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Gail Tverberg: Something Has Got To Break

user profile picture Adam Taggart Jan 03, 2016
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Actuary Gail Tverberg explains the tight correlation between the rates of GDP growth and growth in energy supply. For decades, energy has been becoming more costly to obtain, and instead of accepting lower GDP growth, we have been using debt to fund further energy exploration and extraction.

That strategy has diminishing returns, Tverberg warns. And we are close to the moment of reckoning: 

The more we look at it the more we see that the rate of growth and energy supply is very closely correlated with the rate of GDP growth. And I know on some of my recent posts I’ve included a chart that goes back to 1820 that shows the same correlation. You have to have an increasing supply of energy in order to get GDP growth. The GDP growth tends to be a little higher than the energy growth. That’s especially the same when we made the change in the mid 70’s, when we had the big first oil crisis and we realized that Japan had already started making small cars, and so we could make smaller cars, too, and save quite a bit of oil very quickly. And we realized then that we didn’t have to burn oil to create electricity; there were a lot of other alternative approaches, including nuclear. So we pulled those off line, and where home heating had been done by oil it was easy to transfer that to other types of energy. So we had a number of different things we could do very quickly back then — and I think people got the idea that because we could pick the low-hanging fruit, then somehow or other we could do the same thing again. But we’re not getting that same kind of effect any more.

I think the thing that people don’t realize is how closely the growth in debt is tied to the growth in the economy. Even back many years ago we needed to add more debt as the economy attempted to grow, and what you would see very often back then was some country would add debt to fund a war. And if they were successful, maybe they would get some increment into the economy so that the debt made sense. And if they lost the war then somebody got their bonds written off. But what’s happened is that, as the cost of energy has gone up, especially since about the mid 70’s, the amount of debt required to find GDP growth has gone way, way up. And I think this is because it takes a given quantity of energy in terms of BTU’s or in terms of how far it can make a truck go — if it now costs a whole lot more to do that, we’re going to have to borrow a whole lot more money in order to make the whole system operate. We have a seen a spiraling of debt since the mid 70’s, and I think that’s very much related to the higher cost of energy since then.

That only works for a while. You can dial up your debt growth for a while but then you discover that debt growth has a lot of adverse effects. And one of the big ones is that it tends to funnel money to the wealthier class and take money away from the poor members of society.

I’m afraid what it means is that at some point there’s got to be a discontinuity. Something has got to break. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Gail Tverberg (61m:03s)

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