The Limits to Growth
This post summarises a particular set of observations and ideas that I’ve come across over the last 6 months. I’ve picked most of them up, piecemeal, from multiple chance encounters and incidents; some of them have been covered in Metacog before. This is a first attempt in tying everything together in a somewhat cohesive narrative - again, I’m doing this so I don’t forget. (More on motivations at the end of this - I’m writing quickly because I need to get back to studying).
1. The limits to growth.
Earlier this semester I met up with Andras Kristof, former VP Engineering at Viki, now running an urban farming startup. His argument for urban farming was not something I expected: he referenced the 1972 report The Limits to Growth, a “computer model of exponential economic and population growth in a world with finite resource supplies”. The project was done by a team led by Donella Meadows, whose primer on Systems Thinking I had been reading over the summer.
Andras pointed out that in 2008, an interested scientist revisited the model (actual paper available here), and found that many of the real world’s growth curves have mapped the 1970s predictions pretty accurately. The problem is that most of these curves lead to an economic collapse sometime in the 2030s. Andras’s bet is that as the world collapses, demand for food in urban settings will increase, hence: do a startup building aquaponics systems.
I thought this was interesting, but then I moved on, hesitant to take the report’s results at face value without examining the actual report, its assumptions, and the subsequent debate around its results.
Update: This link suggests that The Limits To Growth is not full of shit, quite the opposite in fact. The reactions seem mostly to attack a misrepresentation of the actual report.
2. The food problem
Then a friend sent me this link: an interview with Vaclav Smil, who’s currently enjoying some press coverage because Bill Gates calls him his favourite author. Smil writes a lot of books on systems and resources and environmental impact; he makes a couple of hard-hitting points in Harvesting the Biosphere:
- In 2000, the dry mass of humans was about 125 million metric tons. For all domesticated animals, it was 300 million tons. That’s a total of 425 million tons, compared to just 10 million tons for all wild vertebrates. There are more domesticated animals than there are humans.
- The world now harvests far more crops to feed animals than to feed humans.
- 12% of the Earth’s ice-free land is used for farming.
- Given so many animals, and so much antibiotics used for farming, antibiotic resistance is quickly becoming a crisis. (See: NYTimes article from September on the CDC’s report of the problem).
Smil argues this isn’t sustainable given growing population demands. He colours in a couple other problems:
3. More consumption. Bad alternatives for energy
Renewable energy moves too slowly to keep pace with the growth of consumption. And while products become cheaper and easier to produce, we simply make up for this by consuming more. Relevant Smil book: Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialisation
Also related: the Jim Rogers observation that I catalogued last week that the shifting east of the world’s economic centre will mean an accelerating increase in demand for real-world goods. These are not sustainable developments; we will exhaust the biosphere if this keeps on going.
Smil makes a case for consuming less meat and minimising our personal energy footprint. These are not new arguments, and he is rather nuanced about them - in his Quartz interview he notes how fuel consumption in China will wipe out whatever carbon savings the US makes in a matter of weeks. But he also argues that we have few other alternatives. A common counter-argument is that technical innovation will extend the utility value of finite resources. For example: we may have finite amounts of land or steel, but due to technological advances (the argument goes), we can do more with less - increase farming output per acre, produce more goods from one bar of steel. Smil throws cold water on this because:
4. Technical innovation cannot keep pace
Smil points out that a) there is only so much efficiency you can squeeze out of agriculture and energy production. Not many industries follow an efficiency curve like Moore’s for technology. Efficiency increases take time; some fields probably have ceilings (e.g. farming is limited by “the rate of photosynthesis”). Also b) he writes a whole book (the one on dematerialisation) pointing out how we have negated efficiency savings because we are simply consuming more.
Smil makes another argument against technology as our saviour, but his is not the first I’ve seen. A couple of powerful essays I’ve read recently have pointed out that technology simply isn’t a panacea - disruption is a ridiculous Silicon Valley dream that assumes it can change things while bypassing messy spheres such as politics or meatspace aid initiatives. There are broad categories of problems that technology can’t solve on its own (see the MIT Technology Review’s essay: Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems for a cogent analysis).
On the issue of meatspace initiatives: Atul Gawande makes a good case for when door-to-door initiatives are the most scalable, effective measures to solve certain classes of social problems. (See: New Yorker, How Do Good Ideas Spread?) This implies that some large problems come with a meatspace-level bottleneck built right in, and no way to solve it without first biting that bullet.
This also means that if you want to solve these massive sustainability problems - ones that threaten the future of humanity - technology will only get you so far. You must be willing to use messy, non-scalable tools like legislation and meatspace-level efforts.
5. Growth as panacea.
Sam Altman makes the case that growth is the rising tide that raises all ships: it smooths over dysfunctional governments and income inequalities, it pushes current limits of productivity for the benefit of all. This may be true, and if it is true then I fully understand now what it means when they say that our current global economic system is deeply, deeply unsustainable.
Growth is great, until you run out of resources. Then nobody grows, and we’re all screwed. A succinct observation of this:
If growth is our silver bullet, then we have powerful economic forces pushing us in the direction of unsustainability. Everything will be fine and dandy until it no longer is.
6. Why this matters (to me).
I believe that my 20s is when I should be looking for important, interesting problems to solve, perhaps for the rest of my life. This is a personal thing - I want to die leaving the world a slightly better place than when I found it. This piece is a summary of some problems that the world currently faces; some of these problems will likely affect my children (notwithstanding the usual caveats about whether I have them, if the girl I eventually marry wants kids because the decision depends on her as well, bla bla bla future propagation of genetic material bla bla bla happiness bla bla future of mankind).
This post is a list of problems that need people working on them. I haven’t yet started thinking about what I may do now or in the near future to tackle them, but I figure making a list, and summarising the analysis of all the smart people who have thought about these problems is a good start.
I shall circle back on these ideas in the future.
PS: by the way, if you’ve read this far, please send me a message the next time you see me in meatspace, or via Twitter, or email, or whatever. I keep very bad analytics for this blog; It’s always a pleasant surprise to know my writing has affected you in some way.