Here be dragons

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.”