Is sustainable growth an impossibility?

11 01 2011

Let me open with a small proviso: this post is far more theoretical in nature than the typical fare on this blog, so take as many pinches of salt with it as you wish.  I wrote it some time ago, but am prompted to post it now in response to what I feel is a complementary view on it by Paul Krugman on his blog over at the NY Times.  Whilst I don’t feel the fundamentals of the arguments are similar (they aren’t), I nonetheless feel that we are discussing the same idea: in short, that what people see as economic “growth” is, in my view at least, unnecessarily blinkered, when in reality it is people’s choices of what they value that creates wealth and growth.  Those choices are not pre-decided and can and will be revised as circumstances change.

Is sustainable growth an impossibility?

In short: no it is not.  While sustained growth of a given (real world) variable under certain conditions can certainly be shown to be impossible (or at the best existing only as a limit), the potential for as-yet-unimagined avenues for growth and change mean that growth can theoretically be sustained infinitely.


Malthus originally published his ideas in Europe at the end of the 18th century, and while his point that population increases in geometric progression (i.e. exponentially) has been borne out, that has yet to produce the implied catastrophe.  Now while the argument can be made that it either a) has occurred (or is occurring) but in non-obvious mean or b) is definitely going to occur, I purport instead that changes in human society which are impossible to predict will avert this outcome.

Fundamentally humankind is a highly adaptable organism, equally we are driven by the profit motive.  As the need for sustaining increasing population (i.e. preventing food riots/famine) outweighs the profit made by not altering the status quo (current cash crop profits, supermarkets forcing low purchase prices via monopsony) then humankind will veer towards alternative solutions, which at that point will be economically sensible and thus worthy of investment.

A second argument is that repeatedly throughout history technologically advancement has significantly changed the face of our civilisation, beyond what could have been imagined in previous generations.  While sci-fi authors of the 50s have accurately imagined some of the developments of the ensuing half-century, I nonetheless feel that people who believe in the “singularity” are validated by the notion that to people of Malthus’ time, we are already in a culture so totally different from their own that it would be impossible for them to imagine it; our “future” being unpredictable and qualitatively different from [their] “today”.  Thus it is impossible to say that growth cannot be sustained indefinitely, only that particular types of growth cannot be.

Humanity has consistently discovered deeper and more underlying fundamentals of the universe (or potential multiverse) in which we inhabit.  The eventual harnessing of those fundamentals generally involves a paradigm shift (an exponential increase) in the energy capacity of our civilisation.

Example: elements, underlying the development of chemistry, allowing for a huge increase in output of energy and economy.  Atomic structure, allowing us access to the strong nuclear force via fission and fusion, both of which pale in comparison to the potential energy output from matter/antimatter collisions.  However even our current understanding of the fundamental forces (which would imply an upper limit on energy production (e.g. harnessing all the energy from all stars in the universe)) may be flawed.  It may be that the creation of parallel universes via big bangs whose entire energy output can be channelled into our own is achievable.  I do not say this because I think it likely, but more to point out that history demonstrates that our understanding of reality, and what is really possible, fundamentally shifts, and with increasing regularity.

Example: if humankind digitises, our capacity for growth would increase exponentially- our requirements for sustenance would no longer be organic and thus the ability of the earth to produce subsistence level food would be irrelevant.  Developments in energy harnessing (fusion, high-efficiency solar conversion etc) would solve the “food” shortage.

The final argument is also technological, however it may not always hold true: historically advances in agriculture have consistently increased the world’s ability to generate subsistence.  It is possible that this may continue, although I would personally argue that the ability of evolution to increase the efficiency with which organisms transfer the sun’s energy into their own (i.e. by which food could be made more efficient to eat, or grazing animals to need less grass to live on) is on a geological scale compared to our own far faster rate of growth.  Thus eventually, unless something along the lines of an energy->matter converter is invented, food itself will eventually run out.

In conclusion- growth is sustainable, as long as our ideas about what needs to grow are flexible.