A few months ago I gave this presentation to a climate change group. Hope you enjoy it. Well it’s not actually enjoyable to know that energy use and economic growth are so closely linked. As Naomi Klein said “The economy is at war with the climate”. We are going to need all our collective intelligence to downshift without chaos. Can we manage an energy descent without it being haphazard and dangerous socially?
Of late the Opposition has been pointing out that business confidence is declining. NZIER had released a survey saying business confidence is at a seven year low. The Government has been quick to dismiss it as a political bias by business – as something they always opine when a Labour Government comes in. And the Asian stockmarkets are currently looking wobbly. RNZ’s long term economic commentator Patrick O’Meara talked of softer demands, slower growth, lower investment intentions. He talked of the looming US-China trade war has attributed that to the fact that on Saturday Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods begin. It may also affect markets in Europe, Canada and Mexico.
The trend started well before Trump appeared.
But because of declining net energy, worrying trends happened decades before Trump’s tariffs kicked in. Let me explain declining net energy. Whereas in the mid 20th century if you spent one unit of energy to extract oil, you would get 100 units of energy back, nowadays because it takes more energy to extract fossil fuels from deep sea wells and from fracking, the energy left for the economy is progressively declining. Since net energy available is closely correlated with economic growth we would expect economic growth to decline. Moreover productivity will decline. Productivity is an economic measure of output per unit of input and input includes energy.
British investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed has written a great article explaining the gradual decline of both economic growth and productivity in the UK economy. He concludes, “In other words, trying to keep the growth machine growing when the machine itself is running out of steam is precisely the problem — the challenge is to move into a new economic model entirely.”
He quotes from a piece of research for the government by Professor Tim Jackson giving graphs of declining economic growth and productivity. Jackson says, “In 1996, the trend rate of growth in the global GDP was 5.5%. By 2016 it was little more than 2.5%”. From 1971-2016 productivity growth dropped from over 3% to just 1%. We must have similar graphs in New Zealand.
Economist Michael Reddell says on his website “Over the last five years there has been only about 1.5 per cent productivity growth in total.”
Ahmed himself is well ahead of others in the way he puts together and explains the connection between many serious global issues –fossil fuel depletion, climate change, finance, geopolitics, terrorism, food security, political instability.
Trump is just a symptom
Ahmed wrote on Inauguration Day 2017 that “Trump is not the problem. Trump is merely one symptom of a deeper systemic crisis. His emergence signals a fundamental and accelerating shift within a global geopolitical and domestic American political order which is breaking down.” He talked of the elephant in the room being the global net energy decline that drives all this.
Less than a month later he penned a chilling analysis of Trump’s regime. Half of them are now gone, having resigned or been fired by Trump. He grouped them under five headings – money monsters, fossil fuel freaks, black ops brigade, Ku Klux Klan and the guru gang – saying that was the perfect combination required to keep the old model working. Business as Usual must proceed. Drill baby drill. Increase funding for the military. If things look bad financially try riskier and riskier financial instruments.
Never before has there been such an environmental crisis where our emissions are making our habitat more and more inhospitable with floods, fires, droughts and the accompanying food insecurity. Never before have we seen governments like ours desperate to solve child poverty throwing money at them. We have even got a superannuitants winter energy payment. Yet homelessness and poverty continue.
The tragedy is that while the current government has its heart in the right place – to end poverty and preserve our environment – it is hamstrung. It is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Political instability is becoming inevitable. Will New Zealanders after the hope of Jacinda Ardern be doomed to see in a Trump like government within five years? Nigel Farage is coming to our country soon. If we don’t find a new economic model that is not dependent on growth, we will come nowhere near a just, sustainable economy. That is the tragedy.