To our leaders: we desperately need less growth, not more

Principal author:
John L. Clark


The US military recently published a report in which they warn that Peak Oil is as near as two years away. They stress that this is a threat that should be met with “a massive expansion of production and refining capacity.” Paul Krugman just published a long article where he called our attention to the upcoming dangers of Global Warming. But he asserts that we still need to be able to grow our economy. US Energy Secretary Chu is right there to support traditional economic solutions, which are rooted in an assumption of growth.

Note to all: this does not add up. No growth can be sustained indefinitely, and it is this fact that requires our undivided attention.

Our leaders continue to emphasize the need for continued, or—if it can be believed—increased growth in order to manage the immanent dangers that threaten not only our country, but our world. A dramatic array of these leaders have very recently confirmed that our energy is running out and our climate is speeding towards disaster, while at the same time insisting that we need exactly more of the same policies that have sped us towards this precipice in the first place. They gravely, and at great risk, understate or even mischaracterize completely the nature of the problem. It is our worship of growth that fueled our core societal problems; more growth only exacerbates the problem, and it is scientifically proven that growth cannot last very long. What happens when our core principle meets its natural limit?

Tellingly, the US military itself has recently said that oil production is dangerously close to its peak. The Guardian reports:

The US military has warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years and there could be serious shortages by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact.

Specifically, the February 18 Joint Operating Environment report warns that “[b]y 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” This is an extremely small window in which to act. Here, the military is simply confirming what we have known for decades. In 1956, Dr. H. King Hubbert used a mathematical model and observations of then-current trends in oil discovery and consumption to predict that US oil production would begin terminal decline between 1965 and 1970, and it did in fact peak in 1970. He and other scientists then applied the same procedure to analyze world oil production, estimating that it would peak around 2010. Now we see that both scientific modeling and observable reality agree that the lush environment of cheap fossil fuels that we have enjoyed since the industrial revolution will never again be available on this planet.

What will happen as they start to run out? The US military's report agrees that it is necessary to have a sense for the potential risk:

At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment. … One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest.

All of Hubbert's modeling is based on the observed trends of steady growth in oil production. In addition, our economic system assumes that this steady growth will continue. But by its very nature, growth rapidly pushes the underlying system to its physical limits. We are speeding furiously towards the cliff of energy withdrawal, hoping that new discoveries, new technologies, and our very economic system will save us. But these are all based on the old assumptions, the assumptions that end once we reach that edge, and we must not trust them to support us.

Centuries of oil-fueled growth—that we for so long assumed was necessary and right, and so few now want to stop—have triggered some drastic climate changes in the form of Global Warming. On April 11, Paul Krugman published a long article in which he strongly warns about the threats we face from a dramatically changing climate, and carefully considers the various options that we have put on the table for trying to avert this potential catastrophe.

If you listen to climate scientists — and despite the relentless campaign to discredit their work, you should — it is long past time to do something about emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

What were previously worst-case scenarios have become base-line projections, with a number of organizations doubling their predictions for temperature rise over the course of the 21st century.

Even with a bold warning about Global Warming and a nuanced economic analysis, though, Krugman does not take into account the fact that the rate of fossil fuel discoveries will soon start to decline. Even more, Krugman explicitly requires that any solution to Global Warming must have only a minimal impact on economic growth in the United States.

[T]here is a rough consensus among economic modelers about the costs of action. That general opinion may be summed up as follows: Restricting emissions would slow economic growth — but not by much.

That is, it would trim average annual growth to 2.31 percent, at worst, from 2.4 percent.

But how will we sustain this growth, seen to be necessary by Krugman, with ever-decreasing energy inputs? It is, in fact, impossible; to continue to protect this growth is to both provide support for the core tenet that itself supports this battery of problems, and to make putting on the brakes that much harder.

Even the Energy Secretary of the United States, Steven Chu, is aware of our core problems, but he also believes that we can outgrow our own addictions. On April 6, he gave a presentation titled Meeting the Energy and Climate Challenge at the 2010 EIA/SAIS Energy Conference. On one hand, he recognizes that our growth has limits. “The risks of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. We will live in a carbon constrained world.” On the other hand, he wants rapid technological growth to take its place. “To achieve our clean energy goals, we need rapid, large-scale deployment of technology.” How will we accelerate technology development and deployment with diminishing inputs of energy?

He also quotes from President Barack Obama, who once again emphasizes the general sense of faith in the power of growth:

Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.

Alex Steffan also responds strongly to Paul Krugman's article. As he says, we must not fall into “the trap of downplaying the potential consequences in order to appear more reasonable in an American debate that's been distorted out of any relationship to reality.” Steffan goes on to elaborate on what he sees as being some of the core problems with our dialogue, and he provides a very good analysis. As always, we must not simply be "reasonable" for its own sake, but rather, we must fight to be correct. Anything less is unjust and shameful. As Professor Albert Bartlett puts it, “zero growth is going to happen.” Our challenge is to ensure that we bring ourselves to zero growth in a coordinated manner.

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