• Jeremy Grantham, Time to wake up: days of abundant resources and falling prices are over forever, The Oil Drum, 29 April 2011. Original in PDF.
Jeremy Grantham is the chief investment officer of GMO Capital, a big investment firm. His essay is so readable that there’s no point in trying to outdo it. I’ll just include his summary, which you won’t find on The Oil Drum.
Also, this graph is worth staring at (click to expand):
Many claim that human ingenuity will always keep the price of resources dropping. That was true from 1900 to 2002, with average price decline of 1.2% per year in constant dollars. There were upward spikes for world wars… but the inflationary oil shock of the 1970s was something new: I remember the puzzled, upset mood in the US. But since 2002, according to Grantham, we’ve started seeing something even bigger.
If he’s right, this is very important. What do you think?
Personally I agree completely with his general point that exponential growth is always unsustainable in the long term. Even a civilization expanding through the universe at nearly the speed of light will only grow in a roughly cubic way. Exponential growth is ‘transient behavior’ that happens only near the beginning of a process. So to me, the really interesting question is the empirical one of whether we’re seeing, right now, the transition to a world where resources continue to become more expensive. If you think otherwise, you should convince us that this is a temporary glitch that will end when… something happens.
Summary of the Summary
The world is using up its natural resources at an alarming rate, and this has caused a permanent shift in their value. We all need to adjust our behavior to this new environment. It would help if we did it quickly.
• Until about 1800, our species had no safety margin and lived, like other animals, up to the limit of the food supply, ebbing and flowing in population.
• From about 1800 on the use of hydrocarbons allowed for an explosion in energy use, in food supply, and, through the creation of surpluses, a dramatic increase in wealth and scientific progress.
• Since 1800, the population has surged from 800 million to 7 billion, on its way to an estimated 8 billion, at minimum.
• The rise in population, the ten-fold increase in wealth in developed countries, and the current explosive growth in developing countries have eaten rapidly into our finite resources of hydrocarbons and metals, fertilizer, available land, and water.
• Now, despite a massive increase in fertilizer use, the growth in crop yields per acre has declined from 3.5% in the 1960s to 1.2% today. There is little productive new land to bring on and, as people get richer, they eat more grain-intensive meat. Because the population continues to grow at over 1%, there is little safety margin.
• The problems of compounding growth in the face of finite resources are not easily understood by optimistic, short-term-oriented, and relatively innumerate humans (especially the political variety).
• The fact is that no compound growth is sustainable. If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash. We must substitute qualitative growth for quantitative growth.
• But Mrs. Market is helping, and right now she is sending us the Mother of all price signals. The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70%. From 2002 until now, this entire decline was erased by a bigger price surge than occurred during World War II.
• Statistically, most commodities are now so far away from their former downward trend that it makes it very probable that the old trend has changed — that there is in fact a Paradigm Shift — perhaps the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.
• Climate change is associated with weather instability, but the last year was exceptionally bad. Near term it will surely get less bad.
• Excellent long-term investment opportunities in resources and resource efficiency are compromised by the high chance of an improvement in weather next year and by the possibility that China may stumble.
• From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives. This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
• We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies. There is little time to waste.