Author Topic: interesting article on economy "blip"  (Read 5797 times)

Fletch

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interesting article on economy "blip"
« on: July 23, 2013, 11:41:09 AM »
I'm curious what people's thoughts are on this. The general theory is that the last 250 years of progress were just a blip, that so little progress was made in the preceding 2000 years, and now we are just beginning to see a slowing down and can no longer believe in the idea of constant growth. I am not posting because I agree with what is said, but it is certainly thought-provoking.

http://nymag.com/news/features/economic-growth-2013-7/

renbutler

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #1 on: July 23, 2013, 11:51:14 AM »
There are reasons for this that I don't see mentioned after skimming the article: The increased intermingling of government and the economy will necessarily slow down the economy.

That's not to say that some government involvement is always bad. But the greater portion of GDP represented by government, the less the economy is built on private, individual entrepreneurialism and innovation, which are the real drivers of a booming economy.

MrsPete

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2013, 11:57:06 AM »
Interesting.  I do agree that we seem to be reaching some natural limits. 

1.  Much of our current prosperity (meaning American society, not you and me personally) is based upon living beyond our means:  houses purchased with mortgages, 6-year car loans, credit card balances and student loans that'll never be paid off.  We've kind of reached the limits on what's possible, and the result has been many people being upside-down on mortgages and a national debt that's simply shameful.  Already we have signs that this is tapering off.

2.  Much of our current American life isn't sustainable ecologically.  I mean, you don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool tree hugger to see that we can't afford to continue to throw away one-use plastic bottles and not expect a problem to emerge.  Electronics that're designed for a 2 year lifespan just aren't realistic in the long run. 


I do think we'll continue to grow -- new ideas, smallmimprovements here and there -- but I don't think our society can afford to grow at the pace we have for the last few decades.  I'm thinking of the economy more than ideas in technology and medicine. 

Fletch

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2013, 12:03:49 PM »
I was intrigued because it's very different than the views of NN Taleb, "Black Swan" took essentially the opposite view that while incremental growth has slowed, the big disruptive events are becoming more frequent (e.g. time between the invention of phone and the internet is longer than the time between the internet and the smartphone. pick your favorite "disruptive" events).

Redbeard

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #4 on: July 23, 2013, 12:22:09 PM »
I've also often wondered if there were theoretical or practical limits to economic growth. Could careful management keep an economy growing, but growing slowly enough that it doesn't outpace the ability to restore and replenish resources? At first glance, it seems unsustainable over the long haul to expect 4% growth every year.

I come away from this wondering, how could my standard of living possibly be TWICE as good as it is now? I have a nice home, a great education, plenty of food, travel, and entertainment. It certainly will take many years for my children's standard of living to double.

Lans Holman

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #5 on: July 23, 2013, 12:25:41 PM »
Is it entirely possible that the rate of growth of how much stuff the US makes has peaked?  Sure.  That really doesn't bother me.  For one thing, and this gets overlooked a lot, most people don't live in the US.  Most people live in Asia.  In our lifetimes we're going to see billions of people in Asia and Africa moving from poverty into the middle class.  Instead of spending their lives desparately trying to grow enough food to survive, they're going to be producing, creating, and inventing and be able to share their creations with the world.  That is awesome.  If it means that the US no longer gets to think of itself as the center of the world, so be it.
Then there's biotech.  We just finished sequencing the human genome 13 years ago.  If we are in the middle of a new "revolution" based on that, would we even know it?  How can he possibly claim to know that nothing like the industrial revolution will come along again?   
A little bit of pessimism can be useful, but this guy strikes me as basically cherry-picking the bad stuff.

Albert

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #6 on: July 23, 2013, 12:29:28 PM »
I've also often wondered if there were theoretical or practical limits to economic growth. Could careful management keep an economy growing, but growing slowly enough that it doesn't outpace the ability to restore and replenish resources? At first glance, it seems unsustainable over the long haul to expect 4% growth every year.

I come away from this wondering, how could my standard of living possibly be TWICE as good as it is now? I have a nice home, a great education, plenty of food, travel, and entertainment. It certainly will take many years for my children's standard of living to double.

I thought this as well, but then I let my imagination fly :) How about regular off-planet travel, computer enhanced intelligence and life spans measured in centuries?

matchewed

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2013, 12:32:18 PM »
More along the lines of what Lans and Albert have said. The Internet and it's economic impact couldn't even be imagined 40 years ago. So I think it's a fallacy to believe that things can't keep growing. They most certainly can but for reasons we can't even grasp.

Redbeard

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #8 on: July 23, 2013, 12:37:45 PM »
I've also often wondered if there were theoretical or practical limits to economic growth. Could careful management keep an economy growing, but growing slowly enough that it doesn't outpace the ability to restore and replenish resources? At first glance, it seems unsustainable over the long haul to expect 4% growth every year.

I come away from this wondering, how could my standard of living possibly be TWICE as good as it is now? I have a nice home, a great education, plenty of food, travel, and entertainment. It certainly will take many years for my children's standard of living to double.

I thought this as well, but then I let my imagination fly :) How about regular off-planet travel, computer enhanced intelligence and life spans measured in centuries?

Fair point. Perhaps it won't be (relatively) long before Mars is a suburb of Earth, and Neptune is claimed as a colony for its natural resources.

Is it entirely possible that the rate of growth of how much stuff the US makes has peaked?  Sure.  That really doesn't bother me.  For one thing, and this gets overlooked a lot, most people don't live in the US.  Most people live in Asia.  In our lifetimes we're going to see billions of people in Asia and Africa moving from poverty into the middle class.  Instead of spending their lives desparately trying to grow enough food to survive, they're going to be producing, creating, and inventing and be able to share their creations with the world.  That is awesome.  If it means that the US no longer gets to think of itself as the center of the world, so be it.

If billions of Asians and Africans begin consuming resources at the rate of middle-class America, I re-submit my concern about economic growth outpacing the limits of our natural resources.

mpbaker22

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #9 on: July 23, 2013, 01:27:45 PM »
If the economy stops growing and everything tanks except necessities, I'll rest easy on the fact that I'll be better off than 90+% of the US.

Lans Holman

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #10 on: July 23, 2013, 01:39:17 PM »

If billions of Asians and Africans begin consuming resources at the rate of middle-class America, I re-submit my concern about economic growth outpacing the limits of our natural resources.

Oh, I'm with you on this, but there are some mitigating factors.  For one, as much as we like to romanticize it, subsistence farming can actually be pretty terrible environmentally, especially if you're burning wood for your heat.  I also don't imagine they'll ever be as car-centric as we are, although I know cars are a big draw for people all over.  I also suspect we're going to see some pretty major advances in clean energy in the coming years, although you never want to count those chickens before they hatch.

Albert

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #11 on: July 23, 2013, 01:47:38 PM »

If billions of Asians and Africans begin consuming resources at the rate of middle-class America, I re-submit my concern about economic growth outpacing the limits of our natural resources.

Oh, I'm with you on this, but there are some mitigating factors.  For one, as much as we like to romanticize it, subsistence farming can actually be pretty terrible environmentally, especially if you're burning wood for your heat.  I also don't imagine they'll ever be as car-centric as we are, although I know cars are a big draw for people all over.  I also suspect we're going to see some pretty major advances in clean energy in the coming years, although you never want to count those chickens before they hatch.

Chinese are even more materialistic than Americans, so if they can they will consume just as much if not more... Population density is far greater however so some things simply won't be possible.

StarswirlTheMustached

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #12 on: July 23, 2013, 03:55:33 PM »
As for economic growth, I don't understand how anyone can expect infinite growth on a finite planet. Even if you're some kind of techno-utopianist who thinks we'll have "suburbs on mars" (because the Australian colonies did oh so much for England's economic growth. [here's a hint: it cost the crown money, but less than domestic prisons]) the solar system is a finite place. If you want to dream about the technological impossibility of interstellar travel, you can't have exponential growth (so no 4%/year!) -- the best you can hope for is cubic growth, as the sphere of human-controlled space expands at some speed less than that of light. Eventually, that too, must end, when we hit the edges of the Milky Way, which is finite. If you want to ignore the laws of physics, fine. The universe is a finite place, if you absolutely refuse to admit any other limits. Growth must stop, at some point. Period. No argument. The only question is when.

Personally I think we're rushing headlong into the Limits to Growth like Thelma & Louise careening into the grand canyon in their 3-mile-to-the-gallon convertible land yacht.

There are reasons for this that I don't see mentioned after skimming the article: The increased intermingling of government and the economy will necessarily slow down the economy.

That's not to say that some government involvement is always bad. But the greater portion of GDP represented by government, the less the economy is built on private, individual entrepreneurialism and innovation, which are the real drivers of a booming economy.
Stalin took the Russians from a peasant economy to an industrial juggernaut in 15 years. (There may have been some genocide involved, but precious little "individual entrepreneurialism".) The Chinese communists have the largest growth rate in the world, and have for decades now. Just wanted to throw that out there.

Is it entirely possible that the rate of growth of how much stuff the US makes has peaked?  Sure.  That really doesn't bother me.  For one thing, and this gets overlooked a lot, most people don't live in the US.  Most people live in Asia.  In our lifetimes we're going to see billions of people in Asia and Africa moving from poverty into the middle class.  Instead of spending their lives desparately trying to grow enough food to survive, they're going to be producing, creating, and inventing and be able to share their creations with the world.  That is awesome.  If it means that the US no longer gets to think of itself as the center of the world, so be it.
Then there's biotech.  We just finished sequencing the human genome 13 years ago.  If we are in the middle of a new "revolution" based on that, would we even know it?  How can he possibly claim to know that nothing like the industrial revolution will come along again?   
A little bit of pessimism can be useful, but this guy strikes me as basically cherry-picking the bad stuff.
Yeah, there's a reason they're desperately trying to get enough food to survive. Where to you propose to find new farmland, muchacho? How about the fact that the entire industrial apparatus you're hoping to give these folks relies on finite resources that are getting rather thin on the ground?
(Fun fact: we couldn't have the Industrial Revolution today. The only source of anthracite coal left is in Antarctica, but, hey! The ice will melt soon, I guess. In the meantime, the brown crud that's left is dross the Victorians didn't consider worth burning.)

Lans Holman

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #13 on: July 23, 2013, 04:21:38 PM »
Yeah, there's a reason they're desperately trying to get enough food to survive. Where to you propose to find new farmland, muchacho? How about the fact that the entire industrial apparatus you're hoping to give these folks relies on finite resources that are getting rather thin on the ground?
(Fun fact: we couldn't have the Industrial Revolution today. The only source of anthracite coal left is in Antarctica, but, hey! The ice will melt soon, I guess. In the meantime, the brown crud that's left is dross the Victorians didn't consider worth burning.)

I'm not proposing to find new farmland, I'm pointing out that as farmland is being used more efficiently, these societies are transforming from peasant/agrarian to industrial and in some cases skipping right ahead to post-industrial.  As much as we like to glamorize the old family farm, subsistence farming in China or India or Nigeria is a lousy way to make a living, which is why people there are willing to put up with such rough urban conditions in order to escape.
In terms of your broader point, I've already mentioned two areas, biotech and clean energy, where I see the potential for considerable improvement in human quality of life without depleting nonrenewable resources.  Nanotechnology might be another one.  You're absolutely right that growth is finite, but, as people on this forum should know, growth (in the form of things) isn't the only way to make things better.
Finally, I think your observation about coal actually undercuts what you're trying to say.  From the earliest days of the Industrial revolution, people were worried about what would happen when that coal ran out.  Did "peak coal" bringing human progress crashing to a halt?

Albert

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #14 on: July 23, 2013, 04:51:35 PM »
There absolutely, and I emphasise absolutely nothing communist about the current Chinese economic and political system. It was a poor place with very little growth while it tried to practice aggressive forms of socialism. Only once they moved to capitalism things started to improve.

Of course growth can't continue literally forever, but the world population is forecast to stabilise in another 30-40 years and it would be very desirable if it could continue at least a bit longer than that.

Eric

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #15 on: July 23, 2013, 04:52:25 PM »
Chinese are even more materialistic than Americans, so if they can they will consume just as much if not more... Population density is far greater however so some things simply won't be possible.

How'd you come to this conclusion?

Jamesqf

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #16 on: July 23, 2013, 07:00:00 PM »
The Chinese communists have the largest growth rate in the world, and have for decades now. Just wanted to throw that out there.

Except that there haven't been any actual Communists running China in the last 20-30 years.  The few left are probably in old-age homes, unless perhaps the liberal arts departments of Chinese universities serve as an endangered species reserve, as they do in the west.

Jack

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #17 on: July 23, 2013, 10:36:38 PM »
The popular media and general public seem to think that population and/or economic growth is exponential, but it's not (and never has been). It's logistic, and growth will taper off as we hit carrying capacity. It's already happened in Japan, it's happening now in western Europe, and it would be happening in the U.S. except for all our immigration.

Technology is a wild card, of course. Up to this point it's caused the carrying capacity to (unexpectedly) increase faster than we could hit it, and for all I know it might continue to do so in the future (or then again, it might not). It's fairly clear that if we consider things like fusion (that actually works), solar system colonization and Dyson spheres that it could be quite a while before the cubic growth limit Starswirl mentioned kicks in. Or it might not. I certainly don't know, and that annoying hack Michio Kaku doesn't either.

msilenus

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #18 on: July 23, 2013, 11:24:49 PM »
Our per-household GDP is about 3x our median household income.  In 1970 it was about 2x.  If we could figure out a way to get back to 1970-levels of income disparity, we could increase median household income by ~50% without any growth at all.

We're already rich enough that growth doesn't have to matter.

Luck better Skill

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #19 on: July 24, 2013, 08:17:51 AM »
  The key improvement of the industrial revolution is it make individual work more productive.  A person could weave more cloth, make more parts, etc.  This was exponential not incremental.  You went from weaving one blanket in a week to weaving scores.
  The internet changed commerce incrementally.  Sales went up but some internet growth was just a shift from retails stores.  Notice the number of vacant storefronts now.
  Although third world nations can expect to see high growth the west cannot.  Our growth will be slower with some lost to service national and personal debt. 

StarswirlTheMustached

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #20 on: July 27, 2013, 02:33:07 PM »
The Chinese communists have the largest growth rate in the world, and have for decades now. Just wanted to throw that out there.

Except that there haven't been any actual Communists running China in the last 20-30 years.  The few left are probably in old-age homes, unless perhaps the liberal arts departments of Chinese universities serve as an endangered species reserve, as they do in the west.
They still call themselves the communist party, and while it seems an article of faith in the West that "they're just like us now," the reality isn't quite there; since many of their giant firms (who you HAVE to work with to get your business into the country) are government-owned, it's really fuzzy where the public sector ends and the private sector begins. Plus, look at who owns large swaths of the private sector businesses that are there? Slap me with a chicken if it isn't high-ranked members of the Party. While this is nothing like the traditional Soviet or Maoist Communism of yore, it's still really not the same system you have in the US. IF they want to call it Chinese Communism, who are we to argue? They can call it whatever they want. It's not like they had actual "socialism" when they were jabbering about that, either.

Even if you want to pin Chinese development on the liberalization of the economy, you can't fault Stalin when it comes to economic growth. You can fault Stalin on everything else, but not that one.

StarswirlTheMustached

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #21 on: July 27, 2013, 03:03:38 PM »
Yeah, there's a reason they're desperately trying to get enough food to survive. Where to you propose to find new farmland, muchacho? How about the fact that the entire industrial apparatus you're hoping to give these folks relies on finite resources that are getting rather thin on the ground?
(Fun fact: we couldn't have the Industrial Revolution today. The only source of anthracite coal left is in Antarctica, but, hey! The ice will melt soon, I guess. In the meantime, the brown crud that's left is dross the Victorians didn't consider worth burning.)

I'm not proposing to find new farmland, I'm pointing out that as farmland is being used more efficiently, these societies are transforming from peasant/agrarian to industrial and in some cases skipping right ahead to post-industrial.  As much as we like to glamorize the old family farm, subsistence farming in China or India or Nigeria is a lousy way to make a living, which is why people there are willing to put up with such rough urban conditions in order to escape.
In terms of your broader point, I've already mentioned two areas, biotech and clean energy, where I see the potential for considerable improvement in human quality of life without depleting nonrenewable resources.  Nanotechnology might be another one.  You're absolutely right that growth is finite, but, as people on this forum should know, growth (in the form of things) isn't the only way to make things better.
Finally, I think your observation about coal actually undercuts what you're trying to say.  From the earliest days of the Industrial revolution, people were worried about what would happen when that coal ran out.  Did "peak coal" bringing human progress crashing to a halt?
Actually, mid-sized farms (large family farms, not subsistence) are quite quite a bit more productive per area than the collectivized industrial giants-- be that Soviet collectivization or corporate ownership, it amounts to the same thing. They are less productive by manpower, however, and that's what costs these days. Because there's absolutely no surplus workers, right?
As for the move away from subsistence farming... that has largely already happened. We called it the Green Revolution. Yields went up, for a while, and population rose to match. Now we've more hungry mouths to feed than ever.

As for "peak coal" -- where's the British Empire, these days? The Imperialists fretted that peak coal would end them, and they were right. As a civilization, we were able to transition to petrol, and keep that nebulous "progress" going for a while, sure. But petrol is better than coal.  It has a higher energy density, burns hotter (which means more efficient heat engines), and takes less energy to pump out of the ground.
There's no better energy source lined up. There's not even anything comparable.
"But clean energy!" you cry-- there is no renewable resource that can match oil in terms of energy return on investment, energy density, or sheer convenience. Dr. Tom Murphy has done a fairly good writeup on that here.

"But biotech!" you cry-- what do you know about biotech, son? What exactly do you expect from it? So far, there's not a single bio-engineered crop that gives better yields than traditional varieties unless you're dowsing both fields in petroleum-derived Round-Up(tm).  Just because you can tinker with a genome doesn't make you god; you're subject to the same laws of physics that nature's been working with for the past 4 billion years.

"But fusion!" you cry-- it's been 50 years out for 50 years now, and there's no reason to believe we are any closer to a breakthrough. Plasmas are bloody cussed things, you see. Every new reactor should be the one that finally breaks even, based on the scaling laws from smaller experiments before. Trouble is, those empirical scaling laws hold over only a very tiny regime, and when the new reactor gets built we discover a whole new batch of instabilities and losses that set us back to square one. The goalposts just won't stay still, and there are a number of physicists in the field who now believe that nothing less energetic than a hydrogen bomb is ever going to work.
Physically possible? Sure. But there's a big difference between physically possible and practical. We went to the moon! A few times. A long time ago. You could fly to London faster than the speed of sound!  For a few years, anyway, quite a while back. These things were possible, but not practical, and now they're gone. It may be hard to believe, but a whole lot of our technological gadgetry may face the same fate.

So what, though? There's more to life than silly gadgets. As Luck better Still pointed out, the IT "revolution" hasn't done much but put a whole lot of people out of work. If that's "growth," how much of it can we take?

I know one thing, though. My parents had a house, a car, two kids and all the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle on one income and a college diploma.They didn't scrimp. They weren't frugal, or mustachian. They just had the money. Virtually everyone I know has a pair of university educations, three or four jobs, and can barely make ends meet. Would it be easier if they were more frugal? Sure. But if you want to say that's growth-- well, I'll repeat myself. How much more of this kind of growth can we really take?

Insanity

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #22 on: July 27, 2013, 05:56:16 PM »
Every time a conversation comes up around one bubble popping, another one shows up.

Things I see making a considerable difference:
Nanotechnology - drug delivery, material usage, etc.
Solar power - cars, homes, offices, sports fields




Luck better Skill

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #23 on: July 28, 2013, 06:49:02 AM »
  To clarify my point.  The industrial revolution increased individual productivity.  There were high demands for basic goods.  The human race conditions were improved by having more blankets, tools, etc.  Now we produce so much junk/toys/consumer goods that are luxuries.  MMM talks on that.  That explosion of productivity will be hard to ever match in our lifetimes.
  Green energy reduces pollution.  It will shift jobs/wealth in the energy field.  Unlikely it will create more overall wealth, jobs, etc.  Going from horse to gas engine was an improvement, gas to green-electric is a lateral move.
 

StarswirlTheMustached

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Re: interesting article on economy "blip"
« Reply #24 on: July 28, 2013, 08:30:14 AM »
  To clarify my point.  The industrial revolution increased individual productivity.  There were high demands for basic goods.  The human race conditions were improved by having more blankets, tools, etc.  Now we produce so much junk/toys/consumer goods that are luxuries.  MMM talks on that.  That explosion of productivity will be hard to ever match in our lifetimes.
Isn't that a good thing? IF the first explosion of productivity gave us way more stupid shit than we could ever consume, such that a whole industry had to be invented to convince us to want it... we don't want more. Pretty much every gain in productivity since the last war has just been used to put people out of work, because there's just no way to manufacture more demand. (Except, perhaps, in China-- but they'll fill their own demand, thank you very much. At least until their coal runs out.)

[quote  author=Luck better Skill link=topic=7382.msg115298#msg115298 date=1375015742]
  Green energy reduces pollution.  It will shift jobs/wealth in the energy field.  Unlikely it will create more overall wealth, jobs, etc.  Going from horse to gas engine was an improvement, gas to green-electric is a lateral move.
 
[/quote]
"Lateral" implies equality. It's not, if you consider planes, trains and automobiles. Converting diesel-electric lines to electrified rail is an improvement on all fronts,  so that's trains. But when it comes to planes and automobiles? Fugettabout it. There are physical reasons why electrochemistry isn't going to be able to match the power-density of combustable fuel, and when you do a full life-cycle analysis? Those batteries are bloody not green. And they're not made with green energy, either.
Come to think about it, nor are the renewable energy projects being put up. It's still all on oil.

Of course, the solution is then easy. If you can't make a lateral move, embrace what electricity can do better and toss what it can't into the dustbin of history. Biking in town and taking trains between is a very idyllic existence, actually; I've lived that way and it's marvellous where it's possible. Then we can save what FF is left for the farmers--the 3% of the population who actually need motor vehicles--until we have a real alternative for them.

Of course that's not going to happen, (the key words up there were "where it's possible" and there's no great rush to make it possible, most places) so we're going to have to do this the hard way. "The hard way" means a whole lot of economic malaise for the common man who wants to keep on buying fancy toys we cannot afford anymore. Like the fellow who lives 100km from the city on prime farmland, but commutes into work like any other suburbanite shmuck in his half-ton truck. (When did the country turn into sprawl? I guess when cost-price scissors cut the heart out of family farms. That schmuck probably wants to live off the land like his grandpappy did, but can't make enough off of it, and so has a second city job. It really sucks to be him. I bet he's had a whole bellyful full of 'progress' too, and would be happy to walk away from the table.)