The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth

The electric vehicle (EV) has become one of the great modern symbols of a world awakened to the profound challenges of non-sustainability and climate change. So much so that we can well imagine it Deep thoughts The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything today could plausibly be “EV”. But, as Douglas Adams would surely have asked, if electric vehicles are the answer, then what is the question?

Let’s imagine the “perfect” electric vehicle: solar powered, efficient, reliable and affordable. But it is sustainable? Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy can help reduce the carbon footprint of transport. However, the benchmark for sustainability is not just the carbon footprint, but the material footprint: the total amount of biomass, metal ores, construction minerals and fossil fuels used during the manufacture and consumption of a product. The approximate tonne weight of an electric vehicle is made up of materials such as metals (including rare earths), plastics, glass, and rubber. Therefore, a global increase in the demand for electric vehicles would lead to an increased demand for each of these materials.

Each phase of the every manufactured product Calls for environmental costs: habitat destruction, loss of biological diversity and pollution (including CO2 emissions) from raw material extraction, production / construction to disposal. Hence, it is the increasing global material footprint that basically the reason for the double climate and ecological crisis.

The global material footprint has grown in step with the exponentially growing world economy (GDP) since the industrial revolution. This is mainly due to egregious Consumption of the super-rich in a socio-economic system based on growth without borders. Can we resolve this fundamental conflict between the pursuit of limitless growth and the resulting environmental degradation?

Exponential increase in the use of primary and inferred physical resources in the industrial age: arable land (a), fossil fuels (b), fresh water (c), metals (d), plastic (e). Recognition: Our world in data (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU).

ENTER TECHNOLOGY

Technological innovations and increases in efficiency are often cited as ways of decoupling material consumption from economic growth. While technology undoubtedly plays a crucial role in the transition to a sustainable world, it is constrained by basic physical principles and pragmatic economic considerations.

There are plenty of examples. The engine efficiency of airplanes has hardly improved in decades, as it has been for a long time work close to their theoretical peak efficiency. There is also a hard limit for the efficiency of photovoltaic cells from about 35 percent because of the physical properties of the semiconductors they are made of; in practice few exceed 20 percent for economic and pragmatic reasons. The electricity generation of large wind farms is limited to about one watt per square meter as a simple but absolutely unavoidable physical consequence of lag effects. The tremendous exponential increase in computing power over the past five decades will be Late around 2025 since it is physically impossible to make the transistors on the computer chip, which are already about 5 percent the size of the coronavirus, much smaller.

Whether it is the principles of classical, quantum or solid-state physics or thermodynamics, each technological solution sets different but unstoppable limits. Basically, physical principles that have made incredible technological leaps possible in the last century also inevitably restrict them. One would think that extensive recycling of materials would offset the efficiency limits. Recycling is critical; while glass and metals can be recycled almost indefinitely Materials such as paper and plastic can be recycled without any loss of quality just a couple of times before he is degraded too much.

In addition, recycling itself can be a Energy- and material-intensive process. Even if the laws of physics could (they cannot) be broken to recycle with 100 percent efficiency, the additional demand from the imperative for economic growth would inevitably require virgin materials. The key point is that efficiency is limited by physics, but there is no sufficient limit for the socio-economic construct “demand”.

Unfortunately the situation is even worse. Economic growth must be exponential; that is, the size of the economy must double in a specified period of time. As mentioned earlier, this has resulted in a corresponding increase in the material footprint. To understand the nature of exponential growth, consider the EV. Let’s say we have enough (easily extractable) lithium for the batteries that will power the EV revolution for another 30 years. Let us now assume that deep-sea mining currently supplies four times the amount of these materials. Are we insured for 120 years? No, because the current 10 percent Growth rate The demand for lithium is equivalent to doubling the demand every seven years, which means we would only have enough for 44 years. In fact we would be immeasurable maybe irreversible, Destruction of marine ecosystems in order to buy us raw material supplies for a few more years.

Exponential growth quickly and inevitably inundates everything that is finally available. For a virus, that finite resource is human population and, in the context of the planet, it is its physical resources.

The inevitable conclusion is that it is essentially impossible to decouple material consumption from economic growth. And that’s exactly what happened. Wiedmann et al., 2015 Conducted careful physical footprint surveys for several nations, including those embedded in international trade. In the study period 1990–2008, no country achieved a planned and conscious macroeconomic decoupling over a longer period of time. Claims to the contrary by the Global North hide the significant relocation of its production and the related ones ecological devastation, in the Global South.

Current suggestions for Ökozid eco Deep sea and fantastic exoplanetary Mining is a not surprising consequence of a growth paradigm that refuses to acknowledge these uncomfortable truths.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?

These observations lead us to a natural minimum condition for sustainability: all Resource usage curves are a must at the same time flat and all Pollution curves at the same time extinguished. It is this resource perspective that enables us to see why electric vehicles can help offset carbon emissions, but remain completely unsustainable under the limitless growth paradigm.

Sustainability from a resource perspective: Exponentially increasing resource consumption and environmental pollution (a and b) are not sustainable. We define sustainability as blanket use of resources (c) and erased environmental pollution (d). Photo credit: Aditi Deshpande

THE REAL QUESTION

We have argued that the inseparable link between material consumption and GDP renders the paradigm of infinite growth incompatible with maintaining ecological integrity. However, while electric vehicles provide a partial answer to the climate issue, within the current paradigm they will only exacerbate the larger anthropogenic crises associated with unsustainable resource use.

The real question is: how do we go about it alternative economic paradigms be based on the reconciliation of just human well-being with ecological integrity?

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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