1.1 The Story of Endless Growth

limits-to-growth.jpg

In 2003, the Nobel Laureate, Richard Smalley, compiled a Top Ten list of problems that humanity faces today[5]:

1. Energy
2. Water
3. Food
4. Environment
5. Poverty
6. Terrorism and War
7. Diseases
8. Education
9. Democracy
10. Population

Indeed, all of them are usually referred to as “crises” these days, the Energy crisis, the Water crisis, the Food crisis, and so on, down the list to the Population crisis. True to the implicit separation between science and religion that has persisted in the West for the past 500 years, the Spiritual crisis or the crisis of separation from Creation, which many believe to be the root of all these crises, is conspicuously absent in this list. Furthermore, the first three in Smalley’s list, Energy, Water and Food, are really just escalating demands that we make upon Nature, not “problems.” Our demands have been increasing exponentially to date due to global economic growth, and assuming that we continue on this exponential growth trajectory, the UN projects that humanity will require 50% more food calories, 45% more energy and 30% more fresh water by 2030[6]. But to put these demands in perspective, the average human being is currently harnessing the equivalent of 22 energy slaves, mostly fossil-fuel based, with the average American harnessing the equivalent of 150 energy slaves each! Yet our expectation is that even the average American is entitled to even more energy slaves, though preferably fueled through clean energy sources.

Except in fringe circles, there is scientific consensus that all the environmental crises in the world, climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, toxic pollution, etc., can be largely attributed to these escalating human demands for energy, water and food. Scientific projections show that our current environmental trajectory cannot continue for much longer. For instance, in a comprehensive survey of over 10,000 species, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that the total biomass of all wild vertebrates decreased by 52% in the 40-year span between 1970 and 2010[7]. During that time, human population approximately doubled and human per capita consumption also approximately doubled so that human impact on the environment approximately quadrupled[8]. If such exponential growth in impact continues unchecked, we can mathematically show that ALL the wild vertebrates will disappear by the year 2026! In response to this carnage, the environmentalist and author, George Monbiot, wrote a gut-wrenching column with this plea in the Guardian[9]:

"If the news that in the past 40 years the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) fails to tell us that there is something wrong with the way we live, it’s hard to imagine what could. Who believes that a social and economic system which has this effect is a healthy one? Who, contemplating this loss, could call it progress?

Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organize ourselves, to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living planet for the past 2m years, and that are now destroying its remaining features at astonishing speed?

Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?"


Even the normally staid Forbes magazine is now sporting headlines like, “Unless it Changes, Capitalism will Starve Humanity by 2050[10]!” The accompanying Drew Hansen article contained stinging lines such as:

“Capitalism has generated massive wealth for some, but it’s devastated the planet and failed to improve human well-being at scale”.

“Corporate capitalism is committed to the relentless pursuit of growth, even if it ravages the planet and threatens human health”.


Storytellers such as Paul Gilding, an activist and author of The Great Disruption[11], have noted that we are already too obese for our host planet and that we have no option but to scale back on the human impact on Earth and mature out of our adolescent, exponential growth phase. In his TED talk from 2012, Paul Gilding said[12],

"The Earth is full. It's full of us, it's full of our stuff, full of our waste, full of our demands. Yes, we are a brilliant and creative species, but we've created a little too much stuff -- so much that our economy is now bigger than its host, our planet. This is not a philosophical statement, this is just science based in physics, chemistry and biology. There are many science-based analyses of this, but they all draw the same conclusion -- that we're living beyond our means. The eminent scientists of the Global Footprint Network, for example, calculate that we need about 1.5 Earths to sustain this economy. In other words, to keep operating at our current level, we need 50 percent more Earth than we've got. In financial terms, this would be like always spending 50 percent more than you earn, going further into debt every year. But of course, you can't borrow natural resources, so we're burning through our capital, or stealing from the future.

When I say full, I mean really full -- well past any margin for error, well past any dispute about methodology. What this means is our economy is unsustainable. I'm not saying it's not nice or pleasant or that it's bad for polar bears or forests, though it certainly is. What I'm saying is our approach is simply unsustainable. In other words, thanks to those pesky laws of physics, when things aren't sustainable, they stop. But that's not possible, you might think. We can't stop economic growth. Because that's what will stop: economic growth. It will stop because of the end of trade resources. It will stop because of the growing demand of us on all the resources, all the capacity, all the systems of the Earth, which is now having economic damage."


The fifth in Smalley’s list, Poverty, is usually touted as the reason why we need to continue the exponential growth that is causing all this damage. But despite the exponential growth in our world economy over the past 40 years, there are over 3 billion people living in abject poverty today, on less than $2 per day, almost as many as the entire human population of the Earth in 1970[13]! Therefore, it is hard to see why our situation would improve 40 years from now, if we persist with that exact same growth strategy.

As for the sixth in Smalley’s list, Terrorism is an asymmetric response to War, which seems to be fought nowadays to destroy the infrastructure of small nations so that corporations can rebuild them, again to foster economic growth[14]. Diseases are mostly self-inflicted through the social promotion of inappropriate and excessive consumption so that the symptoms can be corrected through pharmaceuticals[15]. Both of these fall under the rubric of “broken-windows” economic growth[16], but thus far, technological advances have helped us postpone the day of reckoning for such misguided policies to foster growth.

However, technologists are now weighing in with the news that Moore’s law[17], the cornerstone of the exponential growth in human productivity over the past few decades, is saturating in many respects. Moore’s law is attributed to Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel Corporation, as he predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double every 18-24 months. Corollary laws were propounded that the clock speed and the power consumption of an Intel microprocessor would double every 18-24 months as well. And all these laws held true for 40 years.

Then the clock speed and power consumption of Intel Microprocessors saturated around 2005. While the number of transistors in Intel Microprocessors have continued to double every 24 months, they have increased mainly in the form of “dark” silicon, which are circuits that are turned off at all times except when special functions are executed. Even this “dark” doubling is scheduled to stop in the next few years as we hit physical limits[18].


[5] These top ten problems first appeared in Smalley, Richard, “Top Ten Problems of Humanity for Next 50 Years,” Energy and Nanotechnology Conference, Rice University, 2003.

[6] These statistics were reported by Gro Brundtland in her Stanford lecture accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSC97yEjJDU

[7] These statistical findings were reported in the 2014 Living Planet report of the World Wildlife Fund. It can be accessed here: http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2014

[8] Population and Consumption figures can be obtained from the UN Human Development Reports, e.g., http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2014

[9] This passage is from the Oct 2014 column, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/oct/01/george-monbiot-war-on-the-living-world-wildlife

[10] Please see Drew Hansen’s column: http://onforb.es/25d0t5X

[11] Gilding, Paul, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, Bloomsbury Press, March 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1608192236,  http://amzn.to/2bIh7k6

[12] The quote is taken from Paul Gilding’s TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_gilding_the_earth_is_full

[13] More than 3 billion people, almost half the population of the world, live on less than $2 per day. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

[14] Please see Prof. Jonathan Turley’s analysis here: http://bit.ly/1fpWHg7

[15] Moynihan, R., Heath, I., Henry, D., “Selling Sickness: The Pharmaceutical Industry and Disease Mongering,” BMJ. 2002 Apr 13; 324(7342): 886–891. http://bit.ly/2bCr2gL

[16] The parable of the broken window, introduced by Frederic Bastiat in 1850, is commonly understood to be a fallacy, but it gets applied widely in an oligarchic setting. More on the parable here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

[17] Moore, Gordon, IEEE 1975 Speech, http://bit.ly/1OYSDPs

[18] Intel’s former chief architect, Bob Colwell, made this prediction in a recent speech. Mr. Colwell now heads DARPA’s MicroSystems Technology Office. Please see, e.g., http://bit.ly/1niX9iK