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How will the Economy Fare if High Oil Prices Continue

We know high oil prices have an adverse impact on the economy, often leading to recession. According to Economist James Hamilton, 10 out of 11 of US recessions since World War II have been associated with oil price spikes. But where do continuing high oil prices lead us? How will economic contraction “play out,” if tight oil supply and high oil prices continue?

Wooden Structure built with blocks
Figure 1. Structure built with blocks. Our economy is also built piece by piece, based on the rules and prices that are in effect when individual decisions are made.

Clearly there are many possible ways forward. Using Figure 1 as an analogy, there is the theoretical possibility of continuing to build our economy to ever-higher heights, as we are told by economists and politicians, despite the obstacle of high oil prices. There is the possibility of taking down parts of the economy, and rebuilding in a more fuel-efficient manner. There is also the theoretical possibility of eliminating unneeded parts of the economic structure we have built to date, so that the structure is more compact. And, unfortunately, there is also the possibility that a major portion of what we have built to date will inadvertently be knocked down, as constricted oil supply makes its effects known.

Before discussing what paths may lie ahead, I would like to talk about how contraction of an economy differs from continued expansion.

Economic Expansion vs. Economic Contraction

It is easy to assume that economic contraction is similar to economic expansion, just with the sign reversed, but anyone who has lived through the last few years knows that this is not the case.

For example, on the way up, it appears that the size of the current economic system easily “scales” upward, as the economy grows. The number of available workers gradually rises, as does the number of job openings, and the amount of goods and services produced. Everything rises together, and the system “works”.

On the way down, there is a good deal more “stickiness” to the system. There are now seven billion people on the planet, and they all would like to eat on a regular basis. There are perhaps two-thirds as many potential workers, and most of them would like to have jobs, even if the economy is contracting, and their particular job is disappearing.

Another issue is that we have built millions of miles of electrical transmission, oil and gas pipelines, water and sewer pipelines, and roads. It becomes difficult to abandon parts of these systems, even if total resources for maintaining the system are constricted. If we think of the situation in terms of tax dollars (or charges by utility companies), it becomes increasingly difficult to collect enough tax dollars (or utility charges) to pay for the inflated cost of replacing worn out roads, pipelines, and electrical transmission, as the rising price of oil makes these costs rise much more rapidly than salaries.

Repaying loans
Figure 2. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Another issue is debt repayment (Figure 2). We are used to an ever-expanding economy, where future goods and services produced will always be greater than those produced this year. As long as this growth pattern persists, our system of long-term financing of major expenditures, even if the expenditures are not really income producing, can continue. For example, we are able to buy homes with 20 or 30 year loans, and governments are able to continue borrowing, claiming that they will have more funds to repay loans (with interest) in the future. Once the situation changes to a shrinking economy, it becomes much more difficult to repay loans, and the financial system quickly reaches the risk of collapsing, due to multiple debt defaults.

A related issue is that of financing a new or expanding company. If the economy continues to grow, investment in a new company is likely to make sense because the value of the company can be expected to grow as the demand for products of the type it sells continues to grow. But if it becomes clear that the economy is on a path of long-term contraction, the possibility of failure within a few years rises, so new investment makes much less sense.

Where may continued high oil prices lead?

1. Widespread loan defaults, leading to far less international trade and the manufacture of fewer high-tech goods.

This is my personal view as to a likely outcome of continued high oil prices, unless some approach is developed that will somehow allow economic growth to continue, despite limited oil supply and high oil prices. Renewables at this point are higher priced, and not helpful in this regard.

In this situation, widespread loan defaults would lead to impaired credit availability and difficulty in arranging international trade. Individual countries would presumably continue to issue their own currency, so local trade would continue. In the new environment, countries with debt default problems, such as Greece, would likely have difficulty buying oil (and other scarce goods) without something (besides Drachma) to trade in return.

With limited international trade, there would likely be disruptions to oil and gas extraction, since workers and equipment are traded internationally today. At some point, it may be difficult to make high-tech goods like computers, because of the difficulty in assembling the many inputs from sources around the world.

Political disruptions would seem to be likely as well. Some countries may even see civil war. Some countries may even break into smaller units, similar to the way the Soviet Union did in 1991.

The timing is not clear, but disruption could come as soon as the next few months. The current problems with debt defaults in Europe would seem to have the possibility of spreading to banks and other financial institutions around the world.

We don’t know how much of the system such a contraction would pull down. It seems to me that in the analogy of Figure 1, some vulnerable sections (like Greece) could be pulled down first, with others falling later. Bailouts may help temporarily, but at some point, the bailouts are likely to fail as well, because the underlying problem of restricted oil supply has not been fixed.

2. Planned contraction, with certain parts of the economy left behind.

In this approach, particular unneeded segments of the economy would be discarded. For example, President Obama is planning military cuts. President Obama is also talking about merging agencies and eliminating the Commerce Department.

In a shrinking economy, changes of these types are certainly needed. The problem is that the amount of shrinkage that is being proposed is far too small to have much impact.

Another type of contraction that has been suggested relates to expenditures which seem unnecessary. For example, the US medical care system could be scaled back, because healthcare expenditures in the US accounted for 17.6% of GDP in 2009, far more than for other developed nations. Another area which might be scaled back is animal production on industrialized farms, since corn-fed animals are not good for health, and since the huge amount of meat we eat contributes to global warming. These are just two examples; each of us could name favorite boondoggles to eliminate.

The problem is trying to get agreement on any kind of contraction, such as these. Our current system is the only one most of us have ever known. Most people are not aware of our need for change, and would resist changing what appears to be working at least somewhat well. Employees in the current systems would certainly be unhappy, because they would stand a chance of losing their jobs.

If changes such as these could be made, it would be one way of contracting the current system, hopefully without crashing it.

3. Contraction away from the poles and other areas with bad climactic conditions.

This appears to be a natural approach to contraction.

It takes more fuel to heat homes near the poles. Homes also have to be built more substantially. If we look back at the historical record, populations have tended to be highest in warm climates–India, fairly warm areas in China, and the Middle East. According to scholar Angus Maddison, about 75% of the world’s population lived in these areas in the year 0 AD, and even in 2008, 68% of the world’s population lived in Asia. Northern countries of Europe and America have tended to have lower populations, but higher average real GDP (fueled by fossil fuels).

This past week, newspapers discussed Nome, Alaska’s fuel shortage. They reported that a Russian fuel tanker was being used to deliver additional oil. If oil prices stay high, we will have an increasingly difficult time supporting populations that disproportionately need oil, such as those in very cold areas.

High oil prices may also limit the amount of infrastructure repairs that can be done. If this happens, decisions will need to be made regarding which roads not to repave and which electric transmission lines not to maintain. I would expect that infrastructure that serves the fewest people would be most likely to be subject to cutbacks.  These areas are likely to be in areas that are unattractive for settlement because they are very cold or very dry.

4. A transition back to “old” renewables

In my view, there are two kinds of renewables:

(1) Old renewables, like wood, and small wind and water power that can be replenished with local materials. This category would probably also include draft animals. It would also include solar thermal water heaters, similar to hot water bottles that can be left out in the sun to heat water, since they can be made simply with recycled materials.

(2) New renewables, like electricity from large industrially produced wind turbines, solar electric, and large hydro-electric dams, that require modern technology for building and repairs. Electric cars might also be in this category.

In this section, I am discussing the first of these categories, Old Renewables. One concern is that at some point, perhaps many years from now, today’s whole economic structure will collapse (Figure 1). How this would play out is unknown. Perhaps we could continue to reuse parts of our current system. If not (for example, if difficulties with international trade greatly reduce access to fossil fuels), we may be faced with creating a new economy, based primarily on “old renewables”.

The problem with this outcome is that old renewables are quite limited in their quantity. The world could not possibly support seven billion people. McEvedy and Jones, in Atlas of World Population History, estimate that if human population followed the population patterns of similar animals (gorillas and chimpanzees), world human population would be somewhere in the range of 70,000 and 1,000,000. This was the approximate probable initial human population, about 200,000 years ago.

Human population gradually grew, reflecting mankind’s ability to appropriate resources for its use beyond what its normal role in the ecosystem would allow.  McEvedy and Jones estimate that human populations grew to 1.7 million by 100,000 BC and to 4.0 million by 10,000 BC. Over time, humans gradually increased their ability to operate outside ecosystem boundaries, killing off other species, domesticating animals, and using resources such as water power, wind power, and burning wood and peat. Total world population grew as follows, according to Angus Maddison:

1 AD – 225,820,000

1000 AD – 267,000,000

1500 AD – 438,428,000

1820 AD – 1,041,708,000

How far back population would fall in the case of collapse is not at all certain. As long as humans keep their ability to appropriate resources that might theoretically be shared by other species, their numbers will remain high. This propensity, however, is what leads to the tendency toward renewed growth, and new pressure on resource availability.

5. A transition to “new” renewables

Some people are hoping for a transition to new renewables–”unbuilding” the fossil fuel structure that we have, and trying to build a new one based on renewables instead. This approach may be appropriate for some wealthy individuals, but it is not clear that it has significant feasibility for society as a whole, because the cost of most new renewables is higher than that of the fuels they replace, making the high oil price problem worse, not better. If new renewables drop in price, this situation may change.

The extent of today’s new renewables is less than many people understand. In the United States, renewable energy (including hydroelectric, biofuels, wood burned as fuel, geothermal, wind, and solar) amounted to 5.4% of total energy consumed in 2010, according to BP energy statistics. If we lived on today’s renewables alone, our per capita energy consumption would be roughly equivalent to that of India. India generally does not need fuel for heating, while we in the United States do. Taking into account the differing fuel needs, the average US citizen living on renewables alone would be somewhat worse off than today’s citizen of India.

The other issue that people tend not to be aware of is that new renewables, as they are built and used today, are very much part of the fossil fuel system. They are built using fossil fuels, and they are maintained using fossil fuels. Except for biofuels, they depend on electric transmission lines, and these need to maintained with fossil fuels as well. Furthermore, if we are to maintain electric transmission lines, we need oil to maintain the roads that lead to the lines.

We probably also need international trade to maintain new renewables, because replacement parts use minerals from many parts of the world, and depend on the availability of computerized systems to support production. If financial problems disrupt international trade, we may find that our “renewable” systems degrade quite quickly, because we are not able to maintain them properly.
Nevertheless, there is a possibility that new renewables will soften the economic fall for those who have access to them, especially if issues of repairs can be kept at a minimum. Because of this, new renewables such as solar PV remain a popular choice among people who are concerned about continued economic contraction.

6. The “Just Use Less” approach

If oil prices remain high, this view suggests that finding ways to use less should be our primary response oil limits. For example, responses might include planting gardens near home, getting people to change their light bulbs for more energy-efficient models, and building more fuel-efficient cars.

While this approach has merit, it is not clear that this approach, in and of itself, is more than a small part of the solution, because of the bigger picture issues that are causing major strains on the system. Saving fuel in one place puts financial strains on other parts of the system. For example, a utility that fails because of bankruptcy could reduce electricity availability. What appear to be frivolous uses of our current systems (for example, game playing and downloading movies over the Internet), help to keep costs down for more serious users. Because of the complexity of our current system, savings in one area could cause problems in another section of our economic structure.

Thus, this approach would shrink some parts of Figure 1. While this may somewhat work, there is also the possibility that this shrinkage will by itself cause strains or actual breaks in other parts of the economic system.


All in all, we do not have firm answers. Instead, we have a number of views of how the downturn due to high oil prices may proceed, and appropriate responses to it.

By Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg is a writer and speaker about energy issues. She is especially known for her work with financial issues associated with peak oil. Prior to getting involved with energy issues, Ms. Tverberg worked as an actuarial consultant. This work involved performing insurance-related analyses and forecasts. Her personal blog is ourfiniteworld.com. She is also an editor of The Oil Drum.

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