Richard Heinberg is posting drafts from his new book in progress, The End of Growth (New Society Publishers). “The Sound of Air Escaping” explains why the American economy is grinding to a halt, with little chance of continuing forward on its present path. He observes:
During the 1930s, industrialized countries were in the early stages of their shift from an agrarian coal-based rural economy to an electrified, oil-based, urban economy—a shift that required enormous infrastructure investments (in new highways, airports, dams, and power lines) that would ultimately pay off handsomely for a nation on the verge of realizing a consumer utopia. All that was needed to initiate the building of that infrastructure was credit—grease for the wheels of commerce. Government got those wheels rolling by taking on debt, with private companies increasingly taking up the lead after World War II. The expansion that occurred from the 1950s through 2000, as that infrastructure was built out and put to use, easily justified the government pump-priming that initiated the process. Interest payments on the government debt could be paid through growth of the tax base.
Now is different. … both the U.S. and the world as a whole have passed a fundamental crossroads characterized by increasing scarcity of energy and crucial minerals. Because of this, strategies of growth that worked spectacularly well in the mid-to-late 20th century—via various forms of business and technological development—have reached a point of diminishing returns.
If the Keynesian remedy doesn’t cure the ailment but merely extends the suffering (while increasing government debt to truly toxic levels), the medicine of austerity may have such severe side effects that it could kill the patient outright. Both sides—left and right, the socialists and free-marketers—assume and hope to the point of desperation that their prescription will result in a rapid return to continuous economic growth and low unemployment. … that hope is futile.
There is no “silver bullet,” no magic solution that will turn back the clock to an era of abundant resources and easy growth. For now, all that governments can do is buy time through further deficit spending—ideally, using that time to build infrastructure that will continue to function in the coming era of reduced flows of energy and resources. Meanwhile, we must all find ways to come out from under a burden of debt that will otherwise crush us. The inherent contradiction within this prescription is obvious but unavoidable.