more from less: dematerialization versus degrowth
October 27, 2019 2:34 AM   Subscribe

Economic Growth Shouldn't Be a Death Sentence for Earth - "But it does mean learning how to do more while using fewer resources."[1,2] (thread-reader)

The Economy Keeps Growing, but Americans Are Using Less Steel, Paper, Fertilizer, and Energy
A great reversal of our Industrial Age habits is taking place. The American economy is now experiencing broad and often deep absolute dematerialization... other advanced industrialized nations are also now getting more from less... Developing countries, especially fast-growing ones such as India and China, are probably not yet dematerializing. But I predict that they will start getting more from less of at least some resources in the not-too-distant future.
Andrew McAfee on More from Less
McAfee argues that technology is helping developed nations use fewer resources in producing higher levels of economic output. The improvement is not just a reduction in energy per dollar of GDP but less energy in total as economic growth progresses. This "dematerialization" portends a future that was unimaginable to the economists and pundits of the past. McAfee discusses the potential for dealing with climate change in a dematerialized world, the non-material aspects of economic progress, and the political repercussions of the current distribution of economic progress.
also btw...
-Desk evolution
-We require more minerals
-Solar power can make carbon-neutral hydrocarbons

The True Believer - "A reminder that a winner-take-all economy with no obvious path to moderate success for the majority of people gives fuel to mass movements."[3,4,5]
posted by kliuless (65 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's such a welcome respite to read a more-or-less optimistic article about the environment.

I'm surprised that reuse of materials isn't mentioned, though I suppose it probably counts as a form more efficient use. There's something tremendously appealing -- both practically and aesthetically -- about an economy where every all waste gets reused and every output is also an input.

I also found this line thought provoking: "Economic growth, stated simply, means that the things people pay for do a better job of satisfying their desires." ...That's not exactly what I think of as economic growth, but it does seem like a much healthier and more productive goal than just arbitrarily boosting the GDP.
posted by Kilter at 6:40 AM on October 27, 2019 [12 favorites]


Noah Smith refers to himself as a "recovering neoliberal shill" in his Twitter bio. He seems to have a long road ahead of him.
posted by Reyturner at 8:53 AM on October 27, 2019 [8 favorites]


The entire idea that growth should be permanent is ludicrous.
posted by constantinescharity at 9:16 AM on October 27, 2019 [24 favorites]


Not to mention that these articles are so often a celebration of increasing productivity per unit of energy/material going up to the top. Who gives a shit that society is more efficient if the proceeds of such improvement is aggregated in the 0.1%’s pockets. Rejoice peons!
posted by constantinescharity at 9:23 AM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


Reduction and efficiency is fantastic. But it's hiding the impact of growth, not stopping or reducing it long term. It gives us breathing room, and will likely be the answer to climate change (provided we can get there), but its not an answer to the fundamental problem of growth in a limited world.

Humanity will have to decide to either self-limit, which will be painful for many and very likely inequitable in the extreme, or leave the confines of earth. This is what drives people like Musk.
posted by bonehead at 9:31 AM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


i feel like this is an attempt to re-define "growth" more than anything. you've got a lot of work to do to make that concept do all the work of 5 other concepts
posted by eustatic at 9:32 AM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


In my first D&D campaign, over forty years ago, I imagined Thellis, the Demonic Lord of Evil Plants. (It was D&D, bear with me.) I imagined Thellis as this non-human intelligence whose only motivation was to GROW! Over every land! Every ocean! And then to break through to other worlds that would become soil for Thellis.

I imagined Thellis as a cancer, eating away at creation.

I see capitalism this way now. It's a mindless paper clip optimizer that means us no harm, but will destroy us all.
posted by SPrintF at 9:34 AM on October 27, 2019 [13 favorites]


There's also the need to uncouple growth from growth in energy use, which means finding a way around the Jevon's paradox. (wikipedia link) Otherwise, you run into the had limit in a couple of hundred years of simply being unable to increase energy production without boiling the earth (literally). While I've read stuff about the need for that, I haven't seen any layman's articles about how it could be done.
posted by Hactar at 9:47 AM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Humanity will have to decide to either self-limit, which will be painful for many and very likely inequitable in the extreme, or leave the confines of earth. This is what drives people like Musk.

Ah yes, the famous Jameson quote: “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world as we know it, but with space colonies for the rich, than the end of capitalism”
posted by Acid Communist at 10:21 AM on October 27, 2019 [23 favorites]


There was a point made in the now-long-defunct Do The Math blog about how energy use cannot be decoupled from economic growth. It was a pretty entertaining proof by contradiction, along the following lines:

Imagine that energy use and economic growth CAN be decoupled, and the economy goes through some arbitrary number of doublings after the decoupling. Then some kid decides to buy the world’s entire energy supply with his lunch money, which he can do because after enough doublings, the entire energy budget of the earth can become such a tiny fraction of the overall economy that it can be bought with pocket change.

So either energy use gets rationed, or the cost of energy grows along with the economy at some scale. Which basically amount to the same thing because every dollar bill is, at heart, a ration card. The exact ratio might be higher or lower depending on efficiency improvements, but it’s still going to remain some significant fraction.
posted by notoriety public at 11:26 AM on October 27, 2019 [6 favorites]


Jevon's paradox is an observation, not a law of nature. The policy moves to overcome it are very simple, though the politics can be tough.

One sign of success of the anti-government push of the last 50 years is that even progressively minded people tend to imagine markets and capitalism on the terms asserted by the most fundamentalist of free market advocates, instead of a set of decisions we can change if we don't like the outcomes.

@Notoriety Public:

I don't find that convincing. You could buy the world's supply of vacuum tubes if you wanted; it doesn't prove it's coupled. The economy has made them unimportant.

The world's supply of energy would be cheap in this hypothetical because we don't demand much of it. Like vacuum tubes, if some kid bought up all the energy he'd have nothing to do with it.
posted by mark k at 11:39 AM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


These guys have been saying the same thing for decades and yet here we are, many years later, still doing next to nothing about climate change, carbon emissions still growing, and they are still saying the same thing. If they have some kind of real plan to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions and destructive resource extraction, then let's hear it. If it's just more handwaving about how in theory we can decouple economic growth with a few cherry-picked statistics that kind of look like they might be headed in the right direction, if you squint, then it really looks like these guys are part of the problem. This BS is distraction, part of an ongoing desperate attempt to make the conversation about "balancing" growth with destroying the planet. We will "balance" our way right into ecosystem collapse and catastrophic climate change and these guys will be writing opinion pieces about decoupling right through it.
posted by ssg at 11:44 AM on October 27, 2019 [9 favorites]


Decoupling and dematerialisation is a question where people need to be looking at the numbers. (I work in climate policy and climate finance am paid to look at these numbers.)

Wealth grows at 2% per year (very roughly, in most Western nations, across the past many decades).

Technology change increases carbon efficiency by 1% per year (very roughly, but that's what the UK achieved for the Twentieth Century by moving from coal to oil to nukes & gas).

That means emissions increase by 2-1 = 1% per year, meaning the climate will be fucked.

A few nations have been doing better - the UK has dropped emissions since 1990 by 2% overall while growing at 2%. However, that drop has come almost entirely from the electricity sector. The UK is phasing out fossil fuels and closing coal-fired power stations while building off-shore wind turbines as fast as possible (and importing cleaner power from Europe). This sector has managed 11% improvements in carbon efficiency.

Every other sector is managing 2% carbon efficiency improvements per year driven by world-leading strong climate policies. This means that with economic growth, the emissions from those sectors are flat.

The UK is the world leader is decarbonisation, helped by Government commitment since Thatcher's day, lots of good options like wind power, a willingness to finally put the bullet into a dying and politically-powerless industry like coal, and an industrial strategy backed by huge R&D spend to promote manufacturing strength by developing UK companies that can sell this new technology around the world.

Other examples of huge emissions drops occurred during the post-Soviet collapse, where the Baltic and Eastern European countries realised that their Soviet-era industrial base was utterly uncompetitive. They imported shiny clean Western technology, helped by massive investment from the West who wanted to bring those economies into the Western sphere of influence. Those nations managed 5-9% carbon efficiency improvements for up to a decade, until they caught up with the current state of the art.

Here's the bad news - to limit climate change to 2 degrees, we need to reduce emissions by 5% per year. That means either no economic growth and improving carbon efficiency by 5% per year, or 2% economic growth and improving carbon efficiency by 7% per year.

We do not know how nations can achieve that. The UK isn't doing it despite strong policies and aligned incentives. Latvia did it, briefly, with huge outside help. The US is defending coal because of domestic politics. US emissions are basically flat and projected to stay that way.

Limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees requires an 18% drop in emissions each year. Ha ha nope we're fucked.
posted by happyinmotion at 12:16 PM on October 27, 2019 [19 favorites]


@mark k:

Comparing vacuum tubes to energy is a false equivalence. Vacuum tubes are a particular way of accomplishing a particular task, energy is a thing you absolutely need some of to do absolutely everything. You don’t “replace” energy use with anything. You can replace the method you use to get the energy, you can replace the choices of things you do with the energy. But some energy gets used doing everything. EVERYTHING. At a minimum, just being a living human being who isn’t starving to death still takes over a thousand kilocalories. Energy use only goes up from there.
posted by notoriety public at 12:51 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


I've appreciated McAfee's earlier books and had a good experience with him as a speaker. I'm looking forward to this one.
posted by doctornemo at 1:08 PM on October 27, 2019


EconTalk had a good discussion with McAfee last week.
posted by doctornemo at 1:12 PM on October 27, 2019


I think the point that economic growth can occur due to changes in use and efficiency rather than increases in resource use is valid, but the argument in the first article by Noah Smith was bad. He writes
In the U.S., for example, gross domestic product has continued to rise, even though energy use has stayed basically constant:
and then shows a graph indicating that energy use has increased by 30% since 1980. Granted, if you look at just the portion of the graph since 2000, it does look like energy use has remained roughly flat while GDP growth has remained linear at about 4.5 points per year, but the choice of a 1980 start year makes the actual magnitude of GDP growth look roughly twice as big as it otherwise would, while the choice to plot energy consumption at the same y-axis scale makes its overall change visually look flatter than it otherwise would. The point that GDP grows disproportionately to energy use is an important one, but this graph presents this in a way that under-emphasizes the fact that these are still linked. To be clear, I don't think this graph is intentionally misleading; if that were the intent, it could have been distorted much more effectively. Rather I think it's an example of how one's own preconceptions can lead to a particular interpretation of an ambiguous graph.

This bit:
The purest form of intensive growth lies purely in the realm of information and ideas. The creation of better stories, games, art, philosophy and so on is a type of growth. Modern video games use much less energy than the arcade games of 30 years ago, but are more entertaining and valuable.
is almost incomprehensible to me. How on earth can one assess the claim that modern video games are more entertaining and valuable than arcade games from 30 years ago were? How could one possible quantify whether a story, game, art, or philosophy is "better," reflecting economic "growth"? You can certainly measure people's revealed preferences by the way they choose to spend their time and money on these things, but I think hardly anyone would agree that Keeping Up with the Kardashians can be measured against the plays of William Shakespeare in this way.
posted by biogeo at 1:14 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Then some kid decides to buy the world’s entire energy supply with his lunch money, which he can do because after enough doublings, the entire energy budget of the earth can become such a tiny fraction of the overall economy that it can be bought with pocket change.

Scarcity tends to push up prices, so why would that not happen in the case of what would still be an essential?
posted by biffa at 1:33 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


"Spawn more overlords!"
posted by sneebler at 1:49 PM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


So want this to be true, but still wonder if some of that difference isn't being outsourced somehow. I know imports are being counted for materials, but what about those being used for supporting infrastructure? Also agricultural imports don't seem to be mentioned, at least in the first article.
posted by blue shadows at 1:53 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


How on earth can one assess the claim that modern video games are more entertaining and valuable than arcade games from 30 years ago were? How could one possible quantify whether a story, game, art, or philosophy is "better," reflecting economic "growth"? You can certainly measure people's revealed preferences by the way they choose to spend their time and money on these things, but I think hardly anyone would agree that Keeping Up with the Kardashians can be measured against the plays of William Shakespeare in this way.

Are you denying that you find modern leisure substantially more valuable to you than it was 30 years ago? That includes Metafilter as a central example, by the way, not just the Kardashians. It seems to me like such an obvious claim that it doesn't need assessing, unless you think entertainment and value are actually totally ineffable and have nothing to do with human opinions.
posted by value of information at 2:00 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


I mean, 30 years ago I was playing with wooden trains, and I derived more entertainment value from that than from just about anything I do for leisure today.

But personal changes in my subjective value landscape aside, yes, I would deny that modern games, stories, art, and philosophy are systematically better than they were 30 years ago. In fact, for entertainment I often choose to load up an old console game on an original cartridge or in an emulator in preference to a more modern title. I often choose to read books that were written decades ago and enjoy art from the 19th century. I'm not saying that modern leisure is worse than in the past, nor am I saying that it's not a good thing that we have more choices now. But where you say it seems obvious that modern leisure is better than in the past, I would say it seems obvious that it's not, so much so that your position is surprising to me.
posted by biogeo at 2:40 PM on October 27, 2019 [7 favorites]


Scarcity tends to push up prices, so why would that not happen in the case of what would still be an essential?

That’s the point, it’s a proof by contradiction. Some amount of energy is a necessary input to any kind of activity. There will ALWAYS be bidding pressure on energy, so it will always be a pretty hard limiting factor on the economy.
posted by notoriety public at 2:41 PM on October 27, 2019


an economy where every all waste gets reused and every output is also an input.

The phrase I came up with that keeps running through my head is "an end to the Age of Extraction."
posted by sexyrobot at 2:43 PM on October 27, 2019


Granted, if you look at just the portion of the graph since 2000, it does look like energy use has remained roughly flat while GDP growth has remained linear at about 4.5 points per year, but the choice of a 1980 start year makes the actual magnitude of GDP growth look roughly twice as big as it otherwise would, while the choice to plot energy consumption at the same y-axis scale makes its overall change visually look flatter than it otherwise would.

Not to mention that many of these charts stop in 2015 or 2017, which conveniently does not include 2018, which would show a significant increase in energy use in the US.
posted by ssg at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2019


"Economic growth, stated simply, means that the things people pay for do a better job of satisfying their desires."

https://www.metafilter.com/181012/You-do-not-exist-to-be-used#7706985
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 3:05 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Scarcity tends to push up prices, so why would that not happen in the case of what would still be an essential?

The reason it's cheap is not because it's scarce, it's because it's not valuable (relative to other aspects of the economy.) Buying it doesn't make it scarce--there's a conflating of market control and demand here.

I think it's hurt by saying we are imagining a world where the energy sector is negligible but actually picturing it as if it's still big and expensive. But in a world where the global supply is "lunch money" then it only take lunch money to replace it. So I buy your solar panel, thinking I'm going to be able to run up the bill when I control the market, but you have your robots make more the next day. I'm not a market genius; I'm an idiot.
posted by mark k at 3:11 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Metafiler: more valuable than wooden trains?
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:05 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh god not this crap again.

Yes, theoretically you can have constant growth for a while without increasing input resource consumption, if the rate of increase of efficiency temporarily exceeds the rate of growth in output.

But efficiency gains are fundamentally finite. Any measure of efficiency is a percentage of perfection. E.g. for energy efficiency; burning coal to make electricity is about 37% efficient. Even if you could somehow keep bumping efficiency numbers for years on end with technological improvements, you can never exceed 100% without breaking at least the laws of thermodynamics. In that particular case, you hit the Carnot limit well before then, and we are already pretty close to practical maximums.

Once you run out of efficiency gains, which you must do eventually - whether it takes years or decades or centuries - then you're back to needing constant growth in resource consumption to maintain constant growth in outputs.

Continuous growth is still fundamentally not sustainable on a finite planet. Technology cannot continue getting better indefinitely, no matter how well you can coerce an exponential fit onto an anomalous few decades. Eventually we have to learn to live within our means.

The reason Silicon Valley dudebros love singularitarian bullshit is because it tells them otherwise.
posted by automatronic at 4:34 PM on October 27, 2019 [25 favorites]


Otherwise, you run into the had limit in a couple of hundred years of simply being unable to increase energy production without boiling the earth (literally)

Happily, space is very cold and very big, so the simple expedient of emitting your radiative energy at a wavelength not absorbed by the atmosphere neatly bypasses this specific problem

Despite only recently finding the necessary materials and production techniques to create materials that can passively take advantage of any of the transmission windows, they will probably be coming to a solar panel near you in the next five years.

Unless this is just another form of religious moralizing about being happy with our station, we should all be pleased that we needn't deprive ourselves or others if we prefer not to do so.
posted by wierdo at 5:10 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


Maybe I have this wrong, but why do we even care about GDP growth when we know that real wages are stagnant for most people and have been for decades?

If real wages are stagnant for most people then any real GDP growth is either accounting for population increases or going to the few who aren't subject to stagnant wages (i.e. the very rich)? Per capita GDP might go up in real terms, but if the general public aren't seeing that growth in their own economic circumstances, then aren't they already in a no-growth situation? In this case, it sure looks like GDP growth only serves the rich anyways and I think we can agree they are already rich enough, so why is this even an issue?

Now, you might say that we have better technology, better entertainment, etc and that people are better off than they were a few decades ago (in a North American or Western European context). Regardless of how you feel about that statement, if it isn't reflected in higher wages, then it isn't reflected in the numbers we are talking about anyways, so that's a completely different argument.
posted by ssg at 5:36 PM on October 27, 2019 [6 favorites]


Noah's point about video games does not hinge on them being subjectively more entertaining. They, objectively, render in higher resolution and detail, yet consume a fraction of the energy.
posted by wierdo at 5:49 PM on October 27, 2019


So, an utterly worthless point.
posted by Reyturner at 5:59 PM on October 27, 2019


Happily, space is very cold and very big, so the simple expedient of emitting your radiative energy at a wavelength not absorbed by the atmosphere neatly bypasses this specific problem

What? No. This isn't how thermodynamics works. If we're talking about the physical limits on economic growth, we need to talk about entropy, not only energy. Or use the convenient concept of free energy.

The capacity of a source of energy to do work (i.e., contribute to economic growth) is defined by how far from thermodynamic equilibrium it is. The amount of energy that the Earth receives from the Sun is more or less exactly equal to the amount of energy the Earth radiates into space, plus or minus some heat generated by radioactive decay in the core and mantle, energy temporarily stored in chemical bonds via photosynthesis, etc. The difference is that the Sun's radiation has a spectrum consistent with a blackbody at 6000 K or so, but by the time it reaches the Earth it is only 300 K or so. The Earth's radiation has a spectrum more consistent with its temperature of about 300 K. As a consequence, the Sun's radiation is extremely low entropy at the surface of the Earth, while the Earth's radiation is high entropy. It is this entropy difference that drives all life on Earth, and ultimately all human economic activity.

Can we beam energy into space in a narrow band not absorbed by the atmosphere? Sure. But that ultimately requires a greater increase in entropy than passive thermal radiation would, which increases the total amount of energy used, which just further exacerbates the problem. You can't beat the second law of thermodynamics.

Noah's point about video games does not hinge on them being subjectively more entertaining.

He writes "Modern video games use much less energy than the arcade games of 30 years ago, but are more entertaining and valuable."
posted by biogeo at 6:04 PM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also, with a little quick Googling, I find people estimating that the power consumption of a vintage arcade cabinet is about 100-200 Watts, and the power consumption of a desktop PC during high-performance gaming is 300-800 Watts, depending on PC specs. If this is correct, it would also appear to be objectively false that "modern video games use much less energy than the arcade games of 30 years ago," in fact the opposite seems to be true.

It's interesting, I didn't even really think to question the claim that modern video games use less energy than those of 30 years ago until you pointed it out, but that made me start thinking about how much heat my computer produces under the workload demanded by modern video games, and suddenly I realized that it was unlikely to be true.
posted by biogeo at 6:17 PM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


And also trivially easy to fact check. I might write something like that without bothering to check it in a comment on Metafilter or something, but never in an article I was publishing. And Bloomberg clearly didn't bother to fact check it either. The more I think about this the more irritated it makes me.
posted by biogeo at 6:20 PM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


Sure, gaming PCs use a ton of power, but so did the fancy arcade cabinets. Most people game on something under like 5 watts these days, attempted gotchas aside.
posted by wierdo at 6:22 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Or to be more plain about it: I can emulate any of those cabs on my phone for several hours on a 12 watt hour battery.

And yes, you can actually reject heat into space. You may not like it, but it works to decrease the amount of heat energy retained in the system we actually care about: Earth's atmosphere. Nobody ever claimed it simply disappeared into nowhere, just somewhere that it doesn't cause us immediate problems.
posted by wierdo at 6:29 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


There are no gotchas here, my dude. I don't know why you think I'm arguing in bad faith. I'm just thinking through the implications of the arguments. When I look for numbers on vintage arcade cabinet power consumption I get numbers like 200 watts from people discussing the electrical requirements to actually run them. Whereas a PC specced to run modern games requires substantially more than that. And yes, of course we can run older games in emulators using much less power consumption on modern, more efficient hardware, but that's moving the goalposts from the original claim, which is that modern games use less energy.

And yes, you can actually reject heat into space.

To repeat exactly the same point I made above: not without using even more energy to overcome the thermodynamic unfavorability of radiating in a narrow band instead of that of an equilibrium black body. You may not like it, but there's no such thing as a free lunch.
posted by biogeo at 6:37 PM on October 27, 2019 [5 favorites]


In fact, for entertainment I often choose to load up an old console game on an original cartridge or in an emulator in preference to a more modern title. I often choose to read books that were written decades ago and enjoy art from the 19th century.

But that art is all so much more accessible! 20 years ago I couldn't read most books that were written decades ago that I wanted to read, because they were not physically nearby me. Now those books are sitting on my choice of Library Genesis, Amazon, or my public library's website. I can actually read them. The analogous thing is true about games. As a result, of course I am reading and playing ones I like better. I can pick them up and put them down when I please because they are on my phone. And when I do so, I am surrounded by a virtual community of friends, commentary, and co-adventurers, making my experience richer. It really seems way better, even when I am experiencing "the same" stuff.
posted by value of information at 6:57 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


To repeat exactly the same point I made above: not without using even more energy to overcome the thermodynamic unfavorability of radiating in a narrow band instead of that of an equilibrium black body.

Sure, if you discount the actual science that has produced physical devices that do exactly what I said, completely passively, you're exactly right. I get that metamaterials seem like magic, but it's just physics.

Links are hard on my phone, so you'll have to make do with a several year old ArsTechnica article about an early prototype. Yes, the technology isn't anywhere near fully baked yet, but the point at which our waste heat (as opposed to GHG emissions, which are having a significant impact now) has a measurable impact on the planet's overall energy budget it itself a very long way off.
posted by wierdo at 8:34 PM on October 27, 2019


And regarding efficiency, what is important isn't that there exist a few gaming rigs that use the same average power as a small apartment, what is important is that, in the past, all games used 150+ watts. The average, mean, median, and mode, whichever you prefer, is far lower today than it was then. It is indisputable that the number of watts consumed to game for an hour is far lower today than it was in 1982.

I suspect that would be true even leaving mobile aside now that LED TVs are the norm, but that is based entirely on speculation and vague estimates made in my head. It would almost certainly hold if the comparison were to 2003ish, but maybe not with 1982, when the really large CRTs were still pretty rare in the home and the console games weren't yet using much energy.
posted by wierdo at 8:55 PM on October 27, 2019


Land costs so dominate our day-to-day economics this entire discussion is rather silly to me, really.

Housing is an even more critical sector in the eurosocialist paradises that have their economic acts more together.

The rent must be paid at the end of the day month.

Anyhoo, one angle of a more virtualized economy that may or may not have been analyzed in the piece is that there is less friction being a service provider in cyberspace vs. the physical world.

Not just energy costs, cost of materials consumed, but the also aforementioned real estate overheads -- brick & mortar can be cheap, but a good location is going to cost you pretty!

As it is, I am nearing retirement age and am thinking closely about needs vs. wants.

Could I be perfectly happy sitting in a pod hooked up to the internet 24/7 for the remainder of my days? If the past 25 years are any indicator, sadly, yes.

I guess my main demands from my local economy now are a Trader Joes within my Leaf's range, a capable emergency hospital, and said internet . ??
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:48 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Links are hard on my phone, so you'll have to make do with a several year old ArsTechnica article about an early prototype.

So, I read the article, and it didn't make much sense to me, so I read the original research it linked to, and that made sense but I had further questions, so I read some of the cited literature, and I think I understand our disagreement now. I thought you were saying that passive radiation would solve any waste heat problem, which is thermodynamically impossible. But now I think you're just concerned with the question of bypassing the effects of atmospheric insulation, is that right? Because the device you linked to is, in isolation, less efficient at emitting radiation than a blackbody radiator would be. But in atmosphere it is more efficient, because the atmosphere near the radiator is heated, thus effectively preventing anything from radiating as a true blackbody. You can't solve any arbitrarily large waste heat problem by radiating, but you can bypass some of the relatively large insulating effects of the atmosphere, getting closer to the blackbody ideal.

Am I understanding you correctly now?

It is indisputable that the number of watts consumed to game for an hour is far lower today than it was in 1982.

Again, I don't agree that this is indisputable, but I'm not going to try to dispute it further. It may be true but without some kind of accounting for the various types of games that includes things like energy usage by data centers for online games in addition to the devices that the gamer uses directly, I'm not convinced.
posted by biogeo at 10:23 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


The most knowledgeable man on the planet about energy policy, Vaclav Smil, just wrote a whole book on why this is wrong
posted by Perko at 1:00 AM on October 28, 2019


Based on that interview, Vaclav Smile seems to think that there's actually a lot of room to improve efficiency and dematerialize economic activity. He just also believes that there will always be some physical material required to house and feed people and that most people don't care enough about sustainability to change their behaviour for environmental reasons. That all seems true, but not like a reason to give up. If people aren't strongly motivated by environmentalism, that just means that it's important to put taxes or penalties on pollution to provide other incentives for sustainable consumption.

Whether the limits of dematerialization are a problem I think depends to a large extent on whether or not the population continues to grow ... and, I suppose, whether we're able to get more energy and raw material by expanding into space. Either way, we're still far from that limit.
posted by Kilter at 5:05 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: So, an utterly worthless point.
posted by rorgy at 5:50 AM on October 28, 2019


The most knowledgeable man on the planet about energy policy, Vaclav Smil

Yeah, I'm not so sure.
posted by gwint at 8:07 AM on October 28, 2019


I'd argue that those "errors" in Smil's thought are largely missing the point. Smil doesn't argue that there are efficiencies in the current way we do things that couldn't be bridged: he calls that "slack". What he's saying is that slack may give us some time to try to adjust as we take it up.

But there's no future in which we won't run out of slack (assuming no human extinction in the immediate future). Eventually we will have a super-duper efficient wind-battery-electrified transit system, and we will still need to build more windmills. 3% Growth can't happen forever. The limits are close and possibly closer than we think.

So we have a choice between an Malthusian trap or looking for ways out of it. "Slack" give us some space to make choices, but if we want the biosphere to survive, we'll have to confront growth as a problem. Sooner than later, by preference.
posted by bonehead at 9:42 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


"More from less" is what is being sold as virtue to the proletariat so that the .001% can continue to live in luxury without getting eaten.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:59 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]


"More from less" is what is being sold as virtue to the proletariat so that the .001% can continue to live in luxury without getting eaten.

I've never felt this to be true, as they could have real impacts giving us more from less that we probably wouldn't even complain about.
One example would be changing some cities to be less car-required, where they would give the proletariat less driving, highways, etc (thereby spending less money) and get to build taller more dense buildings (driving up land prices and thereby making more money.


But they aren't really doing that. They are still in "a more-is-more" mindset, except when it comes to salaries and time off. "More from less" is coming bottom up, not top down in my opinion. The only failing of "more is more" is that there are prevailing industries that have not aligned that are in (still indirect) competition for proletariat dollars.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:59 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Others have written on the topic here with ideas of Maximum Power Principle Jay Hanson of Dieoff.com/dieoff.org and the yahoo group he used to run people at the in-amber The Oil Drum or Howard Odom's eMergy accounting idea.

If energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is the path keeping growth running and fossil fuels (at one time EROEI of 100+) along with fission (What's the energy going into Fukushima and Chernoybal's life cycle?) are not options due to the handling of the waste products you are left with fusion processed by the Earth as sunlight (EROEI of 10?) or whatever the EROEI is of the thing mentioned here is.

What Americans see around them is based on the ever shrinking EROEI of the excess oil production from WWII. If the energy budget of the world is what photons gives humanity - can the present world economic model run on that using the assumptions made when the EROEI was 100:1 VS a possible 10:1?

The old 100:1 model had people claiming debt doesn't matter and growth is 2% and yet the economic debt growth this year for the US of A seems to be 5% with the change of debt from 2018 to 2019 being $1 Trillion and a projected GDP for 2019 of $21ish Trillion. How much of the growth seen is just borrowing from the future with the hope some technofix will solve the problem?

How, exactly does converting sunshine into fuel (like the 1970's seafuel project as an example of how old the tech is and the conditions that prompted looking into it) going to power F-35 jets? Or Abrams tanks? Or your commute into work every day?

In an energy constrained world how do you accellerate the moving of fresh water into a high density area and then use energy to force environmental conditions for microbes to process the dirty water out of the cities? Can you do that at 10:1 EROEI and still keep eronomic growth at 2% to "keep social order"?
posted by rough ashlar at 2:11 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


power consumption of a vintage arcade cabinet is about 100-200 Watts, and the power consumption of a desktop PC during high-performance gaming is 300-800 Watts

The desktop PC is capable of doing a lot more than running that game, and is arguably doing several of those things while running the game.

Do we have a wattage count for hooking a Gameboy up to a large screen? Nintendo Switch seems to draw a lot less power - under 40 watts, if I read it correctly. (I might not; that's technical info outside of my realm of understanding.)

That's all academic; how efficient modern energy use is compared to the past, like the comparison of energy efficiency to GDP, is irrelevant. The issues are "how do we reduce emissions" and "how do we reduce income/resource inequities," which are social problems, not mathematical ones.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:12 PM on October 28, 2019


I don't know what all this stuff about video games is about. The bottom line is that households in the U.S. are using less electricity every year. This report from the American Energy Information Administration, a government agency, indicates that households are using 7% less electricity per capita than in 2010.

Whether that comes from video games, more efficient appliances, more efficient lighting, better insulation, home solar, whatever -- it means lower carbon dioxide emissions for electricity.

In the same time period, real GDP has increased 25%. So a higher standard of living with lower emissions of carbon.
posted by JackFlash at 3:41 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Real GDP is a pretty terrible metric for standard of living.
posted by pompomtom at 5:15 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Real GDP is a pretty terrible metric for standard of living.

Well, generally I use GDP per capita, which gives similar but slightly lower growth rate because raw GDP includes population increase.

But GDP per capita is pretty much the accepted definition of standard of living, which is the total materials and services an economy produces. That is not the same as quality of life, which includes a lot of intangibles such as happiness, clean air, vacation time, etc. Nor does it measure inequality. But the discussion here seems to be about whether it is physically possible to increase the amount of goods and services at the same time as reducing the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

However you measure it, the standard of living is increasing as the amount of carbon producing energy is decreasing in the U.S.
posted by JackFlash at 5:28 PM on October 28, 2019


Indeed. I mean, there are obviously distributional issues with the way the gains from the growth is managed now and that we've managed to keep median quality of life so close to flat for so long in the developed world is a shameful sin.

But the observation that we are generating lots of excess wealth while reducing emissions without even trying nearly as hard as we should be seems like it should be encouraging news. Regardless of what the next move you want to make is. It's like having a piece in the center of the chessboard: lots of plays to get to your goal.
posted by mark k at 7:39 PM on October 28, 2019


Boy, economists sure do suck at relational thinking.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:34 AM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


But the observation that we are generating lots of excess wealth while reducing emissions without even trying nearly as hard as we should be seems like it should be encouraging news.

Except emissions aren't actually being reduced, they're flat at best in the US over a number of years and starting to climb again. And we need a reduction in emissions of 80-90%, not flat emissions. So this is not encouraging news, this is terrible news.
posted by ssg at 9:02 AM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


hashtag notalleconomists
posted by aspersioncast at 9:48 AM on October 30, 2019


They are down in some US states and down in other developed countries.

And we need a reduction in emissions of 80-90%, not flat emissions. So this is not encouraging news, this is terrible news.

What is terrible about it? It'd be better if emissions were increasing every time there was an uptick in economic activity anywhere? Or flat emissions, but with per capita income plummeting?

My point isn't "everything is good." Things suck. We're not doing crap and we haven't been doing it for a long time. But that we have a better chance of succeeding, and better options to do things like continue improve the welfare of the world's poorest, because of the decoupling emissions from economic growth in certain situations.

The hostility surprises me and seems 100% a response to the framing. People arguing this is some ridiculous observations are basically saying the Green New Deal won't work. The GND doesn't assume plummeting economic activity while we tackle the emissions and distribution problems.
posted by mark k at 8:06 AM on November 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Given that, watt-for-watt, the lifetime cost of an (installed) megawatt of solar is cheaper today than building a plant to burn fossil fuels and buying those fuels, I dare say concern about EROI is somewhat overblown, at least until we run out of reasonable places to put them.

How do I know this? Because the cost of the panel includes the value of the energy used to produce the panel and the installation cost includes the value of energy and materials necessary to use the panels. If, combined, they still do not exceed the cost of digging up and burning fossil fuels, then it is plainly obvious that our economy will continue to work just fine without fossil carbon, no matter how loudly and persistently the "energy" company propaganda insists otherwise.
posted by wierdo at 12:30 PM on November 1, 2019


the cost of the panel includes the value of the energy used to produce the panel and the installation cost includes the value of energy and materials necessary to use the panels.
This may be right, but there are a bunch of regulatory, logistical and social externalities missing from this calculus. Notably, propaganda isn't the only tool in the extraction industry's shed.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:07 AM on November 7, 2019


Degrowth: A Theory of Radical Abundance - "Capitalism generates artificial scarcity, and scarcity pushes people to behave in desperate, fearful, anti-social ways. How can we reverse artificial scarcity and restore our humanity?"
posted by kliuless at 5:53 AM on November 9, 2019


Can economies always keep growing? Two opposing views - "Before it is too late, we should embark in earnest on the most fundamental existential (and also truly revolutionary) task facing modern civilisation, that of making any future growth compatible with the long-term preservation of the only biosphere we have."
posted by kliuless at 5:44 AM on November 11, 2019


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