Thursday, August 06, 2009

Economic Recovery - Smoke and Mirrors?

If you are paying attention to the MSM (mainstream media), then you are aware of the talk about the recession being over and the economy getting poised for a recovery.

Richard Heinberg begs to differ. In an exceedingly lengthy, and heavily footnoted, Oil Drum post Heinberg lays out an alternative that suggests any recovery we see is going to be shortlived at best. For the Reader's Digest Condensed Version, go straight to the comments section at the end of the essay. He has supporters and detractors who are weighing in.

Regarding the feedback loop between oil and economic recovery:

The Peak Oil thesis predicts that, as world oil production reaches its maximum level and begins to decline, the price of oil will rise dramatically. But it also forecasts a dramatic increase in the volatility of prices.

The argument goes as follows. As oil becomes scarce, its price will rise until it begins to undermine economic activity in general. Economic contraction will then result in substantially reduced demand for oil, which will in turn cause its price to fall temporarily. Then one of two things will happen: either (a) the economy will begin to recover, stoking renewed oil demand, leading again to high prices which will again undermine economic activity; or (b), if the economy does not quickly recover, petroleum production will gradually fall due to depletion until spare production capacity (created by lower demand) is wiped out, leading again to higher prices and even more economic contraction. In both cases, oil prices remain volatile and the economy contracts.

The scalability, actually lack of same, for alternative energy sources:

While there are many successful alternative energy production installations around the world (ranging from small home-scale photovoltaic systems to large “farms” of three-megawatt wind turbines), there are very few modern industrial nations that now get the bulk of their energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas. One example is Sweden, which obtains most of its energy from nuclear and hydropower. Another is Iceland, which benefits from unusually large domestic geothermal resources not found in most other countries. Even for these two nations, the situation is complex: the construction of the infrastructure for their power plants mostly relied on fossil fuels for the mining of the ores and raw materials, for materials processing, for transportation, for the manufacturing of components, for the mining of uranium, for construction energy, and so on. Thus a meaningful energy transition away from fossil fuels is still a matter of theory and wishful thinking, not reality.

He doesn't think the bailouts are working:

Are the bailouts and stimulus packages working? Much evidence suggests that they are not, except in limited ways. In the U.S., unemployment continues to increase, while real estate values continue to fall. And most of the reputed “green shoots” in the economy so far sighted amount merely to an arguably temporary decline in the rate of contraction. For example, the home price index released July 28 of this year showed that in May, seasonally adjusted prices fell just 0.16 percent from the previous month. That represents an annual rate of decline of a little under 2 percent, which is a substantial improvement over the annualized rate of more than 20 percent that prevailed from September 2008 through March of 2009. Many commentators seized upon this news as a sign of an imminent turnaround. Nevertheless, new home sales are down from 1.4 million per year in 2005 to 350,000 per year today, and house prices are down 50 percent from the bubble peak and still declining in most places. Moreover, manufacturing is still shrinking, small businesses are in trouble, there are still significant danger signs on the horizon, including a new round of mortgage resets, a likely dive in commercial real estate values, and the looming reality that toxic assets at the center of the banking crisis have yet to be dealt with.

What it all means:

In using up non-renewable resources like metals, minerals, and fossil fuels, we have stolen from future generations. Now in effect we are stealing from those generations the financial wherewithal that could have been used to build a bridge to a sustainable economy. The construction of a renewable energy infrastructure (including not only generating capacity, but distribution and storage systems, as well as post-petroleum transport and agriculture systems) will require enormous investments and decades of work. Where will the investment capital come from if governments are already buried in debt? If we have committed nearly $24 trillion to propping up an old economy with no real survival prospects, what’s left with which to finance the new one?


Meanwhile the thought-leaders in society, especially the President, must begin breaking the news—in understandable and measured ways—that growth isn’t returning and that the world has entered a new and unprecedented economic phase, but that we can all survive and thrive in this challenging transitional period if we apply ourselves and work together. At the heart of this general re-education must be a public and institutional acknowledgment of three basic rules of sustainability: growth in population cannot be sustained; the ongoing extraction of non-renewable resources cannot be sustained; and the use of renewable resources is sustainable only if it proceeds at rates below those of natural replenishment.

Without cheap energy, global trade cannot increase. This doesn’t mean that trade will disappear, only that economic incentives will inexorably shift as transport costs rise, favoring local production for local consumption. But this may be a nice way of putting it: if and when fuel shortages arise, fragile globe-spanning systems of provisioning could be disrupted, with dire effects for consumers cut off from sources of necessary products. Thus a high priority must be placed on the building of community resilience through the preferential local sourcing of necessities and the maintenance of larger regional inventories—especially of food and fuel.

We can either begin to make the changes, and insist that our political leaders tell the truth, or we can continue on with BAU and hope that we never wake up from the dream.

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