the illusion of infinite economic growth

Electric vehicles (EVs) have become one of the great modern symbols of a world awakened to the profound challenges of instability and climate change. So much so that we can well imagine that Deep Thoughts Today’s answer to life, the universe, and everything else could possibly be “EV”. But, as Douglas Adams certainly might have asked, if electric vehicles are the answer, then what is the question?

Let us envision the “perfect” EV: solar powered, efficient, reliable and affordable. but is it Continuous? Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy can help reduce the carbon footprint of transportation. Nevertheless, the measure of sustainability is not just the carbon footprint but the physical footprint: the total amount of biomass, metal ores, construction minerals and fossil fuels used during the production and consumption of the product. The estimated metric ton weight of the EV consists of materials such as metals (including rare earths), plastics, glass and rubber. Therefore, a global increase in EV demand will drive demand for each of these materials.

each stage of the life cycle of any manufactured product Fixes environmental costs: habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and pollution (including carbon emissions) through extraction, construction/construction, disposal of raw materials. Thus, it is the growing global physical footprint that is fundamentally the cause of twin climate and ecological crises.

The global physical footprint has grown in lockstep with the rapidly growing global economy (GDP) since the Industrial Revolution. This is largely due to excessive consumption by the super-rich in a socioeconomic system founded on development without limits. Can we resolve this fundamental conflict between the pursuit of limitless development and the resulting environmental destruction?

Industrial Age exponential growth in the use of primary and derived material resources: crop land (A), fossil fuels (B), freshwater (C), metals (D), plastics (E). credit: Our World in Data (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU).

enter technology

Technological innovation and efficiency improvements are often cited as a way to separate increased material use from economic growth. While technology undoubtedly has an important role in the transition to a sustainable world, it is constrained by fundamental physical principles and practical economic considerations.

Examples abound. The engine efficiency of airplanes has improved little over the decades because they have long been operating close to their theoretical peak efficiency. Similarly, the physical properties of semiconductors place a hard limit on the efficiency of photovoltaic cells of about 35 percent; In practice some are more than 20 percent for economic and practical reasons. The power output of large wind farms is limited to about one watt per square meter, as there is a simple but completely unavoidable physical consequence of the wake effect. The terrifying exponential growth in computing power of the past five decades will nearly end by 2025 because it is physically impossible to make transistors on a computer chip, already about 5 percent the size of the coronavirus, too small.

Whether it is the principles of classical, quantum or solid state physics or thermodynamics, each places different but rigid constraints on technical solutions. Basically, the physical principles that have allowed incredible technological leaps in the past century inevitably limit them as well. We can consider that the widespread recycling of materials will eliminate the efficiency limit. Recycling is important; However, while glass and metals can be recycled almost indefinitely without loss of quality, materials such as paper and plastics can only be recycled a few times before becoming too bad.

Additionally, recycling itself can be an energy- and materials-intensive process. Even though physical laws can be broken (they can’t) to achieve recycling with 100 percent efficiency, the additional demand for economic growth will inevitably require virgin materials. The key point is that efficiency is limited by physics, but there is no substantial limit on the socioeconomic construction of “demand”.

Unfortunately, the situation is even more dire. Economic growth needs to be exponential; That is, the size of the economy should double in a given period. As mentioned earlier, this has driven a corresponding increase in the physical footprint. To understand the nature of exponential growth, consider EV. Let’s say we have enough (easily removable) lithium for a battery needed to fuel the EV revolution for 30 years. Now suppose that deep-sea mining provides four times the current amount of these materials. Are we covered for 120 years? No, because the current 10 percent rate of growth in demand for lithium equates to doubling demand every seven years, meaning we’ll only have enough for 44 years. In fact, we will cause untold, perhaps irreversible, devastation of marine ecosystems, having to buy ourselves a few extra years’ supply of raw materials.

Exponential growth rapidly swamps, essentially, anything in limited supply. For a virus, that finite resource is the human population and in the context of the planet it is its physical resources.

The inevitable conclusion is that it is essentially impossible to separate material use from economic development. And that’s exactly what happened. Wiedmann et al., 2015 carefully accounted for the physical footprint involved in international trade for several countries. In the period 1990–2008 covered by the study, no country achieved a planned, deliberate economic disruption for a sustained period. In contrast, Global North’s claims conceal substantial offshoring of its production, and related Ecological catastrophe for the global South.

Recent proposals for ecological deep-sea and hypothetical exoplanetary mining are a surprising result of an evolution paradigm that refuses to recognize these inconvenient truths.

What is stability?

These observations lead us to a natural minimum for stability: All The resource utilization curve should be Along with this flattened and All pollution decreases Along with this extinguished. It is this resource perspective that allows us to see why EVs can help offset carbon emissions, yet are completely unsustainable under the limitless growth paradigm.

Sustainability from a resource perspective: Rapidly increasing resource use and pollution (A and B) are unsustainable. We define sustainability as flatline resource use (C) and extinguished pollution (D). Credits: Aditi Deshpande

real question

We have argued that the inextricable relationship between physical consumption and GDP makes the infinite-growth paradigm incompatible with sustainable ecological integrity. Thus, while EVs constitute a partial answer to the climate question, within the current paradigm they would only exacerbate major anthropogenic crises associated with unsustainable resource consumption.

The real question is this: how do we transition to alternative economic paradigms founded on the harmony of equal human welfare with ecological integrity?

This is an opinion and analysis article; views expressed by author or author they do not necessarily belong to scientific American.

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