The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth



The electrical automobile (EV) has turn into one of many nice trendy symbols of a world woke up to the profound challenges of unsustainability and local weather change. A lot in order that we could nicely think about that Deep Thought’s reply right now to Life, the Universe and Every part would possibly plausibly be “EV.” However, as Douglas Adams would absolutely have requested, if electrical automobiles are the reply, what’s the query?

Allow us to think about the “excellent” EV: photo voltaic powered, environment friendly, dependable and reasonably priced. However is it sustainable? EVs powered by renewable vitality could assist scale back the carbon footprint of transport. But, the measure of sustainability is just not merely the carbon footprint however the materials footprint: the combination amount of biomass, steel ores, building minerals and fossil fuels used throughout manufacturing and consumption of a product. The approximate metric tonne weight of an EV constitutes supplies equivalent to metals (together with uncommon earths), plastics, glass and rubber. Subsequently, a worldwide spike within the demand for EVs would drive an elevated demand for every of those supplies. 

Each stage of the life cycle of any manufactured product exacts environmental prices: habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and air pollution (together with carbon emissions) from extraction of uncooked supplies, manufacturing / building, via to disposal. Thus, it’s the rising international materials footprint that’s essentially the rationale for the dual local weather and ecological crises.

The worldwide materials footprint has grown in lockstep with the exponentially rising international financial system (GDP) because the industrial revolution. That is largely due to egregious consumption by the super-affluent in a socioeconomic system based on progress with out limits. Can we resolve this elementary battle between the hunt for limitless progress and the resultant environmental destruction?

Industrial period exponential rise in using main and derived bodily sources: cropland (a), fossil fuels (b), freshwater (c), metals (d), plastic (e). Credit score: Our World in Information (CC BY-SA AU).


Technological innovation and effectivity enhancements are sometimes cited as pathways to decouple progress in materials use from financial progress. Whereas expertise undoubtedly has a vital position to play within the transition to a sustainable world, it’s constrained by elementary bodily rules and pragmatic financial concerns. 

Examples abound. The engine effectivity of airplanes has improved little for many years since they’ve lengthy been working near their theoretical peak effectivity. Likewise, there’s a exhausting restrict on the effectivity of photovoltaic cells of about 35 % due to the bodily properties of the semiconductors that represent them; in follow few exceed 20 % for financial and pragmatic causes. The ability era of huge wind farms is restricted to about one watt per sq. meter as a easy but totally unavoidable bodily consequence of wake results. The superior exponential enhance in computing energy of the previous 5 many years will finish by about 2025 since it’s bodily not possible to make the transistors on the pc chip, already roughly 5 % of the dimensions of the coronavirus, a lot smaller.

Whether or not it’s rules of classical, quantum or strong state physics or thermodynamics, every locations totally different however inexorable constraints on technological options. Principally, bodily rules which have allowed unimaginable technological leaps over the previous century additionally inevitably restrict them. We would take into account that in depth recycling of supplies would offset effectivity limits. Recycling is essential; nonetheless, whereas glass and metals could be recycled virtually indefinitely with out lack of high quality, supplies equivalent to paper and plastic could be recycled only some occasions

earlier than turning into too degraded.

Moreover, recycling itself could also be an energy- and materials-intensive course of. Even when bodily legal guidelines might be damaged (they can’t) to realize recycling with 100 % effectivity, added demand from the crucial for financial progress would essentially require virgin supplies. The important thing level is that effectivity is proscribed by physics, however there isn’t a sufficiency restrict on the socioeconomic assemble of “demand.”

Sadly, the scenario is much more dire. Financial progress is required to be exponential; that’s, the dimensions of the financial system should double in a hard and fast interval. As referenced earlier, this has pushed a corresponding enhance within the materials footprint. To grasp the character of exponential progress, take into account the EV. Suppose that we now have sufficient (simply extractable) lithium for the batteries wanted to gas the EV revolution for an additional 30 years. Now assume that deep-sea mining supplies 4 occasions the present quantity of those supplies. Are we lined for 120 years? No, as a result of the present 10 % price of progress in demand for lithium is equal to doubling of demand each seven years, which implies we’d solely have sufficient for 44 years. In impact, we’d trigger untold, maybe irreversible, devastation of marine ecosystems to purchase ourselves a number of additional years’ provide of uncooked supplies. 

Exponential progress swiftly, inevitably, swamps something in finite provide. For a virus, that finite useful resource is the human inhabitants and within the context of the planet it’s its bodily sources.

The inescapable inference is that it’s basically not possible to decouple materials use from financial progress. And that is precisely what has transpired. Wiedmann et al., 2015 did a cautious accounting of the fabric footprint, together with these embedded in worldwide commerce, for a number of nations. Within the 1990–2008 interval lined by the research, no nation achieved a deliberate, deliberate economywide decoupling for a sustained size of time. Claims by the International North on the contrary conceal the substantial offshoring of its manufacturing, and the related ecological devastation, to the International South.

Latest proposals for ecocidal deep-sea and fantastical exoplanetary mining are an unsurprising consequence of a progress paradigm that refuses to acknowledge these inconvenient truths. 


These observations lead us to a pure minimal situation for sustainability: all useful resource use curves have to be concurrently flatlined and all air pollution curves concurrently extinguished. It’s this useful resource perspective that permits us to see why EVs could assist offset carbon emissions but stay totally unsustainable beneath the limitless progress paradigm. 

Sustainability from a useful resource perspective: Exponentially rising useful resource use and air pollution (a and b) are unsustainable. We outline sustainability as flatlined useful resource use (c) and extinguished air pollution (d). Credit score: Aditi Deshpande


Now we have argued that the inextricable hyperlink between materials consumption and GDP makes the infinite-growth paradigm incompatible with sustaining ecological integrity. Thus, whereas EVs represent a partial reply to the local weather query, throughout the present paradigm they may solely exacerbate the bigger anthropogenic crises linked to unsustainable useful resource consumption. 

The true query is that this: how will we transition to various financial paradigms based on the reconciliation of equitable human well-being with ecological integrity? 

That is an opinion and evaluation article; the views expressed by the writer or authors should not essentially these of Scientific American.


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