Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet
I continue to be troubled by what I hear in the media, at conferences, in university lecture halls, etc. with respect to what basically amounts to the promotion of "sustainable growth."
You can't have economic growth forever on a finite planet, resource substitution and other measures of technological development notwithstanding.
We in the developed world got used to continual growth as "normal" over several generations' time since the advent of fossil fuels, primarily oil. In the past, always being able to expand our access to cheap, accessible high net-energy (high EROEI, Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested) oil allowed us to grow our economy and vastly increase in societal and infrastructure complexity.
Subtract cheap high EROEI oil and growth stalls and reverses into contraction, and society rapidly decomplexifies. (Some use the term, "collapse.")
By now we've run out of cheap, easily accessible, high quality oil, and have begun to exploit more dispersed, environmentally risky, geo-politically contentious, low quality, and therefore more expensive, low EROEI resources (e.g. fracked shale oil, tar sands, super deepwater offshore deposits).
The question is, what minimum EROEI is required to run a highly globalized and integrated, sub-/peri-/urbanized, industrialized, hyper-complex society, and where are we now with respect to that minimum?
In the first decades of oil drilling in PA and TX, the EROEI was 100:1 or more. Currently, conventional oil clocks in at around 25:1. Average for US oil today is about 10:1. Tar sands run from 3:1 to 5:1, biodiesel from soybeans at 1.7:1, and corn ethanol at a mere 1.3:1. (Solar, wind, and hydro fare better, but are good for electricity production, not transport, and still require a platform of cheap fossil fuels in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale.)
The fracking "boom" does not represent a real boom in new resources, or old resources opened up by technological breakthroughs in horizontal drilling. It is a combination of high ($100+/barrel) oil prices, and Wall Street financial bubble shenanigans. (The shale oil bubble – give it a year or so and this will be a household term – is the current in a series of US economy bubbles dating back at least to the S&L scandal of the 80's, the Enron scandal and the tech bubble of the 90's / early 2000's, and the housing bubble and financial crash of the mid-2000s).
The trouble with high oil prices is that they reliably send the economy into a recession. (Because energy is the “master resource” that effects the production, and prices, of all other goods and services in the economy.) This destroys demand; but if oil prices drop, then it is no longer economical for energy companies to exploit expensive new “tight oil” plays. These upper and lower oil price bounds have characterized the bumpy plateau of oil production that we have been on since 2005, and go along way explaining our protracted economic non-recovery from the crash of 2008. Some analysts think that this indicates we’ve hit peak oil. Some analysts think this also signals the end of the era of economic growth – that we are not in a "recession" per se (because "recession" implies a defined trough ending with an uptrend back to "normal"), but are experiencing the first symptoms of economic stall and contraction.
We talk incessantly about sustainability when we should be talking about un-sustainability.
Economic growth is unsustainable, by definition, since it implies increasing demands for energy, resources, and waste assimilation capacity. Substitution, technological innovation, and gains in efficiency can help, but not beyond the limits specified by the laws of thermodynamics. Often, efficiency gains end up backfiring as increased consumption outstrip them. Technological innovation often creates more problems than it solves through unintended consequences and diminishing returns. And as ecological economists have demonstrated, human capital is complimentary to natural capital, not a substitute for it as assumed by mainstream economists. This limits the extent to which resource substitution is effective or possible (contrary to cornucopian Julian Simon's winning bet with biologist Paul Ehrlich regarding the prices of a few metals over a few years' time).
The current global trend in urbanization is unsustainable. A lot of fact-based arguments can be made to demonstrate this, but it is a lot easier if you've simply visited a third-world peri-urban slum to realize these arrangements are not sustainable. For example, when it comes to providing adequate water, sanitation and hygiene in such circumstances, the problem is intractable, overwhelming. That's why no one has been able to do it – not for lack of money, or political will, or economic incentive.
For all biological organisms, there is a positive correlation between food supply and population growth. With industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution, we have spent the past 100 years turning cheap oil into people. Now the cheap oil has run out and there are too many people to sustain at a highly energy-and-resource-intensive way of life. Yet UN (and other agencies) projections of population growth, economic growth, food production, etc., all show current upward trends continuing to 2050 and beyond – why?
Is it because it is unpleasant and politically untenable to publicly consider the more likely course of economic contraction and population decline?
In our culture, it is common to assume that humans are not like other biological organisms. On the contrary we assume that "people are our greatest resource," and that fabulously innovative human brains grant us exceptional status in the biological world. We are staking a lot on these hopes, which amount more to tenants of a modern religious faith in "progress" and human exceptionalism than on factual, scientific contemplation of material reality.
It deeply troubles me that we talk incessantly of "sustainability" without acknowledging our unsustainable reality.
Implied in the profligate use of the word "sustainable" is that current major trends in economics, population dynamics, food production, energy acquisition and use, infrastructure development and maintenance, transportation, biodiversity, pollution, climate and biogeochemical disturbance are unsustainable. Anything that cannot continue indefinitely, sooner or later, won't – the question is not, "if?" but, "when?"
No one can put an exact date for when these unsustainable trends really start to bite. In many instances, especially among the worlds’ poor, they have already substantially begun to bite. But when they begin to bite us too, in the (over-)developed West, it will undoubtedly feel too soon.
Optimists in the mainstream may tentatively acknowledge our un-sustainability, but put any attendant economic or resource crunch several decades into the future.
I believe the crunch is coming in our lifetime. I believe the crunch is coming in the course of our careers. I believe that the next 10, 20, and 30 years are going to look vastly different than the last 10, 20, 30 years, and nothing at all like a linear extrapolation upwards based on previous decades' trends.
I believe this has consequences for how we enact our careers and how we live our lives now. We ought to be in a mode of preparation for a very different future than what we've been led to expect based on the influence of social institutions (education, the media, culture, etc.).
In short, we need to prepare for an energy-constrained existence, and one that involves a high degree of local production of necessities (e.g. food, basic household goods, beer – especially beer) for local consumption. Subtract cheap oil or a stable global economy and international relations and huge transport distances for food and other critical goods manufactured wherever in the world labor costs are lowest and/or environmental regulations the most lax become prohibitive.
I'm not trying to be morbid, predicting the doom of human civilization, etc. I use stark language because I believe the converging problem of energy, economic, and environmental unsustainability is something we need to begin addressing immediately – and yet we are not even talking about it earnestly.
As someone involved with university education, I feel we have an obligation to do our utmost to prepare students for a career "in the real world," and in this case, "the real world" means a world of economic contraction and re-localization, declining living standards, energy constraints, degraded environments/ecosystems, and climate irregularities.
As someone involved in "engineering for developing communities" and the "international WASH sustainable development" establishment, I feel we have the obligation to recognize that the (over-)developed world is going to look increasingly like the developing world in the years to come, rather than the typical assumption of the reverse. We have a lot to learn from poor people in the developing world about how to cooperatively solve problems, meet needs, and conduct convivial and purposeful lives under conditions of economic constraint and relative scarcity. (And to this purpose we would do well to step aside from conventional "professional development" and careerism activities to undertake long-term participatory, experiential studies within so-called developing communities.)
Yet as educators and professionals concerned with environmentally sustainable human development we are not adequately taking up these tasks in our classroom curricula or conference agendas.
To begin to do so means first an acknowledgement that indefinite growth in anything – GDP/economy, population, food production, efficiency – is an impossibility theorem and therefore invalid as a programmatic objective. And second, it means acknowledging that biophysical limits to growth are currently making themselves felt and will increasingly do so over the course of our careers and lifetimes (and not at some vague far-off point many decades in the future).
With this renewed and corrected vision of the near- and medium-term future, we can more responsibly and accurately prepare students, as well as the communities we serve through our professional activities and even our own communities and households, to adapt to coming changes and the tough times ahead.