Growth has some limits

Growth is a natural human desire, but it demands responsibility

In the 18th century geologists started to find out about the chemical decay of rock and did some calculations. They were astonished that the rock found at coastal formations, for example, was many millions of years old. Until then the western world was convinced that the earth was only 5000 years old, as written in the Bible. Only later they discovered evidence that humans lived as hunters and gatherers for about 100,000 years, and then due to a favourable climate started with agriculture. Echnaton was an Egypt king that wanted to change the Egyptian religion to believe in the sun as the only god, so that he could better represent himself and his wife worshipping the sun. The people refused to accept this new religion, as it did not align with their 3500 year old beliefs.

Here you see a newspaper image of Steve Jobs displaying the first iPhone. Do you remember when that was ?
Steve Jobs presents the iPhone (youtube)

That was on January 9th 2007. Since then we had seven subsequent iPhone releases. Do you think this can go on for 3500 years?

In 2015 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 21st Conference of the Parties (or COP 21 for short), finally made a large step in agreeing that the impact of climate change must be kept small. This was achieved by each country setting voluntary CO2 reduction targets within variable time frames.

It has finally been accepted by all participants that carbon based industries have to be phased out. When this is a well-meaning step forward, the sheer size of the problem is somehow being left out of the discussion.

Moving all our energy needs to WWS [1] needs a complete retrofitting of our entire civilisation (housing, transport, agriculture, energy) and this will be a very costly and time consuming task. The size of the task is directly related to the question:

How much wealth and comfort do we want to transition into this new civilisation?

The larger our needs will be, the larger the transition costs will be. The more of our needs we leave behind, the less the cost of the rebuild and greater the ease of the overall process.

So while politicians now sell the progress on climate change as a runaway success, they still cannot let go of eternal growth – so they call it “sustainable growth”. But this does simply not exist.

At the current rate of consumption many natural resources will become very scarce by 2030. This was calculated in 1972 by members of the Club of Rome.

This calculation was based on a novel way of thinking in the 70s which treated the whole earth as a system. The model was run to see if humans could avoid some the of problems arising from resource depletion and waste creation (the main drivers in the model). It was found out that a way to live in harmony with the capacity of our biosphere existed, but only if we really changed our way of doing things significantly.

Many people refuse to accept the model, saying that in reality everything is different; or that any prediction over such a time scale is impossible, as new technology will help us overcome any limitations. If you check the Wikipedia entry for „The limits to growth“, you will find that there have been numerous newer updates of the model with better systems and more powerful computers. What did they all find out? That we have been following the worst of the tracks envisioned by the model in 1972, have been doing so for 54 years now, and that we can prove this with very high accuracy.

The question that some are beginning to raise is if humans, by their design, can actually live in the existing biosphere without the creation of both excessive consumer goods and waste.

We must ask ourselves: Does this concern all humans?

The world currently is inhabited by about 7.4 billion people, but the consumption of resources and the creation of waste is distributed very unevenly between them. OSCE countries represent about 20% of the world population and consume about 80% of the world’s resources. Current consumption patterns are explained in the following video.

When we talk about reducing the impact we have on the planet, we do not need to talk about people living in poor countries. We must talk about the rich people like you that use computers, have access to the internet and all the other fancy stuff. We must learn to consume much less. Somebody expressed it like this: „As a citizen of the United States of America you are living in the belly of the beast.“

One driver of resource usage, namely birth rates, correlates closely with economic prosperity. Countries with high economic activity usually have a lower birth rate. It has also been said that a lower birth rate is due to education and access to fresh water, sanitation, medicine and energy.

We understand that we must increase the well-being of the 80% poor people in the world, but on the other hand we know that not everyone can consume at the same level as a citizen of the United States of America. The pattern that emerges here is that the rich countries have to reduce their consumption levels conspicuously in order to enable the poorer countries to grow.

How can that be achieved?

A good measurement has been found to be the per capita (per head) creation of CO2 (the main driver of the greenhouse effect resulting in climate change). Currently OSCE countries emit something like 9 to 12 tons of CO2 per capita. When we consider all the plants on the land and in the sea that absorb CO2, emit fresh O2 or store sugar and biomass in wood, for example, we can calculate how much CO2 can be created on a yearly basis for all human beings and be re-absorbed by all plants.

On the basis of 7.4 billion people on the planet the maximum yearly per capita CO2 emission is calculated at 2 tons. In this calculation OSCE countries have to reduce their CO2 creation to a fifth, whereas all other countries still have the possibility to slightly increase their CO2 emissions. In the following graphs you see that CO2 (=waste) creation highly correlates with GDP (gross domestic product) and with energy usage.

Source: Gail Tverberg

The point being made here is that there is absolutely no way to immediately transform a society such as those in Europe to run on a fifth of current consumption levels. Industry has obscured this fact with adding some green elements to their products, but the impact on reduction of waste has effectively been zero. This is called „Jevons paradox“ – the more you save on one side of the equation leads to more consumption of the other. Many people talk about a „decoupling“ of waste production and goods creation, but the things being measured do not yet show a real trend. A reduction in oil consumption, for example, (or a glut in production) can be due to economic factors as well as real gain in efficiency and many other factors. To clarify this issue the trend has to be looked at for a longer period of time.

The most important question to answer for the future is if we can manage to create an economic system not based on growth. The economic growth model was successful after World War II and lead to a high grade of comfort throughout the OSCE countries. With our current high levels of consumption, further growth simply is not sustainable in the long run. Watch this video in which the American physicist Al Bartlett explains growth. Currently our economic system grows at roughly 2% per annum and that includes a growth in energy usage of about 2.3 % per annum. This will lead to a doubling in consumption in just 30 years.

If you ask an economist for the reason for growth, it will be very hard to find a satisfactory answer. There is no „natural“ reason why economies must grow. However, some theories about economic growth do exist:

1. Economies grow because investment is being financed by debt which has to be paid back with interest. This interest must be earned through an increase in overall economic activity.

2. Economies grow as the population grows

3. Economies must grow as politicians want more taxes to provide more benefits for their electorate in order to be re-elected.

4. Economies must grow as workers demand higher wages (higher wages lead to higher inflation). This is a very good argument to convince the people that growth is necessary, even if it does not work.

Growth is engrained into our economic system, but is a major reason why life on Earth will become harder, as more and more resources are depleted and waste (CO2) created. Our economic system in it’s entirety is based on the conversion of natural resources into products for sale and economic gains.

In theory the resource problem can be overcome by recycling all of our waste. The problem is that currently extracting new resources still consumes less energy than the recycling of these resources.

More details about some important resources:

Just to pick one example that has become popular in recent times. It is said that Li-ion batteries will not suffer from depletion as there is plenty of lithium on this planet. That is true but these batteries also need cobalt, and cobalt is not at all plentiful on this planet. Recycling of Li-ion accumulators is only undertaken to regain the Cobalt. Lithium recycling is not economically feasible. Cobalt is mined a lot in the Republic of Congo under very dire conditions. The cobalt market is mainly controlled by Chinese companies, and the western buyers claim that they have no evidence that the cobalt they source is linked to inhuman working conditions or even a civil war in the Republic of Congo.

When we look at the extraction of copper, for example, there have been deposits of copper with a so called ore grade of 10%. That means to get one ton of copper, you needed to crush ten tons of rock. Current copper ore grades are at about 0.5%. That means to get one ton of copper, we need to crush 200 tons of rock. And crushing rock takes a lot of energy. (For further information about mining watch this video)

In the not so distant future a day will come when crushing ever more rock to get copper out of a mine will simply no longer be economically viable, as the amount of energy needed will be too high compared to the cost of recycling.

But still we need copper in new appliances, what can we do? Use a lot of energy!

This is true for all possible futures: We will need more and more energy to complete the tasks we currently do due to the law of „diminishing returns on investment“. The more complex a society grows, the less net energy is available to do the work required at all levels of the complex society. As all levels consume increasing rates of energy, the activity on each level has a diminishing impact on the whole society.

Let’s again look at copper mining: when the ore grade goes down to 1% the mine has to increase the capacity of the rock grinder by a factor of 5. When the ore grades reduce to 0.1% the grinder capacity must be increased five times again. That will make a 25-fold larger grinder capacity than in the beginning of the mining operation. That trend cannot be reversed as the ore grade never increases in a depleted mine. So for all our resources we need more and more energy to acquire them, and then we have ever more people to want them.

Population growth is something we can not realistically do anything about. But remember, the population growth problem does not exist in the OSCE countries that consume 80% of the global resources. No one can forbid the purchase of a new mobile phone every year for the people in the OSCE region. The people in the OSCE need to learn that freedom comes with responsibility. You can have a car to drive wherever you want, but be aware that every kilometre you drive increases the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

So what are we promoting here?

Most of the problems with resource usage and waste creation (CO2) are caused by the OSCE countries with 20% of the world’s population and 80% of the resource usage.

The people that need to change most are those in the OSCE countries.

The consumption of products is directly related to the consumption of energy.

The consumption of energy will increase significantly in the near future, as all resources will suffer from diminishing returns on investment. The last option will be to use recycling for everything. This option is currently not being used, as the waste of new resources is still cheaper than recycling.

When we focus more and more on recycling, the resources that deliver the energy for this recycling will also be exhausted, and we will need a lot of energy to keep our civilisation going.

Therefore we must engage in a rapid development of a new energy system for the future that does not rely on fossil fuels.

An onshore wind turbine with 2000 full load hours in Europe is not the best use for society compared to the same wind turbine on a better location that runs at 4500 full load hours. A photovoltaic cell with 950 full load hours in Europe is not as useful for society as a solar power plant in the Sahara which operates for about 6000 full load hours in a year.

Resources will need some management
How we will solve these problems

Stay up to date about the energy heroes of intrenex:

[1] WWS: wind, water, sunlight