The Limit of Growth

It seems it is ever our goal to grow. We want our business to grow. We want our income to grow. We want our authority and our power to grow. It seems we believe we must either grow or die. But what if the very growth we seek will inevitably cause our death?

Economists are ever after the 3% or 4% yearly growth in the economy. What does that mean exactly? Well, it means that we would have a 3 to 4% increase in the amount of goods and services the economy produces. This is good right? Well, not necessarily.

Lets look at the longer term. A given growth rate produces a doubling of something in a given number of years. Just as a 6% interest or growth rate produces a doubling of your savings account in about 11 years, a 4% growth rate of the economy means the total amount of goods and services will double in 17 years. The approximate formula is 70 divided by the growth rate equals the number of years to double something. Therefore the doubling time at 4% growth is 70/4 or 17.5, and at 3% it would take a little over 23 years to double the economy.

For the rest of this discussion, I will just talk about the more modest 3% rate of growth, and a doubling time of 23 years.

To grow the economy means that we have to use more resources. Its not possible to make twice as much of something without using twice as much materials to do so. Further, there is no point in producing twice as much of something unless we also consume twice as much of that something.

Growth is ultimately about consumption.

If we look at an economy for a 1 doubling period, lets say that it will consume 1 unit of resources, and create 1 unit of production for that 1 period. During the next doubling period, it will use twice as much of everything to produce twice as much. That is, it will consume 2 units of resources. Note that at the end of the second period, we have consumed a total of 3 units of resources.

During the next doubling period, we again use and produce twice as much as the previous doubling period, which means that we consume 4 units and produce 4 units. Notice that during this period, we used more units than in the previous periods combined. Notice that every time the economy doubles, we have used more resources in that one period than in all the combined previous periods, assuming a relatively constant growth rate for each period.

Therefore, to grow at the modest rate of only 3% for the next 23 years means that we would consume more resources in that time than we have in our entire history! Is this even possible? 100 years ago, the answer was yes, but today, the answer is most likely not. At this point, we have almost depleted our supplies of natural resources, including coal, oil, fresh water, and uranium.

Resource production is already faltering. For example, Africa is already experiencing electricity shortages to the point where some of its mines have had to shut down or drastically reduce operations. Energy will no doubt be the limiting factor to growth, as I have alread discussed in my articles regarding peak oil. The signs of the coming crash between civilization and the limit of growth are already upon us, and its foolish to base our existence on growth. However, there is little evidence that we as a civilization are smart enough to change our paradigms in time to avert a major disaster.

Of course, I am not saying anything new. It has been known for decades. Only the exact date of the crash is unknown. Will it be tomorrow, or will it be in 10 years? I cannot say for sure; I can only say that it is close.

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