The limits to growth and declining living standards

For some light relief as to the recent theatrics, let’s take stock. There seem to be several things not going entirely as expected or planned, and they are a little bit more than down to the antics of one man. Even if his name is Vladimir Putin…

I was listening to a couple of punters bemoaning the energy crisis and saying that the Government really should do something about this, to which the obvious question is, how do they go about doing that?

Energy is pretty much about oil and gas at this stage. You may not like that very much, but let’s start with where we are. If you look at a list of oil producers in the world, the top five in 2021 are the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, in that order. The first three are the big hitters, responsible for about 30 billion barrels a day, and Russia and the US are about neck and neck at ~10bbl/day. Slightly ominously, they say of the top three “since 2014 all three have been producing near their peak rates of 9 to 11 million barrels per day” and Russia and Saudi are the top exporters. We have decided to stand with Ukraine, so that’s the second largest exporter we have declared persona non grata.

What do we use for energy? Fossil fuels, bar the shouting…

the UK energy mix. Don’t be fooled – despite the whacking great three pin pug symbol, I read this as total energy usage, not that used to generate electricity, of which more later

If you look at the UK’s energy mix, it is three-quarters oil and natural gas combined, in about equal portions. So even if we did have a disciplined functioning government that hadn’t had enough of experts, there’s a serious limit to what can be done. I’m not taking an opinion here about the virtue of standing with Ukraine – history does show that it is sometimes necessary to tolerate privation in the interests of a wider goal, but if you want to know why energy costs are rising, well removing a large source of supply for what is basically an imported product will tend to push the price up.

Vlad the bad has played a good hand

I’m not a Putinversteher, IMO he’s is a psychopathic nutcase who is mad a box of frogs, just not randomly mad. He’s sitting on a massive resource that people want – gas and oil, and our Vlad has spent most of his life understanding power. If you are going to have enemies, it pays not to underestimate them. Sure, Putin and/or his military ballsed up some of the initial parts of their invasion, but they seem to be learning from their mistakes. I am not saying this is a good thing in the round, but it is good for Putin and his aims. Putin is right in one respect, in that the much vaunted Western sanctions are a weapon that fires on both ends. In raising the price of energy by restricting sources of supply, Putin doesn’t have to sell as much to raise the same revenue. Well done us. Perhaps there was no other way, but strangulating his cash base only works if the West was like it was before the Millennium, a much larger part of the world economy. The world is multipolar now. Sanctions may have other effects in the longer run, but it’s not a quick win, and energy prices will be higher for a fair while as a direct result. It is interesting that 50 years ago this was predicted. Not in the Nostradamus sense of

Two great men yet brothers not make the north united stand
Its power be seen to grow, and fear possess the eastern lands

which is just as well, because the West is  short of great men, we seem to be scraping the barrel of late. More in the sense of Asimov’s Foundation, with the role of the Second Foundation played by the 50 year old Club of Rome Limits to Growth crew. A couple of recent updates comparing the track we are on shows the future not being terribly rosy even with everybody’s high-tech dreams coming good.

LtG World3 model, with lots of technology (left) and business as usual (right). From Graham Turner on the Cusp of Global Collapse

on the left is the high-tech dreams of Wired magazine – even with that industrial output doesn’t continue rising on the trend of up to now. If we look at extracted resources specifically

LtG World3 model, comparing actual results with model results with lots of technology (CT) (top) and business as usual (bottom). There’s some support in the observed model for the comprehensive tech track relative to BAU, so that’s collapse averted, eh, but growth still ain’t going to carry on as before.

there is some evidence we are more high-tech than BAU. So that’s all right then? Well, Gaya Herrington tells us a little bit about the world your children will be growing up in

CT represents the technologist’s belief in humanity’s ability to innovate out of environmental constraints. It assumes unprecedented technological innovation in a world that otherwise does not change its priorities much. The new technologies do in fact help avoid an outright collapse. However, CT still depicts some declines (Figure 3) because the technology costs become so high that not enough resources are left for agricultural production and health and education services.

There was a nice little radio play about the preparation of the original model, still on BBC sounds

Back to our dictator, who is perhaps a symptom how the LtG model is playing out. Like Asimov’s psychohistory, they did not claim to foresee the individual track the future plays out, just the broad sweep of history rattling in the channel of the available resources. The resource curse means that petro-states tend to be unsavoury, and in the past perhaps we could afford to be precious about our values. These days there is more realism, yes Saudi Arabia did most likely top that Khashoggi bloke but we want their oil so perhaps we need to STFU about that sort of thing.

Putin has willing customers for his oil, which is more transportable than gas due to its value by volume. India seems to taking up a fair amount of Russian oil and China will take some of the gas off Putin’s hands. The leverage of gas is very high because of the same thing – it’s hard to reroute supply for producer and consumer alike. Germany has made itself exceptionally exposed to Russian supplies through Ostpolitik, combined with a historical anti-nuclear stance.

Atomkraft Nein Danke – that’ll cost ya

There’s a cost to Atomkraft, Nein Danke, and the bill has just landed on the doormat with a Cyrillic stamp that says hefty fee to pay, our product our rules. It’s understandable for the country that anticipated invasion through the Fulda Gap for years to try and play nice with the big bad bear, but there’s a cost to singing Kumbaya like that, in the end you get to rely on Russian gas. As the old saying goes “When you have them by the balls, hearts and minds will follow”. It could be a long winter, and Germany is already rationing gas.

Before we think stupid Germans, I suspect we will see energy rationing this winter. Germany has relatively deep pockets and will drive up the price of gas from other sources. You just can’t knock out a leading supplier of energy and carry on as normal. Italy seems quite exposed too, so perhaps we will see another Euro crisis. I don’t know how Greece will fare…

The Ermine as a nipper can remember Britain before central heating became widespread in the 1970s. Insulate Britain is wrong – British houses in the 1960s were far less insulated than now, they were draughty and often heated with coal fires, which needed a decent airflow from outside to get enough draw. People generally heated only one room – the one with the fire in it. If you wanted to heat another room you got to do that with open bar electric fires, or the sort you wouldn’t be allowed to even think of now. A mustelid kit learned something interesting about the power of electricity with a screwdriver and one of those.

People got cold. Ice would appear on the inside of the single glazed window panes. People survived. They used coats, jumpers, blankets, tea and hot water bottles. That is how we will deal with less energy. We aren’t going to ponce about insulating the bejesus out of homes that serviceably sheltered earlier, hardier generations and were never designed for insulation. They worked OK then. They will serve people again.

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