The Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics represents the extension into economics of the thermodynamic revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In physics, that revolution dethroned Newton and brought relativity. In biology, it was midwife to the birth of ecology, the study of ecosystems as wholes in which energy networks—food webs—are a defining structure. In chemistry the laws of thermodynamics brought clarity and rigor to a science that struggled to bring theoretical unity to diverse phenomena. So far, though, most economists are perfectly willing to treat their subject matter as if the laws of thermodynamics simply don’t apply to it.

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But the thermodynamic revolution in economics can’t be permanently forestalled. For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for the neoclassical model to reassure us that its system of Newtonian abstractions is a good fit to the real world. The Great Collapse of 2008 demonstrated that whatever else it is, the discipline of economics isn’t very good at predicting major economic phenomena. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction make it hard for economics to maintain its pretense that economic activity takes place in abstractia, on the clean white pages of textbooks or on whiteboards holding formulae, with no roots in or consequences for anything outside of itself. Truths derived on the model of Newtonian mechanism are supposed to be abstract and ahistorical, but our planet and our economy are most assuredly evolving concretely and over time.

The driving dynamic of this economic and planetary change—the driver of history for the past three centuries—has been human use of high-EROI fossil fuel. The driving dynamic of the history yet to come will be the declining EROI of our civilization’s energy sources.

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

Oil used to gush out of the ground under pressure, making for a very high Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). In the 1920s, wells like this gave the industry an average EROI of 100 to 1 or more. Today’s petroleum industry has a much lower EROI. Photo Credit: Texas State Archives

You can see some of the consequences of declining EROI already:

  • Despite a rising real per capita GDP, for a significant percentage of workers in OECD nations personal income has flatlined or is declining. An increasing concentration of income helps explain this but another dynamic is at work as well. As EROI falls, it takes more economic effort to get the energy that’s needed to support economic effort. Even as gross economic activity (GDP) grows, production of net benefit is shrinking.
  • Other sectors of the economy have been affected by this ongoing increase in the economy’s matter-and-energy overhead. “Austerity” has become the watchword for governmental budgets, even in the wealthiest nations in the world. Developed countries find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to pay maintenance and upgrade costs on infrastructure investments made in the heyday of 100-to-1 oil.
  • In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion over seven years to restore and maintain existing infrastructure.
  • Worldwide, many of the ecosystems that support human civilization are degraded and close to collapse. Forced by both ideology and declining EROI into austerity budgeting, governments are reducing their scope and energy at the exact moment that sustainability would have them take strong action to rein in the rational, free-market tendency of corporations to maximize profits by degrading the commons and externalizing other costs.
  • Pension-fund wipeouts are becoming common as one way to fulfill the economy’s structural need for debt repudiation—a need that lies in our system’s willingness to let debt grow faster than a declining EROI economy can pay back, even after growth has been stimulated by lifting or reducing regulations that limit the environmental damage done by economic activity.
  • The planetary carbon sink is full, producing climatic effects that even an abstraction-inhabiting, arithmo-morphizing economist has to acknowledge as a troubling reality.

Centuries from now economic historians are likely to understand the relationship between EROI and wealth creation much better than does the average economist of today. I think it likely that future political economists will express wonder not at the 20th century’s enormous economic success, but at how little we actually added to our stock of wealth for all the high-EROI coal and oil it was our pleasure to burn. They are almost certain to shake their heads in wonder that we, enjoying an energy supply and an EROI never seen on the planet before or since, could ever have experienced an economic downturn, could ever have let a human starve from want, could ever have been so programmatically blind to the physical origins of our fortunes.

Seismic Political Shifts Reveal Desire for Serious Change

by James Magnus-Johnston

If you demonstrate to people that the NDP [New Democratic Party] can win in Alberta, suddenly anything seems possible. —Paul Fairie, University of Calgary political scientist


James Magnus-JohnstonOn the problematic political spectrum, neither the right nor the left have become wholesale champions of the steady state economy. Then again, embracing something perceived as ‘new’ has never been the strong suit of the politician. It takes years of ideological evolution among the grassroots before seemingly new and different ideas become politically palatable. Seismic political shifts like the one in Alberta suggest that big ideological evolutions are underway in the unlikeliest of places, and that steady state solutions may not be far behind.

The Canadian province of Alberta—which includes Canada’s oil patch—revealed its desire for serious change in its election of an NDP government last week. While the social democratic NDP doesn’t have an explicitly ‘green’ agenda, some policy shifts acknowledge the limits to growth—growth in the oil patch, growth in debt, growth in inequality, growth in carbon emissions, and growth in overall environmental costs. Growing the oil patch at all costs has left the province vulnerable to swings in the petroleum economy, and it isn’t building a stable economy for generations to come.

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

The political shift represents a strong movement away from a half-century of Alberta’s Conservative ‘conventional thinking,’ including relaxed regulations for the oil and gas industry as well as an export-first policy designed for economic growth as if there were truly no tomorrow. Time will tell whether or not Premier Notley will introduce measures to supplant carbon-intensive growth with a renewable steady state, but there are signs of movement in this direction.

In March, as opposition leader, Notley introduced a motion calling on the government of Alberta to phase out the use of coal for electric power generation in Alberta. Alberta’s oil sector produces almost as many GHG emissions as do the mining and extraction of oil from the oilsands.

This week, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Canada called upon Premier Notley to introduce a carbon tax, a measure which sits at number two on Herman Daly’s top ten list of steady state policies. The call counts as either a brilliant coordinated manoeuvre on the part of the NDP and the oil patch, or the beginning of a serious change in the way Canada’s oil and gas industry perceives its responsibilities in the face of climate change.

The NDP victory also signals a willingness to tackle point three on Mr. Daly’s top ten list—limiting the range of inequality in income distribution. While Premier Notley has not signalled a willingness to institute a ‘maximum income’ level, she has designs on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour from the country’s second lowest minimum wage of $10.20. The NDP have also vowed to reintroduce progressive income taxes, and raise corporate taxes.

This is not a promotion for social democracy per se. Social democratic governments in different jurisdictions, like my home province of Manitoba, can sometimes reflect neoliberal economic thinking rather than focus on designing an economy for fairness. But in Alberta’s example, folks have acknowledged the problems associated with half a century of growth in the extractive industry, environmental degradation, and inequality. As the political pendulum shifts in other jurisdictions, there is an opportunity for political parties of various stripes to reconsider how they can respond to growing grassroots frustration with a debt-ridden, environmentally destructive, inequitable economy.

As the costs of uneconomic growth continue to escalate, and as a new generation prepares to bear those costs, we can be sure that further movement in the direction of a steady state economy will not only become more palatable, but absolutely essential.


Progress Toward a True-Cost Economy Now Comes From Developments in Renewable Energy

by Brent Blackwelder

Brent BlackwelderA renewable energy revolution is sweeping the planet. This revolution has profound implications because it signals that the global economy is moving to stop the growth of our human carbon footprint.

The global economy has run for a century primarily on fossil fuels but is now undergoing a rapid transition to a global economy based significantly on rooftop solar, wind, and efficiency. This is a tangible movement toward a steady state economy because with wind and solar, the amount we use today does not affect tomorrow’s supply; and unlike fossil fuels, the pollution externalities are small and do not harm fellow competitors or the public.

This revolution is more than a technical fix because it is shifting the ingredients of the material products and services of the economy from toxic, polluting, non-renewable substances and ingredients to ones that are renewable and dramatically lower in pollution. It is demonstrating that renewable energy can avoid imposing dangerous impacts onto the public or onto future generations.

Skeptics over the last two decades have argued that renewable sources such as wind and solar are trivial and simply incapable of providing the power needed by the global economy—that all they will ever do is provide only a small percentage of the world’s electricity. I remember the days when utility executives belittled renewables, warning that more than about 5% of wind or solar electricity in a region would crash the grid!

Photo Credit: janie.hernandez55

The renewable energy revolution is a stepping stone toward a sustainable true-cost economy. Photo Credit: janie.hernandez55

I want to present a few startling and uplifting facts that demonstrate the dramatic progress recently made by solar and wind power around the world. 1 These facts give the lie to the phony assertions made by utilities in their efforts to block renewable energy.

Rooftop solar is growing worldwide by 50% per year. In 1985 solar cost $12 per watt, but today’s prices are closer to 36 cents per watt. Every five hours the world adds 23 MW of solar—which was the global installed capacity in 1985.

In January of 2014 Denmark got 62% of its electricity from wind. In 2013 Ireland got 17% of its electricity from wind, and Spain and Portugal both exceeded 20% from wind. Today China gets more electricity from wind (91,000 MW) than it does from nuclear reactors. The United States is second in the world in installed wind turbines, with South Dakota and Iowa obtaining over 26% of their electricity from wind.

As we look to achieve a true-cost, steady state economy, questions are constantly raised about the behavior of other powerful nations that might appear to have no interest in a sustainable economy. The renewable energy revolution provides breakthrough opportunities here. China is already putting its energy future into more and more renewable energy. It plans to more than double its current wind capacity with an expansion goal of 200,000 MW by the year 2020.

Even the French, who rely on nuclear reactors for 75% of their electricity, are planning on increasing their wind generating capacity to 25,000 MW from their present 8,300 MW.

The renewable energy revolution will enable civilization to stop the growth of highly polluting fossil fuels. It will enable society to leave the majority of the remaining reserves of fossil fuels alone and unburned. Acceleration of this revolution helps in solving many problems and is a key to restoring and maintaining the life support systems of the earth.

For a number of reasons, this renewable energy revolution is a stepping stone toward a sustainable  true-cost economy. First, unlike fossil fuels, the footprint of wind and rooftop solar is minimal. Wind turbines erected on farmland use very little land and allow farming to continue. Rooftop solar can be placed on flat commercial and industrial roofs in metropolitan areas where connections to the grid are available.

In comparison, extraction of fossil fuels can create some of the worst pollution and habitat destruction ever seen. Consider the devastation being caused in the biologically diverse mountain forests of West Virginia by mountaintop removal coal mining. Or look at the obliteration of Alberta’s landscape and contamination of its lakes and rivers from tar sands mining.

This point is substantial because far too many of the products of the global economy involve externalization of enormous pollution costs.

Second, the usage of wind and solar today does not affect the amount of wind and solar available tomorrow. They are renewable. Furthermore, wind and rooftop solar are basically waterless technologies, whereas fossil fuel and nuclear power plants use enormous quantities of water for cooling. As water shortages multiply worldwide as a result of population and industrial growth, and climate disruption, this benefit will become even more significant.

Third, wind and solar are big job creators. In Germany the number of jobs in wind and solar is about 400,000 versus 200,000 in coal and conventional fuels. This amazing boost in clean energy jobs has happened in the last decade. Job creation is a major concern in any transition to a sustainable economy.2

Those who are serious about getting to a true–cost economy should help accelerate the renewable energy revolution as a way to achieve it.



  1. See The Great Transition by Lester Brown and colleagues at the Earth Policy Institute for a superb account of the global renewable energy revolution that offers hope to all.
  1. See Energiewende for the job figures; see also Peter Victor in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth for a discussion of transition scenarios and jobs.