By Tim Morgan: Death of a High-Fashion Model (aka Sustainable Development)


Tim Morgan proves here that sustainable development is a myth, and that economic growth is incompatible with addressing climate change. This means that all of our international climate change agreements are pure nonsense and nothing more than vehicles to help us deny reality.

Nate Hagens, another person I respect, states this reality as: There is no green, without lean.

Morgan also suspects our extreme use of debt to create growth will crash the system and thus prevent CO2 from climbing to catastrophic levels. My understanding of the science is that CO2 is already at a level incompatible with civilization, but I agree a crash will make the future less bad, assuming we don’t go to war fighting over the remaining energy scraps.


Between 2001 and 2016, recorded GDP grew by 65%, adding $47tn to output. Over the same period, however, and measured in constant 2016 PPP dollars, debt increased by $135tn (108%), meaning that each $1 of recorded growth came at a cost of $2.85 in net new borrowing.

This relationship between borrowing and growth makes it eminently reasonable to conclude that much of the apparent “growth” has, in reality, been nothing more substantial than the spending of borrowed money. Put another way, we have been boosting “today” by plundering “tomorrow”, hardly an encouraging practice for anyone convinced by “sustainable development” (or, for that matter, sustainable anything).


As we have seen, then, the very strong likelihood is that real growth in global economic output over fifteen years has been less than 1.6% annually, slower than growth either in energy consumption (2.2%) or in CO² emissions (2.1%). In compound terms, growth in underlying GDP seems to have been about 26% between 2001 and 2016, appreciably less than increases in either energy consumption (+40%) or emissions (+37%).

At this point, some readers might think this conclusion counter-intuitive – after all, if technological change has boosted efficiency, shouldn’t we be using less energy per dollar of activity, not more?

There is, in fact, a perfectly logical explanation for this process. Essentially, the economy is fuelled, not by energy in the aggregate, but by surplus energy. Whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process. This is expressed here as ECoE (the energy cost of energy), a percentage of the gross quantity of energy accessed. The critical point is that ECoE is on a rising trajectory. Indeed, the rate of increase in the energy cost of energy has been rising exponentially.


As we have seen, a claimed rate of economic growth (between 2001 and 2016) that is higher (65%) than the rate at which CO² emissions have expanded (37%) has been used to “prove” increasing efficiency. It is entirely upon these claims that the viability of “sustainable development” is based.

But, as we have also seen, reported growth has been spurious, the product of unsustainable credit manipulation, and the unwinding of provision for the future. Real growth, adjusted to exclude this manipulation, is estimated by SEEDS at 26% over that period. Crucially, that is less than the 37% rate at which CO² emissions have grown.

On this basis, a claimed 17% “improvement” in the amount of CO² per dollar of output reverses into a deterioration. Far from improving, the relationship between CO² and economic output worsened by 9% between 2001 and 2016. In parallel with this, the amount of energy required for each dollar of output increased by 11% over the same period.


In short, if growth continues, rising ECoEs dictate that both energy needs, and associated emissions of CO², will grow at rates exceeding that of economic output.

We are back where many have argued that we have been all along. The pursuit of growth seems to be incompatible with averting potentially irreversible climate change.

There is a nasty sting-in-the-tail here, too. The ECoE of oil supplies is rising particularly markedly, and there seems a very real danger that this will force an increased reliance on coal, a significantly dirtier fuel. A recent study by the China University of Petroleum predicted exactly such a trend in China, already the world’s biggest producer of CO². As domestic oil supply peaks and then declines because of higher ECoEs, the study postulates a rapid increase in coal consumption to feed the country’s voracious need for energy. This process is most unlikely to be confined to China.


The central contention here is that the case for “sustainable development” is fatally flawed, because the divergence between gross and net energy needs is more than offsetting progress in greening our energy mix and combatting emissions of harmful gases. “Sustainable development” is a laudable aim, but may simply not be achievable within the laws of physics as they govern energy supply.

If this interpretation is correct, it means that growth in the global economy can be pursued only at grave climate risk. A (slightly) more comforting interpretation might that the super-heated rate of borrowing, and the seemingly disastrous rate at which pension capability is being destroyed, might well crash the system before our obsession with ‘growth at all costs’ can inflict irreparable damage to the environment.”

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