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The limits to existence: aligning economics and thermodynamics



Joseph Heller’s joke, “Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they are not after you!”, has a lot to tell us about sustainability and the illusion of human choice in matters of physical properties and principles.

Debates on issues like climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation and species loss have increasingly become polarised in recent years. Complex, global subjects have often been reduced to worryingly simple, almost childlike ‘he said, she said’ logic.

Here is an example I recently came across of the seemingly eternal faux-binary argument around population and resources.

In response to a piece on a long-term investment collaboration website about the likely certainty that observable trends of population and urbanisation would exert problematically increased pressures upon urban systems, the following (extensively paraphrased for anonymity and comic effect) response was made:

This is all old news and just another example of muddle-headed doom mongering. People have been saying this for centuries and yet civilisation has never run out of anything. Why should today will be any different? If you don’t believe me look at historical precedent. Malthus was wrong and his mistakes still prevent most of us [I really mean most of you] from thinking clearly.

Now, whether you believe the specific statement, “civilisation never ran out of anything”, or support the general message of ‘the concept of limits to growth is a zombie argument’, there remain some fundamental logical problems in this line of thinking.

A closed system has limits

We haven’t run out of anything so we will never run out of anything”. This doesn’t make any sense in a closed a system (like the Earth). You cannot have increasing consumption of anything in perpetuity. For instance, if you have an exponential rise in the consumption of a given resource, say indium, then in time, given the rapid scale increases inherent in exponential growth, it will run out. Even if the whole planet were made of indium, unchecked exponential consumption would still exhaust the supply in the fullness of time.

This fact is often conveniently ignored by some economists and market fundamentalists who mistake functional supply/substitutable utility with absolute supply. It is quite possible that a given resource may become too expensive to deploy in the products and technologies originally envisaged, and therefore an alternative with equivalent utility can be found and used. But this ability to chop and change between substitutable inputs, whilst vital, does not invalidate the point that the Earth exists within physical parameters.

Past performance does not necessarily predict future results

Though open to energy, the Earth is a system substantially closed to matter. New matter does arrive, in the form of comet and asteroid strikes, but civilisation is really rather incompatible with the new delivery of extra planetary material.

The ‘its all going to be fine because your prediction last time was inaccurate’ argument also runs into the problem presented by the laws of thermodynamics, the defining framework for physical existence. Stated (very) informally by CP Snow, these laws apply to everything and everyone:

Zeroth: “You must play the game.”

First: “You can’t win.”

Second: “You can’t break even.”

Third: “You can’t quit the game.”

How can it be coherent or logical to dismiss concerns about the relationship between consumption and limits to growth in the light of these fundamental laws?

We can’t simply wish these frameworks for physical existence away because previous examples invoking the relationship between activity and impact have either oversimplified the complexity of interactions, ignored the impact of technology and innovation or have simply picked the wrong date.

Betting on the wrong date doesn’t make the basis of the argument wrong; it just makes the proponent wrong on an aspect of their prediction.

Just because it hasn’t happened yet, it doesn’t mean it will not

As noted above, those optimists wishing to derail the “doom mongers” quote Malthus and (misquote) the Club of Rome’s findings and conclusions and say: “they were wrong, they ignored technology, innovation and human ingenuity”.

The capacity of such things to change the so called immutable relationships between consumption and scale are many and varied and a major source of hope for those of us wishing for as yet undiscovered ways to deliver continuing quality of life for ourselves, our species and our planet. However innovation, technology and ingenuity all take place within the framework of the laws of physical reality and are subject to them.

Unless we one day miraculously discover that these so far absolute laws can be subverted, or that they exist within a larger, higher set of rules, we should design our systems of value, consumption and production to be able to work inside and alongside the way that physical reality functions. Not flout our contravention of these truths based upon the flimsy premise that just because something hasn’t happened yet, that it never will.

Binary arguments are so last millennium

Those of us seeking to sustain and grow the quality of all life within the limits of the Earth’s system are just as enthusiastic about human innovation and ingenuity as those who decry environmentalists as doom mongers. Many of us also hope that technologies capable of addressing global challenges might yet be developed or deployed at the scale required.

It is possible to be both fearful for the current trajectory of humanity and concerned about the misalignment between economics and the laws of thermodynamics whilst also being hopeful for our capacity to evolve as a global species and optimistic that our creativity and ingenuity will help us survive and thrive.

It is quite natural to hold mutually contradictory thoughts in our heads at the same time. It’s called being human.

Joss Tantram is a founding partner at Terrafiniti LLP, a pioneering sustainability and systems consultancy. Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion thought leadership and research and development initiative develops big, playful and hopeful ideas for a sustainable future. This article originally appeared on the Towards 9 Billion blog.

Further reading:

Towards 9 Billion: humanity is a shared endeavour

Creating a financial enlightenment

Are capitalism and conservation incompatible?

Pick-and-mix dogma is unethical and intellectually dishonest

Witnessing financial capitalism’s failure

Joss Tantram is a founding partner at Terrafiniti LLP, a pioneering sustainability and systems consultancy.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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