The Automatic Earth (TAE) has existed for almost ten years now. That is nearly ten years of exploring and describing the biggest possible big picture of our present predicament. The intention of this post is to gather all of our most fundamental articles in one place, so that readers can access our worldview in its most comprehensive form. For new readers, this is the place to start. The articles are roughly organised into topics, although there is often considerable overlap.
We are reaching limits to growth in so many ways at the same time, but it is not enough to understand which are the limiting factors, but also what time frame each particular subset of reality operates over, and therefore which is the key driver at what time. We can think of the next century as a race of hurdles we need to clear. We need to know how to prepare for each as it approaches, as we need to clear each one in order to be able to stay in the race.
TAE is known primarily as a finance site because finance has the shortest time frame of all. So much of finance exists in a virtual world in which changes can unfold very quickly. There are those who assume that changes in a virtual system can happen without major impact, but this assumption is dangerously misguided. Finance is the global operating system – the interface between ourselves, our institutions and our resource base. When the operating system crashes, nothing much will work until the system is rebooted. The next few years will see that crash and reboot. As financial contraction is set to occur first, finance will be the primary driver to the downside for the next several years. After that, we will be dealing with energy crisis, other resource limits, limitations of carrying capacity and increasing geopolitical ramifications.
The global financial system is rapidly approaching a Minsky Moment:
“A Minsky moment is a sudden major collapse of asset values which is part of the credit cycle or business cycle. Such moments occur because long periods of prosperity and increasing value of investments lead to increasing speculation using borrowed money. The spiraling debt incurred in financing speculative investments leads to cash flow problems for investors. The cash generated by their assets is no longer sufficient to pay off the debt they took on to acquire them.
Losses on such speculative assets prompt lenders to call in their loans. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values. Meanwhile, the over-indebted investors are forced to sell even their less-speculative positions to make good on their loans. However, at this point no counterparty can be found to bid at the high asking prices previously quoted. This starts a major sell-off, leading to a sudden and precipitous collapse in market-clearing asset prices, a sharp drop in market liquidity, and a severe demand for cash.”
This is the inevitable result of decades of ponzi finance, as our credit bubble expanded relentlessly, leaving us today with a giant pile of intertwined human promises which cannot be kept. Bubbles create, and rely on, building stacks of IOUs ever more removed from any basis in underlying real wealth. When the bubble finally implodes, the value of those promises disappears as it becomes obvious they will not be kept. Bust follows boom, as it has done throughout human history. The ensuing Great Collateral Grab will reveal just how historically under-collateralized our supposed prosperity has become. Very few of the myriad claims to underlying real wealth can actually be met, leaving the excess claims to be exposed as empty promises. These are destined to be rapidly and messily extinguished in a deflationary implosion.
While we cannot tell you exactly when the bust will unfold in specific locations, we can see that it is already well underway in some parts of the world, notably the European periphery. Given that preparation takes time, and that one cannot be late, now is the time to prepare, whether one thinks the Great Collateral Grab will manifest close to home next month or next year. Those who are not prepared risk losing everything, very much including their freedom of action to address subsequent challenges as they arise. It would be a tragedy to fall at the first hurdle, and then be at the mercy of whatever fate has to throw at you thereafter. The Automatic Earth has been covering finance, market psychology and the consequences of excess credit and debt since our inception, providing readers with the tools to navigate a major financial accident.
Nicole: From the Top of the Great Pyramid
Nicole: The Infinite Elasticity of Credit
Nicole: Look Back, Look Forward, Look Down. Way Down
Nicole: Ragnarok – Iceland and the Doom of the Gods
Ilargi: Iceland To Take Back The Power To Create Money
Ilargi: The Only Thing That Grows Is Debt
Ilargi: Central Banks Are Crack Dealers and Faith Healers
Nicole: Promises, Promises … Detroit, Pensions, Bondholders And Super-Priority Derivatives
Nicole: Where the Rubber Meets the Road in America
Ilargi: How Our Aversion To Change Leads Us Into Danger
Ilargi: Debt In The Time Of Wall Street
Ilargi: The Contractionary Vortex Of The Lumpen Proletariat
Ilargi: Hornswoggled Absquatulation
The Velocity of Money and Deflation
Nicole: The Resurgence of Risk
Nicole: Inflation Deflated
Nicole: The Unbearable Mightiness of Deflation
Nicole: Debunking Gonzalo Lira and Hyperinflation
Nicole: Dollar-Denominated Debt Deflation
Nicole: Deflation Revisited: The Studio Version
Nicole: Stoneleigh Takes on John Williams: Deflation It Is
Ilargi: US Hyperinflation is a Myth
Ilargi: Everything’s Deflating And Nobody Seems To Notice
Ilargi: The Velocity of the American Consumer
Ilargi: Deflation, Debt and Gravity
Ilargi: Debt, Propaganda And Now Deflation
Ilargi: The Revenge Of A Government On Its People
Markets and Psychology
Nicole: Markets and the Lemming Factor
Ilargi: You Are Not an Investor
Nicole: Over the Edge Lies Fear
Nicole: Capital Flight, Capital Controls and Capital Fear
Nicole: The Future Belongs to the Adaptable
Nicole: A Future Discounted
Ashvin Pandurangi: A Glimpse Into the Stubborn Psychology of ‘Fish’
Ashvin Pandurangi: A Glimpse Into the Self-Destructive Psychology of ‘Sharks’
Ilargi: Institutional Fish
Ilargi: Optimism Bias: What Keeps Us Alive Today Will Kill Us Tomorrow
Nicole: Volatility and Sleep-Walking Markets
Ilargi: Our Economies Run On Housing Bubbles
Nicole: Welcome to the Gingerbread Hotel
Nicole: Bubble Case Studies: Ireland and Canada
Ilargi: Don’t Buy A Home: You’ll Get Burned
Metals, Currencies, Interest Rates, and the War on Cash
Nicole: Gold – Follow the Yellow Brick Road?
Nicole: A Golden Double-Edged Sword
Ilargi: Square Holes and Currency Pegs
Nicole: The Special Relativity of Currencies
Nicole: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash
Ilargi: This Is Why The Euro Is Finished
Ilargi: The Broken Model Of The Eurozone
Ilargi: Central Banks Upside Down
Ilargi: The Only Man In Europe Who Makes Any Sense
China’s Epic Bubble
Nicole: China And The New World Disorder
Ilargi: Meet China’s New Leader: Pon Zi
Ilargi: China Relies On Property Bubbles To Prop Up GDP
Ilargi: Deflation Is Blowing In On An Eastern Trade Wind
Ilargi: China: A 5-Year Plan And 50 Million Jobs Lost
Ilargi: The Great Fall Of China Started At Least 4 Years Ago
Ilargi: Time To Get Real About China
Ilargi: Where Is China On The Map Exactly?
Commodities, Trade and Geopolitics
Nicole: Et tu, Commodities?
Nicole: Commodities and Deflation: A Response to Chris Martenson
Nicole: Then and Now: Sunshine and Eclipse
Nicole: The Rise and Fall of Trade
Nicole: The Death of Democracy in a Byzantine Labyrinth
Nicole: The Imperial Eurozone (With all That Implies)
Ilargi: The Troika And The Five Families
Ilargi: Globalization Is Dead, But The Idea Is Not
Nicole: Entropy and Empire
Ilargi: There’s Trouble Brewing In Middle Earth
The second limiting factor is likely to be energy, although this may vary with location, given that energy sources are not evenly distributed. Changes in supply and demand for energy are grounded in the real world, albeit in a highly financialized way, hence they unfold over a longer time frame than virtual finance. Over-financializing a sector of the real economy leaves it subject to the swings of boom and bust, or bubbles and their aftermath, but the changes in physical systems typically play out over months to years rather than days to weeks.
Financial crisis can be expected to deprive people of purchasing power, quickly and comprehensively, thereby depressing demand substantially (given that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for). Commodity prices fall under such circumstances, and they can be expected to fall more quickly than the cost of production, leaving margins squeezed and both physical and financial risk rising sharply. This would deter investment for a substantial period of time. As a financial reboot begins to deliver economic recovery some years down the line, the economy can expect to hit a hard energy supply ceiling as a result. Financial crisis initially buys us time in the coming world of hard energy limits, but at the expense of worsening the energy crisis in the longer term.
Energy is the master resource – the capacity to do work. Our modern society is the result of the enormous energy subsidy we have enjoyed in the form of fossil fuels, specifically fossil fuels with a very high energy profit ratio (EROEI). Energy surplus drove expansion, intensification, and the development of socioeconomic complexity, but now we stand on the edge of the net energy cliff. The surplus energy, beyond that which has to be reinvested in future energy production, is rapidly diminishing. We would have to greatly increase gross production to make up for reduced energy profit ratio, but production is flat to falling so this is no longer an option. As both gross production and the energy profit ratio fall, the net energy available for all society’s other purposes will fall even more quickly than gross production declines would suggest. Every society rests on a minimum energy profit ratio. The implication of falling below that minimum for industrial society, as we are now poised to do, is that society will be forced to simplify.
A plethora of energy fantasies is making the rounds at the moment. Whether based on unconventional oil and gas or renewables (that are not actually renewable), these are stories we tell ourselves in order to deny that we are facing any kind of future energy scarcity, or that supply could be in any way a concern. They are an attempt to maintain the fiction that our society can continue in its current form, or even increase in complexity. This is a vain attempt to deny the existence of non-negotiable limits to growth. The touted alternatives are not energy sources for our current society, because low EROEI energy sources cannot sustain a society complex enough to produce them.
We are poised to throw away what remains of our conventional energy inheritance chasing an impossible dream of perpetual energy riches, because doing so will be profitable for the few in the short term, and virtually no one is taking a genuine long term view. We will make the transition to a lower energy society much more difficult than it need have been. At The Automatic Earth we have covered these issues extensively, pointing particularly to the importance of net energy, or energy profit ratios, for alternative supplies. We have also addressed the intersections of energy and finance.
Energy, EROEI, Finance and ‘Above Ground Factors’
Nicole: Energy, Finance and Hegemonic Power
Ilargi: Cheap Oil A Boon For The Economy? Think Again
Ilargi: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore
Ilargi: Not Nearly Enough Growth To Keep Growing
Ilargi: Why The Global Economy Will Disintegrate Rapidly
Ilargi: The Price Of Oil Exposes The True State Of The Economy
Ilargi: More Than A Quantum Of Fragility
Ilargi: (Re-)Covering Oil and War
Nicole: Oil, Credit and the Velocity of Money Revisited
Nicole: Jeff Rubin and Oil Prices Revisited
Charlie Hall: Peak Wealth and Peak Energy
Ken Latta: When Was America’s Peak Wealth?
Ken Latta: Go Long Chain Makers
Euan Mearns: The Peak Oil Paradox – Revisited
Ilargi: At Last The ‘Experts’ Wake Up To Oil
Ilargi: Oil, Power and Psychopaths
Nicole: A Mackenzie Valley Pipe-Dream?
Unconventional Oil and Gas
Nicole: Get Ready for the North American Gas Shock
Nicole: Shale Gas Reality Begins to Dawn
Nicole: Unconventional Oil is NOT a Game Changer
Nicole: Peak Oil: A (Short) Dialogue With George Monbiot
Nicole: Fracking Our Future
Nicole: The Second UK Dash for Gas: A Faustian Bargain
Ilargi: Jobs, Shale, Debt and Minsky
Nicole (video): Sucking Beer Out Of The Carpet: Nicole Foss At The Great Debate in Melbourne
Ilargi: Shale Is A Pipedream Sold To Greater Fools
Ilargi: The Darker Shades Of Shale
Ilargi: Debt and Energy, Shale and the Arctic
Ilargi: London Is Fracking, And I Live By The River
Ilargi: And On The Seventh Day God Shorted His People
Ilargi: The Oil Market Actually Works, And That Hurts
Ilargi: Drilling Our Way Into Oblivion
Ilargi: Who’s Ready For $30 Oil?
Ilargi: US Shale And The Slippery Slopes Of The Law
Electricity and Renewables
Nicole: Renewable Energy: The Vision and a Dose of Reality
Nicole: India Power Outage: The Shape of Things to Come
Nicole: Smart Metering and Smarter Metering
Nicole: Renewable Power? Not in Your Lifetime
Nicole: A Green Energy Revolution?
Nicole: The Receding Horizons of Renewable Energy
Euan Mearns: Broken Energy Markets and the Downside of Hubbert’s Peak
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, TAE provided coverage of the developing catastrophe, drawing on an earlier academic background in nuclear safety. It will be many years before the true impact of Fukushima is known, both because health impacts take time to be demonstrable and because the radiation releases are not over. The destroyed reactors continue to leak radiation into the environment, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. The vulnerability of the site to additional seismic activity is substantial, and the potential for further radiation releases as a result is similarly large. The disaster is therefore far worse than it first appeared to be. The number of people in harms way, for whom no evacuation is realistic despite the risk, is huge, and the health impacts will prove to be tragic, particularly for the young.
Fukushima and Nuclear Safety
Nicole: How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?
Nicole: The Fukushima Fallout Files
Nicole: Fukushima: Review of an INES class 7 Accident
Nicole: Fukushima: Fallacies, Fallout, Fundamentals and Fear
Nicole: Welcome to the Atomic Village
The Automatic Earth takes a broad view of the context in which finance, energy and resources operate, looking at issues of how society functions at a macro level. Context is vital to understanding the bigger picture, particularly human context as it relates to the critical factor of scale and the emergent properties that flow from it. We have continually emphasised the importance of the trust horizon; in determining what functions at what time, and what kind of social milieu we can expect as matters evolve.
Expansions are built upon the optimistic side of human nature and tend to lead to greater inclusiveness and recognition of common humanity over time. Higher levels of political aggregation, and more complex webs of trading relationships, come into being and achieve popular support thanks to the benefits they confer. In contrast, contractions tend to reveal, and be driven by, the darker and more pessimistic side of human collective psychology. They are social and are political as well as economic. In both directions, collective attitudes can create their own self-fulfilling prophecies at the societal level.
Trust determines effective organisational scale, extending political legitimacy to higher levels of political organisation during expansions and withdrawing it during periods of contraction, leaving political entities beyond the trust horizon. Where popular legitimacy is withdrawn, organisational effectiveness is substantially undermined, and much additional effort may go into maintaining control at that scale through surveillance and coercion.
The effort is destined to fail over the longer term, and smaller scale forms of organisation, still within the trust horizon, may come to hold much greater significance. The key to effective action is to know at what scale to operate at any given time. As we have said before, while one cannot control the large scale waves of expansion and contraction that unfold over decades or centuries, understanding where a given society finds itself within that wave structure can allow people and their communities to surf those waves.
Scale and Society
Nicole: Scale Matters
Nicole: Economics and the Nature of Political Crisis
Nicole: Fractal Adaptive Cycles in Natural and Human Systems
Nicole: Entropy and Empire
Nicole: The Storm Surge of Decentralization
Ilargi: When Centralization Scales Beyond Our Control
Ilargi: London Bridge is (Broken) Down
Ilargi: The Great Divide
Ilargi: Quote of the Year. And The Next
Nicole: Corruption, Culpability and Short-Termism
Ilargi: The Value of Wealth
Ilargi: The Most Destructive Generation Ever
Ilargi: Ain’t Nobody Like To Be Alone
Trust and the Psychology of Contraction
Nicole: Beyond the Trust Horizon
Nicole: Bubbles and the Titanic Betrayal of Public Trust
Ilargi: Why There Is Trump
Ilargi: Who’s Really The Fascist?
Ilargi: Comey and the End of Conversation
Ilargi: Eurodystopia: A Future Divided
Nicole: War in the Labour Markets
Nicole: An Unstable Tower of Breaking Promises
Ilargi: Libor was a criminal conspiracy from the start
Affluence, Poverty and Debt and Insurance
Nicole: Trickles, Floods and the Escalating Consequences of Debt
Nicole: Crashing the Operating System: Liquidity Crunch in Practice
Ilargi: The Impossible and the Inevitable
Nicole: The View From the Bottom of the Pyramid
Ilargi: The Lord of More
Ilargi: The Last of the Affluent, the Carefree and the Innocent
Ilargi: The Worth of the Earth
Nicole: Risk Management And (The Illusion Of) Insurance
Finally, TAE has provided some initial guidance as to how to position one’s self, family, friends and community so as to reduce vulnerability to system shocks and increase resilience. The idea is to reduce the range of dependencies on the large scale, centralised life-support systems that characterise modernity, and also to reduce dependency on the solvency of middle men. The centralised systems we take so much for granted are very likely to be much less reliable in the future. For a long time we have uploaded responsibility to larger scale organisational entities, but this has led to a dangerous level of complacency.
It is now time to reclaim responsibility for our own future by seeking to understand our predicament and take local control of efforts to mitigate its effects. While we cannot prevent a bubble from bursting once it has been blown, we can make a substantial difference to how widely and deeply the impact is felt. The goal is to provide a sufficient cushion of basic essentials to allow as many people as possible to preserve the luxury of the longer term view, rather than be pitched into a state of short term crisis management. In doing so we can hope to minimise the scale of the human over-reaction to events beyond our control. In the longer term, we need to position ourselves to reboot the system into something simpler, more functional and less extractive of the natural capital upon which we and subsequent generations depend.
Solution Space, Preparation and Food Security
Nicole: The Boundaries and Future of Solution Space
Nicole: Facing the Future – Mitigating a Liquidity Crunch
Nicole: 40 Ways to Lose Your Future
Nicole: How to Build a Lifeboat
Nelson Lebo: Resilience is The New Black
Nelson Lebo: What Resilience Is Not
Nicole: Sandy: Lessons From the Wake of the Storm
Nicole: Crash on Demand? – A Response to David Holmgren
Nicole: Finance and Food Insecurity
Nicole: Physical Limits to Food Security – Water and Climate
Ilargi: Basic Income in The Time of Crisis
Nelson Lebo: (Really) Alternative Banking Systems
Nicole (video): Interview Nicole Foss for ‘A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity’
Happen Films: A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity (full video)