THE SURPLUS ENERGY ECONOMY – CONTEXT AND CHOICE
One of the things that used to puzzle me, as a very small boy, was why the day after Christmas was called “Boxing Day”.
Did people in the classic “Dickensian Christmas” – in the era evoked by traditional festive icons like snow, holly and robins – really set aside a day for pugilism? It seemed even less likely that a day of fist-fighting contests formed any part of the first Christmas.
All became clear, of course, when it was explained to the very young me that this was the day on which Christmas “boxes” (gifts) were exchanged. In those times, people drew a distinction between the Christian celebration, on 25th December, and the giving and receiving of presents, on the following day.
This distinction is even more pronounced here in Spain, where the exchange of gifts is deferred to the “Night of the Kings”, two weeks after Christmas itself. The festive season is thus more protracted here than in, say, Britain or America, but it’s also markedly less frenetic, and culminates, in most towns and cities, with a thoroughly enjoyable Night of the Kings carnival.
Depending on where you are and how you look at it, the Christmas holidays end, and something like “normality” resumes, at some point between the 2nd and the 7th of January. My view is that the word “normal”, whose definition has, in economic and broader terms, already been stretched a very long way indeed, might soon lose any realistic meaning. A situation in which the Fed is in the process of injecting at least $1 trillion of newly-created money into the system typifies the extent to which abnormality has already become the norm.
In these circumstances, my immediate aim is to produce a guide, comprehensive but succinct, to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy.
This will cover the energy basis of all economic activity, the critical role played by ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), and the true nature of money and credit as an aggregate claim on the output of the ‘real’ (energy) economy.
It will move on to discuss how SEEDS models, interprets and anticipates economic trends, and to set out an overview of where we are in energy-interpreted terms. It might also – if space permits – touch on what this tells us about the false dichotomy between environmental challenges and the customarily-misstated concept of “growth”.
What I aim to do here is to close out the year with some observations about where we are as we head into the 2020s.
The best place to start is with the deterioration in prosperity, and the simultaneous increase in debt, that have already destroyed the credibility of any ‘business as usual’ narrative in the Advanced Economies (AEs).
Starting with Japan back in 1997, and finally reaching Germany in 2018, the prosperity of the average Western person has hit a peak and turned downwards, not in a temporary way, but as part of a secular process which conventional economics cannot recognise, much less explain.
This process is now spreading to the emerging market (EM) economies, most of which can expect to see prior growth in prosperity per person go into reverse within the next three years. The signs of deceleration are already becoming apparent in big EM countries such as China and India.
Thus far, global average prosperity has been on a long plateau, with continuing progress in the EM economies largely offsetting deterioration in the West. Once decline starts in the EM group, though, the pace at which the average person Worldwide becomes poorer can be expected to accelerate.
If deteriorating prosperity is the first point worthy of emphasis, the second is that a relentlessly increasing Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) is the fundamental cause of this impoverishment process. ECoE reflects that fact that, within any given quantity of energy accessed for use, a proportion is always consumed in the access process.
ECoE is a direct deduction from the aggregate quantity of energy available, which means that surplus (ex-ECoE) energy is the source of all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself.
In other words, prosperity is a function of surplus energy.
In the past, widening geographic reach, economies of scale and technological advance drove ECoEs downwards, to a low-point (of between 1% and 2%) in the immediate post-1945 decades. The subsequent rise in trend ECoEs has been driven by the fact that, with the benefits of reach and scale exhausted, depletion has now become the primary driver of ECoEs in the mature fossil fuels industries which continue to provide four-fifths of global energy supply. The role of technology has been re-cast as a process which can do no more than blunt the rate at which ECoEs are rising.
By 2000, when World trend ECoE had reached 4.5%, Advanced Economies were already starting to face an insurmountable obstacle to further growth. Prosperity turned down in Japan from 1997 (when ECoE there was 4.4%), and has been declining in America since 2000 (4.5%).
SEEDS studies demonstrate that prosperity in advanced Western countries turns down once ECoE enters a band between 3.5% and 5%. EM economies, by virtue of their lesser complexity, are less ECoE-sensitive, with prosperity going into reverse once ECoEs enter a range between 8% and 10%. Ominously, ECoE has now reached 8.2% in China, 10.0% in India and 8.1% in the EM countries as a group.
The key point about rising ECoEs is that there is nothing we can do about it. This in turn means that global prosperity has entered de-growth. The idea that we can somehow “decouple” economic activity from the use of energy is utter wishful thinking – not surprisingly, because the economy, after all, is an energy system.
This presents us with a clear choice between obfuscation and denial, on the one hand, and acceptance and accommodation, on the other. Our present position is one of ‘denial by default’, in that the decision-making process continues to be based on the false paradigm that ‘the economy is money’, and that energy is “just another input”.
This leads us to the third salient point, which is financial unsustainability.
Properly understood, money functions as a claim on the output of the ‘real’, energy-driven economy. Creating more monetary claims, without a corresponding increase in the goods and services against which these claims can be exercised, creates a gap which, in SEEDS terminology, is called “excess claims”.
Since these “excess” claims cannot, by definition, be honoured, then they must be destroyed. There are various ways in which this “claims destruction” can happen, but these mechanisms can loosely be divided into “hard” default (the repudiation of claims) or “soft” default (where claims are met, but in greatly devalued money).
These processes mean that “value destruction” has become an inevitability. This may involve waves of asset market crashes and defaults, or the creation (through reckless monetary behaviour) of hyperinflation.
The likelihood is that it’s going to involve a combination of both.
These issues take us to the fourth critical point, which is the threat to the environment. Let’s be clear that this threat extends far beyond the issue of climate change, into many other areas, which range from pollution and ecological damage to the dwindling availability of essentials such as water and food.
Conversion to renewable energy (RE) isn’t the solution to these problems, if by “solution” we mean “an alternative which can sustain our current level of prosperity”. RE, despite its many merits, isn’t going to replace the surplus energy that we’ve derived hitherto from fossil fuels. RE might well be part of the solution, but only if we take on board the inevitability of degrowth.
This brings me to my final point, which is choice. For well over two centuries we’ve been accustomed to an energy context which has been so favourable that it has given us the ability both to improve personal prosperity and to extend those benefits across a rapidly increasing population.
With this favourable context fading into the past, we have to find answers to questions that we’ve never had to ask ourselves until now.
The faculty of choice requires knowledge of the options, and this we cannot have whilst we persist in the delusion that “the economy is a financial system”. It isn’t, it never has been, and it never can be – but our ignorance about this fundamental point has been one of the many luxuries afforded to us by the largesse of fossil fuels.
This seems pretty depressing fare to put before readers at the start of the festive season. The compensating thought has to be that the connection between prosperity and happiness has always been a falsehood.
A lack of sufficiency can, and does, cause misery – but an excess of it has never been a guarantee of contentment.
In the coming days, Christians will recall with renewed force that Jesus was born in a humble stable. He went on to throw the money-changers out of the Temple, and to instruct people to lay up their treasure, not on Earth, but in Heaven. I hope it will be taken in the right spirit if I add that He never earned an MBA, or ran a hedge fund.
The single most important challenge that we face isn’t deteriorating prosperity, or the looming probability of a financial catastrophe. Rather, the great challenge is that of how to jettison the false notion that material wealth and happiness are coterminous.
‘Value’ may indeed be heading for mass destruction.
But values are indestructible.