Limit to Growth – Again?

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 24October 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.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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8 Responses to Limit to Growth – Again?

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  2. Louise Tiano says:

    Prosperity and growth imply going from point A to point B. If point B is contingent on something that is ephemeral, the downfall is imminent. What looks like growth is just an illusion. It was enjoyed at the time, sure, but its downfall and “interest” cannot be escaped. This is a matter of perspective, but one that has beyond devastating effects associated with some options, and potentially hopeful effects in the choosing of other options. If this issue continues to be examined under the guise of how we can best stabilize the economy, and how best to create expansion, we will be fast approaching our own self-inflicted genocide. If we instead finally focus attention on where to invest our money properly so that we use SUSTAINABLE resources, of which there are many, then we can assure future generations a living sphere that has some semblance of health and order.

  3. Jason G. says:

    I most certainly agree with the premise of establishing a fourth industrial revolution. This revolution needs to focus on the development and utilization of more sustainable, alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, etc. However, in the meantime we are using fossil fuels in order to meet our daily consumption needs. This is extremely problematic because we all know the significant consequences of using fossil fuels. It will inevitably create what is known as a “self-inflicting genocide”. By heavily relying on fossil fuels, we are constantly emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and this in turn traps more heat into the Earth’s surface. Ultimately, this will cause changes in atmospheric chemistry; which will result in climate change.

    The constant reliance on the burning of fossil fuels as the main source of energy for billions of people around the world is analogous to the borrowing of money in the recent financial crisis of 2007-2009. The impact of over-borrowing is that possibly one day, you will not be able to pay back the debt. The same can be said about “borrowing” too much fossil fuels. Eventually like all things in life, it will be depleted. Once that happens, there will be “hell” to pay in terms of not only the “interest” but also the direct “waste” products known as CO2 emissions. In order to mitigate the issue of climate change, we have to shift our focus on developing and using cleaner and more efficient alternative energy sources. However, what it ultimately comes down to is a “cost-benefit” analysis. With the implementation of using sustainable energy sources, we have to assess the economic cost associated with it. According to the textbook, in 2008 the cost of natural gas is $24.4/MBtu and coal is $29.5/MBtu. Comparing these costs to alternative sources would be much cheaper, (Hydroelectric 35.3, biomass 32.6, wind 43.9, nuclear 35, solar thermal 75.6, and solar photovoltaic 116.5). The real issue that arises here is if the economic costs of developing and using these alternative energy sources will impede our decisions of whether or not to shift away from fossil fuels. Clearly, if we want a better future and possibly avoid a “self-inflicting genocide”, the answer is obvious. I believe that the issue of costs should not get in the way of finding out ways to use sustainable energy sources. In the end the benefits will outweigh the costs of using more sustainable and cleaner energy sources.

  4. Anthony Iacono says:

    I concur that the world needs to enter a fourth Industrial Revolution; one that involves the development of renewable resources such as geothermal, solar, hydroelectric, and wind . Currently, the main energy source is fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas, etc). While it is true that these energy sources have fueled our economy for the longest time, we have to realize that these fossil fuels are not infinite resources, and they present a plethora of environmental issues. One of the biggest impacts of fossil fuels on the environment is climate change. We are pumping more heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before, and thus making the situation worse (Hurricane Sandy is a prime example of this). Your term “Self inflicted Genocide” couldn’t possibly be more appropriate in this instance. To curb the catastrophic effects of climate change, we are eventually going to have to spend more time on developing new, clean energy sources somewhere down the road.

    Of course, there is the issue of cost. The higher cost is one reason why the use of renewable energy sources aren’t as widespread as fossil fuels. That being said, we shouldn’t let the issue of cost impede our progress. The only reason why the more sustainable energy sources cost more is because of our overly heavy reliance on fossil fuels. To compensate for the low quantity of renewable energy sources, the prices are obviously going to be higher. However there is no reason for us to sit idly by and do nothing to fix this issue. We certainly aren’t solving anything by devoting all of our time and effort exclusively to these fossil fuels; in doing so we are diverting it away from a sustainable future. I believe that we need to start weaning ourselves off of the fossil fuel addiction. We need to invest far more time into renewable energy research and development in order for it to be a successful. While fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas are indeed more efficiently priced than renewable energy, this doesn’t change the fact that they are still FINITE! We are inevitably going to run out of fossil fuels at some point. What are we going to do when that time comes and we still aren’t prepared?

  5. Yijian Zhong says:

    The overuses of fossil fuels cause climate change. We can prevent the “Self Inflicted Genocide” by limiting the uses of these fuels. For example, we can use more solar energy, wind energy, and water energy. It can mitigate (but not solve) climate change; however, it’s not an effective approach since these energies cannot replace the fossil fuels. These energies are not sufficient to satisfy our daily needs. Therefore, we still intensely rely on the fossil fuels. For example, because the solar energy, wind energy, and water energy are insufficient, we may use more fossil fuels to satisfy our needs such as increasing production and stimulating economies. As a result, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases.
    As mentioned above, the solar energy, wind energy, and water energy can mitigate but not solve climate change. We need a win-win solution which can solve climate change without limiting the economic growths. In other words, we need to develop new sustainable energy sources which can substitute the fossil fuels. The new energy sources must be cheaper, be more efficient, and produce less pollution.
    If the new sustainable energy sources are more expensive than the fossil fuels, there is not reason that we switch to these energy sources. In economic perspective or consideration, the rising costs of energy sources will prevent the economic growths. On the other hand, the lower cost is an effective way to attract developed and developing countries to use the new sustainable energy sources. It can mitigate the conflicts in terms of energy use between these countries.
    The new sustainable energy sources must be as efficient as the fossil fuels. If the energy sources are inefficient, they may not satisfy daily use or production. Thus, we will continue to rely on the fossil fuels, which in turn result in climate change.
    The new sustainable energy sources must produce less pollution (or no pollution) than the fossil fuels. When these energy sources are developed and adopted, we can solve climate change. We also can lower or eliminate the cost of mitigating pollution and climate change that in turn enhances economic growths.

  6. Jiawei Wang says:

    I agree with the point that IR2 is more important than the other two to be responsible for the relatively rapdi development from 1890 to 1972. Since than we made little progress to get rid of relying significently on fossil fuel. I also stongly agree with the point that relying on buring fossil fuel is very similar to the way of borrowing money to stimulate our weak economy by our government. The consequence of borrowing money is that one day we might find we are unable to return the money, like Greek. Similiarly, the result of buring fossil fuel is one day the substance will be used up.
    It is meaningless to appeal that in how many years, fossil fuel will be consumed. Everyone knows the stituation. What puzzels me is that why other sustainable substance now can not replace the status of fossil fuel. In chapter 11, “Alternative Energy Sources”, many forms of renewabl energy are introudced. For example, Nuclear, Biomass, Hydroelectric, Solar thermal, Solar photovoltatic, Wind. Human alread started to reseach on these alternatives. In my mind, there are some problems with thses alternatives to take the role of fossil fuel in our development. One of problems is the cost. As table 11.8 in Chapter 11 shows, the levelized cost of Coal is 29.5 $/MBtu, Natural gas 24.4, Nuclear 35, Biomass 32.6, Hydroelectric 35.3, Solar thermal 75.6, Solar photovoltaic 116.5, wind 43.9 in 2008. In terms of the cost illustrated, many alternatives are left out side the entrence into the economy market. There are other specifc problems with them. For example, Nuclear might be a good choice, but it is always a controversial issue in politics. Ethanol, the preferred boimass product used in contries liis produced by using corn in US and sugar cane in Brazil, but at least now, it can not be spread to many other developing countries. In many developing countries, people are still starving and waiting for food like corn.
    I agree with professor’s point that we should find a way to shift our energy sources to sustainable mix as soon as possible. Considering the nagtive sides of many other so-called renewable or clear energy, they are still facing all kinds of their owen limits. Solar photovotaic in my view might be a good choice. But the cost of it is not acceptable. Maybe only when the technologies are mature and its cost declines, its prospect will be bright. In terms of the stituations we are facing now, no other alternative energy resources are able to shake the status of fossil fuels.

  7. Fung Yuen Lam says:

    Speaking of the Industrial Revolution (here, I mean IR#1), I immediately think of the pollutions that linked to the burning of fossil fuels. In 2010, the International Energy Outlook was published. Part of the major environmental concern was the reservoir and consequence of fossil fuels. According to the Outlook, it stated “as of January 1st, 2010, proved world oil reserves, as reported by the Oil & Gas Journal, were estimated at 1,354 billion barrels—12 billion barrels (about 1 percent) higher than the estimate for 2009.” Even though the number seems large at first, the amount of fossil fuels would eventually drain out if there isn’t any replenishment. In fact, it takes billion and billion of years for dead animals to be converted into fossil fuels. Therefore, if the supply of fossil fuels is less than the demand, we will definitely run into an energy crisis. According to Ecotricity, “Globally – every year we currently consume the equivalent of over 11 billion tonnes of oil in fossil fuels. Crude oil reserves are vanishing at the rate of 4 billion tonnes a year – if we carry on at this rate without any increase for our growing population or aspirations, our known oil deposits will be gone by 2052.”
    The burning of fossil fuels directly links to the amount of Carbon Dioxide or other greenhouse gas that will change the chemistry of the atmosphere, a.k.a climate change. People cannot adapt the policy of “NIMBY—not in my backyard” since we all “share” living in the climate. Everyone should be responsible for what they contribute to the environment. I know this is hard to achieve because we all have different standard of living (compare an average Indian with an American citizen). But if we don’t want the “self-inflicting genocide” to happen, we must find alternative ways of energy. According to a 2011 projection by the International Energy Agency, “solar power generators may produce most of the world’s electricity within 50 years, dramatically reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases that harm the environment.” If that is the case, why don’t we all cooperate and seek for an alternative source of energy?

  8. Pingback: The Limit to Growth – The Two Shades | ClimateChangeFork

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