Apr 272012
 April 27, 2012  Posted by at 4:00 am Earth

Gordon Parks We need more growth! Spring 1943
"A Harlem scene, viewed from the subway entrance"

I read a piece on The Huffington Post today that got me thinking. In fact, it got me thinking how curious it is that so many well-meaning and relatively intelligent people arrive at such a diversity of curiously faulty ideas and conclusions, even when starting from what seem to be similar origins. It’s an all too familiar phenomenon, one that frequently has me wondering why at one point or another many dig in their heels and stop thinking when faced with seemingly complex issues.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is so common, I have to always take a close look at myself to try and prevent me from doing the same. Maybe it has something to do with our often pretty desperate desire for – clean and clear – solutions when pondering what in our experience are overwhelming questions. For instance, we often hear at TAE that we offer too much and doom and gloom, and not enough solutions. Thing is, that presupposes that solutions are – more or less freely – available. And as human as that desire may be, refusing beforehand the possibility that there may not be a neat solution to a particular problem doesn't really help the process of understanding the problem.

The article in question was written by Andrew Winston for Harvard Business Review. It addresses a dialogue between an economist and a physicist on the topic of – perennial – growth, written, in turn, by Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. Winston takes the side of the physicist. So far, so good. However, his conclusion is not:


Growth Isn't Going to Last Forever

If we stop using the dead-plant, fossil-based forms of energy, and move fast to renewable energy, we can provide all our possible power needs for many centuries and avoid the problems of compounding carbon in the atmosphere. We can also decouple the growth of quality of life (basic needs, plus rising fulfillment and joy) from the growth of energy, possibly allowing us to set rising economic targets for much longer before we hit a physical wall (we'd still need to deal with other limits like water).

Winston is the founder of Winston Eco-Strategies and "co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold and the author of Green Recovery". "He advises some of the world’s biggest companies on environmental strategy. "

Oh boy! Where to begin? How about here: I don't really know for whom that last statement is worse news, for "some of the world’s biggest companies" or for all the rest of us. Clearly, Winston has neither understood the dialogue he himself quotes and clearly endorses, nor a whole slew of other economic and physical facts.

Claiming that "… renewable energy [..] can provide all our possible power needs for many centuries…" is just plain nonsense. First off, it may exist as a dream, but it's not a reality. Whether it ever could be, then, is another question. It certainly isn't proven by any stretch of the imagination. What will make any such proof exceedingly hard to come by is the same physics Winston cites, under the illusion that it will make his point for him. It doesn't. In fact, it destroys it.

There's a whole range of issues, from the very low EROEI (net energy) renewables offer, to their often intermittent character which makes them a huge challenge for any power grid, to the fact that in order to produce solar panels, wind turbines et al, you need a lot of "dead-plant, fossil-based forms of energy", to the often overlooked problems of scalability, that make a world powered at current consumption levels by renewable energy a nice but inherently flawed mirage that disappears from us as we approach it, into a receding horizon.

Winston then dots his i's, crosses his t's and seals his fate by contradicting the very article he so supports: "… allowing us to set rising economic targets for much longer before we hit a physical wall…". Yeah, that's right. Economic growth without physical growth. As you can see below, that was not left as an option on the table in the dialogue, not even for Andrew Winston. Rising economic targets are as illusive as rising energy consumption, be it – the latter – based on fossil fuels or renewables. Efficiency in the use of energy has limits, and while these may not be precisely known or knowable in advance, it doesn't matter: thermodynamics imposes clear restrictions on efficiency.

Tom Murphy, the physicist who wrote the clever, entertaining and thought-provoking dialogue, veers off track at a different point. From his conclusions:

"The conversation recreated here did challenge my own understanding as well. I spent the rest of the evening pondering the question: “Under a model in which GDP is fixed—under conditions of stable energy, stable population, steady-state economy: if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world within which to live, doesn’t this constitute a form of economic growth?”

I had to concede that yes—it does. This often falls under the title of “development” rather than “growth.” I ran into the economist the next day and we continued the conversation, wrapping up loose ends that were cut short by the keynote speech. I related to him my still-forming position that yes, we can continue tweaking quality of life under a steady regime. I don’t think I ever would have explicitly thought otherwise, but I did not consider this to be a form of economic growth. One way to frame it is by asking if future people living in a steady-state economy—yet separated by 400 years—would always make the same, obvious trades? Would the future life be objectively better, even for the same energy, same GDP, same income, etc.? If the answer is yes, then the far-future person gets more for their money: more for their energy outlay. Can this continue indefinitely (thousands of years)? Perhaps. Will it be at the 2% per year level (factor of ten better every 100 years)? I doubt that.

So I can twist my head into thinking of quality of life development in an otherwise steady-state as being a form of indefinite growth."

The steady state theory of course comes from Herman Daly and Joshua Farley's "Ecological Economics". It is a great theory, and I’m a great admirer of Daly et al. But I don't for a moment believe that we will be able, even for a fleeting moment in time, to impose on ourselves and on each other, globally, a situation of a stable population that uses a stable amount of energy in a stable economic system.

We can't create a stable population because we don’t have sufficient power over people in other countries, or even our own, to tell them not to have children. And even if we did, we'd just create a fast ageing population, an option that brings along a whole additional set of problems. We could kill off one older person for each not-born baby, but for some reason that's not popular either socially or politically.

We can't create stable global energy use, for one thing because we don't have control over global sources. Even if we could sign a treaty with Saudi Arabia, Russia, China etc. to stop producing oil and gas above a certain level, no such treaty would last long: the relative advantage of producing and consuming more would be too great to resist at some time for some leader of some nation.

We will use whatever energy is available. Because if WE don't do it, someone else will, and threaten and/or conquer us with it. That is the tragedy of our species, and the very essence of Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. There is no such thing as a stability for us to create and impose on the world. We are as doomed towards the consumption of surplus energy sources as the yeast in the wine vat.

And even though some of us may know we are doomed in this way, that doesn't mean there's an alternative available. If we voluntarily forgo the use of energy – and I mean as a group, community, nation -, there will always be another group that will not make the same choice. And therefore we do not make that choice either. We may dream of shifting to other forms of energy, but we sure as hell are going to keep that sucker burning. We must, or we will be wiped out by those who do.

The only possible conclusion is, and I repeat myself as well as others here, that like the yeast in the wine vat, our society will crash, way before the energy surplus is finished, because no organism can survive in a medium of its own waste.

And then whoever's left will start all over again. At ground level. But perhaps with big dreams.

And that is a solution in its own right to our conundrums and dillema's. It's not one we've made ourselves, or would have chosen, but it’s still a solution. One that will remind us, if we're there to see it, that nature as a whole bats last, not just the little part of it that's human.

We must accept that there are problems we have no solutions for. And that that's alright, in its own way.

Here's Tom Murphy's dialogue. I hope he doesn't mind I put it up the whole thing.


Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist

Some while back, I found myself sitting next to an accomplished economics professor at a dinner event. Shortly after pleasantries, I said to him, “economic growth cannot continue indefinitely,” just to see where things would go. It was a lively and informative conversation. I was somewhat alarmed by the disconnect between economic theory and physical constraints – not for the first time, but here it was up-close and personal. Though my memory is not keen enough to recount our conversation verbatim, I thought I would at least try to capture the key points and convey the essence of the tennis match – with some entertainment value thrown in.

Cast of characters: Physicist, played by me; Economist, played by an established economics professor from a prestigious institution. Scene: banquet dinner, played in four acts (courses).

Note: because I have a better retention of my own thoughts than those of my conversational companion, this recreation is lopsided to represent my own points/words. So while it may look like a physicist-dominated conversation, this is more an artifact of my own recall capabilities. I also should say that the other people at our table were not paying attention to our conversation, so I don’t know what makes me think this will be interesting to readers if it wasn’t even interesting enough to others at the table! But here goes…


Act One: Bread and Butter

Physicist: Hi, I’m Tom. I’m a physicist.

Economist: Hi Tom, I’m [ahem..cough]. I’m an economist.

Physicist: Hey, that’s great. I’ve been thinking a bit about growth and want to run an idea by you. I claim that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.

Economist: [chokes on bread crumb] Did I hear you right? Did you say that growth can not continue forever?

Physicist: That’s right. I think physical limits assert themselves.

Economist: Well sure, nothing truly lasts forever. The sun, for instance, will not burn forever. On the billions-of-years timescale, things come to an end.

Physicist: Granted, but I’m talking about a more immediate timescale, here on Earth. Earth’s physical resources – particularly energy – are limited and may prohibit continued growth within centuries, or possibly much shorter depending on the choices we make. There are thermodynamic issues as well.

Economist: I don’t think energy will ever be a limiting factor to economic growth. Sure, conventional fossil fuels are finite. But we can substitute non-conventional resources like tar sands, oil shale, shale gas, etc. By the time these run out, we’ll likely have built up a renewable infrastructure of wind, solar, and geothermal energy – plus next-generation nuclear fission and potentially nuclear fusion. And there are likely energy technologies we cannot yet fathom in the farther future.

Physicist: Sure, those things could happen, and I hope they do at some non-trivial scale. But let’s look at the physical implications of the energy scale expanding into the future. So what’s a typical rate of annual energy growth over the last few centuries?

Economist: I would guess a few percent. Less than 5%, but at least 2%, I should think.

U.S. total energy 1650-present (logarithmic)

Total U.S. Energy consumption in all forms since 1650. The vertical scale is logarithmic, so that an exponential curve resulting from a constant growth rate appears as a straight line. The red line corresponds to an annual growth rate of 2.9%. Source: EIA.

Physicist: Right, if you plot the U.S. energy consumption in all forms from 1650 until now, you see a phenomenally faithful exponential at about 3% per year over that whole span. The situation for the whole world is similar. So how long do you think we might be able to continue this trend?

Economist: Well, let’s see. A 3% growth rate means a doubling time of something like 23 years. So each century might see something like a 15 20 increase. I see where you’re going. A few more centuries like that would perhaps be absurd. But don’t forget that population was increasing during centuries past – the period on which you base your growth rate. Population will stop growing before more centuries roll by.

Physicist: True enough. So we would likely agree that energy growth will not continue indefinitely. But two points before we continue: First, I’ll just mention that energy growth has far outstripped population growth, so that per-capita energy use has surged dramatically over time – our energy lives today are far richer than those of our great-great-grandparents a century ago [economist nods]. So even if population stabilizes, we are accustomed to per-capita energy growth: total energy would have to continue growing to maintain such a trend [another nod].

Second, thermodynamic limits impose a cap to energy growth lest we cook ourselves. I’m not talking about global warming, CO2 build-up, etc. I’m talking about radiating the spent energy into space. I assume you’re happy to confine our conversation to Earth, foregoing the spectre of an exodus to space, colonizing planets, living the Star Trek life, etc.

Economist: More than happy to keep our discussion grounded to Earth.

Physicist: [sigh of relief: not a space cadet] Alright, the Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via (infrared) radiation. We understand the phenomenon perfectly well, and can predict the surface temperature of the planet as a function of how much energy the human race produces. The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10 increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. [Pained expression from economist.] And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.

Economist: That’s a striking result. Could not technology pipe or beam the heat elsewhere, rather than relying on thermal radiation?

Physicist: Well, we could (and do, somewhat) beam non-thermal radiation into space, like light, lasers, radio waves, etc. But the problem is that these “sources” are forms of high-grade, low-entropy energy. Instead, we’re talking about getting rid of the waste heat from all the processes by which we use energy. This energy is thermal in nature. We might be able to scoop up some of this to do useful “work,” but at very low thermodynamic efficiency. If you want to use high-grade energy in the first place, having high-entropy waste heat is pretty inescapable.

Economist: [furrowed brow] Okay, but I still think our path can easily accommodate at least a steady energy profile. We’ll use it more efficiently and for new pursuits that continue to support growth.

Physicist: Before we tackle that, we’re too close to an astounding point for me to leave it unspoken. At that 2.3% growth rate, we would be using energy at a rate corresponding to the total solar input striking Earth in a little over 400 years. We would consume something comparable to the entire sun in 1400 years from now. By 2500 years, we would use energy at the rate of the entire Milky Way galaxy – 100 billion stars! I think you can see the absurdity of continued energy growth. 2500 years is not that long, from a historical perspective. We know what we were doing 2500 years ago. I think I know what we’re not going to be doing 2500 years hence.

Economist: That’s really remarkable – I appreciate the detour. You said about 1400 years to reach parity with solar output?

Physicist: Right. And you can see the thermodynamic point in this scenario as well. If we tried to generate energy at a rate commensurate with that of the Sun in 1400 years, and did this on Earth, physics demands that the surface of the Earth must be hotter than the (much larger) surface of the Sun. Just like 100 W from a light bulb results in a much hotter surface than the same 100 W you and I generate via metabolism, spread out across a much larger surface area.

Economist: I see. That does make sense.

Act Two: Salad

Economist: So I’m as convinced as I need to be that growth in raw energy use is a limited proposition – that we must one day at the very least stabilize to a roughly constant yearly expenditure. At least I’m willing to accept that as a starting point for discussing the long term prospects for economic growth. But coming back to your first statement, I don’t see that this threatens the indefinite continuance of economic growth.

For one thing, we can keep energy use fixed and still do more with it in each passing year via efficiency improvements. Innovations bring new ideas to the market, spurring investment, market demand, etc. These are things that will not run dry. We have plenty of examples of fundamentally important resources in decline, only to be substituted or rendered obsolete by innovations in another direction.

Physicist: Yes, all these things happen, and will continue at some level. But I am not convinced that they represent limitless resources.

Economist: Do you think ingenuity has a limit – that the human mind itself is only so capable? That could be true, but we can’t credibly predict how close we might be to such a limit.

Physicist: That’s not really what I have in mind. Let’s take efficiency first. It is true that, over time, cars get better mileage, refrigerators use less energy, buildings are built more smartly to conserve energy, etc. The best examples tend to see factor-of-two improvements on a 35 year timeframe, translating to 2% per year. But many things are already as efficient as we can expect them to be. Electric motors are a good example, at 90% efficiency. It will always take 4184 Joules to heat a liter of water one degree Celsius. In the middle range, we have giant consumers of energy – like power plants – improving much more slowly, at 1% per year or less. And these middling things tend to be something like 30% efficient. How many more “doublings” are possible? If many of our devices were 0.01% efficient, I would be more enthusiastic about centuries of efficiency-based growth ahead of us. But we may only have one more doubling in us, taking less than a century to realize.

Economist: Okay, point taken. But there is more to efficiency than incremental improvement. There are also game-changers. Tele-conferencing instead of air travel. Laptop replaces desktop; iPhone replaces laptop, etc. – each far more energy frugal than the last. The internet is an example of an enabling innovation that changes the way we use energy.

Physicist: These are important examples, and I do expect some continuation along this line, but we still need to eat, and no activity can get away from energy use entirely. [semi-reluctant nod/bobble] Sure, there are lower-intensity activities, but nothing of economic value is completely free of energy.

Economist: Some things can get awfully close. Consider virtualization. Imagine that in the future, we could all own virtual mansions and have our every need satisfied: all by stimulative neurological trickery. We would stil need nutrition, but the energy required to experience a high-energy lifestyle would be relatively minor. This is an example of enabling technology that obviates the need to engage in energy-intensive activities. Want to spend the weekend in Paris? You can do it without getting out of your chair. [More like an IV-drip-equipped toilet than a chair, the physicist thinks.]

Physicist: I see. But this is still a finite expenditure of energy per person. Not only does it take energy to feed the person (today at a rate of 10 kilocalories of energy input per kilocalorie eaten, no less), but the virtual environment probably also requires a supercomputer – by today’s standards – for every virtual voyager. The supercomputer at UCSD consumes something like 5 MW of power. Granted, we can expect improvement on this end, but today’s supercomputer eats 50,000 times as much as a person does, so there is a big gulf to cross. I’ll take some convincing. Plus, not everyone will want to live this virtual existence.

Economist: Really? Who could refuse it? All your needs met and an extravagant lifestyle – what’s not to like? I hope I can live like that myself someday.

Physicist: Not me. I suspect many would prefer the smell of real flowers – complete with aphids and sneezing; the feel of real wind messing up their hair; even real rain, real bee-stings, and all the rest. You might be able to simulate all these things, but not everyone will want to live an artificial life. And as long as there are any holdouts, the plan of squeezing energy requirements to some arbitrarily low level fails. Not to mention meeting fixed bio-energy needs.

Act Three: Main Course

Physicist: But let’s leave the Matrix, and cut to the chase. Let’s imagine a world of steady population and steady energy use. I think we’ve both agreed on these physically-imposed parameters. If the flow of energy is fixed, but we posit continued economic growth, then GDP continues to grow while energy remains at a fixed scale. This means that energy – a physically-constrained resource, mind – must become arbitrarily cheap as GDP continues to grow and leave energy in the dust.

Economist: Yes, I think energy plays a diminishing role in the economy and becomes too cheap to worry about.

Physicist: Wow. Do you really believe that? A physically limited resource (read scarcity) that is fundamental to every economic activity becomes arbitrarily cheap? [turns attention to food on the plate, somewhat stunned]

Economist: [after pause to consider] Yes, I do believe that.

Physicist: Okay, so let’s be clear that we’re talking about the same thing. Energy today is roughly 10% of GDP. Let’s say we cap the physical amount available each year at some level, but allow GDP to keep growing. We need to ignore inflation as a nuisance in this case: if my 10 units of energy this year costs $10,000 out of my $100,000 income; then next year that same amount of energy costs $11,000 and I make $110,000 – I want to ignore such an effect as “meaningless” inflation: the GDP “growth” in this sense is not real growth, but just a re-scaling of the value of money.

Economist: Agreed.

Physicist: Then in order to have real GDP growth on top of flat energy, the fractional cost of energy goes down relative to the GDP as a whole.

Economist: Correct.

Physicist: How far do you imagine this can go? Will energy get to 1% of GDP? 0.1%? Is there a limit?

Economist: There does not need to be. Energy may become of secondary importance in the economy of the future – like in the virtual world I illustrated.

Physicist: But if energy became arbitrarily cheap, someone could buy all of it, and suddenly the activities that comprise the economy would grind to a halt. Food would stop arriving at the plate without energy for purchase, so people would pay attention to this. Someone would be willing to pay more for it. Everyone would. There will be a floor to how low energy prices can go as a fraction of GDP.

Economist: That floor may be very low: much lower than the 5 10% we pay today.

Physicist: But is there a floor? How low are you willing to take it? 5%? 2%? 1%?

Economist: Let’s say 1%.

Physicist: So once our fixed annual energy costs 1% of GDP, the 99% remaining will find itself stuck. If it tries to grow, energy prices must grow in proportion and we have monetary inflation, but no real growth.

Economist: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. You can still have growth without increasing GDP.

Physicist: But it seems that you are now sold on the notion that the cost of energy would not naturally sink to arbitrarily low levels.

Economist: Yes, I have to retract that statement. If energy is indeed capped at a steady annual amount, then it is important enough to other economic activities that it would not be allowed to slip into economic obscurity.

Physicist: Even early economists like Adam Smith foresaw economic growth as a temporary phase lasting maybe a few hundred years, ultimately limited by land (which is where energy was obtained in that day). If humans are successful in the long term, it is clear that a steady-state economic theory will far outlive the transient growth-based economic frameworks of today. Forget Smith, Keynes, Friedman, and that lot. The economists who devise a functioning steady-state economic system stand to be remembered for a longer eternity than the growth dudes. [Economist stares into the distance as he contemplates this alluring thought.]

Act Four: Dessert

Economist: But I have to object to the statement that growth must stop once energy amount/price saturates. There will always be innovations that people are willing to purchase that do not require additional energy.

Physicist: Things will certainly change. By “steady-state,” I don’t mean static. Fads and fashions will always be part of what we do – we’re not about to stop being human. But I’m thinking more of a zero-sum game here. Fads come and go. Some fraction of GDP will always go toward the fad/innovation/gizmo of the day, but while one fad grows, another fades and withers. Innovation therefore will maintain a certain flow in the economy, but not necessarily growth.

Economist: Ah, but the key question is whether life 400 years from now is undeniably of higher quality than life today. Even if energy is fixed, and GDP is fixed once the cost of energy saturates at the lower bound, will quality of life continue to improve in objectively agreed-upon ways?

Physicist: I don’t know how objective such an assessment can be. Many today yearn for days past. Maybe this is borne of ignorance or romanticism over the past (1950′s often comes up). It may be really exciting to imagine living in Renaissance Europe, until a bucket of nightsoil hurled from a window splatters off the cobblestone and onto your breeches. In any case, what kind of universal, objective improvements might you imagine?

Economist: Well, for instance, look at this dessert, with its decorative syrup swirls on the plate. It is marvelous to behold.

Physicist: And tasty.

Economist: We value such desserts more than plain, unadorned varieties. In fact, we can imagine an equivalent dessert with equivalent ingredients, but the decorative syrup unceremoniously pooled off to one side. We value the decorated version more. And the chefs will continue to innovate. Imagine a preparation/presentation 400 years from now that would blow your mind – you never thought dessert could be made to look so amazing and taste so delectably good. People would line the streets to get hold of such a creation. No more energy, no more ingredients, yet of increased value to society. That’s a form of quality of life improvement, requiring no additional resources, and perhaps costing the same fraction of GDP, or income.

Physicist: I’m smiling because this reminds me of a related story. I was observing at Palomar Observatory with an amazing instrumentation guru named Keith who taught me much. Keith’s night lunch – prepared in the evening by the observatory kitchen and placed in a brown bag – was a tuna-fish sandwich in two parts: bread slices in a plastic baggie, and the tuna salad in a small plastic container (so the tuna would not make the bread soggy after hours in the bag). Keith plopped the tuna onto the bread in an inverted container-shaped lump, then put the other piece of bread on top without first spreading the tuna. It looked like a snake had just eaten a rat. Perplexed, I asked if he intended to spread the tuna before eating it. He looked at me quizzically (like Morpheus in the Matrix: “You think that’s air you’re breathing? Hmm.”), and said – memorably, “It all goes in the same place.”

My point is that the stunning presentation of desserts will not have universal value to society. It all goes in the same place, after all. [I'll share a little-known secret. It's hard to beat a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert. At 5% the cost of fancy desserts, it's not clear how much value the fancy things add.]

After-Dinner Contemplations

The evening’s after-dinner keynote speech began, so we had to shelve the conversation. Reflecting on it, I kept thinking, “This should not have happened. A prominent economist should not have to walk back statements about the fundamental nature of growth when talking to a scientist with no formal economics training.” But as the evening progressed, the original space in which the economist roamed got painted smaller and smaller.

First, he had to acknowledge that energy may see physical limits. I don’t think that was part of his initial virtual mansion.

Next, the efficiency argument had to shift away from straight-up improvements to transformational technologies. Virtual reality played a prominent role in this line of argument.

Finally, even having accepted the limits to energy growth, he initially believed this would prove to be of little consequence to the greater economy. But he had to ultimately admit to a floor on energy price and therefore an end to traditional growth in GDP – against a backdrop fixed energy.

I got the sense that this economist’s view on growth met some serious challenges during the course of the meal. Maybe he was not putting forth the most coherent arguments that he could have made. But he was very sharp and by all measures seemed to be at the top of his game. I choose to interpret the episode as illuminating a blind spot in traditional economic thinking. There is too little acknowledgement of physical limits, and even the non-compliant nature of humans, who may make choices we might think to be irrational – just to remain independent and unencumbered.

I recently was motivated to read a real economics textbook: one written by people who understand and respect physical limitations. The book, called Ecological Economics, by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, states in its Note to Instructors:

…we do not share the view of many of our economics colleagues that growth will solve the economic problem, that narrow self-interest is the only dependable human motive, that technology will always find a substitute for any depleted resource, that the market can efficiently allocate all types of goods, that free markets always lead to an equilibrium balancing supply and demand, or that the laws of thermodynamics are irrelevant to economics.

This is a book for me!


The conversation recreated here did challenge my own understanding as well. I spent the rest of the evening pondering the question: “Under a model in which GDP is fixed – under conditions of stable energy, stable population, steady-state economy: if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world within which to live, doesn’t this constitute a form of economic growth?”

I had to concede that yes – it does. This often falls under the title of “development” rather than “growth.” I ran into the economist the next day and we continued the conversation, wrapping up loose ends that were cut short by the keynote speech. I related to him my still-forming position that yes, we can continue tweaking quality of life under a steady regime. I don’t think I ever would have explicitly thought otherwise, but I did not consider this to be a form of economic growth. One way to frame it is by asking if future people living in a steady-state economy – yet separated by 400 years – would always make the same, obvious trades? Would the future life be objectively better, even for the same energy, same GDP, same income, etc.? If the answer is yes, then the far-future person gets more for their money: more for their energy outlay. Can this continue indefinitely (thousands of years)? Perhaps. Will it be at the 2% per year level (factor of ten better every 100 years)? I doubt that.

So I can twist my head into thinking of quality of life development in an otherwise steady-state as being a form of indefinite growth. But it’s not your father’s growth. It’s not growing GDP, growing energy use, interest on bank accounts, loans, fractional reserve money, investment. It’s a whole different ballgame, folks. Of that, I am convinced. Big changes await us. An unrecognizable economy. The main lesson for me is that growth is not a “good quantum number,” as physicists will say: it’s not an invariant of our world. Cling to it at your own peril.


Home Forums The Limits to Mankind

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    Reverse Engineer post=2478 wrote: Seriously, I’ll go check out the blog and see if I can’t insinuate myself in there and recruit a few new Diners. Sounds like a good Blog to do some Fishing of Commenters

    All you really have to do is register at the site, and then go to this Article Submissions Form, and try to submit your article.


    Thanks for the pointer for submissions Ash. I do have to think on how to reconfigure here though, because I do not want this to be a discussion of 2012 prophecy but rather the observable effects of geotectonic energy release. Might happen today, might take a bit of time.



    This limits to growth idea may unduly dismiss the promise of stellar expansion, this drive being the logical result of natural planetary limits. The human economy is not necessarily a closed system confined to the planets surface.
    Humans have reached the technological sophistication required to exploit offworld resources, although the density of known offworld energy sources may not yet be sufficient to enable cost-efficient interplanetary travel without some breakthrough in cold fusion or ionic propulsion.
    It seems possible to tap molecular hydrogen directly from jupiters upper layers for terrestrial use at EROEI loss of less than -50:1 for non-fusion applications as enabled with contemporary propulsion technology, but this will likely be improved upon. If it does become energetically exploitable with a goodly positive EROEI, such an extraplanetary source should last for billions of years. The transit times for hydrogen cargo vessels are still prohibitive at maximum attainable velocities of 0.08C. It would also require significant financial investments, about half of what was spent on the banks so far, to enable an intergenerational offworld colonization project for lebensraum. We could start with the moon, not much arable land, but there’s moondust containing water and tritium to exploit and plenty of solar radiation, it may become energetically viable to mine metallic resources there.
    There is a UN treaty prohibiting any nation from claiming the moon and annexing it as sovereign territory, but this treaty was never fully ratified. Mining asteroids for rare space metals may also become profitable, large corporations are contemplating the exploitation of previously unreachable resources now that the costs of attaining orbit are declining by use of space-capable aircraft.
    Plus, I’m not certain that some sort of exploitable zero-point potential does not exist. It would surely help if it did. Presenting such vague potentials as certainties to absolve all conceptual limits on energy is somewhat premature, but its not provably impossible yet that such a free lunch may be edible.


    Harvesting enrgy from Jupiter at positive EROEI is a crock of shit. The Best we can do on Mars is drop a lander down encased in balloons, so the chances we can pull endless tanker space trucks from Jupiter to the Earth and land them all is pretty fucking small here. We’ll be lucky if we can keep enough Trucks rolling on the surface of the Earth to distribute out what the earth has, fuhgettaboud what we can yank off Jupiter here.

    Good grief man, NASA is DEAD already. You think Richard Branson can fly some Virgins to Jupiter and collect up Methane to fly his private Jet? Ain’t gonna happen.



    NASA is underfunded to death, but perhaps there are more advanced private space programs up and running in secret, maybe employing those technological advances in propulsion which should have occurred by now, which must have occured by now.
    If you’ve noticed, there’s been suspiciously little activity in official space exploration since the moonlanding, too little to make sense even if the initial phase of resource exploitation is highly unprofitable for commercial purposes.
    The uses of the hugely expensive ISS seem limited to zero-G science experiments, now there’s plans to incinerate the whole station on re-entry around 2015 after it was just recently completed short a few modules. Its as if they’re not really trying, deliberately sabotaging all endeavours to space exploration.

    Stellar expansion of the human economy may truly absolve all energetic and material limits to resource consumption and human population someday, limits of ingenuity notwithstanding. And this seems the only thing which would absolve absolute limits to planetary growth, having more planets to exploit/care for.
    I find these dreams better than memorising that antihumanist rubbish plastered over the georgia killstones, such a limited vision.

    I’ve come to vehemently despise all neo-malthusian proposals to population control, but there are eventual limits to how many people this planet could sustain without biosphere denaturation, maybe around 12-15 billion with zero waste factors and another century of technological advance, but for now the species may have overshot carrying capacity as related to the growth of cities at 7.2 billion people strong.
    I’m just thinking ahead as to where all these surplus people should emigrate to, rather than plotting to kill them off. It does require space exploration to become energetically profitable, so tapping hydrogen from local gas giants would be a logical stepping stone.
    Also, it should become perfectly possible to harness solar neutrinos for energy, give it a few centuries.

    And considering the veracity of cosmogenic catastrophes, projects for interplanetary colonisation would be required for the species to avoid going extinct by a random gamma-ray burst or to eventually outlive the solar system at its death. The probability of natural extinction only approaches 0% by stellar expansion, whereas the ever-increasing probability of technotrophic autoextinction for this species as confined to this planet should vastly decrease in the epoch of stellar expansion.


    The question of economic growth and whether it can be sustained in the long run is something that is a very difficult question and one I personally go back and forth on. A major part of the problem has to do with defining economic growth.

    The general idea of economic growth tends to be measured in consumption, which is itself measured by aggregating purchases over time. The purchase is not the consumption. The utilization is the consumption. Obviously this cannot continue to grow indefinitely.

    But suppose we look at this from an accounting side instead? Instead of utilization and depletion of purchased resources as being the metrics, suppose we look instead at production and distribution? It doesn’t make sense to talk about consumption of houses for example, but it does make sense to talk about production and distribution of these. More to the point it doesn’t make sense to talk about consumption of apple trees, but it does make sense to talk about consumption of apples.

    So suppose we define economic activity as production and distribution of useful modifications to our environment (useful modifications to our environment being Belloc’s definition of wealth)? This *sounds* like the same definition as the economists use but I don’t think it is. For example, I think urban permaculture would show up in economic metrics very differently in a consumption-based vs a production-centric approach (the utility of an urban lot transformed permaculturally goes well beyond the resources consumed). In this view is it possible for perpetual growth? Perhaps. The definition here doesn’t seem to be as subject to the problem of physical limits as the standard definition.

    However, at the same time, I think that such perpetual growth would still be an illusion. It would be like running up the side of a hamster wheel not really realizing we aren’t actually going anywhere.


    Supergravity post=2535 wrote:
    I find these dreams better than memorising that antihumanist rubbish plastered over the georgia killstones, such a limited vision.

    I’d prefer to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and Skittle Shitting Unicorns, but I have Mr. Realist RE Angel sitting on my shoulder all the time telling me that the likelihood of any of this coming to pass before we get a catastrophic collapse of the current set of technological systems used to run the world is exceedingly small in probability at this point.

    Greece and Spain are already on the cusp of a catastrophic collapse. Dominoes are falling here on a monthly basis, whereas any kind of spectacular techno-fix would take decades to implement, even if one was on the shelf somewhere. We are OUT OF TIME to replace the fossil fuel based systems of transportation and food production here.

    NASA is defunded because it was a DEAD END. We can’t drop anything but the smallest of landers onto Mars, and once down on the surface we can’t lift them back up into orbit. Mining on Mars is near impossible, since no Caterpillar Back Hoes would work, insufficient Oxygen in the atmosphere to run a diesel engine. So every mining machine would have to be Nuke Powered, unless of course you have a pocket sized Zero Point Energy device. If such a thing does exist, now would be a good time for the Illuminati to pull it off the shelf but I don’t see that occurring either.

    The REALITIES we currently are faced with do not indicate a Star Trekking, Final Frontier end game for Homo Sapiens. The more likely end game from all indications would either be Extinction or REVERSE ENGINEERING our way to a low energy footprint society.

    If I am going to Prep Up, I’m going to go with the MOST LIKELY scenario here, and that is not mining Jupiter for methane or hydrogen. The likeliest scenario is that we gotta figure out how to make a go of it on this planet without the Carz and the Trucks and JIT delivery. This will not be an easy transition of course, and yes you get your Malthusian knock down of the population resultant from this. Unfortunate outcome, but pretty well carved in Stone now.

    The Georgia Guidestone Carving notwithstanding though, I do not think it is written in Stone WHO gets sent to the Great Beyond here in the greatest percentages. It is IMHO possible still to make sure the RIGHT people get their Ticket to the Great Beyond FIRST. I stay realistic here because loading up on Hopium isn’t going to get the job done that needs to be done here. The INQUISITION will get that job done.



    NASA may be ‘dead’ but the Google billionaires are now investing in an
    asteroid mining venture.

    It’s a total waste of money from my point of view but that isn’t going to stop the rich predators from ‘doing what they do’.


    I don’t expect any breakthrough progress towards space exploitation anytime soon for obvious reasons of global economic collapse, but the space program could have yielded more results by now if more resources had been spent on it since the 60’s, when both energy and credit were plentiful. The kind of resources spent by the superpowers on their nuclear weapons programs might also have gone into building a first colony on the moon. We could have been into the 2nd moonbubble by now.

    To be fair, those Mars landers were outfitted with delicate chemical analysis labs to search for life and evidence of vulcanism, no commercial interest in ores or suitable mining sites was evident in their mission, those rovers were only intended as one-shot science missions.
    Their missions weren’t total failures as I recall, one rover lasted far longer than anticipated on its solar cells, until the dust storms hit.

    The lack of oxygen in neighbouring planets’ atmospheres necessitates alternative energy generation other than combustion to operate industry there, but existant technologies may be adapted to supply energy wirelessly from orbital generators to ground machinery.
    Tesla was confident of this concept, wireless electromagnetic energy transfer should work in most atmospheric media and between planets.

    An orbital powerstation could be built around Jupiter to convert the harvested gasses, methane, ammonia or hydrogen into electromagnetic energy to be beamed by microwaves or radiowaves back to reciever stations on earth, the moon or other sites.
    Jupiter or one of its many profitable moons should also contain layers of liquid oxygen, so conventional combustion of methane or hydrogen would be possible on site, creating useful molecular byproducts for cargo transport, and the energy could be beamed straight to a receiver array close to home with minimal loss.

    But this notion was just to conceptually delimit the material and energy inputs of the human economy so that its limits are not indefinitely confined to the planet, but with the collapse I don’t expect there’ll be resources to spare for space exploration for the remainder of the century, maybe never again if global peak energy and peak technology are substantiated and become irreversible declines.

    I also wanted to mention the idea that economic activity may be definable in a way that does not require moving masses, so avoiding irreducible thermal friction and thermal waste. The economy could otherwise never become infinite in activity in a finite space, since the thermal waste, even if infinitecimal per movement, would heat up the planets atmosphere, or the universe, to infinite temperatures. And this thermal waste cannot itself be captured or dissipated by any apparatus within the economy which does not itself create thermal waste of equal magnitude in the process. If economic activity requires moveable mass it cannot become infinite at all then.
    So maybe information alone, defined in some format of usable wisdom, can somehow be traded around and counted as value-energy without requiring any external matter or energy inputs attributable to price fluctuations, assuming infinitecimal waste factors, no value externalisations and the usual gravitational heuristic of singular dimension.
    The other possible economic delimiter besides expanding to the cosmic scale, stellar expansion, would be expansion into the subatomic scale of economy. A new fermion particle has been isolated recently, manipulation of which should eventually lead to breakthroughs in the field of quantum spintronics and advance computation a millionfold, they say.

    As Reverse Engineer reminds us, if it is theoretically possible for neutrinos to interact at all with masses like the earths core, they should also be harvestable for energy someday.

    I was interested in the dark rift idea some time ago. But Ash’ arguments are probably correct; the galactic plane, although relatively thin compared to the core, is at least dozens of lightyears thick at its thinnest part, focused particle streams, x-ray or gamma spikes channeled from the active galactic nucleus should nowhere become intense enough to pose any significant harm to the planets core or biosphere.
    According to the fossil record, the periodicity of this transit across the rift, which has presumably happened many times for our solar system, is not correlated with disruptions to life on earth. Geomagnetic polarity shifts are also not correlated to mass extinctions in this way, no indications of periodic surface bombardment by cosmic rays wiping out all muticellular life on this planet, which would be expected in the prolonged absense of a geomagnetic field, but apparently this damage is prevented somehow, likely because the field never drops to zero for very long during any shift.

    There is a rumor about a deep space probe which was sent into the leading edge of the dark rift and was instantly fried by the intense proton streams, supposedly indicating that this dark rift zone is superdeadly, but its only a vague rumor. Its about as likely as the rogue brown dwarf planet-x slingshotting through the inner solar system and ejecting planets from orbit. Millions of people believe that one, without astrophysical evidence to back it up.
    Gamma ray bursts are altogether more lethal and more certain to exist, if one ever goes off within 200 lightyears the planets surface will be thoroughly sterilised. Fortunately no stars in the vicinity seem capable of producing one.

    Then again, a combination of exotic physical interactions may influence the Earth’s structural stability on rare ocassions.
    I suppose that the Earths mantle could fluctuate in density, it may have changed over time by the solarmagnetic field attenuating the cores angular momentum, or phaseshifting solar neutrinos may interact with the earths interior by changing the rate of radiometric decay of mantle isotopes somehow.
    In addition, I have this theory that the prolonged operation of a misalligned planetary electric grid may accidentally trigger a geomagnetic polarity reversal by compressing field lines or somesuch, why not.


    I am not opposed in general to a space program although I think we are fast approaching a time when we can’t afford one. I would also point out that it isn’t just a lack of energy or resources. It is also waste within those resources. Would we be better off with 68 Skylab equivalents? Or one ISS? That costs about the same…..

    A second major issue is what it would take to sustain a lunar colony. I find it highly unlikely that such a colony would be self-sufficient and therefore would require regular shipments from earth, whether these are for solar panels, or system components or whatever. Such shipments are likely to be energy intensive. There isn’t a good way of getting components to the moon in the event of a global economic collapse. I think it would be very unlikely that we’d be able to create a sustainable lunar colony, or even one we could sustain from earth post-peak-oil.

    Mars is of course somewhat different. While the Mars landers have provided a lot of interesting scientific results, the challenge of setting up any sort colony there is beyond what we could have done I think even with a lot of additional resources. Right now we don’t even know how to land a manned space capsule on Mars, much less with enough fuel to lift of again. The atmosphere is too thin to use parachutes and too thick to use retrorockets. There is no reason to think we can even put a man on mars and return him safely to earth, much less establish a colony there.

    The problem with asteroid mining, mining energy from Jupiter, etc. is that you have massive energy costs of getting the infrastructure in place and it is unlikely that the metals and energy will be worth it. How much energy does it take to pull the methane out of Jupiter’s gravity well? how much energy do you get from it? I would be seriously impressed by an EROI over 1 for such a project even before transfer to earth would reduce efficiency. So I don’t see this as much of an energy source.


    Good points. There’d be 80% probability of the first lunar colony suffering a catastrophic logistical or systems failure within 50 years of operation and being abandoned. Limits of complexity, but the second attempt should be more successful.

    In thin atmospheres liftoff needs a different approach, maybe laser or plasmakinetic levitation powered wirelessly by orbital microwave arrays. Landing might still need balloons, whatever works. Other methods of magnetic levitation could work in a thin atmosphere, but all rely on intense energy cosumption for lifting or descending anything heavy.
    but nothing concrete as such.

    Jupiters gravity is severely restrictive, initial orbital construction would be difficult, but the energy for the syphoning of materials into the orbital processing station might be supplied by jupiters own magnetic field, manipulating the winds to blow resources upwards in an electrostatic vortex. Otherwise some of its moons should be more exploitable [except for Europa; attempt no landing there].

    Mining the asteroid belt for rare space metals should become monetarily profitable at some demand function, especially if involved in an energy-sourcing application or economotively leveragable.

    Some parts of the georgia gravestones aren’t too bad, the ideal of humanity living perpetually in balance with nature seems reasonable, only that biostatism is unnatural when enforced by collectivism and oligarchical ecotechnicians.
    The part that states to guide reproduction wisely and select for fitness and diversity is more an appeal to the rule of biocracy and scientific eugenicism than a guide to humanity, to guide the reproduction of other people wisely.
    I disprove of all steady state economies which require coercement of a steady population and an end to free reproduction, but it may not be possible to have a worldwide socio-economic system where the pop could remain stable without coercion, fertility restriction, or deliberate assaults on reproductive health. The demographic transition seems to work in richer countries, it should work everywhere where prosperity happens.
    If it does occur that absolute planetary carrying capacity is reached or surpassed so that every additional human[s labor] would become a burden on the biosphere or the material economy, without possible relief of further technological innovations waste-reductions or efficiency improvements, then space colonisation, if feasible, would work to increase the total sustainable number of people offworld, the earth could then have some sort of loosely enforced population cap and stable material throughput while stimulating planetary emigration to the colonies. But its true that any provisional manufacturing of offworld carrying capacity requires costly terrestrial inputs and an operational earth economy.

    It might be equitable to set productivity increases expressible in declining labor time as a metric of growth, so that the average labor day in the year 3000 would last 5 minutes when everything is optimally automated. Eventually the whole planets production would be handled in the last remaining minute of labor time used by the technician who maintains the planetary ai brain which controls the armies of droids and bots who collect and assemble all energy and material for human consumption. The human economy would consist of unvaluated production of unautomatable creativities. The elimination of labor would make the monetary valuation of work and the concepts of money and credit obsolete.


    How do you propose to deal with the issues of differences in potential energy between the energy at the asteroid belt and Earth? I would assume that chunks of asteroids launched at the earth would be moving very fast by the time they’d get here…..


    i’ll see RE’s skittle shitting unicorn and raise him an andrew basiago:

    grav, i expect a full report!


    I listened to some of that interview with Andrew Basiago.
    Its the most preposterous story since Bernanke’s speech about QE.
    His paper ‘The discovery of Life on Mars’ is hysterical, those blurry misrecognised rocks shouldn’t pass for evidence of rocks, let alone evidence of life.


    Basiago’s highly fantastical story in the interview has him involved in a Darpa project pegasus as a child, where he believes he was forced to participate in both forwards and backwards time travel experiments, multiverse travel along divergent timelines, and physical teleportation experiments to New Mexico and to Mars, where he encounters sentient humanoid and animal species living on the inexplicably habitable surface. The martian surface is described as having comfortable parameters for atmospheric breathability, pressure, temperature and radiation exposure, completely counter to recorded scientific observations, and suspiciously no mention of lower martian gravity.

    Basiago also mentions martians visiting a darpa base in a superluminal spaceship, the legend of Tesla’s lost technologies which darpa used for quantum-access, an astrophysical catastrophe wrecking the solar system and destroying atlantis 10,000 years ago, the existence of reincarnation, and how he participated in an out of body experiment where reality is revealed as a quantum hologram projected by a higher dimensional matrix machine.

    His story may contain the highest number of sciencefiction and techno-mystical elements ever combined in a single fiction.
    Although not all technical elements of the story may be totally physically impossible, the unusual congruence of all elements existing simultaneously in the experience of a single person would not likely occur in an average universe.
    Survival of humanoid life exposed on the martian surface should be more impossible than backwards timetravel, which is deeply impossible in most cosmologies.


    so basiago’s not 48 going on 48, then.

    that’s too bad. 😉 lovely chap all the same.

    thanks, grav – you’re the best.

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