Can the American Lifestyle Survive the End of Cheap, Abundant Oil?

John Michael Greer's essay A Gesture from the Invisible Hand explains why the end of cheap, abundant fossil fuels undermines the economies of the societies that are dependent on oil. This is really bad news for the "civilized" countries — and why denial from our leaders is the norm. Excerpts below.

This "peak oil" aftermath theme also explains why debt is accelerating and China is becoming a dominant economic power.

Link: The Archdruid Report: A Gesture from the Invisible Hand

It’s common, for example, to hear well-intentioned people insist that the market, as a matter of course, will respond to restricted fossil fuel production by channeling investment funds either in more effective means of producing fossil fuels, on the one hand, or new energy sources on the other. The logic seems impeccable at first glance: as the price of oil, for example, goes up, the profit to be made by bringing more oil or oil substitutes onto the market goes up as well; investors eager to maximize their profits will therefore pour money into ventures producing oil and oil substitutes, and production will rise accordingly until the price comes back down.

Energy is one of those places: in some ways, the most important of all. Energy is not simply one commodity among others; it is the ur-commodity, the foundation for all economic activity. It follows laws of its own – the laws of thermodynamics, notably – which are not the same as the laws of economics, and when the two sets of laws come into conflict, the laws of thermodynamics win every time.

This is necessary because energy doesn't follow the ordinary rules of economic exchange. Most other commodities still exist after they've been exchanged for something else, and this makes exchanges reversible; for example, if you sell gold to buy marble, you can normally turn around and sell marble to buy gold. The invisible hand works here; if marble is in short supply, those who have gold and want marble may have to offer more gold for their choice of building materials, but the marble quarries will be working overtime to balance things out.

Energy is different. Once you turn the energy content of a few million bushels of grain into a pyramid, say, by using the grain to feed workers who cut and haul the stones, that energy is gone, and you cannot turn the pyramid back into grain; all you can do is wait until the next harvest. If that harvest fails, and the stored energy in the granaries has already been turned into pyramids, neither the market economy of goods and services or the abstract system of distributing goods and services can make up for it. Nor, of course, can you send an extra ten thousand workers into the fields if you don't have the grain to keep them alive.

The arrival of geological limits to increasing fossil fuel production places a burden on the economy, because the cost in energy, labor, and materials (rather than money) to extract fossil fuels does not depend on market forces. On average, it goes up over time, as easily accessible reserves are depleted and have to be replaced by those more difficult and costly to extract. Improved efficiencies and new technologies can counter that to a limited extent, but both these face the familiar problem of diminishing returns as the laws of thermodynamics, and other physical laws, come into play.

As a society nears the geological limits to production, in other words, a steadily growing fraction of its total supply of energy, resources, and labor have to be devoted to the task of bringing in the energy that keeps the entire economy moving.This percentage may be small at first, but it's effectively a tax in kind on every productive economic activity, and as it grows it makes productive economic activity less profitable. The process by which money produces more money consumes next to no energy, by contrast, and so financial investments don't lose ground due to rising energy costs.

This makes financial investments, on average, relatively more profitable than investing in the kinds of economic activity that use energy to produce nonfinancial goods and services. The higher the burden imposed by energy costs, the more sweeping the disparity becomes; the result, of course, is that individuals trying to maximize their own economic gains move their money out of investments in the productive economy of goods and services, and into the paper economy of finance.

Ironically, this happens just as a perpetually expanding money supply driven by mass borrowing at interest has become an anachronism unsuited to the new economic reality of energy contraction. It also guarantees that any attempt to limit the financial sphere of the economy will face mass opposition, not only from financiers, but from millions of ordinary citizens whose dream of a comfortable retirement depends on the hope that financial investments will outperform the faltering economy of goods and services. Meanwhile, just as the economy most needs massive reinvestment in productive capacity to retool itself for the very different world defined by contracting energy supplies, investment money seeking higher returns flees the productive economy for the realm of abstract paper wealth.

One intriguing detail of this scenario is that it has already affected the first major oil producer to reach peak oil — yes, that would be the United States. It's unlikely to be accidental that in the wake of its own 1972 production peak, the American economy has followed exactly this trajectory of massive disinvestment in the productive economy and massive expansion of the paper economy of finance. Plenty of other factors played a role in that process, no doubt, but I suspect that the unsteady but inexorable rise in energy costs over the last forty years or so may have had much more to do with the gutting of the American economy than most people suspect.

If this is correct, now that petroleum production has encountered the same limits globally that put it into a decline here in the United States, the same pattern of disinvestment in the production of goods and services coupled with metastatic expansion of the financial sector may show up on a much broader scale. There are limits to how far it can go, of course, not least because financiers and retirees alike are fond of consumer goods now and then, but those limits have not been reached yet, not by a long shot. It's all too easy to foresee a future in which industry, agriculture, and every other sector of the economy that produces goods and services suffer from chronic underinvestment, energy costs continue rising, and collapsing infrastructure becomes a dominant factor in daily life, while the Wall Street Journal (printed in Shanghai by then) announces the emergence of the first half dozen quadrillionaires in the derivatives-of-derivatives-of-derivatives market.

Perhaps the most important limit in the way of such a rush toward economic absurdity is the simple fact that not every economy uses the individual decisions of investors pursuing private gain to allocate investment capital. It may not be accidental that quite a few of the world's most successful economies just now, with China well in the lead, make their investment decisions based at least in part on political, military, and strategic grounds, while the nation that preens itself most proudly on its market economy — yes, that would be the United States again — is lurching from one economic debacle to another.