Limits to Growth

A little over fifty years ago, the Systems Dynamics group at MIT produced a 200-page book called The Limits to Growth. Their message was, continued economic and population growth would deplete Earth’s resources and lead to global economic collapse by 2070. At the time, this was considered heresy. The journal Nature was scathing (See vol 236, pp 47 – 49, 1972). How could the foundations of industrial civilization, such as coal mining, steel-making, oil production, crop spraying, cause lasting damage? It was accepted that such industries caused pollution, but such effects were considered to be only temporary. At the time computer modelling was looked down upon. This is understandable; at the time computers were quite primitive compared with now, and big computers were only available to the major organizations. I recall four years before that someone doing a chemical bond calculation and coming back from the computer with what looked like a couple of kg of printout. His problem was that his program only produced two answers, depending on what he changed in the code. The answers were zero or infinity. As I remarked, the truth would be somewhere in between.

It is unlikely that any other computer model has made a bigger impact. There are still debates, but it is now clear that our activities have made irreversible environmental effects. As I have also noted in a previous post, there is also significant resource depletion. The elements have not gone anywhere, but that does not help if they are so diluted with other material that we cannot use them. Of course, it is arguable we could with unlimited energy, but we do not have that. The sun effectively produces unlimited energy, but it is too far away; here all it delivers is approximately 1360 W/m^2 at the top of the atmosphere, which is reduced to somewhere between 1000 – 1150 W/m^2 on a surface at right angles to the radiation at the surface. These numbers have to be divided by three for a 24-hr day, assuming no clouds.

The obvious problem for people is economic growth. Some people assume that economic growth can continue if we adopt technology much faster, particularly employing more renewable energy. Others argue we have to abandon the idea of growth. Was living as per we did in, say, 2016 that bad? One problem is that politicians need votes, and to get them they want to raise GDP. Thus if there is a choice of what to do, politicians will go for that which produces the most jobs. Excessive spending on the military increases jobs; corresponding spending on healthcare does not, but which is the more useful?

One analysis (Rockström et al. 2009, Nature 461: 472 – 475) argued there were boundaries. If we stayed within these the planet would adjust and correct our behaviour, but as we approached those boundaries (i.e. too much of something is being emitted) the planet may respond in a non-linear and often in an abrupt way. Most of these thresholds depend on one, or sometimes more, variables. They suggest ten such processes have such boundaries, three of which, biodiversity loss, climate change, the nitrogen cycle, are already exceeded, while a fourth, the phosphorus cycle is close to the breaking point and a fifth, ocean acidification is troublesome. Two more, chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading were not quantified. Three, fresh water use, land use, and ozone depletion are considered to be under control.

The last time the poles were essentially ice-free the CO2 levels were approximately 450 ppm. As can be seen from my last post, exceeding that seems inevitable without drastic action. For biodiversity, extinctions are currently about 100 – 1000 times greater than natural. Biodiversity is very important to maintain the resilience of the system. The production of nitrogen fertilizer and the cultivation of legumes convert around 120 million t/a of nitrogen, which is more than the combined efforts of all Earth’s terrestrial processes. This ends up as pollution, it erodes resilience of some of the plant life, and it sends nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, and this makes a major contribution to greenhouse forcing. Excess nitrogen fertiliser leads to turbid waterways, lakes, etc, and sometimes pronounced algal blooms. About 20 Mt of phosphorus is mined each year, and about half of this finds its way into oceans. This is around eight times the natural erosion rate. When critical levels of phosphate enter the oceans, large scale anoxic events occur, which can lead to mass extinctions of marine life. The authors conclude that as long as we do not exceed the thresholds, we can pursue long-term economic and social development. Our problem is, we are crossing some.

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2 thoughts on “Limits to Growth

  1. Limits to erroneous growth have been reached, and broken straight through.
    We are above 600ppm of CO2 equivalent manmade GreenHouse Gasses (GHG). Two-thirds of the thermodynamics forcing which heats up the lower atmosphere through infrared confinement (“global warming”) is caused by CO2… one third is caused by other man-made GHG gasses.

    At such GHG ppm, the melting of the poles is guaranteed. Ultimately a 70+ meters sea level rise. This is never said enough..

    The answer is more growth, but the right growth. Growth of intelligence.

    For example, the present “renewable” push is rather dumb: lots of wind, smoke and mirrors. It is an OK form of growth, but it is insufficient: nuclear, thorium, hydrogen, fusion and fundamental research have to be pushed incredibly more. Instead Biden wanted to spend 3.5 billion dollars on electric plugs for the wealthy… Of the money which should go to fundamental energy research (he had promised 10 billions, now it’s down to peanuts… So much for being a “progressive”)

    All the more as most countries will refuse to be bound by the limits to growth.

    So what will happen when nobody feel limited by limits, and crash through them? War. The invasion of Ukraine is the first blatant case, it’s motivated by Ukraine having sun, water, soil, a natural huge breadbasket. But more wars will come, and quickly. Brazil’s president, an ex-MP and army captain, told the military to expect a war with… France… about the Amazon. As France is helping Brazil build its first nuclear sub, we can see contradictions galore are all over…

    To limit the growth of war, the leading democracies will have to keep a technological edge over the rest… As science and tech progress is where the solution lies… War will bring a resolution to the problems which caused it. Tech will vanquish those limits, by making them irrelevant…

  2. Reblogged this on Patrice Ayme's Thoughts and commented:
    Limits to erroneous growth have been reached, and broken straight through.
    We are above 600ppm of CO2 equivalent manmade GreenHouse Gasses (GHG). Two-thirds of the thermodynamics forcing which heats up the lower atmosphere through infrared confinement (“global warming”) is caused by CO2… one third is caused by other man-made GHG gasses.

    At such GHG ppm, the melting of the poles is guaranteed. Ultimately a 70+ meters sea level rise. This is never said enough..

    The answer is more growth, but the right growth. Growth of intelligence.

    For example, the present “renewable” push is rather dumb: lots of wind, smoke and mirrors. It is an OK form of growth, but it is insufficient: nuclear, thorium, hydrogen, fusion and fundamental research have to be pushed incredibly more. Instead Biden wanted to spend 3.5 billion dollars on electric plugs for the wealthy… Of the money which should go to fundamental energy research (he had promised 10 billions, now it’s down to peanuts… So much for being a “progressive”)

    All the more as most countries will refuse to be bound by the limits to growth.

    So what will happen when nobody feel limited by limits, and crash through them? War. The invasion of Ukraine is the first blatant case, it’s motivated by Ukraine having sun, water, soil, a natural huge breadbasket. But more wars will come, and quickly. Brazil’s president, an ex-MP and army captain, told the military to expect a war with… France… about the Amazon. As France is helping Brazil build its first nuclear sub, we can see contradictions galore are all over…

    To limit the growth of war, the leading democracies will have to keep a technological edge over the rest… As science and tech progress is where the solution lies… War will bring a resolution to the problems which caused it. Tech will vanquish those limits, by making them irrelevant…

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