Thursday, March 17, 2011

The World's Banzai! Moment

Banzai!: A traditional Japanese exclamation meaning "ten thousand years" (somewhat equivalent to our own "hooray!").  Often used in the context of a banzai attack, a last ditch desperate charge.

Centuries from now when historians examine our time, I imagine they will conclude it took an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe for people to finally snap out of  their Permagrowth lethargy - the one  induced by rampant consumerism, excess debt and  the unchecked use of poisonous "black"  fossil and nuclear energy.  Japan may be featured as villain or angel, depending on which path it chooses to take after the current emergency is over.

Will it go green and reach for Sustainability, or will it stay black and remain blinded by Permagrowth?

First, let's look at where the country stands right now:
  • Japan is one of the world's blackest nations energy-wise.  In 2008 97% of all energy supplied came from coal, oil, gas and nuclear sources (see chart below, click to enlarge). 
Chart: IEA
Japan: A Black-Energy Nation

  •  Japan is one of the world's most highly indebted economies. In mid-2009 total debt stood at 472% of GDP, up from 245% in 1980 (see chart below, clock to enlarge).  The most rapid escalation came after 1990 as the government started borrowing heavily in an attempt to keep the Japanese  Permagrowth model running.  It failed, and the economy has been stagnant for years, no matter how many bridges to nowhere it built.  Importantly, most of this debt is internal and serviced from local savings, preventing outright collapse.  However, financing reconstruction after the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster is another matter altogether.
Data: McKinsey Global Institute
Japan: A Country Awash In Debt

Right now, then, Japan is certainly a Permagrowth "villain".  But catastrophic events can often lead to radical change and - who knows? - in the aftermath Japan may well become a Sustainability "angel".  It already exhibits some sustainable-like elements: Japanese society is stable and technologically sophisticated, with zero population growth and high living standards.

When seen from the perspective of Permagrowth Japan is perceived as weak (e.g. no GDP growth);  but from the Sustainability viewpoint a weakness may very well be an advantage (e.g. zero population growth).

I sincerely hope that the Japanese people, justly famous for their stoicism and perseverance in the face of serious trouble,  cry "banzai!" and choose Sustainability for their reconstruction model.  If they do and succeed (which they will), it will be the entire world's Banzai Moment.

Assuming this happens, then renewable energy will be a big winner.  I recently bought some shares in FAN, an exchange traded fund that tracks the ISE Global Wind Energy Index.  Given its recent bottom-scratching performance (see chart below, click to enlarge) I think it's a decent candidate for fans (pun smile) of long-term buy-low, sell-high strategies.

First Trust Global Wind Energy ETF


  1. What's your take Hell on the movement of the Yen over the past few days, and the G7/BoJ responses to it? (I don't really understand this stuff, and wish i didn't feel the need to!)

    I don't have any personal knowledge of Japan, but I wonder how their demographics will impact upon the path of reconstruction? Will new ideas emerge from a demographic 'top heavy' society? Can revolutions (because that is what you're talking about) come about in an ageing society, where the desire to maintain the status quo may run stronger than the need for change, a need for change required for the benefit of the smaller,younger,less powerful generations? (see Egypt/Tunisia)

  2. The yen strengthened on speculation that capital flows will go INTO Japan, as companies and individuals liquidate foreign holdings, exchange them for yen and use the money for reconstruction.

    I don't know if the "revolution" will, in fact, start in Japan. But if it does, it will be pursued relentlessly. Once the Japanese set a target they will stop at nothing until they achieve it. I know it's a tainted example, but think "kamikaze".

  3. Someone needs to invent Cold Fusion.

  4. I'm sure you'll like this quote re: nuclear energy Hells:

    "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled." ~ Richard Feynman

  5. There is no reasonable way for Japan to exploit most renewable energy sources. Wind/Solar require large land area's which is in very short supply in Japan. The population density means that there is very little "roof" area per person to pursue solar on a individual level. Bio Fuel, except a small amount that could be gained from vegetable waste is also a non-starter due to arable land limitations. Geo-thermal is possible but there is evidence that large-scale exploitation may increase the likelihood of earthquakes -- not something the Japanese are willing to risk I bet. It all comes down to land area per-capita in Japan which is a serious limitation to most renewable energy sources.

    Short of sending thier economy back to pre-1850 times, I don't see how they could have an energy mix much different than what they have -- with today's technology.

  6. The whole catastrophe, and the handling of this, by an "advanced" country like Japan, is quite surprising, perhaps less so in the oily wake of British Petroleum's utter incompetence in the Gulf of Mexico. Now it seems, like the bank bailouts, the company that runs the Japanese power plant will be taken over by the government. These several examples cast doubt on the current Koolaid the right-wing is selling, i.e. privatize everything and all will be well. No, all will be several order of magnitudes worse, due to corruption and lack of regulation.

    Again, this is surprising, given the former technical and industrial prowess of Japan - contrast this with the recent mining disaster in Chile. Different story entirely, but no less complex, perhaps even more so, but a happy ending, because thankfully, the Chileans had proper safety systems in place, and executed the rescue flawlessly. Note this is a government-run main, the Chileans, having the smarts not to privatize everything and follow the disastrous Milton Friedman Shock Therapy model.

    Jared Diamond lauds Japan in his book "Collapse" for their careful forestry management among other forward thinking practices. I think he should take another look, perhaps in a future edition, because it now seems they are certainly in areas.

    Finally, it is interesting to look at Japan's debt situation, and compare their current state with the U.S. We have a similar aging population, similar former strong industrial base, educated workforce, innovative companies. Will the U.S. follow a similar path, it's infrastructure crumbling as it squanders hard earned taxpayer dollars in the quagmires of 2 or 3 wars, bailing out wall street, and then turning around and telling the people that uncle sam is broke, and can't pay the salaries and insurance for teachers? Sadly, I think we are headed in this direction. A giant rice field for China.