Peak Growth?

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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51 Responses

  1. Dan Miller says:

    It’s really good to see this article get more attention–it definitely deserves it. As you say, I think both voices make good points, and I’d certainly agree with you about increasing density and using market signals to internalize costs and increase efficiency.

    That said, I would probably come down on the side of “our extraordinary growth these past few centuries is due to fossil fuels”. Looking at that graph, you can see the takeoff by the mid-19th century, but it’s not clear to me that even the US or Western Europe in 1850 were notably more capitalistic than, say, the Roman Empire (I’m far from a history buff, so please correct me if I’m wrong). The difference, instead, is that the 1850s had coal. What happens when we run out of the easy energy–when we’ve eaten through the seed corn–frankly worries the hell out of me.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Dan Miller says:

      It scares the hell out of me also, but a bad government response could make things worse, not better, if slowing growth is the blunt objective.

      That said, I think we need a concerted effort to get off fossil fuels.Report

    • North in reply to Dan Miller says:

      Dan, I’m not a huge history buff myself but I would like to rebut your roman example strongly. There were a great towering pile of things that the Romans did not have that we have developed today that any modern functioning economy requires mostly in the fields of philosophy, knowhow and economics. It’s important to remember that Rome was sitting on fossil fuels all over the place, Europe had heaping mounds of fossil fuels and Rome controlled a lot of the Middle East and all of North Africa as well. They had the fuel, they just didn’t know how to use it nor did they have the economic and political understanding to use it either.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to North says:

        I maybe didn’t make my point clearly then. What I was trying to get across is that the fossil fuels are a necessary component of the awesome growth and development we’ve seen over the last 200 years or so. The know-how is needed as well, which is why Moses didn’t wander the desert in a dune buggy, but it’s not sufficient without an easy source of energy. Within a relatively short timeframe (less than a century?) we’ll have the know-how but not the energy (unless we really get our act together on nuclear power, or make a balls-out drive for renewables and efficiency, or both).Report

        • North in reply to Dan Miller says:

          Hmm yes I suppose I get that. But beyond the tech the Romans simply didn’t have the same social or economic institutions necessary for a modern economy. They were slave holders, for instance, and rabidly non-egalitarian to boot (suggest the idea of men being equal to a patrician and a beating would probably be the lesser of your problems). Government in the Empire was near pure authoritarian and spending on all forms of infrastructure was pretty much entirely at the whims of each succeeding despot. Even if they had the tech for fossil fuels they would not have had a society that could sustain a modern economy in my opinion.

          I agree with you sort of on the energy. I mean we have the energy already; about a fifth of our electricity comes from nuclear right now roughly. That isn’t going to dry up or vanish and given modest time it could be increased a lot even with only current tech. I think where I part company with you David Roberts is that I am skeptical that “peak oil” could occur abruptly enough to make a nuclear ramp up impossible and I don’t think that market forces will be insufficient to prompt a conversion to nonfossil fuel tech.Report

      • wardsmith in reply to North says:

        Rome didn’t use fossil fuels (which they both knew about but also understood) because they had slaves. Even a steam engine is merely a horse[power] replacement. Rome built up a society based on subjugation of “lesser” peoples and enslavement of them. Hitler wanted to copy them and for a time succeeded.

        Only the high cost of human capital leads to our tremendous levels of automation. The interesting thing is the compound effect you get when you couple high automation with very cheap labor as we see in China. Entire factories get built over there for a fraction of what they would cost here (not just the equipment that goes inside, which might still be expensive but the brick and mortar building that houses it). Unfortunately how much /junk/ do we really need? What human capital coupled with high energy inputs and great automation are building today is mostly /junk/ that will be clogging a landfill tomorrow. So the more important question is, what gets to be built, and why?Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to wardsmith says:

          Your point about the ready availability of slave labor is well-taken. As a quibble, I’m not sure that it’s accurate that the Romans understood fossil fuels to be a reasonable fuel for either heat or work; so far as I know they weaponized oil in the form of pitch for ballistae (and later, Greek Fire) and might have burned some for light, but since they didn’t really have the ability to refine the stuff all that well, it wasn’t that useful to them.

          I bet their metalsmiths could have put together an internal combustion engine, though, if they could have come up with a spark plug or its equivalent. They had watermills that ran on camshafts, and once you can figure out how to make the pistons go boom when you want them to, the camshaft is all you need to turn the boom into work.

          Interesting to think about what could have happened if they’d figured out how to refine the oil and get flints small enough to be useful.Report

          • wardsmith in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Burt, I’m not going to claim they were ready to build Ferrari’s. 🙂

            We know they used radiant heat for their floors, and the way they did this was by burning wood in what we would consider the crawl space below the living area. But that crawl space area /also/ housed the slaves. They cut wood to burn, but could have burned coal or pitch (tar) they had found and documented. They did use the tar for their ships and their buildings but figured out how to make better cement and changed everything.

            Scary to think what would have happened if they’d figured out internal combustion. On the other hand, according to Science, they fell because of Climate Change. Alburtimus Gorimus must have warned them but they just didn’t listen. Or back then the climate could change all by itself. 😉Report

  2. North says:

    I loved his conversation but oddly enough I think he overstated the severity of the situation. Certainly when I ponder peak oil etc I don’t see us ever going shivering back into the dark. In the worst case scenarios I can imagine some utterly horrible things that would ensue, wars, famines, that’d bring global populations down to more sustainable levels but I don’t see a return to the dark ages in the cards. I think that David Roberts, oddly enough, favored Daly even though Daly didn’t come out well in the debate. If Smith had included, for instance, discussion about fission in the question of energy for instance I think it would have been an utter rout in favor of capitalism. I mean the fact of the matter is that we do have a functional alternative to fossil fuels for our greater energy requirements that is feasible even at current levels of tech (and actually holds incalculable promise beyond that). It’s more expensive than fossil but what isn’t?

    And as his commentariate pointed out the premise that resources are finite is, in the big picture, false. The solar system alone contains the necessary resources and generates the necessary energy to sustain an infinitely larger quantity of humans in sheer luxury. It’s just a question of developing the tech to reach it.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to North says:

      > I can imagine some utterly horrible
      > things that would ensue, wars, famines,
      > that’d bring global populations down
      > to more sustainable levels but I don’t
      > see a return to the dark ages in the cards.

      One advantage of living in America.Report

      • North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Well there is no sugar coating it. If the environment crumpled or collapsed the third world would suffer the most. The first world would have no compunction on floating to survival on the backs of the corpses of the third world were it possible.Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to North says:

          I’d say that this is one factor contributing to our apathy, but I’m not sure how well that stands up to international analysis.Report

          • North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Well yes, one can’t forget that developing nations are generally pretty hostile to straight up emissions caps. They want to be compensated and subsidized by the developed world since they recognize that such caps would hinder their ability to develop themselves out of poverty.Report

    • Matty in reply to North says:

      *Infinitely* larger? really as in we could convert all the current mass of the solar system to human flesh and sustain those people in sheer luxury?

      Look I can accept that humans are able to increase the carrying capacity of their environment for humans. I can even see the argument that we are so good at it that the sun will have died before we reach a real limit but that is still not infinity.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Matty says:

        I think it’s implying a technological singularity, in which we upload our consciousness to a matryoshka brain or something similar.

        Even that has its limits, large though they may be.Report

      • North in reply to Matty says:

        Infinitely is perhaps the wrong word for our solar system. But massively is accurate. Should one expands one’s scope to other stars the word infinite may apply but space is dauntingly large and the speed of light barrier doesn’t appear to be getting any closer so I’d say restricting ourselves to just this solar system is more realistic.Report

  3. DensityDuck says:

    “Daly: Here’s your problem. You think capitalism is limited only by human ingenuity, which is unlimited. You believe that Man Will Overcome. And so, if soil’s being depleted, tweak the market to reflect that — raise soil prices.”

    errrr. A capitalist wouldn’t say anything like “tweak the market”. A capitalist would say that if there were a perceived shortage of soil, then soil prices would rise all by themselves. And that if the prices rose and stayed high–indicating a true shortage rather than a panic–then alternatives would develop because high prices made alternatives viable (hydroponics, e.g.)

    The free market doesn’t say that everything will be cheap. It says that everything will be as cheap as it can be, which might still be quite expensive.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck says:

      PS Daly’s got a good point about the modern world being strongly affected by swings in the market price of fossil fuels. How sad that there’s no alternative method of generation that’s virtually unaffected by spot market prices. I guess it’s a failure of the market that…uh…baby boomers can’t be convinced that nuclear plants don’t explode like bombs or create Godzilla?Report

      • North in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Agree with you on this, how unusual.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to DensityDuck says:

        +1 to this. If we could replace all the coal capacity with nuclear, it would be a huge win–even the worst nuclear disasters are much less dangerous than coal in the long run.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Dan Miller says:

          And the thing is, you can certainly argue that the psychotic focus on risk reduction is what means that the worst nuclear disasters were less dangerous than anything coal has done.

          But, on the other hand, you get stories like the one where a company ordered the wrong size of steel pipe, and found that it was cheaper to cut the inside diameter to the correct size rather than reorder new pipe and go through the process of testing and certification. (boring out the center was “rework” and fell under a different inspection & verification scheme.)Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Yep, a third here.

        Sounds like we’re finding an honest-to-goodness, cross-party-and-cross-ideology something we can all agree on.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          It’s easy to be cross-party in favor of something like nuclear power; it generates lots of power in a base-load way, and does so with near-zero carbon emissions. Heck, we even have recent disasters to compare (Fukushima vs. Deepwater Horizon).Report

      • James K in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I’ll add my voice to this, petroleum is great and all but no chemical reaction can come even close to the power of nuclear reactions.Report

  4. Freddie says:

    There are some facts of the matter about whether we have resources available to keep our way of life sustainable, and they are non-ideological. We can’t know them in their entirety. However, you gloss over population density and the like far too quickly. Our dependence on fossil fuel energy, by even the most optimistic metrics, is enormous and growing. The two swords of Damocles hanging over our heads are whether we have enough resources to meet the need and whether

    Any read of this situation that purports to deal with this situation, skeptical or accepting, is just hand waving. Either we have the resources we need, and the planet can sustain their continued use, or things are going to get very, very dark indeed. Those things are beyond our control, and human life as we know it hangs in the balance.

    People on the Internet have decided that life is fair and that good things go on happening. They shouldn’t.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Freddie says:

      “Those things are beyond our control, and human life as we know it hangs in the balance.”

      I’m not sure I follow. It seems like this is under our control to a large degree–we can decide how much to favor efficiency efforts, for instance. If you mean “beyond the control of the League”, well, that’s a better case (if so I apologize for the misreading).Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

      People on the Internet have decided that life is fair and that good things go on happening. They shouldn’t.

      You wouldn’t believe what some of the People on the Internet believe ought to go on happening.Report

    • North in reply to Freddie says:

      I think you cut off your first paragraph freddie.

      Then the second is empty fatalism which of course utterly negates the third. If there’s naught to be done then a decision by the internets that life is fair and that good things go on happening is a perfectly fine outcome for all the difference it makes.Report

      • Freddie in reply to North says:

        Pollyana is always popular, particularly around here.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Freddie says:

          Who is being Pollyana-ish? My post basically says there is no one answer, but attempting to clamp down on growth vis-a-vis the state will simply not work. Do you think it would work? I think a combination of taxes, better urban development, plus any number of other ideas might help, but nothing I write here claims that we will solve the problem of finite resources easily. Maybe we won’t solve it at all, I don’t know.Report

        • North in reply to Freddie says:

          Freddie old boy, I love your writing in general but when you comment your behavior sometimes verges on drive by trolling.Report

  5. “The pernicious Malthusian argument has been taken to its furthest logical conclusion in China. But stifling population growth through central planning is wrong-headed. Education and prosperity will naturally keep population growth at stable levels.”

    It’s been a long time since I read Malthus, and I know he’s not as popular around these parts as Hayek or Rawls, but I do remember quite liking what he had to say. Malthus was definitely a liberal, and I don’t remember him advocating any of the central government authoritarianism that you’ve associated with his name here: Malthus specifically referenced how technology could overcome his condition of food production increasing linearly while population increases exponentially, although later critics like Marx would suggest Malthus failed to develop this idea to the necessary extent. Malthus criticized pity-charity liberalism in the sense that it only perpetuated the existence of an underclass. In short, the Malthusian idea in the 21st Century is that unless we maintain our current levels of wealth and technological efficiency to support our swollen population, Nature shall require a massive correction. This actually sounds a lot like your argument here.Report

  6. James K says:

    I’m not overly worried about constraints on growth for a couple of reasons:
    1) Negative feedback. When things get scarce their price rises, this spurs conservation efforts, encourages new resource exploration and incentivises the search for alternatives. A resource stock will end up lasting longer than a naive estimate would predict.

    2) Resources are endogenous to scientific advancement. Once upon a time petroleum was a nuisance that fouled the water tables, and uranium was good for little more than adding flexibility to steel or making paints a bit brighter. Naturally there are hard limits (at least everything we know about physics tells us so), but there’s a lot of raw materials in the Asteroid Belt, and the Sun throws out a ridiculous amount. We have time before we have to panic.Report

    • Murali in reply to James K says:

      More precisely, there will come a point where crude oil becomes so expensive that any enterprising guy (or big oil company if it was of the mind to) would find it profitable to make fuel from renewable sources (and undercut competition) Biodiesel is just around the corner. Just give it 5-10 years and a lot if not most of us will be driving hybrid (electric-biodiesel) cars or even full biodiesel cars.Report

  7. Kim says:

    Who needs to stifle population growth? Citing Japan.Report

    • North in reply to Kim says:

      Quite so Kim; heck I’ll raise and cite the first world in general. The US is one of the leaders of the pack in terms of population growth and it’s just a smidge over replacement level (and much of that is attributable to fecund immigrants).Report

      • Kim in reply to North says:

        the world grows stupider, as the smart people have fewer babies, being urbanites.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

          [Citation needed. See also: Flynn effect.]Report

          • Kim in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            … do i need to throw in LD, autism, and the thing about asparagus?
            It makes economic sense for people in farming communities to have a lot of kids — they don’t cost giant gobs of college tuition. It doesn’t in cities.
            …[here’s what happens when I use google to give me sources!]
            bizarre article, ain’t it?Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

              No, but you do have to explain the Flynn effect.Report

              • Kim in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                … this g thing is odd. Not going to say anything definitive before I read more, but something leaped out at me:

                Under teh Raven’s test (see the wiki on it):
                A 2007 study provided evidence that individuals with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, score higher than other individuals on Raven’s tests.[4] Another 2007 study provided evidence that individuals with classic autism, a low-functioning autism spectrum disorder, score higher in Raven’s tests than in Wechsler tests. In addition, the individuals with classic autism were providing correct answers to the Raven’s test in less time than individuals without autism, although erring as often.[5]Report

              • Kim in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                One theory:
                … g only explains intelligence for stupid people. It is possible for people who are “stupid” to get smarter — or more autistic, which the same evidence would also support.

                What I think a better theory is:An alternative interpretation was recently advanced by van der Maas and colleagues in 2006. Their mutualism model assumes that intelligence depends on several independent mechanisms, none of which influences performance on all cognitive tests. These mechanisms support each other so that efficient operation of one of them makes efficient operation of the others more likely, thereby creating the positive correlations between intelligence tests
                (i’m grabbing from the gfactor wiki)

                I feel like this supports my anecdotal evidence, where someone who can’t abstract a letter can be competent in conceptualizing quantum physics.

                People who are smart are better able to mortgage good traits that they’ve got (visualization versus abstraction), in order to deal with things that are difficult for them.

                I know someone for whom words are a foreign language. He thinks in pictures (can’t draw, that’s psychomotor difficulties). Has a photographic memory. And can’t abstract worth shit. Counts pebbles in his head to do math. Smartest guy I’ve ever met.Report

        • North in reply to Kim says:

          I don’t believe that myself.Report

        • Christopher Carr in reply to Kim says:

          Have you seen Idiocracy, Kim?Report