EC The World’s Weird Self-Organizing Economy

Second, if the cost of energy production is low, it is easy to tax energy producers and thereby capture some of the benefit of their energy for the rest of the economy. If there is truly a “net energy” benefit to the economy, this is one way it gets transferred to the rest of the economy.

[4] There is indeed an energy problem, but it is not quite the same one that Peak Oilers have been concerned about.

The energy problem that Peak Oilers write about is the possibility that as easy-to-extract oil supplies deplete, oil production will reach a peak in production and begin to decline. Once decline sets in, they expect that oil prices will rise, partly because of the higher cost of production and partly because of scarcity. With these higher prices, they expect that producers will be able to extract at least a portion of the remaining oil resources. They also expect that higher prices will allow portions of the remaining natural gas and coal resources to be extracted. With higher prices, expanded use of renewable energy is expected to become feasible. All of these energy sources are expected to keep the economy operating at some level.

There are several problems with this story. First, it tends to encourage people to look for high oil prices as a sign of an oil shortage. This is not the correct indication to look for. Prior to 1970, oil prices averaged less than $20 per barrel. Comparing pre-1970 prices to today’s oil prices, current prices are already very high, at $75 per barrel. The idea that oil prices can keep rising indefinitely assumes that there is no affordability limit. Furthermore, a loss of energy consumption can be expected to reduce demand (because of its impact on jobs, productivity, and wages) at the same time that it reduces supply. If both supply and demand are affected, we don’t know which way prices will move.

Second, my analysis suggests that part of the story is that total energy consumption is very important, including oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, and various forms of electricity. All of the attention given to oil has drawn attention away from the economy’s need for a range of energy types to keep devices of all types operating. Deciding to reduce coal usage because of pollution issues, or deciding to shut down nuclear because it is aging, has an equally adverse impact on the economy as reducing oil supply unless the shortfall can be made up with other energy products of precisely the type needed by current devices.

Third, my analysis suggests that energy consumption per capita needs to rise for the economy to function in the way that we expect it to function. If world energy consumption per capita is too flat, we can expect to see many of the symptoms that the world has been experiencing recently: more radical leaders, less cooperation among leaders, slowing economic growth and increasing debt problems. In fact, wars are possible, as are collapses of governments (as with the Soviet Union central government in 1991). The current situation seems to be more parallel to the 1920 to 1940 flat period than it does to the 1980 to 2000 flat period.

Finally, with low energy prices rather than high quite possibly being much of the problem, there is a significant chance that oil and other production will decline because producers do not make enough profit for reinvestment and because oil exporting countries cannot collect enough taxes to fund the many subsidies that citizens expect. This makes for a steeper energy decline than forecast by Peak Oilers; it also reduces the possibility that high-priced renewables will be helpful.

[5] Part of the world’s energy problem is a distribution problem; the world becomes divided into haves and have-nots in many ways. It is this distribution problem that tends to push the world economy toward collapse. 

There are many parts to this distribution problem. One is the distribution of goods and services (created using energy) by country. Over time, this tends to change, especially as commodity prices change. Oil exporters are favored when oil prices are high; oil importers are favored when oil prices are low. The relative values of currencies can change quickly, as commodity prices change.

Another part of this distribution problem is growing wage and wealth disparity, as more technology is added. If there is too much wage disparity, low-paid workers often cannot afford adequate food, homes, and transportation for their families. Their lack of demand for goods made with energy products (because of their low wages) tends to work through the system as low commodity prices. This happens because (a) there are so many of these workers and (b) these workers tend to purchase a disproportionate share of goods and services that are highly energy-dependent.

[6] Debt-like promises play a major role in making the economy operate.

Taking out a loan allows an individual or business to purchase goods without saving for the purchase in advance. To some extent, taking out a loan moves up moves up the timing of purchases. At times, it even permits purchases that otherwise would not be possible. For example, if a young person tries to decide between (a) working at a low wage until he has saved up enough to afford to go to college and (b) taking out a loan and going to school now, so his wages would be higher in future years, his optimal choice will often be scenario (b). The time would likely never come when the low-paid individual could save up enough wages to afford to go to college. If the young person strongly desires high wages, his optimal strategy would be to take the loan and hope that his future wages will be high enough to repay it.

If the goal of the economy is to produce an ever-increasing amount of goods and services, growing debt can very much help this growth. This happens because, with more debt, more individuals and businesses can afford* to buy the goods and services that they want now. In a sense, debt acts like a promise of the future energy needed to make future goods and services with which the loan can be repaid. Thus, adding debt acts a somewhat like adding energy to the economy.

Because of the way debt works, the economy behaves much like a bicycle, with growing debt pulling the system forward. If the economy is growing too slowly, the tendency is to add more debt. This solution works if a rapidly growing supply of cheap-to-produce energy is available; the additional debt can be used to create a growing supply of affordable goods and services. If energy costs are high, the goods and services produced tend to be unaffordable.

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Vivian Lewis 6 months ago Contributor's comment

in energy statistics the past is prologue but doesn't determine outcomes. as technology improves developing countries CAN get electricity without carbon, for example in countries with lots of sun. We have a pick in India. And in western countries too even with oil prices falling it is not hard to fine alterrnative energy plays.

Moon Kil Woong 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Actually the world needs a cheap, dense, and hopefully safe electric energy storage system more than anything else. This would solve a lot. For energy production, the big hope is geothermal and/or fusion although modern nuclear power plants are much safer as well. Solar helps as does wind energy, but it won't solve our growing energy needs, especially without a dense efficient way of storing it.

Gary Anderson 1 year ago Contributor's comment

I would not feel comfortable having nuclear power close to earthquake faults. Maybe it is just me. But there are other alternatives, but as the author says they are not necessarily enough to bridge the gap. So, energy affordability and proper pricing is very important to the economy. Americans are buying expensive large vehicles more and more. This could squeeze energy in the future.

Vivian Lewis 1 year ago Contributor's comment

there are circumstances in hot developing countries where solar energy off the grid doesn't require subsidies. Where the background is right the same is true of wind power or tidal energy. In places like Iceland and Kenya geothermal power makes sense. It is wrong to assume that these alternatives to oil and gas won't grow more important. And I happen to think nuclear power also often is a suitable option.

Gary Anderson 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Yes, nuclear may have its place. I just happened to be on the middle of a major earthquake out west and on the edge of another one. I think they should be avoided where the ground won't stay still.

Vivian Lewis 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Moon Kil Woong is right about the need to have a storage system for intermittant power like solar or wind. The sun doesn't shine for 24 hours and the wind doesn't always blow. I have a stock for this but it is a long-shot, a geothermal company from Nevada which also is developing storage systems, Ormat, ORA. It is not a global-investing.com pick because it is a US firm, and moreover its share has been beaten down over the volcanic eruption in Hawaii just down the road from its shut-in geothermal power plant. I take a long view.