Demand Destruction And Brittle Systems  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Jeff Vail has an interesting post on the demand destruction profile, noting that once the low hanging fruit has been picked off by rising oil prices, what is left can be a very brittle system waiting to collapse in the event of an oil supply shock - Demand Destruction & Brittle Systems.

I've seen a number of comments, both at The Oil Drum and elsewhere, suggesting that the US is now less susceptible to supply disruptions because we have reduced our demand for oil by several hundred thousand barrels per day over the past year. In general, I get the sense that people think we can insulate ourselves from supply disruptions, from our dependence on potentially unreliable foreign sources of oil, by improving our efficiency and eliminating "unnecessary" oil consumption. In my opinion, this is backward.

In this post, I will argue that, because the demand that is destroyed first in a free market is the demand that is easiest to eliminate, the resulting consumptive system is more inelastic, more brittle, and more susceptible to systemic shock from supply disruption. I will approach this argument by outlining what makes a system either resilient or brittle and why market-driven demand destruction creates a more brittle system. I will conclude with a few thoughts on how we can increase the resiliency of our energy-driven economy in a future environment of declining energy supplies. ...

When an economic or financial system is brittle, it is less able to absorb the impact of a shock or ongoing stress--say, a geopolitical disruption to oil supplies, or the ongoing, grinding problem of geological peak oil. When a system is resilient it tends to be able to absorb such impacts, giving the underlying system time to reorganize to eliminate or mitigate the stress event. When a system is brittle, however, it is more likely to shatter, after which point it can no longer bounce back to its original shape. When an economic system shatters, we call it "collapse"--the system enters a downward spiral into depression and dissolution. This is one of the "worst case scenarios" for the impact of peak oil--that it will overstress a brittle global economic system and act as the catalyst for economic, even societal collapse.

For this reason, it is important to understand what makes our economic system brittle or resilient, and how our personal economic choices and political/policy choices can influence the character of the system. In this post, I will look specifically at the how crude oil demand destruction changes the systemic elasticity of demand for oil, and how this makes our economic system more brittle.

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