PLANNING THE POST-GROWTH SOCIETY
This article explores an issue that is always at or near the centre of where the economy is going. Worldwide, the long years of growing prosperity are over, and this change fundamentally invalidates many things that government, business and the public have always taken for granted.
The reason why growth is over, of course, is that we no longer have access to cheap energy. Where geographical expansion and economies of scale once drove down the cost of accessing energy, the driving factor now is depletion, which is pushing costs upward, and is doing so in an exponential way.
Though no abrupt plunge in global prosperity is on the cards, there is scant comfort in that. Prosperity in most Western developed economies has already passed its peak. Our economic and financial systems are extremely vulnerable, because they are predicated on perpetual growth.
Thus far, and in spite of all the accumulating evidence, we haven’t recognised that growth in prosperity is over. Rather, we’ve tried to delude ourselves, by using cheap and easy debt, and latterly ultra-cheap money as well, to pretend that perpetual growth remains alive and well. In themselves, these expedients are harmful in ways that can be managed. Efficiency is being undermined by keeping sub-viable entities afloat, and a major crash in asset values has become an inevitably. Neither of these problems is existential in itself.
But changes are happening, too, in ways that are fundamental. A system dependent on ever-growing consumption and ever-increasing profitability is becoming invalidated. The very concept of debt is becoming untenable, because the process depends on growth in borrowers’ income, something which is no longer happening.
These effects have profound political and social as well as economic and financial implications. As growth unwinds, so does tolerance of inequality – that’s why “populists” have enjoyed an ascendancy, and why trends are moving strongly in favour of the collectivist Left.
The dangers of complacency
If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that world prosperity, as measured by the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS), is projected broadly flat out to 2030. To put some numbers on this, global average prosperity per person is estimated at $11,050 in 2016, and is expected to be very little changed in 2030, at $11,360 (in 2016 PPP dollars).
There are a lot of reasons, however, not to be lured into any form of complacency by this flat trajectory. First, our economic system isn’t geared to stable-state, but is predicated on perpetual expansion – and that’s a huge problem, now that the conditions which favoured growth in the past are breaking down. Though we can be pretty sure that the era of meaningful growth in prosperity has ended, we cannot know how much collateral damage will result from the challenge of trying to adapt to that change.
Second, the projected global figure for 2030 disguises a wide regional divergence of experience. China, for example, is on the positive side of the equation. Prosperity may not be growing at anything like the rate depicted by GDP per capita, but Chinese citizens are continuing to become better off. For 2016, prosperity is estimated at 30,800 RMB per person – roughly double the equivalent number for 2003 – and the SEEDS projection for 2030 is 42,225 RMB, an improvement of 37%. Improvement is likely, too, in India.
But prosperity in the developed West, already in decline, is set to deteriorate steadily. Comparing 2030 with 2016, prosperity is likely to be 7% lower in the United States, for example, and 10% lower in Britain. These projected declines are in addition to the deterioration that has already happened – prosperity has already peaked in the US, Canada, Australia and most European countries.
Third, and even in countries where prosperity trends are positive, current economic policies suggest that both debt and deficiencies in pension provision will go on growing a lot more rapidly than prosperity.
Worldwide, we’re subsidising an illusory present by cannibalising an already-uncertain future. We’re doing this by creating debt that we can’t repay, and by making ourselves pension promises that we can’t honour. So acute is this problem that our chances of getting to 2030 without some kind of financial crash are becoming almost vanishingly small.
Finally, any ‘business as usual’ scenario suggests that we’re not going to succeed in tackling climate change. This is an issue that we examined recently. Basically, each unit of net energy that we use is requiring access to more gross energy, because the energy consumed in the process of accessing energy (ECoE) is rising. This effect is cancelling out our efforts to use surplus (net-of-cost) energy more frugally.
The exponential nature of the rise in ECoEs is loading the equation ever more strongly against us. This is why “sustainable development” is a myth, founded not on fact but on wishful thinking.
The lure of denial
These considerations present us with a conundrum. With prosperity declining, do we, like Pollyanna, try to ignore it, whistling a happy tune until we collide with harsh reality? Or do we recognise where things are heading, and plan accordingly?
There are some big complications in this conundrum. Most seriously, if we continue with the myth of perpetual growth, we’re not only making things worse, but we may be throwing away our capability to adapt.
You can liken this to an ocean liner, where passengers are beginning to suspect that the ship has sprung a leak. The captain, wishing to avoid panic, might justifiably put on a brave face, reassuring the passengers that everything is fine. But he’d be going too far if he underlined this assurance by burning the lifeboats.
The push for electric vehicles threatens to become a classic instance of burning the lifeboats. Here’s why.
We know that supplies of petroleum are tightening, that the trend in costs is against us, and that burning oil in cars isn’t a good idea in climate terms. Faced with this, the powers-that-be could do one of two things. They could start to wean us off cars, by changing work and habitation patterns, and investing in public transport. Alternatively, they can promise us electric vehicles, conveniently ignoring the fact that we don’t, and won’t, have enough electricity generating capacity to make this plan viable, and that we’d certainly need to burn in power stations at least as much oil as we’d take out of fuel tanks. At the moment, every indication is that they’re going to opt for the easy answer – not the right one.
This is just one example, amongst many, of our tendency to avoid unpalatable issues until they are forced upon us. The classic instance of this, perhaps, is the attitude of the democracies during the 1930s, who must have known that appeasement was worse than a cop-out, because it enabled Germany, Italy and Japan to build up their armed forces, becoming a bigger threat with every passing month. Hitler came to power in 1933, and could probably have been squashed like a bug at any time up to 1936. By 1938, though, German rearmament reduced us to buying ourselves time.
Burying one’s head in the sand is actually a very much older phenomenon than that. The English happily paid Danegeld without, it seems, realising that each such bribe made the invaders stronger. It’s quite possible that the French court could have defused the risk of revolution by granting the masses a better deal well before 1789. The Tsars compounded this mistake when they started a reform process and then slammed it into reverse. History never repeats itself, but human beings do repeat the same mistakes, and then repeat their surprise at how things turn out.
Needed – vision and planning
The aim here is simple. There is an overwhelming case for preparation. With this established, readers can then discuss what might constitute a sensible plan, and try to work out how any plan at all is going to be formulated in a context of ignorance, denial and wishful thinking.
Let’s start with a basic premise. For more than a millennium, the population of the earth has increased, a process that has become exponential since we first tapped fossil fuels. The population exponential has been paralleled by trends in food and water supply, and in economic activity and complexity.
The “master exponential” driving all the others has been energy consumption. Basic physics dictates the primacy of energy in this mix. If we hadn’t grown our access to energy, we couldn’t have expanded our foods supplies, our population, our economic activity or the complexity of our societies.
For much of the era since 1760, energy has got cheaper. The petroleum industry, for instance, didn’t limit itself to Pennsylvania, but spread its reach across the globe, most notably finding huge oil resources in the Middle East. The same broadening process benefited coal and natural gas. As the energy industries expanded, they harnessed huge economies of scale. A third positive factor, in addition to reach and scale, was technology.
Since a high-point in the post-1945 decades, however, the trend of energy costs has crossed a climacteric. Reach ceased to help, and economies of scale reached a plateau. The new driver became depletion, an entirely logical consequence of using the most profitable resources first, and leaving less profitable ones for later. The role of technology changed, from boosting gains to mitigating decline. The extent to which technology can mitigate the cost of depletion is limited by the envelope of physics.
Only in science fiction, or in wishful thinking, can we get a quart of energy out of a pint pot.
The cost uptrend (and by ‘cost’, of course, is meant the energy consumed in accessing energy) hasn’t stopped growth in aggregate access to primary energy – yet. So far, we’ve been able to offset worsening cost ratios by using more energy. This said, cost is likely to make it harder to grow total supplies in the future. Fundamentally, as the energy consumed in the energy supply process rises, the amount of value that we get from each unit of energy diminishes, just as we hit limits to our ability to use greater volume to offset reduced value.
In petroleum, at least, we are now scraping the bottom of the barrel. If there were lots of gigantic, technically-easy fields still to be developed, we simply wouldn’t be bothering with shales, or crudes so heavy that they have to be mined rather than pumped. It’s become difficult to find a price that is high enough for producers without being too high for customers. Cost, rather than scarcity of reserves, is the factor that’s going to cause “peak oil”.
Renewable energies, though desirable, don’t offer an instant escape, not least because we have to use legacy fossil fuel energy to build wind turbines, solar panels and the infrastructure that renewables require. We once believed that nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter”, and would free us from dependency on oil, gas and coal. We’re in danger of repeating that complacency with renewables. We need to assume that energy will get costlier, just as growing the absolute quantities available to us is getting tougher.
Growth – the bar keeps rising
As the cost of energy rises, economic growth gets harder. We’ve come up against this constraint since about 2000, and our response to it, thus far, has been gravely mistaken, almost to the point of childish petulance. We seem incapable of thinking or planning in any terms that aren’t predicated on perpetual growth. We resort to self-delusion instead.
First, we thought that we could create growth by making debt ever cheaper, and ever easier to obtain. Even after 2008, we seem to have learned nothing from this exercise in credit adventurism.
Since the global financial crisis (GFC), we’ve added monetary adventurism to the mix. In the process, we’ve crushed returns on investment, crippling our ability to provide pensions. We’ve accepted the bizarre idea that we can run a “capitalist” economic system without returns on capital. We’ve also accepted value dilution, increasingly resorting to selling each other services that are priced locally, that add little value, and that, in reality, are residuals of the borrowed money that we’ve been pouring into the economy.
We seem oblivious of the obvious, which is that money, having no intrinsic worth, commands value only as a claim on the output of a real economy driven by energy. When someone hands in his hat and coat at a reception, he receives a receipt which enables him to reclaim them later. But the receipt itself won’t keep him warm and dry. For that, he needs to exchange the receipt for the hat and coat. Money is analogous to that receipt.
The first imperative, then, is recognition that the economy is an energy system, not a financial one, in which money plays a proxy role as a claim on output. In this sense, money is like a map of the territory, whereas energy is the territory itself – and geographical features can’t be changed by altering lines on a map.
It’s fair to assume that the reality of this relationship will gain recognition in due course, the only question being how many mistakes and how much damage has to happen before we get there. No amount of orthodoxy can defy this reality, just as no amount of orthodoxy could turn flat earth theories into the truth.
With the energy dynamic recognised, we’ll need to come to terms with the fact that growth cannot continue indefinitely. Rather, growth has been a chapter, made possible by the bounty of fossil fuels, and that bounty is losing its largesse as the relationship between energy value and the cost of access tilts against us.
In one sense, it’s almost a good thing that this is happening. If we suddenly discovered vast oil reserves on the scale of another Saudi Arabia, we would probably use them to destroy the environment.
Undercutting the rationale – consumption, profit and debt
With growth in prosperity no longer guaranteed, a lot of other assumptions lose their validity. One of the first will be the nexus of consumerism and corporate profit, where we assume that consumption by the public must always increase, and, over time, profits must always grow.
We’ll find ourselves in a situation where consumption doesn’t keep growing, and will decrease in per capita terms at a pace which at least matches the rate at which population numbers are growing. In this situation, expecting suppliers to keep on expanding, and carry on increasing their profits, becomes unreasonable. Businesses which insist on trying to maintain profits growth in this context will probably have to resort to cheating, both exploiting consumers and falsifying information. It may well be that this process has already started.
Meanwhile, the invalidation of the growth assumption will have profound implications for debt, and may indeed make the whole concept unworkable. If borrowing and lending ceased to be a viable activity, the consequences would be profound.
To understand this, we need to recognise that debt only works when prosperity is growing. For A to borrow from B today, and at a future date repay both capital and interest, A’s income must have increased over that period. Without that growth, debt cannot be repaid.
There are two routes to the repayment of capital and the payment of interest, and both depend on growth. First, if A has put borrowed capital to work, the return on that investment both pays the interest, and also, hopefully, leaves A with a profit. Alternatively, if A has spent the borrowed money on consumption, A’s income has to increase by at least enough to for him to repay the debt, and pay interest on it.
In an ex-growth situation, both routes break down. Invested debt isn’t going to yield a sufficient return, because purchases by consumers have ceased to expand. A’s income, on the other hand, won’t have increased, because prosperity has stopped growing.
This scenario – in which repayment of debt becomes impossible – isn’t a future prediction, but a current reality, and a reality that is already in plain sight.
We need to be clear that the slashing of rates to almost zero happened because earning enough on capital to be able to pay real rates of interest has become impossible.
Businesses which aren’t growing cannot – ever – pay off their debts, and neither can individuals whose prosperity is deteriorating.
Critically, prosperity, which drives both profits and incomes, is declining. This is evident, not just in real wages (which, in many developed economies, haven’t grown since 2008), but also in the adverse relationship between nominal incomes and the cost of essentials.
To reiterate, if borrowers’ incomes don’t grow, they cannot pay off their debts, and are likely to go under because they cannot carry indefinitely the burden of compounding interest.
The politics of inequality
Financial exercises in denial (including escalating debt, ultra-cheap money and the impairment of pension provision) have already created a stark division between “haves” and “have-nots”. Essentially, the “haves” are those who already owned assets before the value of those assets was driven upwards by monetary policy. The “have-nots” are almost everyone else, especially the young.
Critically, the cessation of growing prosperity creates a fundamental change in attitudes towards inequality. Someone whose own prosperity is increasing is likely to be pretty tolerant towards a richer neighbour. Put prosperity into reverse, though, and that tolerance evaporates.
Again, this isn’t forecast, but fact. It’s one of the reasons why “populist” politicians are doing so well, and it also lays the foundations for a return to ascendancy by the collectivist Left. For this to happen, left-of-centre parties need to purge themselves of the centrists whose logic ceased to function when prosperity stopped growing.
The need to do this isn’t exactly rocket-science, and it’s already happening. We know that Hillary Clinton failed to see off Donald Trump, but we can’t know whether Bernie Sanders might have succeeded. We cannot know whether Labour under Jeremy Corbyn can win power in Britain, but we can be pretty sure that a Labour party led by a returning Tony Blair, or by someone else with the same “New” Labour policies, could not.
This stacks up to the return of division. The reason for this is that it’s becoming impossible for parties of opposition to accept big chunks of the incumbency’s economic agenda. As ordinary people become poorer, and as their ability to carry their debt burdens diminishes, the focus on inequality will intensify. The “politics of envy” will become “the politics of indignation”. Questions will start to be asked about how much money any one individual actually needs. The deterioration in the ability of the state to provide public services will intensify the politics of division.
To be clear about this, collectivism won’t solve our fundamental economic problems, and neither will a system which mutates Adam Smith’s free and fair competition into something akin to the law of the jungle. Deregulated capitalism is failing now, just as emphatically as Marxist collectivism failed in the past.
A logical conclusion, then, is that we need a new form of politics, just as much as we need a new understanding of economics, new models for business and a new role for finance. Co-operative systems might succeed where corporatism – both the state-controlled and the privately-owned variants – have failed.
All of these new ideas need to be grounded in reality, not in wishful thinking, denial or ideological myopia. But reality becomes a hard sell when it challenges preconceived notions – and no such notion is more rooted in our psyche than perpetual growth.