The Beginning of Indefinite Economic Growth

Repent! The end (of economic growth) is near.

Just kidding. That’s just Homer Simpson-esque paranoia. His elevator doesn’t stop at all the floors. He’s a can short of a six-pack. A few sandwiches short of a picnic. He’s working with an unformatted disc.

Unfortunately, Homer is only one of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people who have been declaring that end-of-the-world emergency since time immemorial. No doubt the 5000th Anniversary Edition of “The End is Near” will also be a hot bestseller.

Predicted apocalypses have consistently failed to happen — evidently so since we are in the here and now busily calling bullshit on the doomsayers. But why do they produce the bovine feces so consistently, and why do some of the general public consume it so eagerly? Answer to both questions: basic stupidity, ignorance, and an extreme inability to reason.

I am convinced that any reasonably intelligent person is capable of understanding that there are no conceivable limits to growth. Growth at its most general formulation is transformation of matter.

The universe is, as for as we can tell, infinite. That’s pretty huge (much bigger than even yo Mama, I might add.) Never mind the multiverse, and other speculations, the ordinary universe should suffice. And even if the universe were finite, for our purposes it is infinite in time and space.

How big is the observable universe? It’s 93 billion light years (Gly) across. Even if the universe was one-billionth of its size, it would still be 93 light years across. That miniature universe would be 880 trillion kilometers wide. (Still fatter than yo Mama.)

Seriously, though, the plain fact is that the universe is so huge that we really shouldn’t worry that we are going to run out of stuff. Or that we’re going to run out of time.

Reminds me of a joke. Professor of astrophysics in a lecture claims that the “Sun is going to turn into a red giant and will engulf the inner planets in about 5 billion years.” One student, clearly agitated and disturbed, interrupts to ask, “Professor, did you say million or billion?” The professor answer, “I said 5 billion — with a B — years.” Student says, “Thank goodness. I thought you said 5 million years.”

Five million years or five billion years — whatever. It’s immaterial for a species that has existed for only about a quarter million years. It is very likely that in a century, if not sooner, humans will be a multi-planet species, and in very short order, perhaps humans will become a Kardashev scale Type II civilization. What Type II civilizations would be capable of is as impossible for us to conceive of as stone-age hunter gatherers would have been incapable of imagining our world of 2021.

Anyway, back to what I was saying. Growth is just transformation of matter. And for our purposes — now and for billions of years hence — there is more matter in the universe than you can shake a stick at. The transformation of matter requires energy. There’s also more energy in the universe than you can sasa. What’s the secret ingredient for indefinite growth, you ask? Ideas!

What one chiefly needs is ideas. Where do ideas come from? From brains with neocortexes.

Let’s quickly summarize the huge list of things we need for growth:

  1. Matter
  2. Energy for transforming matter, and
  3. Ideas on how to effect transformations (aka technology)

OK now, that list wasn’t very long, was it?

For indefinite growth we need unlimited amounts of matter and energy. Which, as it happens, the universe supplies for free. And we need brains that have ideas. We have lots of brains, around 8 billion and growing. Not just growing in numbers, they are getting smarter as well. Which are also free. Evolution has worked that out over a few billion years on the surface of a rocky planet revolving around an unremarkable 4.6 billion years old yellow dwarf star

Let me type this slowly so that the dim-witted among us (not you, of course) can follow the argument. Growth is the transformation of matter. Generally, no new matter is created and no matter destroyed in the ordinary transformation of matter (except when nuclear fission or fusion is involved, which we will ignore for the moment.)

Here’s a simple example. See that tree over there? (Click image to embiggen.) Pretty impressive, no?

Its growth is transformation of matter (CO2, water, and traces of a few minerals) using radiation from the above-mentioned star. The growth of trees does not involve ideas that originate in brains of primates like us. All natural processes of transformation of matter — animate and inanimate — don’t involve ideas. That’s why they are called natural.

In contrast, there are artificial processes of transformation of matter which necessarily, by definition, involve ideas. That’s artificial growth. Economic growth is a subset of artificial growth.

We illustrated natural growth with the example of a tree. Now consider a plane. Any plane you wish but I choose the Airbus A380. (Click image to embiggen.) Pretty impressive, no? It was artificially “grown” by people. How? Same old ingredients as the tree — matter and energy — but with ideas added to the mix.

As long as the conditions are suitable, trees will grow naturally. Conditions will be suitable for tree growth until of course the sun goes out, or all the CO2 magically disappears, or all the water evaporates, or a massive supernova explodes in our neighborhood, or a gazillion different bad things happen. But we can safely ignore all that because if any of them do happen, we ourselves won’t be around for it to bother us.

But what about artificial growth or equivalently economic growth? Can we have indefinite economic growth? Yes, we can, and most likely will. One justification is to point to the history of humanity. For most of its 250,000 year existence, anatomically modern humans have not had economic growth. Then about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture, economic growth was in the 0.1 percent per year territory. Only in the last 200 years or so, average economic growth has been around 2 percent in some economies such as the US and Western Europe. 

The difference between long-run 0.1 percent and 2 percent annual growth rates? Enormous. With the former, the doubling time is 700 years; with the latter it is 35 years. The effects of exponential growth is not easy to comprehend. Since we evolved in a natural environment that didn’t require us to be good at comprehending exponential growth, our intuition is not up to that task.

In the next bit, I will explore two questions. What happened to push the economic growth rate up and why did it happen. After that, the answer to why we can confidently expect indefinite economic growth will become absolutely clear.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch. 

UPDATE: Go to part 2 of this post.

Soundtrack for this post: The Millennium Theme by Hans Zimmer. I had watched the TV series “Millennium: Tribal wisdom and the modern world” when it was broadcast on PBS in 1992. 







Author: Atanu Dey


3 thoughts on “The Beginning of Indefinite Economic Growth”

  1. In the next bit, I will explore two questions.

    What happened to push the economic growth rate up and why did it happen.

    That bit is easy: the discovery of easy to extract, energy dense fossil fuels, with EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) > 50.

    After that, the answer to why we can confidently expect indefinite economic growth will become absolutely clear.

    If fossil fuels become more difficult to extract (ERORI < 20), the party of economic growth will wind down for quite some time, maybe a long time. The hard part is to make reasonably accurate predictions regarding timing. AFAIK, none of the energy technologies in the pipeline (natural gas, “safe”-nuclear, solar, wind) have EROEI > 20, and even with relatively abundant natural gas, with any growth in usage, it will be gone in practically ‘no time’:

    Given that Kardashev type I itself is practically unachievable [1], Kardashev type II is a distant fantasy, a pipe dream!



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