Friday, July 30, 2010

Beyond the Limits to Growth

An excerpt from the Post Carbon Reader Series: Foundational Concepts
Beyond the Limits to Growth by Richard Heinberg

In 1972, the now-classic book Limits to Growth explored the consequences for Earth’s ecosystems of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. That book, which still stands as the best-selling environmental title ever published, reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population. It summarized the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

The idea was heretical at the time, and still is: During the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When an economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting and general misery ensue. Predictably, a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was pilloried in a public relations campaign organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this purported “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited.

In any case, the underlying premise of the book is irrefutable: At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources.

The co-authors of The Post Carbon Reader believe that this time has come.

The Pivotal Role of energy

During the past two centuries, an explosion in population, consumption, and technological innovation has brought previously unimaginable advances in health, wealth, transport, and communications. These events were largely made possible by the release of enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels starting in the mid-nineteenth century.

Increased consumption of fossil fuels has produced both economic growth and population growth. However, a bigger population and a growing economy lead to more energy demand. We are thus enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing (“positive”) feedback loop. Crucially, the planet on which all of this growth is occurring happens to be limited in size, with fixed stores of fossil fuels and mineral ores, and with constrained capacities to regenerate forests, fish, topsoil, and freshwater. Indeed, it appears that we are now pushing up against these very physical limits:
  • The world is at, nearing, or past the points of peak production of a number of critical nonrenewable resources—including oil, natural gas, and coal, as well as many economically important minerals ranging from antimony to zinc.
  • The global climate is being destabilized by greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, leading to more severe weather (including droughts) as well as melting glaciers and rising sea levels.
  • Freshwater scarcity is a real or impending problem in nearly all of the world’s nations due to climate change, pollution, and overuse of groundwater for agriculture and industrial processes.
  • World food production per capita is declining and the maintenance of existing total harvests is threatened by climate change, soil erosion, water scarcity, and high fuel costs.
  • Earth’s plant and animal species are being driven to extinction by human activities at a rate unequaled in the last 60 million years.
[via the Post Carbon Institute]

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