Does it make a difference if our models of energy and the economy are overly simple? I would argue that it depends on what we plan to use the models for. If all we want to do is determine approximately how many years in the future energy supplies will turn down, then a simple model is perfectly sufficient. But if we want to determine how we might change the current economy to make it hold up better against the forces it is facing, we need a more complex model that explains the economy’s real problems as we reach limits. We need a model that tells the correct shape of the curve, as well as the approximate timing. I suggest reading my recent post regarding complexity and its effects as background for this post.
The common lay interpretation of simple models is that running out of energy supplies can be expected to be our overwhelming problem in the future. A more complete model suggests that our problems as we approach limits are likely to be quite different: growing wealth disparity, inability to maintain complex infrastructure, and growing debt problems. Energy supplies that look easy to extract will not, in fact, be available because prices will not rise high enough. These problems can be expected to change the shape of the curve of future energy consumption to one with a fairly fast decline, such as the Seneca Cliff.
Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi. This curve is based on writings in the 1st century C.E. by Lucius Anneaus Seneca, “It would be of some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
It is not intuitive, but complexity-related issues create a situation in which economies need to grow, or they will collapse. See my post, The Physics of Energy and the Economy. The popular idea that we extract 50% of a resource before peak, and 50% after peak will be found not to be true–much of the second 50% will stay in the ground.
Some readers may be interested in a new article that I assisted in writing, relating to the role that price plays in the quantity of oil extracted. The article is called, “An oil production forecast for China considering economic limits.” This article has been published by the academic journal Energy, and is available as a free download for 50 days.
A Simple Model Works If All We Are Trying to Do Is Make a Rough Estimate of the Date of the Downturn
Are we like the team that Dennis Meadows headed up in the early 1970s, simply trying to make a ballpark estimate of when natural resource limits are going to become a severe problem? (This analysis is the basis of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth.) Or are we like M. King Hubbert, back in 1956, trying to warn citizens about energy problems in the fairly distant future? In the case of Hubbert and Meadows, all that was needed was a fairly simple model, telling roughly when the problem might hit, but not necessarily in what way.
I have criticized Hubbert’s model for being deficient in some major respects: leaving out complexity, leaving out entropy, and assuming a nearly unlimited supply of an alternate fuel. Perhaps these issues were not important, however, if all he was trying to do was warn people of a distant future issue.
Figure 2. Slide 29 from my complexity presentation at the 2016 Biophysical Economics Conference. Hubbert’s model omitted complexity, entropy.
The model underlying the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, was also quite simple. Ugo Bardi has used this image by Magne Myrtveit to represent how the 1972 Limits to Growth model worked. It does not include a financial system or debt.
Figure 3. Image by Magne Myrtveit to summarize the main elements of the world model for Limits to Growth.
As such, this model does not reflect the major elements of complexity, which I summarized as follows in a recent post:
Figure 4. Slide 7 from my recent complexity presentation. Basic Elements of Complexity
Thus, the model does not forecast the problems that can be expected to occur with increasingly hierarchical behavior, including the problems that people who are at the bottom of the hierarchy can be expected to have getting enough resources for basic functions of life. These issues are important, because people at the bottom of the hierarchy are very numerous. They need to be fed, clothed, housed, and have transportation to work. All of these things take natural resources, including energy products. If the benefit of available natural resources doesn’t make it all of the way down to the bottom of the hierarchy, death rates spike. This is one of the forces that can be expected to change the shape of the curve.
Figure 5. Slide 17 from my complexity presentation. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.
Dennis Meadows does not claim that the model that his group put together will show anything useful about the “shape” of the collapse. In fact, in an article about a year ago, I cut off part of the well-known Limits to Growth forecast to eliminate the part that is likely not particularly helpful–it just shows what their simple model indicates.
Figure 6. Limits to Growth forecast, truncated shortly after production turns down, since modeled amounts are unreliable after that date.
Anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s View of Collapse
If we read what anthropologist Joseph Tainter says in his book, the Collapse of Complex Societies, we find that he doesn’t consider “running out” to be the cause of collapse. Instead, he sees growing complexity to be what leads an economy to collapse. These are two of the points Tainter makes regarding complexity:
Ugo Bardi quotes Joseph Tainter as saying,
“In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that these economies faced was that they eventually would incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. They would need to invest very high amounts to solve problems that didn’t yield a net positive return; instead these investments simply allowed the economies to maintain the level that they were at. This increasing cost of maintaining the status quo decreased the net benefit of being a complex society.”
View of Collapse Based on a Modeling Approach
In the book Secular Cycles, Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov approach the problem of what causes civilizations to collapse using a modeling approach. According to their analysis, the kinds of things that caused civilizations to collapse very much corresponded to the symptoms of increasing complexity:
How Do We Fix an Overly Simple Model?
The image shown in Figure 3 in some sense shows only one “layer” of our problem. There is also a financial layer to the system, which includes both debt levels and price levels. There are also some refinements needed to the system regarding who gets the benefit of energy products: Is it the elite of the system, or is it the non-elite workers? If the economy is not growing very quickly, one major problem is that the workers at the bottom of the hierarchy tend to get squeezed out.
Figure 7. Author’s depiction of changes to non-elite workers’ share of the output of economy, as costs for other portions of the economy keep rising. The relative sizes of the various elements may not be correct; the purpose of this chart is to show a general idea, not actual amounts.
Briefly, we have several dynamics at work, pushing the economy toward collapse, rather than the resources simply “running out”:
The following is a list of variables that might be added to the overly simple model.
The output of the model would be three different estimates of whether we are reaching collapse:
The important thing about the added pieces to this model is that they emphasize the one-way nature of the system. The economy needs to grow, or it collapses. The price of energy products cannot rise much at all, because wages of workers don’t rise correspondingly. This means that any energy substitute must be very cheap. The system needs to keep adding debt, especially when capital goods are added. The benefit of this debt reaches diminishing returns. The combination of these diminishing returns with respect to investments made with debt, and the interest that needs to be paid on debt, means that it is very difficult for energy products based on capital goods to “save” the system.
Complexity Adds Unforeseen Problems
One issue that people working solely in the energy sector may not notice is that our current system for setting market-based electricity prices is not working very well, with the addition of feed-in tariffs and other subsidy programs. There is evidence that subsidizing renewable electricity tends to lead to falling wholesale electricity prices. In a sense, if we subsidize electricity prices for one type of electricity producer, we find it also necessary to subsidize electricity prices for other types of electricity producers. (Also in California.)
Figure 8. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from http://pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/references/pfb_towards_50_pct_wind_in_denmark_2016_03_30.pdf
Inadequate prices for electricity producers and a need for ever-rising subsidies for electricity production could, by themselves, cause the system to fail. In a sense, this pricing problem is a complexity-related outcome that economists have overlooked. Their models are also too simple!
It is easy to rely on too-simple models. Perhaps the biggest issue that is missed is that energy prices can’t rise endlessly. Because of this, a large share of natural resources, including oil and other energy products, will be left in the ground. Furthermore, because prices do not rise very high, energy products that are expensive to produce can’t be expected to work, either, no matter how they are disguised. Substitutes that cannot be inexpensively integrated into the electric grid are not likely to work either.
I talked about low-ranking workers being a vulnerable part of the system. It is clear from Joseph Tainter’s comments that another vulnerable part of our current system is the various “connectors” that allow us to have our modern economy. These include the electric grid, roads and bridges, the pipeline systems, the water and sewer systems, the internet, the financial system, and the international trade system. Even government organizations such as the Eurozone might be considered vulnerable connecting systems. The energy cost of maintaining these systems can be expected to continue to rise. Rising costs for these systems are part of what makes it difficult to maintain our current economic system.
The focus on “running out” has led to a focus on finding ways to extend our energy supply with small quantities of high-priced alternatives. This approach doesn’t really get us very far. What we need to keep the economy from collapsing is a growing supply of cheap-to-produce energy and other natural resources. Ideally, these new resources should require little debt, and not cause pollution problems. These requirements are exceedingly difficult to meet in a finite world.