Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist — Kenneth Boulding
One day, in the deep blue sea, two young fish are swimming along, and happen across an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish continue for a bit until eventually, one turns to the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
This humorous little parable borders on cliché, it’s creator David Foster-Wallace said as much in a 2005 commencement speech, but as he continued, ‘important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.’ After all, clichés don’t suffer from an absence of truth, but from its banality.
Growth is our water — the cultural broth through which we swim; it has been simmering away, unnoticed, since man first farmed the land, rather than live hand to mouth. The beginning of our predicament. Over 10,000 years due to the fruits of agriculture we multiplied, slowly and steadily, far beyond what nature once contained, until the past few hundred years when the pan began to rattle, and the broth boil over. But like the frog in the pot, we are ignorant of the rising heat.
Politicians and economists often talk of growth; it is the governing principle of our economies, responsible for increasing standards of living and rising prosperity. Growth is good, they say — a mantra which has taken on almost religious connotations; to question growth is to question God.
Therefore, it is little wonder that when addressing climate change, growth would be the medium by which our leaders promise action. Green growth, sustainable growth, sustainable development, the green economy: this jargon encapsulates the same future — one in which consumption patterns don’t change, only how we fuel them. Presupposing the solution to the crisis facing us is one of technology, not behaviour.
Our leaders are deadly serious. A UN report titled: ‘Low Carbon Green Growth Roadmap for Asia and the Pacific’ (not the catchiest title) explored the transition of the world’s fastest-growing economies, from smog-filled sinners to ecological saints. It promised a ‘win-win synergy in which ‘going green’ drives economic growth’. Similar promises were made in a report by the Centre for American Progress.
Nor is the concept fringe or for the fanatics, the Democratic Party’s ‘Green New Deal’ rests on a bedrock of green growth, and the U.K. Labour Party followed suit with the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. The promised land is a sustainable and harmonious future — sustainable presumably meaning in perpetuity.
Is this objective realistic, or is it as the opening quote suggests, the province of madmen and fools?
Let’s start with the basics: Economic growth is an increase in the production of economic goods and services, compared from one period of time to another. Each year, hungry eyes scrutinise the release of such figures; a large number is good, a small number terrible, and below zero, well that heralds the end of the world.
The word ‘exponential’ gets thrown around a lot these days, like ‘quantum’ or ‘momentum’ it’s taken on a life of its own, meaning everything and nothing; but in short, it defines growth proceeding at a consistent rate, e.g. 5% per year. Such growth is mundane, from compound interest on our bank accounts to the economic growth I just described; though ostensibly harmless, it is amongst the most significant forces affecting humanity.
As Professor Emeritus Al Bartlett put it, ‘the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.’
Over a thousand years ago, the Persian poet Ferdowsi detailed the fathomlessness of exponential growth in his epic poem ‘Shahnameh’. When a great King discovers the newly created game of chess, he summons the Inventor to his court. In reward for his momentous achievement, the King asks him to name his reward. The Inventor, humbly asks only for rice; however, cunning as a fox, he adds a condition, the rice was to be given in proportion to the squares on the chessboard. Beginning at one grain for the first square, the number of grains should double for every square after, until the completion of all sixty-four squares.
The King agreed to such a modest request.
However, as the treasurer counted out the reward, he realises the mistake. By only the 21st square the grains numbered a million, by the final square, the rice numbers 264 — that’s 2 x 2 x 2 etc. until there are sixty-four twos; or 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 grains of rice.
That’s ~600 times more rice than was produced in 2018; perhaps more than all the rice produced in history. The King had thought linearly, but the exponential function will bankrupt even the wealthiest king, or crown the poorest peasant.
We still don’t get it — a recent story from the U.K. reported a wave of protests had taken place because the number of garbage incinerators had doubled in a decade. The environmental impacts were clear: increased air pollution, an exacerbation of climate change, and a lack of recycling. But why had no one noticed sooner?
To answer this question, we need to understand doubling times, i.e. how long it takes for a given quantity to double with a particular rate of growth. The calculation is simple — we divide 70 by the percentage growth rate.
Therefore, for a doubling time of a decade, we get a growth rate of 7%. But if in 2011 someone had published an article stating ‘the number incinerators are growing at 7% per year’, no one would have paid any attention.
To understand the ramifications of constant growth, imagine a jar containing a single bacterium. It doubles its volume every minute and takes 1 hour to fill the jar. If it begins doubling at 11:00, at what time is the jar half-full?
If you answered 11:30, you’ve lapsed into linear thinking. The answer is 11:59, as the bacteria’s volume doubles every minute, it takes a minute to fill the jar from half-full.
But what if, at 11:58 sensing their fate, the bacteria send an expedition out of the jar, and miraculously discover three new jars — three times as much space as they had ever known! Nevertheless, by 12:01 another jar is full, and at 12:02, all four jars are full — each doubling requires the discovery of resources equal to the entirety of prior consumption. At this point the bacteria die having consumed all there was to eat.
How did it look from the jar at 11:58 when three-quarters of the jar lay before them? But it was two minutes to midnight.
What time is it today?
The avaricious hunt for resources is unrelenting and undiminishing in its demand. Politicians, economists, journalists and scientists ignore this monumental concept, pretending as if consumption grows linearly, or at worst, that resources are unlimited. They do so at our peril.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is one culprit, stating, “Assuming the same annual rate of U.S. dry natural gas production… the United States has enough dry natural gas to last about 80 years.” A dangerous statement, not for doubt of its veracity, but for the supposition that production remains stable, it is not nor has it ever been; yet, most read 80 years and take it at face value. In actuality, based on the growth rate from 2010 to 2018, of 4.62%, the U.S. will run out in a little under 36 years — assuming the extraction of every last drop.
So much for energy independence.
All the more reason to invest in renewable energy, some will say; no doubt, but these energy sources are not beyond limit or without cost.
A 2013 study by Yale University identified a dozen essential metals for which we have no viable replacement. Copper was one example; vital in the production of modern electronics and wiring, including renewables. Though in use for at least 10,000 years, over 95% was extracted since 1900, and over half in the last 24 years. Reserves are immense and growing, though the rate of new finds is slowing. The doubling rate is about 26 years, which means we will likely run out in the latter half of the century. Copper can be recycled, but it can’t be in two places at once. At some point, demand will go hungry.
As sociologist William Catton notes, we have returned to hunting and gathering once more, reduced to scavenging the globe for increasingly scarcer natural resources. In the hunt, we are destroying landscapes and ecosystems.
Due, in part, to growing demand from green technologies, the market for rare earth minerals is booming. China currently monopolises extraction, being responsible for 70% of the world’s supply in 2018, though they only have about 35% of the world’s reserves. China succeeds by undercutting the environmental standards of its competitors. For example, the city of Baotou, a major metals producer, is a hellscape; sheep and crops wither and die from metallic poisoning, in scenes reminiscent of Tolkien’s Mordor, the satanic chimneys puncturing the horizon a modern-day Mount Doom. People die of cancer, and teeth grow yellow and crooked. The soil is a toxic mulch and the water a viscous sludge. Sacrificed to the small gods of smartphones and laptops.
The Congo, rich in natural minerals, has seen perpetual conflict, funded by the sale of metals such as cobalt — used in batteries. The First and Second Congo Wars are the bloodiest since World War Two, the latter consuming 5.4 million lives. Perhaps a canary in the coal mine for the resource wars to come.
Population growth and consumption feed into the insatiable appetite of exponential growth, stretching resources to their limits. It takes 500 years to produce two centimetres of top-soil, the thin veneer upon which all civilisation depends, but it can be eviscerated in minutes, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, notes, ‘Over the past 40 years, about two billion hectares of soil — equivalent to 15 per cent of the Earth’s land… [has] been degraded through human activities, and about 30 per cent of the world’s cropland have become unproductive.’ If we continue down this path, we have only 60 years of farming left. Additionally, such practices have stripped phytonutrients from our diet to deleterious health effects, with links to degenerative diseases.
However, the race is not for a solution, but for which resource we erase first; the soil we farm on, or the water farm with. Groundwater depletion is stressing the majority of the world’s largest aquifers. India is at severe risk of drought, which already plagues the region. Billions rely on such water sources; once they are gone, the effects will be calamitous. Populations will move, wars will burn, people will eventually crack. Analyses have linked the Syrian Civil War to drought, the first war of many — all in the pursuit of endless growth.
The list of resources under threat is inexhaustible: fish, soil, oil, natural gas, minerals and on and on. As the worldwide population booms faster than the natural world can keep up, even animals cannot escape. The first global assessment of human hunting found hundreds of mammal species, from chimpanzees to hippos to bats — are being eaten into extinction. Alongside the wide-spread destruction of habitats, these factors have contributed to what scientists are calling: ‘The Sixth Mass Extinction’.
There is no bringing them back; once gone, they’re gone forever. Each one seemingly insignificant alone, but like a game of Jenga, remove too many species and the complex and intricate ecological web — the Earth’s life support system — collapses. All on a timespan of a single person, an event unparalleled in Earth’s history.
In recent years, people have begun to talk about decoupling — economic growth without the requisite material consumption, or at least with diminished use. Such concepts lay at the heart of the 2016 Paris Climate Conference. However, this is an artefact of false accounting; by examining countries in isolation, and only measuring the goods traded between countries, the raw materials needed for the creation of each product goes unaccounted, slipping down the back of the proverbial sofa. Western nations appear greener than they actually are, and economic growth seems to emerge from nowhere, ex nihilo. However, when raw materials are accounted for, and not just the weight of the product, then the efficiency improvements vanish.
A report published in the journal Global Environmental Change revealed that for every doubling of income, a country requires a third more land and ocean to support its burgeoning economy. Another paper concluded, ‘For the past ten years, not even a relative decoupling was achieved on a global scale.’
Environmentalist and writer George Monbiot put it starkly, ‘We can persuade ourselves that we are living on thin air, floating through a weightless economy… But it’s an illusion’. Like Wile E. Cayote, sooner or later, we are going to become reacquainted with the gravity of our situation.
Despite the world’s fixation on climate change, many out-of-sight calamities are fermenting. Renewables alone will not solve the problem nor any other tech fix. They address only the symptoms and not the cause. Perpetual growth is the cause — the ideology of the cancer cell. No longer can we labour under the delusion of our sustainability, content to indulge in gluttonous appetites; captives to our craven desire for trinkets and trivialities, whilst hypocritically professing environmental virtue. Rules are not written by wishful thinking and nature is a dictatorship, sooner or later we must come to heel, or be crushed under it. The choice has never been starker.
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