Growth in energy consumption
If we pause to think for a moment, we all know that infinite growth of energy consumption is not possible on a finite planet. This fact can be mathematically proven, assuming the physical laws of thermo-dynamics that is. If you want to see the math, take a look at this excellent blog post – at the current annual energy use growth rate (which has been quite steady for the last 350 years), within 400 years, we will need more energy than what the surface of the earth (including oceans) receives from the sun.
However, the conclusion that economic growth requires a growth in energy consumption cannot absolutely be proven but requires some common sense thinking. Besides the fact that economic growth has historically never been achieved without a raise in energy consumption (see this animation on Gapminder), it could be argued that by some means (e.g. hefty energy or carbon taxes), the economy could be forced to consume less energy (or at least to stop consume more), and be made to grow in the unphysical sector (e.g. services, information economy). It seems unlikely that politicians could ever push through such a regime because the moment something like that is proposed, everybody starts shouting that higher energy prices are bad for ‘the economy’ and we wouldn’t want to risk losing jobs, would we? But even if such a regime were enforced, we would wind up in a pretty strange world were the unphysical sector would dominate the economy and the prices for physical goods eventually became almost zero relative to the whole economic production und thus relative to a person’s income. So food (and all other physical resources) would become so cheap for all the people working in the unphyiscal sector, that it would basically be free. (See the argument in more detail.) I cannot imagine such a world becoming reality, can you? So what that leaves us with is that infinite economic growth implies infinite growth in energy consumption which is impossible on a finite planet.
While expanding into space would buy us some more time, the mathematics of exponentially increasing energy consumption would not even work out in space (see this already mentioned blog post). Additionally, sending energy or physical resources from space down to earth, would only put additional strain on the environment and climate of our small planet. Mind you, I’m all for going to space. But not in order to retain growth (that’s quite impossible in the long run), but simply in order to learn more about our universe as well as to put humanity’s eggs in one than more basket, should one or another catastrophy make our home planet unlivable (think nuclear/chemical war, climate change, major asteroid/meteroid impact, etc). Unfortunately, the political will in the US and Europe to build a permanent presence in space is dwindling (the US has even lost its capability to ship astronauts to the International Space Station, momentarily relying on Russia for that). So our hopes must rest on private companies, China or Open Source ventures.
When you start talking about infinite growth on a finite planet, people often mention population growth. While it is undoubtedly true that infinite population growth on a finite planet is just as impossible as infinite economic growth, I think it is morally quite something different to ask families all over the world to stop having more babies than to ask the drivers of economic growth to stop making more profits. We know that it easier for the economy to grow when population increases and easier to degrow when population would dwindle. But there are plenty of examples of countries having positive economic growth while negative population growth (e.g. Eastern European states in the early nineties) as well as countries being in a recession while still having population growth (e.g. Sub-Saharan African states). Meanwhile, the majority of industrialized countries have a population growth rate of less than one percent while often retaining economic growth rates of more than two percent. (Again, have a look at this animation on Gapminder.)
In a future post I’ll look at the drivers of economic growth…