Infinite Growth And The Crisis Cocktail

The Crisis Cocktail

If only Thomas Robert Malthus would have been around to see this, I often think. During his lifetime, and even more so after it, he became famous for warning that if human population continued to grow at that rate sooner or later there would not be enough agricultural output to feed it (of course he said many more things, but this is what he’s famous for). What he didn’t foresee, was that through ingenuity and innovation people would find a way around that limiting factor by digging up coal and later oil which would spur on the Industrial Revolution and eventually lead to the Green Revolution of an industrial, mechanized agriculture feeding the billions of people who are currently more or less enjoying their presence on planet Earth.

I wonder what Malthus would have said, had he foreseen the transformative power of all that hidden energy underground. Would he have said: “Right, that’s it, I was wrong, humanity and its economies can grow indefinitely”? Or would he have said: “Sure, my timing was poor, this discovery will prolong things by quite a bit, but in the end it will only make the crash that much bigger”. We can never be sure what he would have said, but I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be the first. And just a look or two around the globe seems to confirm he would be right to do so.

In Malthus’ time the question revolved around the problem of enough food for everyone and not much else. But while mankind has more or less resolved that problem for the time being by subjugating Nature through sheer fossil fuel power, the palette of global problems has extended in manifold ways. If, for instance, we look at agriculture, we can see that much of the arable land has been over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated and over-sprayed. The emphasis on monocultures (one type of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, etc) has reduced diversity and thus makes huge amounts of acreage around the world extremely vulnerable to resistant pests, which leads to a more extensive use of more aggressive pesticides that are in turn weakening the indispensable pollinators, such as bees, who are massively dying off around the globe, and in combination with synthetic fertilizers lead to widespread topsoil erosion, because basically all the microscopic life in the topsoil has been reduced in such a way that the soil fertility and cohesiveness is close to zero, whilst aquifers worldwide are being drained much too fast, leading to salinisation of groundwater that is simultaneously getting more and more polluted by said fertilizers and pesticides.

When these chemicals reach the oceans and seas they cause low-oxygen coastal dead zones that are getting bigger every year, putting extra stress on fish stocks that are already suffering worldwide from overfishing by the enormous fishing industry, as well as by synthetic debris that floats around and ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not to mention the slow but inexorable acidification of the oceans due to the excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide that the water is taking up and causes microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain to have an increasingly tougher time forming shells, just like coral reefs are enduring more and more stress due to bleaching events that they have more and more difficulty recovering from, coral reefs being the gigantic forests under the sea that host most of the world’s subaqueous biodiversity.

Hold on, I’m not finished yet.

The forests above water are in many places dying off due to pests like the bark beetle, besides the ongoing problem of illegal (and legal) logging and more rampant forest fires, and also due to ozone pollution (one of those things one never hears about). I’ve said ‘rampant forest fires’ and I’ve said ‘ozone’, a greenhouse gas, and thus I can no longer delay naming the great enhancer of all the problems named so far: Global Warming.

The enormous amounts of energy that have been added to the coupled system of oceans and atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution will increasingly lead to the rapid disruption of the atmospheric patterns under which human civilization managed to flourish in the last couple of millennia. I’m not talking 1 or 2 degrees Celsius warmer, I’m talking freak weather, like droughts, heatwaves, flash floodings, stronger hurricanes, rising sea level, disappearing glaciers. This has an indelible and inevitable effect on all those ‘little things’ I just mentioned (and there are more, such as desertification, landfills filled to the brim and species extinction in general).

Now of course some of these global problems may not turn out to be as bad as they seem, but even if they are half as serious, it’s the combination of them all and their synergistic interrelations that makes me conclude for the moment that human civilization has a Crisis Cocktail on its hands. Here’s an interesting picture from a New Scientist special report with a collection of graphs that illustrate my point:

So what do these graphs have in common? Of course, they are all showing a growing trend, and this brings us to the point of this article. Sorry it’s taking me so long, but first I have to offer doom and gloom and then show why I believe things are as they are and how this understanding is a first step towards potential solutions.

The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. Winston Churchill, November 1936

Infinite Growth

All these problems seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller every year and for every single one of them there are hosts of organizations clamouring for attention and offering solutions to the problem. But the more I read and think about the problems as a whole, the more I become convinced that they are all in fact symptoms and not causes in themselves. Trying to remedy a symptom is almost always useless if the root cause is ignored. Obviously all the problems have to do with human activities, and these activities have to do with the context they are taking place in, the economic context to be precise. This economic context is determined by the dominant economic concept, and in our case I think it is safe to say that for many decades now the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth has been shaping the economies of developed nations.

The main problem of this concept is its assumption that growth is always good and that growth can and should be infinite. In theory it sounds great, but unfortunately there is a big chasm between theory and practice. In practice nothing can grow forever in a finite system. This is a simple natural law which also applies to the finite system of this planet. Earth has a finite amount of resources, its ecosystems can supply a fixed amount of free services, such as clean air and water, and the solar energy that reaches the planet surface is fixed and constant. Once an organism such as the human global economy starts and continues to grow exponentially it will start to bump into limits (that was what the doom-and-gloom part of this article was about). The emerging global problems I described, are all symptoms of the disconnect between the economic concept of infinite growth and biophysical reality.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with growth per se. It is an essential and universal part of nature. But normally things stop growing. Children stop growing when they reach adulthood, as do trees. Economic growth is a great thing when an economy needs to be developed, as we saw after World War II when Europe was in shambles. People needed housing and food, and putting economic growth on top of the agenda was the most efficient way to get all those things, fast. Developing nations such as India and China are doing the same as we speak. In principle there is nothing wrong with this kind of growth, but the idea that growth is always good and can be infinite is fallacious and dangerous. A thing that doesn’t stop growing, is cancer. Until it destroys its host, of course.

After most basic needs were met in the developed world somewhere around the 60’s and 70’s of the last century exponential economic growth stopped being a means and became an end in itself. This has not only had an external effect (the Crisis Cocktail), but an internal effect as well. Because if you want to make a success of your economic concept of infinite growth you have to get everybody to participate. This has far-reaching psychological consequences that shape culture and society. First of all, everyone needs to be convinced of the fact that producing and consuming are the main goals of human striving. This inevitably has consequences for the way knowledge is transferred from one generation to another, and is thus reflected in education in schools and at home. If you want everyone to endlessly produce and consume the subconscious psychological message will be something along these lines: ‘You do not have any worth if you do not produce and perform. People will not love you if you don’t. And besides, you will not be able to consume as much you like, and consume you must for it will bring you happiness.’

Mass marketing and peer pressure drive the messages home some more and slowly there emerges an erosion of culture, the foundation on which we depend to relate to each other. Every tradition or ritual from the past has been infiltrated by the need to consume to make unending, exponential growth possible. From birthdays to Valentine’s day, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, all of it nowadays revolves around consuming large amounts of luxury foods and the uninhibited exchange of presents. And this has become pretty uniform all around the developed world. It’s all about what you have, what you do, where you travel to, in short: your identity. This mentality is instilled into children at an early age through various marketing techniques such as brand advertising. These customers of the future are conditioned in a way that benefits economic growth. We are conditioned to believe economic growth is our raison d’être.

But there’s a physical component to this as well. To consume means two things: Ingest food or fluids, and buy goods or services. As growth is deemed more important than public health, people have to be made addicted to unhealthy low-quality food, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and so on. The products they buy often contain toxins that are released during production or even use. People get sick physically and mentally, children get fat, diabetes rates soar, as do other diseases. The irony is that this is good for economic growth as well. Sick people get to live longer through extensive medication and neverending professional help. I’ve read once that there is no better thing for the economy than a businessman with prostate cancer who causes a big car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer.

Another aspect of this need for endless, exponential economic growth is the way corporations have been shaped. Whether big or small, no matter how many employees they have, these corporations are treated as legal persons who need to do one thing: maximize profits for their stockholders, which incidentally is also very good for growing the economy. This set-up is almost an invitation for large-scale pollution such as the BP oil disaster, creative cooking of the books such as the Enron scandal or the complete financial meltdown and ensuing global recession we recently witnessed due to the subprime mortgage crisis. It is the main driver behind fractional reserve banking and the continuous inflation of the debt bubble that keeps individuals, municipalities and even whole states in a stranglehold.

And talking about strangleholds: the whole system that has evolved to keep the economy growing, has eventually led to the creation of giant multinational corporations that have become bigger than countries and wield enormous power in the area of policy and the political system itself. Thus we now have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Finance, Big Coal, Big Military and so forth, who through their lobbying, through their sponsoring of think tanks, and their direct financial contributions to politicians, make sure that their interests are served first. Never mind the fact that they have in large part taken over the mainstream media and thus control the narrative that is fed to the masses (their clients that have to continue mindless consumption to make their profits possible). To keep the economy growing for all eternity, because it can, because it’s good.

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy?
Winston Churchill, May 1942

From Symptoms to Solutions

But it’s not good. It can’t be sustained, period. Of course, rich people will get even richer, and some poor people will be less so, but all in all this flawed economic concept will eventually cost more than it delivers. In fact, it already is. And it is making societies all around the world increasingly vulnerable and prone to collapse. So how can this be solved?

Like I said halfway through the doom and gloom you cannot solve a problem by eradicating symptoms. You can spray forests with pesticides that kill off bark beetles, but it only postpones the inevitable. You can try to set up rules for bankers and their bonuses, but they are only doing what the system demands of them. You could perform miracles and replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, but it is virtually impossible if you want the economy to keep growing as well (at best it leads to Jevons Paradox).

You cannot solve a problem if you only treat the symptoms, and you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem. And thus no solution will work until the economic concept of infinite growth is replaced by an economic concept that recognizes that there are limits to growth and that this is a good thing. A society that can be sustained in the long term, will most probably be healthier and more just for everyone involved, not just for the small group who can afford it. Last but not least, a problem can only be solved if it is understood completely.

I hope that I have been able to show convincingly that our current economic concept of infinite growth is at the root of all global problems. I believe that when this is realized by enough people, solutions will automatically start to present themselves. Perhaps some day I will write about what these solutions might look like, but if people don’t want to wait for that, I would suggest they pay a visit to the organization that in my view is the only one that really ‘gets it’: the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or CASSE. If you like what they do (and I know I do), then please become a member, donate if you can and spread the word.

The first step is ditching the illusory economic concept of infinite growth.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Winston Churchill, November 1942


  1. I'd just like to note, I've read Malthus pretty carefully (about 20 years back though), and I don't think he talked about "infinite growth" exactly. His central specific constraint was that, absent some form of "virtuous" self-control by people, population growth tended to always be exponential in time ("geometric"); on the other hand he argued that growth in availability of resources, specifically food, was at best linear in time ("arithmetic", I think was his terminology).

    Also my reading of Malthus isn't as much doom-and-gloom as some people see. His point was simple: the mathematics of resources vs population forces constraints on population. But those constraints can be met either by rational "virtuous" action (as happened in some European countries even in his day, where the lack of availability of land prevented many men from marrying young) or by a vicious downward spiral of poverty, malnutrition, disease, and/or war. There are and always have been good routes to follow in matching population to constraints, and some nations have chosen such a path and prospered for it. Now we're faced with these constraints for the world as a whole. Are we rational enough as a planetary community to choose the right path? That's the real question.

    As to "infinite growth" - exponential growth in physical material use has to end. But sub-exponential growth can continue - the only physical limit is the speed of light; vast resources in this solar system and through this galaxy are there, apparently unused. If life expands in the cosmos from this planet, growth at rates proportional to the volume of that expansion (i.e. time possibly to the third power) is conceivable for tens of thousands of years.

    On the single planet we have now there are real limits. Growth of physical material use with time has to come to an end.

  2. I think arguments against Malthusian worldviews kind of start off on the wrong foot and go downhill.

    My objection to Malthus' conclusions has nothing to do with agriculture. It has everything to do with the Pill.

    We do have real and hard limits to resources. However, instead of virtuous self-control we have technology and opportunities for females.

    Seems to be working so far.

  3. Tom, you miss the point.

    Malthus was worried about sustained population growth. There is indeed a good possibility we will escape that with only the tools already at hand.

    Neven is discussing economic growth. If economic growth can be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet, the question as to what it is that is growing becomes pretty interesting. Under contemporary ideas of economic activity, it simply isn't possible for it to grow much more. Population stabilization is a tangential issue. And yet if economic growth ends, a great deal of how we organize ourselves becomes very problematic, because one of its underlying assumptions fails.

  4. Hi Mike,

    I've read Neven's essay more than once, and he put a lot of work into it, which I appreciate it.

    However, I think he's overly facile in his definition of what economic growth is limited to, and I don't think he sufficiently takes into account that global economic growth has moved primarily from goods to services.

    If population growth stabilizes, which it surely looks like it will, and percentages of the economy continue to gravitate towards providing services, I believe (after looking at hard numbers) that adequate resources exist to meet the needs of the population in the foreseeable future. I do believe that we will need to provide substitution for some resources--famously, of oil--but I believe we will.

  5. Tom Murphy explains many things, but I'm not sure exactly how well. Just to take his example regarding food, he neglects the real world solution to the problem he poses.

    He says, "if food production shrinks to 1% of our economy, while staying at a comparable absolute scale as it is today (we must eat, after all), then food is effectively very cheap relative to the paychecks that let us enjoy the fruits of the broader economy. This would mean that farmers’ wages would sink far lower than they are today relative to other members of society, so they could not enjoy the innovations and improvements the rest of us can pay for."

    What has actually happened in the developed world is that the percentage of the workforce dealing with agriculture has shrunk from 85% to 1% in a bit over 150 years. So that the farmers' wages have in fact increased, not decreased. The same phenomenon is happening in industry now.

    Because value is a relative term, our definition of economic activity can be as plastic as our hopes and desires. Some activities that are very rewarding today consume little in the way of energy.

    Murphy claims that 'winners will not outpace losers' but offers no proof.

    I agree with him that the economy will not 'unmoor itself from energy use' completely. But I think that's an extreme that no-one is claiming.

    Just looking at energy use per capita in the developed world shows that in fact we know how to reduce energy consumption without sacrificing living standards while increasing economic activity. The U.S. is consuming less energy per person per year than it did in 1990. Other countries have done better.

    When populations stabilize around 2075, when most people have reached the top of the energy ladder, when satiation outweighs Jevon's paradox, things will settle down and look a lot better.

    In the meantime, substitution of fuel source absolutely is the name of the game.

  6. I feel a very long way from really understanding how growth is used as a concept in economic policy. It is the case (as TF mentions) that there are competing existing models in the neoclassical tradition. (Wikipedia does a good list too.)

    "But normally things stop growing." True, but they don't always stop developing. The neoclassical growth models tussle with that problem, but fairly abstractly AFAIK - in contrast to e.g. Jane Jacobs who got down and dirty with how development actually takes place. (This PDF is a great overview of her work.)

    "What has actually happened in the developed world is that the percentage of the workforce dealing with agriculture has shrunk from 85% to 1% in a bit over 150 years. So that the farmers’ wages have in fact increased, not decreased."

    AFAIK, only half-true. The percentage employed in agriculture has certainly dropped, but it's been accompanied by a drop in income for farmers - though in pretty much all `developed' countries, agriculture remains heavily subsidised, so it's a little tricky to clearly see the economic effect. Farmers have been hit by a double whammy: rapid tech change plus a less than proportional increase in income going to them as wealth has increased. (That's a point Krugman makes somewhere I think.)

    TF On energy: "when satiation outweighs Jevon's paradox, things will settle down and look a lot better". Interesting. First-off, Jevon's paradox isn't very paradoxical economically: you reduce the price of something, demand almost always goes up (except in the very rare case of Giffen goods; here's Rodrikwith a real-world example). But I wonder what satiation of energy use would look like? Considering food again: income elasticity of demand for food (% change in quantity demanded / % change in income) has never dropped anywhere near zero - instead, there's been a massive restructuring of the way food is produced and consumed. E.g. food processing has been outsourced from the productive unit of the home as the value of personal time has changed. (Going to restaurants outsources the entire food processing chain from the home.)

    Regardless of what might happen, waiting for satiation doesn't seem able to solve our problems, since there's no guarantee we can hit carbon targets before that might happen. And, of course, it is a `might': energy demand could well increase regardless of income levels and cost.

    Something else that occurs to me: I wonder whether people with an engineering point of view are flabbergasted by the stupidity of economic models? Many economists are using models for thinking through problems, not saying the world necessarily works that way. Not good to mistake economists' models for their actual understanding of the world, rather than tools that aid that understanding. That's a bit of cop-out, given the sway that economic modelling has over policy, but it's still an important point. For example, ironically, one of earliest theorists to try and actually *use* general equilibrium theory was Oskar Lange - who argued that it proved all a centralised socialist economy needed was a planning board to match the (fictional) centralised auctioneer of the model. (Brilliant summary here.)

    I think that's important, because we need to be clear about what we're saying models can do before we can really come to understand the nature of growth vs development. We need to develop or we're stuffed - but we're some way from having a full understanding of the relationship between growth and development. Here's a hypothesis, prove me wrong: economic growth can take place without an increase in the quantity of physical resources used. Have to start by asking, what do we actually mean by growth? How does it differ from development?

    Hmm, as I write that, another point: we should separate out resource use from carbon production? Perhaps we're going to need to keep mining a long time after we've cut carbon out of the production cycle. There's no reason why we'd have to be living in a hermetic circular economy in order to transition to a zero/low carbon economy - is there?

  7. Wow, a lot there. Maybe people will just want to reply to pieces of it.

    For now, for instance, I point out that very little is shipped off planet or imported from space, so we do live in a hermetic circular economy. It's just one where the distribution of junk is very poorly accounted for, leading in extremis to garbalanches.

  8. MT: "we do live in a hermetic circular economy". True, and I was thinking about that this morning, I didn't put it very well. We do ultimately need a circular economy. Equally, something will have to happen to population long before Bartlett's 780-year scenario of one person per square metre. It's also obviously true that growth and carbon output are intimately linked at present. But I worry about arguing that the only way to solve the carbon problem (as well as the range of other planetary boundaries Neven notes) is to `solve' growth. Ultimately we need to solve the resource limit problem, but it seems important to me to separate that out - as a goal - from solving the carbon problem. I suspect much of our future green infrastructure is still buried underground. Also that the development of that green infrastructure will manifest itself as economic growth. But I'm not sure, because I don't completely understand the key terms yet...

  9. "Also that the development of that green infrastructure will manifest itself as economic growth."

    I have a lot of trouble with that way of thinking, as regular readers of my blog know.

    The issue is whether attachment to "growth", which means ever-increasing velocity of commercial exchanges, is actually a worthwhile goal at all. If it isn't (and I think it isn't), finding a way to preserve a growth-based economy in any meaningful sense is suicidal, no matter how long it can be prolonged.

    My new slogan is this: "the greenest job is no job at all".

  10. I'm not suggesting growth should necessarily be the goal, just that perhaps it would be an unavoidable consequence of building a green infrastructure. But I feel like we're arguing past each other without starting to take apart the terms.

    The connection between growth and employment is a biggie, though. Think I'll have to read back through your series of articles on that again. I'm reminded of the Zapatista slogan: we have to `walk asking questions' - no time for hanging around until we solve all these problems!

  11. Hi Mr. Olner,

    I don't want to get sidetracked on side issues, so I'll just briefly mention that in the developed world farm income is actually quite high, and that the concept of satiation is just as common-sensical as increasing consumption when price drops--it is difficult to drive more than one car at the same time.

    Dr. Tobis half-humorously refers to inputs from beyond Earth. It is perhaps appropriate to do so now, when we're putting space exploration rapidly behind us, but other countries seem eager to take the baton and run with it. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is planning to put a solar power satellite in space by 2030, and the utility that brings me my energy has signed a contract to buy energy from space.

    I think not allowing for extraplanetary inputs is a bit shortsighted when we talk of events later this century. It isn't science fiction when the technology to do these things has been around for 40 years.

    So it's a great song--will the circle be unbroken? But the answer really is no.

  12. I think there are far more compelling arguments regarding sustainability than those put forward here. It appears to me that we are going to have to bite the bullet and live with much higher levels of energy consumption coming from the developing world during the first part of this century. Then, as it has here and throughout the developed world, energy consumption will level off and begin to slightly decline.

    As there is not really very much we can or should do to change that part of the picture, it seems to me that we should focus on fuel sources, not destinations.

  13. Well, the economics of importing precious metals from space might not be that forbidding, especially if it was only (say) the moon. A lot of stuff may sell for thousands of dollars an ounce. Presumably physics and the cost of energy puts a lower bound on the price of returning a ton of something?

  14. Actually, growth doesn't necessarily imply increasing velocity of commercial transactions. Flux equals mass times velocity, so you can increase the size of the transactions instead of or in addition to the velocity.

    But there is something about the way in which market economies allocate resources to achieve "growth" that I think is important to keep in mind: the opportunity to increase our income leads us to spend our time on the things that are most highly valued. We can't do away with all jobs; what we want is the most "value" for the least resources (of time, stuff and energy).

    It is also worth noting, that even GDP growth has mystical non-commercial components. Imputed rental of owner-occupied housing is a significant component of GDP (I'm too lazy to look up how much). That's just pure utility! And as rental prices go up, we get more and more utility from our houses. GDP grows magically!

    The underappreciated point is that nothing prevents valuing lots of non-monetary "flows" if we wanted to. If we included "consumer surplus from species preservation" as a part of GDP, we could grow the economy just by telling someone we'd pay more to preserve biodiversity.

    The other underappreciated point is that we we came to value biodiversity more, we might actually be better off in exactly the way that GDP wishes it could measure...

  15. Hi Mr. Baer,

    I don't know if there are disagreements on where to focus our efforts regarding sustainable use of energy.

    It is handy and current to look at Socolow's new wedges, maybe, and see if they can be usefully prioritized. I don't think much effort should be expended on carbon capture and storage. I do think a lot of effort should be expended on easing the path towards construction of more nuclear power. But that road leads us very quickly to disagreements based on a portfolio of political opinions that might have been formed earlier without thinking about their impact on energy and sustainability.

    Which is why we have some conservatives speaking out against conservation and some liberals arguing for policies that will immiserate the poor.

    I would be equally happy for nuclear power to slide down the scale, but only if the effort expended was transferred to something of equivalent potential impact.

    The fourth largest expenditure of energy on the planet is the energy released as heat--not electricity--from the generation of electric power. The world consumes more energy doing that and that alone than the entire United States does, with all its profligate driving and inefficient insulation.

    I am happy to discuss where to start, but let's start. We're in a period where Ready, Fire, Aim is not unreasonable.

  16. The fourth largest expenditure of energy on the planet is the energy released as heat–not electricity–from the generation of electric power. The world consumes more energy doing that and that alone than the entire United States does, with all its profligate driving and inefficient insulation.

    Excellent. Tom Fuller proposes a repeal to the second law of thermodynamics. That will count for several wedges, won't it? It's nice to have a proposal that we can build a non-ideological consensus around. I for one am for it.

  17. I suppose we can let the snark begin anew, Dr. Tobis. I'll let this one round pass as part of my firm strategy for surviving The Prisoner's Dilemma.

    Perhaps you are not aware that combined heat and power plants currently provide 9% of the world's energy, about as much as nuclear power. Perhaps it does not occur to you that CHP is used to provide heating (and even cooling) in places where this heat is viewed as an opportunity to save money and the environment, rather than an opportunity for snark.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics is operational in Scandinavian countries, where CHP provides up to 40% of the power used in those countries.

    Snark is so easy. And look where it has gotten your sustainable policies during the time it has served as your principle tool for dealing with subjects you don't have the time/energy/inclination to investigate.

  18. I'm not aware of using waste heat for cooling, a peculiar concept. I am aware of using waste heat for heating, and it's a commendable idea as far as it goes.

    I strongly doubt that its potential compares in scale to the total energy the US uses, just because the waste heat does. If it does, we would appreciate evidence.

    But note that power system engineers know more about this than you or I do. If they are not making use of this waste energy, there may be a reason for it. I have a dim memory of something called a Carnot cycle which you might want to look into.

    By all means, feel free to surprise us. Neither your opinion nor mine is the subject of this site. The subject is what is possible and how we weigh its potential. If you have specific knowledge or a specific claim, please back it up.

  19. That's not what Tom Fuller was saying Michael, at least as far as I can tell. He was pointing out that existing power generation technologies create a lot of waste, as heat, and that we can improve on that state. If this devolves again, I think it's on you here.

  20. The use of heat exchangers in closed loop combined heat and power systems is not new. They even have them in Texas.

    [various other tangentially relevant facts and claims of expertise elided -mt]

    I find your reaction odd because I did not express an opinion at all. I did not make a claim at all, other than stating what is so obvious that anyone conversant with the subject should already have internalized.

    [No, you made a quantitative claim. You compared waste heat and the energy consumption of the US, implying that the amount of wasted energy in electricity generation in an economic sense was comparable to the amount of waste heat in the generation process in an engineering sense. That is a very strong claim and not at all obvious to me. Can you back it up with numbers?]

  21. The University of Michigan is claiming to capture over half the waste energy in winter, which is far more impressive than I would have guessed.

    The process of cogeneration contrasts dramatically to the practice of most thermal-electric power plants, which essentially "throw away" the exhaust steam from the electric turbines. By using this exhaust steam, the fuel efficiency of the CPP is approximately 78 percent, compared to a fuel efficiency of approximately 40 percent for most private utility plants.

    They also mention "steam powered air conditioning", so mea culpa. I'm still a bit baffled on how that makes any sense.

  22. Robert Ayres is remarkably bullish on waste heat (and other efficiencies) in his book "Crossing the Energy Divide". I didn't finish the book, but I was astounded at what he was claiming for it. I'll dig something up and post a comment/pointer.

  23. I'm glad to see Tom Fuller agrees with Al Gore (and a number of others) on the potential usefulness of waste heat. Unfortunately, they're all largely wrong on this - and it's a complicated enough discussion that I spent many thousands of words trying to clarify it - see my concluding post here - "The problems with combined heat and power (CHP critique part 3)". To repeat the top-line summary there:

    (1) Fossil-fuel-based CHP cannot be a long-term solution on climate or energy because they still burn fossil fuels, and therefore still emit a lot of CO2. Reducing that by 20% or even 50% is not enough; we need to take steps that over the next 30-40 years will bring fossil CO2 emissions close to 0.

    (2) Efficiency claims for CHP systems are frequently greatly overstated. Heat is lower-quality energy than electricity, and only at high temperatures does it become close to comparable. Efficiency claims for CHP systems that use high-temperature heat are not so far off, but CHP systems that make use of low-temperature waste heat have much lower thermodynamic efficiencies than usually claimed.

    In the end, all the energy we use leaves as waste, not 60% or 70%. Once that electricity leaves the power plant, it meets resistance in wires (creating heat) or runs motors that move mechanical things around that eventually stop thanks to impacts and/or friction (releasing sound and/or heat), or runs chemical reactions or other processes that temporarily store energy in chemical or other forms, but which is then later converted back and lost in the end as heat. The question isn't how much waste we create - it all goes to waste in the end. The question is how much useful stuff you get done per unit of input. Thinking only about the waste stream in the energy business leads you quite far astray, generally.

  24. I've actually been working a fair bit on CHP recently, so I know about some (though not all) of the issues here. There are actually two ways to think about it: using the waste heat when you're generating electricity anyway, and generating electricity when you really just need heat (usually steam). And yes, you can cool air with heat (though I don't know how it works).

    CHP works at lots of different scales, and using lots of different fuel stocks. It is already widespread in industries (like chemicals and pulp and paper) where combustible fuels are otherwise "waste".

    In addition to industrial facilities, it can be used in commercial buildings, with much smaller powerplants (internal combustion engines are one model).

    And of course, there are lots of other ways in which electricity is lost before it provides useful services - transmission, inefficient lighting, etc. The broad point that we waste enormous amounts of energy without providing useful services is not controversial. It's pretty generally agreed that you could cost-effectively get a lot more bang for the BTU. But in many cases the capital costs are prohibitive for markets as we know them today (in which effective discount rates are 20-30% or higher).

  25. @MT...

    They also mention “steam powered air conditioning”, so mea culpa. I’m still a bit baffled on how that makes any sense.

    When I was a child, traveling with my parents, I actually saw a butane (or perhaps propane) powered refrigerator. My father's explanation had to do with using energy gained from the heat differential between the gas-heated hot side and the sink (ambient atmosphere) to pump heat from the cold side to the ambient atmosphere. I won't burden you with the sort of designs that came into my head, because googling for a reference I found this:

    I found it very informative: I hadn't realized you could do it without moving parts.

  26. @Arthur Smith...

    The question is how much useful stuff you get done per unit of input.

    It seems a little restrictive (IMO) to measure your output only in terms of energy. For instance, using the output heat for desalination might reduce the total energy output per amount of steam, but the total utility can be increased:

    Typical superheated turbine operation conditions are inlet pressure and temperature up to 140bar and 540°C with exhaust at 50mbar and 33°C corresponding to an exit steam quality of 0.85 [16].

    Adding desalinization at the cost of raising the exhaust to "approximately 70°C and the correlating turbine outlet pressure of 0.35 bar" can get improved overall efficiency:

    One challenge of dual-purpose power plants is the reduction in the efficiency of the power cycle due to the higher turbine outlet temperatures required to drive the thermal desalination [13]. In terms of utilizing the produced steam, a dual-purpose plant consisting of CSP [Concentrated Solar Power] and thermal desalination reaches thermodynamic efficiencies above 90%. (From Vozar McKnight 2010)

    If my calculations are correct, raising the turbine output temperature from 33°C to 70°C would constitute a ~6.5% reduction in power (from 62% to 58% Carnot efficiency). Although the reference I found involved using waste heat from concentrated solar power, the energy efficiencies could probably (AFAIK) be translated to coal- and oil-fired plants.

    In the Persian Gulf region, large MSF [Multi-Stage Flash desalinization] units are often coupled with steam or gas turbine power plants for better utilization of the fuel energy. Steam produced at high temperature and pressure by the fuel is expanded through the turbine to produce electricity. The low to moderate temperature and pressure steam exiting the turbine is used to drive the desalination process [24,28,29] (From Miller 2003)

    The relative value of reducing power output for desalinated water would, of course, depend on the venue. For instance, there are parts of the Sonoran desert with low elevations and access to sea water (in the Gulf of Cortez, via the Colorado River valley). If we assume the energy costs of pumping water from the ocean, to CSP stations in the Sonoran Desert, and thence to urban areas of California to be roughly equal to those from Northern California (probably an overestimate) they would come to around 3 KWHrs/M^3, 3000KWHrs/acre-foot. (Cohen 2007)

    Heat costs of MSF desalinization are around 80 KWHrs/M^3 (290 kJ/Kg: Semiat 2008). Multi-effect evaporation (MEE), the type of desalinization studied in Vozar McKnight (2010), has somewhat lower values. (Semiat 2008) Assuming loss ratios to be a wash between the two power generation efficiencies (probably not valid, but we can still get an order of magnitude), and that I've done the calculations right, every cubic meter of water desalinated (using 80 KWHr of input waste heat) would derive from ~90 KWHr of actual generated electricity, at a cost of ~6.2 KWHr (relative to no desalinization). 3 KWHr/M^3 pumping costs to urban areas represents a small fraction of generated electricity. Thus, while waste heat might not be a very useful fraction of the total energy available from power plants, valuable uses might be made of it.

    Always assuming, again, that I've done the calculations right. I admit these are back-of-the-envelope level, and I'm pretty sure, but not positive, I don't have to apply a (low) Carnot efficiency to the heat gained from waste steam in desalinization, because it's all being added to the system via condensation.


    13. Semiat, R., (2008) Energy issues in desalination processes. Environmental Science & Technology, 2008. 42(22): p. 8193-8201.

    16. Trieb, F., et al., (2009) Technologies for large scale seawater desalination using concentrated solar radiation. Desalination, 2009. 235(1-3): p. 33-43.

    24. K.S. Spiegler and Y.M. El-Sayed, A Desalination Primer, Balaban Desalination Publications, Santa Maria Imbaro, Italy (1994).

    28. M.A. Darwish, N.M. Al-Najem, Applied Thermal Engineering 20 (2000) 399.

    29. R. Semiat, Water International 25 (2000) 54.

    Cohen, R. (2007) The Water-Energy Nexus Southwest Hydrology September/October 2007

    Vozar McKnight, Andrea L. (2010) A 10 kilowatt-thermal input multiple effect distillation pilot for concentrated solar power and desalination of seawater plant Master's Thesis 2010

  27. every cubic meter of water desalinated (using 80 KWHr of input waste heat) would derive from ~110.5 KWHr of actual generated electricity, at a cost of ~7.6 KWHr (relative to no desalinization).

    S/B: every cubic meter of water desalinated (using 80 KWHr of input waste heat) would derive from ~90 KWHr of actual generated electricity, at a cost of ~6.2 KWHr (relative to no desalinization).

    I subtracted 58% from 100% and got 52%, then blew right past it while checking my calcs.

  28. TF: "in the developed world farm income is actually quite high"

    Compare on-farm vs off-farm agri earnings in the US here: earnings from food production and sale appear to be a tiny percentage of overall farm income in the U.S. U.K median farm income even with CAP appears to remain below median overall wage.

    "the concept of satiation is just as common-sensical as increasing consumption when price drops–it is difficult to drive more than one car at the same time."

    Not that commonsense: it took diminishing marginal utility to explain the diamond-water paradox. But cf. my point about restructuring food production as wealth increases: you can only drive one car, but as you get wealthier, your household can own more, change what they buy, change efficiency levels etc. Do you have any real-world examples of the kind of satiation you're talking about?

    And, putting that aside, the point remains: even if satiation takes place, the point it happens has no need to respect carbon limits, so it's no good to us, is it?

  29. Wow, that's pretty cool. I'm very biased, so what I'm seeing in that graph is the power grab of neoclassical economists, starting right after WW2. 😉

    BTW, I'm sorry for not joining the debate in this here comment section. I was too busy working and writing other stuff.

    But I don't think this debate is over yet. In fact, it is all about getting this debate going. Everywhere.

  30. For want of a better place, gonna keep on coming here and discussing links etc. Been reading Diane Coyle's the Soulful Science - has a chapter titled "what makes economies grow?" I'll try n come back with a summary. The book itself I recall is great, though I haven't read it for a while.

    Coyle has a good blog: note the current second article there where she's shaking her head at people's caricature of economics.

    She's also written a new book I've not read: The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters. Here's a little 10 min video with some thoughts of hers on that theme. Interesting point about GDP as flows only, not any measure of actual wealth.

    Maybe we have some way of having book club type discussions on here somewhere? The growth theme is just gonna keep on rolling I suspect.

    Oh, 'nother good coupla links: page for the latest edition of limits to growth, has a bunch of resources there. Also, google book version of Blaug's economic theory in retrospect, searching for `economic growth': most of the pages are accessible. Blaug is great.

  31. "Interesting point about GDP as flows only, not any measure of actual wealth."

    Yes this has been bothering me as well. If you count the vast flurry of short-term financial exchanges it is a "productive" world indeed.

    I think we should take a spoon or something and sell it back and forth between each other for a dime. This exchange will take place every microsecond. I will have the spoon in odd microseconds and you in even ones. No need to ship. You trust me to hold your spoon for you. We will, between the two of us, become dominant players in our local economies.

    Pity about the sales taxes, though. We need some sort of exemption.

  32. I just read this great piece on the CASSE blog today. Posted by none other than Herman Daly, but I believe he quotes some guy I've never heard of before, called Jorgen Randers.

    Check this out:

    In sum, economic growth in sense 1 (scale) can be, and in the US has become, uneconomic growth in sense 2 (net benefits). And it is sense 2 that matters most. I think The Limits to Growth in sense 2 have been reached in the last forty years, but that we have willfully denied it, much to the harm of most of us, but to the benefit of an elite minority who keeps on pushing the growth ideology, because they have found ways to privatize the benefits of growth while socializing the even greater costs. The big question in my mind is, can denial, delusion, and obfuscation last another forty years? And if we keep on denying the economic limit to growth how long do we have before crashing into the more discontinuous and catastrophic biophysical limits? I am hopeful that in the next forty years we can finally recognize and adapt to the more forgiving economic limit. Adaptation will mean moving from growth to a steady-state economy, one almost certainly at a smaller scale than at present. By scale I mean physical size of the economy relative to the ecosystem, probably best measured by resource throughput. And, ironically, the best existing index we have of throughput is probably real GDP!

    I must confess surprise that denial has endured for forty years. I think to wake up will require something like repentance and conversion, to put it in religious terms. It is idle to “predict” whether we will have the spiritual strength and rational clarity for such a conversion. Prediction of the direction of history is premised on a determinism that negates purpose and effort as independently causative. No one gets a prize for predicting his own behavior. Prediction of the behavior of others is problematic because they are so much like one’s self. And if we are really determinists then it doesn’t matter what we predict — even our predictions are determined. As a non-determinist I hope and work for an end to growth-mania within the next forty years. That is my personal bet on the medium-run future. How confident am I that I will win that bet? About 30%, maybe. It is entirely conceivable that we will totally exhaust earth’s resources and life-support systems in ruinously expensive attempts to grow forever: perhaps by military conquest of other nations’ resources and of the remaining global commons; perhaps by attempted conquest of the “high frontier” of space. Many think, just because we have managed a few manned space stunts at enormous expense, that the science fiction of colonization of sidereal space is technically, economically, politically, and ethically viable. And these are the same people who tell us that a steady-state economy on earth is too difficult a task to ever accomplish.


  33. Interesting indeed.

    The curious might like to type "climate change", "global warming", "peak oil", "limits to growth", and other such phrases to see what humans have been thinking about over time.

    There seems to have been a small handful of prescient thinkers at the begining of the 20th century...

  34. A bit late in the day I know, but I've only just arrived here for the first time, via a link from Neven's own blog.

    I'm not entirely clear on etiquette here either, but since this is going to be moderated anyway, here's my own more recent musings on this topic:

    Amongst other things a YouTube video from the Houses of Parliament in which population biologist Charles Godfray displays a picture of Thomas Malthus to the assembled throng, but also says he's "a guarded optimist".

  35. Glad to see a new comment here, as I picked up something relevant just now. Have a look:

    Extract from:

    I'm having trouble elsewhere with the almost universal assumption that we can go on as we always have and things will not collapse. I think that's just wrong. I know you guys don't want to hear it, but that doesn't make it untrue. It's getting a bit late for continuing assumptions allowing infinite growth, which is what business as usual does.

  36. Hi Susan,

    I'm pleased to meet you, in what might still be an interesting conversation. As I said, I'm new around here and I don't seem to have an invitation to register as yet. Who do you recommend I ask?

    Whilst I'll happily admit to being male, I'm not at all sure I qualify as one of "you guys"! What's your main point? That Charles Godfray's "prediction" of global population stabilising around 10 billion is a bit over-optimistic?

    If you've seen my musings over at Neven's you must realise by now that I think "economic growth as usual" is hopelessly over-optimistic!

    Best wishes,


  37. Pingback: Arctic methane: Why the Sea Ice Matters

  38. Oh dear, sloppy writing (and thinking). "You guys" was very poor language on my part but was meant to refer to the main conversation above, mostly.

    I believe I was included because I'm an outsider with less scientific training than most (artist with science in family). I am passionate about defending science, but at the same time worried that scientific disciplines are inadequate to cope with an escalating problem their models under- rather than overstate. This worry is getting stronger by the day as all avenues towards solutions seem to be blocked. We lived through Irene and Sandy, so I'm getting some insight into how bad things are beginning to be (family near Princeton, home in Boston).

    As for "applying", the proper avenue is listed on this page. Michael Tobis, Dan Moutal and the review panel seeing to content; application seems to be here:

    What I meant by "the guys" was those with scientific expertise and in most cases experience in the trenches with providing and researching energy in the real world.

    Looking at your blog reminds me of my time in South Devon and the west country before I was obliged to stop traveling. You appear to be quite an activist. Taking a big gulp of humility, I notice that here, like Neven's, time spent reading through the parts that are not too technical for me would be rewarding.

  39. Hi Susan,

    My partner is an artist, who has also studied quantum physics! She's in Poland at the moment, which means she's missed all the excitement here in South Devon. Large areas have been underwater:

    Nothing like as bad as Sandy of course. Just a little taste.

    I studied engineering, but now I find myself performing improvisational performance art, in the local council chamber of all places:

    As far as I could see my innovative combination of art and engineering was way over the head of most of the audience. A cry of "poppycock" was heard at one point. I did get a couple of quiet "well done"s too though. Do you suppose there is some hope for humanity after all?

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