We stand on an economic cliff, at the edge of the physical world. Scientists explain why technology won’t help

“When the old map makers got to the edge of the world, they used to write, ‘beyond this place there be dragons’.”
“Is that where I am?” Out of Africa (1985)

Last Thursday, the Institute of Policy Studies convened its “last significant event”. The Institute of Policy Studies is being disestablished. This is bad news. The Institute of Policy Studies, you see, liked studying policy, and debating it freely, in both senses.

The conference was called Biophysical Limits and Their Policy Implications. It was about limits to growth. Most of the speakers were scientists; most of the day was about science, and what the science required, policy-wise. If that sounds familiar: climate change is an atmospheric limit to growth.

Graham Turner, from Australia’s CSIRO, revisited Limits to Growth (1972), in which Meadows and his colleagues wrote about their modelling of the world economy and environment. They tested different scenarios, including “standard run” and “comprehensive technology”, and modelled them from 1970 to 2100. They were mocked and discredited, for their methodology and the results.

The “standard run” or “business as usual” scenario projected ecological and economic collapse from around 2020, through resource depletion and environmental pollution [slide 6].

Dr Turner authored a recent study, that took 30 years’ real world data, 1970 to 2000, and showed it tracking almost exactly to Meadows’ “standard run” [slide 7].

Anyone who believes that past performance predicts future results would be quite worried.

Most people aren’t too worried, because they pin hopes on technology, and “decoupling”: smarter technology, allowing us to “decouple” resource use from economic growth.

Both will be needed; neither is enough.

Turner said technology relied upon as the whole solution may, in fact, make things worse: bigger collapse, following more growth. Technology drives growth, because in its absence, production efficiency would see mass unemployment. It also depletes resources and pollutes.

As for decoupling, “we’ve been cleaning up our act” over the last century and a half with energy efficiency increasing, and carbon intensity decreasing yet greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly growing. Computers were another example, which have not led to the paperless office, or more leisure time, but the opposite.

Turn from Dr Turner for a minute, to Daniel Rutledge, who also addressed the feasibility of a tech solution, with hard data.

Dr Rutledge is a terrestrial ecologist for Landcare Research. He encapsulated the earth in a model of the atmosphere (self-explanatory), biosphere (ecosystems), pedosphere (soil), and lithosphere (subterranean), and reviewed the science on each, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

The minerals part of his talk was really cool, in a macabre, possibly gothic, kind of way.

He talked about resource limits from the perspective of global mineral resource availability, in particular: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK); and rare earths.

NPK grows food. Rare earths manufacture high tech. Remember when Mr Brownlee had his greedy paws on Schedule 4, and talked about the hypocrisy of mining the ingredients for a smart economy in somebody else’s back yard. Well, he had a point. It was about the only smart thing he said in the whole 12 months.

So: Dr Rutledge, relying on the US Geological Survey Mineral Outlook 2008 and 2009, had modelled mineral reserve depletion. At consumption growth rates ranging from 0% to 3% (the normal economic growth range), how much do we have, and how long will it last?

If phosphorus (P) consumption grew at a rate of 3% per annum, that global resource would be depleted in 78 years. If it flat-lined at a growth rate of 0% per annum, it would last 301 years. Potash (K) at 0% growth would last 500 years, and 94 years at 3%.

None of the timescales for any of the elements, even at 0% growth, would continue for more than a thousand years, and significantly fewer in most cases.

Aluminium (bauxite), to build planes, for tourism, at 0% consumption growth would last 185 years. He thought this less alarming than it sounded, because of aluminium recycling.

And rare earths (“because technology still means stuff”) ranged from 109 years at 3% consumption growth, to 798 years at 0% growth. At growth rates fast enough for a tech revolution to other global limits projections, the picture was “a little less optimistic”.

“The future”, he concluded, in terms of terrestrial biophysical limits, is a lot sooner than we generally care to admit: “definitely by 2100, highly likely by 2050”, hitting energy limits in the form of rising energy prices sooner, by 2020.

The future, in economic terms, is our future.

Meadows’ Limits to Growth (1972) conclusions were that “only a less materialist lifestyle combined with technological progress and lower population leads to a sustainable global system”. “Less materialist” meant something around the 1950s consumption level: one car per family, one TV, houses with smaller footprints.

Returning to Turner, he’d done an analysis for Australia, on what combination of changes could produce a sustainable economy, addressing the I = PAT formula, which says that global impact is the sum of population, lifestyle (affluence), and technology factors.

This combination of changes produced the right results:

  • Lifestyle change. Personal consumption rates reduced 50% by 2040. A 3-day working week by 2050 (popular), with the corollary of giving up income (less so), which would in turn require intervention to get people off the treadmill of debt.
  • Substantial technology progress. Efficiencies doubled by 2040, mostly renewable electricity generation by 2050.
  • A smaller population. Stabilise Australian population at 20 million, with zero net immigration, and birth rates at 1.6 children per woman.
  • This would, “by and large”, produce the recommended reductions in greenhouse gases (60-90% by 2050), lower reliance on oil, and overall wealth in terms of GDP per capita would be sustained (as another speaker, an economist, put it later, real income continues to rise, the only foregone thing is an opportunity cost).

This therefore independently gave similar answers to Limits to Growth, economist Herman Daly, and other literature here , including this model here [p 37].

He thought it unlikely we would in fact translate this into the necessary policy; he was “astounded” at governments’ failure to even acknowledge the oil crisis, for example. Also, any nation which implemented this unilaterally, on a domestic level, would suffer economically, short-term.

But the same measures would be tools for building a more resilient economy, in a local and global collapse scenario.

According to Dr Rutledge, “We can choose to acknowledge limits and change our systems (institutions, values) accordingly and thus avoid undesirable outcomes (collapse). Or not.”

Comments (16)

by DeepRed on June 16, 2011

"Last Thursday, the Institute of Policy Studies convened its “last significant event”. The Institute of Policy Studies is being disestablished. This is bad news. The Institute of Policy Studies, you see, liked studying policy, and debating it freely, in both senses."

Is it voluntarily dissolving, or is it yet another victim of Strategic Cuts Against Public Participation?

by Claire Browning on June 16, 2011
Claire Browning

I don't know. A more cynical woman than I would try an educated guess. I could ask Jonathan Boston (its former Director), if you really want to find out?

The website says:

IPS funding comes from the university and from institutions and enterprises in both the public and private sectors in the form of grants for projects or fellowships, or arrangements for secondments to the IPS.

At their previous event - the Future of Coal policy conference - Jonathan made a point at the end of it of thanking the 30-something government agencies that collectively helped fund the IPS.

You know, if you changed Participation to Service, and could manage to slip in an R ('Ruthlessly'?), you'd have yourself an acronym!

by Andin on June 16, 2011

"Also, any nation which implemented this unilaterally, on a domestic level, would suffer economically, short-term."

Maybe that's the rub. Oh how we hate suffering! Time for a musical interlude? The time for talk is drawing to a close, for some amongst us. YouTube - Mose Allison - Your Mind Is On Vacation

by Claire Browning on June 16, 2011
Claire Browning

PS. The coincidence with Chris Trotter's post this week is just that: coincidental. Different subject, same conceit.

Chris will be as mortified as I am, I imagine.

by on June 16, 2011

I attended the same meeting and I'm glad that the discussion about limits is taking place. However, I didn't see much in the day about moving the discussion on to the more interesting areas of which limits are critical, which can we substitute our way around, which are unavoidable? I can accept that freshwater is finite and a difficult constraint, but aluminium as a structural material? I used to be an engineer, if needed we can swap aluminium for carbon fibre, magnesium, titanium, etc... There's a bunch of easy options if aluminium supply is tight.

Similarly, I didn't see much discussion about the rates at which we can change technologies and resource dependency (apart from Graham Turner's talk). We know freshwater is limited but we also know that irrigators have a great deal of potential for rapidly increasing their efficiency while continuing to irrigate. Conversely for aviation, we've been working hard at improving the efficiency of jet aircraft for nearly six decades, we've averaged a 1% gain per year and it seems pretty unlikely that we can make a big change in that number.

by Claire Browning on June 16, 2011
Claire Browning

I used to be an engineer, if needed we can swap aluminium for carbon fibre, magnesium, titanium, etc... There's a bunch of easy options if aluminium supply is tight.

Sure, but isn't your substitutability argument just the clean-tech one in lipstick (analogous to swapping coal and oil for wind and lithium batteries or biofuels)?

In other words, swapping X for Y in the short term may or may not buy you more time, and/or shrink footprint, but in the end, it's still all finite resource mining, so if the demand side isn't addressed, global capacity runs out.

by Chris de Lisle on June 17, 2011
Chris de Lisle

I note that one of the dimensions which is significantly diverging from Meadows' standard run in slide 7 appears to be "non-renewable reasources." Granted we're given to different sets of data one of which follows it more closely, but neither of them appear to be declining at his predicted speed. As the rest of the predictions ought to be based on that, the turning point might yet be further away than 2020?

@ Claire on Jez. But surely there isn't one 'supply side and one demand side. There is a different one for each resource. And if you can, say, replace some functions of aluminum with carbon fibre, then you reduce the demand on that and 'save' it for functions that cannot be performed by any other material.

One could then also identify those substances which do not have a possible substitute and try to attack demand for them as soon as possible and most strenuously.

Sure, everything will still run out in the end, but the better it can be managed that running out process is, and the longer it is between, say, peak oil and peak aluminium, the less destructive it will be.

by on June 17, 2011

@Claire In the end, yes, we have to end up with closed material flows, so that our given supply of materials is endlessly recycled (or we head for the starts). Right now, however, we are in the business of buying more time while we shrink our footprints towards that end goal. For some materials, we need to shrink our footprint rapidly, for others there is less urgency (seawater is 0.1% magnesium, we're not running out of magnesium in a hurry).

@Chris Yup, no supply constraint is a hard constraint, in the short term. Even for freshwater, we can make more via desalination, it's just bloody expensive. Similarly with aluminium, once bauxite runs out, then there's plenty of other minerals to start on. They're higher cost to process, but the Earth's crust is 8% aluminium, so we'll have to work pretty hard to get to the point where more aluminium isn't available. 

While I agree with the concerns raised at the conference, I think we need to look into this issue in a lot more detail. I'd love to see supply curves for all these resources detailing what amounts are available at what cost. I'd love to see estimates of how improved technology will change what resources are available at what costs. I'd love to see consideration of what resources can be substituted for others. If anyone's got any pointers, I'm all ears.

by william blake on June 17, 2011
william blake

Thank you for a thought provoking piece. I wikied population growth arter reading it, as I have been convinced that the worlds medium term fate has been sealed by overpopulation, but finding  that overpopulation is a function of Nitrogen and synthetic petroleum based fertilizer I have had to revise this position.

The end date on these resources would be a lot different if they had not been so promiscuously used to create more people, or cynically, more customers. If the free market is allowed to run unchecked on these resources then we will be faced with the unsubtle fact of mass starvation rather than the far more subtle issue of regulating childbirth and never having had those people to starve in the first place.

Perhaps we have to side with the demon of authoritarianism to ward off the dragon of starvation.


by william blake on June 18, 2011
william blake


by mudfish on June 21, 2011

@Chris: @ Claire on Jez. But surely there isn't one 'supply side and one demand side. There is a different one for each resource. And if you can, say, replace some functions of aluminum with carbon fibre, then you reduce the demand on that and 'save' it for functions that cannot be performed by any other material.

Depends how you look at it and which resources become critical and how their price influences our responses and how our values deteriorate under pressure of unaffordability.

2008 showed us how connected food prices are to energy prices, (now that biofuel can be made from sugar); minerals are equally dependent on energy -there's an energy cost at which it's uneconomic to make the resource substitutions you talk of - in the end, our food costs (and all other costs) are directly related to how much is spent digging things up, blowing things up (people included). Is not the west economically overextended already? Are we not now "choosing" (voting for) the "must haves" instead of the "nice to haves?"

Soylent Green anyone?

Ok enough of Mr Pessimist today. If it's all down to energy, then there's lots of untapped potential out there, with many technologies looking promising for filling the supply/demand gap at the right price, so maybe things won't go sky high just yet.

All I really want is for my unborn great-grandchild (perhaps we need a one-child policy too - seems to have done wonders for Chinese economy although I always wonder about the second generation not even having cousins - what happens to family values...how far can an extended family extend with no cousins?) to have a life that more or less resembles ours (is this where I differ from others, do they have higher aspirations, dreams, do they expect we'll somehow colonise some second earth??), or is better in some way rather than worse. To do that we need to save some of our resources for much much later because they will be really really nice to have and probably far more valuable than we can imagine. And we need to conserve the wonderful biodiversity and cultures we have. And in the process become sustainable, globally.

Many economies are now on <1% interest rates, which if they continue, mean it'll make sense to consider the longer term value and costs of things. Our NZ rates have always been higher, meaning there's no incentive to consider the longer term; a cost 30 years from now is negligible in todays terms. Short term thinking is built-in. And compunded by 3 yearly electoral cycles and daily financial updates. I'm going to try swapping the news every day to once a month and see how much difference it makes to me.

Feeling a bit tangential today. I'm sure the post wasn't meant to be about my news habits but that's where it's led me today.

by tussock on June 25, 2011

The fundamental problem for future energy seems to be one of EROEI. You still get 99 barrels of oil by using 1 barrel of oil, but you only get 5 GW solar power generators by using one GW solar power generator, and you still have to use one of those to build and maintain the distribution network.

The worst bit about solar and wind is that it will not bootstrap once the oil gets low, all the energy you get from it would go into growing it for a hundred years before it could return what oil does. Now or never.

Then once your raw materials have to be recycled, that adds higher energy requirements to do everything, after so much is already bound up in just keeping the grid alive. Not sure about NPK, switching the population to vegetarian and outlawing pet cats and dogs should cover us for a while, land loss to climate and sea level changes will be a bigger problem.

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