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Limits On Growth of Energy Use and Economies

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the but-infinite-growth-sounds-fun dept.

Power 482

snoop.daub writes "Dr. Tom Murphy, professor of astrophysics at UCSD, has a new blog called 'Do The Math,' and the first few posts are doozies. In the first, he shows the impossibility of continued exponential growth in energy use. Even if a new, 'free' energy source is developed, thermodynamic limits on efficiency mean that the heat associated with converting this energy into useful work will increase the temperature of the earth to unbearable levels within 300 years. In the second, he extends the argument to economic growth. The timescales there are faster, only 50-100 years. Fascinating stuff. Time to stop breeding, folks, or to get our butts into space."

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Heat Sink (1)

wsxyz (543068) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966714)

He's not taking into account what a really big CoolerMaster can do for that heat problem.

Re:Heat Sink (1)

sycodon (149926) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967288)

I must have missed the press release detailing how our energy production is rising on an exponential curve.

No One (2, Insightful)

salesgeek (263995) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966744)

No one who has predicted the end of the world has been right, to date.

Re:No One (2)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966852)

And he's not predicting the end of the world. He's simply saying that our economy depends on the assumption of growth, but growth can't reasonably be expected to continue forever.

The artificial world that must be envisioned to keep economic growth alive in the face of physical limits strikes me as preposterous and untenable. It would be an existence far removed from demonstrated modes of human economic activity

No "the world is going to end." Unless we plow right into it and decide that rather than adjust to a steady state economy, we are just going to nuke everyone else so we'll be able to expand our economy again.

Re:No One (3, Interesting)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966896)

Did he do this one?

Calculate how long it will be until, at given birth and death rates, the bounding surface of the volume of human flesh on the planet will be expanding outward at a rate equal to the speed of light?

Hint: The answer is in the low 4 figures.

Re:No One (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966952)

I heard that figure placed at 5000 years, but that was 10 years ago, so maybe just 4990. I have no idea if that was him or not, but I think it's likely his scenario would happen before that happens.

Re:No One (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967124)

I forget the exact number, but it's somewhere between 1200 and 1400 years. Pretty shocking.

His numbers are cute, but we're far more resource-limited than that. Energy is just the one that we're battling because it's controlled by a cartel, giant forces propagandize its economic activity, and we're all scared shitless of having to walk to work, because we know there's no work within walking distance of any part of town we'd be willing to live in.

Re:No One (0)

erroneus (253617) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967046)

Basically, he says that everything has a saturation point. That comes to me as no surprise. I've been complaining about the business mindset of "if you ain't growin' yer dyin'!" for years and years. You know what else thinks like this? Bacteria. It feeds and grows and feeds and grows until there is nothing left to eat... and then it dies... feeds on itself while it dies... but dies.

We do the same thing in a much more complex way... mixed in with some ideals, some gods and other justification, but we will do what it is in our natures to do. Unfortunately, greed is just part of our living nature... not human nature, not animal nature, but living nature. All living things, when given the opportunity, will grow itself to death. This is why balance in ecosystems are so important. In the world of man, we use laws to balance out our natural tendencies... unfortunately, some have been using government and law to enable, rather than to limit their living natures... you know the ones we talk about -- **AAs, Big Energy, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big GM-Foods, Big Money and on and on... (Did I mention Big MIC?) What they are doing is upsetting the balance which hundreds of years ago, some people had the wisdom to try to create and maintain. All they care about is "growth" and paying no mind to the problems they create.

It's a little depressing seeing things as I do... it would be nice to go back to Regan mentality where going into debt is a fun and exciting way to live... life was good in those days... no one looked down the road to see what was wrong with that kind of thinking. And shame on Regan who was old enough to remember the life after the great depression and the lessons it taught the people.

Re:No One (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967112)

When people say that we can't keep producing more and more and therefore capitalism is bound to fail because it relies on growth, they admit that they don't understand economics. Growth in economics terms refers to increasing value, not more production. Economic growth, true exponential growth, can continue forever, even though we certainly can't keep using ever more resources.

Re:No One (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967006)

No one who has predicted the end of the world has been right, to date.

Beautiful example of a straw man argument. Thank You.

Re:No One (2, Interesting)

HornWumpus (783565) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967010)

He's not predicting the 'end of the world' he's setting up a strawman (that anybody expects exponential growth forever) then knocking it down like a high school freshman who's just discovered exponents lead to big numbers.

Why it got on /. is another question. Lame editors feeding a blog pimp.

Re:No One (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967066)

"Exponential growth forever" is, in fact, the explicit assumption of most western policymakers.

How do you justify the First World not simply sharing half its wealth with the Third World? A variety of ways, but the favorite is always "Third World countries will grow richer, if they just adopt the right policies".

At the same time, what are the medium-to-long term projections/expectations for every developed economy? That's right: exponential growth. Forever. If you try to insert a cut-off point on the growth curve, lots and lots of people will get very very upset.

Re:No One (1)

Genda (560240) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967050)

That's the nature of all singularities (or in this case asymptotic curves in the approach to vertical lines), all the rules break down, and things get completely unpredictable. Long before we got close to any of these failures, the social fabric would disintegrate, the global infrastructure would collapse, resources would deplete, plant and animal diversity would evaporate, and life would get exceptionally challenging. If fact we would probably extinct ourselves. Of course life would almost certainly go on and in ten or twenty million years, things would be good as new sans people.

The real problem here is that as long as humanity chooses to function inside bankrupt games: 1) The National Sociopolitical State Game 2) The Personal Profit Game 3) The Socioreligious Game or 4) The Dictator Game, that the predictable outcome for humanity is repeating cycles of civilization then collapse ultimately using up all the nonrenewable resources and pinning humanity to a slow spiral down.

Sanity might look like a non centralized global authority, design expressly to come up with plans for sustainable human development ultimately resulting in mass migration off the planet (while preserving as much of its current value of the planet as possible.) Ultimately the small human remnant (maybe 100,000,000) on Earth might remain to enjoy and manage the garden planet for the future evolution of new sentient life (Primates, Cetaceans, Parrots and Crows and Cephalopods.) In any case there would be a wealth of new habitats, and humanity would have the technology to evolve itself into the endless forms and functions needed to inhabit these new habitats and thrive. We can't even begin to imagine the possibilities and permutations. None of that is possible however without first addressing the problems that face us today.

Re:No One (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967144)

Your plan for a steady state, sustainable planet is already under way the only problem with it is that it seems to require the dismantling of the industrial state that would make continued growth through space exploration possible. It will more likely lead us to a reduced population living in cramped quarters and using some sort of commuter rail to take us to and from whatever local farmland we're still allowed to use. Most of the planet would simply be off limits.

Every time I mention the actual name of the plan I get modded out so I won't mention it this time. You might look and see what Carrol County, Maryland formally withdrew from, however.

Think about it. Make an effort. (1, Insightful)

toby (759) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967128)

Think very hard about what is unique and unrepeatable about this moment in history. Now extrapolate 50 years ahead. All of a sudden, those remarkable, delicate and doomed circumstances that make your life so pleasant right now - DON'T EXIST (food, clean air, water, infrastructure, toys, relative afflluence, relative safety). Just because they have existed during the few years you've been alive doesn't mean that happy circumstance shall continue. All available evidence, and any thorough projection (yes, there have been many over the past half a century, mostly with essentially the same clear message), makes it pretty clear this brief light bright period in the West is ending. It didn't have to be this way but a lot of very poor choices were made (and continue to be made).

Re:Think about it. Make an effort. (2)

salesgeek (263995) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967232)

Now extrapolate 50 years ahead. All of a sudden, those remarkable, delicate and doomed circumstances that make your life so pleasant right now - DON'T EXIST (food, clean air, water, infrastructure, toys, relative afflluence, relative safety).

This thinking is a great plot device for movies, but historically speaking, mankind has survived quite a bit.

It didn't have to be this way but a lot of very poor choices were made (and continue to be made).

Those bad decisions do not need to continue to be made, and there is no guarantee that non-western world leaders will not make the same or worse mistakes in the future.

I love this (1)

Genda (560240) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966778)

Could someone please sit down with key leaders and explain to them in plain English (or the languages of their choice) why virtually all the premises upon which our society is built, fail the test of exponential growth. Even the national debt. As it currently exists, if we were to take 100% of the income from every American today, it would not pay off the national debt. Its all a ponzi scheme and the idiots running the ship have simply run aground. Its time to get straight, tell the truth, clean up the mess, and make the planet fit for human habitation on all levels. We start by fixing the disaster that our economy(s) are/is, and we get on with the SANE job of designing then implementing sustainable future.

Re: I love this (0)

geekoid (135745) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966880)

"As it currently exists, if we were to take 100% of the income from every American today, it would not pay off the national debt. "

False. but hey, I don't really except anyone to understand what the national debt actual is.

OTOH, that line did spare me from reading the rest of your post, since It is probably as accurate.

Re: I love this (4, Insightful)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966900)

Denial is a powerful instinct. You can tell them the ship went aground a long time ago, and they still won't believe it.

Re: I love this (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966916)

Its time to get straight, tell the truth, clean up the mess, and make the planet fit for human habitation on all levels.

He didn't give a time for when this would occur, unless I missed something. There's a graph which shows the economy reaching 98% by the end of the century, but he makes it clear that's not a prediction of WHEN it will happen, this was just an example to illustrate the point.

In other words, no one is saying the end is nigh, because it's probably not. Don't sound the alarm that the economy is about to hit the ceiling. There are more down-to-earth reasons to reduce the debt and stop burning the environment like they're making more of it, reasons that won't make us sound insane.

Re: I love this (2)

Nicolai Haehnle (609575) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966924)

As it currently exists, if we were to take 100% of the income from every American today, it would not pay off the national debt.

So what? I'll let you in on a little secret: the people who actually own all those treasuries do not want it paid back. It's really that simple. [1]

They hold on to those treasuries because they want to keep the value represented by those treasuries rather than spend it, and they would scream bloody murder if you took the treasuries away from them, because there is no other comparably safe interest-earning asset around.

What's even better is that if some of those people do decide to spend the value represented by the treasuries, this will drive up GDP and it will drive up tax revenue. And magically, the amount by which tax revenue will increase automatically will be exactly the amount necessary to pay out the treasuries. That's a simple accounting equation.

Could someone please sit down with key leaders and explain to them in plain English (or the languages of their choice) why virtually all the premises upon which our society is built, fail the test of exponential growth. [...] Its time to get straight, tell the truth, clean up the mess, and make the planet fit for human habitation on all levels. We start by fixing the disaster that our economy(s) are/is, and we get on with the SANE job of designing then implementing sustainable future.

That's a bunch of big, hollow words. Null content. Come back when you have workable proposals instead of hot air.

[1] Of course, they do want to get their principal back when those treasuries expire, but they'll just "reinvest" that principal back in new treasuries, which is effectively the same as not wanting to get paid back at all.

Re: I love this (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967164)

So what? I'll let you in on a little secret: the people who actually own all those treasuries do not want it paid back. It's really that simple.

[blah blah blah]

Of course, they do want to get their principal back when those treasuries expire, but they'll just "reinvest" that principal back in new treasuries, which is effectively the same as not wanting to get paid back at all.

Such a dazzling display of economic analysis leads me to conclude that you work for the US Treasury Department.

Re: I love this (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966990)

I wonder if people would just clue up and stop whining about the national debt?

That debt is in the form of short, medium, and long-term loans. And it's continuously recycled by people buying new bonds to replace the ones that just expired. The amount we actually owe in interest this year is a small portion of this year's budgetary outlays. About half of the defense budget. Roughly $1000 per American.

And your portion of it is, if anything, proportional to your portion of the tax revenues. So unless you're filthy rich (and therefore not entitled to whine about what being an American costs), you're not paying even a 1/population share of it, you're paying some tiny fraction of that.

The fact that you focus on the debt at all means you're a sucker for propaganda.

Focus on the things we're doing with that money. Make the government more efficient. Change the rules for Congress so they can't play political chicken with the economy. Make the Bush family pay their entire wealth to cover part of the cost of the wars they started and profited from. Cheney, too.

Re: I love this (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967258)

I wonder if people would just clue up and stop whining about the national debt?

That's about as likely to happen as people cluing up enough to stop whining about Bush/Cheney

Re: I love this (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967024)

Actually you're wrong on the debt. Stopping it from increasing requires an increase of 25% beyond current tax levels (or a cut of 25% on spending, or a bit of both). Paying it off requires more. I propose we pay it off in 7-years, like an auto loan, then reclaim the value of the dollar. Seriously, if you make $30,000/year, you may be able to buy a $30,000 car. If we make $14T/year, we should be able to pay $14T in debt.

Here's how the payment plan [calculator-loan.info] works out if you can issue bonds at 3.5% interest. It's only 180B/month or 15.4% of GDP. I wonder what else slipped under the rug while the media was focused on the debt? Slashdot's "favorite" Senator Hatch was on CSPAN-2 while the House was voting on this.

There's one thing wrong in the assumption in TFA. Earth is not a closed system. Heat is continuously vented to space and in 300 years we may create technology to dump excess heat elsewhere (i.e. laser propulsion/beamed power using thermopiles and/or steam turbines as an energy source). The poles serve this purpose right now, especially Antarctica.

Re: I love this (1)

erroneus (253617) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967084)

You're a communist!!!

(Good for you. I approve of communism... too bad it has never existed in human history... no one seems to be able to get beyond that "necessary step" of a totalitarian leadership that equalizes everyone... well, everyone except the leadership and their good friends.)

I think more and more people are waking up to the reality of unsustainability but still, there are far more who continue to worship at the altar of wealth, power and greed thinking they can't be happy unless they have it all.

Malthus (1, Insightful)

turbidostato (878842) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966784)

So this Prof. Tim Murphy just has rediscovered Malthus... and it only took him 200 years. Wow!

Re:Malthus (-1, Flamebait)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966938)

...right, that's what the article says. Entirely. Good job! You're so smart! Now here's a ball, go off and play with it and let us grownups discuss grownup things!

Time to stop breeding? (2)

roc97007 (608802) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966788)

You're telling geeks to stop breeding? Isn't that redundant?

Re:Time to stop breeding? (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967002)

You have to say it twice. Most of them parse it probabilistically as a typo and think you're telling them to stop breathing, since the actual term is so rarely in their paradigm.

Larry Niven had the idea already! (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966804)

Seriously, heat build-up was part of the reason for the multi-hundred trillion plus population of the Puppeteer's to move their homeworld into a further orbit.

Then they learned that the whole galaxy was going to be exposed to a massive radiation wave caused by some black hole collapse in the galaxy's core.

We should plan for that.

Re:Larry Niven had the idea already! (1)

dwywit (1109409) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967018)

He also solved the energy supply problem - all we have to do is start with a ringworld, then move on to Dyson's sphere.
If we get cracking, we might have it done a few thousand years.

Population is self managing (3, Interesting)

MikeB0Lton (962403) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966812)

If/when we ever get to the point that the human population is too large to be sustainable, it will correct itself. History shows us that famine, war, and plague occur when we run out of resources or populate an area too densely. Some of the strong, smart, and lucky will survive to repopulate.

Re:Population is self managing (3, Insightful)

geekoid (135745) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966884)

"strong, smart, "
  I wouldn't make the assumption.

History is filed with angry stupid mobs killing smart people.

Re:Population is self managing (2)

erroneus (253617) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967130)

History has shown us that the first few mass extinctions on the planet were caused by overgrowth of various life forms which changed the atmosphere to a critical point which resulted in almost all life on earth to die. There was this great documentary on the most toxic element in the universe I saw not too long ago. It really put a lot of things into perspective for me. Sure, I didn't really learn anything new, but the problems most of us have with knowledge is that we tend to not put those pieces of the puzzle together right to get the real picture. (Hell, for a great many of us, we collect puzzle pieces and then give up on putting them together entirely... it's just easier to say "god did it! I'm so smart and I can't understand it so what else could it be?")

What is that most toxic element? Should I say? Or should I let someone else say it? I'm sure someone will...

He misses one HUGE assumption (2, Insightful)

trout007 (975317) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966816)

The big problem with his assumption is that in 1400 years our knowledge of physics doesn't change. It's like an an aysos in the 1800s saying we won't be able to keep our homes lit because we will have killed off all the whales. I'm not saying I know the answer, just I am smart enough not to claim exponential energy growth using today's technology.

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966920)

Yep. They (end of the world scientists) have been claiming that we will soon run-out-of-x or have-too-many-babies-to-allow-for-y for decades. They always ignore (because they're impossible to guess) the advancements of future technologies, namely our ability to get ever more efficient with our resources (sometimes EXPONENTIALLY so).

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (1)

greghodg (1453715) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966984)

Building a 4mm thick sphere of 100% efficient solar collectors at an earth's radius around the sun seems like a lofty goal within 1400 years. The only assumption is that the laws of thermodynamics don't change. That is the only assumption made that would make any difference.

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (4, Insightful)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966988)

No, you're simply claiming perpetual technological growth to compensate for physical limits. At some point you hit diminishing returns - even with technology. Compare a Pentium III from 10 years ago to a Quad Core i7 from today. Yeah today's machines are faster and have more memory - but not stunningly so. In fact, there's not so much difference between the machines as a 1977 XT with 128k, a tape drive and a monochrome monitor and a 1987 80386 with megabytes of memory, megabytes of hard disk space, a VGA monitor, sound card, multitasking, etc. Now leap forwards to 1997 and your Pentium II... better but only incrementally so.

You could argue that this scenario is specific to computers but it's not. This is why you don't have your flying car. This is why life expectancy has shot up from 50-odd years to the seventies and is hovering there. This is why cancer patients live longer free of the symptoms of their disease, but the overall mortality of their disease hasn't changed much. There are hard limits to technology, too. It would be foolish to ignore them.

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967174)

Well, there are also real physical limits to how much energy you can usefully consume. For example, lets say you'd like to watch 10k by 10k resolution HD video, generated on the fly from your thoughts, in each of your eyes at the same time as you're doing complex maneuvers in your rocket powered flying contraption at amazing speeds, while crawling the internet for solutions to your life long questions... whatever. The amount of energy you're using at that instant is... well... not that much on a global scale. All I'm saying is that our energy use doesn't have to level off from exponential because of "resource limits", but simply 'cause we can't find more entertaining ways of using more energy. (one can argue that ``well, if I had the energy, I'd ignite Jupiter into another sun, etc., but we're not talking about that... on an individual level, our max energy requirements aren't that much).

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (2)

wagnerrp (1305589) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967242)

So in order to explain why exponential growth of technology is not possible, you gave an example of a technology that has seen fairly consistent exponential growth for the last sixty years? I don't get it.

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (5, Insightful)

artor3 (1344997) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967086)

The difference is that his statement is based on natural laws, rather than assumptions about the source of the energy. Unless the fundamental laws of thermodynamics turn out to be wildly incorrect, his statement will stand.

Denying this by claiming that technology will always improve is like denying that there's an end to Moore's law. Yes, we've been able to find ways to keep it going so far. But by 2150, some quick math says that transistors would need to be smaller than the Planck length. It requires some serious magical thinking to believe that not only will we reach that target, but that we'll be able to keep making them even smaller than that!

Re:He misses one HUGE assumption (2)

Baloroth (2370816) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967146)

Exactly. Take food production. A few hundred years ago it took most of humanity most of their time and land to produce bare subsistence level of food. Exact figures from Wikipedia: in 1870, 70-80% of the US population was employed by agriculture. Now, its 2-3 percent (lots of ancillary jobs, or course, lets say its 7% counting tractor production etc.). Source. [wikipedia.org]And we not only feed our people (overfeed in most cases, with a lot of waste) we also export food. I'm not saying such things can happen in every area, nor that that rate is going to sustain itself forever (although hydroponics is an untouched field that has potentially near infinite yield. Actually infinite if we expand into space.) Humans will expand for quite a while yet.

You can't very well switch to a stable, none-expanding economy while its still expanding, and we have no idea what the face of technology will look like when we reach that point, so even speculating is just that, speculation (Star Trek, I'm looking straight at you). Warnings are good: humanity should be aware that as a culture the issues should be discussed and speculated over. But it is most certainly not the pressing issue many of these scientists often claim that it is.

Yawn.... (0)

n6kuy (172098) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966824)

Presumably, more government control of everything is the proper fix, right?

Re:Yawn.... (1)

sweatyboatman (457800) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966892)

obviously the invisible hand of the free market will sort it all out. that or the zombies. as long as I get a pony, I don't care.

Re:Yawn.... (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966918)

If we set standards to lower energy use, and let the market response with more efficient devices, yes.

Re:Yawn.... (1)

n6kuy (172098) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966986)

Yeah. I thought so.

That reminds me.. I need to pick up some more packs of 100 Watt lightbulbs on the way home tonight.

Re:Yawn.... (1)

sweatyboatman (457800) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967196)

you realize that you're proving geekoid's point (and refuting your own) right?

Re:Yawn.... (1)

n6kuy (172098) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967274)

Geekoid was proving my point.That the apparent answer to every "crisis" (even when there isn't a real one) is more government regulation.

Meanwhile, ima stock up on some more 100 watt incandescents. They'll hafta pry 'em from my cold dead fingers.

Re:Yawn.... (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967008)

Jacking off and bitching at your mom from the basement sure isn't.

Re:Yawn.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967214)

It'll do more good than making up infantile lies about people whose politics don't perfectly match your own.

Re:Yawn.... (1)

n6kuy (172098) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967224)

And besides, the government isn't our mom. and we don't have to let it keep us in the basement forever.

More Models & Extrapolation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966832)

Every time I see this Models & Extrapolation game I am reminded of yesterday, last year, a decade ago predictions that turned out flat wrong, and the 300 year time frame makes it unfalsifiable like the 10 year budget cuts.

The one place we should be employing the Precautionary Principle is get into space as Einstein, Heinline and Hawking have all recommended.

Re:More Models & Extrapolation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967044)

The one place we should be employing the Precautionary Principle is get into space as Einstein, Heinline and Hawking have all recommended.

That would be Heinlein.

And don't forget Schwarzenegger. "Get your ass to Mahs!" may only be the first step, but seldom has the space imperative been put so well.

Re:More Models & Extrapolation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967212)

You realize, of course, that we, actually our children, are being taught that we are a cancer or a virus on the face of the Earth. Why would those same people, and now our children, believe that it would be a good thing to spread that virus or cancer to another planet?

No, we're being setup for self extinction to save the universe. If it didn't sound so stupid, I'd blame the whole idea on aliens but because it is so stupid, it has to be the product of some of our best ecological thinkers.

Simple (4, Funny)

LoRdTAW (99712) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966838)

Since we have an abundance of energy we can simply turn our air conditioners backwards and cool the earth back down.

Re:Simple (1)

wierd_w (1375923) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967090)

In the rare occurance where you are not being sarcastic---- Please allow me to slap you silly.

Second law of thermodynamics: In a closed system entropy can only increase, and not dissipate.

In a nut-shell--- The energy you expend to control the heat, will produce more heat than you process, making the problem even worse.

The only useful solution would be to find a way to radiate the heat into space more efficiently than the earth currently does on its own. This would be difficult to do without something exotic like a space elevator with a great big honking heatsink on it, that radiates shitpiles of BTUs of blackbody energy directly into space.

Even *IF* you did that, then you would have the same long term problem that the voyager anomaly has--- the emitted blackbody radiation would act as low-level thrust against the planet, and would subtly disrupt the earth's orbit over time.

The glaringly obvious answers are:

1) Put a cap on energy use on the planet, so that energy production does not exceed thermal dissipation of the earth's atmosphere.

2) Move a substantial portion of our population off the earth.

By the numbers everything else will fail, barring a self-correcting catastrophe or two.

Re:Simple (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967262)

there are solutions to all the issues you raise. Radiate heat in more than one direction, and thrust will cancel out. Mine and refine in space, not adding to earth's heat budget. Genetically engineer humans to possess naturally what we require technology for now; means of heating and cooling, computation, communication, even transportation, all built into our bodies. Or as alternative to that just grow our equipment, transport and shelter biologically, energy needs drop. We already know prosperous people have negative population growth in the absence of idiotic religious ideologies against birth control, make more people prosperous and many problems go away (this is the opposite of what the small elite that control our politicians are currently striving to achieve)

Re:Simple (1)

fnj (64210) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967168)

Well, that might make our living rooms a little toasty, but since we will have made the earth nice and cool we can move outside.

Malthus (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966844)

We're all DOOOOoomed. Doommed.

I'm really tired of all this "being a human being is evil" nonsense.

So many out there would tell you to live your life under a rock, never have kids, never enjoy anything, because OMG THE EARTH IS DOOMED BECAUSE OF YOU.

I consume because I'm alive. That's what the world is here for. Deal with it.

Re:Malthus (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967074)

indeed, prosperous peoples have negative population growth. be happy, live happy and let's engineer solutions to problems rather than navel-gazing and whining. Most of the word's problems already have solutions, but for parasites and politicians in their pockets holding us back.

The Oil Drum (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966854)

These posts also appeared on The Oil Drum (www.theoildrum.com) a couple weeks ago. If anyone hasn't been there already, it has been the epicenter of all things energy-peakoil related on the intertubes since before the runup in 2008. It has a consistently high signal-to-noise ratio in the comments as well. Exceptional site.

Ridiculous study (2)

dada21 (163177) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966876)

Look how much has changed in 100 years, in 10 years, even in 1 year.

Things change quickly. There is no way to predict anything that will happen in 20 years properly when it comes to technology, which is driven by (1) warfare, (2) government research, (3) input costs versus need. I'm against 1 & 2, but in terms of technology chasing either speed or efficiency, we've been more focused on speed than on efficiency because energy is so damned cheap, and it's likely to stay cheap for the time being.

As long as energy is cheap, our focus will be on doing things faster or better, but not more efficiently, except where there is a financial incentive to.

If energy costs start to go up in a significant way, research will focus more on efficiency than on speed or quality.

For years I've wanted a simple, scriptable home automation system. I've played with all of the systems out there, but without smart outlets and smart meters, the systems are useless. Why aren't there smart outlets and smart meters that actually work? There's no need -- energy is cheap and easy to get.

This is fearmongering, pure and simple.

Re:Ridiculous study (1)

greghodg (1453715) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967060)

Did you READ the article? It's not fear mongering, nor does it have anything to do with technology, or efficiency. At the historical growth rate, in 1400 years we will be consuming more energy than the Sun produces. There's no fear mongering there, there's no technology that will prevent it, it's a simple calculation. But, it does assume the rate of growth equal to the rate over the last 400 years.

Re:Ridiculous study (1)

the_Bionic_lemming (446569) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967238)

What were we using for energy 275 years ago, what will we be using for energy 275 years from now?

We're already looking into anti-matter (and I'm pretty sure that anti-matter wasn't heard on the deck of a warship 275 years ago, nor was the word "Nuclear" but "nuclear" is on board ships now and who knows how soon for anti-matter) and 275 years from now people will be laughing at how we wasted time using silicone to do solar when we could of just harnessed the gravity principle* and used that for cheap and limitless energy.

what's the gravity principle*? Ask me in 275 years.

*(gravity principle is the placeholder for the name of the technology that makes the leap from gunpowder and whale oil to nuclear like we have done by now - just moved up another 275 years to what is accomplished by then).

Space is not an answer (1)

Fractal Dice (696349) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966882)

Space increases as r^3 (give or take a little gravitational bending) and the speed of light limits the rate at which the radius of inhabited space can grow. Any process that depends on exponential growth to maintain stability will quickly overwhelm our ability to expand outwards. At best we buy ourselves a couple more millenia - a blip in cosmic timescales.

Re:Space is not an answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967064)

Elegantly and concisely put, though the article author's argument is a little stronger because it gives upper bounds for the time scales involved.

Endless growth is impossible (4, Insightful)

MpVpRb (1423381) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966934)

You don't need a PHD or a complex study, just common sense.

Why do so many people in finance continue to insist on growth?

We should be focusing on steady state sustainability.

Re:Endless growth is impossible (1)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967056)

Why do so many people in finance continue to insist on growth?

It's how they are paid. A rising tide lifts all boats, and they want the rising tide as it makes their job easier and their remuneration higher.

Re:Endless growth is impossible (2)

Fractal Dice (696349) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967096)

Even in a near-steady state, there are pockets that expand and displace their surroundings at an exponential rate. Within the ecology of the planet, humanity itself is an example of this.

One possible "steady state" economy may be a continuous froth of bubbles - pockets of exponential growth draining money from the rest of the economy. Seen through the eyes of those riding the bubbles, it would look little different than our exponentially growing economy, you just have a much larger percentage of the population of the edges of society dropping off into the gutter during crashes.

As we get closer to the limit of *global* economic growth, is there really any point at which we shouldn't still reward *local* economic growth? Do the merits and flaws of different economy systems really change depending on whether or not you are playing a zero-sum game?

Re:Endless growth is impossible (1)

gstrickler (920733) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967178)

Money supply and inflation can grow indefinitely, because those are artificial constructs, not real systems (assuming the money isn't "hard currency"). However, economic activity/productivity can not grow indefinitely, there are limited resources (natural resources, labor resources, and consumption levels). When you look only at the monetary situation, you can be mislead into believing it can be sustained, however, when you look at the overall economic environment, it's obvious that it can't be sustained indefinitely.

Exponential growth is never sustainable (2, Insightful)

gstrickler (920733) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966950)

Exponential growth in any real (not imaginary/virtual) system must slow down when it exceeds some percentage of it's total environment. Eventually, it hits a saturation point and must slow down. While the exact percentage that defines saturation varies with the growth rate and environment, typically exponential growth can't continue once it reaches 50% of it's environment. So, on a very basic level, he has simply stated the obvious.

However, as heat can be converted to other forms of energy, there are ways to dissipate and/or use the surplus heat. Also, higher efficiency methods of converting heat into electricity or other useful forms of energy will delay the saturation point. So, he's correct in theory, and his details are probably not an accurate prediction.

Re:Exponential growth is never sustainable (1)

John.P.Jones (601028) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967114)

The real value of this post is not that exponential growth is unsustainable (a fact that is essentially impossible to refute) but the amount of time the current growth is sustainable (a vague approximation based on questionable figures) its the 300 year number that really needs to be addressed. I question how accurately the past energy production measures all forms of power produced including food sources grown by the sun. Underestimating these values (I believe likely) will overestimate the actual rate of growth and thus exponentially underestimate the amount of time we have at current growth rates.

do the math? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966954)

The academy of sciences didn't do the math when Pons and Fleischman made their claim of low temperature fusion-like data available to the world. The Catholic church didn't do the math when Galileo and Copernicus stated that the Earth was not the center of the universe. The US government never does the math when it comes to a balanced budget, they just generate more taxes to spend. Why should I care to "do the math" when the mess this planet is in never adds up. It's always the fault of the hungry consumer and never the arrogant, greedy powers that were.

Amazing that so many fight this (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966966)

In the USA we are struggling with the issues of illegal immigrants. One of the bigger issues is that few of the illegals contribute to society. They are more of a drain on society then the multiple neo-con wars. EU has been smart enough to say enough is enough. But we are not doing it here. Yet, it should be obvious to all that earth and in particular societies can not allow such overwhelming populations in. If nothing else, look at what is happening through most of the 3rd world. We need to get people to stop breeding like rabbits.

Larry Niven called. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966974)

He wants his concept back.

This who space thing doesn't make sense (1)

Biff Stu (654099) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966980)

At first I thought that the OP wanted to continue exponential growth by moving people into space. However, there's no place in the solar system that can sustain human life with anywhere near the efficiency of Earth. The resources in terms of energy to move a large portion of the population into space would be enormous, and I don't see how this endeavor could possibly be self-sustaining. It seems that the space option would only aggravate the problem. Then I though that perhaps the OP is suggesting a kind of Logan's Run type approach--we could use space as a means of disposing of excess population. However, there are other solutions for the Logan's Run strategy with far greater energy efficiency and without the problem of generating copious space junk in LEO.

Re:This who space thing doesn't make sense (1)

snoop.daub (1093313) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967194)

OP here. I mostly just put the space comment in there for fun. I agree that getting into space is a pretty big barrier to cross, even if the benefits could possibly extend the growth possibilities for a few centuries. But it's certainly not a quick fix.

Read "The Party's Over" (Heinberg) (4, Interesting)

stereoroid (234317) | more than 2 years ago | (#36966982)

I'm almost all the way through it. Very sobering stuff [richardheinberg.com], only a few bits I have quibbles with. Or, if you don't have the time, read the synopsis [postcarbon.org].

The point about the assumption of growth is an important one. The world's financial systems are built on that assumption i.e. anyone who lends money expects to make a profit on the loan, after inflation if applicable. That's true of all loans, from the smallest micro-loan to the trillions in sovereign debt owed by the USA.

Interesting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966996)

Why not simply shunt the heat into another universe?
What could possibly go wrong?

Re:Interesting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967070)

I preferred Rod. Rodney could stand to become less anti-social.

Stop Breeding? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36966998)

Well, only some countries have to stop breeding actually. Numerically speaking, European countries should fork away all day long.

Easy Solution via Biology (3, Interesting)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967042)

Soon we'll grow everything we need, we'll feed our equipment and housing rather than fuel it, let stuff grow rather than mine and refine.. Problem solved, population of ten or twelve billion humans living wealthy and prosperous lifetyles, energy needs go through the floor. As to the "Monsanto Type Personalty" problem that might arise with this, we use the time honored French Revolution solution.

Biophysical Economics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967052)

If, like me, you find classical economics to be about as useful as Ptolemaic epicycles or creationism for describing the real world, I suggest studying biophysical economics, which examines economic questions from the perspective of thermodynamics and other physical laws. One of the main concepts in biophysical economics is that of net energy (oftentimes called "return on energy invested.")

Net energy is the amount of energy available to do work once you subtract the amount of energy required to extract and process it. Tar sands in Alberta, for example, have a much lower net energy than the crude from the superfields of Saudi Arabia due to the amount of energy required to mine and process the tar sands. (One of the major limitations to biophysical economics, IMHO, is the lack of rigorous estimates of the net energy of current energy resources. Net energy curves are usually plotted without error bars, for example.) With net energy in mind, you should always disregard the folks who talk about energy resources strictly in terms of volume. For example, you could find a deposit of 10 million barrels of oil, but if it takes 9.5 million barrels worth of oil to extract and refine it, then the rest of society only has 500,000 barrels of oil to run tractors, create fertilizer, maintain existing infrastructure, and produce more human biomass.

A convincing case can be made that industrial economies are faltering not from the actions of Wall Street and the stooges in high finance, but the decline in net energy available to human civilization. The progress of the past few centuries has almost entirely been underwritten by fossil fuels, and the Green Revolution is a nice way of saying that we convert nonrenewable, low entropy energy sources into edible calories. But the net energy of present energy resources is significantly less than the “easy oil” that we found at the beginning of the twentieth century. So you basically have less net energy to go in the following buckets: real economic growth, human biomass growth, maintenance of current infrastructure, and energy required to remediate the environmental damage of industrialization (e.g., Fukushima cleanup). You could probably think of a few more.

Anyway, I could spend hours writing about this subject, as it’s profoundly interesting and does a wonderful job of explaining why shit’s heading south, but I’ll direct you to the experts should you want to learn more:

“Question Everything,” a blog on biophysical economics by Dr. George Mobus (PhD in computer science)

TheOilDrum.com for discussions about peak oil, peak net energy, etc.

Energy and the Wealth of Nations, a textbook on biophysical economics that will be released this November. The book’s authors have been studying energy return on investment and its relation to biological systems for many years now.

Re:Biophysical Economics (0)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 2 years ago | (#36967180)

All rubbish, as we have not even begun to tap the vast energy reserves of Earth. Thorium breeder reactors alone could fuel the growth of civilization for centuries. We live in a universe of plentiful energy.

all comes down to neoliberalism/consumerism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#36967080)

TFA is awesome - great to see scientists talk about economics, since the reverse is probably a lot less likely.

this is all inter-related. Other than the doomsday prophesying and fatalism - the simple fact is that humans are consuming too many resources and it is not sustainable. This itself is a direct result of neoliberal economic policy from the 80s onwards, the astronimic growth in consumerism and the ridiculous fetishism of equating GDP with happiness or wellbeing. The current economic model of 'developed' countries relies on ever-increasing growth, which means MORE consumerism. At the same time, we're applauding 'developing' economies for increasing their own GDP through usage of non-renewable resources. Capitalism cannot remain static - it relies on continued growth and that only means more resource consumption. Capitalists argue that these resources can be substituted and we can rely on technology to dig us out of this predicament, but it seems far from assured.

Don't forget it is also this consumerism that is the basis of the current global recession - consumer credit has vastly expanded over the last 30 years, after the wage-productivity gap (http://margotbnews.wordpress.com/2010/04/11/wage-productivity-gap-caused-crisis/) widened. But capitalism still needed our spending, so we all loaded up our credit cards and took on loans we couldn't service. Even though developed economies grew at a stupendous rate (based on the dubious GDP measurement), income inequality has widened. And NOW, after all this, conservative governments are dramatically cutting social spending, justified by the totally false equation of a national economy being similar to a household income - you shouldn't spend more than you earn. This is rubbish - sovereign economies (ie. not the eurozone) can print as much money as they like to avoid a default.

This whole thing is just a great excuse for the neoliberals to make out that we can no longer afford welfare, and that cutting any income support is financially prudent. And the masses just suck it up.

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