Friday, August 7, 2009

Temporary Recession or the End of Growth?

This is a guest post on The Oil Drum by Richard Heinberg. Richard is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of five books on resource depletion and societal responses to the energy problem. He can be found on the web at and Here is a short overview of his new post:

Everyone agrees: our economy is sick. The inescapable symptoms include declines in consumer spending and consumer confidence, together with a contraction of international trade and available credit. Add a collapse in real estate values and carnage in the automotive and airline industries and the picture looks grim indeed.

But why are both the U.S. economy and the larger global economy ailing? Among the mainstream media, world leaders there is near-unanimity of opinion: these recent troubles are primarily due to a combination of bad real estate loans and poor regulation of financial derivatives.

This is the Conventional Diagnosis. But what if this diagnosis is fundamentally flawed? The metaphor needs no belaboring: we all know that tragedy can result from a doctor’s misreading of symptoms, mistaking one disease for another.

In short, I am suggesting an Alternative Diagnosis. This explanation for the economic crisis is not for the faint of heart because, if correct, it implies that the patient is far sicker than even the most pessimistic economists are telling us. But if it is correct, then by ignoring it we risk even greater peril.

Economic Growth, The Financial Crisis, and Peak Oil

For several years, a swelling subculture of commentators has been forecasting a financial crash, basing this prognosis on the assessment that global oil production was about to peak.

Continual increases in population and consumption cannot continue forever on a finite planet. The unfairly maligned Limits to Growth studies, published first in 1972 with periodic updates since, have attempted to answer the question with analysis of resource availability and depletion, and multiple scenarios for future population growth and consumption rates.

Energy is the ultimate enabler of growth. Industrialism has been inextricably tied to the availability and consumption of cheap energy from coal and oil (and more recently, natural gas).

About 85 percent of our current energy is derived from three primary sources—oil, natural gas, and coal—that are non-renewable, whose price is likely to trend sharply higher over the next years and decades leading to severe shortages, and whose environmental impacts are unacceptable. While these sources historically have had very high economic value, we cannot rely on them in the future; indeed, the longer the transition to alternative energy sources is delayed, the more difficult that transition will be unless some practical mix of alternative energy systems can be identified that will have superior economic and environmental characteristics.

My conclusion from a careful survey of energy alternatives, then, is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of this century.

In essence, humanity faces an entirely predictable peril: our population has been growing dramatically for the past 200 years (expanding from under one billion to nearly seven billion), while our per-capita consumption of resources has also grown. And yet all of this has taken place in the context of a finite planet with fixed stores of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), a limited ability to regenerate renewable resources (forests, fish, fresh water, and topsoil), and a limited ability to absorb industrial wastes (including carbon dioxide). If we step back and look at the industrial period from a broad historical perspective that is informed by an appreciation of ecological limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are today living at the end of a relatively brief pulse—a 200-year rapid expansionary phase enabled by a temporary energy subsidy (in the form of cheap fossil fuels) that will inevitably be followed by an even more rapid and dramatic contraction as those fuels deplete.

If humanity has indeed embarked upon the contraction phase of the industrial pulse, we should assume that ahead of us lie much lower average income levels (for nearly everyone in the wealthy nations, and for high wage earners in poorer nations); different employment opportunities (fewer jobs in sales, marketing, and finance; more in basic production); and more costly energy, transport, and food. Further, we should assume that key aspects of our economic system that are inextricably tied to the need for future growth will cease to work in this new context.

Is it too late to begin a managed transition to a post-fossil fuel society? Perhaps. But we will not know unless we try. And if we are to make that effort, we must begin by acknowledging one simple, stark reality: growth as we have known it can no longer be our goal.


Richard Heinberg is the author of the following books about the energy crash and resource depletion:

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