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Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 10, No. 1, January 2014
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession;
Eventually Collapse


Gail Tverberg


Originally published in Our Finite World, 23 October 2013
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION


How does the world reach limits? My analysis suggests that these limits will come in a very different way than most have expected–through financial stress that ultimately relates to rising unit energy costs, plus the need to use increasing amounts of energy for additional purposes


How does the world reach limits? This is a question that few dare to examine. My analysis suggests that these limits will come in a very different way than most have expected–through financial stress that ultimately relates to rising unit energy costs, plus the need to use increasing amounts of energy for additional purposes:

  • To extract oil and other minerals from locations where extraction is very difficult, such as in shale formations, or very deep under the sea;
  • To mitigate water shortages and pollution issues, using processes such as desalination and long distance transport of food; and
  • To attempt to reduce future fossil fuel use, by building devices such as solar panels and electric cars that increase fossil fuel energy use now in the hope of reducing energy use later.

We have long known that the world is likely to eventually reach limits. In 1972, the book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others modeled the likely impact of growing population, limited resources, and rising pollution in a finite world. They considered a number of scenarios under a range of different assumptions. These models strongly suggested the world economy would begin to hit limits in the first half of the 21st century and would eventually collapse.

The indications of the 1972 analysis were considered nonsense by most. Clearly, the world would work its way around limits of the type suggested. The world would find additional resources in short supply. It would become more efficient at using resources and would tackle the problem of rising pollution. The free market would handle any problems that might arise.

The Limits to Growth analysis modeled the world economy in terms of flows; it did not try to model the financial system. In recent years, I have been looking at the situation and have discovered that as we hit limits in a finite world, the financial system is the most vulnerable part of the system because it ties everything else together. Debt in particular is vulnerable because the time-shifting aspect of debt “works” much better in a rapidly growing economy than in an economy that is barely growing or shrinking.

The problem that now looks like it has the potential to push the world into financial collapse is something no one would have thought of—high oil prices that take a slice out of the economy, without anything to show in return. Consumers find that their own salaries do not rise as oil prices rise. They find that they need to cut back on discretionary spending if they are to have adequate funds to pay for necessities produced using oil. Food is one such necessity; oil is used to run farm equipment, make herbicides and pesticides, and transport finished food products. The result of a cutback in discretionary spending is recession or near recession, and less job availability. Governments find themselves in  financial distress from trying to mitigate the recession-like impacts without adequate tax revenue.

One of our big problems now is a lack of cheap substitutes for oil. Highly touted renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV are not cheap. They also do not substitute directly for oil, and they increase near-term fossil fuel consumption. Ethanol can act as an “oil extender,” but it is not cheap. Battery powered cars are also not cheap.

The issue of rising oil prices is really a two-sided issue. The least expensive sources of oil tend to be extracted first. Thus, the cost of producing oil tends to rise over time. As a result, oil producers tend to require ever-rising oil prices to cover their costs. It is the interaction of these two forces that leads to the likelihood of financial collapse in the near term:

  1. Need for ever-rising oil prices by oil producers.
  2. The adverse impact of high-energy prices on consumers.

If a cheap substitute for oil had already come along in adequate quantity, there would be no problem. The issue is that no suitable substitute has been found, and financial problems are here already. In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.

The Role of Inexpensive Energy

The fact that few stop to realize is that energy of the right type is absolutely essential for making goods and services of all kinds.  Even if the services are simply typing numbers into a computer, we need energy of precisely the right kind for several different purposes:

  1. To make the computer and transport it to the current location.
  2. To build the building where the worker works.
  3. To light the building where the worker works.
  4. To heat or cool the building where the worker works.
  5. To transport the worker to the location where he works.
  6. To produce the foods that the worker eats.
  7. To produce the clothing that the worker wears.

Furthermore, the energy used needs to be inexpensive, for many reasons—so that the worker’s salary goes farther; so that the goods or services created are competitive in a world market; and so that governments can gain adequate tax revenue from taxing energy products. We don’t think of fossil fuel energy products as being a significant source of tax revenue, but they very often are, especially for exporters (Rodgers map of oil “government take” percentages).

Some of the energy listed above is paid for by the employer; some is paid for by the employee. This difference is irrelevant, since all are equally essential. Some energy is omitted from the above list, but is still very important. Energy to build roads, electric transmission lines, schools, and health care centers is essential if the current system is to be maintained. If energy prices rise, taxes and fees to pay for basic services such as these will likely need to rise.

How “Growth” Began

For most primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the number of the species fluctuates up and down within a range. Total population isn’t very high. If human population followed that of other large primates, there wouldn’t be more than a few million humans worldwide. They would likely live in one geographical area.

How did humans venture out of this mold? In my view, a likely way that humans were able to improve their dominance over other animals and plants was through the controlled use of fire, a skill they learned over one million years ago  (Luke 2012).  Controlled use of fire could be used for many purposes, including cooking food, providing heat in cool weather, and scaring away wild animals.

The earliest use of fire was in some sense very inexpensive. Dry sticks and leaves were close at hand. If humans used a technique such as twirling one stick against another with the right technique and the right kind of wood, such a fire could be made in less than a minute (Hough 1890). Once humans had discovered how to make fire, they could use it to leverage their meager muscular strength.

The benefits of the controlled use of fire are perhaps not as obvious to us as they would have been to the early users. When it became possible to cook food, a much wider variety of potential foodstuffs could be eaten. The nutrition from food was also better. There is even some evidence that cooking food allowed the human body to evolve in the direction of smaller chewing and digestive apparatus and a bigger brain (Wrangham 2009). A bigger brain would allow humans to outsmart their prey. (Dilworth 2010)

Cooking food allowed humans to spend much less time chewing food than previously—only one-tenth as much time according to one study (4.7% of daily activity vs. 48% of daily activity) (Organ et al. 2011). The reduction in chewing time left more time other activities, such as making tools and clothing.

Humans gradually increased their control over many additional energy sources. Training dogs to help in hunting came very early. Humans learned to make sailboats using wind energy. They learned to domesticate plants and animals, so that they could provide more food energy in the location where it was needed. Domesticated animals could also be used to pull loads.

Humans learned to use wind mills and water mills made from wood, and eventually learned to use coal, petroleum (also called oil), natural gas, and uranium. The availability of fossil fuels vastly increased our ability to make substances that require heating, including metals, glass, and concrete. Prior to this time, wood had been used as an energy source, leading to widespread deforestation.

With the availability of metals, glass, and concrete in quantity, it became possible to develop modern hydroelectric power plants and transmission lines to transmit this electricity. It also became possible to build railroads, steam-powered ships, better plows, and many other useful devices.

Population rose dramatically after fossil fuels were added, enabling better food production and transportation. This started about 1800.

GailTverberg.World-Population.0-2011.png
Figure 1. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and UN Population Estimates.

All of these activities led to a very long history of what we today might call economic growth. Prior to the availability of fossil fuels, the majority of this growth was in population, rather than a major change in living standards. (The population was still very low compared to today.) In later years, increased energy use was still associated with increased population, but it was also associated with an increase in creature comforts—bigger homes, better transportation, heating and cooling of homes, and greater availability of services like education, medicine, and financial services.

How Cheap Energy and Technology Combine to Lead to Economic Growth

Without external energy, all we have is the energy from our own bodies. We can perhaps leverage this energy a bit by picking up a stick and using it to hit something, or by picking up a rock and throwing it. In total, this leveraging of our own energy doesn’t get us very far—many animals do the same thing. Such tools provide some leverage, but they are not quite enough.

The next step up in leverage comes if we can find some sort of external energy to use to supplement our own energy when making goods and services.  One example might be heat from a fire built with sticks used for baking bread; another example might be energy from an animal pulling a cart. This additional energy can’t take too much of (1) our human energy, (2) resources from the ground, or (3) financial capital, or we will have little to invest what we really want—technology that gives us the many goods we use, and services such as education, health care, and recreation.

The use of inexpensive energy led to a positive feedback loop: the value of the goods and service produced was sufficient to produce a profit when all costs were considered, thanks to the inexpensive cost of the energy used. This profit allowed additional investment, and contributed to further energy development and further growth. This profit also often led to rising salaries. The additional cheap energy use combined with greater technology produced the impression that humans were becoming more “productive.”

For a very long time, we were able to ramp up the amount of energy we used, worldwide. There were many civilizations that collapsed along the way, but in total, for all civilizations in the world combined, energy consumption, population, and goods and services produced tended to rise over time.

In the 1970s, we had our first experience with oil limits. US oil production started dropping in 1971. The drop in oil production set us up as easy prey for an oil embargo in 1973-1974, and oil prices spiked. We got around this problem, and more high price problems in the late 1970s by

  1. Starting work on new inexpensive oil production in the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico.
  2. Adopting more fuel-efficient cars, already available in Japan.
  3. Switching from oil to nuclear or coal for electricity production.
  4. Cutting back on oil intensive activities, such as building new roads and doing heavy manufacturing in the United States.

The economy eventually more or less recovered, but men’s wages stagnated, and women found a need to join the workforce to maintain the standards of living of their families.  Oil prices dropped back, but not quite a far as to prior level. The lack of energy intensive industries (powered by cheap oil) likely contributed to the stagnation of wages for men.

Recently, since about 2004, we have again been encountering high oil prices. Unfortunately, the easy options to fix them are mostly gone. We have run out of cheap energy options—tight oil from shale formations isn’t cheap. Wages again are stagnating, even worse than before. The positive feedback loop based on low energy prices that we had been experiencing when oil prices were low isn’t working nearly as well, and economic growth rates are falling.

The technical name for the problem we are running into with oil is diminishing marginal returns.  This represents a situation where more and more inputs are used in extraction, but these additional inputs add very little more in the way of the desired output, which is oil. Oil companies find that an investment of a given amount, say $1,000 dollars, yields a much smaller amount of oil than it used to in the past—often less than a fourth as much. There are often more up-front expenses in drilling the wells, and less certainty about the length of time that oil can be extracted from a new well.

Oil that requires high up-front investment needs a high price to justify its extraction. When consumers pay the high oil price, the amount they have for discretionary goods drops.  The feedback loop starts working the wrong direction—in the direction of more layoffs, and lower wages for those working. Companies, including oil companies, have a harder time making a profit. They find outsourcing labor costs to lower-cost parts of the world more attractive.

Can this Growth Continue Indefinitely?

Even apart from the oil price problem, there are other reasons to think that growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world.  For one thing, we are already running short of fresh water in many parts of the world, including China, India and the Middle East.  Topsoil is eroding, and is being depleted of minerals. In addition, if population continues to rise, we will need a way to feed all of these people—either more arable land, or a way of producing more food per acre.

Pollution is another issue. One type is acidification of oceans; another leads to dead zones in oceans. Mercury pollution is a widespread problem. Fresh water that is available is often very polluted. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to concerns about climate change.

There is also an issue with humans crowding out other species. In the past, there have been five widespread die-offs of species, called “Mass Extinctions.” Humans seem now to be causing a Sixth Mass Extinction. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge  describes the Sixth Mass Extinction as follows:

  • Phase One began when first humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago. [We were still hunter-gatherers at that point, but we killed off large species for food as we went.]
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago, when humans turned to agriculture.

According to Eldredge, once we turned to agriculture, we stopped living within local ecosystems. We converted land to produce only one or two crops, and classified all unwanted species as “weeds”.  Now with fossil fuels, we are bringing our attack on other species to a new higher level. For example, there is greater clearing of land for agriculture, overfishing, and too much forest use by humans (Eldredge 2005).

In many ways, the pattern of human population growth and growth of use of resources by humans are like a cancer. Growth has to stop for one reason or other—smothering other species, depletion of resources, or pollution.

Many Competing Wrong Diagnoses of our Current Problem

The problem we are running into now is not an easy one to figure out because the problem crosses many disciplines. Is it a financial problem? Or a climate change problem? Or an oil depletion problem? It is hard to find individuals with knowledge across a range of fields.

There is also a strong bias against really understanding the problem, if the answer appears to be in the “very bad to truly awful” range. Politicians want a problem that is easily solvable. So do sustainability folks, and peak oil folks, and people writing academic papers. Those selling newspapers want answers that will please their advertisers. Academic book publishers want books that won’t scare potential buyers.

Another issue is that nature works on a flow basis. All we have in a given year in terms of resources is what we pull out in that year. If we use more resources for one thing–extracting oil, or making solar panels, it leaves less for other purposes. Consumers also work mostly from the income from their current paychecks. Even if we come up with what looks like wonderful solutions, in terms of an investment now for payback later, nature and consumers aren’t very co-operative in producing them. Consumers need ever-more debt, to make the solutions sort of work. If one necessary resource–cheap oil–is in short supply, nature dictates that other resource uses shrink, to work within available balances. So there is more pressure toward collapse.

Virtually no one understands our complex problem. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we can fix our problem, none of which make sense:

“Humans don’t need fossil fuels; we can just walk away.” – But how do we feed 7 billion people? How long would our forests last before they are used for fuel?

“More wind and solar PV” – But these use fossil fuels now, and don’t fix oil prices.

“Climate change is our only problem.”—Climate change needs to be considered in conjunction with other limits, many of which are hitting very soon. Maybe there is good news about climate, but it likely will be more than offset by bad news from limits not considered in the model.




Diminishing Returns,
Energy Return on Energy Invested,
and Collapse


Gail Tverberg


Originally published in Our Finite World, 6 December 2013
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

What do diminishing returns, energy return on energy invested (EROI or EROEI), and collapse have to do with each other? Let me start by explaining the connection between Diminishing Returns and Collapse.

Diminishing Returns and Collapse

We know that historically, many economies that have collapsed were ones that have hit “diminishing returns” with respect to human labor–that is, new workers added less production than existing workers were producing (on average). For example, in an agricultural economy, available land might already have as many farmers as the land can optimally use. Adding more farmers might add a little more production–perhaps the new workers would keep weeds down a bit better. But the amount of additional food the new workers would produce would be less than what earlier workers were producing, on average. If new workers were paid on the basis of their additional food production, they would find that their wages dropped relative to those of the original farmers.

Lack of good paying jobs for everyone leads to a need for workarounds of various kinds. For example, swamp land might be drained to add more farmland, or irrigation ditches might be added to increase the amount produced per acre. Or the government might hire a larger army might to conquer more territory. Joseph Tainter (1990) talks about this need for workarounds as a need for greater “complexity.” In many cases, greater complexity translates to a need for more government services to handle the problems at hand.

Turchin and Nefedof (2009) in Secular Cycles took Tainter’s analysis a step further,  analyzing financial data relating to historical collapses of eight agricultural societies in operation between the years 30 B.C. E. and 1922 C. E.. Figure 1 shows my summary of the pattern they describe.

GT1-shape-of-typical-secular-cycle.png
Figure 1. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov.

Typically, a civilization developed a new resource which increased food availability, such as clearing a large plot of land of trees so that crops could be planted, or irrigating an  existing plot of land. The economy tended to expand for well over 100 years, as the population grew in size to match the potential output of the new resource. Wages were relatively high.

Eventually, the civilization hit a period of stagflation, typically lasting 50 or 60 years, as the population hit the carrying capacity of the land, and as additional workers did not add proportionately more output. When this happened, the wages of common workers tended to stagnate or decrease, resulting in increased wage disparity. The price of food tended to spike. To counter these problems, the amount of government services rose, as did the amount of debt.

Ultimately, what brought the civilizations down was the inability of governments to collect enough taxes for expanded government services from the increasingly impoverished citizens. Other factors played a role as well–more resource wars, leading to more deaths; impoverished common workers not being able to afford an adequate diet, so plagues were more able to spread; overthrown or collapsing governments; and debt defaults. Populations tended to die off.  Such collapses took place over a long period, typically 20 to 50 years.

For those who are familiar with economic theory, the shape of the curve in Figure 1 is very similar to the production function mentioned in Two Views of our Current Economic and Energy Crisis. In fact, the three main phases are the same as well. The issue in both cases is diminishing returns ultimately leading to collapse.

There seems to be a parallel to the current world situation. The energy resource that we learned to develop this time is fossil fuels, starting with coal about 1800. World population was able to expand greatly because of additional food production permitted by fossil fuels and because of improvements in hygiene. A period of stagflation began in the 1970s, when we first encountered problems with US oil production and spiking oil prices.  Now, the question is whether we are approaching the Crisis Stage as described by Turchin and Nefedov.

Why Might an Economy Collapse?

Let’s think about how an economy operates. It is built up from many parts, over time. It includes one or more governments, together with the laws and regulations they pass and together with their financial systems. It includes businesses and consumers. It includes built infrastructure, such as roads and electricity transmission lines. It even includes traditions and customs, such as whether savings are held in gold jewelry or in banks, and whether farms are inherited by the oldest son. As each new business is formed, the owners make decisions based on the business environment at that time, including competing businesses, supporting businesses, and the number of customers available. Customers also make decisions on which product to buy, based on the choices available and the prices of these products.

Over time, the economy gradually changes. Some parts of the economy gradually wither and are replaced by new parts of the system. For example, as the economy moved from using horses to cars for transportation, the number of buggy whip manufacturers decreased, as did the number of businesses raising horses for use as draft animals. Customs and laws gradually changed, to reflect the availability of automobiles rather than horses for transportation. In some cases, governments changed over time, as increased wealth allowed more generous social programs and wider alliances, such as the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

In the academic field of systems science, an economy can be described as a complex adaptive system. Other examples of complex adaptive systems include ecosystems, the biosphere, and all living organisms, including humans. Because of the way the economy is knit together, changes in one part of the system tend to affect other parts of the system. Also, because of the way the system is knit together, the system has certain requirements–requirements which are gradually changing over time–to keep the economy operating. If these requirements are not met, the economy may collapse, just as the eight economies studied by Turchin and Nefedov collapsed. In many ways such a collapse is analogous to an animal dying, or climate changing, when conditions are not right for the complex adaptive systems that they are part of.

Clearly one of the requirements that an economy has, is that it needs to be wealthy enough to afford the government services that it has agreed to. Scaling back those government services is one option, but when these services are really needed because citizens are getting poorer and finding it harder to find a good-paying job, this is hard to do. The other option, unfortunately, seems to be collapse.

The wealth of an economy is very much tied to the availability of cheap energy. A huge uplift is added to an economy when the (value added to society) by an energy resource such as oil greatly exceeds its (cost of production). Over time, the cost of production tends to rise, something measured by declining EROI. The uplift added by the difference between (value added to society) and (cost of production) is gradually lost. Some would hypothesize that the falling gap between (value added to society) and the (cost of production) can be compensated for by technology changes and improvements in energy efficiency, but this has not been proven.

Our Economy is Already in a Precarious Position

As I indicated in my most recent post, if a person computes average wages by dividing total US wages by total US population (not just those employed), the average wage has flattened in recent years as oil prices rose. Median wages (not shown on Figure 2) have actually fallen. This is the same phenomenon observed in the 1970s, when oil prices rose. This is precisely the phenomenon that is expected when there are diminishing returns to human labor, as described above.

GT2-ave-wages-compared-to-us-oil-price-thousands.png
Figure 2. Average US wages compared to oil price, both in 2012$. US Wages are from Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 2.1, adjusted to 2012 using CPI-Urban inflation. Oil prices are Brent equivalent in 2012$, from BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The reason for the flattening wages is too complicated to describe fully in this post, so I will only mention a couple of points. When consumers are forced to spend more for oil for commuting and food, they have less to spend on discretionary spending. The result is layoffs in discretionary sectors, leading to lower wage growth. Also, goods produced with high-priced oil are less competitive in the world market, if sellers try to recoup their higher costs of production. As a result, fewer of the products are sold, leading to layoffs and thus lower average wages for the economy.

In the last section, I mentioned that the economy is a complex adaptive system. Because of this, the economy acts as if there are hidden laws underlying the system, parallel to the laws of thermodynamics underlying physical systems. If oil supplies are excessively high-priced, very few new jobs are formed, and those that are created don’t pay very well. The economy doesn’t grow much, but it does stay in balance with the high-priced oil that is available.

The Government’s Role in Fixing Low Wages and Slow Economic Growth

The government ends up being the part of the economy most affected by slow economic growth and low job formation. This happens because tax revenue is reduced at the same time that government programs to help the poor and unemployed need to grow. The current approach to fixing the economy is (1) deficit spending and (2) interest rates that are kept artificially low, partly through Quantitative Easing.

The problem with Quantitative Easing is that it is a temporary “band-aid.” Once it is stopped, interest rates are likely to rise disproportionately. (See the recent Wall Street Journal editorial,” Janet Yellen’s Greatest Challenge.”) Once this happens, the economy is likely to fall into severe recession. This happens because higher interest rates lead to higher monthly payments for such diverse items as cars, homes, and factories, leading to a cutback in demand. Oil production may fall, because the cost of production will rise (because of higher interest rates), while the amount consumers have to spend on oil will fall–quite possibly reducing oil prices.  If interest rates rise, the amount the government will need to collect in taxes will also rise, because interest on government debt will also rise.

So we are already sitting on the edge, waiting for something to push the economy over. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) may provide a push in that direction. Inability to pass a federal budget could provide a push as well.  So could a European Union collapse. Debt defaults are another potential problem because debt defaults are likely to increase dramatically, as economic growth shrinks, as discussed in the next section.

Debt is Major Part of our Current Precarious Financial Situation

If an economy is growing, it is easy to add debt. People find it easy to find and keep jobs, so they can pay back debt. Businesses and governments find that their operations are growing, so borrowing from the future, even with interest, “makes sense.”

It is as also easy to add debt if the economy is not growing, but there is an ample supply of cheap oil that can be extracted if increasing debt can be used to ramp up demand. For example, after World War II, it was possible to ramp up demand for automobiles and trucks by allowing purchasers to use debt to finance their purchases. When this increased debt led to increased oil consumption, it greatly benefited the economy, because the (value to society) was much greater than the (cost of extraction). Governments were able to tax oil extraction heavily, and were also able to build new roads  and other infrastructure with the cheap oil. The combination of new cars, trucks, and roads helped enable economic growth. With the economic growth that was enabled, paying back debt with interest was relatively easy.

The situation we are facing now is different. High oil prices–even in the $100 barrel range–tend to push the economy toward contraction, making debt hard to pay back. (This happens because we are borrowing from the future, and the amount available to repay debt in the future will be less rather than more.) The problem can be temporarily covered up with deficit spending and Quantitative Easing, but is not a long-term solution. If interest rates rise, there is likely to be a large increase in debt defaults.

The Role of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI or EROEI)

EROI is the ratio of energy output over energy input, a measure that was developed by Professor Charles Hall. To calculate this ratio, one takes all of the identifiable energy inputs at the well-head (or where the energy product is produced) and converts them to a common basis. EROI is then the ratio of the gross energy output to total energy inputs. Hall and his associates have shown that EROI of oil extraction has decreased in recent years (for example, Murphy 2013), meaning that we are using increasing amounts of energy of various kinds to produce oil.

In previous sections, I have been discussing diminishing returns with respect to human labor. Oil and other energy products are forms of energy that we humans use to leverage our own human energy. So indirectly, diminishing returns with respect to the extraction of oil and other energy products, as measured by declining EROI, will be one portion of the diminishing returns with respect to human labor. In fact, declining EROI may be the single largest contributor to diminishing returns with respect to human labor. This will happen if, in fact, low EROI correlates with high oil price, and high oil prices leads to diminished wages (Figure 2). This may be the case, because David Murphy (2013) indicates that the relationship between EROI and the price of oil is in fact inverse, with oil prices rising rapidly at low EROI levels.

Contributors to Declining Return on Human Labor

Human labor is the most basic form of energy. We humans supplement our own energy with energy from many other sources. It is this combination of energy from many sources that is reflected in the productivity of humans. For example, we take it for granted that we will have tools made using fossil fuels and that we will have electricity to power computers. Before fossil fuels, humans supplemented their energy with energy from animals, burned biomass, wind, and flowing water.

What besides declining EROI of fossil fuels would lead to diminishing returns with respect to human labor? Clearly, the same problems that were problems years ago continue to be problems. For example, growing world population tends to lead to diminishing returns with respect to human labor, because resources such as arable land and fresh water are close to fixed. Greater world population means that on average, each gets person less. Oil production is not rising as rapidly as world population, so the quantity available per person tends to drop as world population rises.

Soil degradation is another issue, according to David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007). Declining quality of ores for metals is another issue. The ores that are cheapest to extract are extracted first. We later move on to poorer quality ores, and ores in less accessible locations. These require more oil and other fossil fuels for extraction, leaving less for other purposes.

There are other more-modern issues as well. Growing populations in areas where water is scarce lead to the need for desalination plants. These desalination plants use huge amounts of fossil fuel resources (oil in the case of Saudi Arabia) (Lee 2010), leaving less energy resources for other purposes.

Globalization is another issue. As the developing world uses more oil, less oil is available for the part of the world that historically has used more oil per capita. The countries with falling oil consumption tend to be the ones that recently have had the most problems with recession and job loss.

GT3-oil-consumption-by-part-of-the-world.png
Figure 3. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

An indirect part of diminishing returns with respect to human labor has to do with what proportion of the citizens is actually able to find full-time work in the paid labor force, and whether the jobs available are actually using their training and abilities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates increases in output per hour of paid labor. I would argue that this is not a broad enough measure. We really need a measure of output per available full-time worker.

Obviously, there are potential offsets. We hear much about technology improvements and increased efficiency offsetting whatever other problems may occur. To me, the real test of whether there is diminishing returns with respect to human labor is how wages are trending, especially median wages. If these are not keeping up with inflation, there is a problem.

Conclusion

We don’t often think about the return on human labor, and how the return on human labor could reach diminishing returns. In fact, human labor is the most basic source of energy we have. Stagnating wages and higher unemployment of the type experienced recently by the United States, much of Europe, and Japan look distressingly like diminishing returns to human labor.

Stagnation of wages is happening despite attempts by governments to prop up the economy using deficit spending, artificially low interest rates, and Quantitative Easing. Without these interventions, the results would likely be even worse. If QE is removed, or if interest rates rise on their own, there seems to be a distinct possibility that these countries will be reaching the “crisis” phase as described by Turchin and Nefedov.

Historical experience suggests that a major danger of diminishing returns to human labor is that governments costs will rise so high, and wages will drop so low, that it will be impossible for the government to collect enough taxes from wage-earners. In fact, there seems to be evidence we are already headed in this direction. Figure 4 (below) shows that  the US ratio of government spending to wages has been rising since 1929. Government receipts have leveled off in recent years.

GT4-us-government-receipts-and-expenditure-as-pct-of-wages.png
Figure 4. Based on Table 2.1 and Table 3.1 of Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Government spending includes Federal, State, and Local programs.

Adding more health care services under the Affordable Care Act will only increase this trend toward growing government expenditures.

One issue is how the financial benefit of human labor (together with the energy sources leveraging this labor) is split among businesses, governments, and humans. Businesses have the most control in this. If an endeavor is not profitable, they can discontinue it. If cheaper labor is available elsewhere, they can cut hold down wages in countries with higher wages. They also have the option of increased mechanization. Humans and governments both tend to get shortchanged. As the overall return of the system reaches limits, wages of humans tend to stagnate. Governments find themselves with greater and greater costs, and more and more difficulty collecting funds from increasingly impoverished citizens.

Most authors of academic articles assume that the challenge we are facing is one that can be solved over the next, say, fifty years. They also seem to believe that the fixes required are simply small adjustments to our current economy. This assumption seems optimistic, if we are really approaching financial collapse.

If we are in fact near the crisis stage described by Turchin and Nefedov, we will need to do something much closer to “start over”. We need to build a new economy that will work, rather than just “tweak” the current one. New (or radically changed) government and financial systems will likely be needed–ones that are much less expensive for taxpayers to fund. We are also likely to need to cut back on basic services, including maintaining paved roads and repairing long-distance electricity transmission lines.

Because of these changes, whole new ways of doing things will be needed. EROI analyses that have been to date represent analyses of how our current system operates. If major changes are needed, their indications may no longer be relevant. We cannot simply go backward, because methods that worked in the past, such as using draft horses and buggy whips, will no longer be available without a long development period. We are truly facing an unprecedented situation–one that is very hard to prepare for.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gail Tverberg is an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply. For more information on her blog, Our Finite World, click here.


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