12 August 2010

With growth, four planets is not enough


Maybe technology will come forward with new sources of energy and materials when the current ones run out. Let’s test that.


Imagine that technology makes such incredible advances that we can settle all the other rocky planets in our solar system (Mercury, Venus and Mars), convert them to earth-like ecosystems, and easily travel back and forth. This will multiply the surface area and resources available to us by a factor of 2.8.


How much extra time will that give us? Many would note that human civilization has been around for 10,000 years, so this fantastic advance might give us another 10,000 or 20,000 years.


This would be very wrong. If we all equaled China’s target economic growth rate of 11% per year, it would give humankind an extra 10 years! See for yourself: multiply 1.11 by itself 10 times.


Even at Australia’s modest growth target of 4%, it would give us only an extra 26 years. Not even one life span. A blink of an eye in the million year history of our kind.


Maybe incremental improvements in technology will help. Each new generation of jetliners is more efficient, at a steady 1.8% per annum. Unfortunately, air travel is growing at 5% per annum, which leaves a net increase in emissions of 3.2%. Where does that leave greenhouse reduction targets? We might as well train pigs to fly!


Or consider the move to ethanol blend fuel. Filling your car with E10 gives you a warm feeling and reduces the net emissions by 3%. At an economic growth rate of 4% per year, this measure was overtaken in the first 9 months!


Remember that population growth and economic growth are inseparable from resource usage and energy increase. So all technological efforts to develop green energy, cut consumption, and find new resources will be ultimately futile, as long as growth continues.


Our universities continue to teach new generations of economists that growth equals prosperity, and that paradigm is deeply ingrained in our politicians. But it is surely easier to change the laws of economics than the laws of physics. We need to teach that sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms, and instead to seek prosperity without growth.


 Ian Bryce, BSc, BEHons  is a Space engineer, and university lecture in aerospace (currently with UTS).  Ian is also a Senate Candidate for NSW in the 2010 Federal Election.

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