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Reaching the end of offshored industrialization

Reaching the end of offshored industrialization

Moving industrialization offshore can look like a good idea at first. But as fossil fuel energy supplies deplete, this strategy works less well. Countries doing the mining and manufacturing may be less interested in trading. Also, the broken supply lines of 2020 and 2021 showed that transferring major industries offshore could lead to empty shelves in stores, plus unhappy customers.

The United States started moving industry offshore in 1974 (Figure 1) in response to spiking oil prices in 1973-1974 (Figure 2).

Figure 1. US industrial energy consumption per capita, divided among fossil fuels, biomass, and electricity, based on data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). All energy types, including electricity, are measured their capacity to generate heat. This is the approach used by the EIA, the IEA, and most researchers.

Industry is based on the use of fossil fuels. Electricity also plays a role, but it is more like the icing on the cake than the basis of industrial production. Industry is polluting in many ways, so it was an “easy sell” to move industry offshore. But now the United States is realizing that it needs to re-industrialize. At the same time, we are being told about the need to transition the entire economy to electricity to prevent climate change.

In this post, I will try to explain the situation–how fossil fuel prices have spiked many times, including 1973-1974 (oil) and more recently (coal in 2022). I will also discuss the key role fossil fuels play. Because of the key role of fossil fuels, a reduction in per-capita fossil fuel consumption likely leads to a transition to fewer goods and services, on average, per person. A transition to all electricity does not seem to be feasible. Instead, we seem to be headed for increased geopolitical conflict and the possibility of a financial crash seems greater.

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