158. THREE NEW PHASES OF GROWTH
A major argument of Peak Oil doom is that growth is unsustainable. They argue that economic growth has to stop, and that this will bring down Western society. They argue that population growth must be halted, and the best way for this to happen is with a massive dieoff.
Now, I agree with them that humanity as a whole cannot grow at our current rate forever, at least as long as we are confined to the Earth. Most of our problems do come from the fact that more and more people want more and more wealth. This lecture by a guy called Al Bartlett explains the problem quite nicely. ("The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function").
The thing is that growth isn't a problem as such. The real issue is relative growth. In other words, if you have limited space and resources you can only sustain growth in certain aspects as long as you shrink others. So while economy, population and per-capita natural impact cannot grow simultaneously forever on a planet of finite size, as long as one of them is decreasing while the others are increasing you can continue to improve human standards of living indefinitely without the need for a "collapse" of any kind.
In the past, there have been two main phases in human growth:
- Economy, population and per-capita natural impact grow slowly and continuously over thousands of years. There are no real limits to growth because the world has more than enough space and resources for the small number of humans.
- In the 20th century, economy population and per-capita natural impact grow very quickly. For the first time, we run up against the limitations of our planet.
Over the coming years, humanity will experience three new phases of growth as we transition back to an environment where unlimited growth is possible again, ie space.
- Economic and population growth continues while per-capita natural impact shrinks. In the 1st half of the 21st century, resource limitations and environmental decline cause innovation and economic activity to focus on new energy sources and more efficient resource use, instead of larger cars and houses. Living standards rise thanks to new developments like nanotechnology and synthetic food production.
- Economic growth and per-capita natural impact increase while population shrinks. Decreasing birthrates cause population to fall over the second half of the 21st century, allowing other measures of growth to rise while human impact on the Earth remains the same.
- Unlimited growth in all three factors returns as human beings move into space. The continually-expanding boundaries of space mean that there will be no more limits to growth until we fill up the entire solar system. Meanwhile on Earth, all three factors can continue growing to some extent because global population is now so much lower.
None of this guarantees that various kinds of collapses will not happen, but it demonstrates that humans can continue to increase standards of living and economic success without requiring any kind of catastrophe.
This graph shows the falling birth rate around the world, dipping under replacement levels by 2040 (or a few years earlier if we enter "plague mode"). Note that birth rates peaked in the 1970s, around the same time as global oil discoveries (click the image to enlarge):
Note from JD: Total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children each woman will have in her lifetime. World-wide TFR has been dropping like a rock since the 1970s. 61 countries now have a TFR of 2.1 or less (replacement fertility) Source. The curve for TFR (see below) looks like a Deffeyes linearization of oil production. If you showed it to a peak oiler (and told him it was a curve for oil), he'd swear up and down that variable was going to peak soon. And, in fact, it's perfectly possible that world population will peak at around 7.5 billion in 2040.