Monday, August 15, 2011

Ecological Mayhem as Economic Opportunity

Can Jeremy Grantham Profit From Ecological Mayhem? analyzes the neo-Malthusian outlook of financial guru Jeremy Grantham, manager of $150 billion in investments, author of a financial newsletter with a wide following and benefactor to The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment

Grantham argues that the late-18th-century doomsayer Thomas Malthus pretty much got it right but just had the bad timing to make his predictions about unsustainable population growth on the eve of the hydrocarbon-fueled Industrial Revolution, which “partially removed the barriers to rapid population growth, wealth and scientific progress.” That put off the inevitable for a couple of centuries, but now, ready or not, the age of cheap hydrocarbons is ending. Grantham’s July letter concludes: “We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability. The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable.”
While it may be too late to “gracefully” deal with depleted resources­, climate change and related crises, it’s never too late to mitigate the damage. And, crucially, the consequences will be unevenly distributed, creating angles for you to make money and look out for your interests, however you define them.
Grantham has a fairly standard Malthusian take on the future and an interesting recognition of his status: “The rather burdensome thought is that people won’t listen to environmentalists, but they will sometimes listen to people like me.” Building on this, Grantham thinks economics rather than politics may be the way to address climate change -- particularly for the US. “People are naturally much more responsive to finite resources than they are to climate change. Global warming is bad news. Finite resources is investment advice.” He believes this shift in emphasis plays to Americans’ strength. “Americans are just about the worst at dealing with long-term problems, down there with Uzbekistan, but they respond to a market signal better than almost anyone. They roll the dice bigger and quicker than most.” Grantham says that corporations respond well to this message because they are “persuaded by data,” but American public opinion is harder to move, and contemporary American political culture is practically dataproof.

Here's his assessment of the standard litany of potential problems.
Energy “will give us serious and sustained problems” over the next 50 years as we make the transition from hydrocarbons — oil, coal, gas — to solar, wind, nuclear and other sources, but we’ll muddle through to a solution to Peak Oil and related challenges. Peak Everything Else will prove more intractable for humanity. Metals, for instance, “are entropy at work . . . from wonderful metal ores to scattered waste,” and scarcity and higher prices “will slowly increase forever,” but if we scrimp and recycle, we can make do for another century before tight constraint kicks in.

Agriculture is more worrisome. Local water shortages will cause “persistent irritation” — wars, famines. Of the three essential macro nutrient fertilizers, nitrogen is relatively plentiful and recoverable, but we’re running out of potassium and phosphorus, finite mined resources that are “necessary for all life.” Canada has large reserves of potash (the source of potassium), which is good news for Americans, but 50 to 75 percent of the known reserves of phosphate (the source of phosphorus) are located in Morocco and the western Sahara. Assuming a 2 percent annual increase in phosphorus consumption, Grantham believes the rest of the world’s reserves won’t last more than 50 years, so he expects “gamesmanship” from the phosphate-rich.

And he rates soil erosion as the biggest threat of all. The world’s population could reach 10 billion within half a century — perhaps twice as many human beings as the planet’s overtaxed resources can sustainably support, perhaps six times too many.
And why he thinks the results of the famous Ehrlich-Simon bet didn't really settle the matter; if we extend the original bet past its arbitrary 10-year limit to the present day, Ehrlich wins the five-commodity bet 4-1, and he wins big if the bet is further extended to all important commodities.
“The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70 percent. 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.”
When prices go up and stay up, it’s not a bubble. Prices may always revert to the mean, but the mean can change; that’s a paradigm shift. As Grantham tells it, oil went first. For a century it steadily returned to about $16 a barrel in today’s currency, then in 1974 the mean shifted to about $35, and Grantham believes it has recently doubled again. Metals and nearly everything else — coal, corn, palm oil, soybeans, sugar, cotton — appear to be following suit. “From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives,” he argues. “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.”

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