How Did We Get Here?

Growth and decline, overshoot and collapse, are not novel to capitalist economies. A few archaeologists postulate that empires rise and fall based on energy return on energy invested (EROEI). For example, the Roman Empire grew by capturing land and slaves to feed Rome until it became a metropolis. Its primary energy came from humans, animals, and land (nature) – much of it wasted on glorification and infighting. As long supply lines became harder to defend, EROEI declined, and the empire faded. The Chinese Empire similarly grew and receded periodically over 5000 years.

Knowing nothing of EROEI, the Romans’ sense of limits was limited to factors that they knew. As troubles deepened they kept building up the army to recapture their glory (always worked before). Historians later proposed no end of social and economic reasons for Rome’s decline.

Industrial economies are truly global, with supply chains longer than old agricultural imperialists could dream, and deeper into the earth. With intelligent use (with and without software), this energy feeds billions more people, and for many of them, puts much more energy at their disposal. But laws of physics (EROEI) are unchanged, and short-term myopia still limits vision. Decline or collapse of industrial economies would make the declines of ancient Rome or China seem trivial.

The present era of expansion kicked off with European colonization 500 years ago, and accelerated rapidly when fossil fuels kicked in. It is limited not only by imperial reach, but resource limits of a finite earth. But like the Romans, what we don’t know to watch rings no alarm.

A major reason is that this expansion was guided by a financial system which developed to promote it. Most financial formulas assume growth, and if growth is assumed to be success, they are blinding.