My Brother and a Physicist Explain Why My ‘Apocalyptic Sensibility’ Is Wrong (Probably)

Mike Dang is on vacation, so here’s a conversation I had with my brother. He taught me some stuff. (I taught him nothing.) 

Logan Sachon: Alex. Hello. So, you’re my brother. And you have a bachelor’s in geography and a master’s in something called organizational sciences. And you’ve decided you’re done with academia, but you’re basically writing a dissertation or a book on … I’m not sure exactly.  You’re always posting about very complicated (to me) things. You talk about the economy a lot. You use the word “paradigm” a lot.

But it has  occurred to me recently that we are actually interested in the same things, just very opposite ends of them. I’m interested in people’s stories—like, okay, we are in economic crisis, but what does that mean for actual people’s lives?—and you’re interested in this much, much larger picture.

Alex Sachon:  It’s not that I’m not interested in individual stories, but rather that I’m interested in how larger forces influence how we live our lives and how we make sense of our lives. So I guess I’m interested in why we tell ourselves the stories we do.

LS: When we’ve tried to talk about these things in person, I’ve accused you of lecturing me. Trying to talk to you in person about this stuff feels like being with a professor. A young, kind of haughty professor with great hair.

AS: It’s not necessarily surprising to me that it plays out this way—with you getting frustrated or turned off the rather abstract arguments. I think innate differences in wiring account for our different preferences for how we think about the world. I naturally see it in abstractions and you naturally see it in stories.

LS: But I am interested in your work—the abstractions you talk about—even though I usually want to get to the point. You read a lot of things that I don’t read because I find them “too dense” and “too academic” and “too boring.” And that’s perhaps small-minded of me. So I had this idea that you could assign me something to read, and then we could talk about it online so I’d have to pay attention. Because, yes, I would like to understand this larger bigger picture you speak of. 

To start, you’ve chosen three blog posts by Tom Murphy, a physicist at UC San Diego. In the first, he uses science and math to show that unlimited growth, even if given every opportunity to happen, is actually physically impossible. In the second, he furthers the point by using science to prove that we’re about to run out of a bunch of stuff that allowed us to grow. And in the third, then he basically argues that efforts of “sustainability” are futile and wrongheaded, and he illustrates this with a picture of a horse made out of gerbils.

Okay. So tell me why you picked these posts to start my education in abstraction, or whatever.

AS: Okay so you don’t really have to have too many prior reference points to understand Murphy’s argument. It’s very clean, logical, and straightforward. And his end point—”continuous growth is impossible”—is a very critical one and has a lot of really huge implications.

For example, right now we’re in a bad state economically. When considering the options of what to do about this bad economic situation, the people who are in positions of power or influence within government, business, and academia will talk about strategies to get back to growth. If you’ve listened to the debates recently, you’ve definitely heard the two candidates frame the issue that way.

The implicit assumption they’re making behind that argument is that growth is inherently good, and we need to find a way to get back to it. But that assumption directly contradicts the argument that Tom Murphy makes in these three articles. So now, based on nothing other than this one idea—continuous growth is impossible—you can begin to evaluate and develop a position on what these political, business, and academic leaders are advising.

LS: I actually really liked reading these, which surprised me. I followed along.

AS: Yeah, I was happy to come across this blog. He’s got a lot of other great posts based around this main idea about growth, and they have to do with energy, policy, the economy, etc.

LS: So one thing I want to talk about is, it’s very exciting to read articles like this, for me at least, to see things in a way I haven’t seen them yet. It reminded me of college! Anthropology courses! Everything is a construction! But it’s also kind of scary, right? I feel a little bit dumb. Both for not realizing it myself (“the economy can’t grow forever”) but also just being reminded how wrong so much of what we’re doing is.

AS: Yeah, overcoming things that contradict our preexisting belief systems is very challenging. I believe this is what they call cognitive dissonance. On an individual level at least. But at a larger, societal level, there is a large amount of things riding on this being true, designed, in fact, for this to be true

LS: But it just makes so much sense to step back and see that we have finite resources finite resources = finite growth. It has to be! Has To Be.

But one question: Where are these people saying this infinite growth will come from? I mean, he addresses it—that people argue that 200 years ago we couldn’t have imagined where we’d be today, and thus we can’t imagine what tomorrow’s innovations will be—but that seems so illogical. Especially for people whose job it is to make decisions.

AS: To understand that, you have to understand where the core argument of both sides—growth and non-growth—come from. The core of the non-growth side’s argument comes from the mathematical idea of compound interest.

LS: OBVIOUSLY I know what what is. But let’s go over it.

AS: Basically, the idea is this: If something grows by a percentage every year, it will end up growing exponentially. You start out with a certain number, say 100, and then you add to that number the percentage it’s growing. If it’s growing at 10%, then at the end of the first year you went from 100 to 110—a total addition of 10. But at the end of the next year, that 10% doesn’t mean you only are adding 10 more, you’re actually adding 11 more, because you’re now measuring 10% of 110, which is 11. So each year, the number you’re adding on grows by more and more. This means that the pace of increase starts to get really big the further down the road you get. Once you start doing 10% of 1,000,000, you start to get huge increases every year. So this idea that this pace of growth—which is based on this idea of compound interest—is not sustainable is the basis for the non-growth argument.

LS: This is like deciphering German homework. I can read it. But it takes a minute to process it. DIFFERENT BRAINS.

AS: The modern pro-growth argument came along sort of as a response to this non-growth argument, although really it’s a continuation of this long-held philosophical idea that the trajectory of humanity’s progress is on an unbounded ascent to better and better things. I think there are definitely elements of that kind of optimistic thinking embedded in the pro-growth argument, but the way these modern pro-growth people make their case today is primarily by pointing out that the non-growth people have, thus far, been wrong in their predictions.

We typically attribute the first non-growth argument to the Englishman Thomas Malthus, who back around the year 1800 made the case, using this compound interest argument, that the number of people are growing exponentially, which means that eventually they will outnumber the amount of resources on earth, because resources don’t increase like that—they’re finite.

LS: Oh, I’ve heard of Thomas Malthus.

AS: But then a bunch of crazy things happened revolving around the industrial revolution which allowed for vast increases in the amount of food you could grow on a given plot of land. These changes fueled not only rising standards of living for most people, but also fueled a huge increase in human population. So basically the exact opposite of what Malthus predicted would happen, happened.

This argument was rehashed in the 60s and 70s, when again a group of people pointed out the mathematical properties of growth and that—no matter what happened in the 1800s—this trajectory we’re on is not sustainable. So again, mass starvation was predicted… and again it didn’t happen, this time because of Green Revolution. Again living standards for most people rose, as did food supplies.

So these two events are sort of the backbone of the pro-growth community. Their basic argument is that the limits of nature is no match for the ingenuity of humans. In other words, we’ll always find a way to innovate our way out of these corners we grow ourselves into.

LS: But just look at Murphy’s graph 1


of modern human life on earth juxtaposed with the lifespan of our supply of fossil fuels—the little red star, as where we are in in in the lifespan of fossil fuels, is just laughable. It’s a blip. And the blip is almost over.

AS: I know. And keep in mind that both of these periods of growth we experienced that the pro-growth community points to fall within this blip. In fact, the blip begins right around the time that Malthus first makes this argument.

LS: We are such fools.

AS: But just consider how we rationalize this. If you consider the past two examples of “growth crises” that I gave, you can see that they both share a common characteristic. We, as a species, innovated our way out of the constraint—human ingenuity prevailed. And it’s true, we did. And it’s not a part of the story to take lightly. I mean, it’s pretty incredible what happened.

BUT it certainly doesn’t mean you can take your eye off the ball of what the original argument based around the implications of compound interest says – there are clear physical constraints. So it’s actually IMPOSSIBLE for this to be a permanent feature of life from here on out—that humans will always outmaneuver nature.

LS: So my reaction to reading this—and really my reaction to reading a lot of things—is just to think, god, we are so fucked. We are just so utterly fucked, and we as a society did it to ourselves and we’re fucking going to go down in flames and you know what, we probably deserve to. (Mike Dang says I have an “apocalyptic sensibility.”)

AS: Well, you’re skipping a lot of things when you jump to that.

LS: But you’ve told me before that you’re optimistic. And I’d like to talk about that.

AS: Well, you have to build toward that. Part of what’s so shocking about reading the math behind growth is realizing GOD HOW CAN WE BE SO STUPID AS TO DELUDE OURSELVES ABOUT THIS.

LS: Right. But I mean, I get it. Look how fucking hard it is to get people to change even little bits of their lives. Recycle. Drive less. And the solution has to be a drastic solution. No one wants to be the person to inflict that. Which is a shame.

AS:  If you think about it, it was somewhat inevitable that this happened. These things were sort of waiting there to be utilized—fossil fuels, the techniques and science behind the technologies we invented. And the adaptable social nature of humans allowed us to respond to the huge changes to society that happened as a result of these technologies and resources.

I mean, it’s pretty crazy that people that started out in small hunter gatherer tribal units, successfully transitioned to large, sedentary, agricultural societies, and then again transitioned into urban manufacturing and service/knowledge-based societies. And that people that grow up within those different societies see that way of life as totally normal and literally can’t imagine living any other way. The adaptability of human society is truly astounding.

So when you consider that, its pretty easy to understand how we could get so carried away with this idea that it could go on.

Everyone in our world, back many generations now, grew up in a world of where this growth happened. Our society “evolved” to embrace this reality. We “adapted” to the new urban environments and the new labor demands that resulted from growth.

And this is how evolution takes place—through selection. The old species (or, in this case, forms of civilization), die out slowly as the transition takes place. And the void that creates is filled by new species (or new forms of civilization)—they come to rise because they better fit the new environment and take over.

In our case, this period of growth, which essentially began around the time of Malthus and the industrial revolution, came to favor things‚be they people, businesses, forms of government, ideas, etc.—which embraced, at their core, the environment created by growth.

LS: Okay but you’re doing that thing again where you’re staying very abstract. This all sounds great. But what does this have to do with us? What about us and what is happening right now? WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO US?

AS: Okay when you look back at that big graph he presents of this period of growth arising out of basically nowhere, you have to wonder, where did this come from? It came from this period of time around the industrial revolution. That was a pretty crazy time of human history—big transitions were taking place.

When you consider all of what happened since then, ask yourself: Did this happen by design? Did a group of people get together and say, “Hey, let’s get things growing” and then design everything that came after to meet this goal?

Or did this growth just kind of happen—like, once a few key inventions were made and once the utility of fossil fuels was discovered and things aligned with human societies just right, then the conditions became ripe for this growth to happen.

Do you see the question? Is this by design, or was this growth inevitable once a few critical things were independently put in place?

LS: I guess? My head is starting to hurt.

AS: I’m getting there …  Stick with it, because it has to do with your conclusion that “god we are so fucked.”

The main conclusion I want to make is this: Humans as a species are “adaptable”—so if we can adapt to the changes that happened in human civilization since this period of growth began—then it seems that we can again adapt to what comes after.

If you agree that this growth can’t realistically go on—which is the main argument of these three articles by Tom Murphy—then you have to start thinking about how the adaptable human must once again adapt to a new environment, whatever that environment ends up being.

So what’s really “fucked” are things that are dependent on this environment of growth. Those things will change. It’s inevitable they will. So my optimism you referred to earlier is based, at its core, around this idea. We are adaptable creatures. We will adapt once again. So let’s embrace that.

LS: So in the meantime do we just … sit around until we have to adapt to something? Are we adapting right now? IS THIS ADAPTATION?

AS: Well, that’s basically what I’ve  been researching—what is the new environment going to look like that we’re heading towards? How are we going to adapt to it, as individuals and as societies? It’s a complicated issue and there’s a lot of things to consider. But in the meantime, no matter what the result is, you have to get the story right. And what Tom Murphy has givens us here with these three posts is a very critical part of the story.

LS: Continuous growth is not possible. But we adapted to that, and we can adapt again.

AS: Basically.

LS: I gotta bounce. I need a drink. Love you.

AS: Love you, too. Later.


7 Comments / Post A Comment

aetataureate (#1,310)

Logan, Benjamin Walker just covered some of this same stuff on an episode of Too Much Information you might find interesting!

Nick (#1,548)

The solution is that we ourselves turn into the fossils that can be used for a second blip, thousands of years from now. And so on. “All this has happened before, and will happen again.”

I think you (plural) are ignoring some very real and very tantalizing possibilities.

(1) We’re not limited to “just” the resources available on Earth. In the short term, we can mine asteroids.
(2) We’ve got 800 millions years of solar energy. A patch of desert (I believe about 16 square miles?) in Nevada could satisfy US energy needs if it was covered with solar panels.
(3) We’ll get better at recycling materials. New products can be made out of old products. Maybe not at 100% efficiency but hey, asteroids.
(4) “Human” ingenuity will be greatly aided by artificial intelligence before we even reach peak oil.
(5) Computer simulation might one day become more compelling than reality. Creativity therefore becomes the main engine of economic growth, so long as we can power the computers and build them. You build one computer but you can sell thousands of pieces of software.

Final Comment: Y’all can worry about this all you want but it would be more interesting to think about space elevators, complete immersion in virtual reality, sentient A.I., and all the other cool stuff we have coming down the pipeline. Or heck, why not even work on building it? Humans adapt but more importantly, humans improve.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@Colin Hill@facebook
+ 1 bajillion for solar!
I don’t get how in my country, everyone is obsessed with home ownership, but then won’t consider getting solar panels?
You get a mortgage so you can future-proof yourself and have free housing when you retire, so how come these very same people don’t consider free solar power when they retire something else they should be borrowing for and paying off now, especially when power bills are only ever going to go up?

@TARDIStime I have been looking into solar panels for the roof of my newly-purchased house, but they are so dang expensive! Unless it’s a big family or a big house that consumes a lot of electricity, it doesn’t seem worth the investment. I know that’s terrible, but if my average electric bill is $40, it would take 10 years to make a $5000 investment in solar panels worth it–and that’s low-balling the installation costs in my area.

I do realize there are resource concerns as well as money ones, but the money is what concerns me.

Couple things from the one post I read:

“This scenario has many problems. For instance, if food production shrinks to 1% of our economy…” Well, agriculture already represents just 1.2% of GDP and employs less than 1% of the US workforce, so for it to shrink to 1% is no stretch. This is down from more than 80% of the workforce in agriculture at the end of the 19th century. Not only can it be done, it has already been done. There are fewer farmers in the US today than in 1870, providing a much richer diet to a population that is nearly 10 times larger, and with plenty left over to export.

The services sector, where most of the “intangible” industries Murphy mentions are located, already represents the largest proportion of most advanced economies. In the US, services account for nearly 80% of all economic activity. Granted some of these are more energy intensive than others (large sectors such as wholesale trade are dependent on the underlying cost of transporting goods) but the majority are performed in offices using highly efficient electronic devices and the human mouth & brain.

A broader critique:

Energy use patterns have a lot more to do with how much output is produced per unit of energy than the efficiency of the underlying technologies. For example, a Gucci factory uses a lot less energy per unit of output than a steel mill, even though the fundamental technology used (sewing machines) is much less improved on its predecessors than the technology used in a modern steel mill. One way to understand this at a macro level is looking at the amount of energy a country uses, per capita, with their economic output per capita. Let’s look at a couple.

In 2006, Russia used 2.8 TOE (Tonnes of Oil Equivalent) per person per year. That’s ALL the energy consumed in the country — oil, gas, nuclear, solar, etc. With that, they produced $6,946 worth of economic activity per person — or $2,480 per TOE.

The US consumed a whopping 4.9 TOE per person, but with that produced $44,622 in economic output — that’s $9,106 per TOE, or 3.6 times as much.

But that’s not the limit! In the same year, Germany used 2.7 TOE p/c, and with that produced $35,237 of economic output p/c — or $13,050 per TOE. France did a little better, at $14,182 per TOE. China, the only developing country for which I have data, was much worse — $2,298 per TOE.

Now I don’t know how efficient Chinese Russian heat engines are — though I’d imagine they are a little less efficient than French ones. However, it’s clear that we have the technology to produce at least $14,000 of economic output from one TOE worth of energy.

In 2006, the total economic output of the world was $50 trillion. Total world energy consumption was 10.9 billion TOE, so we were only producing $4,587 of economic activity for each TOE. If the whole world had been as efficient as France, world GDP would have been $155 trillion (3.1 times larger).

If we assume a 5% real rate of economic growth — pretty optimistic by the standards of an economist, btw, since world GDP growth hasn’t topped 4.5% since 1960, and in fact has averaged less than 3% — it would still take 25 years for the poorest countries to catch up to the richest, even if the rich countries were completely stalled by their inability to advance energy efficiency (at a more realistic 3% rate this would take 40 years).

Once the poorest African country has reached present-day-France levels of prosperity, then I will stop worrying so much about economic growth.

@stuffisthings I guess I should point out that while I’m not so worried about thermodynamic constraints on economic growth, the constraint of non-renewable energy sources as described here is, in fact, pretty worrying.

It’s only because I don’t believe the stuff above that I believe a transition to a more sustainable economy will happen, though probably at least as gradually as the industrial revolution (i.e. over a couple hundred years) as non-renewable become more and more expensive.

In the example above, $5,000 seems crazy for solar panels at today’s prices, but if your electric bill goes up to $500/month it won’t seem such a bad investment.

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