The counter argument most commonly raised against the ‘limits to growth’ case is that recycling and the development of better technology etc. will solve the problems and enable us to go on living affluently while the economy grows. Most people seem to hold this belief. It has recently been enthusiastically reasserted as ‘Ecomodernism’ (see Asafu-Adjaye et al 2016; Blomqvist, Nordhaus, Shellenbeger, 2015). It is also the foundational assumption within the ‘Green Growth’ policies being endorsed by national governments and UN agencies (Pointed out by Hickel and Kallis 2019 and by Parrique et al. 2019).
It is not surprising that this claim is regarded as plausible because technology does constantly achieve miraculous breakthroughs, and publicity is frequently given to schemes that are claimed to be capable of solving this or that problem. However, there is a weighty case that technical advance is not preventing the growth of demand for resources and associated environmental impacts, and is not likely to do so. In fact the reviews expect achievements to dwindle as recycling and efficiency limits are approached.
Easily overlooked is the fact that in general the remarkable technical advances constantly being made are not to do with fields that promise solutions to limits to growth problems. Consider sub-atomic physics, astronomy, medicine, genetics and space exploration. These fields are not to do with ways to reduce the resource demands and environmental impacts associated with the provision of goods and services. Surprisingly advances in IT also do not contribute much to the task (see below). The reviews to be discussed also cast serious doubt on the expectation that greater achievements can be made in future; in fact, the general expectation is that achievements will dwindle.
The Simpler Way perspective is therefore that we must change to lifestyles and social systems that do not generate problems of overconsumption and sustainability. This could easily be done if we wanted to do it, and it would actually enable a much higher quality of life than most of us have now in consumer society. But it would involve abandoning the quest for affluent lifestyles and limitless economic growth, so it is not at all likely that this path will be taken.
What follows are several lines of argument against the tech-fix view. But first it is important to consider the magnitude of the problem technical advance would have to deal with.
The size of the task
Most people have little idea how serious the main problems are, or how far beyond sustainable levels we are. Here are some indicators of how far we have exceeded the limits to growth.
These are some of the many ways in which we have already greatly exceeded the planet’s capacity to meet human demands, and they indicate the magnitude of the presently existing task the tech-fix believers are faced with. But with continued pursuit of growth the task will become far greater than it is now.
Making clear the absurdity of economic growth.
Many of the above facts and figures only indicate the magnitude of the present problems caused by over-production and over-consumption. To this alarming situation we must add the fact that all nations, including even the richest countries, are committed to rapid and limitless increases in ‘living standards’ and GDP; i.e., economic growth is the supreme goal.
If we Australians have 3% p.a. economic growth to 2050, and by then all 9.8 billion people will have come up to the ‘living standards’ we will have by then, the total amount of economic production in the world each year will be about 18 times as great as it is now. The present amount of production and resource use is grossly unsustainable, yet we are committed to economic system that would see these rates multiplied 18 times by 2050.
And note that most of the sources and ecosystems we draw on to provide consumer lifestyles are deteriorating. The WWF’s Footprint index tells us that even now we would need 1.7 planet Earth’s to provide the resources we use sustainably and the multiple is rising year by year. The Tech-fix advocate’s task is to explain how we might cope with a resource demand that by 2050 given 3% p.a. growth would be around 30 times a currently sustainable level (18 x1.7), from deteriorating sources, and a demand that would be twice as big as that by 2073.
Huge figures such as these define the impossible magnitude of the problem for Tech-fix believers. Despite constant effort to cut these impacts, at present increases in GDP increase resource demands. (See the documentation in the Decoupling section below.)
Tech-fix optimism is a faith
At this point we usually find that the belief in tech–fix is nothing but a faith for which little or no supporting evidence is given. Because technology has achieved many wonders it is assumed that it will come up with the required solutions, somehow. This is as rational as someone saying, “I have a very serious lung disease, but I still smoke five packs of cigarettes a day, because technical advance could come up with a cure for my disease.” This argument is perfectly true; and perfectly idiotic. If you are on a path that is clearly leading to disaster the sensible thing to do is to get off it. If technology does come up with solutions then it might make sense to get back on that path again.
The Tech-fix optimist should be challenged to show in detail what are the grounds for us accepting that solutions will be found, to each and every one of the big problems we face. What precisely might solve the biodiversity loss problem, climate change, the water shortage, the scarcity of phosphorus, the collapse of fish stocks, etc., and how likely are these possible break-throughs? We are in a ‘weakest link in the chain’ situation, where any one of several problems could bring us down. Rockstrom et al. (2009) and Steffan (2015) identify nine “planetary boundaries”. Does it not make better sense to change from the lifestyles and systems that are creating these many alarming problems, at least until we can see that we can solve them?
There are theoretical and empirical reasons for rejecting the Tech-fix faith.
There are several factors that typically determine that the gains enabled by technical advance are well below those that might seem possible at first. Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.
Similarly the large gain in efficiency frequently claimed to be possible for electric vehicles typically only refers to ‘tank/battery to wheels’, and leaves out the energy losses in getting the electricity from the windmill or solar thermal farm to the battery (which might be 4,000 km away), charging the battery, battery replacement, batteries sitting idle much of the time, and especially the embodied energy cost of producing energy-intensive plastics etc. for the bodies, batteries, and engine parts of electric vehicles. The State Government of Victoria's trial of EVs found that taking into account all factors in addition to fuel use, lifetime emissions are actually 29% greater than those of petrol driven cars, (assuming the current energy mix) (Carey, 2012). Mateja (2003) reports a similar finding. Bryce (2010) says 60% of the life cycle energy and environmental cost of these cars is to do with their production and disposal, not their on-road performance. Yes, EV emissions would be lower if the grid was entirely powered by renewable electricity, but the point is the above figures mean their total lifecycle energy costs can be higher than for petrol-fuelled cars. EVs may therefore add to the difficulties and costs associated with the energy transition. Similarly, it is possible to solve some water supply problems by desalination, but only by increasing resource and energy problems.
There are also social costs that should be taken into account. The Green Revolution doubled food yields, by introducing crops that required high-energy inputs in the form of fertlilser, seeds, machinery and irrigation. One result was that large numbers of poor farmers went out of business because they couldn’t afford the inputs.
Thus the costs of saving energy and of recycling can be high, and this factor reduces the significance of many tech-fix claims.
It is therefore important to recognise that an announced technical miracle breakthrough probably refers to its “technical potential” but the savings that it is likely to enable in the real world will probably be well below this.
Rapid technical advance is not the norm.
It is commonly thought that scientists and engineers are constantly improving things in leaps and bounds. This has been the case in some relevant fields, notably IT and renewable energy, but with respect to the economy in general over the longer term it is evident that productive power increases quite slowly. For instance Hamilton (2012) says between 2000 and 2014 energy used in US steel production fell 0.9% p.a., meaning that if the rate could be kept up (and the rates fall over time; see below) it would take 80 years for the amount to halve. It has been argued that there was an era of ‘Great Inventions’ in the late 19th century, but “…everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave…’ (Krugman, 2016, quoting Gordon.) Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar in future. Huebner (2005) comes to a similar conclusion by examining the slowing number of patents published each year.
Most important here has been the long-term decline in the rate of productivity growth in national economies. That the advent of computerisation has not altered this is known as the “productivity paradox”. (Majumdar, 2017).
We tend not to hear about areas where technology is not solving problems or appears to have been completely defeated. Not long ago we looked forward to supersonic mass passenger flight, but this has not eventuated. It would be very difficult and costly, even if there was not an energy crunch coming up. Sydney’s transport problems cannot be solved by more public transport. More rail and bus would improve things, but not much because the sprawling city has been built for the car on 70 years of cheap oil. The Murray-Darling river can only be saved by drastic reduction in the amount of water being taken out of it, not by technical advances. The biodiversity holocaust taking place could only be avoided if humans stopped taking so much of nature and began to return large areas of farmland and pasture to natural habitat.
Ayres (2009) says that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel. The efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (Ayres, 2009, Figs. 4.1 and 4.19, p. 127). He says that “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960” (p. 126), probably due to increased use of accessories since then. He notes that reports tend to publicise particular spectacular technical advances, and this can be misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Murphy (2011) says “The Boeing 747 established a standard for air travel efficiency in 1970 that has hardly budged since. Electric motors, pumps, battery charging, hydroelectric power, electricity transmission – among many other things – operate at near perfect efficiency (often around 90%). Power plants that run on coal, natural gas, or nuclear reactions have seen only marginal gains in efficiency in the last 35 years, well less than 1% per year.”
Achievements typically surge then dwindle; there are diminishing returns.
There are areas to do with resources, energy and environment in which technical progress has been remarkable, especially to do with the falling costs of wind and solar electricity, electric vehicles and batteries. However the curves for the first two are flattening now (IEA, 2019), and it is not likely that much lower costs will eventuate in the long run. Those for batteries are falling more rapidly but will taper at some point in time and there are reasons to expect that the eventual costs would not enable large-scale power storage (see Friedemann, 2016.)
In their early years innovations often look as if the gains they enable will accelerate, but after a period the norm is that their potential has been largely exploited and the curves taper. Curry (2016) studied 62 cases of exponential rise in achievement and pointed out that these accelerations were characteristic of early-middle sections of lifetime trends. Parrique et al. (2019) say, “Tracking the number of utility patents per inventor in the United States over the 1970-2005 period.” Strumsky et al. (2010) provide evidence that the productivity of invention declines over time. Looking at total factor productivity changes from 1750 to 2015, Bonaiuti (2017) argues that humanity has entered an overall phase of decreasing achievement.
But what about Moore’s Law? Waldrop (2016) reports that the standard ‘S’ curve has also recently been seen to apply to the remarkable history of gains regarding chip performance.
Often there are theoretical limits to efficiency.
The best wind turbines in the best conditions achieve up to 45% efficiency, but there is a limit to possible turbine efficiency, which is 59.3%. This means technical improvements could not multiply efficiency by more than about 30%. Murphy (2011) says heat engines account for about two thirds of the total energy use in the U.S. Theoretically these engines could at most achieve 80% efficiency, although in general modern coal-fired power stations achieve around a high 40%, and gas turbines around 60%. Thus as Murphy points out, a factor two improvement is unachievable. He notes that for cooling the multiple is probably two to three, and for LED lighting it is under three. He says, “ … a broad swath of common devices already operate at close to perfect efficiency. Electrical devices in particular can be quite impressively frugal with energy. On balance, the most we might expect to achieve is a factor of two net efficiency increase before theoretical limits and engineering realities clamp down.”
Murphy estimates that overall efficiency gains are made at a mere 1% p.a. Such a rate is dwarfed by the task set above, which is to reduce the resource and energy costs of each unit of output to a small fraction of present values…while output doubles every 23 years.
There are limits to recycling.
Hickel and Kallis (2019) review recycling potential and conclude, “… only a small fraction of total throughput has ‘circular potential”. Around 44% is comprised of food and energy inputs, which are irreversibly degraded, and 27% is net addition to stocks of buildings and infrastructure. (Haas et al. 2015). Parrique et al. (2019) make the same point, noting that many resources are in small quantities bound into complex devices requiring munch energy to extract, and many go into construction and infrastructure.
The crucial ‘decoupling’ issue.
The fundamentally important element in the tech-fix position is the claim that resource demand and ecological impact can be “decoupled” from economic growth; that is, that new ways will enable the economy to keep growing and ‘living standards’, incomes and consumption to continue rising while preventing resource use and environmental damage from increasing, or reducing them to sustainable levels. Theoretical reasons for regarding this claim as highly implausible have been considered above. The following passages refer to the abundant empirical evidence indicating that the claim is seriously mistaken, to put it mildly. Reviews of the many studies that have examined achievements conclude that the decoupling effort has not enabled reduction in impacts while growth continues, and that there are strong reasons for thinking that it cannot do so.
A preliminary point is that it is important to take into account impacts ‘embodied’ in the imports to rich countries. Large fractions of the materials and energy going into goods and services being consumed in rich countries are inputs to production in countries from which goods have been exported to rich countries. Thus, the relevant studies are of “Material Footprint” (which includes the energy and resources in imports), not “Domestic Material Footprint” (which does not).
Another preliminary point is that “relative decoupling” refers to situations where GDP growth is accompanied by growth in impact but at a slower rate than growth of GDP, whereas “absolute decoupling” refers to growth in GDP accompanied by a reduction in inputs or impacts. Obviously, The tech-fix faith assumes that the latter can be achieved, on a very large scale. For example, if as Hamilton (2012) says the energy needed to produce 1kg of steel in the US is falling at 0.9% pa (relative decoupling) while GDP is rising at 3% p.a. then by 2050 GDP and steel production would be around three times as high as at present, and energy use in the production of steel would have grown by 200% - when the goal set above is an absolute reduction of the total energy use to below the present amount.
Recent reviews of the evidence on actual decoupling achievement could be regarded as having conclusively settled the issue (Alexander, Rutherford and Floyd 2018; Ward et al. 2016; Trainer 2017) but three recent studies provide additional, voluminous and overwhelming confirmation. (Hickel and Kallis, 1029, Parrique et al., 2019, Haberle et al. 2020.) Parrique et al. (2019) report on on over three hundred studies and review the work of around one thousand authors. Here are two statements of its findings.
"The conclusion is both overwhelmingly clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future."
"When it comes to aggregate use of materials, the evidence is clear and uncontroversial: there has been no absolute decoupling of resource use from economic growth. "
The review by Hickel and Kallis (2019) concludes, "Examining relevant studies on historical trends and model-based projections, we find that: (1) there is no empirical evidence that absolute decoupling from resource use can be achieved on a global scale against a background of continued economic growth. After examining reports on the possibility that ‘Green Growth’ is capable of achieving global sustainability they conclude that “…none of these … provide any evidence that it is.”Growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”
But the most overwhelming study has been by Haberle et al., (2020), referring to over 800 studies, and confirming the kind of conclusions given above.
What about carbon emissions?
Given the rapid uptake of renewable energy and reduction in PV, wind and battery costs it might be thought that the most promising area for future decoupling is to do with reduced carbon emissions. That is, will not the advent of renewables enable decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions?
Both Parrique et al. (2019) and Hickel and Kallis (2019) examine this possibility at some length but do not come to optimistic conclusions. Hickel and Kallis point out that the IPCC’s analysis of 116 scenarios achieving a limiting of global temperature rise to 2 degree almost all had to assume greatly exceeding the target in coming decades and then cutting carbon in the atmosphere down via large scale use of carbon capture and storage technologies, mostly growing biomass, burning it to produce power and storing the carbon. However it is widely recognized that these technologies have not been validated at scale, are speculative, uncertain, costly, risky and would require huge land areas, impacting on food etc. supply. Many analysts rule this gamble out; if it cannot be made to work we would have gone down an irreversible path to catastrophic emission rates. The main point here is that even low wind, solar and battery costs will not ensure sufficient reduction in emissions.
Both reviews then document the far from sufficient decoupling that is currently being achieved. Suffice it to say global emissions are rising. They contrast this with modelling of the rate of decline in emissions that would have to be achieved to meet the 2 and 1.5 degree targets. The conclusion Anderson and Bows (2011) come to regarding the rate rich countries would have to achieve is, “… decoupling must occur at a rate of 15.8 per cent per year … (p.12.)”. This would mean cutting them in half each 4-5 years … which is not remotely possible.
It is therefore not evident that sufficient decoupling is likely to be achieved quickly enough even in this area where there are clear alternatives to fossil fuelled energy. If effective and affordable ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere are not available after 2050 we will be stuck with far too much carbon in the atmosphere.
Nevertheless this is perhaps the one major area in which it would seem to be in principle possible to decouple, that is to have economic growth while carbon emissions fall. But a growing economy running on renewables would then shift the sustainability and decoupling problems to depletion of the resources renewable technologies need. (Nine tonnes of copper are needed for a big modern wind turbine + connections.)
‘Re-coupling’ seems to be occurring now.
The tech-fix optimist sometimes responds to this weighty documentation against the decoupling claim by saying that past achievement is not decisive, the rate can and will increase. Firstly some of the reviews, notably by Parrique et al. (2019) and Hickel and Kallis (2019), look at the grounds for this claim and conclude that future improvement is not likely; “Our claim is the following: adequate (i.e. absolute, permanent, and sufficient) decoupling is extremely unlikely to happen in the near future.”
In fact the outlook is worse than that. Some reviews find that the situation is deteriorating and that the reverse of decoupling is happening now (Parrique et al, 2019: 25). Hickel and Kallis say, “Currently, the world economy is therefore on a path of re-materialization and far away from any – even relative – decoupling.” The materials intensity of the world economy has been increasing in the twenty-first century, not decreasing. The same point is made by Kraussman et al. (2013), Wiedmann et al. (2014) and Giljum et al. (2014). Even the optimistic scenario in the Hatfield-Dodds et al. model shows that material use begins to increase after 2040.
The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth, technical advance, and decoupling.
Much and probably most of the productivity growth that has taken place now seems to have been due not to technical advance but to increased use of energy. Most previous analyses have not realized this but have analysed productivity only in terms of labour and capital input “factors of production”.
Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been due in large part to increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but so has the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging (Pelligrini and Fernndez, 2018). Fischer-Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%. Between 1997 and 2002 the US household use of energy on food increased 6 times as fast as use for all household purposes (Canning et al., 2010).
Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 16% of all energy used, not including several of the factors listed above (Canning et al. 2010). In some OECD countries it is reported as 20% (Diakososavvas, 2016). Similarly, the ‘Green Revolution’ has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.
Among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus futher decline in productivity are Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres and Warr (2009) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013). Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says “Our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) found that up to the 1990s technical advance accounted for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs. In general, its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.
This connection is very important because the availability and cost of energy is now increasingly problematic. The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long-term trends for EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling (Gagnon et al., 2009, Hall, Lambert, and Balogh, 2009, Ahmed, 2017,). Values for the new fossil fuel sources such as oil and gas from fracking are low. For tar sands and oil shale they are around 4 and 7. Values for renewables are also low; wind is best with an estimate around 18, biomass ethanol is c. 4 and biomass diesel about 2. The figure for PV is controversial, usually claimed to be 8 but some argue 2-3. (Hall and Prieto 2011, Weisbach et al., 2013.) Some analysts suspect that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10 (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014). Ayres (2009) and Ayres et al. (2013) believe that any productivity gains occurring now will probably disappear with coming rises in energy scarcity and cost.
The obvious point is that for this extremely crucial item, energy, the opposite of decoupling is happening; each unit is taking more and more energy to provide.
“But our economy is shifting to services and information.”
Another common belief is that the economies of rich countries are decoupling by “dematerialising”, i.e., shifting from the production of goods to production of services and information. Firstly, the effect is greatly reduced when it is remembered that many of the goods used are now imported so their energy etc. costs do not show up on rich world domestic accounts (see above). That aside, there is considerable evidence that this shift is not reducing domestic demand for materials and energy. Fix (2019) says of his review, ‘”I find no evidence that a service transition leads to carbon dematerialization. Instead, a larger service sector is associated with greater use of fossil fuels and greater carbon emissions per person. This suggests that “dematerialization through services” is not a valid sustainability policy.”
Hickel and Kallis (2019) find that, “As a proportion of world GDP, services have grown from 63 per cent in 1997 to 69 per cent in 2015, according to World Bank data. Yet during this same period global material use has accelerated, outstripping global GDP growth. The same is true of high-income nations.” They conclude, “…there is no historical evidence that switching to services will, in and of itself, reduce the material throughput of the global economy.”
Parrique et al. (2019 p. 42) directly contradict the dematerialisation thesis, reporting on evidence collected by Fix (2019) on 217 countries over the period 1991-2017. “To the question ‘do societies with a larger service sector actually dematerialise?’ Fix (2019) answers an unequivocal “no.” Looking at 217 countries over the 1991-2017 period … the service sector is actually as energy intense as the manufacturing one.”
The “Environmental Kuznets Curve’.
This term refers to another popular and consoling variation on the decoupling claim, i.e., that as economies grow environmental impacts increase but after a time decrease. However there is now at least considerable agreement that the thesis is incorrect. Much of the above evidence is saying that as rich nations are becoming richer overall materials use and ecological impacts increase. Previously Alexander, Rutherford and Floyd (2018), concluded, ‘If the EKC hypothesis sounds too good to be true, that is because, on the whole, it is false.’
Problems within the GDP measure.
The situation is worse when we consider the misleading nature of the GDP index. Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of ‘financial’ services. These stand for ‘production’ that only takes the form of keystrokes moving electrons around. A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches in ‘investments’. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, commissions, loans, interest, insurance and consultancy fees, all of which make a major contribution to GDP figures. In some recent years the finance industry made around 40% of US corporate profits. (Salmon, 2011). But most if not all of this effort produces nothing. It just rearranges ownership of assets, debts, and investments. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio, yielding a higher and more impressive value.
This means that the measures that should be attended to most if not solely in the analysis of decoupling are those dealing with material and environmental inputs, not those that simply manipulate numbers in electronic ledgers. The crucial question is, in those industries that are causing the pressure on resources and ecosystems is significant decoupling taking place? When output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food, vehicles and aged care is considered we do not find reassuring evidence of decoupling.
The enormous Ecomodernist implications for energy demand.
The main Ecomodernist texts make clear that the technical advances envisaged could not take place unless there was extremely large-scale increase in the amount of energy used. They look forward to shifting a large fraction of agriculture off land into intensive systems such as high rise greenhouses and aquaculture, massive use of desalination for water supply, processing lower grade ores, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially from mining those ores), and constructing urban infrastructures for billions to live in as they shift people from the land to allow more of it to be returned to nature. They do not think renewable energy sources can provide these quantities of energy, so their proposals would have to involve very large numbers of fourth generation nuclear reactors (which run on plutonium). How large? If 9.8 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, 321 GJ, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around 3,146 EJ. This means the nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 350 times as great as at present (ignoring losses in converting from electricity to the 80% of energy needed in other forms).
And remember, the resource base is deteriorating.
The general limits to growth analysis of the global situation makes it clear that the baseline on which Ecomodernist visions would have to be built is not given by present conditions such as resource availability. As Steffen et al. (2015) and many others stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration.
The evidence indicates that some but little relative decoupling is being achieved and virtually no absolute decoupling is evident. In a number of cases the best estimated decoupling rates indicate that as GDP rises 1% materials or energy used rise 0.6%. (Wiedmann et al.,2015.) This would mean that by 2050 normal 3% p.a. GDP growth would have multiplied it by 2.5, and that materials use would be 1.5 times as large as it is now. This is obviously far from keeping materials demand from increasing as GDP increases, let alone dramatically reducing it as is necessary for a sustainable world.
This has not been an argument against technology. Research and development and improving things are obviously important and in The Simpler Way vision we would have more resources to put into technical research than we have now despite a much lower GDP, because we would have phased out the enormous waste of resources that occurs in consumer-capitalist society. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that the way to solve our problems is to develop better technology. That will not solve the problems, because they are far too big, and they are being generated by trying to live in ways that require impossible resource demands. The big global problems have been caused by our faulty social systems and values. The solution is to develop ways and systems that don’t generate the problems and this requires movement away from affluent, high energy, centralised, industrialised, globalised etc., systems and standards. Above all it requires a shift from obsession with getting rich, consuming and acquiring property. It requires a willing acceptance of frugality and sufficiency, of being content with what is good enough.
Very satisfactory lifestyles are easily achieved by use of mostly simple and traditional technologies. Hundreds of years ago we knew how to produce not just good enough but beautiful food, houses, cathedrals, clothes, concerts, works of art, villages and communities, using little more than hand tools and crafts. Of course, we should use modern technologies including computers where these make sense, such as in modern medical research. But we don’t need much high-tech to design and enjoy high quality communities.
Some of our most serious problems are to do with social breakdown, depression, stress, and falling quality of life. These problems will not be solved by better technology, because they derive from faulty social systems and values. In fact technical advance often makes these problems worse, e.g., by increasing the individual’s capacity to live independently of others and community, and by enabling robots to cause unemployment. Especially worrying is the fact that Ecomodernist dreams would involve massive globally integrated professional and corporate run systems involving centralised control and global regulatory systems (e.g., to prevent proliferation of radioactive materials from all those reactors.) Firstly, this is not a scenario that will have a place for billions of poor people. It will enable a few super-smart techies, financiers and CEOs to thrive, making inequality far more savage, and it will set impossible problems for democracy because there will be abundant opportunities for those in the centre to ensure their own interests and to be corrupt and secretive. (See Richard Smith’s (2015) disturbing account of China today).
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