Article - Issue 9, August 2001

The fallacy of perpetual growth

Professor Med Thring FREng

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Dear Sir,

The fallacy of perpetual growth

By the time my great-grandson reaches my present age it will be the year 2085, and even a modest GNP growth rate of 3% per annum implies a 12-fold multiplication of use of resources by then. The 4% growth desired by our political masters implies a 27-fold multiplication, while the continuation of Moore’s Law (see Ingenia, May 2001, p. 23) would imply 256 (some 1017) transistors on a chip! If we engineers continue to try to produce ways of enabling the resource consumption of the inhabitants of the developed countries to grow at an exponential rate, my great grandson will certainly not be able to enjoy in 2085 the good life which I have.

We can define a Wealth Ratio (WR) as the ratio of a person’s possessions and consumption of energy, bytes of information and good food to those which are essential for a healthy, fulfilled life. Continued exponential growth of the wealth of us whose WR is already considerably greater than unity will certainly make my great-grandson’s life unbearable because of the harmful results of the work of engineers, especially:

  • pollution of the atmosphere, waters and land by chemical compounds, man-made radioactive elements, and natural radioactive elements disintegrated into breathable particles;

  • exhaustion of readily won minerals;

  • growth of deserts;

  • destruction of rainforest, wildlife and fertile land;

  • draining of aquifers.

At the same time well over half the world’s population ‘enjoys’ a Wealth Ratio which is a fraction of unity. Unless this poverty is largely eliminated in the first half of this century there is no chance of a good life for him because those of us who enjoy a WR greater than 6 or 7 will certainly have been swamped by the poor, either by disease, violence or sheer lack of adequate resources to maintain our high WR.

I pointed out in my book The Engineer’s Conscience (Northgate, 1980) that, to ensure the survival of our civilisation, we must shift our primary life objective from increasing our WR to improving our Quality of Life, because increasing wealth beyond the optimum actually causes a fall in the Quality of Life. In The Engineer’s Conscience I wrote: ‘Quality of Life is a much more subjective measure [than Standard of Living]; it expresses the fundamental emotional feeling of the individual, that his or her life is worthwhile, that they are preparing to face their own death with the feeling that they have not wasted their talents.’

It would appear that the highest Quality of Life is only accessible to those whose WR lies between 1.5 and 4. Below the WR of 1.5, shortages of life’s essentials prevents bodily health, whereas above 4 people judge their success in life by their WR rather than by the quality of their life.

I have calculated that the minimum consumption of energy needed to give someone all the real benefits of the Industrial Revolution is of the order of 0.3–0.5 TOE/c.a. (Tons of Oil Equivalent per capita/annum) so we can evaluate the energy consumption for a WR of 1 at 0.5 TOE/c.a. Eventually the survival of our civilisation will require all energy to be supplied by renewable sources. However, if we bring down the total world use of fossil carbon to some 1/3 of the present figure during my great-grandson’s lifetime then the atmospheric CO2 will level off, and this use could continue for several hundred years before the readily accessible sources of oil, coal and gas are exhausted.

To bring the world use of fossil carbon to 1/3 of the present figure and provide the whole world’s population with 0.5 TOE/c.a. – from a combination of fossil carbon and renewables – requires a very considerable development of renewable energy in both the developed countries and in the undeveloped ones. It also requires a complete change in our attitude to fuel economy in the rich countries so that we bring our individual consumption of fossil carbon down to the figure of 0.5 TOE/c.a. which is essential for my great-grandson to live his life in a healthy environment. The war for the lives of future generations will require wartime rationing!

The results of individuals ‘enjoying’ a WR high above the value corresponding to the highest Q can be clearly seen in the increased stress on people, increased fear of crime (in certain areas of the world the rich have to live in ‘fortresses’), increases in alcoholism and drug taking, increased spending on killing machines (hand-guns to ‘Star Wars’), loss of motivation to make efforts towards personal education and skill acquirement, increase in the number of ‘couch potatoes’ and other people for whom life has no meaning, increase in the number of broken and unhappy marriages, unwanted children, cancers of all kinds, coronary thromboses, nervous breakdowns and other stress- and pollution-related illnesses.

An increasing proportion of young people (including engineering students) in countries such as Britain, where we enjoy a high WR, do have feelings of guilt that we are living so well compared to the world’s poor, and at the damage we are doing to the environment we leave to our descendants. Unfortunately, most of the jobs offered to them are opposed to the real needs of my great-grandson because they are aimed at increasing the already high WR of a few people living now.

When I was asked by scientific or engineering students with feelings of conscience about their choice of industry to enter, I used to say: ‘Go into any industry (except killing-machine makers) and try to rise to executive positions, keeping your conscience alive. Then you will be in a position to make a positive contribution towards the survival of our civilisation.’

Only if enough members of the rising generation keep their consciences active throughout their lives can my great-grandson have any chance of enjoying a comfortable old age.

Yours sincerely

M. W. Thring Founder Fellow RAEng

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