Do the Math started out with a pair of posts about limits to growth. Galactic-Scale Energy pointed out the nonsense that results from continued growth in energy use, and Can Economic Growth Last? turned to the economic implications of stalled physical growth. This combination of topics later appeared in a dinner conversation between myself and an economist. The same pairing also evolved into chapters 1 and 2 of the textbook I wrote in 2021. And if that wasn’t enough, I published a paper in Nature Physics called Limits to Economic Growth based on the same theme. When I do podcast interviews, the hosts often want to step through this (powerful) logic.
Perhaps the result has me sounding like a broken record. It feels to me like the song “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fans will not allow the band to perform a concert without playing this classic hit. There’d be riots. I’ve had a lot to say following those two posts in 2011, and have especially taken a profound turn in the last few years. But the point remains central to our modern predicament, and until we all have it firmly planted in our heads that growth is a very temporary phase that must end, I guess I could do worse than repeating myself to new audiences—and to veterans holding up lighters.
In this post, I echo the bedrock question of whether economic growth can last with the question of whether modernity can last (see the previous post for definition and possible inevitability). Okay, nothing lasts. The whole universe is only 13.8 billion years old. The sun and the earth are only about 4.5 billion years old, and will be around in recognizable form for a comparable time into the future. Species typically hang around for millions of years. Homo sapiens is a few hundred-thousand years old. Depending on definitions, modernity has been around for at least a century or as long as 10,000 years—brief in either case, in the scheme of things. Nothing is forever, but how long might modernity last?
Whether modernity can last is perhaps a more important question than whether growth can last. The fact that growth can’t last is shocking enough for many. But it still allows mental space for maintaining our current way of life—just no longer growing. But is that even possible? I can’t be as confident in my answer as I am for growth, since the question of growth comes down to incontrovertible concepts and, well, math. Still, I strongly suspect the answer to this new question is “no” as well, and in this post I’ll expound on my misgivings.
[Note: I had another post in 2021 enumerating reasons to worry about collapse, which is a relevant but—I would say—less enlightened precursor to this piece. Since then, I have become aware of the important role of human supremacy, the materials difficulties associated with renewable energy, the crushing numbers on loss of biodiversity, and have released my anxious grasp on modernity—having better appreciated the more-than-human world and our role within the greater community of life.]
You may be aware that our food industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to the point that it takes about 10 kcal of energy input to deliver 1 kcal of consumed food. The enormous energy multiplier is due to extensively mechanized plowing, harvesting, processing, and delivery of food; fossil-fueled fertilization (via methane feedstock); refrigeration and preparation; then of course food waste. In olden times, when all agricultural energy came from muscle power that needed to be fed, the system would collapse (i.e., starve and fail) if energy inputs exceeded energy ingested.
Some have phrased our current practice as “eating fossil fuels,” and in fact a 2006 book by Dale Allen Pfeiffer had this title. So what? More power to us—literally.
The problem, people, is that fossil fuels are finite. We have already consumed a fair fraction (roughly half?) of the accessible allotment. And before concluding that we therefore have a century or so before needing to worry about the consequences, realize that the inflection point happens around the halfway mark, wherein decreasing ease of access tends to result in ever-decreasing output rates in the second-half of the resource. We see this behavior in individual oil fields and in regional (country-scale) aggregations. The low-hanging fruit is taken first, sensibly, so that what’s left is more stubborn.
Because human population has been substantially boosted by fossil fuel input, we have put ourselves into a vulnerable position. What happens when fossil fuels begin to give out on us?
It’s been a while since I did any, you know, math for this blog, as I seem to be living my own worst nightmare and turning into an armchair philosopher (oh the shame). In this post, I return to something closer to math. It’s illustrative rather than quantitative, but helps frame the peril we have put ourselves into in a low-effort sort of way.
You may be familiar with the term “hockey stick curve,” used describe a trend that has been flat/stable for a very long time, but shoots up at the end of the series in dramatic fashion, resembling the shape of a hockey stick. Hockey can be a violent sport, and it’s easy to get hurt by even one well-aimed swing. Today’s world is being battered from all sides by countless hockey sticks. Mostly, they seem to be targeting Earth’s critters, who are getting bludgeoned unsparingly. But in the end, we’re only harming ourselves.
This post is structured as a gauntlet of hockey stick curves that may leave the reader feeling a bit bruised. Depending on what’s being plotted, many of the graphs shoot up like an exponential, but a few are careening downwards. A theme emerges: the “bads” go up, and the “goods” go down—and not by coincidence.
How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.
The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.
Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.
The only problem is that this friend is about to turn into our greatest enemy. Pursuit of growth—in money and resource exploitation—has a flip side on Earth’s ecosystems. Up until now, we mostly saw the good side of growth: conveniences, technology, health care, security. Becoming apparent is the toll this misguided focus is taking on our irreplaceable home. No amount of money (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can restore lost species and destroyed ecosystems. So maybe money is a bad metric for what really matters, yeah?
I have struggled to come up with a good analogy for growth that will help us process what it means. The best I have come up with (and only recently) is that growth is like Old Yeller. If you’re not familiar with the 1957 film, it’s a real tear jerker. I remember bawling in concert with my sister when the amazing dog—dearly loved by the family for getting them out of many a pickle—contracted rabies, became aggressive toward the family, and had to be shot. That’s right: a kid’s movie ended with the beloved central character being shot dead. Those were different times. What you really wanted in a kid’s movie was for your children to emerge wrecked. (I also saw Jaws at age 6 and have been scarred since.)
Growth has likewise been this fantastic friend: all upside, upside, upside. But the rabid side is beginning to show, and our ultimate success depends on killing it. There will be tears. Many will bargain, unable to accept the necessity of ending growth. But it’s no use. The physics is clear.
Please use the comment forum to suggest other (better) analogies. Not straying too far, it may be like raising a lion: awfully adorable as a cub, but ultimately a mortal threat to have in the house. It’s possible that better analogies can be conjured.
P.S. I wrote this in 24 minutes, so please excuse the shortness and sloppiness.
The first thing I should say is that the word collapse freaks me out. I don’t use it often, for fear of sounding like an unhinged alarmist. Surely, respectable scientists should want nothing to do with it.
The second thing is that I don’t harbor any secret pleasure in imagining catastrophic failure of the human endeavor. It depresses me, frightens me, angers me, frustrates me, confuses me, and makes my wife crabby.
What keeps pulling me back to it—despite my innate repulsion—is not only credible elements of risk that I will get to in this post, but also that I think it’s too important to tolerate our natural tendency to hide from the prospect. Ironically, doing so only raises the odds of that ill fate: mitigation requires direct acknowledgment. Failure to speak openly and honestly about the less-than-remote possibility of collapse is not in our best interest, ultimately.
So let’s grit our teeth and confront the collapse monster. What conditions make it at once likely and off most people’s radars?
It is a heavy lift for one blog post to do a complete job in motivating collapse as a realistic outcome of the human enterprise. Any one argument can be picked at, but the totality should be considered. This is a long post, so buckle up.
What success might look like? Image by Emma Farley from Pixabay.
In early fall 2020, I took a break from intense work on textbook preparation to immerse myself in nature, in the form of a month on the Olympic Peninsula. I spent periods of good weather in the backcountry, and therefore didn’t bother carrying a tent along in my already-too-heavy backpack. Somehow sleep is more precious when there’s some chance of being woken by a (black) bear’s slobbery breath in your face. But for the many dozens of times I’ve slept this way in the wilderness, I have not had a single nighttime bear encounter—being exceedingly careful to keep food smells well away from my sleeping site. Luckily, it would seem that my physical person does not smell like food.
I’m not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but exposing myself to some risk at the hands of nature brings a greater appreciation of the relationship between humans and the world of the wild. Being a temporary tourist in nature is not quite the same as fully being a part of nature, but it’s closer than many experience in our human-dominated artificial world.
One of my aims for the trip was to step back from the nitty-gritty focus on margin-notes and glossary items for the textbook and synthesize a broader picture. Being immersed in the wilderness really helped that process. Nature is so grand; so ancient; so indifferent. Nature is wild. Nature is mature.
Humans have embarked on a 10,000 year experiment to separate from nature: to build stores and access “old money” that Earth has banked for eons, providing a recent freedom to largely ignore annual, renewable flows in nature. The last several centuries have accelerated the divorce to an alarming degree. But the question I stumbled upon as my boots navigated rocks and roots on the trail was:
Is the 10,000-year-old human civilization in its infancy, or nearer its end than its beginning?
This is the TV poster for “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.” (CNS photo/Netflix)
If you have not already watched A Life on Our Planet, serving as a witness statement from Sir David Attenborough, please find a way to do so. During his experience-rich lifetime, Attenborough has had a front row seat to the steady whittling down of nature. Any contemporary nature show will justifiably sound the climate change horn, as A Life on Our Planet does as well. But Sir David digs deeper, as few tend to do, and scoops up the essence of the matter.
I have now watched the show three times. The first instance resonated strongly with recent revelations and writings of my own, and I gladly watched it a second time with my wife. The third time, one hand hovered over the pause button while the other scribbled notes and captured key quotations. This post delivers said quotes and connects them to themes dear to my heart. Note: the quotes in the show are delivered verbally, so any formatting emphasis is my own.
One of the prevailing narratives of our time is that we are innovating our way into the future at break-neck speed. It’s just dizzying how quickly the world around us is changing. Technology is this juggernaut that gets ever bigger, ever faster, and all we need to do is hold on for the wild ride into the infinitely cool. Problems get solved faster than we can blink.
But I’m going to claim that this is an old, outdated narrative. I think we have a tendency to latch onto a story of humanity that we find appealing or flattering, and stick with it long past its expiration date. Many readers at this point, in fact, may think that it’s sheer lunacy for me to challenge such an obvious truth about the world we live in. Perhaps this will encourage said souls to read on—eager to witness a spectacular failure as I attempt to pull off this seemingly impossible stunt.
The (slightly overstated) claim is that no major new inventions have come to bear in my 45-year lifespan. The 45 years prior, however, were chock-full of monumental breakthroughs.
I was also asked to contribute some short text for the write-up (same as first link above), but apparently Theo was unable to get contributions from all participants, so wrote the piece himself. But here is what I sent him. I was asked to answer the question:
Can the World Get Richer Forever?
Shame on you for even asking. Of course not. At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources. We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet. The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects. We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels. But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years! Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams. The other point to make is that even if we capped physical growth due to finite resources, we cannot expect to continue getting richer indefinitely. This would necessarily take the form of non-physical exchanges of utility/worth, but to keep growing these activities would have to eventually utterly dominate the economy—rendering the finite and essential resources effectively free. And tell me how that makes sense.