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Well, that about wraps it up for growth.
August 1, 2011 7:23 AM   Subscribe

UCSD physicist Tom Murphy inaugurates his blog Do the Math with two posts on the thermal limits of energy use on earth and the related absurdity of infinite economic growth.
posted by adamdschneider (59 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Listen, your evidence-based views reveal your liberal bias. The US is the greatest nation on earth, ever, and economic growth can continue on forever and will mostly favour white folks who have earned it by being so prejudiced against.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:42 AM on August 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


As long as these physically-bounded activities comprise a finite portion of our portfolio, no amount of gadget refinement will allow indefinite economic growth. If it did, eventually economic activity would be wholly dominated by us “servicing” each other, and not the physical “stuff.”

I don't see the problem with this. Is he imagining some kind of "peak blowjobs?"
posted by pwnguin at 7:48 AM on August 1, 2011 [12 favorites]


In a similar vein: The Industrial Revolution as Energy Revolution and my favorite quote from The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971):
"[The fundamental limit of natural resources] also exposes the futility of the human pride that overcame some scholars on learning that by A.D. 2000 we may be able to feed people with proteins derived from crude oil and thus solve the population problem completely and forever. Highly probable though this conversion is, we can rest assured that sometime, perhaps sooner than one may think, man will have to reorient his technology in the opposite direction—to obtain gasoline from corn, if he will still be around and using internal combustion engines. In a different way than in the past, man will have to return to the idea that his existence is a free gift of the sun."
posted by Skorgu at 7:50 AM on August 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is he imagining some kind of "peak blowjobs?"

In a similar vein:

HA! I love you unintentional metafilter humour!
posted by Fizz at 7:52 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, by the year 3000 the average human will be 100 feet tall and weigh 50 tons. We have to tell people before it's too late!
posted by XMLicious at 7:58 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Growth has become such a mainstay of our existence that we take its continuation as a given. Growth brings many positive benefits, such as cars, television, air travel, and iGadgets. Quality of life improves, health care improves, and, aside from a proliferation of passwords to remember, life tends to become more convenient over time. Growth also brings with it a promise of the future, giving reason to invest in future development in anticipation of a return on the investment. Growth is then the basis for interest rates, loans, and the finance industry.

And ... um ... y'know ... population.

[/malthus]
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:08 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The US is the greatest nation on earth, ever, and economic growth can continue on forever and will mostly favour white folks who have earned it by being so prejudiced against.

Nice try, pinko (shotgun cocking noises.)
posted by griphus at 8:11 AM on August 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


I remember having this exact argument with a fervent member of the College Republicans who believed exactly as clvrmnky parodies above. In 1981.
posted by localroger at 8:11 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, by the year 3000 the average human will be 100 feet tall and weigh 50 tons. We have to tell people before it's too late!

So you believe economic growth will taper off, then? How do you believe the financial system will cope with that outcome?
posted by adamdschneider at 8:14 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Better than pique blowjobs.

Trust me.
posted by Eideteker at 8:21 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Say the average human being weighs 100 kg (yeah, this is an overestimate, but round numbers will make this easier) and therefore has volume 0.1 m3 (and the same density as water).

Now say the population continues to grow at one percent per year.

Right now there are about seven billion humans. All together we occupy 7 × 108 cubic meters, or a sphere of radius 551 meters. So there's plenty of space for us, right?

But if we reproduce at one percent per year, then
- t years from now, the total human population will be (7 × 109) e0.01t;
- therefore all the humans will have a total volume (7 × 108) e0.01t cubic meters;
- therefore they'll all make up a sphere of radius (7 × 108) e0.01t / (4π/3))1/3 meters. Simplifying a bit, that's 551et/300;
- so that sphere will be expanding at a rate of (551/300) et/300 meters per year.

Doesn't sound too bad, right, at t = 0? The sphere is currently expanding at a rate of 551/300 meters per year -- roughly one human height per year.

But after about 4700 years, there will be about 1030 of us, and that sphere will be expanding at the speed of light. So we're doomed.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:27 AM on August 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Or, you know, people might stop having kids.
posted by empath at 8:29 AM on August 1, 2011


This reminds me of a story a few years ago, maybe I saw it via MeFi, it described the absolute limits of computing. He runs it up the scale of computing power, assuming infinite energy supply. The limit is always thermal dissipation. The limit is not how much energy you can pump in, but how much energy you can dissipate. The ultimate computer is essentially a ball of white-hot plasma.

I find it amusing someone calculated the limits of computing before they calculated the limits on human activity on Earth. But this sort of thinking has started to bother me lately. It deals with these problems as ecosystems, constrained by physical laws. Obviously we have stricter restraints as human beings with political problems. I've been horribly depressed about this subject since I saw Adam Curtis' recent documentary series "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace." One of the shows deals with the "Living Systems" paradigm, that we can deal with any system in the universe as an ecosystem, at whatever scale we can examine. But Curtis argues (as I interpret it) that this paradigm has lead us to deal with our existence by modeling even our own activities as robotic machines. Obviously there was a long series of precedents, from Malthus to The Club of Rome, but it seems like only lately, with our intimate interactions with personal computers, have we begun to dehumanize ourselves by internalizing ourselves as a macrocosmic, mechanistic ecosystem. We have become interchangeable parts, removable and replaceable chips in a larger computing structure.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:30 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or reproduction rates will be slowed by the time dilation effects of the relativistic expansion.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:31 AM on August 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Anyone who is in a position to do anything about this problem already knows of its existence and ramifications and is already driving the world's economy hell-for-leather towards a solution for it.

A solution which does not include as relevant factors the long-term health and life enrichment prospects of the poorer 99.9% of the planet. We can come along for the ride if we can make ourselves useful (grow food, clean bathrooms), but we certainly won't be living any kind of "private estate" (e.g. single-family dwelling on a parcel of land) life as we have been for the past while.

Look at the income divide: they're starting already to split themselves off from the main herd. The brazenness of this decade's political theatre is another indicator: they simply don't care what anyone thinks. I would not be surprised within another decade to see their eventual permanent enclave/retreats become physically manifest: e.g. Martha's Vineyard equipped with private police forces, etc.

Mr. Science in the original article seems to suppose that the planet is run by selfless actors who want to do everything they can to make our species and our habitat a sustainable, successful, pleasurable and enjoyable place for all beings. Don't make me laugh. Nothing suggests that to be the case; everything suggests the opposite: the golden few who push and pull the levers care only for themselves.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:33 AM on August 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Global Population will peak. The most important factor in population growth is the education of women and improving survivability of offspring to reproductive age. These things are not really economically constrained at present, more socially constrained. There is far and away enough food to feed everyone.

A large portion of the value of stuff, particularly property is speculative: we believe land is valuable largely because you can't make more and that there will be more and more people who want land. As soon as either of those statements are false, well, so much of the price of land will evaporate. The same can be said about many other raw materials.

Moreover, we are necessarily bounded by the laws of physics. Oil will run out, exactly the same way the trees did on Easter Island. Anyone telling you otherwise is either a fool or outright mendacious.

charlie don't surf: It's the Bekenstein Bound and trust me, people have been thinking about the carrying capacity of the earth before 1972.
posted by Freen at 8:34 AM on August 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


But this sort of thinking has started to bother me lately. It deals with these problems as ecosystems, constrained by physical laws.

Well, as uncomfortable as it may be, the ultimate constraint will always be physical laws. The point I think the blog is making is that even under some weird fantasy best-case scenario, we're doomed in under 500 years at current rates. The implication is that under realistic conditions, we're doomed far, far earlier at current rates.
posted by odinsdream at 8:38 AM on August 1, 2011


I realized both these things when I was about 9. This guy does the math that I don't want to do (can't?), but the results seem like common sense, mathematically.

Or, you know, people might stop having kids.

The energy crisis will hit hard in 100-500 years (maybe sooner, sure). The expanding-at-the-speed-of-light crisis will apparently hit in 4,700 years.

The not having kids crisis would hit us in less than 20. It would make more sense to start killing everyone over 50.

But yeah, one way or another, we're all dead, as individuals and as a species. Good luck.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:41 AM on August 1, 2011


Well, I think his point is more that we need to stop thinking in terms of economic growth sooner rather than later and transition to steady state economic models before nature "does it for us" as it were. I mean, there could always be a disaster or resource crash of some kind, but I don't think that's the drum he is beating here.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:43 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


The implication is that under realistic conditions, we're doomed far, far earlier at current rates.

Depending on your definition of "doomed", yes.
posted by Bangaioh at 9:04 AM on August 1, 2011


"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace."

This poem was written in 1950 by Richard Brautigan. I read it to my students as an example of extraordinary precognition, or synthesis of information by a single human being. It is only available as the original typewritten piece, published by City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco.

Murphy has so nicely crunched the numbers for us, and we should be looking in space for the mass catastrophes this kind of economy makes. The disasters should be plainly visible. Giant explosions, or great empty holes sucking everything in. Systems that were there, but now are not there.

Many Utahans are still agrarian, and remember the world as it was before we bound the whole scene with poles and wires. They still get together under the trees for celebrations, and enjoy the bounty this world has to offer, in the way of food, and companionship.

Still, Utahans will do anything the money asks for, even making way for nuclear pollution. They still over build, and still have the youngest population in the US. They look to Battle Star Galactica for their answers. I hope the intergalactic democracy sends some reps soon, so we can get a grip on the rarity of this world. I am sure our greed and need for variety is universal, but the Earth isn't.
posted by Oyéah at 9:10 AM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


That what wars are for.
posted by whuppy at 9:14 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
     (right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
     (and it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

posted by mrgrimm at 9:27 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


erp, that's Richard Brautigan, 1967 (? same year as Trout Fishing?), later republished in The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:29 AM on August 1, 2011



Poet: Richard Brautigan
Poem: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Year: Published/Written in 1950

He was born in 1935, and wrote this while he was a young man.
posted by Oyéah at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2011


When I had the argument with the College Republican I chased the absurdity in a different direction, to the point when we would have effectively instant access to every bit of information in the Universe. When I finally figured out what that might look like and how to write a story about it it became The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, a machine which might accurately be described as being of loving grace. I did, however, think of a way humans are very likely to thoroughly fuck that up too.
posted by localroger at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


These are great posts, just rigorous enough to be convincing without getting too technical and math-heavy for me to follow. I'm glad they were posted here.

One bit of logic that I don't quite follow (but which really isn't central to the arguments he's making):
This would mean that an increasingly small fraction of economic activity would depend heavily on energy, so that food production, manufacturing, transportation, etc. would be relegated to economic insignificance. Activities like selling and buying existing houses, financial transactions, innovations (including new ways to move money around), fashion, and psychotherapy will be effectively all that’s left. Consequently, the price of food, energy, and manufacturing would drop to negligible levels relative to the fluffy stuff.
I understand that he's projecting an absurd situation for the purpose of pointing out its absurdity. But I don't see how he can make any prediction about the price of energy or energy-bounded activities based solely on their share of the total economy.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:36 AM on August 1, 2011


The 1950 date is what makes the poem almost an out of place artifact. Not to detract from this article above, but the forward thinking of this mathematician is as prescient as the poem.
posted by Oyéah at 9:37 AM on August 1, 2011


Quality of life improves, health care improves, and, aside from a proliferation of passwords to remember, life tends to become more convenient over time.

we can remember it for you wholesale
posted by LogicalDash at 9:39 AM on August 1, 2011


I don't see how he can make any prediction about the price of energy or energy-bounded activities based solely on their share of the total economy.

Isn't "share of the economy" determined by price relative, though?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:40 AM on August 1, 2011


I think those two posts are fantastic and make it obvious that our current trajectory isn't sustainable. He is careful to state repeatedly that we shouldn't focus on exact timelines or numeric assumptions he's made and that it's about the ideas. And of course world leaders and populations are doing a lousy job of planning for these eventualities, but it's good to be aware of them.

Maybe I like them because these are the two things (economic growth and popluation/energy growth) that I run up against every time I try to solve the world's problems in my head. It's clear as day that trying to reduce population size and energy use are directly opposed to trying to grow economically. The only (daydream) answer is to come up with a system where we have:

* A relatively steady population of say, one billion.
* A human goal of providing a reasonable existence for those people, and a de-emphasis on and disincentive towards economic activities that don't help move towards that goal. Having iPads or video games and things is fine, but manufactured demand via advertising needs to go.
* A clear decoupling of human value from economic output. In all those sci-fi utopias, we build machines so we can write poetry, not so we can be unemployed and ground down by the people at the top.

It seems like we could just, ya know, make a list of stuff we need (better energy source, better medicine, human rights, sustainable food, etc.) and start working on those things as a great big 1 billion person team.

Now I'm off to pet my magical rainbow bunny.
posted by freecellwizard at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I understand that he's projecting an absurd situation for the purpose of pointing out its absurdity. But I don't see how he can make any prediction about the price of energy or energy-bounded activities based solely on their share of the total economy.

It's pretty clear when he gets to the economics section that he has just started making things up, or at least is doing a piss-poor job of questioning his assumptions—e.g., the assertion that a few individuals could buy up all the food if it were cheap, because the operation of markets free of any restraint is a force of nature or something. Presumably the billions of other people who would also like to eat would just stand back and starve in deference to an ideal of private property which has magically taken on the same force as the laws of thermodynamics.
posted by enn at 9:44 AM on August 1, 2011


Food is relegated to an ephemerally priced commodity, when apples from China are cheaper in stores than apples grown locally. Food becomes a squishy financial player, when the prices are so easily manipulated, and a medium sized garden will supply a small family's vegetables for the summer, and into the winter if foods are put up. Then urban poor have to travel too far to find produce the cost of travel trumps quality of resources.

The mega enterprises are costly, when their ultimate cost is manipulated, when whole malls sit empty because of fluctuations in financial markets, which make the infrastructure investment unprofitable. Energy is wasted on a grand scale, there is no bigger player than the military in this closed system. For a long time the Air Force dumped jet fuel at the end of each fiscal quarter to get their next allotment up. They will deny doing this, but around the Winter solstice, the air in the SL Valley reeked of kerosene, especially if there was inversion. We live in a culture of waste on a grand scale. We have become numbed to the subtle joys of living. The Slow Life Movement is one answer to this.

Here is another example of things, it costs $75 to reasonably cool a 2000sq foot house in Utah, where prices are controlled by public interest. In California, the cooling bill is $750 for a 2000 sq foot house. So as long as the money does our thinking there is no hope for reasonable use of world resources.
posted by Oyéah at 9:56 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


* A relatively steady population of say, one billion.

1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

-The Georgia Guidestones
posted by nTeleKy at 10:10 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


the absolute limits of computing. He runs it up the scale of computing power, assuming infinite energy supply. The limit is always thermal dissipation. The limit is not how much energy you can pump in, but how much energy you can dissipate. The ultimate computer is essentially a ball of white-hot plasma.

I don't know if he was the first person to come to that conclusion, but I heard (the late) Jim Gray give a talk on The Research Channel about it a few years ago. If you ever see it on TV it's worth watching.

He also posited an additional limit, which is that a single processor core won't get much bigger than about an inch or two, because that's the size at which you can no longer keep coherence across the processor in a single clock cycle because the information won't propagate fast enough. But this means that you don't want a big flat square processor; eventually we'll want denser spherical ones, because that minimizes the internal distances for a given volume of transistors.

Currently processors are pushing towards more parallelism rather than against the limits of single core speed and bandwidth, so it might be a long time before we get to Gray's "smoking, hairy golfballs." But eventually I think he might be right.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:17 AM on August 1, 2011


Here is another example of things, it costs $75 to reasonably cool a 2000sq foot house in Utah, where prices are controlled by public interest. In California, the cooling bill is $750 for a 2000 sq foot house. So as long as the money does our thinking there is no hope for reasonable use of world resources.

So the problem here is price controls, no? People in California purchase electricity at something close to the amrket price, while people in Utah subsidize the problem away.

these are interesting blog posts, but for some reason everyone seems to be overlooking the obvious answer of 'expand out into space.' The computer revolution not only makes information devices small enough to go in your pocket or under your desk, but is heading towards doing the same thing for manufacturing, obviating the need to make stuff in one place and then expend humongous amounts of energy shipping it to wherever people want to buy it. The inefficiencies that accompany small-volume manufacturing are more than offset by the savings in transportation costs. True, you still have to transport raw materials around, but you have to do that for concentrated manufacturing anyway.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:31 AM on August 1, 2011


Or, you know, people might stop having kids.

Never going to happen, in my opinion. Do you use facebook? Take a look at how many of your friends not only have kids, but have greater than two. It's depressing.
posted by maxwelton at 11:33 AM on August 1, 2011


everyone seems to be overlooking the obvious answer of 'expand out into space.'

You will need to define what you mean by this and what problems you expect it to solve. It is non-obvious.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:48 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


for some reason everyone seems to be overlooking the obvious answer of 'expand out into space.'

That's because it's not a solution. Terraforming Mars does us no good if we're already using the entire Sun's energy output. Given a fixed energy budget (and no possible efficiency gains), adding more people means decreasing the standard of living across the board.

And getting a non-trivial portion of the Earth's population out of the solar system is somewhere between all-but-impossible (massive fleets of hibernation or generation ships) and completely impossible (faster-than-light travel).
posted by jedicus at 11:51 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


The inefficiencies that accompany small-volume manufacturing are more than offset by the savings in transportation costs.

Yeah, except that this is not true. The latest generation of CNC milling machines and lathes and RepRap machines are nice, but they're a long, long way from being able to turn out a car. Or a coffee pot. Or most other consumer goods, really, on any sort of competitive level with traditional manufacturing. They are really only good at producing one-off parts or custom products -- which is awesome, because traditional manufacturing does that stuff very poorly, but traditional manufacturing does mass production really well.

Plus as you admit, you'd need to move raw materials around anyway, it's not as though small-scale manufacturing really eliminates transportation. If anything, the increasing costs of transportation will probably cause more consolidation of manufacturing in areas near raw materials, because by manufacturing near the raw materials you avoid having to transport the portion of the raw materials that would eventually become waste during the manufacturing process.

I could see a lot more "Ikea-style" products though, which are manufactured in factories but not fully assembled, and are transported in some very compact, volume and weight-efficient manner and then are completed either by the purchaser at home or at the point of purchase by store employees.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:01 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


seanmpuckett nailed it.

Anyone who is in a position to do anything about this problem already knows of its existence and ramifications and is already driving the world's economy hell-for-leather towards a solution for it.

But it seems that even here in the blue, there's more interest in wanking and riffing on the theoretical absurdities, than in observing and possibly changing what occurs in the present.

But dammit, I don't know what to do, either.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:34 PM on August 1, 2011


Then again, my wife's now a chef, and I can fix yachts, so maybe there's a place in the new world order for us, after all.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:37 PM on August 1, 2011


That's because it's not a solution. Terraforming Mars does us no good if we're already using the entire Sun's energy output.

It does if your goal is to avoid overheating the earth. I am not really convinced by his slippery-slope argument, as you can probably tell. I think people often mistake a sigmoid for an exponential, as lampooned here.

Yeah, except that this is not true. The latest generation of CNC milling machines and lathes and RepRap machines are nice, but they're a long, long way from being able to turn out a car. Or a coffee pot.

I said distributed manufacturing was 'headed towards doing the same thing for manufacturing' as the computer revolution did for information storage, not that it already had.

Plus as you admit, you'd need to move raw materials around anyway, it's not as though small-scale manufacturing really eliminates transportation.

I said it eliminated transportation of the finished product, not of the raw materials. I never claimed it was going to eliminate all transportation.

by manufacturing near the raw materials you avoid having to transport the portion of the raw materials that would eventually become waste during the manufacturing process

That's fine if you only use a small number of different materials or your raw materials are found near each other. There is no assurance that this is the case for an awful lot of products.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:36 PM on August 1, 2011


... people often mistake a sigmoid for an exponential

So you're saying we won't have perpetual growth? Is that going to be the result of a Mad Max style dystopia, or do you think humans will see the errors of our ways?

Color me skeptical.
posted by phliar at 3:23 PM on August 1, 2011


freecellwizard: "Having iPads ... and things is fine, but manufactured demand via advertising needs to go."

Anybody else find this statement hilarious?
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:46 PM on August 1, 2011


Expanding into space is very important for us as a species because it gives us an insurance policy against the ultimate disaster. I note idly that the super-wealthy are now driving this quest directly rather than letting inefficient government bureaucracies e.g. NASA do it for them. Governments are much better at strip mining than well digging, after all. Blunt instruments.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:01 PM on August 1, 2011


Freen : Global Population will peak

Although his heat dissipation limit depends on limiting ourselves to this planet, the energy input limit does not. Who says we'll still occupy only this planet in another 400 years? madcaptenor has the right idea - We realistically will expand outward at ever-increasing speed (and with the associated increase in energy consumption) until the laws of physics give us the final smack-down.



enn : It's pretty clear when he gets to the economics section that he has just started making things up

"Economics" merely describes our ability to convert energy into things humans want. Ignoring that ignores the reason we have an economy - To trade tokens for units-of-energy-consumed in the production of things we want. Even the language we use betrays that underlying fact. What do you do to make money? You do "work" for it. Whether we measure that in Joules or Dollars doesn't much matter.
posted by pla at 4:32 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damn, missed the obvious pun on "jewels". :(

/ Next time
posted by pla at 4:33 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear, I think the smackdown from the laws of physics will come long before the situation I describe.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:55 PM on August 1, 2011


seanmpuckett: " I note idly that the super-wealthy are now driving [space travel] directly..."

I don't disagree with anything else you've said here, but I note that the private sector hasn't demonstrated that they're able to ignore the physical constraints of space travel any better than governments.
posted by sneebler at 7:10 PM on August 1, 2011


This is why Trantor has enormous cooling vanes sticking out of its night side.
posted by drdanger at 7:57 PM on August 1, 2011


Also it's the reason that the Pierson's Puppeteers moved their planet to orbit as distantly as possible from their sun:
"...our civilization was dying in its own waste heat. Total conversion of energy had rid us of all waste products of civilization, save that one. We had no choice but to move our world outward from its primary."
posted by XMLicious at 8:29 PM on August 1, 2011


We are all dead in the long run.
posted by humanfont at 9:01 PM on August 1, 2011


We are all dead in the long run.
Indeed, but many of us want to put it off as long as possible, so being a reasonable steward of earth resources is sensible.
posted by bystander at 12:52 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why this physicist, and so many others, assume that our population will continue to increase forever. Or, why human population peaking at some point would be a bad thing. Unless I'm missing the point and he's saying that we can't continue at the same rate of growth we're at now. He also assumes that we won't see an acceleration in the increase of energy efficiency. I guess what I really don't get is, would we talk in the same way about ants or cows or any other population of living things? Why do we assume that human beings won't find an equilibrium with their environment eventually?
posted by runcibleshaw at 1:15 AM on August 2, 2011


It's not him who assumes that, it's our current mode of economic development which has the backing of a lot of otherwise clever people who should know better. He's just pointing out the obvious, that growth must stop eventually and we either find some other way of organising society that doesn't need it while we still have some time, or suffer the consequences.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:13 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


e.g., the assertion that a few individuals could buy up all the food if it were cheap, because the operation of markets free of any restraint is a force of nature or something. Presumably the billions of other people who would also like to eat would just stand back and starve in deference to an ideal of private property which has magically taken on the same force as the laws of thermodynamics.

It's a reductio ad absurdum. He doesn't actually believe that we would realistically end up with an economic system where the cost of everything that physically sustains us is trivial compared with the inessential stuff. And yet the "economic growth indefinitely" model leads to exactly that.

I don't understand why this physicist, and so many others, assume that our population will continue to increase forever.

He doesn't. He's criticising human beliefs and behaviours that are premised on it (e.g. that economic growth can continue indefinitely).

Or, why human population peaking at some point would be a bad thing.

Human population will inevitably peak at some point. What matters is what causes the decline, and how rapid it is.

Unless I'm missing the point and he's saying that we can't continue at the same rate of growth we're at now.

That's exactly what he's saying.

He also assumes that we won't see an acceleration in the increase of energy efficiency.

He talks about energy efficiency extensively, and why it isn't a magic bullet; see the subsequent posts in the blog.

Why do we assume that human beings won't find an equilibrium with their environment eventually?

Because we've shown little sign of doing what's necessary so far?

Assuming civilisation collapses before the boil-the-planet scenario, we'll find an equilibrium eventually.
posted by rory at 4:13 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Once again I missed the point entirely.
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:08 AM on August 10, 2011


ObSF: Fred Pohl, "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass."
posted by Chrysostom at 8:49 AM on August 15, 2011


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