Could economic growth kill us?
“What if that assumption were wrong? Given our current economic malaise, and the obvious needs of the poor in developing nations, growth may be the only sensible aim in the short term.”
NOW that the US presidential election is over, attention has turned to the challenge of keeping the world's largest economy growing. The underlying assumption is that growth is always the proper goal. What if that assumption were wrong? Given our current economic malaise, and the obvious needs of the poor in developing nations, growth may be the only sensible aim in the short term. But what if, in the very long term, economic growth had some natural limit, beyond which it actually became detrimental to the survival of the human race?
This idea has been treated as heresy every time it has been raised, first by Thomas Malthus two centuries ago, and again by the famous Limits to Growth analysis initiated in the 1970s by the Club of Rome think tank. Yet heresies have at times turned out to be true. And this one has some pretty good logic on its side.
The argument takes many forms, but for me the most convincing centers on energy. Nothing in physics is more fundamental. The "E" of Einstein's famous E=mc2 is the vital quantity behind all action and motion. It is never created or destroyed, it merely changes form. The energy in Hurricane Sandy hasn't vanished. It has transmogrified into destroyed buildings, felled trees, and vast quantities of heat -- released by rains - - spread across the eastern US
Every organism, from a tiny bacterium to an elephant, relies on a steady flow of energy to maintain its physical function, warding off the cold equilibrium of death. Homo sapiens is no exception, both individually and collectively. Humans use a constantly increasing amount of energy to keep themselves warm and to fuel increasing economic activity. Over the past three centuries, in the US and globally, energy use has increased at an average annual rate of about 3 percent or so, which means we now use roughly 10,000 times as much energy as we did 300 years ago.
Most people -- certainly most economists and politicians -- seem to expect such growth to continue indefinitely, as we grow ever richer through technology and innovation. All we need are clean energy sources -- a green revolution, perhaps, or a final breakthrough in harnessing nuclear fusion -- to guarantee our growth and prosperity.
Such expectations ignore a big problem, and it's not the possibility of running out of energy. In the long run, the danger is that we will use too much of it, no matter how we obtain it. Discovering a source of limitless free energy could actually be a disaster.
Here's why. Most of the energy we use unavoidably ends up as heat in the environment. Heat your house and it will eventually escape to the air outside. Drive your car and you heat the engine and tires, stirring the air along the way. Run any machine or factory and you will create heat. The more energy we use, the more the environment should tend to warm up.
Currently, this dynamic is nothing to worry about. It's not even a small contributor to climate change. All told, we gather and use only one part in 10,000 of all the energy arriving at the Earth from the sun. This amounts to less than 1 percent of the energy imbalance linked to carbon-dioxide emissions, which trap the sun's heat in the Earth's atmosphere.
In the long term, though, our energy use alone can easily eclipse emissions as the primary driver of global warming.
Consider what now looks like an impossibly rosy scenario: Our leaders act over the next few decades to limit carbondioxide levels so that warming linked to them stops by 2050. In that case, an annual increase of only 1 percent in energy use -- very slow growth by historical standards -- would be enough to cause noticeable climate change in about 150 years, according to research by Nick E.B. Cowern and Chihak Ahn of Newcastle University. If we want our economy to grow at, say, 3 percent a year in the long run, with energy use rising 2 to 3 percent each year, then the numbers suggest we will actually boil the oceans in only a few centuries. (Physicist Tom Murphy of the University of California at San Diego offers an informative and amusing look at the logical consequences of exponential growth in energy use on his blog Do the Math.)
Needless to say, we can't do that. But if energy use has limits, so may economic growth. So far, at least, nobody has found a way to decouple the two. Data on economic growth and energy across many nations over the period 1980 to 2003 show that larger economies as a rule require more energy.