"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tardis Earth: Malthus Discredited

Can technology override the physical limits of the earth once and for all?

Note that space travel doesn't count for our present purposes. For one thing, the day when outer space becomes a net source of wealth for humanity remains far in the future. For another, the time when outer space becomes politically autonomous from earth follows immediately thereafter. The earthbound will need to maintain our unique natural advantages to have something to offer. If earth is martiformed while mars is terraformed, the prospects of prosperity through trade through the gravity well will not rescue us. Anyway, while I hope the species prospers long enough for these peculiar events to occur, in any case they seem far less imminent than they did when I was a child.

So either way, let's consider the earth as a closed or nearly closed system with a human population on the order of 10^10. We'll go along with the demographers who seem untroubled by the prospect of the population resuming rapid growth beyond that point.

The question posed by those who are very attached to growth is then whether the prosperity of the 10^10 people can increase without bound, without significant population changes and without significant exchanges of materials with extraterrestrial sources.

Now I'll make another assumption, which is that we will not become Time Lords anytime soon, and hence that Tardis technology remains inaccessible to us. So the size and weight of the earth, and of its oceans and of its atmosphere, remain for practical purposes constant. So to fit more and more of something, the thing that grows, into the fixed non-Tardis-like space of the Earth, forever and ever, world without end, amen, necessarily requires that the thing that is growing either 1) becomes paradoxically ever smaller or 2) is so miniscule to begin with that its piling up won't do too much damage to anything already existing.

It is important to understand that our system evolved under condition 2: A world of 10^9 people at 1899 consumption levels is drastically emptier than a world of 6*10^9 people at 1999 levels. A factor of a hundred doesn't seem out of line. If the world seems to be pushing vairous limits now, a century ago it would have been 99% empty. Little wonder the factory builder didn't care much for the stream. There was a shortage of factories, not of streams. The "wealth" we had was tiny compared to the "undeveloped wilderness". It may have been Thoreau in the 19th century who said "In wildness is the preservation of the world" but even if we are clued in to what he meant (are we?) it's likely that his contemporaries weren't.

Today there is so little undeveloped wilderness that it has become paradoxically precious. An ironic profession of "wildlife management" was invented by Aldo Leopold in the 1930s. Today we don't even see the irony. (I think of the animated cartoon where the fox and the rabbit punch in at the start of the workday, have various adventures, and check out at the closing whistle. "Goodnight, Frank." "Goodnight, Harry." Now that's wildlife management.)

The fact that we are managing remnant wilderness so as to keep it in some semblance of its wild state is one clue among many. The world is full of our "wealth"; the idea that the wealth is small compared to its container is no longer a useful approximation.

But our economic system, which is not only the engine of wealth but also of sustenance, keeps us from chaos, is predicated on the idea of growth, the growth that was so recently so harmless. It is built into so many assumptions of commerce and government and culture that to abandon it to a steady state philosophy would require wrenching changes. And although people who think of the earth as a system have been aware of the need for such a transition for half a century, attempts to convey it to the general public or the political class have met with abject failure.

We are left as a compromise with the somewhat trickier idea of the miniaturization of wealth. Just as we can continue to grow the amount of computer memory in a fixed volume for a long time by reducing the size of each flip-flop perhaps we can continue to grow the amount of wealth on the earth by decreasing the impact of each unit of wealth. This leaves us a sort of an escape hatch, perhaps. It leaves us, given a nearly-full planet, with the result that a given economic growth rate can be sustainable only if the average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

Now that probably can't be maintained forever either. It's hard to imagine the infinitesimal limit of impact and the enormous wealth associated with it in the long-term limit. But maybe this can keep us out of wrenching changes in the short run. It appears that is what the existing democracies are aiming for.

It's a very very tall order, though. Consider, for instance, that the total CO2 impact needs to go *down*, by general agreement, by 80%. And even if the US aims at zero growth while the rest of the world catches up, present affluence levels imply that at least a ten-fold increase in world aggregated wealth must be possible, before the US can reasonably claim that there is room for growth here. So the carbon impact per unit of wealth has to go down fifty-fold from the present US standard before we can even budge.

Even where we are approaching the limits, that tenfold multiplier kicks in.

What this says to me is that all this talk of "green jobs" and "green growth" and economic revival is, well, let me be polite and call it desperate wishful thinking. I say this and my good (albeit virtual) friend Arthur says "cool, now we know what to do". No, we don't. The actual quantities are terrifying. We are deep into overshoot in CO2 emissions and at least near overshoot on many other quantities even before we account for international equity.

That factor of ten is going to hurt, but if we ignore it we become something very ugly.

This morning I went to a presentation by a class of graduate students at the LBJ School of Public Policy about the future of energy in America. I was hoping to learn about new techniques and new organizations, but instead I got a dose of middle-of-the-road compromise from a bunch of earnest young people in tailored suits with little scientific or technical skill. Near-future congressional staffers and McKinsey consultants, I guess. The content was not that interesting for me.

I did find it interesting how they came to the right conclusions, conclusions that neither party seems capable of grasping (basically: "vigorous pursuit of nuclear power, development of CCS, and government investment in many other technologies, acceptance that fossil fuels remain in the mix, 80% cut in emissions by 2050"). There is some skill there in extracting such a reasoned position from limited knowledge, though the LBJ school has enough cachet that they get to interview dozens of real experts. Aside from the one clunker (they think cold fusion is on the table) it was exactly the dull and reasonable presentation you would expect from the middle party that America so sadly lacks. It was (and perhaps zero of my readers will understand exactly what I mean but so be it) an earnest and boring product worthy of Lester Pearson.

On the whole, if energy were our only problem and if recent graduates from the LBJ school were our only policymakers, we could probably muddle through. They interview the right people, and are in a sufficiently intact matrix of trust to come to mostly sound conclusions, with the mistakes being relatively harmless. They seem to have no grasp of numbers or of physical principles or of scales. They really are a throwback to the 1960s, when politicians at the national level were in some business other than posturing. In that world, the skills they have in interviewing exeprts and distilling a staid and sensible policy would be quite useful.

The other interesting thing was the three guiding principles of their project. The first slide was a sort of meaningless Venn-diagramlike thing with the blobs labelled
  • environmental protection
  • national security
  • growth
In the questions I addressed the "growth" business. I raised the fact that the first two motivating concepts ("security" is largely a codeword for "peak oil" in their view) specifically arise from limits to growth, and asked "what if growth is impossible"?

I got two very interesting responses from the students. The first, presumably a B-school type, was amazed. He shook his head as if he had spotted a stegosaurus. "I thought neoMalthusianism had been discredited!" Not just refuted. Discredited. "Technology has always found a way. Technology will always find a way," he said.

Isn't it interesting that technologists are not the people saying this?

A young woman also answered me, mostly to admit that economic growth really hadn't been involved in their deliberations, and that perhaps it was enough to aim for "spiritual growth".

In some ways, perhaps. I hope so, yes.

Image from onceuponageek.com via Google images.


Dean said...

"Technology has always found a way. Technology will always find a way," he said.

-- Did you ask him how long "always" is? History shows that many civilizations have collapsed due to resource and climate issues. Most certainly, technology HASN'T always found a way. So the question then is - since we have _better_ technology, are we better than everyone who came before us?

[p.s. Is John McCarthy still around to respond? This does seem lik an old sci.env holdover - Dean]

David B. Benson said...

Tobis's tautology, as writteen, violates 2nd law. Just scrub out "equal or" and then it is ok.