Washington Post: Can we sever the link between energy and economic growth?
This is a very important story that is easily overlooked. Why?
People genuinely concerned about global economic growth frequently default into a Malthusian thought process. It goes something like this. We have X amount of economic activity today and that economic activity requires Y amount of energy and resources. If the whole world grows to our level of economic activity, then there must also be proportional growth in the amount of energy and resources consumed. (Economic growth and resource use are perfectly coupled.) It will exhaust the earth's reserves of energy and resources. The global economy will collapse. We must stop growth and embrace natural limits. Now this is true only given one very huge assumption that most people make without thought. The assumption? GDP (economic output) and the rate of energy/resource consumption are inextricably linked. Is this true?
Economic records for the United States show that food production and acreage of land devoted to food production were strongly linked prior to 1910. There were 310 million acres in production in that year. The United States population would triple over the next century. If you took Dr. Who's Tardis back to 1910 and told them this tripling was coming, they could easily tell you how much land would be needed to feed the extra mouths: 300 million multiplied by 3 equals 900 million acres … equivalent to all the land area east of the Mississippi. How many acres were in production 2010? There were 310 acres, just as in 1910. Food production and acreage usage decoupled. Improvements in farming techniques and technology not only fed the extra mouths with the same amount of land but created surpluses that could be shipped abroad.
What this chart suggests is that the same thing is happening with energy usage. The things we use are becoming more energy efficient. For instance, appliances use half the electricity of their counterparts from thirty years ago. Energy used in manufacturing and distribution just keeps getting more energy efficient. As shown in the graph, GDP and energy use were coupled until about the 1980s. Since that time, it appears they are decoupling. It is conceivable that in the next century or so that we could have a growing economy while actually having stabilization, even decline, in energy usage. (I don’t totally dismiss the objections by environmental economist like those mentioned in the article but I am skeptical that the limitations are as severe as they claim.)
I suspect that before very long we will see a similar decoupling of GDP from natural resources. Technology like 3-D printing, still in its infancy, holds the promise of reducing waste in the manufacturing and construction processes. Nanotechnology, using robots about 15 times bigger than an atom, is capable of breaking down substances and recombining the pieces into new substances at the molecular level. It is possible to imagine a day when almost everything we use comes from renewable substances or from nonrenewable substances that are endlessly reconfigured. Furthermore, it is likely that more of the global economy will be about services and digital products instead of physical products.
Now here the growth opponents will raise concerns about the impact these changes will have on the nature of work and on our communities. There are questions about endless consumerism, attempting to fill our lives with stuff and evermore exhilarating experiences. These are important questions but they are questions apart from the question of unsustainability, the idea that accelerated growth will of necessity lead to exhaustion of energy and material resources, as well as destruction of the environment. The latter is true only if you assume no innovation and creativity, the very traits that have been the hallmark of the global economy in recent generations. Moralists may be right that we should reign in our desires and change our relationship to possessions but we need not do so because of inevitable collapse. Appreciating this is critical to useful reflection on what it means to be the church in the twenty-first century.