THE LIMITS TO GROWTH ANALYSIS OF OUR GLOBAL SITUATION
Rich world over-consumption
The I = PxAxT equation
Mineral reserves and resources
What about nuclear energy?
What about renewable energy?
The absurdly impossible implications of economic growth
What about the shift to services and information?
What about dematerialisation”?
But can’t technical advance solve the problems?
“But we will become rich enough to save the environment.”
Conclusions on resources
Implications for other global problems
The economy; Basic cause of the problems
The alternative society; The Simpler Way
The transition to a sustainable society
A note on the book, The Limits to Growth, by D. Meadows et al., 1972.
This was an important contribution, drawing widespread attention to the issue for the first time. However a number of its arguments were based on less impressive evidence than we have now. For instance it used mineral and fuel reserve figures, whereas we now have estimates of potentially recoverable resource quantities. We also have “footprint” analysis”, and much clearer understandings of the greenhouse problem, the “peak oil’ thesis, and the general energy problem. The book is often claimed to have been discredited, but we now have a much stronger support for its basic claim. In 2008 the Australian CSIRO published a review concluding that the general case argued by the book was valid.
RICH WORLD OVER-CONSUMPTION.
The rich countries with about one-fifth of the world's population are consuming around four-fifths of the world's energy production. The rich world average per capita consumption is about 17 times that of the poorest half of the world's people.
It is important to recognize that these figures significantly underestimate the inequality in resource use, because they include only raw materials used in the rich countries and do not include the large volumes of materials embodied in imported goods. Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the manufactured goods they use from Third World factories. So figures on use in or by rich countries do not include all the energy used to produce these goods. Similarly their environmental impact statistics do not include the damage done in Third World countries in producing the goods the rich countries import.
The world's population in 2009 was around 6.7 billion. It is expected to peak at possibly 10 billion around 2070. Most of the increase will be in the poor countries.
Third World people are often criticised for having such large families when they are too poor to provide for them. However, the economic conditions of poverty make it important for poor people to have large families. When there are no age pensions people will have no one to look after them in their old age if they do not have surviving children. Also when infant death rates are high it is necessary to have many children in order to be sure some reach adulthood. These are powerful economic incentives to have large families and they will only be removed by satisfactory development which enables pensions and safe water supplies in villages etc.
Many believe the world is presently far beyond a sustainable population, and that this might be only .5 - 2 billion people. We now feed only about 1.5 billion people well, but might soon have to provide for 10 billion. Indicators of the biological productivity of the planet are falling and many agricultural indicators are worrying (e.g. falling water tables), even without the probable effects of global warming.
Over-population is therefore a very serious problem, but there is a much more serious problem; that is over-consumption on the part of the rich countries…and the goal the rest have of rising to our “living standards”. Population is likely to rise by about 50% but if all rise to the present rich world rates of consumption world resource use and footprint will be about 8 – 10 times as great as they are now.
THE EQUATION… I = PxAxT
The impact we have on the environment (I) can be thought of as being due to the number of people we have (P), multiplied by their per capita level of consumption, or affluence (A), multiplied by the sort of technology in use (for instance heating a house by fossil fuels has a bigger impact than heating by solar passive design.)
This equation shows that affluence is the biggest concern. Again, world population is only likely to multiply by 1.3 but the Australian energy use per capita is 120 times the average in Bangladesh. Thus the main worry is that we are on a path to many times present levels of consumption, so ‘affluence” is the crucial factor in the equation.
The IPAT equation supports the claim that the richest countries are grossly overpopulated, including Australia. We can support our numbers affluently only by a) importing most of the world’s resource production, b) producing and exporting a lot and thus creating the greenhouse problem, c) exporting things like coal and aluminium and beef, which are creating the greenhouse problem and depleting our ecological capital. If we lived without doing these things we could support far fewer people at our present "living standard".
The basic concern in the limits analysis is how long would crucial resources last, especially if all people aspire to rich world "living standards"? Economists often give the misleading impression that resource availability depends mainly on the price we are prepared to pay. Their assumption is that if a resource becomes more scarce its price will rise and it will then be economic to process poorer grade deposits (or move to substitutes.) There is a tendency for this to happen, but the important limits are set by geochemistry, i.e. by the quantities and grades of ore and fuels in the earth, and biology, e.g., by the amount of biomass that could be put into ethanol production.
MINERAL RESERVES AND RESOURCES
There are a few geo-chemically abundant minerals (iron, aluminium, titanium, magnesium and silicon). However it is quite unlikely that all the world's people could consume the per capita quantities of these items that people in rich countries do, due mainly to the energy costs of producing them.
It is sometimes argued that resources cannot be becoming scarce because their prices have fallen throughout the Twentieth century. However price trends are poor indicators of real scarcity. For example the price trend of tropical timber tells us nothing about the fact that it is being rapidly depleted and will be largely unattainable in a few decades. The real price of oil fell after the early 1970s rises, but it is likely that oil has been becoming much scarcer and will be available in only very small quantities in a few decades. (See Petroleum below.) Thus price is an uncertain indicator of long term availability or scarcity. However in the 1990s the historically falling trend seems to have reversed for all resources, including food.
The term "reserves" refers to quantities of minerals that have been discovered. New discoveries are adding to reserves all the time and in the future technical advance could make it economic to mine deposits that are too poor at present to include in the reserve figures. For many items reserve figures have actually increased over time even though use rates have increased. It is also important to recognize that mining companies only tend to carry out only sufficient exploration to prove enough reserves for about a decade’s mining ahead. This means that as time goes by they will look further and find more deposits. So we will probably not learn much about limits by examining reserve figures.
It is however more meaningful to consider estimates of “potentially recoverable resources”, i.e., the quantities and grades of ores that remain in the ground, including those undiscovered at present. These are difficult to assess confidently but estimates of these quantities have become available since the early 1970's. (E.g., Erickson, 1980, and the US Geological Survey’s Commodity Data Summaries.) These cannot be taken as very precise but they do provide a useful indication of quantities we might access.
Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth's crust has been concentrated into ore deposits, between .001% and .01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates. (Skinner, 1987.) To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores used today. In other words we will run into such a huge energy cost barrier that it is most unlikely that we will ever process very poor ores or common rock for minerals (especially as energy is probably the most urgent resource problem we face and its price is bound to rise.)
We should therefore regard as potentially recoverable only those quantities of minerals that have been formed into ore deposits. There are a number of reasons why we are not likely to retrieve more than a very small proportion of the material that exists in all ore deposits. These are
a) we are not likely to find a high proportion of ore deposits (almost half of them are under the oceans),
b) some of those we find will be in locations which make mining difficult or impossible, such as under cities or under Antarctic ice,
c) many of the deposits found will have ores of too low a grade to process economically (most deposits are of low grade ore).
d) some deposits found and containing high grade ore will have too little material in them to justify the construction of a mine at that site (most deposits are small and isolated from each other.)
If plausible probabilities for these factors are assumed the proportion of the existing ore material that we are likely to retrieve could be under 2%. However in Abandon Affluence I assumed 10%, and derived probable lifetimes for potentially recoverable resources assuming 9 billion people consuming as Americans do now. The conclusion is that about one-third of all 36 basic minerals would have been totally exhausted in about 35 years.
Table 1 summarises common estimates for potentially recoverable energy resources. If all these are added together and we ask how long would they last if 10 billion people each used energy resources at the present rich world per capita rate, the answer is only 20 years.
World Energy Resources Remaining. (Very approximate estimates.)
Amount in tonnes of coal equivalent.
Petroleum 200 billion (a)
Coal 2000 billion (b)
Gas (10,000 trillion cubic feet) 450 billion (c)
Shale and tar petroleum 700 billion (d)
Uranium 150 billion (e)
Total: equivalent to 3500 billion tones of coal, or 60,000 Exajoules p.a. (EJ/y).
Assume 10 billion people each using 300 GJ/y (present Australian figure); world demand therefore would be 3,000 EJ/y. Therefore 60,000 EJ would last 20 years
a. Campbell's estimate (1997), 1000 billion barrels remaining.
b. This is a very high estimate of recoverable coal; a more plausible figure would be around 600 billion tonnes. Perhaps 15,000 billion tonnes exist in the earth, but mostly in thin, deep and fractured seams.
c. 10,000 trillion cubic feet. The 2000 USGS estimate is lower, at 4,600 trillion cubic feet.
d. Campbell's estimate of 10 billion barrels per year for 70 years. There are large volumes of petroleum in these sources, but they are difficult to work (e.g., they have to be mined, unlike oil), with high water and ecological costs.
e. This figure assumes use via the present "burner" reactors only; "breeders would derive much more energy from Uranium but problems that would have to be overcome are listed in Renewable Energy section.
Clearly, even if we doubled or trebled the assumed potentially recoverable energy resources it would not be possible to keep up rich world "living standards" for all people for more than a few decades.
The most urgent limits problems are set by petroleum. Our society is highly dependent on liquid fuels. There is considerable agreement that the total ultimately recoverable figures is around 2000 billion barrels. (Campbell 1997 argues for a figure under 1800 billion barrels. The USGS arrives at a higher figure; below.) Since 1995 a number of petroleum geologists have contributed to the following set of alarming claims about world petroleum supply. (Including Campbell, 1997, Ivanhoe, 1995, Duncan and Youngquist, 1998, Laherrere, 1995, Fleay, 1995.)
- World supply will probably peak between 2005 and 2020, and then decline.
- By 2030 supply will probably be down to half its peak supply. (This would enable all people on earth then to average only 1/15 the amount per capita we now use in Australia.)
- Price will jump and remain high as soon as the peak is reached.
- Alternative petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales will not make a significant difference to the situation. These are difficult to extract and environmentally problematic.
- According to some measures, at present the world is using oil three times as fast as it is being discovered.
Important in this discussion is the fact that India and China especially are eager to greatly increase their access to petroleum.
So the most urgent limit to affluence and growth is to do with the probability of an extremely disruptive peaking of petroleum supply, followed by rapid decline, within a few years. It would be difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of this. It would cause catastrophic change in all aspects of consumer society, making travel, transport, trade, tourism, agriculture, etc. very costly and in some cases impossible.
WHAT ABOUT NUCLEAR ENERGY?
There are several reasons why nuclear energy is not likely to solve the energy problem and/or, and should not be adopted even if it could
Š There is far too little Uranium at high grade to fuel a large-scale nuclear era for more than about 5 – 10 years (.. unless breeders or fusion are developed; see discussion in Renewable Energy.)
Š If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do now, getting all their energy from nuclear sources, the world would have about 300 times the early 2000s nuclear capacity.
Š A nuclear accident could have catastrophic consequences. Some of the materials that would be released would remain radioactive for thousands of years. If the US Price Anderson Act had not limited insurance claims that could be made on nuclear generating corporations there would be no reactors in that country, because no one would insure them.
Š No matter how well designed, reactors are operated by humans so it is always possible for mistakes to be made, e.g., when operators over-ride automatic safety systems as happened at Chernobyl.
Š The ‘proliferation’ problem; a nuclear era would increase the chances of access to dangerous elements by criminals and terrorists, or governments seeking to produce nuclear weapons.
Š Nuclear energy involves considerable release of carbon dioxide, because liquid fuels must be used in mining. This would increase as ore grades deteriorated.
Š There is no agreed solution to the problem of waste disposal. It is not possible to be sure that a site that has been very stable and dry for a long time will remain dry for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, through ice ages and greenhouse effects on hydrology. The Synroc process involves reprocessing spent fuel and thus problems of contamination and terrorist access to highly radioactive elements.
Š Nuclear energy only produces electricity, which is only c.20% of rich world energy use, so it could not cut carbon release sufficiently. (However we are likely to greatly increase the proportion of electricity in the economy in future.)
Š The moral problem; the people living in a nuclear era would get all the benefit, but many future generations would pay the biological costs without getting any of the benefit after he fuel has been used up.
Š We have no idea what will be the total long term health, genetic and mortality effects of nuclear energy. These effects will accumulate over hundreds of thousands of years. Even without accidents small quantities of long lived radioactivity are released. There is no threshold level below which we can say there will be no biological effect. We cannot be in a position to say that the benefits outweigh the costs, (even ignoring the fact that the cost will be paid by future people and organisms who get none of the benefits.)
Š Fusion reactors might be got to work (this is debated) but the electricity they would produce would be very costly, and scarcity of the Lithium they require would limit their potential severely.
Fusion reactors and the Integral Fast Breeder Reactor.
It is uncertain whether fusion reactors will ever become viable but if they do they will not be scaled up sufficiently to make much difference before 2050. They will be very costly. Some people believe that the Fourth Generation Integral Fast Breeder Reactor could provide abundant energy. For a list of questions that would have to be satisfactorily answered before this was clear, see the discussion in the Renewable Energy section. Note that if 10 billion were to derive all the energy needed for present Australian lifestyles from reactors we’d need at least 200 times as many as we have today 9 and probably far more given the additional energy needed to cope with environmental problems, deriving minerals from poorer ores etc.)
WHAT ABOUT RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES?
We must eventually move from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy, but it is not likely that we can all live in our present energy affluent ways on renewable energy sources. It is most likely that the cost would be far too high and/or the deliverable quantity would be too low. (The argument is detailed in the Renewable Energy section.
Following are some of the considerations supporting this conclusion.
Note that this has not been an argument against use of renewable energy sources. We must live on them solely before long so it is important to make them as effective as possible. The argument has been that their development cannot support a consumer-capitalist society committed to affluent living standards and economic growth.
BIOLOGICAL RESOURCE LIMITS.
Perhaps the most worrying limits we are encountering are not to do with minerals or energy but concern environmental factors. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that in recent decades the quality of the planet’s ecosystems had deteriorated 30%.
Water: There are already serious water shortages in about 80 countries. Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, e.g., salinity in the Murray. The greenhouse problem will make these problems worse. By 2050 the volume of water in the Murray-Darling system might be cut by half the present amount.
Food and land. Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries. If all people will soon have on earth had an American diet, which takes about .5 ha of cropland alone, we would need 5 billion ha, but there are only 1.4 b ha in use. That area will decline as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, pressure to produce increases, land is used to produce bio-fuels, and as global warming has its effects.
Timber: If all 9-10 billion people were to use timber at the US per capita rate we would need 4 times the world’s forest area. Pressures from population growth and corporations is reducing tropical rainforests, where most species live.
Fish: Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished and the oceans are being polluted. World fish catch is likely to go down from here on. The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago.
THE ECOLOGICAL LIMITS.
More worrying than the resource limits are the ecological limits, and we have gone far beyond several of these. We are seriously damaging the life support systems of the planet. The World Wildlife Fund says that in general the quality of the global ecosystems have deteriorated 30% since about 1970. The “footprint” measure indicates that we are taking biological resources at a rate that would take 1.5 planets to provide in a sustainable way. Most obvious is the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are at least 2 to 4 times sustainable levels. We are entering a period of massive loss of species.
Most worrying is the deterioration in the capacity of the globe’s ecosystems to renew the conditions that all organisms need, e.g., maintaining the temperature and recycling nutrients.
The reason for this massive damage being done to forests, the atmosphere, soils, oceans, grasslands, coral reefs, and biodiversity, is that we are taking so many resources from nature and dumping so many wastes back all the time. One species, humans, is using the biological productivity of 40% of the land. How much will be left for nature when 9 billion live like Americans?
This shows how implausible the “tech-fix’ faith is. It will not be possible to eliminate these impacts by continuing to produce as much as we do now but in "more sustainable ways"; the magnitudes are far too great. The sheer volume of production and consumption must be drastically reduced. Two points make the situation clear. The Australian per capita “footprint” is already about 10 times as great as will be possible for 9-10 billion people. Secondly it now seems clear that to cut CO2 emissions to a safe level we would have to totally eliminate fossil fuel use by 2050. (See Meinshausen et al, 2009.)
CONCLUSION; WE ARE ALREADY FAR BEYOND SUSTAINABLE LEVELS.
The foregoing numbers show that rich world per capita rates of resource use and environmental impact are probably 10 times higher than all people expected on the planet could have sustainably.
NOW ADD THE ABSURDLY IMPOSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS OF ECONOMIC GROWTH
The foregoing argument has been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. They are too high to be kept going for long or to be extended to all people. But that does not represent the magnitude of the problem. Consumer-capitalist society is determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. In other words our supreme goal is economic growth. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursuing economic growth.
If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2060 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. (For 4% growth the multiple is 16.)
If by 200 all the world's people had risen to the living standards we in Australia would have then given 3% growth, the total world economic output would be more than 30 times what it is today! Yet the present level is unsustainable.
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with this “limits to growth” case. Yet it is ignored by the mainstream, by governments, economists, media and people in general. The inescapable implication is that we must work out how to live well on a small fraction of present
"Those who believe exponential growth is possible in a finite world are either mad or economists."
per capita levels of production and consumption, and with no desire to increase these over time.
We are running into problems of diminishing returns. As society becomes more complex, more resources and time and dollars have to go into maintaining systems and the net benefit per unit of input declines. Tainter (1988) saw this as the key effect in the decline and fall of empires. For instance Rome reached the stage where most of the effort had to go into maintaining the borders and territories previously conquered, leaving none for expanding any further. Imagine using gravel to make more roads. As the system increases more of the gravel has to be used to repair roads, until eventually all of the supply is going into maintaining existing roads and there can be no further extension of the system
The diminishing returns effect is evident in the expense we go to where roads cross. In a village there is no problem, but in a modern freeway system an intersection can involve construction of multi-million dollar flyovers etc. Water has to be pumped to high levels in buildings. We now have to make special provision for child minding, care of aged people, dealing with pollution, recycling water, and especially for patching up all the social damage being caused, the depression, stress, homelessness, crime suicide… Tribes need no lawyers, prisons, welfare workers. They have law but one person can remember it all. Our law would occupy metres of shelf space and we have billion-dollar institutions making more laws every day. At the global level vast sums have to be spent on arms to maintain access to the markets and resources rich societies must now get. Patents per dollar spent on research are falling. (Tainter). We are now having to consider vastly expensive schemes to bury the CO2 from fossil fuel use. Daly argues that we are well past the point where producing adds more to costs to be met than to welfare to be enjoyed.
Tainter also points out that systems are becoming more inter-connected and therefore prone to total system breakdown when one component fails. Spare parts for devices all around the world might come from one factory. Most spectacularly, the integrated global financial system all went down in 2008, whereas in earlier times your region would have been dependent only on the local banks which would not have been affected if banks in other countries failed. Similarly world trade is highly interconnected; the failure of a harvest in one major country can starve millions everywhere. These are instances of loss of resilience in our systems.
WHAT ABOUT SHIFT TO SERVICES AND INFORMATION?
Some people assume that the economy can continue to grow in the service and information sectors, without increasing use of materials and energy. This is also known as the “de-materialisation” or “de-coupling” thesis, that technical advance is now enabling the economy to grow without increasing the demand for materials and energy.
However services already make up about 75% of our economic activity. Services are quite resource intensive. Common (1995) estimates that they account for 27% of Australia's energy use. Several, such as transport, tourism and construction, involve high energy use. Several others such as retailing, insurance and advertising, depend on production and consumption of material goods. All require lighting, offices, electricity etc. It is not plausible that the overall volume of economic activity could multiply many times, without large increases in energy use. In addition there are many resource-intensive activities that will not be reduced if more of the economic growth takes place mostly in the service sector, including defence and the large household sector of the economy.
Certainly materials and energy use per unit of GDP in rich countries is falling, but this is misleading. It seems to be due to a) shift to higher quality fuels such as electricity and gas (more value can be derived from a unit of energy in the form of oil than in the form of coal, because coal use involves higher costs for transport etc.), and b) manufactured goods increasingly coming from the Third World, as distinct from being produced in rich countries and having their energy costs recorded there. Trade figures seem to show that this is what is happening. (See Trainer, “The Dematerialisation Myth”, and web reference at end.) Aadrianse (1997) concludes that materials used per capita in rich countries are still increasing. Morrow (p.172.)finds that even though about 80% of a rich economy is to do with services, resource consumption is still increasing at 1% p.a.
A good measure of materials consumption is the volume of garbage we throw out, and in rich countries this is increasing fast (and it does not include materials built into structures, or turned into pollution flows.) The claim that de-materialisation is occurring therefore seems to be invalid. It is likely that considerable de-materialisation is possible, but the scope for it and the limits to what it might achieve are not at all clear at present. In any case no realistic de-materialisation would enable a sufficient reduction to permit the economy to grow continually at say 3% p.a. while our use of materials and energy falls. (For a more detailed discussion see The Dematerialisation Myth)
BUT CAN'T TECHNICAL ADVANCE SOLVE THE PROBLEMS?
Most people are "technical fix optimists", assuming that technical advance will make it unnecessary for us to change to simpler lifestyles and very different systems inclding a zero-growth economy. The belief is that smarter technology and more recycling, greater energy efficiency, etc., will enable higher "living standards" to be provided with reduced total resource use and environmental impact.
Some people (notably Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, Factor Four, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 2000, Natural Capital) argue that in general we could produce things with only 1/4 (or perhaps eventually 1/10) of the resources and energy now needed. Even if this is so the reduction would be far less than would be necessary to enable all people to have present rich world living standards. Let us just assume that we have to halve resource and environmental impacts per unit of output (the above figures indicate much higher reductions are required.) If by 2050 9 billion have risen to the “living standards” we in Australia would then have given 3% p.a. economic growth, meaning world output would be 30 times as great as it is now … then we would have to achieve a Factor 60 reduction in impact per unit of output! A Factor 4 reduction would be insignificant. (For a detailed critique of the book Natural Capitalism see Trainer, "Natural Capitalism can not overcome resource limits." )
Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Often greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to more effective fuels, such as from coal to gas.) Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door and then dealing with the waste packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) The “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use. Unconventional measures of agricultural productivity, such as food energy produced per unit of fossil fuel used, have actually plummeted.
If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed. Again, if we cut use and impacts per unit of GDP in half, but continued with 3% p.a. growth, then in 23 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in 23 years.
It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate. This belief can be challenged. Mackay (2008) reports that little gain can be expected for air transport, and Ayres notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. The efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (2009) “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960”, partly due to greater use of accessories since then. (2009.) His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise particular spectacular technical advances and this can mislead regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Huebner’s historical study found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining. For the US the peak was 1916.
To summarise, the ‘tech-fix” faith assumes there is no need to rethink consumer-capitalist society, because technical advances will enable us all to go on living more and more affluently, for ever. The Simpler Way view is that technical advances can’t solve the problems that consumer-capitalist society constantly creates, and in any case increasingly affluent lifestyles are not the way to a satisfying life in a good society.
Finally, if technical advance is going to solve our big problems, when is it going to start doing so? They are all rapidly getting worse at present.
(For a somewhat more detailed discussion of technical fix, see...)
“BUT WE WILL BECOME RICH ENOUGH TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT.”
This is a very seductive argument, but it is mistaken and misleading. Conventional economists say that as economic growth continues to raise GDP and to lift incomes we will have no difficulty paying much more for energy, for scarcer resources and fixing the environment.
The fault in the argument is that if the price of crucial resources such as energy rises markedly, the GDP will not rise…indeed the entire economy might crash. An economy cannot increase GDP at a normal 3% p.a. unless many conditions and inputs remain as increasingly favourable as they were. For instance an economy that grows to 2080 at 3% p.a. would then be producing 8 times as much every year, but that would not be possible unless it could get many more times the inputs of resources and energy that it does now and could deal with many times the environmental impact.
So whether or not we can have the growth and become richer depends on resource and environmental conditions, and on whether these inputs can grow at the rate required to enable the economic growth assumed. And this of course is what the limits to growth analysis shows will not be possible…or will be possible for a small number for a limited time as they take and use up most of the accessible resources.
This also invalidates the “environmental Kuznets curve” thesis, i.e., the common claim that as nations become richer they are more able to afford dealing with environmental problems. Apart from the debate about whether this an observable relationship (the richest countries actually seem to have some of the most worrying environmental problems, such as carbon emissions), the effort to become wealthier is what is destroying ecosystems and by the time everyone is wealthy enough to deal with the problems many will probably have collapsed.
CONCLUSIONS ON RESOURCES
The basic conclusions the limits to growth perspective leads to regarding resources are as follows.
Š Resources are already very scarce. Only a few of the World's people are able to use many of them.
Š People living in rich countries like Australia could not have such high "living standards" if they were not getting far more than their fair share of the world's resources.
Š If 9 billion people were to use mineral and energy resources at the per capita rate people in rich countries use them now almost all potentially recoverable resources
would probably be totally exhausted in 20 to 40 years.
Š There is therefore no chance that all people could have the per capita resource and energy use we have in rich countries today.
Š Huge difficulties confront the belief that nuclear or renewable energy sources can solve the problem.
Š The pursuit of higher "living standards" and economic growth is therefore absurd. The problems are already too big to be solved in or by consumer-capitalist society.
Š It is highly unlikely that technical advance could enable us to solve the problems while we go on pursuing limitless economic growth and rises in “living standards”.
- The limits to growth argument is very persuasive. We should therefore be trying very hard to shift to ways that enable us to live well while using far fewer resources.
As Gandhi said long ago,
THE RICH MUST LIVE MORE SIMPLY, SO THAT THE POOR MAY SIMPLY LIVE.
..or as someone else said,
WE ARE STEALING RESOURCES FROM OUR CHILDREN
IMPLICATIONS FOR OTHER GLOBAL PROBLEMS
Most of the major global problems have to be understood in terms of the limits to growth…because these problems are primarily due to over-consumption.
a) The environment problem
The reason why we have an environment problem is simply because there is far too much producing and consuming going on. Our way of life involves consumption of huge amounts of materials. All these must be taken from nature and most of them are immediately dumped back as waste and pollution.
One of the most serious environmental problems is the extinction of plants and animal species. This is due to the destruction of habitats. Now remember the footprint concept mentioned above; if all people who will be living on earth today were to have Australian "living standards" humans would have to use about ten times all the productive land on the planet. Our resource intensive lifestyles, which require so much land, are the basic cause of the loss of habitats and the extinction of species. Yet all people are trying to rise to rich world levels of consumption, and we are trying to increase ours.
Most current discussions of the environment problem, especially references to "Ecologically Sustainable Development", completely fail to recognise that it is absurd to talk about solving the environment problem while we continue to produce and consume at present rates, let alone continue to be committed to limitless growth in output and consumption. We can only hope to solve the environment problem when we begin living in ways that involve only a fraction of our present rich world per capita levels of production and consumption.
b) Third World poverty and underdevelopment.
The facts and estimates given above regarding potentially recoverable resources make it clear that the Third World can never develop to be like the rich countries; there are far too few resources for that.
If the expected 9-10 billion people were all to have Australia's present per capita resource consumption world resource production would have to be 8 to 10 times as great as it is today. All the probably-recoverable fossil fuels would only last about 17-20 years at that rate, and these numbers do not take into account the increase in “living standards” and GDP we are determined to have.
Again this means that the very few who live in rich countries can have their high "living standards" only because the global economy is so very unjust; i.e. because it allows us to get far more than our fair share of the available resources.
Conventional Third World development does not solve the most urgent problems of most of the world's people. This is due to the normal and inevitable way a market or capitalist economy works. The normal functioning of the market economy enables the rich to take most of the world's wealth (simply by bidding more for it in the market) and to establish highly inappropriate development in the Third World; i.e., development of only those industries that gear Third World productive capacity to the demand of the rich. Therefore conventional development should be regarded as a form of plunder. (Chussudowsky, 1997, Goldsmith, 1997, Trainer, 1989, 2010, Cyh.5.)
Again we cannot have a sustainable and just world order unless we in rich countries move to ways of life in which we live well without consuming anywhere near as much as we do now.
If all nations go on trying to increase their wealth, production, consumption and "living standards" without limit in a world of limited resources, then we must expect increasing conflict. Our affluent lifestyles require us to be heavily armed and aggressive, in order to guard the empires from which we draw far more than our fair share of world resources. We cannot expect to have a peaceful world until we achieve a just world, and we cannot do that until rich countries change to much less extravagant living standards.
d) Social breakdown and the falling quality of life.
There is now much evidence from research on "Genuine Progress Indicators" and ‘Well-being” that even in rich countries the quality of life experienced is either stagnant or falling. Reported measures of life satisfaction in the US have not increased since 1957, despite more than a doubling in average "living standards". Above the poverty line increasing incomes and wealth do not increase happiness or the experienced quality of life. (Eckersley, 1997.)
In addition, just about all our social problems are getting worse and it is difficult to point to any indicator which does not suggest accelerating social breakdown. Consider drug abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, family breakdown, stress, depression, binge drinking, eating disorders, anxiety and suicide. Inequality has increased markedly; many are dumped into “exclusion” while the super-rich are becoming much richer. Stress and depression are at epidemic proportions, almost the most common diseases.
“Post-modern” culture is characterized by preoccupation with trivia, sport, celebrities, spectacles, hedonism and consuming…and indifference to serious social issues. People seem to be becoming more focused on their own self-interest and retreating to their private concerns (Mackay), while concern with the public good and the welfare of the under-dog declines. There has been a triumph of neo-liberal ideology, legitimizing the individualistic quest for more wealth, while collectivist values deteriorate.
All these undesirable social trends are directly related to the obsession with increasing production and consumption, wealth, “living standards” and the GDP. The focus shifts to individualistic concerns, which for most meand getting richer and for many means simply coping. Few resources are invested in developments that might build community and cohesion, social responsibility, concern for public goods, equity and justice, generosity and collectivist values. (See Social Breakdown.)
THE ECONOMY; BASIC CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM
There is no possibility of solving these limits to growth problems in an economy that is driven by market forces, competition, profit maximisation and growth. The supreme goal in this economy is to produce and sell as much as possible, and to increase the volume every year, without end. If growth in output slows there are problems. Yet the basic point the limits to growth analysis makes is that there is far too much producing and consuming going on.
In this economy those who own capital are always trying to make more money by increasing investments and sales. Workers have a strong interest in seeing the number of jobs and their incomes increase all the time. The market system gives those with capital the freedom to invest in and produce and sell whatever will maximise their profits. It is not the case that society collectively and rationally decides what it would be best for all people and the environment to produce or develop. Profit and not need determines what will be done. Such an economy will inevitably fail to apply existing productive capacity to doing what is most important, at minimum resource and environmental cost. Above all it is an economy that must have growth all the time
In other worlds a capitalist economy is the basic cause of the limits to growth problem. (This does not mean that the alternative we want is big-state, centralized and authoritarian “socialism”. See The Alternative Econonmy.)
A sane, just and ecologically sustainable economy cannot be a growth economy. Even more importantly, it would have to involve only a minute fraction of the production and resource use that goes on in the present economy. It would therefore have to be a very different economy in which we could make sure that all people consume only the relatively small volume of goods that they need for a high quality of life, that wasteful production such as of advertising and sports cars did not take place, and that very simple lifestyles and ways were the norm. A satisfactory economy would have a large non-cash sector in which people helped each other, gave things to each other, produced many things in their households and backyards, maintained commons and contributed to the community via working bees. It would involve mostly small and highly self sufficient local economies where most of the things we need were produced from local land, labour and resources, minimising travel, transport and trade.
There might be a significant place in a satisfactory economy for private enterprise in the form of small firms and cooperatives, and for markets which adjust supply and demand for some items and enable innovation where necessary. However these arrangements would have to be subject to careful regulation by the society as a whole. A satisfactory economy could not be driven by market forces, and firms could not have anything like the freedom they have now to do whatever will maximize their profits. In other words a satisfactory economy must be under social control, so we can debate and decide the main priorities, developments, distributions, etc., according to needs and rights. However the social control of the economy must be via open, local and participatory procedures, not huge, distant, authoritarian government bureaucracies.
(For more detailed discussion see The Economy; A Critical Summary and The New Economy, or Chapters 3 and 4 of Trainer, 2010.)
THE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY; THE SIMPLER WAY
If the limits to growth analysis of our global situation is valid we have no choice but to try to move to a society in which:-
Š We have relatively simple material lifestyles. A sustainable society cannot be an affluent society. This does not mean hardship or deprivation. It is easy to ensure a very high quality of life on very low levels of consumption.
Š There are many small, highly self-sufficient local economies, so that most of the things we need are produced in farms and factories within our suburbs or close by.
Š We have mostly cooperative and participatory ways, so that we share and give things, and we work together on committees and working bees to do many of the things we need in our locality. In other words we must govern our own towns and suburbs with few paid politicians or bureaucracies.
Š We use many alternative technologies, which minimise use of non-renewable resources, including much craft and hobby production, and building houses from earth. This does not mean rejecting modern high-tech systems.
Š There must be an al most totally new economy, a steady-state or zero-growth economy, not driven by market forces or profit maximisation.
Š Some very different values must be accepted, replacing competition, individualism and greed with cooperation, sharing, working for the public good, social responsibility, generosity and nurturing others.
For a detailed discussion see , The Sustainable Alternative Society; The Simpler Way.)
THE TRANSITION TO A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY
In the last two decades or so the Global Eco-village Movement and more recently the Transition Towns Movement have developed in which many small communities around the world have started to move towards building new settlements and lifestyles more or less of the required kind. A great deal depends on whether this movement can grow fast enough in coming decades.
There are good reasons for thinking that we will not succeed in making the transition to a sustainable society. We probably have only two decades in which to do the necessary groundwork, given that Mason’s “ 2030 Spike”, including a serious petroleum problem, is likely to have hit us by then. There is no possibility of making the transition unless there is a vast increase in public awareness of the limits to growth analysis, of the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path, of the unacceptability of consumer-capitalist society, and of the existence of a satisfactory alternative way. The task for us here and now therefore has to focus on awareness and education regarding the limits to growth situation and the way out..
The most important thing for concerned people to do is to help to build alternatives here and now, so that in 20 years time we will have many very impressive examples of sustainable communities functioning, showing that there is a sane alternative way. Working on these projects will give us our best opportunities to develop the critical global consciousness without which there can not be a transition to a sustainable and just world. (See Thoughts on the Transition, and the detailed discussion in The Transition, Trainer, 2010.)
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