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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

How high oil prices lead to financial collapse

Financial collapse is related to high oil prices, Tverberg writes, and also to higher costs for other resources as we approach their limits.

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The need to use greater resources in the process of resource extraction leaves fewer resources available for other purposes. Prices adjust to reflect this out of balance. If there is no substitute available for the resource that is reaching limits, the economy adjusts by contracting to match the amount of resource that is available at an affordable price. Some economists might call the situation “reduced demand at high price”. What the situation looks like, in terms most of us are used to using, is recession or depression.

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Gail Tverberg, an actuary with a background in math, analyzes energy and financial matters from a perspective that the world has limited resources. For more of Gail's posts, click here.

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Part of the confusion is that many people completely miss the fact that there is a close connection between cheap energy supply of the exact type needed (for example, gasoline for cars, diesel for trucks, electricity for many factory applications) and the ability of the world economy to make goods and services.

If the price of energy of the type a particular manufacturer or service provider uses increases (say gasoline or diesel or natural gas or electricity), that manufacturer or service provider in the short term has no choice but to pay the increased price, because there is no substitute for energy of the right type. If the manufacturer or service provider tries to pass these higher costs on to its customers, there is likely to be a cutback in demand, leading to a need for layoffs. Alternatively, with longer lead time,  the company may be able to find a way around the problem of increased costs, by using more  automation, or by outsourcing production to a country where costs are cheaper. Any of these responses leads to reduced US employment and recessionary impacts.

What History Says about Prior Collapses

Until fossil fuels came into widespread use, civilizations regularly grew until they reached limits of some sort, and then collapsed. There are many books looking at this issue. David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations talks about the role soil erosion and soil degradation play in bringing civilizations down. Sing Chew, in The Recurring Dark Ages, talks about how ecological stress, deforestation, and climate change have led to long periods of collapse and low economic activity. Joseph Tainter, in The Collapse of Complex Societies, talks about how increasingly complex solutions to the problems of the day lead to ever-higher administrative costs that eventually become too expensive to afford.

Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov in the book Secular Cycles take more of an analytical approach. They look at how cycles actually played out, based on financial and other detailed records of the day. Their analysis considered eight economies, the earliest of which began in 350 B. C. E.. The pattern they found looks disturbingly like the pattern that the world has been going through since the widespread use of fossil fuels began about 1800: A civilization starts its existence when a new resource becomes available, for example by deforesting land to be used for agriculture (or in our case, finding ways fossil  fuels could be used). A civilization experiences Growth for 100+ years as the population is able to grow with the new resource available to it.

Eventually the civilization reaches a Stagflation period. This happens when the civilization starts reaching limits. Population is much higher, the size of the governing class is much larger, and feedbacks like erosion and soil depletion start to play a role. In my view, Stagflation period began for the United States around 1970, when US oil production began to fall.

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