Energy As A Constraint To Growth

In 1972, the publication of the book The Limits to Growth framed the agenda for discussion of the future of the human race for the next 40 years. The book’s focus on population, pollution, non-renewable resources, food and industrial output became the basic parameters to measure.

Forty years later and we can all see that they got their predictions wrong, a point made by Bjorn Lomborg recently in an essay in Foreign Affairs, where he echoes Julian Simon’s thesis that human innovation renders those five horseman of the Apocalypse irrelevant.

Because I’m an optimistic believer in the human mind and the technology it creates, Simon’s thesis and Lomborg’s repetition of it resonate with me (although Jerry Pournelle did it better in 1984 in my opinion, with his book A Step Further Out). I really do believe that we are entering a new age full of potential and the promise of a good life, rather than stumbling gasping through the end of the last good years of humanity.

But because the predictions of doom in The Limits to Growth were being proven wrong, it only recently occurred to me that the book was measuring the wrong things. Okay, so it took me 40 years to figure it out. In my defense I will note that most still haven’t figured it out…

If the sum quantity of resources is not the issue, what is? Obviously it is access to those resources.

I’m hugely pleased that the Green Revolution and now, GMOs have made it possible for us to produce more crops than needed to feed everyone on this planet and even everyone who will be on this planet when population reaches 9.4 billion. But people are starving today with resources cruelly just out of reach or being consumed by pests or rotting on its way to market.

The fact that The Great Reforestation is taking place across much of the world is wonderful–but the fact is that where it is needed most it has yet to occur.

While population growth has been tamed in country after country, in the poorest parts of the world that extra pair of hands is still a family’s best insurance policy against an uncertain future.

This weblog is about energy, which isn’t even part of the grand metrics by which The Limits To Growth measured us and found us wanting. They counted oil and natural gas, of course, and incorrectly thought we would run out (and started a cottage industry of people betting on Peak Oil). But they didn’t look at energy.

We have the capability to provide enough energy for all the people on this planet, should we choose to do so. We could always have done it with coal. We could have done it with nuclear power, as the French have proven. We could do it today with a modern portfolio that includes natural gas, solar, wind and fossil fuels and nuclear power. I don’t know why we choose not to do so.

Because I would argue that if you give people energy, you really don’t need to give them much of anything else (although I’m not arguing for the cessation of food, medical or educational assistance). If the poor have light, the children (and equally as important, the women) will study and learn, and family sizes will decrease and incomes will increase. If the village has refrigeration, vaccines will keep and food will be stored and health will improve dramatically. If the region has power, industry will develop and so too will infrastructure.

It appears to me that energy is the key constraint to human development. Or at least it is the last remaining hurdle to successful development. The dilemma is simple. Energy availability is the real measure of development. And it is one that really doesn’t get measured. The world needs energy to get wealthy. And the world spends its wealth on energy.

The proof is watching what developing countries have done as their incomes expanded. What do they spend their new found treasure on? Washing machines. Refrigerators. Automobiles or motorcycles. Radios and televisions. Air conditioning–Kuwait uses 66% of all the energy it consumes on air conditioning…

Energy is as important to human development as air, and just as taken for granted. People don’t go out and spend their first paycheck on energy. They spend it on the appliance that changes their life. Because they can plug it in and turn it on.

We measure the symptoms of energy availability and its lack. But energy itself is an afterthought, not even included in the sober analyses and high level prognostications of the great and mighty.

But if we fixed the issue of access to energy, we could probably pack up our do-gooder fix-it kits and head on home. Because the people we’ve been trying to help could handle the rest on their own.

7 responses to “Energy As A Constraint To Growth

  1. Hi Tom,
    I have not read all that you have read, particularly Limits to Growth’, so excuse me if I get things a little wrong. I’m always happy to learn by correction.
    It couple of things occurred to me. The first was, did Limits to Growth include the increase in the photosynthesis cycle due to increased CO2. There is so very little CO2 in the atmosphere that it is likely the limiting factor of the ‘limit to growth’ of plants. You could almost consider this one of natures negative feedbacks – more people – more CO2 – more plants to feed the more people. In this regard increased CO2 would be a very good thing. More food produced on less land with less water.

    The second was who says a bit warmer is bad. Just before all this global warming thing was a global cooling thing, where cooling was bad. This implies some perfect state that we are in. Which of course is not necessarily so. So I wonder, if at the root of this worry is that we are fearful of change because it might be bad.

    • Hi Robin
      No, the Limits to Growth did not include the increase in plant growth due to additional CO2. However, that growth is not estimated to be dramatic.

      A bit warmer wouldn’t be bad. In fact, the next 30 years may show overall benefits from global warming. Pity it won’t stop after 30 years…

      One of the points I’ve tried to make on this weblog is that we are going to be using six times as much energy in 2075 as we are today. Every year. And as it says at the top of this blog, if it all comes from coal, we’re screwed.

      Some change I think we can handle. Maybe even a lot of change. But 3,000 quads? From coal? That’s a toughie.

    • In most environments CO2 is not the bottleneck to plant growth. In most environments it’s water. Nitrogen and phosphorus are second and third (which is why fertilizers contain those elements). Carbon is fourth. Carbon emissions are not necessarily conducive to plant growth, if the change in climate makes it drier.

  2. Good article. I will try to make several comments over the next few days. (I’m tired now.) I was taken in by the Club of Rome and Limits to Growth paradigm and wasted a lot of intellectual energy because of it, so I can get emotional.
    The first point I should make is that there were probably many accurate predictions made then, but they weren’t publicized. Limits to growth got a lot of attention because it fit an agenda. Like Rahm Emmanuel said, never let a good crisis go to waste. Well, Limits to growth was one of the first manufactured crises, long before AGW. Look at the people behind it. They were the who’s who of global capitalism and they got people who were otherwise progressives doing their bidding.
    Second, there are a lot of ways to grow without consuming more. One of the things that I learned in the 60’s that I still believe is that less is more. Most of the satisfaction in the last 15 years of my life did not come from acquiring more or consuming more. It came from getting respect from those that I respected. Hey , I finally grew up.
    I might print a bumper sticker that says, “He who dies with the most toys is the ultimate loser.”

  3. Tom,

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record.

    You conclusions about access to energy and if we get all the energy the world needs from coal we are screwed point to the same problem.

    Coal is expensive to transport.
    A 2009 breakdown of coal extraction and transport costs for various locations in the world. They are ‘direct costs’ and don’t include capital investment costs.

    I would note that South African coal has the highest inland transportation distances of the major coal exporters.

    People for some reason tend congregate near large bodies of water, if all of your coal is ‘substantially inland’ it’s not all that useful.

  4. We have the capability to provide enough energy for all the people on this planet, should we choose to do so. We could always have done it with coal. We could have done it with nuclear power, as the French have proven. We could do it today with a modern portfolio that includes natural gas, solar, wind and fossil fuels and nuclear power. I don’t know why we choose not to do so.

    Well, the answer is rather simple, really: “we” don’t control the choice. The common denominator among poor countries is political dictatorship, which translates to minimal economic freedom, property rights, security for the populace. Get that roadblock out of the way by ending the cycle of periodic civil wars/revolutions and the people who build energy infrastructure can get to work. But as long as poor countries are unstable, who will risk the long-term investment when it can be blown away in a minute?

  5. Well, congratulations on coming to the correct realization, which neatly contradicts your opening paragraph. Energy is the limit to growth. It has to be. Consider civilization (as a whole) as a thermodynamic engine. Compute the amount of waste heat from energy use. Now extrapolate that using any annual growth percent you care to use, and assuming any efficiency gains you care to assume. How long before our waste heat is greater than the energy we get from the Sun? But don’t stop there, keep going: how long before our waste heat is large enough to boil the oceans? See Garrett 2008 for relevant computations.

    Infinite growth is a fantasy of the innumerate.

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