These notes from a lecture recently given by Brian Davey are a very nice primer and refresher on limits to growth.
The most interesting thing about limits growth is that it is, by far, the most important issue we should be discussing as a species, yet it is pretty much the only issue that we never discuss.
Denial is amazing!
This diagram by Charles Hall (and reproduced in my book Credo) can be thought of as illustrating the idea of the techno-fix transition if it were possible. It shows two diagrams of the economy and energy system in 1970 and 2030. There are no figures – the point of the pictures are to show the way that more energy is extracted out of the global system and then used in the global economic process between the two dates – and to show the different proportions in which the global economic output is divided up. Although more energy is being used at the later date a much higher proportion of the output of the society has to take the form of investment goods – machinery, equipment and infrastructure – with a smaller proportion in the form of final consumer goods. The higher machinery, equipment and infrastructure has to be applied to extracting energy because more resources are needed for pollution and waste control, for reducing greenhouse gases, for coping with the depletion of energy minerals, for investing in energy sources like solar or biofuels that give a very low energy return on energy invested and to cope with intermittency. In other words – the higher investment in energy does not mean higher output of energy – it is necessary to cope with the declining efficiency, declining returns of the energy system past the limits to growth.
Since a large proportion of total production is being devoted to investment goods to cope with depletion and pollution, less is left over for consumer goods and particularly for discretionary consumer goods – luxuries, the goodies of a consumer society. But what consequences would this have? As people have to pay more for clean energy they would have less for the knick-knacks on sale in the luxury shops in airport lounges, if indeed people could any longer afford to fly. The argument here is that this would be crushing to a consumer society and there would be a permanent recession in the consumer goods sectors – indeed there would be a political crisis in such a society.
In summary, the theorists of 1972 argued that growth would run out as more and more resources would have to be devoted to the work arounds and techno-fixes to deal with depletion and pollution. They did not deny that techno-fixes would be available – what they were drawing attention to was that adopting them would take resources away from growing production to fixing the problems. Eventually fixing the problems would become too expensive so industrial production and food production would turn downwards. They were right. That’s exactly what is happening…