Some Left brain stuff today. The late Professor Al Bartlett at University of Colorado-Boulder spent many years doing public talks about the concept of growth and sustainability in connection with modern economic business thinking and planning. A lot hinges on the terms growth and sustainability. Is there such a thing as steady state growth? If there is no growth then is the alternative stagnation or death? Can a thriving human community exist in a context of stasis? No small questions here. The complexities have been debated for many decades now since the lexicon of sustainability burst onto the scene in the 1980s. First a description of Exponential Growth (EG) that Bartlett used in his talks – try looking it up a definition of EG and you’re realize why I don’t give a definition. Take a chess board and starting at one corner of the board put one grain of wheat on the first square. On the second square put 2 grains of wheat. On the third square put 4 grains of wheat, then 8 on the fourth square and 16 on the fifth, and so on, doubling the number of grains for each successive square on the board. There are 64 squares on a chess board. How many grains of wheat would you expect to have on the 64th square if you simply doubled the number of grains each time. This is an example of the exponential function of (264 – 1) that is 2 times 2, 64 times minus 1. The total number of grains is probably more than the total harvest of wheat grains throughout history – a staggering number indeed. This is known as the power of doubling. It can be applied to everything that grows or diminishes. A very simplified formula that can be applied to use it is 70/Growth Rate (GR) = Doubling Time (DT). The number 70 is simply a round up of the exponential doubling function 100ln2 (69.3). If you know the GR or the DT then you can find a real number for growth. For example, if you wanted to find the doubling time for the human population with a GR of 1% then 70/1 = 70 years. So if the global population of people in 2000 was 7 billion, then at 1% GR the population would be 14 billion in 2070. Without going into any more detail, simply realize that when you have a resource of say 100% of mineral Z and you have used half of the mineral (50%) then you are just one more DT from depleting that resource – 50% 100% in one DT. At 25% you are two DT from depleting the resource. If you found an extra 100% more resource Z extra than you had before then you are still only one more DT from depletion, since 100% 200% in one DT. It’s not that complex. Small numbers grow slowly to bigger numbers, then big numbers get monstrously bigger quickly.
Think about Oil. We are now at Peak oil; that means it is at the 50% mark of depletion and only one DT away from total depletion. We were currently using it at GR of 3.5%. At current rate of usage of oil, the DT is 20 years – then it is the end of oil as a major resource if there is no change in the GR. Use this for any major world resource and the idea that we can keep growing our usage of anything starts to seem preposterous. To show the ludicrous nature and wonder of modern politics, let look at Sarah Palin. In 2008 during her campaign as vice-presidential candidate, she kept a mantra going of our need to burn more oil since we had so much – indeed, her continual statements to that effect were that we had ‘SO MUCH OIL’ in America – billions of barrels of it. And there is the problem, we only have billions of barrels of oil. Let’s explore that a minute. The much touted and largest untapped oil field in the USA is in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) which at the most optimistic estimate (by the oil company itself) is 15 billion barrels of ‘recoverable oil” (you can’t get it all out of the ground even with the best technology extraction available). Now add ALL the other known and possible reserves in and around the USA and you get about 49 billion barrels of total recoverable oil reserves. In 2010, the U.S. was using about 8 billion barrels a year (now down a little because of oil conservation and hybrid vehicles) but now let’s say it is down to 7 billion barrels per year, every year (GR of about 3.5 %) that works our plastics, pharmaceutics, and transportation needs. Yes, we have billions and billions of barrels of oil, but 7 billion barrels a year and 49 billion total – if that’s all we had then 7 years, right! So to keep our reserves at home we need to import oil – and here’s the kicker, we also export oil to keep our oil workers busy at home. Now you might understand that slogan, “Why is our oil under their damn sand?” and then seriously ponder U.S. foreign policy. Most of the word’s economic powers are in the same boat together. And the Arabs are loathe to let anyone know just how much oil they think they really have left. Just a reality check. If you probe through the resource reports from industry and governmental reports, it is not a pretty picture, yet no one is talking about any of this (besides environmentalists – no wonder they are so unpopular). We just hear the mainstream media go on about needing to grow the economy. I used oil here as an example. Go for any resource you can name and do the math – this isn’t more doom and gloom. Just do the math for yourself and quit listening to the experts in league with the industrial giants telling us we are OK for a century or more. As Bartlett says in his video (it can be found on YouTube), many of the statements about endless resources hinge on a linear or even static yearly use – and the assumptions are that to last a long time the use per year will never change at all in the future, even as we grow the population with ever increasing standard of living for all. (We won’t mention yet the nasty side-effects of fossil fuel such as extensive pollution at all levels of use.)
Our whole economic system is predicated upon the notion of endless growth, so we will keep using more and more resources at exponentially growing rates of usage. China had a policy promoting GDP growth of 10% GR, and Japan goes into a funk when its GDP is merely 3%. Now think about our world and how we got to be where we are. After WWII, the USA was one of the few countries to have an intact manufacturing infrastructure. From building for the war effort, it quickly retooled to building the domestic system. For a short while, the US became the supplier to the world and it grew its economy to create a large middle class with the ability to purchase lots of consumer toys. It was able to do this by importing lots of resources from around the world. The US is about 5% of the global population but consumes about 20% of the worlds resources. Since the 1980s we in the MDCs went from being consumers to becoming hyper-consumers. No longer the small fishing boat to enjoy the lake, but a big power boat! Add to that all the more developed world and you get about 80% of the worlds resources used by about 15% of the worlds population. Today the rest of the world’s Less Developed Countries (LDCs) population (85%) want their time to feed at the trough of consumerism. (Numbers are approximate for emphasis before anyone takes me to task). Global population is growing, and global resource use is growing and reaching limits. We are unconcerned despite the verbiage given by politicians about these limits at their endless economic summits to keep the global economy growing. It all amounts to what Mark Twain called the ‘Lie of Silent Assertion.’
“Erstwhile reporter Mark Twain said that concocting amusing lies for money was nothing compared to the ‘clammy stillness’ of the press when confronting such horrors as, say, slavery. He called it ‘the lie of silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested… I am speaking of the lie of silent assertion; we can tell it without saying a word, and we all do it—we know that. In the magnitude of its territorial spread it is one of the most majestic lies that the civilizations make it their sacred and anxious care to guard and watch and propagate.” In other words, don’t talk about the Elephant(s) in the room.
To solve a problem you need to remove the primary cause. We are great at acknowledging the world’s problems (when we can’t ignore them any longer), but not at acknowledging the primary causes. We obviously cannot keep exponential growth in a finite world, but what options have we? Logarithmic growth curves start out slow, climb exponentially then tail out to steady state. If we are at the top of our planets exponential stage of economic growth (assuming we haven’t overshot already), what does steady state look like? The exponential function doesn’t care about our assumptions and lies of assertion that we can keep growing endlessly. We have lots of doomday prophets telling us the end is nigh, but our technology has still managed to keep us afloat – for now. Unless Aliens arrive and give us mind-boggling technologies, I am unclear as to how we can allow everyone on Earth a European Standard of Living (SOL) with our current systems. So, let’s look at the possibility of finding a steady state model that we can enjoy – and what is steady state? Next post.