Posts Tagged ‘peak-oil’

I forgot to publish this post when I first came across it back in August.  In any case, it’s still relevant to the current environment and is reflective of thinking being done by groups like the Institute for Integrated Economic Research, people like Charlie Hall and his students at SUNY-ESF, and countless others mapping the energy-economy-nexus.

Excerpt Below

via iTulip

originally posted @ Gregor.us by Gregor Macdonald on August 16th, 2010.

The Federal Reserve Enters Decline

The Federal Reserve is an artifact of the Abundance Economics that have governed Western economies over the past 250 years. For nearly 250 years exactly we have climbed the ladder of ever increasing energy density, and ever increasing energy supply. That era has now come to an end. You can see that view, the end of the abundance era, expressed by a number of different writers, whether it’s today’s longish piece from Matterhorn Management, last year’s piece by Richard Heinberg on the End of Growth, or some of the shorter (free) posts I write here at Gregor.us. To keep things simple, oil is no longer available to fund world growth. Oil is certainly available to fund existing systems as they are currently set up, but not new growth. You can only fund new growth with an energy supply that is growing. That’s why the developing world has turned to coal, not oil, to fund its growth. Based on the most recent data, let’s update the chart of global crude oil production:

The credibility of the United States Federal Reserve is closely aligned with its ability to induce economic activity, by the provision of money and credit. But you can see the problem: if there is not an expanding supply of energy, credit is less useful as credit cannot be paid back very easily in a future of either flat, or declining growth. Now that the return on the Fed’s credit provision has gone into decline, then its incumbent on the Federal Reserve to rethink its approach. But the Fed, governed by post-war economists, is apparently unable to learn from new information.

There is another limit to the Fed’s provision of money and credit: and that is the quantity of debt already being carried in the economy.  As debt levels rose in the US economy over past decades, the Federal Reserve simply kept repeating itself in a kind of argumentum ad infinitum, providing ever more money and credit as though completely unaware of the levels to which debt was rising. Now, presently, the Fed has declared a war on debt-deflation. But, the Fed indicates no understanding of the core thrust of debt-deflation. I’ll help out: there can be no kick-starting of economic activity, until debt levels are reduced significantly. What the Fed is looking for is not the effects of more credit provision, but instead, debt jubilee.

The Federal Reserve is now in permanent, irreversible decline because it has no tools to fight both the limits placed on the economy by oil, and, current debt levels. Were the Fed to conduct debt jubilee on a scale sufficient to restart demand, that would vaporize the currency. But even if it were possible to manage a workable debt jubilee, then the economy would come more squarely back into confrontation with the energy limit. And there too the Fed would discover that its role as provider of money and credit was reduced, as credit itself relies on future growth.

The Federal Reserve came into existence during the fattest part of the abundance curve, made possible by the extraction of energy-dense fossil fuels. The early part of the last century was the moment when the world started to transition from Coal to Oil, with the fullness of oil’s resource spread out before the industrial economy like a broad forest. As an artifact, not a creator, of this abundance the Fed was merely a mediator of wealth and performed (at best) a smoothing operation as the economy traded credits on future labor and future growth. Like most institutions in decline, the Fed can either reform itself now and embark on a substantially new mission, or, it can decay into irrelevance as it attracts lower quality intellects, and is dismembered of its power. Indeed, if you look around the edges, that process of decay in the Federal Reserve has already begun.

-Gregor


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Embedded below is a series of youtube clips from a talk given by one of my favourite thinkers – Nate Hagens.  The talk was given @ the University of Wisconsin in April 2009.

I’ve said it before, but Hagens “gets it” better than almost everybody I’ve come across in my 3 or so years of pretty intense research on the various global threats in the 21st Century.  The reason that I think Hagens has so much to offer those of us who care about what’s really going on in the world, is due to the relevancy of his background & experience.  Having done his MBA in finance at the University of Chicago and then becoming a hedge-funder on Wall St., it was a significant change of direction for someone like Hagens to then go back to academia and study natural resources by pursuing a PhD in Ecological Economics.  Due to his understanding of finance, natural resources & human behaviour, I take what Hagens’ says as some of the most valuable commentary available on the net.

Check out the videos below to get a good big picture overview of the supply & demand side factors relevant in the Peak Oil/Limits to Growth debate.

On August 8th, 2010, long-time energy industry veteran and Peak Oil educator Matthew Simmons passed away.  Simmons was one of the first names I picked up on when I first learned about Peak Oil back in 2007.  After having watched the documentary “A Crude Awakening” which had several minutes of interview footage with Simmons, I realized that this guy knew his stuff.

The more I dug into Simmons’ work, the more I knew that this was someone worth paying attention to.  Surely, as many have pointed out, Simmons was outspoken on a lot of things, sometimes to the point of hyperbole, but this should not discredit the immense amount of valuable work & advocacy that Matt Simmons did to raise awareness of Peak Oil.  His book Twilight in the Desert remains a Peak Oil classic to this day.

Personally, I know that I will miss his leadership, even though I never met the man.  If there was one thing that Simmons did extremely well, it was that he was an honest student of energy-issues.  Unlike so many others, Matt Simmons studied the data carefully, and didn’t shy away from openly discussing the implications of that data.

The fact that Simmons, who probably had as good a grasp on the global energy industry as anybody, spoke out so vociferously about Peak Oil, and more recently the potential for ocean energy, is a great inspiration.

Additional Resources:

Financial Sense Newshour Tribute to Matt Simmons (link – tribute begins @ 17:50 mark):

From FSN Description:

“This week Jim Puplava will offer a special tribute to Matt Simmons, including clips from a number of Matt’s interviews on the Financial Sense Newshour. Jim will explain how Matt opened his eyes regarding the global threat of Peak Oil, and how it changed the way he looked at a world hooked on cheap fossil fuels. Matt’s explosive 2005 book, “Twilight in the Desert” debunked Saudi Arabia’s claims of vast untapped oil reserves. Matt Simmons’ contributions will continue to live on and hopefully will help awaken a sleeping world.”

The Ocean Energy Institute (link)

Papers, Speeches & Presentations by Matthew Simmons (link)

Excellent article by an analyst named Andrew Curry published in the Journal of Futures Studies.  Talks a lot about topics familiar to this blog.

As part of the preamble to this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to outline some of the works that were very influential on my thinking.  To say that these reading books or watching this DVD were eye-openers would be to utter a gross understatement.  These works were really my “Pandora’s Box” – after I had really let their messages sink in, I realized that things were not as they seemed and that epochal changes are on the doorstep of civilization.

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I started this intellectual journey back in August 07′ when I first came across A Crude Awakening.  This documentary by filmmaker’s Basil Gelpke & Ray McCormick has got to get the award for Title Accuracy – it’s meant to wake people up to the inconvenient truths about oil depletion.  I’ll reserve other posts for the discussion of the specific content explored in this documentary, and focus here more generally on why this flick was such a huge wake up call for me.  The first thing that really struck me about A Crude Awakening was the people being interviewed.  Unlike some documentaries I’ve seen, A Crude Awakening was exceptional because the people who were being interviewed, came from what I would consider very “establishment-type” institutions.  Matthew Simmons runs the biggest independent energy investment bank, Roscoe Bartlett has been a Republican Congressman for Marlyand since 1992, Robert Hirsch is a senior energy policy analyst who headed up the U.S. Department of Energy’s landmark study of Peak Oil, Colin J. Campbell is retired petroleum geologist and consultant to many international oil companies.  The list could go on much longer, but the point should be clear – these are not disadvantaged, marginalized members from the outskirts of society who are angry at a system that is keeping them down – they are from the inner sanctums of power.  To fully illustrate this point, it should be noted that James Schlesinger (former U.S. Energy Secretary & Director of the CIA) said: “It’s no longer the case that we have a few voices crying in the wilderness.  The battle is over.  The peakists have won.”  The point I want to make here is that I felt that A Crude Awakening presented a well-researched, well-argued position on the issues surrounding oil depletion.  Granted, as much as I thought it was a good documentary, I wasn’t going to take everything at face value.  My next step was to learn more about Peak Oil, more about the people interviewed in A Crude Awakening, and to see if the issues outlined in the film were as serious as the interviewees made it seem.  Which, one way or another led me to read The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.

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Reading The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update was like a group of M.I.T. economic modellers took me into a back room assaulted my intelligence with incredibly hard to refute arguments about the future.  It’s one thing to debate with a pundit on a major news network who obviously relies on a theoretical framework that has no basis in reality, and quite another to argue with scientists who specialize in analyzing the complexity of systems.  The reason I came across this book was because of a white paper that Matthew Simmons wrote in 2000, entitled Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All? In this essay, Simmons cogently argues that many of the trends extrapolations made in 1972 have proven to be remarkably consistent through the first 28 years of projections.  2 years after Simmons’ white paper, the original authors released the 30 Year Update.  This text discusses the work of The Club of Rome.  World3 was the name of the computer model developed to simulate the consequences of changes in important variables affecting the major systems upon which human civilizations depend.  It should be noted that the authors were acutely aware of the criticisms many make of models – be they financial, economic, geological or otherwise: “The model we have constructed is, like every model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished.”  The purpose of this World3 model was to track the behavioural modes of various forces in the population-capital system (population growth, industrialization, food production, pollution & resource depletion) over time.  While I’d encourage everyone to pick up a copy of anyone of the LTG books (1972, 1993 or 2004), I’m just going to quote the authors’ conclusions from their original work here:

Our conclusions are :

1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

Given that this was written over 30 years ago, one would think that our “leaders” would’ve woken up and smelled the coffee by now – but that really doesn’t seem to be the case.  Just look at what’s happening all around you right now.  Politicians, economists & various other pundits are all wailing their arms and gnashing their teeth about how the credit crisis will impact economic growth.  The entire policy response to the credit crisis (“injecting liquidity” a.k.a printing money – which was what caused the problems in the first place) has been focused on getting growth back on track.  But material growth, The Club of Rome has argue, is neither sustainable nor ultimately desirable.  At a time when re-examining our fundamental assumptions about material growth couldn’t be more important, we’re experiencing a financial crisis that, instead of leading to fundamental questions about the sustainability of a system such as capitalism, is leading to desperate responses about how to get back to business as usual, as soon as possible.

As Dr. Chris Martenson of the Crash Course (www.chrismartenson.com) makes clear, the financial crisis is really just a consequence of exponential growth in the monetary and economic systems which are utterly dependent upon physical resource extraction and production.  These systems are subject to hard physical limits such as the flow rates of energy, mineral ore concentrations, agricultural yields, rates of water drawdown, etc.  When these systems press up against limits, there is the possibility that these limits will be eroded and cause more damage than if the limits were not breached.  For example, Matt Simmons discusses the concept of rate sensitivity of oilfields in his book – Twilight in the Desert.  The faster and harder an oilfield is produced, the higher the peak flow rate, but consequently, a steeper decline curve.  This is an example where a limit (peak oilfield flowrate) is eroded because the limits were ignored due to delays or deliberate policy.

There are many valuable concepts and ideas discussed in the Limits to Growth books that I hope to explore, elaborate, and expand upon in future posts.  Specifically, I hope to draw meaningful connections between this critical work and it’s entrepreneurial implications.  When I speak of entrepreneurship though, I want to conceive of it in the broadest sense.  It must be understood as a rational response for individuals, groups and communities to become self-sufficient, independent and ultimately happy, in an environment where traditional institutions built on the assumption of cheap/abundant energy is drawn into question.

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The third influential book was by Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of  Toronto.  In The Upside of Down, Homer-Dixon discusses how, although on the surface, things seems to be holding together relatively well, beneath the veneer, the structures, institutions, and assumptions which have served us well for many decades, or even centuries, are showing increasingly evident signs of stress.  Specifically, he mentions 5 “tectonic forces” affecting our global civilization today: (1) population stresses, (2) energy resource stresses (3) environmental stresses (4) climatic stresses & (5) economic stresses.

Although I want to pursue a very trans-disciplinary line of thinking on this blog, I will probably focus more on energy resources and economic stresses as these are a) most familiar to me and b) what I would consider to be the clearest, and most present danger.  The reason I think energy resource depletion is the most important of all these tectonic stress is because, as Homer-Dixon discusses, energy is the “master resource.”  It is the resource by which agriculture is possible, by which economic growth is possible, by which biological and pscyhological evolution is possible.  Without cheap, abundant energy resources, the complex societies we have constructed cannot be sustained.  Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Socities (which I have not yet read) explores a general theory of societal collapse, which Homer-Dixon discusses in The Upside of Down. I hope to further explore in posts to come, both the theoretical premises on which theories of collapse depend, and how well current events fit within this analytical framework.

Since I began exploring the issues surrounding the Limits to Growth, Peak Oil, the Credit Crisis, etc., I’ve come to be very skeptical of so-called “experts.” I will elaborate on why I don’t believe the “experts” have all the answers, but for right now, all I will say is that most “experts” see the world through the lense of their field of study.  This tendency to see an incredibly complex world in linear terms is a dangerous illusion, and one which I hope to avoid myself.  As I mentioned, I will approach this blog from a trans-disciplinary perspective, with the objective of avoiding any egregious errors of thought (not sayin’ I won’t get things wrong!).  The works outlined above are just some of the thinkers who have really done a good job of seeing the world as an integrated system of various interacting forces.  Again, I hope to avoid the tendency to discuss issues from a narrow or linear perspective, and promote a “systems approach” to understanding the complex landscape in which we find ourselves today.

Some topics I hope to cover over the next weeks, months, years:

– What are the Laws of Thermodynamics and what can they tell us about our future?

– Biological, Evolutionary & Pscyhological perspectives on our problems

– Philosophical Perspectives – Exploring Different Philosophical Views as They Relate to Chaos

– Catagenesis & The Transformation of Entropic Forces into Creative Forces

– The “Entrepreneurs” Role in Catagenesis – Examining How Individuals Can Approach Catagenesis from an Entreprenuerial Perspective

– a.j.m.