Full-world economics and the destructive power of capital: Codfish catch data 1850 to 2000

Graph of North Atlantic cod fishery, fish landing in tonnes, 1850 to 2000
Codfish catch, North Atlantic, tonnes per year

Increasingly, the ideas of economists guide the actions of our elected leaders and shape the societies and communities in which we live.  This means that incorrect or outdated economic theories can result in damaging policy errors.  So we should be concerned to learn that economics has failed to take into account a key transition: from a world relatively empty of humans and their capital equipment to one now relatively full.

A small minority of economists do understand that we have made an important shift.  In the 1990s, Herman Daly and others developed the idea that we have shifted to “full-world economies.”  (See pages 29-40 here.)  The North Atlantic cod fishery illustrates this transition.  This week’s graph shows tonnes of codfish landed per year, from 1850 to 2000.

Fifty years ago, when empty-world economics still held, the fishery was constrained by a lack of human capital: boats, motors, and nets.  At that time, adding more human capital could have caused the catch to increase.  Indeed, that is exactly what happened in the 1960s when new and bigger boats with advanced radar and sonar systems were deployed to the Grand Banks and elsewhere.  The catch tripled.  The spike in fish landings is clearly visible in the graph above.

But in the 1970s and ’80s, a shift occurred: human capital stocks—those fleets of powerful, sonar-equipped trawlers—expanded so much that the limiting factor became natural capital: the supply of fish.  The fishery began to collapse and no amount of added human capital could reverse the decline.  The system had transitioned from one constrained by human capital to one constrained by natural capital—from empty-world to full-world economics.  A similar transition is now evident almost everywhere.

An important change has occurred.  Unfortunately, economics has not internalized or adapted to this change.  Economists, governments, and business-people still act as if the shortage is in human-made capital.  Thus, we continue our drive to amass capital—we expand our factories, technologies, fuel flows, pools of finance capital, and the size of our corporations, in order to further expand the quantity and potency of human-made capital stocks.  Indeed, this is a defining feature of our economies: the endless drive to expand and accumulate supplies of capital.  That is why our system is called “capitalism.”  And a focus on human-made capital was rational when it was in short supply.  But now, in most parts of the world, human capital is too plentiful and powerful and and, thus, destructive.  It is nature and natural capital that is now scarce and limiting.  This requires an economic and civilizational shift: away from a focus on amassing human capital and toward a focus on protecting and maximizing natural capital: forests, soils, water, fish, biodiversity, wild animal populations, a stable climate, and intact ecosystems.  Failure to make that shift will push more and more of the systems upon which humans depend toward a collapse that mirrors that of the cod stock.

Graph source:  United Nations GRID-Arendal, “Collapse of Atlantic cod stocks off the East Coast of Newfoundland in 1992


2016: record high fossil fuel use (!) and stagnating solar power installations (?)

Graph of Primary energy consumption, by fuel or source, global, 2013-2016.
Primary energy consumption, by fuel or source, global, 2013-2016.

There are many kinds of climate change denial.  A minority of people deny that climate change is occurring or serious.  This is classic denial.  But a much more common and insidious form is all around us: accepting that the problem is real, but pretending that solutions are at hand, underway, or not very difficult.  By pretending that Elon Musk’s solar shingles or whiz-bang batteries can provide easy solutions, these people essentially deny the need for rapid, aggressive action.  They are wrong.  We are not solving the climate change problem.  At worst, record high rates of fossil fuel use are locking us into civilization-threatening levels of warming.  At best, we are proceeding toward solutions, but far too slowly.   What we must stop denying is the need for rapid, aggressive, transformative action.

Each year British Petroleum (BP) releases a report and dataset detailing global energy supply and demand.  The data includes each nation’s production and consumption of coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and other energy sources.  Some data extends back to 1965.  BP provides one of the most important sources of energy information.  The company’s newest dataset—updated to include 2016—was released June 13th.  BP’s data shows that 2016 was another record-setting year for fossil fuel use: 11.4 billion tonnes of oil equivalent.  See graph above.  That same data shows that the rate of solar panel installation is slowing in nearly every nation.

The three graphs below are also produced from recently-updated BP data.  They show the amount of annual increase in the production and use of solar PV electricity in various countries.  This is approximately equal to the annual amount of new capacity added, but it further takes into account how much of any new capacity is actually being utilized.  The North American, Asian, and European nations featured in the graphs together host 92 percent of the world’s installed solar generation capacity.

The first of the three graphs shows how much solar PV production/ consumption increased each year in selected EU countries over the past 17 years.  It’s bad news: the rate of additions to solar power consumption peaked in 2012 and has fallen dramatically since then.  The graph shows that the rate at which EU countries are installing solar panel arrays has collapsed since 2012.  Progress toward renewables is decelerating.

Annual PV production and consumption additions, 2000 to 2013, EU countries

Further, note how each individual country accelerated its installation then slowed.  Spain, represented by the green bars, ramped up installation of solar panel arrays in 2008 and ’09.  After that, solar PV additions to Spain’s grid fell sharply, and rallied in only one year: 2012.  Germany’s solar installations followed a similar trajectory.  In that country, annual increases in solar power production and consumption grew until 2011, then began falling.  Additions to solar power production and consumption in Italy peaked in 2011 and have been falling ever since.  Nearly every EU nation is slowing the rate at which they add solar power.

The next graph shows production/consumption additions in the US and Canada.  The rates of new additions in those countries also appears to be sputtering.


The final graph shows the rate of production/consumption increases in China, India, Japan, and South Korea.  Clearly, capacity and consumption are rising rapidly in Asia.  But note that rates of installation are increasing only in China and perhaps in India.  One EU-based analyst told me that in recent years China ramped up solar-panel production to serve markets in the EU and elsewhere.  But when demand in those markets contracted, faced with a glut of panels coming out of Chinese factories, the government there pushed to install those panels in China.  Perhaps that isn’t the entire story.  It may be that China’s world-leading solar install rates are partly caused by a visionary concern for the environment and the climate, and partly by the need to absorb the output of Chinese PV panel factories left with surpluses after other nations failed to maintain installation rates.


Together, these four graphs tell a disturbing story.  Instead of accelerating rates of solar panel installations, we see stagnation or decline in nearly every nation other than China.  This comes along-side record-high fossil fuel use and record-setting CO2 emissions.  We’re failing to act aggressively enough to decarbonize global electricity systems and we are largely ignoring the project of decarbonizing our overall energy systems.  Rather, we’re increasing carbon emissions.  And as we do so, we risk slamming shut any window we may have had to keep global temperature increases under 2 degrees C.

Graph sources: BP Statistical Review of World Energy.