Thursday, November 29, 2007

Petri Dish Earth

A useful analogy to demonstrate the inevitably of a halting of growth is the Petri dish. To understand where the world is heading with a continuous growth paradigm one only needs to understand what happens to the bacteria in the Petri dish. For a while the bacteria are happily multiplying, consuming food and generating waste in the process. The culture is growing, and at an astounding rate -- a fast-forward version of society. But the party doesn't last. Eventually the resources start to run out and waste products build up to toxic levels. The bacteria may or may not then proceed to die off completely, but with absolute certainty it will stop growing.
While reading a post on GristMill about the future of coal, in a lively debate at the bottom of the page, I found a link to a document from which the above was extracted. For anyone who hasn't given thought to exponential growth and the currently proclaimed goals of annual GDP growth which translates to energy growth, this document is an essential read. It starts by very simplistically working up the math and examples to describe periods of growth when combined with exponential (year on year) percentage rates. The author then applies this mathematics basis to the problem of the projected growth rate of global energy consumption and estimated reserves of non-renewable, and supplies of renewable energy resources available.

While one of the examples sounds promising, that the total solar energy input into our planet could provide enough energy to supply energy growth at projected rates for the next 490 years. This example overlooks that not all of the solar energy falling on the planet can be converted to energy to drive machines. Some portion of it must be used for other resources such as food, and other natural systems of our little petri dish. Energy required to power the scrubbers that take care of at least some of those waste products that all of us living organisms create.

The author theorizes that at some point, consumption growth, which drives energy growth and economic growth, will reach zero percent. As he continues, stopping growth isn't going to be enough. A reversal must occur, consumption growth must be checked now in order to make a meaningful change to the outlook. His belief is that regulation is the key, that government must step forward and take the responsibility because the market can or will not.
Growth will stop; but it won't be stopped by the popularly advocated means of saving the earth which don't address the real sources of growth. Whether it be relating to electricity, transport fuels, water, arable land or the climate change contribution of flatulent sheep, any plan of action which fails to address the infinite problem of continuous growth is doomed to failure and is only postponing the inevitable. It is worse than that though because the misplaced virtue masks and diverts attention away from the real source of the problem.
Ties into the question asked in a recent GristMill post, "is a sustainable world even plausible if we continue to accept a monetary system that must grow without end?"

While reading, I was wondering about energy consumption growth and came up with the following thoughts.

Is there maximum amount of energy that humans can consume. Can we as a species deploy enough energy intensive things that could require that much energy? Probably not in any meaningful term. The only limit is going to be how much our species can harness. At some point, there will be a reckoning and no new energy sources will be harnessed, and we will have to live with what we have, by turning things off, or becoming more efficient.

I would guess that this will in 80 to 120 years. By then, the prospect of running out of coal will be very real, if not already reality, global climate change will be obvious, and many other over-consumption side-effects will have taken place. So many things will have gone wrong, that humans will have no choice but to realize that there are limits and growth must stop, and perhaps reverse. Hopefully, we'll step back from the brink, and every home, block, neighborhood, and/or village will be its own power island, with a mix of local energy sources to supply it, our devices will be extremely efficient, and everyone will live within their energy means, only relying on a grid to cover shortages.

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