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Stoichiometry is a harsh taskmistress
November 25, 2010 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Sustainable Growth is an Oxymoron Text of an outstanding talk that explains clearly why the idea of "sustainable growth" is impossible in the finite system that is the earth; how the compact energy-delivery system of fossil fuel is equivalent to mind-blowing amounts of free human labor, which cannot be sustained indefinitely; and why it's imperative for scientists to help humanity find ways to go back to "liv[ing] on the sun in real time."

Rudy Baum is the editor-in-chief of Chemical and Engineering News, a weekly newsmagazine about science and industry from the American Chemical Society. He has long been a strong environmental advocate.
posted by Sublimity (95 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
One proposed solution.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:58 AM on November 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Finally people are saying this.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:04 AM on November 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I've been banging on about this for ages. At some point in the 90s, language about 'sustainability' got replaced with language about 'sustainable growth' and no-one seemed to really notice the switch.
posted by memebake at 8:05 AM on November 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


If you're interested in this, see also Prosperity without Growth.
posted by biffa at 8:07 AM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's a matter of basic economics that it is both desirable and possible that the economy, population, and resource/energy consumption grows exponentially forever. The Malthusians are always wrong.
posted by [citation needed] at 8:09 AM on November 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


Although some economist friends have occasionally tried to persuade me that economic growth is possible without a corresponding growth in resource consumption. But I think that only holds true over the short term. Any economists around care to weigh in on this? Can every country in the world keep trying to grow their economy every year in a finite-natural-resource system?
posted by memebake at 8:10 AM on November 25, 2010


100% sustainability, as in a zero sum system, is impossible because it means 100% efficiency. So not only is sustainable growth not possible, stasis isn't either. However, this doesn't need to be our goal to prevent anthropogenic climate change, which is presumably what we are talking about sustainability for. In fact, we can burn all the conventional oil and gas reserves that remain and still remain under 350ppm. It's the unconventional oil and gas, and coal, which we must transition away from immediately.

"How do we get there from here" is a real panic attack inducing problem, but it doesn't have to be. A lot of great work is going on in the transition community to raise awareness that these three problems (peak oil, climate change, the modern economy) are the same problem, and it is not a hard problem, as much as our politicians insist it is. It's fixable if we get started now.
posted by mek at 8:13 AM on November 25, 2010


There is a well-known natural model for unrestrained growth in a system - it's called cancer.
posted by dbiedny at 8:13 AM on November 25, 2010 [20 favorites]


[citation needed]: It's a matter of basic economics that it is both desirable and possible that the economy, population, and resource/energy consumption grows exponentially forever. The Malthusians are always wrong.

I literally can't tell if you're serious or if thats a parody. If you're serious, then please provide some ..er ... citations.
posted by memebake at 8:17 AM on November 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Although some economist friends have occasionally tried to persuade me that economic growth is possible without a corresponding growth in resource consumption.

It's not impossible to imagine a transition scenario where monetary value was assigned to labour and assets which reduced carbon emissions. In fact this is the basic goal of cap and trade, though generally diluted. A global cap and trade system would allow for economic growth without growth in resource consumption, in fact it would force that to be the case, as economic growth would be specifically tied to reducing resource consumption.

That's the magic of money, it's imaginary, and it rewards you for being creative with it. Unfortunately the fiscal austerity panic has crucified Keynes and now worships zombie Friedman, which is totally inexplicable to me.
posted by mek at 8:19 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nobody really believes in unbounded perpetual growth because the people involved (CEOs, heads of state/governments, shareholders, etc) are all working on finite time lines. Each individual wants growth sustained only until they get out of the game...and there's a perpetual stream of new players joining every day. It's classic Ponzi-style artificial growth that lasts until the bubble bursts.
posted by rocket88 at 8:19 AM on November 25, 2010 [25 favorites]


I've often wondered about how to sell a stagnant population growth scenario, assuming we've reached near peak efficiencies without creating more toxins or desperation. The best I've come up with so far is king for a day. If everyone randomly took turns at being king, so to speak, they would all want a smaller pool to choose from.
posted by Brian B. at 8:21 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


In fact, we can burn all the conventional oil and gas reserves that remain and still remain under 350ppm.

Perhaps you mean realistically return to 350ppm under such a circumstance. CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at Mauna Loa, average for October 2010: 387.18ppm.
posted by [citation needed] at 8:22 AM on November 25, 2010


Does "living off the sun" include using radioactive minerals to generate energy?

these atoms were in fact created inside our sun but billions rather than the millions of years ago that gave us the fossil fuel we now enjoy...

it doesnt smack of being sustainable, but is this perhaps why he coined the term?
posted by dongolier at 8:23 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that many economists, ecologists or scientists take the view that growth is linear. As has been observed time and time again, growth is cyclical - it is a pattern of advance and decline.

When a lot of professionals (myself included) talk about 'sustainability' or 'smart growth' we are primarily referring to a realistic reduction in wasteful practices such that our impact on the environment can be minimized.

Nobody in their right mind believes that the current pattern of settlement in most parts of the world is sustainable, or even that it's the end goal to create sustainability in growth - and that's really not the point of these concepts. Idealism doesn't have much place in practical, real-world solutions where we have F-850s whizzing past cyclists on the same roads.

The point is to create incremental change such that we move towards something which can be manageable throughout the entire phase of advance and decline. We want to see gradual change rather than abrupt, such that impacts on all things on this planet are minimized.

There are no guarantees - there's no magical solution out there that will replace oil just yet, and there may never be. There will be declines in many civilizations, and Canada and the US will be among the hardest hit if we don't start to implement some of these 'sustainable' practices that are, in practical terms, can be more accurately described as plainly mitigative. But, you must start somewhere. Incrementalism is the only path forward from here.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:23 AM on November 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


All real wealth is energy, stuff, and knowledge, and it can be argued that physical goods are just means of getting at the other two. Material resources are limited to what we can reach, but our reach can be much greater than just the Earth, given enough energy and knowledge. We can play games with issuing more and more currency, and calling that economic growth, but that's self-defeating and ultimately doomed, because it reorients the economy to chase green confetti instead of actual wealth. Ultimately, economic growth and living standards come down to energy and stuff, and the knowledge to go get more of it.

If we can get enough energy production online, in other words, there's a whole solar system out there we can pull from. That is one hell of a lot of growth from where we are now. Past that, well, we've got a profound barrier comprised of a lot of empty space and a hard limit in how quickly we can traverse it. But given a few thousand more years to think about it, we might very well be able to leap even that hurdle.

The hard part, of course, is that we have to get at least another order of magnitude more energy online to be able to start seriously exploiting resources on other planets, and we simply can't do that with the giant chemical batteries we're running on. The only source that would appear likely to generate sufficient energy density without the pollution to match is fission power, as a stopgap to ratchet ourselves up to fusion.

Once we have fusion power truly working, everything changes. Everything. We're no longer dependent on solar power in all its various forms -- we can make it ourselves from the most basic of materials.

The major difference between men and gods is the amount of energy at their disposal.
posted by Malor at 8:29 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's a terrible pitfall I watch economists do over and over where they forget that the resources are, in fact, physical discrete quantities and not simply abstractions. That is, a lake full of fish may produce 100 million fish over the next 10 years with smart fishing practices, but if you attempt to borrow from tomorrow by harvesting 50 million fish THIS year, you'll have no fish at all.

It's also one of my rage buttons when the bullshit phrase, "Innovation will solve it" gets thrown about carelessly as if the laws of physics will magically bend to enough money and effort being thrown at it- we've been trying to cure cancer for decades and still have no cure- despite the money and effort. Just because the demand is there and even "resources" doesn't mean solutions will come on our time schedule (assuming solutions are even possible).
posted by yeloson at 8:34 AM on November 25, 2010 [13 favorites]


For a simple, slightly ridiculous depiction of the limits to growth, check out the impossible hamster. Another good resource on these issues is the UK-based new economics foundation.
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 8:35 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


This kind of shit is why I don't have children.
posted by Red Loop at 8:39 AM on November 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yes, infinite growth, even slow growth, cannot occur in a closed system (ie, the universe).

However, that limit considers really long time-spans - Like time spans so vast that we will have evolved (or gone extinct) into a form totally unrecognizable to our present selves before we reach such limits.

Yes, we need to live off the sun in real time. But that doesn't have to mean living on 5-10kWh per day per square meter dedicated to energy collection (whether via plants or photovoltaic or something else). It means we need to find a way to collect more of the sun's wasted output.

In the short term, that means orbital solar/microwave power. In the long term, it means some appreciable portion of a Dyson sphere as the only logical end-result.

And when we have that, we move on to the next star.

That ain't science fiction - That will happen, and will start in earnest within the next century, unless we cease to exist before then.
posted by pla at 8:40 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Each individual wants growth sustained only until they get out of the game...and there's a perpetual stream of new players joining every day. It's classic Ponzi-style artificial growth that lasts until the bubble bursts.

Ah ... so it's a lot like Social Security?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:44 AM on November 25, 2010


It's a matter of basic economics that it is both desirable and possible that the economy, population, and resource/energy consumption grows exponentially forever. The Malthusians are always wrong.
posted by [citation needed]


I invoke the principle of eponymicity.
posted by steambadger at 8:44 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does "living off the sun" include using radioactive minerals to generate energy?

these atoms were in fact created inside our sun but billions rather than the millions of years ago that gave us the fossil fuel we now enjoy...


Actually, our Sun didn't generate those. When the Universe started, pretty much all that existed was hydrogen, helium, and a little bit of lithium. Everything else was generated by another star or stars that preceded ours, likely enormous blue giants that went supernova a few hundred million years after the Universe started, seeding the local cluster with resources.

Once those raw materials were generated, they accreted into our solar system. Most likely, all our fossil fuels were bound into their present form using photosynthetic energy from our sun. Those reserves of chemical power, in other words, are a giant battery that that our Sun has been charging for a billion years or so. The actual carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen were created by supernovae, but the energy that binds them together, and which is quickly available by burning, is all locally generated.

Radioactive energy, however, is not related to our Sun at all. It's still a form of solar power, but it's power that didn't come from this star.

That's part of why fusion is such a big deal. It would mean, for the very first time, that we wouldn't be running off any form of solar power at all, but truly generating our own.
posted by Malor at 8:46 AM on November 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


Malor: Once we have fusion power truly working, everything changes.

I know what you mean, but as someone on here pointed out to me earlier this year, even a seemingly 'free' type of energy production like fusion will still create heat, and so it would not be possible to use it without limitations (unless we're a solidly space-based civilization by then, but then you're talking a chicken and egg scenario).
posted by memebake at 8:47 AM on November 25, 2010


From the FPP: He said: “Global warming is a dangerous misnomer. It suggests that the changes are uniform, primarily about temperature, gradual, and likely benign. None of these are true.” What we should be calling the phenomenon, he said, is “global climate disruption.”

I agree with this change. "Global warming" and "climate change" seem way too understated.
posted by brundlefly at 8:48 AM on November 25, 2010


I literally can't tell if you're serious or if thats a parody. If you're serious, then please provide some ..er ... citations

Simon-Erlich Wager
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:49 AM on November 25, 2010


Perhaps you mean realistically return to 350ppm under such a circumstance.

Correct. Obviously we are burning a ton of coal now, and that number is going up and up, especially in the USA and China. Right now we already well above the safe point for atmospheric CO2.

Once we have fusion power truly working, everything changes. Everything. We're no longer dependent on solar power in all its various forms -- we can make it ourselves from the most basic of materials.

Fusion has no place in a policy discussion until it actually exists as a viable form of energy. Until then we need to plan as if it isn't possible, because, it isn't.
posted by mek at 8:49 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Memebake, it's a shtick.
posted by [citation needed] at 8:50 AM on November 25, 2010


Malor : Once we have fusion power truly working, everything changes.

I think that will help greatly, but the major problem there will involve heat, plain and simple. Given a steadily growing demand for energy, at some point merely the production and consumption of cheap energy will cause direct global warming, no greenhouse gasses needed.

Yes, I realize that would take truly massive amounts of energy, but with cheap energy comes new and ever-more demanding uses for it. When your home energy budget allows for several megawatt hours a day, why not air-condition your whole yard? And extend that further - What level of excesses would having a gigawatt power plant in your basement allow?
posted by pla at 8:54 AM on November 25, 2010


Oops, sorrymemebake, you beat me to it.
posted by pla at 8:54 AM on November 25, 2010


(Great, so all we need for the global economic system to make some sort of rational sense is a working fusion energy system. Well, that should be along in about 5 years or so.)
posted by memebake at 8:56 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a matter of basic economics that it is both desirable and possible that the economy, population, and resource/energy consumption grows exponentially forever. The Malthusians are always wrong.

Economics isn't called the dismal science for no reason.

When you really get down to it, everything in the universe is about matter and energy, regardless of what the cornucopians like to imagine in their fuzzy little heads. You can define work as using energy to manipulate matter, but even if you're really smart about it, there are fundamental limits of both matter and energy that you can't get around.

I like to imagine a thought experiment, which goes along these lines. Turn the clock back, say 2000 years. The world is exactly the same as it was, except that all the fossil fuel resources we've used up till now simply don't exist. They're not there anymore. How much longer would it take the human race to get to where we are now?

Answer? Never. The fossil fuels we've already used are the easy, cheap ones, the resources that we used to bootstrap ourselves into the industrial revolution in the first place. No amount of clever thinking would have enabled the human race to get to the fossil fuel resources that we are now forced to exploit.

The real world has limits.
posted by daveje at 8:58 AM on November 25, 2010 [10 favorites]


"Sustainable Growth is an Oxymoron" It sounds so obvious when you put it that way.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:59 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fusion has no place in a policy discussion until it actually exists as a viable form of energy. Until then we need to plan as if it isn't possible, because, it isn't.
A number of experimental reactors have produced electricity, although they haven't yet produced more power than was required to run them. We should plan for it not being available in the near future, rather than pretend it doesn't exist.
posted by chebucto at 9:03 AM on November 25, 2010


Malor: when you and others focus on energy and material resources you are looking at only one side of the equation. Yes, there are plenty of sources of materials and energy. But using them creates waste materials and energy and that's the limiting factor in our system. We have acted as if the oceans and atmosphere are infinite waste dumps and we discount the role of natural ecosystems in recycling and detoxifying waste materials. We may find materials and energy to burn but we will end up literally drowning in our own shit if we ignore the end product of resource use.
posted by binturong at 9:04 AM on November 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: to be fair, In 1995, Simon claimed "Every measure of material and environmental welfare in the United States and in the world has improved rather than deteriorated," and offered to increase the bet to $20,000 in 1995, betting on "any trend pertaining to material human welfare". Erlich and Schneider picked 15 criteria, and Simon wisely backed out. He would have decisively lost that second wager.
posted by [citation needed] at 9:09 AM on November 25, 2010


Stagger Lee "Sustainable Growth is an Oxymoron" It sounds so obvious when you put it that way.

Its obvious to a lot of people, which leaves me wondering why our economic system is based around pretending that its not obvious. I think its down to what rocket88 says about short-termism of the people making money, coupled with vague notions that technology will solve the problem for us somehow. And if everyone else's economies are growing, we all have to keep up - a classic race to the bottom/tragedy of the commons type scenario.
posted by memebake at 9:12 AM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: Simon-Erlich Wager

Right, thats an example of a 'Malthusian' being wrong in one instance. I'll agree that there's been lots of doom mongers that have been proved wrong. But how do we get from that to a fundamental economic principle that demonstrates that exponential population and energy growth can go on forever? (Also, turns out [citation needed] was joking)
posted by memebake at 9:21 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know who else roamed the universe looking for ever newer and bigger "free" energy resources to suck dry before moving on to the next joint? The horrible aliens in Independence Day, that's who.

We've got some perverted sense of "progress" or "evolution" that makes a moral failing out of sensible actions like living within one's means or doing as much as you can do well and settling happily for that. Whether it's some common mammalian thing or a cultural quirk of our species, I'm not sure compulsive ambition will turn out to have been an adaptive trait.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:23 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah yes, the "he wouldn't take the second bet, so he was wrong" statement.

Well, if you bothered to actually read the article...

Simon declined Ehrlich and Schneider's offer to bet, and used the following analogy to explain why he did so:
“ Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don't want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure. ”
Simon's thesis is that humanity's life-style will continue to improve, and several of the points of Ehrlich's second bet may increase for wholly benign reasons. For instance, the prediction of less agricultural soil per capita is a trend that Simon observed in The Ultimate Resource which Simon attributed to long-term rises in agricultural productivity.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:27 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


100% sustainability, as in a zero sum system, is impossible because it means 100% efficiency.

No it doesn't... right? I don't want to be too cocky here lest it turn out my ability to do maths has failed, or, more likely, that we're working on slightly different definitions. But I'm pretty sure that you're wrong.

It would/could be 100% sustainable if we were "liv[ing] on the sun in real time." Obviously our collection of the Sun's energy couldn't be 100% efficient, nor could any other energy transfer step. But as long as we're gathering more energy from the Sun than we're using (and losing) then they'd be no need to consume fossil fuels. That would, in practise, require more efficient devices and us using a lot less power, but it's totally possible in theory and in no way violates the second law of thermodynamics (which seems to be what mek is getting at).
posted by greymullet at 9:36 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics.

Hey, and before you know it the hundred metre dash will finish before it even starts!
posted by binturong at 9:43 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Stagger Lee : "Sustainable Growth is an Oxymoron" It sounds so obvious when you put it that way.

It sounds great - But that doesn't make it true. Malor gave one way around it (I only disagree with him on some of the consequences, and took a somewhat longer view).


binturong : We may find materials and energy to burn but we will end up literally drowning in our own shit if we ignore the end product of resource use.

I absolutely agree - But that doesn't mean we can't sustainably grow, it just means we need to learn what to do with our wastes other than dumping them in the ocean. We need to learn to share the world above ground with the rest of the biosphere, and do a whole lot more living underground. We also need to establish ourselves off-planet before the next extinction-level asteroid hits - Which cheap, nearly limitless energy makes soooo much easier.

Of course, on the flip side of this, I don't think we should continue to grow. I think we should limit our population (at least, per-planet) to a few hundred million people, because most of the social ills we see in the modern world, unsurprisingly enough, exactly mirror those we see in nonhuman primates kept in overcrowded conditions.
posted by pla at 9:46 AM on November 25, 2010


But as long as we're gathering more energy from the Sun than we're using (and losing) then they'd be no need to consume fossil fuels.

That's not how it works. For all intents and purposes we're dealing with a closed system. The sun's energy ultimately drives everything. We don't take in anything more than that.

Anything that us humans do on top of what has been baseline (before we started consuming fossil fuels, in this case) will change something else. Anything and everything we do will change something else. If we burn fuels, it will change something. If we fire up nuclear plants, it will change something.

It's far too complicated of a system for us to analyze or identify variables within. The only thing we can do is try to minimize our impacts on everything - including ourselves - such that we sustain what we value. Part of that is finding an energy system that will cause less impact on the planet than oil consumption currently does. It's an ongoing process of trial and error and hopefully those trials and errors don't end up doing too much damage.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:53 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think you can have sustainable growth.

Growth isn't about using more and more of the earths resources. It's about reducing the entropy of the world we live in. It's about providing ourselves with a better standard of living. This doesn't mean we're using more stuff. It can mean we're using the stuff we've got in a smarter way.
posted by seanyboy at 9:58 AM on November 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


That said - I am worried about population growth. And global warming. And I wonder how much different the world would be if we didn't have the Haber–Bosch process.
posted by seanyboy at 10:03 AM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
-Kenneth E. Boulding

In his RSA talk on "The Crises of Capitalism", David Harvey explains how Capitalism, rather than tending towards stability, actually tends towards instability:
"Capitalism never solves it's problems, it's just moves them around geographically.
This is why Europe ships it's toxic waste to be dumped illegally off the coast of Somalia rather than deal with it themselves or learn to live without creating that much toxic waste. Same thing here in the States. I remember in the 80s when medical waste was washing up on the beach in New York because the local gangsters (I presume) got lazy and started dumping the stuff where it washed in to shore rather than the other way.

I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed. I was in college. A lot of people said that that was the victory of Capitalism. I sometimes wonder instead if it wasn't the first shoe to drop. Just because one system failed due to it's own internal contradictions doesn't mean the other one is the winner. Maybe it just collapsed first, and the other's contradictions are taking a little longer to work through the system all the way to the end point.

But if Capitalism does tend towards instability rather than stability (and I think the evidence is strong that it does), then the things we have (at least here in the States) used to solve our big crises of instability like WWII, the Civil War, The Revolution, we no longer have. We no longer have a huge continent to expand into, unlimited natural resources, Saudi Oil on the cheap, a strong manufacturing base, a functioning economy, the ability to be blithe and unconcerned about the pollution, waste, air/water quality, the possible end of seafood in our lifetime, global climate change...

If the Capitalism machine does indeed throw a rod or two in it's engine and it's internal forces that it can't resolve make it go boom, what are we going to do? I don't think a collapse is a given. But I totally see things, particularly in America, as taking a pretty much downward glide-path that never really picks it's nose up and people can't understand why, because we've always pulled things out before.

Things are different this time.

"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money. "
-Cree Indian Proverb
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:11 AM on November 25, 2010 [13 favorites]


Growth isn't about using more and more of the earths resources. It's about reducing the entropy of the world we live in. Seanyboy, that Second Law of Thermodynamics. I do not think it means what you think it means.
posted by Sublimity at 10:20 AM on November 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


I can't find it, but this brings to mind a great article by an Advertising Man. His thesis was that for a society to shift to sustainability, even more advertising would be needed. Sounds really cheeky, right? Basically his points were:
  1. Sustainability means stopping and reversing real growth in pollution and CO2 emissions
  2. Reducing real pollution & CO2 will require using less energy, and consuming fewer goods.
  3. Current economic systems require perpetual economic growth
  4. Advertising is the art of making real goods have a higher percieved economic value
Therefore more advertising is required to convince people to be content with using less, by being convinced it's worth more.

Anyone remember that article? Or mabye it was a radio show. Either way, I started out skeptical but was half-convinced by the end.
posted by anthill at 10:28 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


In a more simplified model, my ecology profs showed us a graph of the growth curve of the human population. As you all well know, it's exponential, and the growth is becoming very rapid - the curve becoming steeper all the time.

They cheerfully pointed out that ALL biological growth curves eventually flatten out. In other words, human mortality will equal natality some day. Think about the implications of that - especially if we manage to maintain a population between 6 and 9 billion people. Death will be one very busy guy.

And we aren't even talking about if and when mortality exceeds natality. Bringing the aggregate population down to something "sustainable" may require that the population be lower than it is now. Now that would be a lot of death, especially if we somehow keep natality at the levels we have now.
posted by Xoebe at 10:35 AM on November 25, 2010


I was curious how feasible the idea of "living off the Sun in real-time" was in principle. Here are some quick back-of the envelope calculations:

Average global daily insolation: 6 kWh/m^2

Efficiency of high-quality modern solar cells: Approximately 29%

Available daily energy assuming average insolation and high-quality modern solar cells: 1.74 kWh/m^2

Per capita daily energy consumption (USA): 249.1 kWh

Solar panel area required to satisfy energy consumption requirements of one US citizen: 143.1m^2

Earth's current population: 6,775,235,741

Area required to satisfy energy consumption requirements for the Earth's current population, assuming American lifestyle and consumption levels: 969,536.2 km^2

Total land area of Earth: 148,940,000 km^2

Percentage of land that would need to be covered in solar panels in order to satisfy energy requirements of every citizen of Earth, assuming American-level consumption: 0.65%

Assuming that these calculations are overly generous, which they probably are, we might triple this figure to provide some realistic margin. That gives us a figure of 1.95% solar panel coverage in order to maintain the energy needs of every man, woman, and child currently living on the planet at current American levels. I'd argue that it would actually make more sense to put the panels out at sea, where there's about 2.4 times as much available area, less development, and where they would cause less disruption to existing ecosystems.

This seems... surprisingly doable. Not, you know, easy or anything, but doable. 1.65% is a significant fraction of the amount of land that has actually been developed at all so far, I think. (If anybody can find a figure for how much of the landmass of the earth we've actually built on to date, I'd love to see it.)

And of course solar panels don't have a great service life, and their manufacture consumes both considerable energy and considerable amounts of rare earth metals which are both toxic and limited in availability, but the solutions to those problems seem more like engineering challenges than theoretical barriers. This seems like something that we could feasibly attempt, if we were organized enough as a global society, and decided to make it a major priority.

That doesn't mean it's likely to happen anytime soon, of course. I was just curious as to the kind of numbers that would be involved if we really were to try and "live off the Sun in real-time" with something similar to modern technology and modern Western lifestyles. It seems like the numbers are huge, but not impossibly huge. Just some food for thought.
posted by Scientist at 10:43 AM on November 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


If anybody wants to cross-check my calculations, please do. I may have goofed up or slipped in some rounding errors or something.
posted by Scientist at 10:44 AM on November 25, 2010


I know that the reaction in here is really intended as a reaction to environmental harm, not to the idea of growth itself, but still, I'm always disappointed to see such strong statements made on these subjects. Growth has many dimensions: social, intellectual, and material, growth of coordination, of complexity, and of form. I think these are good things and we should keep doing them as long as we reasonably can. I also think most, if not all of these can continue for a long time yet. I also think they can continue without worsening environmental harm. However, each of these is a separate claim.

Social and intellectual growth require study, but not an increase in energy or matter consumption. Growth in complexity is essentially equivalent to intellectual growth and falls along the same lines. You can always arrange the matter you have into a more complex form. A bonus of this fact is that more complex structures are often able to make more efficient use of resources than simple ones. That's why power plants are so complicated. You can pull energy out of oil with something very simple, but if you build a complicated, multi-stage plant with economizers, you can get almost all of it out.

Growth of physical magnitude requires more matter and energy, both of which are more abundant than you think. The sun isn't unlimited, and it will die out long before we run out of fissionable uranium even if we convert the whole world to nuclear power. So there is a lot of nuclear power available. Fusion gives you even more energy, and despite its "sci-fi" status at present, it will certainly become viable if energy prices rise enough. The whole "abolish civilization" line of thought involves raising prices effectively to infinity, so at some point along that process you are bound to reach a point at which even primitive fusion is economical.

There is also no shortage of matter overall. We are using only a microscopic fraction of the matter in the Earth, just what's accessible in the razor-thin surface of the crust. Also, after we make something, that matter doesn't just go away. If something gets thrown out, it becomes part of a heap of trash that is as potentially mineable as the rest of the crust.

With regard to heat, it will be a long time yet before the heat produced by civilization is any threat to global temperature -- such a long time that it would be foolish to discuss the subject now. There's no telling what the future will look like that far out.

Finally, there is much more space, energy, and matter out in the universe, and it would be a shame if we decided not to make use of it. For millennia, life on Earth has fought to multiply and spread itself as widely as possible, adapting even to harsh circumstances in order to colonize as much area as possible. What reason to we have to break that pattern, especially when we alone have the ability to give life from Earth a foothold on other planets? Spreading and multiplying is not evil, it is the fundamental mission of every living thing, and it can be beautiful. To bring life to the vast expanse of dead matter that makes up the known universe would be a noble thing. Even a whiny, postmodern human civilization would be more interesting than a ball of uniform grey rock.

There are some limitations to my enthusiasm. When I speak of physical growth, I am not speaking of population density. Though I'm in favor of most kinds of growth, I am not in favor of further population growth, at least not on this planet. Fortunately, most estimates project that population will stabilize and turn around after some decades, as the most populated areas of the world begin to culturally accept and physically obtain access to birth control. I hope like everyone else does that this corner is turned sooner rather than later, as things are already getting tight and we're already losing species.

Also, like everyone else, I don't favor further use of fossil fuels, for the many obvious reasons. If we do something to such an extent that it risks becoming a problem, then obviously we should stop doing it. But that doesn't mean we should never have done that thing to any extent at all.

So my point is just that I think some of these anti-growth ideas are too rash, too soon, and too exaggerated. Humanity has benefited a lot more than it seems to remember from these things. In poor parts of the world where life is harsh and short and culltures are by necessity strict and inflexible, it is wrong to stop much-needed change from happening because of a romantic image of the primitive as ideal. Is it any more wrong to stop it because of a hastily-considered overgeneralization that all growth is cancer and must be prevented?
posted by Xezlec at 10:50 AM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sublimity: OK. You could be right. Maybe I should have said "It's about reducing the chaos / increasing the complexity of the world we live in."

I'm not sure if increasing complexity in a system reduces or increases the entropy in the system. My usage of the word entropy may have been the wrong way round.
posted by seanyboy at 10:53 AM on November 25, 2010


People have been saying 'live within your means' for centuries. Frankly, it's easy to say when you are rich and comfortable. The advances which modern technologies have made in that period mean that huge swathes, perhaps even the majority, of humanity no longer live short, brutish, punishing lives. Where people have become more prosperous there has also been an almost universal shift towards lower fertility rates. See Hans Rosling's famous talk.

The immediate question is whether there is room to make our society more efficient at resource use- in finding ways of reducing fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use, in improving industrial chemistry yields, in tranferring to electric transport systems via improved batteries, in finding sustainable sources of energy, in improving treatment of malaria and dengue fever. The answer is obvious, and what is more we live in an age where serious investments are being made in all these areas. It is true that there is a race ongoing between human ingenuity and the sharp edges of resource limits, but we have proved repeatedly that our ability to predict those limits is extremely poor. It's a mark of the half-baked way in which this discussion often occurs that people bring up waste heat as a serious barrier to growth in energy production. That's not to say more can't be done, to increase as much as possible investments into clean-tech, introduce temporary subsidy schemes to ease in new technologies, and remove unnecessary regulatory barriers (NIMBY or ill-considered ecological objections). Individuals can also do plenty outside of politics. Whether or not we squeeze through is down to the hidden rocks, and whether we do anything to steer around them as they become apparent.

As to the somewhat academic debate of the possibility of continued growth within a finite material system, there is nothing to say that isn't possible. If a sustainable, or approximately sustainable system can be created, initially involving phasing out fossil fuels and then moving on to the 'atom economy' concepts mentioned in the article, you can always improve the efficiency of production- for instance making a computer chip composed of the same amount of material run faster, or production occur with less human involvement.
posted by Marlinspike at 10:55 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Simon declined Ehrlich and Schneider's offer to bet, and used the following analogy to explain why he did so:

Of course, what Simon's analogy glosses over is the possibility that the problems he and Erlich are betting on are long term crises, even compared to a 10 year bet, and not approximated by immediate measures of Human welfare. Erlich's measures--income inequality and AIDS deaths notwithstanding--are direct consequences of unrestrained growth that carried far enough unquestionably lead to catastrophe. Arable land per person cannot decrease indefinitely. Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide in the atmosphere cannot grow indefinitely. The Earth cannot warm indefinitely. Forest cover cannot decrease indefinitely. Species loss cannot continue indefinitely.

A Malthusian disaster did not happen as Erlich had predicted, it's true. He was unnecessarily pessimistic, certainly. Because Erlich isn't Cassandra, it doesn't follow that Simon isn't Pollyanna. A constant rate of growth isn't possible; the exponential function does not work that way. Hell, even linear growth has its limits here on Earth.

Right now, the limits of growth have been obscured by our use of fossil fuels. Thinking of energy in economic terms, we have a serious structural deficit problem. We have spent our savings, which would be the amount of fossil fuel we can burn without destroying the climate. Now we are living on debt, which will have to be repaid by some of us alive today, but mostly by those not already born.

What the cornucopians can't acknowledge is the degree to which even our ability to feed ourselves is dependent on fossil fuels. The Haber-Bosch process now fixes more nitrogen than the entire terrestrial biome. You are being sold a bill of goods if you believe this imbalance can continue to grow indefinitely.
posted by [citation needed] at 10:56 AM on November 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


If anybody can find a figure for how much of the landmass of the earth we've actually built on to date, I'd love to see it.

See an NREL FAQ on this here. It says for America 10 million acres would be required for 100% energy supply, compared to 140 million acres of occupied by 'cities and residences', and 30 million acres of idling farmland at any one time (although the latter comparison seems a bit suspect).
posted by Marlinspike at 11:07 AM on November 25, 2010


Ugh, just noticed my mixed metaphors.

Whether or not we squeeze through stay afloat is down to the hidden rocks, and whether we do anything to steer around them as they become apparent
posted by Marlinspike at 11:10 AM on November 25, 2010


Finally, there is much more space, energy, and matter out in the universe, and it would be a shame if we decided not to make use of it.

This expresses what I think of as a kind of ideological/philosophical mental block that leads people to deny any limits to growth. It is as though they see the limiting factors as a personal challenge to human ingenuity. Sure, we're smart, but we live in a real world, not an intellectual abstraction. The reason we are very unlikely to , say, colonize Mars or bring back its resources is not so much that we technically couldn't but for rather more mundane reasons -- lack of political will and inability to afford it. Ingenuity or adaptability are not the problem. The ideology of unlimited growth is.
posted by binturong at 11:10 AM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Xezlec : Social and intellectual growth require study, but not an increase in energy or matter consumption.

Social and intellectual growth require leisure time, which requires energy.

It all comes down to energy, energy, energy.
posted by pla at 11:14 AM on November 25, 2010


HEY ECONOMISTS I GOT A PERPETUALLY SUSTAINABLE GROWTH FOR YA RIGHT HERE
posted by tehloki at 11:30 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Something I'm seeing come up in the comments is remarked on in the David Harvey video I linked to upthread. He talks about how Capital cannot abide limitations. So what it does is relabel them as "barriers".

Because limits are just that, limits. Barriers, on the other hand, are some sort of human-imposed problem that can be transcended or gotten around so that the profitable activity of concern can continue.

And the toxic waste gets dumped in someone else's back yard.

But I think Nature deals in limits, not barriers. And Mom's kung-fu is always best in the long run.

The Kenneth Boulding quote I also put in that thread keeps coming to mind.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:30 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


indefinite sustainable growth is impossible, but that doesn't mean there's isn't any headroom left. There could, for example, 100 years of 'sustainable' growth.
posted by delmoi at 11:52 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Except that given that we are using almost all fundemental resources up at a faster rate than they are replaced (good soil for food, fresh water, and energy reserves), there being much more headroom is highly unlikely unless we changing usage patterns substantially.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:59 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


And of course solar panels don't have a great service life, and their manufacture consumes both considerable energy and considerable amounts of rare earth metals which are both toxic and limited in availability

I keep hearing people say this, but it's not really true at all.

New thin-film solar panels use rare-earth elements. Which are not actually rare, they're just called that for historical reasons.

However, traditional really only require pure silicon doped with elements like boron, aluminum, phosphorus, etc. Not really that rare.
posted by delmoi at 11:59 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Social and intellectual growth require leisure time, which requires energy. It all comes down to energy, energy, energy.

A constant amount of leisure time does not require a constantly increasing rate of energy usage. It requires exactly the same kind of thing that a constantly surviving but unchanging population requires, namely just something that can supply energy at least at a constant rate.
posted by Xezlec at 12:00 PM on November 25, 2010


one of the earliest lessons in the sustainable energy challenge is that is actually easier and cheaper to conserve energy from existing conventional sources like oil, hydro and geothermal than it is to develop new sustainable sources.

this graphic (previously) shows the impact of energy-saving activities (energy conservation) which save society money compared with energy-generating activities (sustainable energy production) that cost society money

we dont yet have scalable sustainable energy sources that create energy cheaper than we can get it from an oilwell; and yet each of us have incredible means to conserve right in front of us (see the graphic).
posted by dongolier at 12:03 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


New thin-film solar panels use rare-earth elements. Which are not actually rare, they're just called that for historical reasons.

Cadmium Tellurium and CIGS are the major thin-film competitors. Cadmium is toxic and Tellurium is genuinely rare. CIGS hasn't got going properly yet, but that also includes Indium, which is also problematic- there might not even be sufficient supply for the transparent ITO electrodes. Still, if there's a significant energy source to be had there, it should be tapped. There will certainly be new technologies.
posted by Marlinspike at 12:16 PM on November 25, 2010


It's also worth bearing in mind when talking about Fusion how absurdly small the funding is. ITER is the major international project, and is predicted to cost $22 billion over thirty years. The combined GDP of the participant countries or federations, Korea, Japan, China, India, the European Union, the United States and Russia is $45 trillion. That's 0.002% of output to invest in the stand-out candidate for future electricity generation, which must determine in large part the future of our civilization. And still there are funding delays.
posted by Marlinspike at 12:30 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think we can have sustainable growth while reducing energy usage because we are using energy waaay too inefficiently.

Just one example: I look out my window at the rush hour traffic. Most cars have one person in them. On top of that, those cars are 20% efficient in their usage of fossil fuels.

If we were able to make productive use of that lost energy, how much economic growth will it fund? A lot.
posted by storybored at 12:33 PM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Finally people are saying this.

I say it whenever the opportunity comes up, but most people just think I'm a troll or a pessimist.

I think we can have sustainable growth while reducing energy usage because we are using energy waaay too inefficiently.

Efficiency is finite too. It tops out at 100%.
posted by klanawa at 12:40 PM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you want to measure growth by GDP - which is flawed, but whatever - then about half of growth in developed economies is from productivity gains, essentially doing more with existing inputs via improved processes or techniques.
A low growth economy could deliver improved GDP solely by this means.
This still uses a lot of resources, however.
posted by bystander at 12:40 PM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


In response to the fusion would cause warming comments - with a dirt cheap energy source you can cool a planet if need be. A space elevator carrying liquid water up to vacuum then bringing the frozen stuff back down? When energy is nearly free and nearly unlimited most resource problems disappear. e.g. if the energy to recycle a spent product is free, it becomes worrthwile to recover even small resources from the waste stream.
posted by bystander at 12:45 PM on November 25, 2010


Efficiency is finite too. It tops out at 100%.

For a process which converts one form of energy to another, yes. Efficiency in the context we're discussing means how much you can accomplish per unit of energy. It's less clear what upper bound that might have.
posted by Xezlec at 1:03 PM on November 25, 2010


I've been reading about sustainability lately and this might be useful for the discussion:
Sustainable development, sustainable growth, and sustainable use have been used interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. They are not. Sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms: nothing physical can grow indefinitely. Sustainable use, is only applicable to renewable resources. Sustainable development is used in this strategy to mean: improving the quality of human life whilst living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems.

(IUCN, UNEP, WWF, 1991)
posted by ersatz at 1:13 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Until ALL commerce learns to be cyclical (closed loop, no waste - or waste becomes useful in another process or product) instead of linear, and it respects its integration with our biosphere/lithosphere/atmosphere, we are indeed our own worst enemies.

"The constant transformation of ecosystems by organisms is the subject of ecology. Plants and organisms do not simply occupy an environment; they alter and remake it, creating increasingly varied and complex forms of organization. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that as energy dissipates, systems descend into reduced states of organization and ultimately to chaos and entropy. Only life prevents entropy from extending to nature: the intricate, mysterious interaction of organisms that captures sunlight and evolves into higher levels or order and complexity. This state of organization and succession, the opposite of entropy, is called negentropy. It is this evolving order that humbles us before nature. While the origins of life may be unknown, the way nature transforms the nonliving to the living, the simple to the complex, the inefficient to the efficient, is better known and understood. All industrial systems and designs pale when compared to the efficiency of natural systems of production. Nothing does more with less. This knowledge makes nature the logical exemplar for an increasingly evolved form of commerce." - Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce
posted by yoga at 2:08 PM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Seanyboy, that Second Law of Thermodynamics. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Just to clarify: We CAN reduce the entropy of the earth, and we do it all the time. The myth that you can't reduce the entropy of a system is something evolution deniers use.

The actual Second Law of Thermodynamics says the the entropy of a closed system never decreases. The Earth is not a closed system. If we take energy from the sun, use it to build things and order things, and release waste heat into the solar system, we are totally within the confines of the Second Law.
posted by auto-correct at 2:32 PM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Living systems almost by definition: efficiently use the solar energy to lower the entropy of of the biosphere. They organize the organic molecules: C H N O P S into incredibly long strands of hydrocarbon, carbohydrate, DNA, amino acid chains; into microstructures: lipid bilayers, carbonate bones, diatomaceous "crystals", structural proteins like collagen and cartilage, hair, tree rings, etc...
-------------------------------
Xezlec: an upper bound on what you can accomplish per unit of energy?

the basic physics definition of joule is to lift one kilo up one tenth of a meter against gravity. we have mechanisms that do this in a way that is nearly 100% efficient, its not that hard.

in the context of heat engines maximum theoretical efficiences are much lower: diesel engines (40%), gasoline 4-bangers (30%), steam turbines and jet engines(25%). and given that there is no reason we should be limited to heat engines for transportation there is alot of room for improvement (electric motors, for example, are not limited to the above Carnot efficiencies).

in the context of space heating, heat pumps have similar theoretical perfomance limits, fixed by the difference between indoor and outdoor (the heat source) temperatures. but there is no reason why space heating cant be done using waste heat from some other process (eg. electricity generation).

so for our current end uses of fossil fuel, namely heating and heat engines; we have many ineffcient thermal mechanisms to replace with more efficient non-thermal mechanisms to merely use the same fossil fuel we presently squander. (yeah, and most attempts so far have fallen short... but its only been a few years of really intense effort)

----------------------
its almost like we can just look around and see every other natural system sequestering and utilizing energy better than we do. basically we humans just set everything we harvest on fire to get the heat.... and now supposedly we've created an energy crisis. im sorry but thats just lame reasoning.
posted by dongolier at 3:00 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Xoebe: In a more simplified model, my ecology profs showed us a graph of the growth curve of the human population. As you all well know, it's exponential, and the growth is becoming very rapid - the curve becoming steeper all the time.

In fact it isn't, and not for the reason you give. It turns out that population growth in developed nations naturally decreases. In Japan population growth has actually turned negative. Italy had a problem with very low growth until recently. (Checking Google indicates that it has increased again. For reference, here's the US curve.)

This doesn't mean that overpopulation isn't, and won't continue to be, a problem. Most nations still have positive growth at the moment. But there is reason to believe that one aspect isn't as bad as we thought. Particularly, when the cost of living increases, which is pretty much unavoidable as the energy screws tighten, people will probably choose to have fewer children.
posted by JHarris at 5:07 PM on November 25, 2010


binturong: "We may find materials and energy to burn but we will end up literally drowning in our own shit if we ignore the end product of resource use."

That's my view as well. I wanted to add that, technologically advanced as we are, we're still entirely dependent on complex natural systems to supply things like food and breathable air. Covering the planet with solar panels may provide energy, it's true, but at great cost to those natural systems.

Sustainability isn't just a matter of stoichiometry; we actually live within Nature's web, and we are experiencing not only the limits to population and energy growth, but the limits of natural systems to feed our increasing demands for food and remain healthy themselves. As species and habitat loss continues, the natural systems that we were once a part of are reduced in size and capacity. Our behaviour is very like that of a cancer eating away at various systems until the body can't survive.
posted by sneebler at 5:48 PM on November 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Social and intellectual growth require study, but not an increase in energy or matter consumption.

I admire your idealism, but that's not going to be the case. In a truly steady-state cociety, social and intellec tual growth will be hheavily monitored and censored, because you can't separate intellectual endeavors from material results.

The thing is, if you have unrestrained soociial and intellectual growth, well, someonne may come up with a new toy that everybody decides they want...leading to an uptick in consumptiion. Leave that to go on long enough, and you end up gooing up above sustainable levels. So you'll have to ensure that intellectual endeavors will not lead to increased material consumption, which given the fractious nature of humanity will need thorough and unrelenting policing. THere will be no errors on the side of compassion- anything thhat leads to increased consumption will have too be nipped in the bud.


Likewise, social mobility leads to increased wealth which leads to increased consumption- people may or may not get used to the idea that they will be assigned an occupation and that attempting to better oneself will be stopped by thegovernment, but the idea that social classes are fixed and unvarying will nevertheless be the keystone of a steady-state society. People will be born into a social class, live theri live in it, and die knowing that theri grandchildren will be no different.

So, intellectuals that pursue wrong areas of inquiry will be sent to the farms, boooks that say the wrong things will be burned, and people who try to better themselves will be imprisoned. All intellectual inquiry and curiosity outside of the most abstract spiritual will be discouraged.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a hemp sandal stomping on a human face -- forever.
posted by happyroach at 8:31 PM on November 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think MeFi should collectively write a scifi screenplay. Too late.

Good stuff guys.
posted by LiteOpera at 11:07 PM on November 25, 2010


Finally people are saying this.

Interestingly enough Fred Charles Ilke was saying this in his short essay for the National Review in 1994, Growth Without End Amen?. And interestingly enough, he used to work for Reagan's Defense Department. From 1994 he concludes by describing the problem as a "global Ponzi scheme."
posted by kneecapped at 11:17 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


happyroach: you can't separate intellectual endeavors from material results

What?
posted by phrontist at 11:24 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


happyroach: you can't separate intellectual endeavors from material results ... ... The thing is, if you have unrestrained soociial and intellectual growth, well, someonne may come up with a new toy that everybody decides they want... ...leading to an uptick in consumptiion ... ... which given the fractious nature of humanity will need thorough and unrelenting policing ... ...they will be assigned an occupation and that attempting to better oneself will be stopped by thegovernment

I don't see the link between intellectual endeavor and material results (eg: software). And I don't think 'policing' the population to prevent ideas will (ever again) be workable (let alone desirable). And I don't see why people would need to be assigned jobs. Off the top of my head: wouldn't regulatory changes like heavily taxing certain things (mining and energy production, say) be enough to get to a steady-state society without going all totalitarian?

Still, you might have a good idea for a sci-fi book there.
posted by memebake at 11:57 PM on November 25, 2010


Auto correct, you're of course right about the formal definition of the Second Law and that the earth is not a closed system, energetically,or even materially for that matter. And god forbid (heh) I give ammunition to evolution deniers.

That said, seanyboy's casual, blanket assertion that growth is about reducing entropy is wrong on several levels and oftentimes the only meaningful (to humans) way to define a particular system is as much, much smaller than the entire earth and its solar system.
posted by Sublimity at 5:28 AM on November 26, 2010


Marlinspike: As to the somewhat academic debate of the possibility of continued growth within a finite material system, there is nothing to say that isn't possible. If a sustainable, or approximately sustainable system can be created, initially involving phasing out fossil fuels and then moving on to the 'atom economy' concepts mentioned in the article, you can always improve the efficiency of production- for instance making a computer chip composed of the same amount of material run faster, or production occur with less human involvement.

I can see what you're getting at with the 'growth through efficiency gains' argument.

But does an efficiency gain in itself equal growth? If I can now make 10 widgets in half the time I used to (or with half the energy input, or half the human involvement, or whatever) because of efficiency gains, how does that create growth? Don't efficiency gains only result in growth if the saved time (or energy, whatever) is then applied to other tasks - thereby resulting in greater resource usage?
posted by memebake at 5:58 AM on November 26, 2010


Sublimity: seanyboy's blanket assertion that sustainable growth is about reducing entropy is absolutely correct. Every single piece of new energy-saving technology will in some way or another replace an entropy-producing process with a new process that produces less entropy.

Consider an example: drying your clothes by...

1. allowing the moisture to evaporate in the sun, or
2. driving off the moisture using the exhaust from burning natural gas in air.

both mechanisms use heat to change water from liquid into vapor so they must use the same theoretical minimum amount of energy (true). But the process that is done more slowly at the lower temperature will necessarily produce less entropy. And energy that is not spent producing entropy, is energy saved from being used at all.

There are many processes that accomplish the same thing but produce different amount of entropy:

Canoeing or paddling in a fluid produces more entropy than pushing against the river bottom with a pole.

A jet boat produces more entropy than a propellor boat which produces more than a paddlewheel drive.

A jet engine produces more than a turbofan which produces more than a prop plane.

I know these are all results from fluid dynamics but the point is we can compare processes in a rigorous, analytic fashion and when look at the natural world and then to our own machines we see in fact that ours involve much higher temperatures and produce much more entropy---which is energy totally wasted creating disorder/chaos/random motion (or simply "waste heat").
posted by dongolier at 8:24 AM on November 26, 2010


Canoeing or paddling in a fluid produces more entropy than pushing against the river bottom with a pole.
posted by dongolier


In all fairness, you should declare your potential fonclict of interest here.
posted by [citation needed] at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
-Edward Abbey
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:29 AM on November 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Although some economist friends have occasionally tried to persuade me that economic growth is possible without a corresponding growth in resource consumption.

Me too. They did convince me that it's possible in theory, it's just extremely unlikely in practice and ultimately a bit absurd. Short-term of course you can increase efficiency: dongolier mentions "gasoline 4-bangers" having a limit around 30%, but you can improve for example by switching from Otto cycle to Atkinson. And to various other things to get gradually nearer to 100%. There is plenty of room to improve efficiency in all sorts of places. In the real world it of course it never seems to mean any less growth in consumption of resources, you run into population growth and Jevons' paradox.

You could grow the economy without using up more of anything tangible by production of immaterial goods for sale, like say mp3s. Your computer might use up slightly more electricity the more of them you play, but you could just increase the variety, repeat them less often, and have them playing back the same amount of time, for what would work out to effectively no growth in anything real, but lots of new data being bought and sold. In theory I suppose that could go on forever, but it is pretty easy to imagine where the practical limits to this sort of thing might be. Besides which there are no near-future developments along those lines likely to be anywhere close to replacing any great fraction of the economic growth we're used to, not any time soon. People might have believed it back in 1999, I think we are now perhaps a bit less susceptible to that sort of nonsense.

The present economic system doesn't really require growth though, it only nominally requires it. No really big changes needed, in theory, I think, to live with zero real growth plus some (possibly higher) inflation. Once the population is stable, that is. No need for a whole new monetary system. It would take some getting used to, and a crash is probably a whole lot more likely than some carefully-balanced steady state. It's possible, but it probably wouldn't be all that stable without some kind of new, experimental, amazingly precise control system for it, and steadystate.org gives me the idea nobody really knows exactly how that would work.
posted by sfenders at 2:37 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


dongolier, I take your point, which is a good one. However you're talking more about *processes* than about growth, per se.

My interpretation of his remark was to read "growth" in terms of material objects: more people, plants, animals, human-created objects. For each of these items, a more-ordered state arises in the item's creation, organization--but overall the universe (we can even just refer to the local system) is less ordered due to the de-ordering of source materials and indeed the waste heat from production, etc.

In your clothes-drying example, the mere existence of the dryer means that the entropic state of the universe has increased, even before you turn the damn thing on. (Think of the leftovers from the ore that mined the metals, the energy needed to make it, etc. ) I think it's human nature to just see the dryer and not even comprehend the resources and efforts that were required to get it there (nor the eventual obsolescence of the dryer itself.) I loved the reference to Barry Trost's "atom economy" in the original link--hence the title of this post.

All this by way of saying: there has been a lot of good discussion in this thread about different kinds of growth that don't necessarily require increase in material goods (like intellectual growth). But practically speaking "growth" is usually assumed to mean increase in number, type, or quality of material objects.

It's a limitation of human observation and consciousness to think that making those things is a matter of increasing order--the offsetting decrease in order rarely registers, especially in these times when production of raw materials and manufacturing for manufactured goods can occur very, very far away from the place where the objects are sold and primarily used.
posted by Sublimity at 5:48 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it's human nature to just see the dryer and not even comprehend the resources and efforts that were required to get it there (nor the eventual obsolescence of the dryer itself.)

This seems as good a thread as any to make my rant about how planned obsolescence has become a _good thing_ in the eyes of most people I know. Typical conversation:

Person A: I really need to buy X again, my old one just broke.
Person B: Yeah, Xs are crap nowadays, they don't last like they used to.
Person A: True, but think about it, if they didn't break so easily all those factory workers would have nothing to do and we don't want that.
Person A: You're absolutely right!

It's like we're living in a Monty Python sketch, except not that funny.
posted by Bangaioh at 6:32 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


>Memeback
"I can see what you're getting at with the 'growth through efficiency gains' argument.

But does an efficiency gain in itself equal growth? If I can now make 10 widgets in half the time I used to (or with half the energy input, or half the human involvement, or whatever) because of efficiency gains, how does that create growth? Don't efficiency gains only result in growth if the saved time (or energy, whatever) is then applied to other tasks - thereby resulting in greater resource usage?"


I admit I don't have the economics knowledge to discuss this without embarrassing myself. It's not clear to me whether productivity gains on their own would constitute growth. However I can't see, if the time saved is spent, for example, designing software, how that differs from producing a material tool (apart from in material consumption). Writing a new piece of software is essentially equivalent in utility to building a horrendously complicated Babbage machine with actual steel.

Setting that question to one side, a society which can increase its productivity without expanding resource use does solve a major problem for which growth has been the solution- that is, how to be able to support elderly, vulnerable or otherwise non-productive members of society. A smaller ratio of working-age individuals can support the wider population, which will be especially important as the demographic changes work through from decreasing fertility.

I also think the phrase 'sustainable growth', and its equivalents 'green jobs', 'green growth' etc play an important role in the politics of the environment which hasn't been mentioned so far on this thread. They represent an attempt by pragmatists and centrists to find a compromise position between the political right and anti-industrial environmentalism. Climate change is undeniably embraced more comfortably by those with preconceptions, valid or not, which run alongside it. For instance, the Green party in Britain is the only remaining socialist party in mainstream politics. The centralization of economic power which climate change encourages has attracted lots of activists who would have been proposing socialist policies regardless. Equally climate change is coopted by those who object to industrial society because it is 'unnatural'. The phrases above are a way of staking out your position as someone who believes both in the advantages of an industrial society and the need to do something about climate change.
posted by Marlinspike at 10:28 AM on November 27, 2010


Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail:
I've read once that there is no better thing for the economy than a businessman with prostate cancer who causes a big car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:31 PM on December 18, 2010


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