Exponential growth examples

Monbiot, George. 27 May 2014. It’s simple. If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up It’s the great taboo of our age – and the inability to discuss the pursuit of perpetual growth will prove humanity’s undoing. The Guardian.

Imagine that in 3030 BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic meter, which grew 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been 3,000 years later?   2.5 billion billion solar systems   (That’s 2.5 quadrillion, or 2,500,000,000,000,000,000).

Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artifact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal (from wood) or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The mother narrative, is carbon-fueled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition. The scouring of the planet has only just begun–everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious, will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturized, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in 10 years. The trade body Forest Industries tells us that “global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow”. If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. Ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that fantasies about colonizing space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbors. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.




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2 Responses to Exponential growth examples

  1. Fernando says:

    The economic system used by the USA and Germany seems fine to me. Corrupt autocracies like the ones in Russia, Cuba, and other nations do need to rationalize their systems. It would help if they adopted some sort of democracy. And of course all systems need perpetual fine tuning.

    Economic growth doesn’t need to stop, but we do need to control population ASAP, and a larger share of the economy will have to be devoted to energy. However, there’s huge potential in efficiency measures. For example, we can reduce the surface area of our dwelling in exchange for much nicer surroundings, drive a much more fuel efficient vehicle, and this doesn’t mean we are poorer or we have to lose our economic freedom.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Because most people don’t think about or know much about exponential growth, even if they are standing on the tracks and can see the train approaching, they think it’s moving much more slowly than it actually is, and have plenty of time to get off the tracks. Maybe their children or grandchildren will have to worry. But the train is almost upon us! Yet even I have a hard time believing how fast the train is approaching. I am wired like everyone else to live mainly today. The net energy cliff is not intuitive. Keeping in mind the hundreds of factors that could lead to exponential decline is hard, we can hold juggle 7 items in working memory. Hell, I’d forget the dam train even exists if I didn’t read so much about energy and natural resource depletion. Growth is stopping, has to stop, we’re on a finite planet, the bank account is empty, there’s no money to buy fuel efficient cars, let alone fix and replace the $500 trillion of infrastructure and material goods built with fossil fuels that depend on fossil fuels for their continued existence. People in the future will be wondering how crazy we could be to build this grotesque impermanent ugly snarl of highways and lonely suburbs, cookie-cutter fast-food restaurants selling food that gave people heart attacks and diabetes, when we had the energy to build amazing and beautiful towns and cities that would last for millennia.