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Reaching the End of Early Stimulus – What’s Ahead?

Reaching the End of Early Stimulus – What’s Ahead?

Many people thought that COVID-19 would be gone with a short shutdown. They also thought that the world’s economic problems could be cured with a six month “dose” of stimulus.

It is increasingly clear that neither of these assumptions is correct. Despite the claims of epidemiologists, our best efforts have never been able to reduce the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases for the world as a whole for any significant period of time. In fact, the latest week seems to be the highest week so far.

Figure 1. Chart of worldwide COVID-19 new cases, in chart prepared by Worldometer with data through September 20, 2020.

At the same time, the economy, despite all of the stimulus, is not doing very well. Airlines are doing very poorly. The parts of the economy that are dependent upon tourism are having huge problems. This reduces the “upside” of economic recovery, pretty much everywhere, until it can be corrected.

Another part of the world economy doing poorly is clothing sales. For example, many fewer people are attending concerts, weddings, funerals, out-of-town business meetings and conventions, leading to a need for fewer “dressy” clothes. Also, with air travel greatly reduced, people don’t need new clothing for visiting places with different climates, either. Most clothing is bought by people from rich countries but made by people in poor countries. This cutback in clothing purchases disproportionately affects people who are already very poor. The loss of jobs in these countries may lead to an inability to afford food, for those who are laid off.

Besides these difficult to solve problems, initial programs set up to help mitigate job losses are running out. What kinds of things might governments do, if they are running short of borrowing capacity, and medical solutions still seem to be far away?

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Is the Green Deal a card shuffle trick?

Is the Green Deal a card shuffle trick?

(NOTE; this is not an analysis of the US New Green Deal, it is about the “green growth” narrative with the European Green Deal as the point of departure.)

The European Green Deal is a ”growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”

There are reasons to discuss if the vision of the European Green Deal is desirable: why should it be a goal to be “competitive” or ”modern”? But let’s buy into the narrative and ask: is the vision possible? Is ”green growth” as expressed in the Green Deal or the Sustainable Development Goals even possible?

In a recent paper in New Political Economy, Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis do a good job in illuminating many of the discussions and concepts involved in the Green Growth debate. Their overall conclusion is that ”green growth theory – in terms of resource use – lacks empirical support”.  They note three caveats of their own conclusions. First, it is possible that ”it is reasonable to expect that green growth could be accomplished at very low GDP growth rates, i.e. less than 1 per cent per year”. Second, conclusions are based on the existing relationship between GDP and material throughput, but one might argue that it is theoretically possible to break the existing relationship between GDP and material throughput altogether. Third, the aggregate material footprint indicator obscures the possibility of shifting from high-impact resources to low-impact resources. Meanwhile, Hickel and Kallis also point out that material footprints needs to be scaled down significantly from present levels; to be truly green, green growth requires not just any degree of absolute decoupling, but rapid absolute decoupling.

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Frederick Soddy’s Debt Dynamics

Frederick Soddy’s Debt Dynamics

In the field of ecological economics, Frederick Soddy looms large. Born in 1877, Soddy became a chemist and eventually won a Nobel prize for work on radioactive decay. Then he turned his attention to economics.

Between 1921 and 1934, Soddy wrote four books that looked at how money relates to the physical economy. For his ground-breaking work, Soddy was rewarded with deafening silence. Here’s how ecological economist Eric Zencey puts it:

… Soddy carried on a quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships. He was roundly dismissed as a crank.

Although ignored during his life, Soddy’s work would become a central part of ecological economics. Let’s have a look at Soddy’s thinking.

Wealth vs. virtual wealth

Like a good natural scientist, Soddy insisted that human society is constrained by the laws of physics. Humans survive, he noted, by consuming natural resources. Exhaust these resources and we’re done for.

Think of humans (and our economy), says Soddy, like a machine. We transform energy into physical work. Like all machines, we’re bound by the laws of thermodynamics, which say that you can’t get something for nothing. Energy output requires energy input. That means humans are forever dependent on natural resources.

Now comes the problem. Our biophysical stock of resources — what Soddy called ‘wealth’ — is bound by the laws of thermodynamics. But money — which Soddy called ‘virtual wealth’ — is bound only by the laws of mathematics. Money can grow forever. Natural resource extraction cannot. This mismatch, Soddy claimed, is the root of most economic problems.

Cows and virtual cows

Here’s an example of Soddy’s thinking. Suppose that Alice is a would-be cattle farmer. She inherited some land and wants to use it to farm cattle. The problem is she has no money.

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Green economic growth is an article of ‘faith’ devoid of scientific evidence

Green economic growth is an article of ‘faith’ devoid of scientific evidence

Crack team that advised UN Global Sustainable Development Report settle a longstanding debate with hard empirical data

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For years, financial institutions and governments have been focused on the idea of ‘decoupling’ GDP growth from resource use. This has been driven by the recognition that to stay within the ‘safe limit’ of 2 degrees Celsius, we have to dramatically reduce our material consumption.

The goal is to keep our economies growing to sustain prosperity while reducing our actual resource use and material footprint. The bottom line is that without reducing our overall use of planetary resources, we are bound to cross the line into a dangerous climate. But is doing so consistent with the continued increase in economic growth?

The conventional belief has been most recently articulated in a recent book, More From Less, by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist the MIT Sloan School of Management. Financial and other data, McAfee argued, shows we can actually easily reduce our material footprint while continuing to grow our economies in a win-win scenario.

But new scientific analysis by a group of systems scientists and economists proves that this contention is completely groundless. Far from being based on hard evidence, this sort of claim is instead derived from egregious selective readings of statistical data.

Decades of research on material flows confirm that there are “no realistic scenarios” for such decoupling going forward.

Combing through 179 of the best studies of this issue from 1990 to 2019 further reveals “no evidence” that any meaningful decoupling has ever taken place.

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21 Years Ago: The end of the Bombing of Serbia. And the Start of the Decline of the Western Empire

21 Years Ago: The end of the Bombing of Serbia. And the Start of the Decline of the Western Empire

Nato Bombing of the city of Novi Sad, Serbia, 1999 (image from Wikipedia)

21 years ago, on June 10, 1999, the NATO campaign against Serbia ended after 78 days of bombing. We still don’t know exactly the number of victims, civilian and military, nor the amount of damage and it would be difficult to say who actually “won” the bloody mess. But the bombing of Serbia was a turning point for many reasons.

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the “cold war” and gave rise to expectations of a “peace dividend” once the old enemy of the West had folded out. Needless to say, that never happened. It appeared clear with the Serbian campaign that saw the whole Western world allied against a single state of less than 8 million inhabited.

There was nothing special in the Western Empire taking an aggressive posture after the fall of the rival Soviet Empire. It is the way empires work: they are military organizations dedicated to shifting economic resources from the periphery to the center. So, empires last as long as the cost of their huge military apparatus can be paid for by the resources they can control. Since resources are never infinite, they tend to be overexploited and empires suffer of a classic economic problem: diminishing returns. That’s the reason for the cycles of growth and collapse of empires in history.

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Increased Violence Reflects an Energy Problem

Increased Violence Reflects an Energy Problem

Why are we seeing so much violence recently? One explanation is that people are sympathizing with those in the Minneapolis area who are upset at the death of George Floyd. They believe that a white cop used excessive force in subduing Floyd, leading to his death.

I believe that there is a much deeper story involved. As I wrote in my recent post, Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicamentthe problem we are facing is too many people relative to resources, particularly energy resources. This leads to a condition sometimes referred to as “overshoot and collapse.” The economy grows for a while, may stabilize for a time, and then heads in a downward direction, essentially because energy consumption per capita falls too low.

Strangely enough, this energy crisis looks like a crisis of affordability. The young and the poor, especially, cannot afford to buy goods and services that they need, such as a home in which to raise their children and a vehicle to drive. Trying to do so leaves them with excessive debt. If the affordability problem changes for the worse, the young and the poor are likely to protest. In fact, these protests may become violent. 

The pandemic tends to make the affordability problem worse for minorities and young people because they are disproportionately affected by job losses associated with lockdowns. In many cases, the poor catch COVID-19 more frequently because they live and/or work in crowded conditions where the disease spreads easily. In the US, blacks seem to be especially hard hit, both by COVID-19 and through the loss of jobs. These issues, plus the availability of guns, makes the situation particularly explosive in the US.

Let me explain these issues further.

[1] Energy is required for all aspects of the economy.

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Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicament

Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicament

The world’s number one problem today is that the world’s population is too large for its resource base. Some people have called this situation overshoot. The world economy is ripe for a major change, such as the current pandemic, to bring the situation into balance. The change doesn’t necessarily come from the coronavirus itself. Instead, it is likely to come from a whole chain reaction that has been started by the coronavirus and the response of governments around the world to the coronavirus.

Let me explain more about what is happening.

[1] The world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as described in the book with a similar title.

One way of seeing the predicament we are in is the modeling of resource consumption and population growth described in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows et al. Its base scenario seems to suggest that the world will reach limits about now. Chart 1 shows the base forecast from that book, together with a line I added giving my impression of where the economy really was in 2019, relative to resource availability.

Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” with dotted line added corresponding to where the world economy seems to be have been in 2019.

In 2019, the world economy seemed to be very close to starting a downhill trajectory. Now, it appears to me that we have reached the turning point and are on our way down. The pandemic is the catalyst for this change to a downward trend. It certainly is not the whole cause of the change. If the underlying dynamics had not been in place, the impact of the virus would likely have been much less.

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Welcome to the Era of Intensifying Chaos and New Weapons of Conflict

Welcome to the Era of Intensifying Chaos and New Weapons of Conflict

Geopolitics has moved from a slow-moving, relatively predictable chess match to rapidly evolving 3-D chess in which the rules keep changing in unpredictable ways.

A declining standard of living in the developed world, declining growth for the developed world and geopolitical jockeying for control of resources make for a highly combustible mix awaiting a spark: welcome to the era of intensifying chaos and the rapid advance of new weapons of conflict as ruling elites attempt to stamp out dissent and global powers pursue supremacy by whatever means are available.

Gordon Long and I discuss these dynamics in a new video The New Weapons of Conflict (28:30) that explores the drivers of increasing global chaos and a permanent state of intensifying conflict in both domestic (internal) and global (external) affairs.

Domestic conflict is erupting and intensifying across the globe: political polarization and populism, driven by soaring wealth/income inequality and the decay of the social contract and the erosion of standards of living, and social disunity and disorder as cooperation has failed to fix what’s broken.

Geopolitical conflicts are now expanding across a vast spectrum from endless wars in contested regions to cyber-meddling in other nation’s domestic affairs, cyber-warfare via theft of intellectual property and targeting essential digital infrastructure, economic sanctions and currency-based warfare, along with a wide array of disruptive military technologies, including “first strike”-enabling hypersonic weaponry, anti-missile technologies and space-based weaponry.

The relative stability of the Cold War has given way to a multi-polar world in which nations are competing with a host of other nations, including erstwhile allies and economic/trade rivals. Geopolitics has moved from a slow-moving, relatively predictable chess match to rapidly evolving 3-D chess in which the rules keep changing in unpredictable ways.

There’s much more in the program; click on either graphic to go to the video:

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Renewables Are Dead

Renewables Are Dead

Gustave Courbet The man made mad by fear 1844

If I’ve said once that those among us who tout renewable energy should pay more attention to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, I must have said it a hundred times. But I hardly ever get the impression that people understand why. And it seems so obvious. A quote I often use from Herman Daly and Ken Townsend, when I talk about energy, really says it all:

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

Using energy produces waste. Using more energy produces more waste. It doesn’t matter -much- what kind of energy is used, or what kind of waste is produced. The energy WE use produces waste, in a medium of which WE cannot survive. The only way to escape this is to use less energy. And because we have used such an enormous amount of energy the past 100 years, we must use a whole lot less in the next 100.

We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.

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Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Preface.  I can’t believe I read this book, it is just a long litany of the  gigantic amounts of materials we exploit, with no analysis, implications, or the meaning of what impact this will have on the planet.

I certainly don’t expect anyone to read even this shortened version of his book, but it might be worthwhile to skim for an idea of how much material we’re consuming.

As I point out in my review of the United Nations 2016 report Global material flows and resources productivity” here, in order to accommodate an additional 2 billion people in 2050, material consumption will need to nearly triple to 180 billion tonnes of materials, almost three times today’s amount. If 180 billion tonnes grows in the future at a 5% compound rate, in 497 years the entire earth will be consumed, all 5.972 x 1021 tonnes of it, and we’ll be floating in outer space.

After reading this book, it’s hard to believe there’s anything left to exploit, though here it is 5 years later and the earth is still being pillaged.  But from Smil’s gargantuan numbers and the exponential exploitation of just about everything, clearly this will end badly.  The issue of peak sand has been in the news more frequently lately, which is essential for civilization to make concrete, computer chips, solar PV, and fracking.

Smil covers a wide range of materials that are essential to civilization that you may not have thought much about, and all the myriad uses of silicon, plastics, nitrogen, aluminum, steel, hydrogen, ammonia, cement, and more.  All of them made possible by oil.  All of them essential for civilization, so if one fails….(Liebig’s law of the minimum).

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Individual Preparations Have National Implications

Individual Preparations Have National Implications

Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Photo Source Gunvor Røkke | CC BY 2.0

“As soon as you are a scientist … you take a political side [because] you must necessarily choose to ask only certain questions. Many scientists … produce risk assessment for forest management [which] asks ‘how much can we cut, graze, salvage, spray, develop … and do to Earth’s ecosystems without making them buckle.”

–Mary O’Brien, 1994. Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides. BioScience 43(10): 706-708

“The larger and more immediate are prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation; Political leaders … base their policies upon a misguided view of the dynamics of resource exploitation; Distrust claims of sustainability; Scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressures.”

–Donald Ludwig, et al., 1993. Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History. Science 260: 17/36.

Back in the late 1980s, the good people of Minnesota, alarmed by heavy logging, asked that an impact analysis be done. Jaakko Poyry, an international forestry consulting firm, was hired to produce a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), and in 1992, the draft of the million dollar analysis was released for public scrutiny. In essence, it read “There will be ecological damage, we’re not sure how much, but industry rules.”

At even the lowest level investigated [the level that had caused public concern], there were projected declines in species of rare trees; declines of tree species within their ranges; unavoidable destruction of rare plant communities; loss of genetic diversity in many plants, including trees. The authors wrote “The lack of data … make it difficult to interpret impacts with any degree of certainly”; “Projections assume no natural disturbance” [Really!]; “Implicit assumptions [are] unrealistic”; “Loss of genetically unique ecotypes is irreversible.”; “Knowledge [is] not sufficient for detailed analysis of effects of fragmentation on biodiversity.”

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Murdered for Sand

Murdered for Sand

The world is running out of sand, and people are dying as a result

“It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.“

Vince Beiser, author of “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization”

Think of a valuable resource. What images come into your mind’s eye? Maybe oil? Water? Perhaps you looked at a ring on your finger and thought of gold. All of these are valuable resources, it’s true.

Now, what if I told you sand was also an incredibly rare and precious resource? It may sound absurd, especially if you’ve been anywhere near a beach or desert lately, but the world is running out of sand. A crucial material in everything from cellphones to high-rises, the resource is being used up faster than it can replenish itself, sparking environmental concerns and community conflicts. Some are even willing to kill for it.

You may not realize it, but nearly everything around you is built with sand. The concrete your apartment, condo, or house is made out of was mixed with sand. The glass windows you look through to see what the weather looks like — those were made with sand as well. The cellphone or computer you’re reading this on — the silicon chips in them are made with sand. The road you travel on to work — sand as well. If you live in any kind of urban setting, it is constructed with sand.

Credit: Sand Stories

Sand Isn’t as Plentiful as You Think

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Some Thoughts On Climate Change

Some Thoughts On Climate Change

A new IPCC report written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies says we’re looking at climate catastrophe as early as 2040 unless changes are made worldwide on a scale and speed which has no historic precedent. $54 trillion worth of damage is predicted to result from the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures we’re expected to be facing at that time if drastic changes are not made.

To be clear, when climate scientists talk about a 1.5 degree hike in global average temperatures, they are not saying that days will tend to be around 1.5 degrees warmer, which doesn’t sound bad at all. What they are saying is that there will be drastic heat spikes which elevate the overall average by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) around the globe. This means moving into a world which sees sea levels rising and destroying coastal and island civilizations, it means mass famine due to destruction of crops from heat spikes in summer months, freezes in the winter and other extreme weather events, it means potential worldwide violence and predation as livable regions and resources become scarce on a rapidly changing planet.

This is coming off the back of the Trump administration’s seamless shift from claiming climate change is a Chinese hoax to saying it’s very real and very bad but there’s nothing that can be done about it. In a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that a temporary freeze in fuel efficiency requirements for cars won’t be that big of a deal in terms of environmental impact because we’re headed toward a four degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures by the end of the century and avoiding that “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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