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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.


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