“But Can’t Technical Advance Solve the Problems?”

(Short account.)

Ted Trainer.

11.8.2016

The “limits to growth” analysis argues that the pursuit of affluent lifestyles and economic growth are the basic causes of the many alarming global problems we are running into. The levels of producing and consuming taking place in the world are far beyond sustainable.  There is no possibility of these levels being maintained, let alone spread to all the world’s people. We must shift to far lower levels of consumption in rich countries. (For the detailed case see thesimperway.info/LIMITS.htm.)

The counter argument most commonly raised against the limits analysis of our situation is that the development of better technology will solve the problems and enable us to go on living more and more affluently in constantly growing economies.  This “tech-fix” faith has recently been reasserted as “Ecomodernism.” (For the main statements see Asaef-Adjaye, 2016, and  Blomqvist, Nordhaus Shellenbeger, 2015. For a critique see Trainer 2016a.)

However there is a weighty case that technical advance will not be able to solve the major global problems we face, and that if a sustainable and just society is to be achieved there must be transition to some kind of Simpler Way.

Few seem to realise how big the problems are.

Here are a few illustrations of how far we have exceeded the limits to growth, and thus how enormous tech-fix achievements would have to be.

Š      By 2050 the amount of productive land on the planet per capita will be 0.8 ha (assuming we will stop damaging and losing land.)  The present amount required to give each Australian their lifestyle is 8 ha.  This means we are 10 times over a sustainable amount, and there is no possibility of all the world’s people ever rising to anywhere near our level.

Š      Almost all resources are scarce and dwindling, although only a few are using many of them.

Š      Many of the world’s ecosystems are in alarmingly rapid decline.

Š      The World Wildlife Fund estimates that we are now using up resources at a rate that it would take 1.5 planet earths to provide sustainably. (WWF, 2014.)

Now add the absurdity of economic growth.

These and many other facts and figures only indicate the magnitude of the present problems caused by over-production and over-consumption.  But to this alarming situation we must now add the fact that our society is 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 9.7 billion people have come up to the “living standards” we would have by then, the total amount of economic production in the world each year would be about 20 times as great as it is now.  Yet the present amount of production and resource use is grossly unsustainable.

Huge figures like these define the magnitude of the problem for those who  believe that technical advance can provide affluence and growth for all. 

Faith-based tech-fix optimism.

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, the water shortage, the scarcity of phosphorus, the collapse of fish stocks, etc., and how likely are these possible beak-throughs?   At this point we usually find that the belief in tech–fix is nothing but a faith, and one that has almost no supporting evidence.  

Many astounding advances being made all the time in fields like medicine, astronomy, genetics, sub-atomic physics and IT, but these are not central in this discussion. The focal issue here is whether there is reason to believe that technical advance is likely to solve the resource and environmental problems being generated by affluent lifestyles.  The case against this belief is very strong.

            Some evidence on technical advance in the relevant fields.

Firstly, it should not be assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in the fields involving materials and energy use. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production.  He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (Ayres, 2009, Figs. 4.1 and 4.19, p. 127.) Ayres’ Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. (p. 128.)

Most indices of technical progress, efficiency and productivity show there has been long term decline and the annual gains are now close to zero.  In addition it has recently been realized that 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. But the productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on 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

“But what about Moore’s law, where by computer chip power has followed a steep upward curve?”  Yes in some areas this happens, for a time, but the trend in IT is highly atypical.  (By the way, the advent of computers has not made much difference at all to the productivity of the economy; indeed the recent fall in productivity while IT has boomed is labelled “The Productivity Paradox.”)

The crucial “decoupling” issue.

The fundamentally important element in the tech-fix or Ecomodernist position is the belief/claim that resource demand and ecological impact can be “decoupled” from economic growth. In other words, the claim is that new ways will enable the economy to keep growing and “living standards”, incomes and consumption to continue rising while resource use and environmental damage are reduced to sustainable levels. All the available evidence seems to show unambiguously that little or no decoupling is being achieved. Here are some quotes from the approximately 30 studies reported in thesimplerway.info/DECOUPLING.htm.

Š      Weidmann et al. (2014) show that “…resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

Š      Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.”

Š      Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

These sources and figures indicate the apparently total lack of support for the tech-fix and Ecomodernists’ faith. That belief assumes that there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that by 2050 energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 30. There appears to be no Ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think any general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale. (I have made about five attempts to have such evidence sent to me from the leading Ecomodernist authors, without receiving any.)

Note again that the baseline on which tech-fix believers must build is not given by present conditions such as resource availability. It is one of accelerating deterioration.  By 2050 the ores being processed will be much poorer than they are now.

Research and development and improving things are obviously important and in The Simpler Way vision there would actually be more resources going into socially-useful 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 serious mistake to think that the way to solve our serious global problems is to develop better technology.  The problems are being generated by the determination to live in ways that generate impossible resource demands, and by the associated systems, most obviously be an economy that must grow all the time.

The main goal of The Simpler Way is to show that we could easily build alternative communities that provide a high quality of life for all the world’s people while dramatically reducing global resource and environmental impacts. The basic settlement pattern would be around the highly self-sufficient, cooperative and self-governing local economy, using mostly local resources to meet local needs. Life satisfactions would come mostly from non-material pursuit such as gardening, crafts, one’s livelihood, and contributing to community functioning via working bees and committees.

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, crafts and cooperative arrangements.  Of course we should use modern technologies including computers where these make sense.  But we don’t need much high-tech to design and enjoy the kind of high quality communities that all the world’s people could share.    

 

 

For a detailed account of The Simpler Way vision of a sustainable and satisfactory society see thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

For a more detailed discussion of tech-fix faith see thesimplerway.info/TECHFIX.htm

 

Asafu-Adjaye, J., et al., (2015), An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April, www.ecomodernism.org

Ayres, R. U., (2009), The economic Growth Engine, Cheltenham, Elgar,.

Blomqvist, L., T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenbeger, (2015), Nature Unbound; Decoupling for Conservation, Breakthrough Institute.

Diederen, A. M., (2009), Metal minerals scarcity: A call for managed austerity and the elements of hope, TNO Defence, Security and Safety, P.O. Box 45, 2280 AA Rijswijk, The Netherlands.

Giljum, S., M. Dittrich, M. Lieber, and S. Lutter, (2014), “Global Patterns of Material Flows and their Socio-Economic and Environmental Implications: A MFA Study on All Countries World-Wide from 1980 to 2009”, Resources, 3, 319-339.

Wiedmann, T. O., H. Schandl, M. Lenzen, D. Moran, S. Suh, J. West, and K. Kanemoto, (2015), “The material footprint of nations”, PNAS, 6272 -6276.

World Wide Fund for Nature, (2011), The Energy Report, WWF and Ecofys.