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The End of Economic Growth

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So consider this real-world example:   Over the past two centuries, human population has grown at rates ranging from less than 1% to more than 2% per year.   In 1800, world population stood at about one billion;   by 1930 it had doubled to two billion.   Only 30 years later (in 1960) it had doubled again to four billion;   currently we are on track to achieve a third doubling, to eight billion humans, around 2025.   No one seriously expects human population to continue growing for centuries into the future.   But what if it did? -- at just 1.3% per year (our growth rate in the year 2000), by the year 2780 there would be 148 trillion humans on Earth--one person for each square meter of land on the planet's surface.


It won't happen, of course.   But it illustrates this point:   In nature, growth always slams up against non-negotiable constraints sooner or later.   If a species finds that its food source has expanded, its numbers will increase to take advantage of those surplus calories--but then its food source will become depleted as more mouths consume it, and its predators will likewise become more numerous (more tasty meals for them!).   Population "blooms" (periods of rapid growth) are always followed by crashes and die-offs.   Always.


Here's another real-world example.   In recent years China's economy has been growing at 8% or more per year;   that means it is more than doubling in size every ten years!   Indeed, China now consumes more than twice as much coal as it did a decade ago--the same with iron ore and oil.   The nation now has four times as many highways as it did, and almost five times as many cars.   But for how much longer can this doubling go on?   How many more doublings can occur before China has used up its key resources and caused severe shortages around the world?   The question is hard to answer with a specific date, but it must be asked.   Meanwhile, the Pentagon has ordered  the construction of ever more rocket-firing ships to patrol the Taiwan Straits off the coast of China.   These specially-designed missiles are capable of intercepting any ICBMs that might be launched from China after a first strike (with hydrogen bombs) on China by the U.S., says military analyst and author Bruce Gagnon, who also reports that a first strike on China is being war-gamed in the Pentagon as we speak.   Imagine how we would feel if China had surrounded the US with rocket launch sites and was patrolling our coastline with missile launching destroyers like the Aegis.


Nuclear attacks would not be contemplated if the Pentagon did not understand that the world's strategic resources are becoming critically scarce.


The economy is not just an abstract concept;   it is what determines whether we live in luxury or poverty, whether we eat or starve.   If economic growth does end as predicted, everyone will be impacted, and it will take society years to adapt to this new condition.   Therefore it is important to know whether that moment is close at hand or distant, so that we can plan accordingly.





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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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