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.”

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Mark Buchanan

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.

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