Inevitability of DeGrowth: Our Current Debt and Energy Orgy Can't Last Much Longer

Even though we don't know precisely how the future will unfold, we know a few things about it:

  1. Of the 7.5 billion humans on the planet, virtually every individual wants to enjoy a high-energy consumption “middle-class” lifestyle. As a generous estimate, 1.5 billion people enjoy a high-energy consumption lifestyle today; the remaining six billion are aspirants hungry for all the goodies enjoyed by the 1.5 billion—all goodies based on affordable, abundant energy.
  2. Our dependence on debt to fuel growth—more extraction of resources, more energy, more manufacturing, more consumption and more earned income to pay for all this expansion of debt and consumption—has built-in limits: debt accrues interest and principal payments, which reduce the remaining income available to spend on consumption.  Our dependence on fast-rising debt just to maintain low rates of growth eventually limits our ability to pay for more consumption/growth. When most income is devoted to servicing debt, there isn’t enough left to buy more stuff or support additional debt.
  3. The debt needed to move the growth needle is expanding at a much higher rate than the growth it generates. While growth is stagnant, debt is expanding by leaps and bounds to unprecedented levels. (Global Debt Hits A New Record High Of $217 Trillion; 327% Of GDP)
  4. Wages are stagnating for the bottom 90% of the workforce. We can quibble about the causes, but there is no plausible evidence to support a belief that this trend will magically reverse.
  5. The cost of the most valuable energy--high-density, easy to transport—will slowly but surely become more expensive as the cheap, easy-to-extract energy sources are depleted, notwithstanding the temporary boost provided by the fast-depleting wells of the fracking “miracle.”
  6. There are limits on our exploitation of resources such as fresh water and wild fisheries. Humans can print currency (money) but we can’t print fresh water, energy, wild fisheries, etc. If one unit of currency currently buys one liter of petrol, printing 10 more units of money doesn’t create 10 more liters of fuel.  
  7. Creating currency out of thin air isn’t free in our system: all new currency is loaned into existence and accrues interest. As a result, all currency is a claim on future earnings. If we borrow enough from the future, and earnings remain flat or decline, eventually there’s not enough income left to support the debt service and the expanding consumption the status quo needs to keep itself glued together.

What’s the result if we add these up?

Simply put, debt-dependent consumption in a world in which wages stagnate for the bottom 90% and energy costs increase as demand outstrips supply is a system with only one possible end-point: collapse.

The Energy-Debt-Growth Connection

If we accept that energy will get increasingly scarce and costly, and real earned income for the vast majority of households is in structural decline, that means the global economy is in terminal trouble. As this chart shows, energy consumption per capita and GDP (gross domestic product, a measure of growth) are in near-perfect correlation: rising energy consumption per person is the foundation of economic expansion:

If energy consumption per person declines, so does GDP. If GDP/ economic expansion stalls, the global financial system--dependent as it is on the permanent expansion of debt and income to service that debt--has a problem.

In other words, energy, growth and debt are intrinsically linked. Analysts Gail Tverberg and Chris Martenson, among others, have been discussing the causal connections between energy, debt and the financial system for years. Here are recent examples of their work:

- The Looming Energy Shock (PeakProsperity.com)

- The Next Financial Crisis Is Not Far Away (OurFiniteWorld.com)

Simply put, the extraction of fossil fuel energy and the development of alt energy on a vast scale both require an equally vast expansion of interest-accruing debt, both to fund the actual extraction, processing and transport of energy and the consumers’ purchases of all the energy-intensive goods and services that keep the economy expanding.

Right now, oil and natural gas are relatively inexpensive compared to historical peaks, especially when prices are adjusted for inflation. Broadly speaking, the fracking “miracle” (based on expanding debt) has pushed supply temporarily higher than demand. (By temporary I refer to a timeline of a few years.)

The resulting collapse in energy prices, while welcome to consumers, negatively impacts energy companies' ability to seek new reserves (exploration and production), tap existing reserves that cost a lot to extract or build new alternative energy facilities on a large enough scale to matter.

As we witnessed in the 2008 spike in oil prices to $140 per barrel, soaring energy prices crush consumer spending, triggering stagflation and recession.

The solution is a Goldilocks price structure—energy prices that are not too high (for consumers), and not too low (for producers). The problem is that as energy costs ratchet higher while wages stagnate or decline, the financial capability of households and businesses to pay higher energy and debt-service costs and expand their consumption vanishes.

Something has to give: either consumption declines (triggering structural, permanent recession) or the energy sector goes bankrupt as its production costs cannot be covered by the price of energy consumers can afford to pay.

Meanwhile, the skyrocketing debt required to keep the entire status quo glued together is sapping income, reducing the every participants’ ability to pay for future growth.

These realities leave three possible futures:

  1. Energy prices move beyond what’s affordable, and the system breaks.

     


  2. Debt service costs rise above what’s affordable, and the system breaks.

     


  3. Both energy and debt service costs rise in tandem, and the system breaks. 

Magic Technology and Wishful Thinking to the Rescue

The consensus solutions to increasingly unaffordable energy are technological: new technologies are going to make energy abundant and so cheap it’s practically free.

While it’s true that there are many alternative energy technologies in development, the reality is few make financial sense and few have the potential to scale up rapidly enough to replace oil/coal/natural gas.

Take liquid fluoride thorium reactors. The consensus is that this form of nuclear energy is reliable and safe. Yet not a single working thorium reactor is in operation. (An update on the potential of LFTR power - PeakProsperity.com)

How about all those solar power technologies that are going to make electricity abundant and cheap everywhere? Magical thinking is appealing, but the reality is wind and solar make up roughly 2% of all energy consumed globally. These could double, triple, quadruple and then double again, and they wouldn't even begin to replace fossil fuels.

Even if wind/solar became dirt-cheap to manufacture, install and maintain (in the real world, we have to measure total life-cycle costs, not just the initial purchase price), these alt energy sources are intermittent, and that's a big problem for two reasons:

1. Batteries are not “free” and current technologies rely on scarce resources (lithium, etc.)

2. Utilities need to maintain significant power generation capacity to replace these sources during night, cloudy days, when the wind decreases, etc.

This means the entire infrastructure of fossil-fuel generated electricity must be maintained--a very costly requirement.

The other problem with the “electricity and storage will be nearly free” line of magical thinking is much of our transport system can't be switched to electricity--aircraft, container ships, etc.

Virtually every optimistic vision of a cheap, abundant energy future overlooks these problems, or assumes each will effortlessly be solved with some new whiz-bang technology that just so happens to be dirt-cheap.

But not all technologies that work on in lab are affordable and not all technologies scale from the lab to production on a global scale.

Maybe some lab will invent a battery based on a cheap, abundant resource like silicon, but the process of manufacture may still be horrendously expensive, i.e. require a lot of energy and costly machinery. Even if batteries can be manufactured at a low cost, they’re only serving the 2% of total energy being generated by intermittent sources.

Technological solutions are always the "answer," but the actual costs of scaling up new technologies to offset the decline in conventional oil is ignored or glossed over.

If scaling up a new energy source bankrupts consumers and producers alike, is it a solution?

Magical Thinking: Debt Doesn’t Matter

The other line of magical thinking is that debt doesn’t matter, because future growth will always provide us with enough income to service debt.  As noted above, the structural stagnation of earned income means this assumption is no longer valid.

The next line of defense is that super-low interest rates will make debt practically weightless.  But back in the real world, we find even interest rates near zero eventually burden governments and economies. Consider Japan, which has been running a 25+ year experiment in “debt doesn’t matter.” In 2015, the cost of servicing its astronomical debt was the largest single item in the government’s budget:

 

If this is the result of near-zero .1% interest rates, imagine the eventual impact of 1% or (gasp) 2% interest rates—never mind 4% or higher.

Let’s also consider the central bank balance sheet and policy that undergirds this hyper-expansion of debt.  This is a chart of the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet. If this looks sustainable to you, hmm, you might want to dial back your happy-meds:

And what good came of this unprecedented expansion of central bank “monetary easing”? The net result is a near-zero growth stagnant economy burdened with exploding debt remained glued together, arguably rescued not by the central bank but by the collapse of energy prices and the one-off expansion of China’s economy.

These realities force fact-based observers into pondering a future that consumes less energy per person and generates less income and debt per person--a DeGrowth economy.

The status quo—highly centralized, dominated by self-serving elites gorging on a highly unequal distribution of wealth and income--cannot survive a structural decline in earned income and the resulting collapse of debt, or a reduction in energy consumption per capita.  But humanity could do just fine.

In Part 2: A Blueprint For DeGrowth, we provide the blueprint for a DeGrowth economy that’s more sustainable than the status quo, and that leaves magical thinking at the door.

The economic/political paradigm of rising energy consumption and debt required to keep the whole status quo glued together is going away.  We can’t retain the existing socio-political-financial structures of this paradigm and expect to get different results; that’s a pretty good definition of insanity.

We need new models; not just for energy consumption and distribution, but for the creation and distribution of currency and political power. The good news is: they're out there.

Click here to read the report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

From the moment the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson arrived at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, he was on the radical side. That caused John Adams to like him immediately. Then the Congress stuck Jefferson and Adams together on the five-man committee to write a formal statement justifying a break with Great Britain, and their mutual admiration society began.

Jefferson thought Adams should write the Declaration. But Adams protested, saying, “It can't come from me because I'm obnoxious and disliked." Adams reasoned that Jefferson was not obnoxious or disliked, therefore he should write it. Plus, he flattered Jefferson, by telling him he was a great writer. It was a master class in passing the buck.

So, over the next 17 days, Jefferson holed up in his room, applying his lawyer skills to the ideas of the Enlightenment. He borrowed freely from existing documents like the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He later wrote that “he was not striving for originality of principle or sentiment." Instead, he hoped his words served as “an expression of the American mind."

It's safe to say he achieved his goal.

The five-man committee changed about 25 percent of Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration before submitting it to Congress. Then, Congress altered about one-fifth of that draft. But most of the final Declaration's words are Jefferson's, including the most famous passage — the Preamble — which Congress left intact. The result is nothing less than America's mission statement, the words that ultimately bind the nation together. And words that we desperately need to rediscover because of our boiling partisan rage.

The Declaration is brilliant in structure and purpose. It was designed for multiple audiences: the King of Great Britain, the colonists, and the world. And it was designed for multiple purposes: rallying the troops, gaining foreign allies, and announcing the creation of a new country.

The Declaration is structured in five sections: the Introduction, Preamble, the Body composed of two parts, and the Conclusion. It's basically the most genius breakup letter ever written.

In the Introduction, step 1 is the notificationI think we need to break up. And to be fair, I feel I owe you an explanation...

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…

The Continental Congress felt they were entitled by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to “dissolve the political bands," but they needed to prove the legitimacy of their cause. They were defying the world's most powerful nation and needed to motivate foreign allies to join the effort. So, they set their struggle within the entire “Course of human events." They're saying, this is no petty political spat — this is a major event in world history.

Step 2 is declaring what you believe in, your standardsHere's what I'm looking for in a healthy relationship...

This is the most famous part of the Declaration; the part school children recite — the Preamble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That's as much as many Americans know of the Declaration. But the Preamble is the DNA of our nation, and it really needs to be taken as a whole:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Preamble takes us through a logical progression: All men are created equal; God gives all humans certain inherent rights that cannot be denied; these include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to protect those rights, we have governments set up; but when a government fails to protect our inherent rights, people have the right to change or replace it.

Government is only there to protect the rights of mankind. They don't have any power unless we give it to them. That was an extraordinarily radical concept then and we're drifting away from it now.

The Preamble is the justification for revolution. But note how they don't mention Great Britain yet. And again, note how they frame it within a universal context. These are fundamental principles, not just squabbling between neighbors. These are the principles that make the Declaration just as relevant today. It's not just a dusty parchment that applied in 1776.

Step 3 is laying out your caseHere's why things didn't work out between us. It's not me, it's you...

This is Part 1 of the Body of the Declaration. It's the section where Jefferson gets to flex his lawyer muscles by listing 27 grievances against the British crown. This is the specific proof of their right to rebellion:

He has obstructed the administration of justice...

For imposing taxes on us without our consent...

For suspending our own legislatures...

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us...

Again, Congress presented these “causes which impel them to separation" in universal terms to appeal to an international audience. It's like they were saying, by joining our fight you'll be joining mankind's overall fight against tyranny.

Step 4 is demonstrating the actions you took I really tried to make this relationship work, and here's how...

This is Part 2 of the Body. It explains how the colonists attempted to plead their case directly to the British people, only to have the door slammed in their face:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury...

They too have been deaf to the voice of justice... We must, therefore... hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

This basically wrapped up America's argument for independence — we haven't been treated justly, we tried to talk to you about it, but since you refuse to listen and things are only getting worse, we're done here.

Step 5 is stating your intent — So, I think it's best if we go our separate ways. And my decision is final...

This is the powerful Conclusion. If people know any part of the Declaration besides the Preamble, this is it:

...that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved...

They left no room for doubt. The relationship was over, and America was going to reboot, on its own, with all the rights of an independent nation.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The message was clear — this was no pitchfork mob. These were serious men who had carefully thought through the issues before taking action. They were putting everything on the line for this cause.

The Declaration of Independence is a landmark in the history of democracy because it was the first formal statement of a people announcing their right to choose their own government. That seems so obvious to us now, but in 1776 it was radical and unprecedented.

In 1825, Jefferson wrote that the purpose of the Declaration was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of… but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm… to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

You're not going to do better than the Declaration of Independence. Sure, it worked as a means of breaking away from Great Britain, but its genius is that its principles of equality, inherent rights, and self-government work for all time — as long as we actually know and pursue those principles.

On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House, better known today as Independence Hall. Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies' independence. The “Lee Resolution" was short and sweet:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

Intense debate followed, and the Congress voted 7 to 5 (with New York abstaining) to postpone a vote on Lee's Resolution. They called a recess for three weeks. In the meantime, the delegates felt they needed to explain what they were doing in writing. So, before the recess, they appointed a five-man committee to come up with a formal statement justifying a break with Great Britain. They appointed two men from New England — Roger Sherman and John Adams; two from the middle colonies — Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin; and one Southerner — Thomas Jefferson. The responsibility for writing what would become the Declaration of Independence fell to Jefferson.

In the rotunda of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., there are three original documents on permanent display: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. These are the three pillars of the United States, yet America barely seems to know them anymore. We need to get reacquainted — quickly.

In a letter to his friend John Adams in 1816, Jefferson wrote: “I like the dreams of the future, better than the history of the past."

America used to be a forward-looking nation of dreamers. We still are in spots, but the national attitude that we hear broadcast loudest across media is not looking toward the future with optimism and hope. In late 2017, a national poll found 59% of Americans think we are currently at the “lowest point in our nation's history that they can remember."

America spends far too much time looking to the past for blame and excuse. And let's be honest, even the Right is often more concerned with “owning the left" than helping point anyone toward the practical principles of the Declaration of Independence. America has clearly lost touch with who we are as a nation. We have a national identity crisis.

The Declaration of Independence is America's thesis statement, and without it America doesn't exist.

It is urgent that we get reacquainted with the Declaration of Independence because postmodernism would have us believe that we've evolved beyond the America of our founding documents, and thus they're irrelevant to the present and the future. But the Declaration of Independence is America's thesis statement, and without it America doesn't exist.

Today, much of the nation is so addicted to partisan indignation that "day-to-day" indignation isn't enough to feed the addiction. So, we're reaching into America's past to help us get our fix. In 2016, Democrats in the Louisiana state legislature tabled a bill that would have required fourth through sixth graders to recite the opening lines of the Declaration. They didn't table it because they thought it would be too difficult or too patriotic. They tabled it because the requirement would include the phrase “all men are created equal" and the progressives in the Louisiana legislature didn't want the children to have to recite a lie. Representative Barbara Norton said, “One thing that I do know is, all men are not created equal. When I think back in 1776, July the fourth, African Americans were slaves. And for you to bring a bill to request that our children will recite the Declaration, I think it's a little bit unfair to us. To ask our children to recite something that's not the truth. And for you to ask those children to repeat the Declaration stating that all men's are free. I think that's unfair."

Remarkable — an elected representative saying it wouldn't be fair for students to have to recite the Declaration because “all men are not created equal." Another Louisiana Democrat explained that the government born out of the Declaration “was used against races of people." I guess they missed that part in school where they might have learned that the same government later made slavery illegal and amended the Constitution to guarantee all men equal protection under the law. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were an admission of guilt by the nation regarding slavery, and an effort to right the wrongs.

Yet, the progressive logic goes something like this: many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson who wrote it, owned slaves; slavery is evil; therefore, the Declaration of Independence is not valid because it was created by evil slave owners.

It's a sad reality that the left has a very hard time appreciating the universal merits of the Declaration of Independence because they're so hung up on the long-dead issue of slavery. And just to be clear — because people love to take things out of context — of course slavery was horrible. Yes, it is a total stain on our history. But defending the Declaration of Independence is not an effort to excuse any aspect of slavery.

Okay then, people might say, how could the Founders approve the phrase “All men are created equal," when many of them owned slaves? How did they miss that?

They didn't miss it. In fact, Thomas Jefferson included an anti-slavery passage in his first draft of the Declaration. The paragraph blasted King George for condoning slavery and preventing the American Colonies from passing legislation to ban slavery:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights to life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere... Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

We don't say “execrable" that much anymore. It means, utterly detestable, abominable, abhorrent — basically very bad.

Jefferson was upset when Georgia and North Carolina threw up the biggest resistance to that paragraph. Ultimately, those two states twisted Congress' arm to delete the paragraph.

Still, how could a man calling the slave trade “execrable" be a slaveowner himself? No doubt about it, Jefferson was a flawed human being. He even had slaves from his estate in Virginia attending him while he was in Philadelphia, in the very apartment where he was writing the Declaration.

Many of the Southern Founders deeply believed in the principles of the Declaration yet couldn't bring themselves to upend the basis of their livelihood. By 1806, Virginia law made it more difficult for slave owners to free their slaves, especially if the owner had significant debts as Jefferson did.

At the same time, the Founders were not idiots. They understood the ramifications of signing on to the principles described so eloquently in the Declaration. They understood that logically, slavery would eventually have to be abolished in America because it was unjust, and the words they were committing to paper said as much. Remember, John Adams was on the committee of five that worked on the Declaration and he later said that the Revolution would never be complete until the slaves were free.

Also, the same generation that signed the Declaration started the process of abolition by banning the importation of slaves in 1807. Jefferson was President at the time and he urged Congress to pass the law.

America has an obvious road map that, as a nation, we're not consulting often enough.

The Declaration took a major step toward crippling the institution of slavery. It made the argument for the first time about the fundamental rights of all humans which completely undermined slavery. Planting the seeds to end slavery is not nearly commendable enough for leftist critics, but you can't discount the fact that the seeds were planted. It's like they started an expiration clock for slavery by approving the Declaration. Everything that happened almost a century later to end slavery, and then a century after that with the Civil Rights movement, flowed from the principles voiced in the Declaration.

Ironically for a movement that calls itself progressive, it is obsessed with retrying and judging the past over and over. Progressives consider this a better use of time than actually putting past abuses in the rearview and striving not to be defined by ancestral failures.

It can be very constructive to look to the past, but not when it's used to flog each other in the present. Examining history is useful in providing a road map for the future. And America has an obvious road map that, as a nation, we're not consulting often enough. But it's right there, the original, under glass. The ink is fading, but the words won't die — as long as we continue to discuss them.

'Good Morning Texas' gives exclusive preview of Mercury One museum

Screen shot from Good Morning Texas

Mercury One is holding a special exhibition over the 4th of July weekend, using hundreds of artifacts, documents and augmented reality experiences to showcase the history of slavery — including slavery today — and a path forward. Good Morning Texas reporter Paige McCoy Smith went through the exhibit for an exclusive preview with Mercury One's chief operating officer Michael Little on Tuesday.

Watch the video below to see the full preview.

Click here to purchase tickets to the museum (running from July 4 - 7).

Over the weekend, journalist Andy Ngo and several other apparent right-leaning people were brutally beaten by masked-gangs of Antifa protesters in Portland, Oregon. Short for "antifascist," Antifa claims to be fighting for social justice and tolerance — by forcibly and violently silencing anyone with opposing opinions. Ngo, who was kicked, punched, and sprayed with an unknown substance, is currently still in the hospital with a "brain bleed" as a result of the savage attack. Watch the video to get the details from Glenn.