EC The Approaching US Energy-Economic Crisis

I was recently asked to give a talk called, “The Approaching US Energy-Economic Crisis.” In other words, how might the United States encounter problems that lead to a crisis? As we will see, many of the problems that could lead to a crisis (such as increased wage disparity and difficulty in collecting enough taxes) are issues that we are already beginning to encounter.

In this talk, I first discuss the connection between energy and the economy. Without this connection, it doesn’t make sense to talk about a crisis arising with respect to energy and the economy. I then discuss seven issues that could lead to a US energy-economic crisis.

Economic Growth Is Closely Tied to Energy Consumption

If we look at world data, it is clear that there is a close tie between energy consumption and economic growth.

On an individual country basis, there can be the belief that we have reached a new situation where a particular country doesn’t really need growing energy supply for economic growth.

For example, on Slide 3, the recent nearly vertical line for the US suggests that the US economy can grow with almost no increase in annual energy consumption. This rather strange situation arises because the standard calculation misses energy embodied in imported goods. Thus, if the United States wants to outsource a great deal of its manufacturing to China, the energy consumption used in making these goods will appear in China’s data, not in the United States’ data. This makes the country that has outsourced manufacturing look very good, both with respect to energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Buying imported crude oil from elsewhere (such as Saudi Arabia) is also helpful in keeping down energy consumption, because it takes energy of various types to extract oil. If oil extraction takes place in Saudi Arabia, using steel pipes from China, the energy used in extraction will appear in the data of China and Saudi Arabia. Neither China nor Saudi Arabia obtains as much economic growth, relative to its energy expenditures, as does the US. In order to make sense of what is happening, we need to look at the world total.

We see that the pattern of world energy consumption growth follows a pattern not terribly different from that of China. Its growth is not “straight up.” It does take growing energy supply to create additional goods and services. We are getting a little more efficient in this process over time, but energy is very much needed in many areas of the economy:

  • By businesses, to create goods, such as food, and services, such as vacation travel;
  • By governments, to create roads, schools, and other public services;
  • By individual citizens, to cook food, to heat homes, and for transportation.

The World Economy Is Organized Based on the Laws of Physics

There are many self-organized systems that seem to grow of their own accord in the presence of available energy supplies (that is, in thermodynamically open systems). Plants and animals are examples of growing self-organized systems. Hurricanes, ecosystems, and stars are also such systems. Economies also seem to be such systems. The name given to such a system is a dissipative system.

I visualize the world economy as being somewhat like a child’s building toy. It consists of many different elements, a few of which are listed on Slide 5. An economy is self-organized in that new businesses are formed when some entrepreneur sees an opportunity. Consumers decide which product to buy based on which product best serves their needs and based on price. Governments decide on changes to laws and tax levels, depending upon how the economy is functioning at a given time.

This system gradually grows over time, as more businesses and customers are added. As new products and new businesses are added, products and businesses that are no longer needed are taken away. For example, when the private passenger automobile was invented, there was no longer a need to feed and house a large number of horses to be used for transportation purposes. Thus, the system self-organized to eliminate the services needed to care for the many horses used for transportation.

Even if we wanted to get rid of cars and go back to horses, we really could not do so now. In some sense, the structure shown on Slide 5 is hollow, because prior capabilities that are no longer needed tend to disappear. The hollow nature of the economy makes it almost impossible to go backward if we somehow lose our existing capabilities–not enough oil, or an electricity problem, or an international trade problem, or a financial problem. Instead, we will need to build new systems that will function in the new context: depleted resources, a very high population level, high pollution levels, and degraded soils. The existing self-organized system is likely to collapse back to only the part that can be sustained.

Slide 6 is a preview of where this presentation is headed.

Slide 7 describes the issue most people are concerned about: oil prices will rise too high for consumers. In fact, we clearly have had problems with high prices in the recent past. The high prices in 2007 and early 2008 seem to have punctured the debt bubble that existed at that time, as I discuss in an academic article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.

Shortly before oil prices started to turn back up again in late 2008, the United States instituted a policy of Quantitative Easing (QE), in an attempt to bring interest rates down and thus encourage more debt. Additional debt at low interest rates can “pump up” the economy in several different ways:

1 2 3 4
View single page >> |

Disclosure: None.

How did you like this article? Let us know so we can better customize your reading experience. Users' ratings are only visible to themselves.


Leave a comment to automatically be entered into our contest to win a free Echo Show.
James Hanshaw 4 weeks ago Contributor's comment

Very interesting and comprehensive article. I do not think oil prices are headed too high or too low and my reasons have just been published here