will generate the largest donations, or the most grant money.
Published on the Our Finite World on May 2, 2016
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
There are many who believe that the use of energy is critical to the growth of the economy. In fact, I am among these people. The thing that is not as apparent is that growth in energy consumption is dependent on the growth of debt. Both energy and debt have characteristics that are close to “magic” with respect to the growth of the economy. Economic growth can only take place when growing debt (or a very close substitute, such as company stock) is available to enable the use of energy products.
The reason why debt is important is because energy products enable the creation of many kinds of capital goods, and these goods are often bought with debt. Commercial examples would include metal tools, factories, refineries, pipelines, electricity generation plants, electricity transmission lines, schools, hospitals, roads, gold coins, and commercial vehicles. Consumers also benefit because energy products allow the production of houses and apartments, automobiles, busses, and passenger trains. In a sense, the creation of these capital goods is one form of “energy profit” that is obtained from the consumption of energy.
The reason debt is needed is because while energy products can indeed produce a large “energy profit,” this energy profit is spread over many years in the future. In order to actually be able to obtain the benefit of this energy profit in a timeframe where the economy can use it, the financial system needs to bring forward some or all of the energy profit to an earlier timeframe. It is only when businesses can do this, that they have money to pay workers. This time shifting also allows businesses to earn a financial profit themselves. Governments indirectly benefit as well, because they can then tax the higher wages of workers and businesses, so that governmental services can be provided, including paved roads and good schools.
Debt and Other Promises
Clearly, if the economy were producing only items for current consumption–for example, if hunters and gatherers were only finding food to eat and sticks to burn, so that they could cook this food, then there would be no need for the time shifting function of debt. But there would likely still be a need for promises, such as, “If you will hunt for food, I will gather plant food and care for the children.” With the use of promises, it is possible to have division of labor and economies of scale. Promises allow a business to pay workers at the end of the month, instead of every day.
As an economy becomes more complex, its needs change. At first, central markets can be used to facilitate the exchange of goods. If one person brings more to the market than he takes home, a record of his credit balance can be kept on a clay tablet for use another day. This approach works as long as the credit can only be used at that particular market. If the credit balance is to be used elsewhere, or if the balance is to hold its value for a period of years, a different, more flexible approach is needed.
Over the years, economies have developed a wide range of debt and debt-like products. For the purpose of this discussion, I am including all of them as debt, broadly defined. One type is what we think of as “money.” Money is really a portable promise for a share of the future output of the economy. It can provide time shifting, if this money is held for a time before it is spent.
Another type of debt is a loan with a fixed term, such as a mortgage or car loan. Such a loan provides time shifting, allowing something to be paid for over a significant share of its life. Equity funding for a company is not really a loan, but it, too, allows time shifting. Those purchasing shares of stock do so with the expectation that they will be repaid in the future through price appreciation and dividends. It thus acts much like a loan, for the purpose of this discussion. There are many other types of promises regarding future funding that are closely related–for example, government loan guarantees, derivatives, ETFs, and government pension promises. All indirectly add to the willingness of people and businesses to spend money now–someone else has somehow made promises that remove uncertainty regarding future income flows or future payment obligations.
The Magic Things Debt Does
It is not immediately obvious how important debt is. In fact, neoclassical economists have tended to ignore the role of debt. I see several, almost magic, ways that debt helps the economy.
- Debt brings forward the date when an individual or company can afford to purchase capital goods. Without debt, the only way to afford such a purchase would be to save up the full price in advance. Using debt, a business can add a new machine to allow it to produce more goods before the business saves up money from its prior operations. A young person can afford to buy a house or car, long before he could save up funds for such a purchase. With the help of debt, the price of capital goods can be financed over much of their working life.
- Adding debt raises the prices of commodities. Commodities, such as lumber, iron, copper, and oil are what we use to make cars, houses, and factories. “Demand” for these commodities rises because more people and businesses can afford to buy capital goods that use these energy products. Often these capital goods also use energy products over their lifetime (for example, gasoline to operate a car), so there is a long-term impact on the demand for energy products, in addition to the demand associated with making the capital goods. Of course, with higher prices, it becomes profitable to extract oil and other energy resources from more marginal areas of production. More companies enter the field. As long as prices remain high, they are able to earn a profit.
- Adding debt stimulates the economy, almost like turning the heat up on a stove. When debt is added for any purpose–even starting a war–it starts a whole chain of purchases, each of which acts to stimulate the economy. If a young person takes out a loan to buy a car, the purchase of the car leads to the salesman having more money to buy goods for his family. The company selling the cars is able to make a bigger profit, which the business can reinvest or pay to shareholders as dividends. The purchase of the car leads to more demand for metals used to make the car, and thus tends to increase the number of mining jobs. Each new worker in turn is able to buy more goods and services, starting a beneficial cycle that gradually radiates out through the economy.
Adding debt tends to lead to higher asset prices. Clearly, (from Item 2), adding debt can raise the price of commodities. Adding debt can also make it possible for more people to afford real estate and investments in the stock market. For example, Japan greatly ramped up its debt level between 1965 and 1989.
During this time, a major price bubble occurred in land prices (Figure 2).
There is a reason why this bubble could occur. Because of the stimulating effect that debt had on the economy, more people had the wealth to buy real estate, especially if this too was sold on credit. Once private debt levels stopped rising rapidly, price levels crashed both for land and stock prices. TheBubbleBubble.com explains what happened: “By 1989, Japanese officials became increasingly concerned with the country’s growing asset bubbles and the Bank of Japan decided to tighten its monetary policy.” Doing so popped both the home and stock price bubbles.
Adding debt adds to GDP. GDP is a measure of the goods and services produced during a period. Many of these goods and services are bought using debt, so it is not surprising that adding more debt tends to add more GDP. The amount of GDP added is less than the amount of debt added, even when inflation growth is considered as part of GDP.
The general tendency is toward the need for an increasing amount of debt per dollar of GDP added. This is especially the case when oil prices are high. In the US, the ratio of non-financial debt to GDP added was almost down to 1:1 for a time, back when oil prices were less than $20 per barrel (in today’s dollars).
Adding debt tends to increase wealth disparity. Adding debt tends to increasingly divide an economy into “haves” and “have-nots.” Many of the “haves” own the means of production, including an ever-increasing amount of capital goods, and thus can earn profits and dividends from these capital goods. Others are high-level officials in businesses and the government who earn high salaries. Interest payments also tend to transfer payments from the poor to the more wealthy. We might say that the common laborers are increasingly “frozen out” of the economy that otherwise is heating up. This shift started to take place in the United States about 1981.
Adding debt is something that governments can influence, either by lowering interest rates or by borrowing the money themselves. Actions by governments to reduce interest rates can be effective, because they lower monthly payments that borrowers need to make to take out a loan of a given amount. Thus, they tend to encourage more borrowing. In Figure 5, below, note that the decrease in interest rates in 1981 corresponds precisely with the rise in debt to GDP ratios is Figure 3 and the shift in income patterns in Figure 4.
Figure 6 later in this post shows that changes in Quantitative Easing (QE) (which affects interest rates and the level of the US dollar relative to other currencies) also correspond to sharp changes in oil prices. Changes in the level of the dollar also affect demand for oil. See a recent post related to this issue.
What Goes Wrong as More Debt Is Added?
It is clear from the discussion so far that quite a few things go wrong. These are a few additional items:
1. There are limits to government manipulation of debt levels. First, interest rates eventually drop so low that they become negative in some countries. Negative interest rates tend to cause bank profitability to drop and lead to hoarding by those who planned to use savings for retirement.
Second, government borrowing doesn’t work as well at stimulating the economy as investments made by the private sector. A likely reason is that private sector investments are made when the borrower believes that the return on the investment will be high enough to pay back the debt with interest, and still make a profit. Government investments often do not meet this standard. Some reports indicate that Japan’s government has used borrowed money to fund bridges to nowhere and houses with no one home. China’s centrally directed economy seems to lead to similar over-borrowing problems. Chinese businesses also borrow to cover interest on prior loans.
2. Ratios of debt to GDP tend to rise, worrying government leaders. Debt is a way of accessing the benefits of Btus of energy, in advance of the time they are really available. As the amount of easy-to-extract oil depletes, the cost of oil extraction gradually rises. Unfortunately, the amount of “work” a barrel of oil can perform–for example, how far it can make a truck travel–doesn’t rise correspondingly. As a result, the higher price simply reflects increasing inefficiency of extraction, and thus the need to use a larger share of the economy’s output to extract oil. The amount of debt needed to keep GDP rising keeps growing, in part because oil is becoming higher priced to extract, and in part because goods that use oil in their production also tend to rise in cost. As a result, the ratio of debt to GDP tends to spiral upward.
3. Rising debt allows for a temporary false valuation of the benefit of energy products. The true value of oil and other energy products comes primarily from the Btus of energy they provide, such as how far a truck can be made to travel. Thus we would expect that the true value of energy products would remain relatively constant over time. If anything, the value of energy products will tend to rise by a small amount (say, 1% per year) as technology improvements lead to growing efficiency in their use.
What we think of as the magic hand of the economy determines a price for commodities at all times, based on “supply” and “demand.” This price clearly is not very close to the future energy profit that the energy products will actually provide, because it tends to vary widely over time. We don’t know what the true value of a barrel of oil to society is. If the true value is $100 per barrel (in today’s money), then back when oil prices were $10 or $20 per barrel (in today’s money), there would have been $80 to $90 (equal to $100 minus the actual price) of “energy profit” that could be pumped back into the economy as productivity gains for workers, interest on debt, and dividends on stock, tax revenue, and money for new investment. The economy could (and did) grow quickly. There was less need for added debt, because goods made with oil were cheap. Wages for workers could rise rapidly, as they did in the 1950 to 1968 period (Figure 4).
If prices approach the true value of oil (assumed to be $100 per barrel), the extra energy profit would pretty much disappear. The economy would increasingly become “hollowed out.” Productivity gains that lead to wage gains would mostly disappear. Businesses would find it hard to earn adequate profits, and would cut back on dividends. Some companies might need to borrow money in order to pay dividends. World economic growth would slow.
Prices can even temporarily overshoot their true value to the economy, then drop sharply back. This happens because prices are set by demand, and demand depends on a combination of wage levels and debt levels. Oil prices can be high for a while, if borrowing is temporarily high, and then fall back as it becomes clear that profitable investments are not really available if oil is at such a high price level.
4. Wages of non-elite workers tend to drop too low. Workers play a very special role in the economy: they both (a) provide the labor for the economy and (b) act as consumers for the economy. If workers aren’t earning enough, there is a problem with many of them not being able to buy the goods and services the economy produces. This is especially the case for purchases such as homes and cars, which are often bought using debt. Indirectly, this lack of ability to afford the output of the system puts a downward pressure on the price of commodities, particularly energy commodities. Prices may fall below the cost of production, or may not rise high enough.
The reason that wages of the less educated, non-managerial workers tend to lag behind is related to the issue of diminishing returns. A workaround is a more “complex” society, with bigger businesses, bigger government, more capital goods, and more debt. In some cases, manufacturing is shifted to parts of the world with lower wages. Non-elite workers increasingly find themselves with too small a share of the output of the economy. Figure 7 shows some influences that tend to lead to too low wages for non-elite workers.
When wages for a large share of workers drop too low, there is a problem with workers not having enough money to buy goods like cars and houses. The economy tends to contract. This is a different form of too low Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) than most people think of. In my view, low return on human labor is the most important type of EROEI. Falling wages of a large share of workers can lead to economic collapse, because there are not enough buyers for the output of the system.
5. Eventually, debt defaults become a problem. As the world becomes more divided into “haves” and “have-nots,” falling ability to repay a debt becomes more of a problem. To some extent, this happens at the individual level, with auto loans, student debt, and mortgages. If commodity prices fall or stay too low, it happens to commodity producers, including oil producers. It also happens to countries, especially to those who are dependent on commodity exports.
The rise in the cost of oil extraction is another factor. As the cost of extraction begins to exceed the benefit of oil to the economy (assumed above to be $100 per barrel), the energy profit from oil is no longer sufficient to allow the economy to grow as in the past. Without economic growth, it becomes much harder to repay debt with interest.
6. At some point, we reach peak debt. The economy acts like a pump. As long as there are sufficient energy profits coming through the system (based on $100 per barrel minus the actual oil price, in our example), wages can rise and corporate profits can rise. Asset prices can rise, and energy prices can stay high. Once these energy profits start falling back, wages stagnate and business profits decline. Businesses cut back on borrowing, because they see fewer profitable opportunities for investment. Individuals cut back on borrowing, because with their lower wages, it becomes more difficult to buy a house or car. Governments try to fight declining demand for debt, but eventually reach limits of the economy’s tolerance for negative interest rates.
Once debt begins contracting, the contraction tends to bring down commodity prices. This is a huge problem for commodity producers, because they need prices that are high enough to cover their cost of production. Ultimately, falling debt, together with falling wages, and lack of energy profit have the potential to bring down the system.
The situation we are facing today is one in which growing debt has been holding up oil prices and other commodity prices for a long time. We are now reaching limits on this process, as evidenced by growing wealth disparity, low commodity prices, and the frantic actions of government leaders around the world regarding slow economic growth and the need for more stimulus. These issues are becoming major ones in the upcoming US political election.
Those studying oil issues from an EROEI perspective tend to miss the connection with debt, because EROEI analysis strips out timing differences. In my view, debt is essential to oil extraction, because it brings forward an estimate of the value of the oil and other energy products, so that businesses of all kinds can make use of the “energy profit” in paying their employees and in paying their taxes. Most people don’t think of the issue this way.
In this article, I suggest a different way of thinking about the limit we are reaching–oil prices can’t rise above some price limit without adversely affecting the economy. It is the savings below this limit that aid productivity growth and government funding. Perhaps researchers should be examining this price limit approach more carefully. This is not the same approach as EROEI analysis, but has the advantage of having fewer “boundary issues.” It also offers a check for reasonableness of EROEI indications developed through conventional analysis. If an energy product needs a government subsidy, it is doubtful that that energy product is really providing an energy profit.
Published on the Our Finite World on April 18, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
Oil production can be confusing because there are various “pieces” that may or may not be included. In this analysis, I look at oil production of the United States broadly (including crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, and biofuels), because this is the way oil consumption is defined. I also provide some thoughts regarding the direction of future world oil prices.
US oil production clearly flattened out in 2015. If we look at changes relative to the same month, one-year prior, we see that as of December 2014, growth was very high, increasing by 18.0% relative to the prior year.
By December 2015, growth over the prior year finally turned slightly negative, with production for the month down 0.2% relative to one year prior. It should be noted that in the above charts, amounts are on an “energy produced” or “British Thermal Units” (Btu) basis. Using this approach, ethanol and natural gas liquids get less credit than they would using a barrels-per-day approach. This reflects the fact that these products are less energy-dense.
Figure 3 shows the trend in month-by-month production.
The high month for production was April 2015, and production has been down since then. The production of natural gas liquids and biofuels has tended to continue to rise, partially offsetting the fall in crude oil production. Production amounts for recent months include estimates, and actual amounts may differ from these estimates. As a result, updated EIA data may eventually show a somewhat different pattern.
Taking a longer view of US liquids production, this is what we see for the three categories separately:
Growth in US liquid fuel production slowed in 2015. The increase in liquid fuels production in 2015 amounted to 1.96 quadrillion Btus (“quads”), or about 59% as much as the increase in production in 2014 of 3.34 quads. On a barrels-per-day (bpd) basis, this would equate to roughly a 1.0 million bpd increase in 2015, compared to a 1.68 million bpd increase in 2014.
The data in Figure 4 indicates that with all categories included, 2015 liquids exceeded the 1970 peak by 16%. Considering crude oil alone, 2015 production amounted to 98% of the 1970 peak.
Figure 5 shows an approximate breakdown of crude oil production since 1945 on a bpd basis. The big spike in production is from tight oil, which is another name for oil from shale.
Here again, US crude oil production in 2015 appears to amount to 98% of the 1970 crude oil peak. Thus, on a crude oil basis alone, we have not yet hit the 1970 peak.
Prospects for an Oil Price Rise
Most recent analyses of oil prices have focused on the amount of mismatch between supply and demand, and the need to craft a temporary agreement to reduce oil production. The thing that is missing in this discussion is an analysis of buying power of consumers. Is the problem a temporary problem, or a permanent one?
In order for oil product demand to keep rising, the buying power of consumers needs to keep rising. In other words, some combination of consumer wages and debt levels of consumers needs to keep rising. (Rising debt is helpful because, with more debt, it is often possible to buy goods that would not otherwise be affordable.)
We know that in many countries, wages for lower-level workers have stagnated for a number of reasons, including competition with wages in lower-wage countries, computerization, and the use of automation (Figure 6). Thus, we know that low wages for a large share of consumers may be a problem.
Figure 7 shows that world debt has been falling since June 30, 2014. This is precisely the time when world oil prices started falling.
One reason for the fall in world debt, measured in US dollars, is the fact that the US dollar started rising relative to other currencies about this time. Oil is priced in dollars; if the US dollar rises relative to other currencies, it makes oil less affordable to those whose currencies have lower values. The big rise in the level of the dollar came when the US discontinued quantitative easing in 2014. World debt, as measured in US dollars, began to fall as the US dollar rose.
As long as the US dollar is high relative to other currencies, oil products remain less affordable, and demand tends to stay low.
Another issue that struck me in looking at world debt data is the way the growth in debt is distributed (Figure 9). Debt growth for households has been much lower than for businesses and governments.
Since March 31, 2008, non-financial debt of households has been close to flat. In fact, between June 30, 2014 and September 30, 2015, it shrank by 6.3%. In contrast, non-financial debt of both businesses and governments has risen since March 31, 2008. Government debt has shrunk by 5.6% since June 30, 2014–almost as large a percentage drop as for household debt.
The issue that we need to be aware of is that consumers are the foundation of the economy. If their wages are not rising rapidly, and if their buying power (considering both debt and wages) is not rising by very much, they are not going to be buying very many new houses and cars–the big products that require oil consumption. Businesses may think that they can continue to grow without taking the consumer along, but very soon this growth proves to be a myth. Governments cannot grow without rising wages either, because the majority of their tax revenue comes from individuals, rather than corporations.
Today, there is a great deal of faith that oil prices will rise, if someone, somewhere, will reduce oil production. In fact, in order to bring oil demand back up to a level that commands a price over $100 per barrel, we need consumers who can afford to buy a growing quantity of goods made with oil products. To do this, we need to fix three related problems:
- Low wages of many consumers
- World debt that is no longer rising (especially for consumers)
- A high dollar relative to other currencies
These problems are likely to be difficult to fix, so we should expect low oil prices, more or less indefinitely. Lack of oil supply may bring a temporary spike in oil prices, but it cannot fix a permanent problem with consumer spending around the world.