Below is a presentation by Bjorn Lomborg at Creative Innovation 2013: Asia Pacific. I think this is a remarkable presentation. First a few remarks.
How much can the global economy grow? That is a big issue in economics and in environmentalism. Clearly the earth has a fixed quantity of resources. If the economy grows exponentially, then one day we run out of resources and the world system collapses. We must limit growth if we are to survive. It seems so plainly obvious. Limits to Growth was an attempt to quantify just how this all played out and to advocate for changes.
My Dad was a professor and research chemist during my childhood. He was intensely focused on energy. Limits to growth conversations were in the ether all around me during my junior high, high school, and college years in the 1970s. I volunteered in the 1980 John Anderson presidential campaign, in part because he wanted to impose a $.50 a gallon gas tax that would get us off of petroleum and move toward nuclear and renewable fuels. Limits to Growth (LTG) was very much a product of the thinking of the 1970s mindset but its influence is still very strong today.
But the problem is that the LTG framing is spectacularly wrong! In the video below, Bjorn Lomborg unpacks why this is so. LTG focused on five factors:
- Agricultural Production
- Natural Resources
- Industrial Production
Each of these was believed to be growing exponentially. Population was growing exponentially. It requires a certain amount of acreage to generate enough food to feed each person. Feeding this growing number of people will mean cultivating evermore acreage. Supplying basic goods to these people will mean exponential growth in industrial production, with an attendant rise in resource consumption and pollution.
What the scenario spectacularly overlooks is human innovation and substitution. For example, population is growth is slowing and will likely stop at between 10 and 11 billion in the second half of this century. The growth was a direct result of the life enhancing technology that caused a sharp decline in death rates. But birth rates took far more years to adjust. Thus, millions of children that would have died young in past eras were now becoming adults and having children. But overtime, the fertility appears to drop back down to the replacement rate and even lower in some places. People innovated.
Another example. The amount of agricultural land to feed one American stayed constant until about 1910, when 310 million acres were in production. Now if you went back in time and told Americans that the population would triple during the next century and asked them how much agricultural land would be needed they could easily tell you? An additional 600 million acres, or most of the land area east of the Mississippi. How many acres are in production today? 310 million acres, the same as 1910. Innovation and technology allowed us to become magnitudes more efficient in agriculture to the point that not only are we able to feed the additional Americans but we export food. This is called decoupling because the two variables of population and agricultural land use no longer move in tandem. Americans innovated.
Here is one chart from the video below that shows a similar development in world agriculture.
Even with population growth, the land needed for agricultural is projected to remain about the same, or a little higher by other estimates. More decoupling through innovation.
Then there is this recent chart. It suggests that energy consumption may be decoupling from economic output:
As Lomborg notes, innovation is the missing element in LTG. Through recycling of some non-renewable resources, using nanotechnology to redesign materials at the molecular level, and eventually substituting renewable materials for non-renewables, the possibilities for growth are inestimable.
There is a caveat here. As we innovate it is possible that we may not find it possible to innovate quickly enough on a particular challenge to avoid creating considerable hardship for segments of the human race at a particular time. I’m not suggesting we should be without caution, just that the limits idea is very flawed.
Here is the video. Enjoy: