Living life on a curve

By Tom Abel

This is a story of energy, and how it makes our worlds go round. We’ve heard other versions of that story, but this one differs from the usual energy tale. My concern is with the swings of energy and their effects on the way we act and the way we feel about the world we live in. To start simply, a question or two:

Why are Americans out of work? Why are we all in debt? Why are the rich so rich? Why is our infrastructure crumbling? Why fundamentalism, in religion and politics? Why the anti-immigration? Why all the anti-Americanism around the world? Why is society so polarized? Why are Americans so angry with each other? Etc.!

There are surely independent answers to every one of these, but…if there is an underlying principle of social causality it might be found in self-organization, the same process that knits together ecosystems, earth systems, ocean gyres, or typhoons. Wait, people are angry because of energy?! Why not? You’ve heard far worse explanations. In the presidential debates, for example. It will take a minute to get there (my friend said, too long!). Read on, if you want. Ideas are free.

On Human Time

We all live day-to-day. I am not talking about income and expenses, where this is profoundly untrue, some with much, many with little. I mean in our minds. We live day-to-day. Or maybe hour to hour. Or as some say, in the here and now, or in the moment. Our thoughts go to our current circumstances, what we are planning to do this afternoon, what happened yesterday or last week, maybe at the most what we will do for this year’s vacation, if we are lucky enough to have one. And we have our memories, selective snips of near events that encircle each of us, not the full sweep of time.


Now, if we were all mayflies these spans of days, months, or years would be an eternity. Since the adults live for only a day or two, they must measure time in seconds or less, searching frantically for mates, laying eggs. Time is definitely a relative concept, and compared to most life forms, humans are rich in it.

But the universe is full of events in duration far greater than days or weeks or even a human lifespan. Language and literacy have helped us mark them. We tell our children about the return of comets, the drying up of once lakes or rivers, the eclipses of sun and moon. Science has added further to our perception of time with plate tectonics, radiocarbon dating, red shifts, and others. We know now of the rise and fall of ancient dynasties, the deforestation of much of the world, the growth of world population. But events at these lengths are not sensed by us. We know them intellectually, or not at all.

Most of the big slow cycles and processes of earth and humanity have no effect on our everyday lives. But some do. The relentless march of climate change is one that promises a big wallop. But there is another, one that has been slowly but surely changing the world under our feet these last hundred years. We barely sense it, but I argue it has had the power to raise us high, and bring us low.

And yet we all know the causes of human affairs. Today, there are bad people in the world. Wall Streeters, CEOs, liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, jihadists, birthers, lifers, socialists, academics, the list goes on and on. These are the ones to blame for our predicament, our predicaments. Let’s go after them.

The Pensive ‘S’

Is that it? The world is that simple? One event after another, bad people and good? The big slow process that I am hedging toward is illustrated in the curve below. People who follow this website know it well. It is the global curve of oil consumption. This big slow s-curve is over a hundred years in duration, longer than a human life. Most of us have lived in only the last third. So we have not experienced this curve in its entirety. In our day-to-day lives, in fact, we pay it no mind.

World Oil Production
World Oil Production, Source

Still, most of us know a small piece of it intellectually, that the world uses more oil today than yesterday, more than we did in the past. So what’s the point? Is this one of those peak oil, end of the world, doomsday articles? The peak is coming, run for the hills! But real incomes have been stagnant for forty years, you would say, income inequality has grown just as long, social democracy in Europe has been in trouble for decades, as has social welfare in the US. These are not new! That’s right, it is not Peak Oil that matters. It’s the pensive ‘S’. Somewhere on the big slow curve we’ve all been riding, things started to change. Where exactly on the curve, there are a few nearby candidates, the first oil inflection point, Peak energy per person, Peak emergy per person, or Peak NP. I favor Peak NP, but they are all in the same ballpark. Anyway, it is not about a ‘point’ in time, but the processes related to the sweeps of the curve.

So to look at Peak NP as one example, what is Peak NP, when did it happen, and why does it matter? The answer to ‘when’ is somewhere around the early 1970s in the US. As for ‘what’, I will explain Peak NP shortly. The answer to the third question ‘why’ is more complex, but not intractably so.

Oil for Everything

Deisel HarvesterFirst, we have to acknowledge that oil underpins nearly everything in our current way of life. We fertilize with it, make drugs from it, make plastics, run our machines, and move our countless vehicles when we drive, fly, or ship. We fought world wars with it and we continue to fight with and for it. It has been said that we ‘eat’ oil if one considers the amount of oil that goes into growing and getting our food. Oil is stored energy that we release to do our work. It is the most versatile, most transportable, and most transformable source of energy that we have ever harnessed with our technologies. A century ago the world had not yet two billion people, today we have over seven billion. Oil made that possible. There is nothing else like it.

What is Peak NP?

Peak NP, Author

First, Peak NP is related to the curve of oil consumption, above. But not to the peak, instead to the inflection point in the curve, the point at which marginal returns on production became diminishing returns, the point at which the growth in our growth of oil use ended and began its deceleration. This was in the 1960s. Could we sense that? Is that what led us to doubt the future, to begin to hunker down and defend our gains, to begin to doubt that our children would have a better life than we did? Perhaps. But a more visible indicator of the coming diminishing returns to oil is Peak NP.

Oil is used for everything. We do real work with oil energy. In simple terms we make things, we build valuable assets. Many of the products of oil such as roads, buildings, bridges, dams, etc, will last for 50-100 years or more. This is called asset ‘turnover time’, which refers to how long a society benefits from the production events associated with oil. Thus, when oil is used we do not immediately sense loss. Instead we experience the gain to infrastructure and economy. But over time, all assets degrade, decay, breakdown. We can say that assets are ‘consumed’. At any point, the difference between (gross) production and consumption of assets is net production (NP). Looking at the graph, you can see that the growth of asset production (gross production) with oil use comes before the curve of consumption, which makes sense, assets are produced before they are consumed.

The difference between production and consumption is net production. As the total use of oil grew in the first half of the last century, the net production of assets also grew. We could see our cities expand, we could see highways and bridges cover the land, we could see skyscrapers reach toward heaven. But most of all, we could see the acceleration, we could see the growth in our growth. But sometime, in the 1970s probably, net production peaked and began to decline (Peak NP).

Not surprisingly, as oil goes, so has gone the world. But again, why is it not total oil but net production that matters? The answer lies in our ability to judge diminishing returns on investment. If we can sense anything about this big slow curve it is that since the 70s the growth in our growth is no more. Specifically, we have continued to add oil (by trade if not pump) but we have added less each year. And the economy follows oil. Thus economic growth (in GDP) has also faltered. Even more telling, wages have tanked (in relative terms) for the great majority of people, good jobs have disappeared, and companies have moved elsewhere. Why?

Salad Days No More

salad_days1In simple terms, we can see the end of the salad days. Since the 70s we have known that growth will not last forever. In that small space around each of us we can sense it. And we have reacted to defend our gains. In earlier decades we could see nothing but growth, opportunity, a better world. Not surprisingly we rallied behind social crusades for the poor, for progressive taxes, for social justice, for universal education. Few objected, or at least not too strenuously, as there seemed to be plenty for all. In the US, construction boomed in homes and cities, heavy industries were the pulse of the nation, new economic niches appeared, bureaucracies expanded, and regulation with it, in Europe democratic socialism won the day. Europe was rebuilt after a terrible war that was of course made possible, even probable, by abundant oil. Liberal replaced conservative ideology. Family size grew. Landscapes were covered. There seemed no end to opportunity, to progress.

Beginning in the 70s, however, the West has seen slowly accelerating decay of infrastructure, the loss of heavy industry, closing classes, racism, anti-immigration, stagnant wages, growing income inequality, growing poverty, increasing surveillance and other control measures, the abrogation of government responsibility, deregulation, privatization, social welfare ‘reforms’, liberal to conservative ideology, fundamentalism and other revitalization movements, shrinking families, increasingly violent domination in police and prison. I would be the first to acknowledge that each of these has a unique and complex history of proximate cause. But by their simultaneity and ideological directionality, they are ultimately pinned to their place on the big slow curve of oil consumption.

Some Wrinkles for the Doubters

China Oil Consumption, Source

Of course the devil is in the details. I have sketched this big process with a rather loose hand. In fact, things are more complex. Oil consumption has different curves for every nation. In the case of China for example, oil consumption may or may not have passed its inflection point. The heady euphoria of accelerating growth in the last two decades persists, but there are signs it may be faltering. The economy is still growing, but is it adding to its share of world oil at a growing rate or at a lesser rate than it once did? Other countries have their own curves (though nearly every country after China is past its inflection point, and many are past their peak). Thus the timing of these processes in the US is different from other countries. Since the US has led the world in oil consumption, the global curve was a fair approximation of the US curve. But things are now changing as the US takes a smaller proportion of foreign supply while simultaneously adding a temporary uptick from the unconventional energies of tar sands and tight oil. Other energies matter too, but not as much. Coal, nuclear, natural gas, nothing can match the flexibility that oil brings. And while perhaps a more precise model would include a salad of energies, it remains that oil is the leafy lettuce of that salad bowl.

Other related approaches would use ‘per capita’ measures instead of ‘total’ oil consumption. Per capita oil use, or perhaps better, per capita ‘emergy’ use, produces a similar curve to Peak NP. Here is a good example by Mark Brown, with the peak benefit of all energy sources also in the early 70s, followed by a slow decline.

from Mark T. Brown's Democracy Lecture
from Mark T. Brown’s Democracy Lecture

Just as total oil use, these per capita measures are big slow curves. Per capita measures add realism perhaps, since they seem more focused on people rather than society. A small nitpick would be that they pin the measurement of oil to objects (people) that are simultaneously a product themselves of the consumption of oil. But either way, the timing and conclusions are essentially the same.

I could continue to try to list pre-inflection positives and post-inflection negatives. But you the reader will surely have many more if you allow this idea to soak in for a while. A complete list would be long. And to be honest, I expect it would not be perfectly categorical. Certainly in some circumstances the pattern will be reversed. But by a wide margin the trends will hold, I predict.

Furthermore, any reader will know the history of some part of the world better than another. Does this model fit? Ask yourself. As oil consumption accelerated in your favorite country, what was the effect? On economic, but also social, political, and ideological processes? And what now–how has your country changed with deceleration?

Sleaze Gets a Pass?

Because we can explain the changes in behavior does this mean that no one is responsible for theirs? CEOs with golden parachutes? Bankers that sold toxic derivatives? Governments that choose corporations over the poor? Absolutely not. What this thinking does is explain why these political and economic and social processes are happening now, and did not happen 60 years ago. Elites as well as you and I are hunkering down, protecting our assets. Our actions are deliberate. We all have responsibility for what we do. What this suggests is that the incentives have changed, the social pressures, the economic opportunities, the political inducements, they have changed under the feet of all Americans where we stood, where we stand. But this does not give us a license for larceny.

The big S-curve is ultimately why we are under more stress today. This is why we cannot find good jobs. This is why the economy does no longer grow. This is why the companies have left. This is why, in contrast to our parents, nearly all of us today expect our children will not be better off than us.

the SThe search for explanation does not lead us to tales of excessive regulation (in truth, nearly non-existent). Nor to the (almost non-existent) unions. It is not the Devil. It is not (only) the devil in the CEO or banker. It is not (only) the devil in the congressman or lobbyist. It is not because the free market is not ‘free’! It is simply and ultimately because the engine of economic growth, the single most important ‘commodity’ in our capitalism, is no longer racing to the stars but is instead bending back to Earth. The melancholy ‘S’.

If that sounds too gloomy, fear not. Smaller may be better. Did we really expect our particular way of life to grow on forever? Something that has never happened with any civilization in the history of the world? And would we really want it to? Seven billion and counting, global ecosystems maxing out, half of world species of large animals now extinct? Isn’t it time to regroup? We will not lose what we have learned collectively. We can use it to adapt in new ways. Adapt with understanding of the pressures that squeeze us, that turn us against one another. If there is anything certain about humanity, it is that we can temper and transform our feelings with knowledge and experience. We are the cultural ape, the ultimate niche constructors. With all that the age of fossil fuel has permitted us, we will construct a better niche.