Is Infinite Growth Possible

As a forest grows, it consumes grassland, wiping out the grasses and many of the lifeforms that rely on a grassland ecosystem for their survival. Human growth relies on consuming forests and grasslands, converting both into houses, furniture, paper, farmland, mines and a range of other products. As humanity is now discovering destroying forests has the potential to impact on our own quality of life and even our ability to survive. It is also robbing fellow humans of their homes, decreasing biodiversity in the ecosystem (which impacts science and medicine, not to mention just the pure joy at living in a world of such diverse lifeforms), and reducing the carbon sink and reducing the quality of the air we breath. The forests are the planets CO2 scrubbers. As any astronaut knows, the single most important part of a spaceships life support system.

In my assessment unconstrained growth can not be infinite. Ever. The question is the scale of the system. When you are at the start of growth, it seems infinite, just like the Jungles and forests of Australia must have seemed an infinite resource to the early settlers. But when you are nearing the apex of growth, the point where the resources that drive growth start to decline, you need to be aware of this or you will be consumed by the implosion that results when growth ceases to be sustainable.

There are two alternatives to this inglorious end. A little of each alternative is probably necessary for us humans at this juncture in our growth cycle.

1. Adaptation. This is simple. If you are at the point where continued consumption of a resource will lead to the demise of that resource, you adapt. We have done this many times. Steam locomotives used to burn wood, but the pressure on that resource led to coal burning. Like wise heating and lighting went from wood and animal and vegetable fats to gas (there were also technological and cost factors that led these changes).

Now the pressure is on fossil fuels, for two reasons. They are polluting, and they are running low. The next alternative, that from our current perspective appears infinite, is renewable energy such as wind, thermal and solar. It is imperative that we start exploiting these resources otherwise growth will slump. If we let the big resource companies keep focussing on fossil fuels, we will line their pockets in the short term, but we will hit the wall later and get sucked into that implosion. There will be harsh recession and hardship while the world works out how to make use of renewable energies. But the rich oil and coal magnates will be the only ones with any money and they will be in control of exploiting those resources and the cycle goes on. Let’s act now in our own best interest rather than just bumble along.

As an aside, renewable energy is not infinite either. And I don’t mean when the sun expands to consume earth. Far earlier than that, humans could reach the end of renewables. What causes the ocean’s currents? (Without which the ocean would become a stagnant monoculture, void of the diversity and dynamic life that it now contains)? The pull of the moon. If all of the worlds coastal areas where enveloped in a several mile wide tidal farm, any movement of the water being converted into energy for human use, think of the effect that would have on coastal ecosystems. Also the sun. There is only a very finite and measurable amount of energy reaching the earth’s surface from space. Imagine the irony of cutting down forests to put up solar power plants? Eventually so much heating energy would be diverted from space that the sun’s benefical heating of the surface of the planet would be reduced. Geo-thermal. I don’t like to even imagine how the effect of sucking heat out of the earth’s crust would affect for example plate tectonics (which drives all kinds of life on the surface). These things seem impossible now, but so once did the idea that we would clear all the land apart from a few small pockets.

Of course by then we will have expanded our resource extraction into space. Off planet solar arrays in at the lagrange points beaming power to the surface of the earth. Mineral extraction of astroids etc. Colonisation of moons and mars.

We adapt or die.

2. Change of Priorities. If we change how we use resources we can become many many times more efficient. We can live more within nature rather than “on top” of nature. We can recycle. We can use less powered transport. We can change the designs of buildings and motorised transport that are currently inefficient.

I envisage a city that is abundant with trees and nature. Rooftop gardens. Skycrapers with grey water systems running food bearing gardens. Waterfalls of recycled water retriculating down the sides of buildings into public swimming rock pools through the heart of shopping malls. Natural daylight reflected to every corner of the insides of houses and commercial buildings. Community gardens in every suburb.

Rural areas with permaculture crops. A return to rail for transport, using electric locomotives powered by electricity from renewable sources, reducing the load on national highways.

I could go on and on, and many of these ideas may not be practical but the point is, there will be practical ideas, if we have the motivation and desire to pursue efficiency and changes of lifestyle that reduce our impact on the land and our use of resources.

So is infinite growth possible?  The answer is actually unknown, but a practical answer is yes, through adaptation and change.  The reason we don’t know if infinite growth is possible is is a rather large philosophical and scientific quandary involving the expected end of the universe.  If the universe is finite, and there is nothing outside of the universe, then infinite growth is impossible.  However for all practical intents and purposes the universe is infinite for humans at our current state of technology and evolution, so the question is can we change and adapt to avoid destroying our environment under our very feet?  Because based on current use of technology, our immediate environment is no longer infinite.

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~ by Max Riethmuller on May 1, 2012.

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