Designing a new economy without addressing money system or tax system is futile

If you want to design a political economy that works, you actually have to go to the roots. That means the money system the tax system, the welfare system and the governance system. So I was shocked to read the six winning essays in The Next System’s essay competition to discover that so few of them had addressed the money system or the tax system.

It is like an engineering professor setting out to teach students without having a course on materials. “OK just let’s assume everything is built out of this one material. I have no idea what it is but it is just a given. I have no idea of its properties, but honestly, I don’t want to waste my time thinking about them. They are just here and it is what we have to work with. In fact, if I have a mental block when talking about materials. I have an excuse.”

Federal regulators are setting new rules for banks that offer deposit advances.

Yes that is how stupid it is trying to design a new political economy without thinking about money, the very exchange we use for trading between us.

Or it is like a dressmaker always having the same material available and not being in control over whether it stretches, breathes or shrinks. Dumb dressmaker always assumes that the same material in the same colour is the only one we have available.

Yet the design of money can determine our attitudes to scarcity or abundance and our attitudes to spending or hoarding. And when you realise that the money designer is also the one who decides how much will be created it is doubly worrying. What if the creator of credit pushes out a whole lot of credit at one time and then just slows up for a while? Yet this is exactly what the private banks do because then they make the most profit.

What if the creator of money also designs new instruments for gambling in that money? And they can also steer your investments in certain directions because they are investment advisers and stand to gain if you use certain funds? Yet this is what happens.

And how few of them have addressed the tax system. That is like saying to us, “Well we have got a tax system and honestly I can’t do anything about that. It just is. Well I do know you have to tax the rich more and I assume that means you will put up their income tax.”

Yes it is about as stupid as that. Thomas Piketty warned us to look at the tax system and said how critical it was. I have a quote from him in my book.

The winning essay in the open section mentions money once and tax once.

Three Distinct Crises now Point to the Urgent Need for a New Economic System

Link

The current economic system, where money is created as interest bearing debt by banks, is coming to the end of its useful life. Three distinct movements all tell us this – those concerned about climate change, those concerned about global declining economic growth (the ones who understand its connection with peak oil), and those who know that rising private debt is dangerous and sure to end in tears.

1. The Demand for Economic Growth means Climate Change is not tackled properly.

In 1972 the world’s first whole-country environmental party, the New Zealand Values Party, questioned whether economic growth was making us better and happier. Economist Richard Douthwaite in his book The Growth Illusion wrote about the need for economic growth to be at least as high as the interest rate banks charged on money. Charles Eisenstein eloquently outlined the way the growth imperative financialises and thus depletes both our natural and our social capital. “The financial crisis we are facing today arises from the fact that there is almost no more social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital left to convert into money.” 

The politics of climate change has highlighted the unfortunate situation where, given the choice between doing something meaningful about climate change and championing economic growth, governments will always opt for the latter and claim it is a matter of “balance”. The need for economic growth always trumps the need for climate action. As a result, according to the former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres we now only have three more years to turn around emissions or we will not reach the targets of the Paris Climate Accord. Carbon dioxide levels are flat at the moment, but an unprecedented effort is needed from all parties in the next three years.

Naomi Klein in her ground breaking book This Changes Everything says:

“Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” 

2. We have reached peak efficiency in getting energy from using energy

We seem to have forgotten peak oil issues. Globally conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and unconventional oil peaked in 2015. But peak oil didn’t play out as we expected. We had omitted to factor in debt; because they had to spend more energy to get energy, fossil fuel firms had to go into debt and this kept growing. Two authors worth reading on this topic are Nafeez Ahmed and actuary Gail Tverberg. The former writes articles like this. It says we need a new economic system because we can no longer get the required economic growth. This is because the energy return on energy invested (EROI) has been on the decline since the 1940s. We used to get 50 times the amount of energy out of using 1 barrel full of oil to extract it. We now get only about 15 times that amount. This number will continue to decline. And it’s the same for gas and for coal. The decline is irreversible. The consequences for the global economy are profound and widespread.

Because we need more and more energy to keep the system going, less is left for the real economy. Tverberg carefully concludes that declining productivity growth is a result and also stagnant wages. Ahmed says James D Ward of South Australia argues that, although it was widely believed we could, GDP growth cannot really be decoupled from environmental impacts. Ward says what has happened is that we have financialised the GDP through the creation of new debt without increasing material or energy throughput. (That was done by Quantitative Easing. CNBC said it was a total of $12 trillion, and you can expect that to have a huge effect on the global economy. It did.) He also notes growing inequality of income and wealth. He demonstrates that GDP cannot be sustained indefinitely.

As far as growing inequality of wealth is concerned, Ward hasn’t yet spelt out that this is caused when we have a huge blowout of credit from QE at the same time as we fail to collect the land rent on rising land prices. The huge asset bubble created by QE has blown up house prices and the sharemarket. With a tax system that fails to tax assets (or at least land and natural resources) the wealth gap continues to rise.

Those without access to land and natural resources and natural monopolies fall into poverty and homelessness. Add the fact that wages remain low, jobs precarious and a punitive benefit system, many are in abject poverty.

All these factors combine for political instability resulting in the election of Trump and in Brexit. The growing section of population with casual work or precarious work are called the Precariat. Those with low wages with house buying beyond their wildest dreams are desperate. During elections they will now be clutching at straws, as there seems no hope for progress.

So we are now getting scholars who understand the fossil fuel energy issue and its effect on global growth saying we need a new economic model. This is new.

3. The third movement is those who know about the consequences of creating money as interest bearing debt. It produces instability as outlined by economists who follow the late Hyman Minsky.  The Minsky moment is the point at which excess private debt sparks a financial crisis. Minsky said that such moments arise naturally when a long period of stability and complacency eventually leads to the build up of excess private debt and overleveraging. At some point the system collapses and it can happen quickly.

Followers of the new economics movement are generally aware that there has to be a big system change and have been saying this for decades now. However with the demand coming from three different directions, it is  just a guess as to which will prevail. Maybe with the rise of the basic income movement something may change. Those who recognise the irony of politicians who turn a blind eye to $12 trillion dollars appearing from nowhere to rescue banks yet say we can't afford a basic income will push this thing forward. Maybe environmentalists will stick to their environmentalism and monetary reformers will continue on recommending the same thing decade after decade while the planet burns and fascism threatens. . 

Summary

The New Economics Movement people who met between 2011 and 2015 to discuss a new economic system have produced ideas. These are crystallised to the best of my ability in my book The Big Shift: Rethinking Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System whose website is deirdrekent.com It can be bought here

No Bill, it is not the environmentalists who push up price of land

This week we had the extraordinary spectacle of the Prime Minister of New Zealand addressing his party Blue-Greens, claim that environmentalists push up the price of land.

OK he is getting at the over-bureuacratic interference in the planning process and cites examples of councils wanting to know about furniture layouts and positioning of plants before they grant a permit.

Pull the other leg Bill. We are not going to accept that one. Sure they are intrusive, but that can be solved. Probably councils are desperate for revenue and central government gets far too much of the public revenue.

No Bill, land only has value because of community activity. You don't put a factory out in the wop-wops where there is no electricity, no internet, no sewerage or water supply, let alone the transport to get the goods out. You put it where it is near to all the infrastructure, suppliers and markets. You site it near rail, near ports. It is all the government expenditure on infrastructure, and all the businesses and community that makes a certain site desirable. Land which is well serviced has more value than land which is isolated and poorly served.









The value of land is increased by five things:

1. Infrastructure provided by government – rail, roads, schools, hospitals
2. Infrastructure provided by local government – water, storm water, sewerage, streets, lighting, parks, community halls, street enhancement.
3. Businesses and industry – manufacturers, maintenance, retail, warehousing, commercial centres
4. Community organisations and individual housing – clubs, organisations, neighbours.
5. Nature – proximity to rivers, seas, views, good soil, good weather

Given that Auckland has all these, and you have seen immigration as a way of increasing the GDP, making government look good, it is no wonder Auckland prices have been rising for so long. Then again, the international trend to very low interest rates has been a huge factor (not something you can take credit for Bill though you try I know).

And all this before the big one – the fact that the tax system favours buying houses for investment as those who own 2, 5, 20 houses have much to gain and precious little tax to pay. That is on your plate Bill, don't dodge it. The Green Party tries to recoup a small proportion of the capital gains for the public purse and the Opportunities Party collects it all, but you only collect a miniscule amount of this unearned income. Shame on you. And double shame for then turning round and blaming environmentalists. Get real.

So Bill, if you want to blame bureaucracy or environmentalists demanding good tree planting, please see it in the full context of what actually raises the price of land.

Summarising our whole system shift for a new economy

Designing a new economy has major challenges politically. We want two major changes that actually aren't politically realistic in the current world where eight individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 50%. There is too much concentrated power.

If we want monetary reform it is unavailable at national level because there are simply too many bank lobbyists in the world's capitals who are spending far too much for any public interest lobbyists to match. Then again, if we want to replace

Then again, if we want to replace income tax with land tax, forget it. Not a goer either from a practical political viewpoint. No self respecting politician will touch it if taxing land reduces its market value and threatens a politician's votes.

What about getting a Basic Income and replacing the intrusive welfare system? Well that depends on how you would fund it. The problem is most of the current solutions are a drag on the economy. You must not fund it from GST which is regressive or from income tax which is a drag on the economy.You must fund it by sharing the rent on land and other monopolies.

Well where do we go then? You have painted a dismal picture.

Most respond by saying "Oh well bring A or B in gradually". That takes ages and moreover when A is implemented it affects B and C. So the idea of just imposing a 1% land tax and bringing it up gradually is quite impractical. We have to think in terms of whole systems. It is a whole system shift we need. Redesign the political economy from scratch.

The fact of the matter is that we must be politically savvy to come up with a solution. Many economists might agree that land tax is the most logical tax, but unless they are standing for office, they don't have to face the public. It is one thing to be an economist and another to be a politician. Victoria University's 2010 Tax Working Group which was stacked with economists from many government departments as well as consultants and academics, proposed a land tax. Did the government listen? Not that I can recall. I don't remember their recommendations on land tax being discussed in the public arena for more than a day.

What about Positive Money and all its followers saying that money should be spent into existence not lent into existence? They make a very good case, you can't fault it. And yes, the British Parliament took it seriously enough to have a parliamentary debate. But do you believe it will go further? You only have to read Nomi Prins book 'All the Presidents Bankers' to get an idea how close presidents have been to the big bankers for over a century. Hilary Clinton's campaign was funded by investment bankers and Trump has six Goldman Sachs bankers in his cabinet. He has already moved to get rid of the weak regulations they now have.

When considering the political feasibility of putting in the idea of Michael Kumhof and Jaromir Benes' Chicago Plan Revisited, a plan making bank debt illegal, Lietaer, Arnsperger, Goerner and Brunnhuber listed five reasons for not recommending it.[1]
"1.Replacing a monoculture with a monoculture is not the way to generate diversity in exchange media.
2. While it is true that a Chicago Plan reform would eliminate risk of widespread banking crashes and of sovereign debt crises, there would still be monetary crises.
3. If governments were the only ones in charge of creating money there might be a risk of inflation. Such a risk is real and demonstrated in 2009 by the hyperinflation crippling the Zimbabwean dollar after President Mugabe instructed the central bank to print its currency by the trillions.
4. The fourth reason can be summarised as ‘political realism’. Any version of the Chicago Plan will be fought to the death by the banking systems because it threatens both its power base and its business model. Even after the excesses triggering the 2007-8 collapse, or in the middle of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the banking lobby managed to deflect the implementation of any significant changes. In 2010, for every elected official in Washington, there were three high-level lobbyists working full-time for the banking system. The financial services industry including real estate spent $2.3 billion on Federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than health care, energy, defence, agriculture and transportation industries combined." (In USA, according to Gar Alperovitz, in 2010-11 the FIRE section (finance, insurance, real estate) section spent nearly $1 billion in lobbying against bank regulation.)

"5. The final argument is about risk. Nationalising the money creation process cannot be done on a small pilot scale. It must be implemented on a massive, national scale or, in the case of the euro, a multinational scale. Any change always involves the risk of unintended consequences. Logically, large scale change involves greater risk."

Yes, there is a way to go. The ideas came from the permaculture teachers in our new economics movement. Reform the very structure of governance to give quite substantial powers to  local government, turn governance upside down as well and then we might have a chance. The centralised governance structure must be replaced with distributed governance. Then we need to rethink the powers given to or claimed by local governance. In fact central government is not going to give very local government big powers like money creation, land ownership or revenue raising power, so they have to claim it themselves. This is where rebellion must be focussed. 

So we have proposed spending money into existence at the very lowest level of government (in New Zealand that would be the Community Board). That money will gradually buy up land. The Community Board would then receive land rent from the property holder and pay the rates (local taxes) of that property holder. This process happens gradually, while closely monitoring inflation. If there is a sign of inflation, the rate of decay of money can be adjusted or the money spent at a higher level of governance.

So the Community Board claims the right to issue money, to buy land with that money, to receive public revenue. It could also impose certain resource rents to be determined.

With the growing revenue from land rent the Board would be able to distribute regular Citizens Dividends and build and maintain essential infrastructure.

There would have to be participatory budgeting so that the balance between infrastructure and dividends was maintained and the public was behind the Board.

Now if we are going to reclaim the right to issue money, we might as well design it properly while we have the chance. It is there we look to history and read Bernard Lietaer. He cites a period of 2000 years of a decaying Egyptian currency which had huge social, educational and economic benefits, 200 years of European currencies in the central middle ages that resulted in an age of prosperity, equality, high education and more leisure and finally a period in 1932-3 in a small Austrian town during the Great Depression. Each of these had a decaying currency, much as goods decay.

So the new money would be designed to decay. In practical terms, it would keep its face value but attract a regular payment to keep it valid. The local Board would develop a more equal relationship with its local Council who would inevitably end up accepting the new currency for rates. This would eventually pass on to central government who would have to accept it for taxes.

So what we propose is a new currency that soon is accepted by central government for taxes. This means it is a new national currency. They way this works out is that each local board keeps its currency from inflation so all are on a par. They flow into a stream that flows into a river towards central government.

A letter to my family on peak oil and the global economy

Tim turned 16 the other day. By the time Tim is 30 the world will be producing only half the oil it is producing now and when he is 40 it will be producing less than a third.

Since I found out about peak oil in 2004 I have bothered you with my dire predictions. I know we got the timing wrong, and I know we have subsequently found shale oil and the global economy has continued on a business as usual path. You think I was wrong, do you?

Well here we are at 2017 and the article I have just read several times explains why the timing was wrong. We didn’t allow for fracking and we didn’t factor in the financing of oil. But now we are stuck. You tell me where the Nafeez Ahmed article falters. He quotes from an HSBC report and that is the sixth to biggest bank in the world. The HSBC article quotes from the International Energy Agency and from a Swedish University’s energy programme. Ahmed quotes further from a recent Cornell University paper which in turn quotes a paper from the Italy’s premier agency for government research.

I know very few of you will want to read the Ahmed paper. After all it is holiday season and we all have books to read, swimming to enjoy, bike rides and tramps to accomplish and screens to attend to.

So let me summarise this paper a little, adding an odd bit for explanatory reasons:

Conventional oil peaked in 2005. Unconventional oil (shale oil, deep sea oil) peaked in March 2015. Oil is the most dense energy form human beings have ever found and nothing has yet replaced it. Consequently it is closely correlated with economic growth and population growth. The current economic system requires constant economic growth. Oil has fuelled the growth in global wealth.

Ten years ago some of you replied, “Don’t worry, we will find something”. Oh yes we found fracking, and China went back to coal. But we also had already found debt instruments. If you don’t understand what these are you are in good company. Not even the heads of hedge funds or big banks know what strange derivatives (bets) are being invented by their traders sometimes. Ahmed says simply “the world is borrowing from the future to sustain our present consumption levels”. I know the shale oil companies were largely funded not from banks but from selling bonds. Ordinary people bought company bonds and got paid very high interest rates. The interest rates have risen so high that many shale companies are going broke paying them.

As oil exploration is yielding fewer and smaller fields and the oil is getting deeper and more expensive to extract, the oil companies abandon uneconomic fields. This happened around New Zealand and we attributed it largely to the actions of Greenpeace. But it was more than that. It costs them too much to extract it. Oil prices have recently climbed to just over $50 a barrel and companies need about $60 to break even. So they borrow. The trouble is this debt doesn’t produce real wealth.

Remember back in 2008 just before the Global Financial Crisis we had soaring oil prices? Oil went to $150 a barrel. Since nearly all goods are transported and the transport cost went up there was less money left for the rest of the economy. So we had a huge recession. So if oil prices are too high we get a recessionary effect that destabilises the global debt bubble. That debt is now higher than the pre-2008 crisis. If oil prices are too low we get too much debt which brings with it huge bank risks.

The economy can’t grow without oil. So we are stuck. The article says “the economy can quite literally never recover unless it transitions to a truly viable new energy source which can substitute for oil.”

Ahmed won’t of course have read my essay that I just submitted to the Next System Project essay competition where I propose an entirely new way of constructing a political economy so that we are not dependent on oil or on money as debt. (More of this later, I have just entered it into their international competition)

Ahmed says that because on 1 Jan 2018 there are new regulations coming into force in the finance industry, there will be a massive collapse shortly after that. He called it in 2008 and he is calling it now.

So while you are reading soothing headlines about how the economy is ‘in recovery’ or angsting over Donald Trump’s appointment of Exxon Mobil chief as Secretary of State or yet another climate change denier to a key position, think about your preparation for next year. The economy can't recover, given its present structure and its geophysical limitations. Where will you get your food? Cash? Petrol? Will your local authority be able to maintain a good supply of drinkable water or a sewerage system if they are in increasing debt? What about power?

Now there will be those who say this is wonderful for climate change. Yes it may be the only thing that makes our planet habitable. But it is an awful way for billions of us to learn. Actually the people who will be best off will be those who are already scraping a subsistence living. But that is another matter.

If only half the today’s global oil supply is available to Tim when he is 30, what is the future for your grandchildren? Or your old age? Can you devote an hour of your precious time to getting a handle on the reality of all this? We are so privileged in New Zealand and have had it so good for so long. I have missed out on a share price boom I know. Yes I got the timing wrong. Yes I have been a doomster. But please think for yourself now. You are educated, you probably have unlimited data for your computer, use it. Plan now for a massive, tightly interconnected, global financial collapse now. You might have a year.

The Precariat , Trump and cheap-to-extract Energy

When job figures in the US came out in early November 2016 the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent and hardly anyone worried. For economists a 5% unemployment rate is a really good figure. But remember the new definition of who is employed? Employment in most developed nations these days is "at least one hour of work done in the past week by a person aged 16 or older". So the "employed" includes all those who lack job security, and those with intermittent employment or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence.

This is what the Democrats missed. There is many a commentator who has observed that the urban privileged are completely out of touch with those who experience the worry of a day to day precarious existence, always uncertain whether they can pay their bills. This is the precariat. Professor Guy Standing, in a book published well before Brexit and Trump's election warned that the rapid growth of the precariat is producing instabilities in society. He warns it is a dangerous class because it is internally divided, leading to the villainisation of migrants and other vulnerable groups. And, lacking agency, its members may be susceptible to the siren calls of political extremism.

Something familiar there? While they might not call it the precariat, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage all appeal to this group. So while the question is legitimate, the solutions of Trump and Farage are wrong, wrong, wrong.

The tragedy is that just as politicians miss the precariat, economists miss energy. And strangely they are related. Here is how:

Oil is a remarkably dense energy source with one barrel of oil supplanting eleven years of human labour. Graph its use with the rise in GDP and they are in complete lockstep. The economy as it is currently structured is utterly dependent on growing supplies of cheap to extract energy. Only a fool would deny it is extremely unwise to build an economic system that relies on ever growing expansion in oil supply. In real terms energy supply is already on the decline due to the expanding internal energy requirements of the oil industry.

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The cost of oil exploration and extraction is rising and with it debt

Actuary Gail Tverberg writes that peak oil didn’t play out as expected because we didn’t factor in the financing of the oil industry. As the cheap-to-extract oil ran low, the cost of extracting non-conventional oil grew higher. This meant the firms had to go into more debt in the form of bank debt, bonds and derivatives. Eventually the debt overwhelms the oil companies and the layoffs begin. In order to pay interest on all their debt, indebted firms have had to keep wages low. The same happens for all firms that extract commodities, because they all require cheap-to-extract energy. The last step is that these low wages reduce the general demand for goods.

Nicole Foss points out that if demand collapses, the money supply declines and a deflationary spiral begins that few notice. 18 months after the decline in oil prices started, by February 2016 Bloomberg Business reported there had been 250,000 oil jobs lost and apparently each of these jobs supports over three basic wage jobs.

Tverberg says, "Why is the price of oil so low now? In fact, why are all commodity prices so low? I see the problem as being an affordability issue that has been hidden by a growing debt bubble. As this debt bubble has expanded, it has kept the sales prices of commodities up with the cost of extraction, even though wages have not been rising as fast as commodity prices since about the year 2000. Now many countries are cutting back on the rate of debt growth because debt/GDP ratios are becoming unreasonably high, and because the productivity of additional debt is falling."

So the drop in oil prices leads us to an underlying problem. The world is reaching the limit of its debt expansion. This is what is called Debt Deflation.

So even though we are living in a time of energy constraints, our blinkers don't allow us to see that. Risk analyst David Korowicz wryly observes,"The irony is that people may rarely notice they are living under energy constraints. Energy retraction from the global economy can be achieved by production declines or collapses in demand, though as we have seen, they are deeply inter-related. We may experience energy use collapse not as an energy constraint, but as a systemic banking collapse and vanished purchasing power."

So here is the source of the vanished purchasing power of the precariat. In a post election blog energy analyst Richard Heinberg observes that the problems won't go away when Trump is elected. In the face of the door being closed to national action on climate change, build community resilience is his message. "The most promising responses to our twenty-first century crises are showing up at the community level anyway. It’s in towns and cities across the nation, and across the world, where practical people are being forced to grapple with weird weather, rising seas, an unstable economy, and a fraying national political fabric."

None of these arguments will be known to the incoming president, though some advisors may try to educate him.Good luck to them. He is an anti-science president. If he slaps tarriffs on as he has promised, purchasing power will decline still further and accelerate the already active deflationary spiral.

trump-digs-coal

Trump's attitude to women seems the same as his attitude to the environment – if it's there, it is there for my use. Coal stocks soared on his election and renewables dropped. However, oil stocks didn't rise much, possibly a sign that reality of constraints are already priced into the market. 

An interesting question with Trump is how committed he actually is to his own ideas, from the potentially sensible to the crazy.   He is a “top of the head” sort of a guy, who changes position and contradicts himself on exposure to new things (or simply because he finds himself in a new context). Is the Presidency just a vanity project for him, in which he will blow with any policy wind he encounters? His victory speech, and his abandonment of the “Lock her up” approach, suggested that.

At the worst, if his “vision” as expressed during the campaign carries through, the US (and to a lesser extent the world) are in for an appalling time – racist, misogynist, anti-environment, pro-individualist, pro-violence and so on. And if the Republican Party as a whole gets the bit between its teeth, the US Government will be gutted and corporates will simply finish their take over. At the best, there’s no doubt he has created more space for these sorts of behaviours at the fringes in the short term. In between, as seems more likely, the direction as a whole will probably be negative, but it’ll be muddled and maybe not so fast moving.

There are a few bright spots, less likelihood of a war with Russia and above all, an increased energy and commitment of climate change activists. Our lives depend on it. He has focussed our minds. There is no spare planet. Somehow we must find a way.

Adapting to Geophysical Reality

No species survives unless it is good at adapting to its environment. And environments can change very fast. This article addresses the adaptations we must make to a rapidly warming world, to living with a low carbon economy and to major collapse of the global economy.

Getting to a low fossil fuel economy fast
climate_0Climate change has been humanity’s wake up call. Energy is at the heart of everything we do. For centuries we have used the energy of the sun in one form or another. It was only when we discovered oil, a form of stored sunlight compacted for millions of years, that economic growth really took off.

How dense is oil? Richard Heinberg explains that to push your car for 30 miles would take 6-8 weeks of hard labour, but you can put a gallon of petrol in your car and get there quickly for a few dollars .

We use fossil fuel energy not just to power our cars and tractors, but power our assembly lines, make our cement, plastic, pharmaceuticals and paints. As the low hanging fruit becomes exhausted, the cost of digging out fossil fuels rises and the unconventional oil, gas and coal is of not such high quality. Despite the financial challenges, oil companies continue to forecast increases in extraction.

When climate scientist Bill McKibben first wrote in 1989 on the coming climate challenge, he didn’t foresee the pace of change. He continues to be astonished at the rapidity of loss of Arctic ice, increasingly devastation cyclones and other extreme weather events. In a talk to the Oberlin College and Conservatory conference in Ohio, After Fossil Fuels: the Next Economy, he said we now have a very limited timeframe.

Founder of the Carbon Tracker, Mark Campanale, reminded listeners that economist Nicholas Stern had estimated that to get to two degrees of warming the world needed to spend $90 trillion in infrastructure for a low carbon economy. Campanale had calculated that there is only a 50% chance of getting there in the time estimated by major governments signing the Paris Agreement using their scenarios. There is so much unburnable carbon in the reserves of oil, gas and coal companies, that even if there was no further digging or mining activity than there is now, we would still overshoot the 2 degrees.

To put this $90 trillion in investment needed in perspective, the world GDP is $70 trillion and the total value of the stock of all the companies in the world is only $60 trillion. Campanale, a sustainable investment analyst, noted that some investors are saying it will all blow over and it is cyclical. So they keep their shares in fossil fuel companies until this happens. All the oil companies and OPEC forecast continual growth of fossil fuel extraction.

Two weeks before this conference Bill McKibben had post an article Recalculating the Climate Math, in which he wrote that scientists now think that 2 degrees is too much; moreover, the amount of fossil fuels in the currently operating plants worldwide would actually bring us above 2 degrees. So the amount of CO2 we can burn has to be reduced from 943 to 800 gigatons. And if we are going to get to 1.5 degrees, a goal set in Paris, we will need to close all the coal mines and some of the gas fields we're currency operating long before they are exhausted. He finishes by saying ‘And if we don’t get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail.’

And as for living with less oil, gas and coal, that is huge too. There are so many challenges, from how to power industrial machinery to how to transition from kerosene as aviation fuel, it hardly bears thinking about. There is no doubt however that we will have to grow our food more locally, to travel less and to have more localised economies. The permaculture movement can teach us how to build houses with less cement. There will be stranded assets like oil tankers and bankruptcies galore in the huge fossil fuel industry, let alone the huge losses on high-risk energy bonds in the fracking industry.

All the more reason why we have to think up the new economic system fast. Innovation to transition to a low carbon economy can only happen if investment is directed there and new companies have no deadweight taxes, only resource taxes.

We also need to adapt to an economy that will collapse.
Actuary Gail Tverberg, who through the years has predicted many changes that have come to pass, says the global economy can’t grow fast because the cheap-to-extract energy is depleting. She describes a situation where growth is slowing, global trade isn’t growing and central bankers can’t solve it even with historically low interest rates. More energy is needed now to extract energy, it takes energy to make and transport goods, and it takes an increasing amount of energy to create a growing amount of goods and services. Less cheap to extract energy produces less productivity growth and this translates into stagnant wages which no longer allow non elite workers to buy big ticket items like cars and houses. So the economy declines further.

She maintains this means commodity prices can’t hold up, so producing them eventually becomes uneconomical. And we are on a downward spiral. ‘This situation could lead to catastrophe because metals, agriculture and energy are all essential to the economy’. The rate of return on investment falls, new debt goes into buying assets and eventually, when commodity prices fall, asset prices fall. The price of agricultural land will fall. This leads to debt defaults and bank failures, affecting banks, insurance companies and pension plans. The lack of new loans will depress demand further. She predicts oil may fall below $20 a barrel.

Most investors and financial advisors are unaware that the price of commodities (in New Zealand it has largely been about the price of whole milk powder) is cyclical so it will turn around. But they haven’t factored in energy.

At the end of this long article in October, 2016 she concludes there is no way out of the problem over the long term. We will have reached our ‘Minsky Moment’.

Adapting to sudden financial collapse will be humanity’s biggest challenge.

Continuing War
1024_wepost3While most societies have lived with war, we now have the added factor that there is a scramble for the last remaining fossil fuel reserves. Investigative journalist and international security scholar Nafeez Ahmed has explained the conflict in Syria in those terms, saying that there is competition for the offshore oil and natural gas reserves between the world’s biggest oil companies and that is why they court Assad. When civil war broke out the plans of Shell and oil majors were unexpectedly suspended. When it is resolved they will be able to continue. American firm, Genie Oil and Gas has been granted exploration rights in the Golan Heights. Among Genie’s board members are Rupert Murdoch, Larry Summers, Dick Cheney.

American Shale Oil, a subsidiary of Genie candidly admits on its website: ‘The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an enormous challenge, Aggressive action must be taken to avoid unprecedented economic, social and political costs.’

In addition there are two proposed gas pipelines to get gas for Europe that are on hold. One is from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Europe. This was signed by Assad and backed by Russia. The other is from Qatar’s North Field through Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.

A Russian oil and gas company began oil prospecting operations in September 2015, the same area scoped by French firm CGGVeritas.