The reason that I am writing this series of blogs is to try to do whatever I can to prevent what I previously called a “Self Inflicted Genocide” (April 22); one, which in my opinion, and that of many others, will result from the continued and intense reliance on fossil fuels. The consequence of the use of these fuels is to trigger a change of atmospheric chemistry, which in turn results in climate change.
The B1 scenario (September 24 – October 8 blogs) that will keep the climate bounded at a level in which adaptation has a chance to be effective, requires a major shift in the energy sources that we use. I, among others, have labeled this shift a global energy transition, or a major feeding transition.
As I was going through this process, I came across a New York Times blog (October 15) written by Thomas B. Edsall, titled, “No More Industrial Revolution?” The blog was in a section called “Campaign Stop” that was designed to address issues in the current presidential election. One of the main issues being addressed by both presidential candidates is the ability to stimulate the American economy to create millions of new jobs and significantly reduce the present unemployment rate.
Mr. Edsall was focusing our attention on a recent article by Robert J. Gordon (September 11, 2012) that was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research and reprinted in VOX under the title “Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six.” A paragraph from this paper summarizes the main thrust:
The analysis in my paper links periods of slow and rapid growth to the timing of the three industrial revolutions:
IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;
IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and
IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.
It provides evidence that IR #2 was more important than the others and was largely responsible for 80 years of relatively rapid productivity growth between 1890 and 1972.
Once the spin-off inventions from IR #2 (airplanes, air conditioning, interstate highways) had run their course, productivity growth during 1972-96 was much slower than before. In contrast, IR #3 created only a short-lived growth revival between 1996 and 2004. Many of the original and spin-off inventions of IR #2 could happen only once – urbanisation, transportation speed, the freedom of women from the drudgery of carrying tons of water per year, and the role of central heating and air conditioning in achieving a year-round constant temperature.
The “conclusion” he comes to is that we are through with industrial revolutions that have a lasting positive effect on the economy and, to use Edsall’s expression, since the US economy is now running on empty, we had better get used to a stagnating economy. That this blog showed up in the “Campaign Stop” section is highly significant because it essentially implies that at least on this important issue, both campaigns are running on empty.
The limit-to-growth argument is obviously not new. Googling the term produces 300,000 links. Its origin can arguably be traced to Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834), who based his argument on the need to adjust exponential growth of population with linear growth of food supply. Since Malthus’ time, there have been many arguments and counterarguments that trace the limits to limited availability of natural resources. Given M. King Hubbert’s analysis of availability of oil in the US, I try in my book to analyze Malthus’ argument in terms of energy source availability. Gordon’s article is the first indication that I am aware of that the threshold will be determined by the limits to human ingenuity.
I am a physicist (actually I was trained as a chemist and gradually moved into physics in my research on alternative energy sources that was focused on semiconducting materials). I will not try to argue with Prof. Gordon on the quality of data that he is using to draw his conclusions, but I will try to make the case that at least in terms of what is needed, we had better have a fourth industrial revolution to shift our energy sources to a more sustainable mix (and soon!). Considering the fact that more than 25% of the human population lives without electricity (October 1) and that the average US GDP/Capita is about an order of magnitude higher than the global average, such a shift can not come without growth. And indeed, all the SRES scenarios (September 24) that the IPCC is relying on, stipulate major global economic growth.
I would like to argue one important element of Prof. Gordon’s analysis: The definition of the first industrial revolution (IR#1) is much more appropriate in terms of the beginning of the use of coal as a low cost and efficient way to run the newly improved steam engines and their subsequent use in mechanizing the British textile industry.
The Industrial Revolution is much better defined in terms that are analogous to the financial bubble that we have just experienced by relying on borrowed money for economic growth.
We started to use solar energy that was stored on earth for millions of years through the decay of dead greenery and animals under limited supply of oxygen. This energy is stored in a “warehouse” (planet Earth) and it took the industrial revolution for mankind to be smart enough to find it and use it for present needs. As in any retrieval process, the warehouse stock will eventually run out unless replenished. However, our main concern is not running out of energy sources so much as it is the “high interest” we must pay as a result of our current usage: the “waste” products that we generate by using fossil fuels change the energy balance with the sun, and result in major climate change. In this sense IR#2 and IR#3 are both derivatives of IR#1, which pioneered the use of fossil fuels to power machines that are doing work for us.
Just as our current financial crisis was fueled, in large part, by relying too much on borrowed money, the industrial revolution was “fueled” by “borrowing” fossil fuels from warehouse Earth. We were able to draw great benefits from fossil fuels but we are now starting to pay the interest.
I think that Prof. Gordon is right in arguing that the period of 1750 – 2100 can be represented as a wavelet in human history. But I don’t think that he is right to present it as a wavelet in economic growth; it’s a wavelet in using borrowed energy.
What we now need to do is to stop borrowing so heavily from Earth’s energy warehouse and figure a way to continue economic growth by developing and using more sustainable energy sources. In any interpretation, the wavelet includes two sides: past and future. The past is based on data, while the future is based on scenario, and depends on our choices. In my next blog I will try to elaborate on the available choices.