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Energy and Ponzi schemes

The recent collapse of what is believed to be the largest Ponzi scheme ever says as much about what the public believes regarding wealth and the possibilities of infinite growth as it does about the scruples of investment managers. (In a Ponzi scheme, old investors are paid off using money from new investors. Exorbitantly high but fraudulent returns for the initial investors quickly attract new investors seeking the same high returns.)

In the absence of independent contrary information, unsuspecting investors will believe in Ponzi schemes as long as their returns are high. In the same way the public will put its faith in neoclassical economic theories which claim that perpetual economic growth is possible. What most investors and many Americans want is to get rich. Most recently they were led to believe that the stock market was a one-way ticket to wealth. While the stock market as a whole is not a Ponzi scheme, the companies on the exchanges are run on the basis of neoclassical economic assumptions about growth. When those assumptions are undermined, as is happening currently, investors and corporate leaders look for villains and bailouts rather than questioning the assumptions themselves.

In an effort to challenge those assumptions, systems ecologist and energy researcher Charlie Hall has long championed a biophysical approach to economics as an alternative to neoclassical economics which he likens to a Ponzi scheme. Why a Ponzi scheme? Each new wave of lending is made based on the faith that future flows of energy will increase sufficiently to create enough economic growth to pay off the new loans.

Theoretically, given no other resource constraints, this might work for a very long time if the energy were to come entirely from renewable resources. But such is not the case. The vast majority of current energy flows come from finite fossil fuels. That means that without drastic shifts in the sources of energy for society, there will be a day of reckoning, just as there is for every Ponzi scheme when not enough new investors are brought in to pay off the old ones.

(Some people think that day may have already arrived. They posit that oil supply constraints sent prices so high last summer that those high prices brought on a depression, one that will now cause massive debt defaults. They also believe that we may have no prospect of ever returning to sustained economic growth based on increasing supplies of fossil fuels.)

The lure of wealth is so great, however, that the dream will die hard. Even now middle-class investors are being told to hang on until growth returns. And, perhaps it will. But the dream of becoming wealthy remains problematic if unquestioned. First, not everyone can get rich. The idea that anybody can become wealthy is not the same as everybody becoming wealthy. Second, although fossil fuels have made possible enormous comforts for the middle-class and even many poor people, few of them would consider themselves wealthy. Wealth is a relative concept. To be wealthy is essentially to be able to pay other people to do many things for you that most people do for themselves. If everyone were to become wealthy, it would be meaningless since wealth always implies privilege, that is, inequality. If you still have to wash your own shirts, take out the garbage and drive yourself to work, you may be comfortable, but you won't necessarily consider yourself privileged.

The unreflective view of wealth--the confusion of wealth with money, the failure to see that feeling wealthy requires an underclass--masks attempts to explain the limits of wealth. Now that the expectations of perpetual financial gain are being dashed, there may be an opening to explain those limits. If the Ponzi-like scheme that animates our economic thinking can be exposed, it could help many to see, perhaps for the first time, that the source of wealth is not the financial markets or the banks, but rather the very earth, air and sea around us.

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