27 February 2010

Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years

Filed under: books, Economics, green, Kurzweil, RSA, solar energy, sustainability — David Wood @ 3:23 pm

One reason I like London so much is the quality of debate and discussion that takes place, at least three times most weeks, at the RSA.

The full name of this organisation is “the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce“.  It’s been holding meetings since 1754.  Early participants included Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, and Richard Arkwright.

Recently, there have been several RSA meetings addressing the need for significant reform of how the global economy operates.  Otherwise, these speakers imply, the future will be much bleaker than the present.

On Wednesday, Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey led a debate on the question “Is Prosperity Without Growth Possible?”  Professor Jackson recently authored the book “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet“.  The book contains an extended version of his remarks at the debate.

I find myself in agreement a great deal of what the book says:

  • Continuous economic growth is a shallow and, by itself, dangerous goal;
  • Beyond an initial level, greater wealth has only a weak correlation with greater prosperity;
  • Greater affluence can bring malaise – especially in countries with significant internal inequalities;
  • Consumers frequently find themselves spending money they don’t have, to buy new goods they don’t really need;
  • The recent economic crisis provides us with an important opportunity to reflect on the operation of economics;
  • “Business as usual” is not a sustainable answer;
  • There is an imperative to consider whether society can operate without its existing commitment to regular GDP growth.

What makes this book stand out is its recognition of the enormous practical problems in stopping growth.  Both growth and de-growth face significant perils.  As the start of chapter 12 of the book states:

Society is faced with a profound dilemma.  To resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse.  To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy…  When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple‘ growth from its material impacts…

The sheer scale of this task is rarely acknowledged.  In a world of 9 billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it it today…

Never mind that no-one knows what such an economy looks like.  Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening on anything like that scale.  Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the wrong direction.  The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles.  Technology will save us.  Capitalism is good at technology…

This delusional strategy has reached its limits.  Simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will stabilise the climate and solve the problem of resource scarcity are almost literally bankrupt.  We now stand in urgent need of a clearer vision, braver policy-making, something more robust in the way of a strategy with which to confront the dilemma of growth.

The starting point must be to unravel the forces that keep us in damaging denial.  Nature and structure conspire together here.  The profit motive stimulates a continual search for newer, better or cheaper products and services.  Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism.  Affluence itself has betrayed us.

Affluence breeds – and indeed relies on – the continual production and reproduction of consumer novelty.  But relentless novelty reinforces anxiety and weakens our ability to protect long-term social goals.  In doing so it ends up undermining our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.  Somewhere along the way, we lose the shared prosperity we sought int he first place.

None of this is inevitable.  We can’t change ecological limits.  We can’t alter human nature.  But we can and do create and recreate the social world. Its norms are our norms.  Its visions are our visions.  Its structures and institutions shape and are shaped by those norms and visions.  This is where transformation is needed…

As I said, I find myself in agreement a great deal of what the book says.  The questions raised in the book deserve a wide hearing.  Society needs higher overarching goals than merely increasing our GDP.  Society needs to focus on new priorities, which take into account the finite nature of the resources available to us, and the risks of imminent additional ecological and economic disaster.

However, I confess to being one of the people who believe (with some caveats…) that “technology will save us“.  Let’s look again at this figure of a 130-fold descrease needed, between now and 2050.

The figure of 130 comes from a calculation in chapter 5 of the book.  I have no quibble with the figure.  It comes from the Paul Ehrlich equation

I = P * A * T


  • I is the impact on the environment resulting from consumption
  • P is the population
  • A is the consumption or income level per capita (affluence)
  • T is the technological intensity of economic output.

Jackson’s book considers various scenarios.  Scenario 4 assumes a global population of 9 billion by 2050, all enjoying a lifestyle equivalent to that of the average EU citizen, which has grown by the modest amount of only 2% per annum over the intervening 40 years.  To bring down today’s I level for carbon intensity of economic level, to that seen by the IPCC as required to avoid catastrophic climate change, will require a 130-fold reduction in T in the meantime.

How feasible is an improvement factor of 130 in technology, over the next 40 years?  How good is the track record of technology at solving this kind of problem?

Some of the other speakers at the RSA event were hesitant to make any predictions for a 40 year time period.  They noted that history has a habit of making this kind of prediction irrelevant.  Jackson’s answer is that since we have little confidence of making a significant change in T, we should look to ways to reduce A.  Jackson is also worried that recent talk of a ‘Green New Deal’:

  • Is still couched in language of economic growth, rather than improvement in prosperity;
  • Has seen little translation into action, since first raised during 2008-9.

My own answer is that 130 represents just over 7 doublings (2 raised to the 7th power is 128) and that at least some parts of technology have no problems in improving by seven doubling generations over 40 years.  Indeed, taking two years as the usual Moore’s Law doubling period, for improvements in semiconductor density, would require only 14 years for this kind of improvement, rather than 40.

To consider how Moore’s Law improvements could transform the energy business, radically reducing its carbon intensity, here are some remarks by futurist Ray Kurzweil, as reported by LiveScience Senior Editor Robin Lloyd:

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is part of distinguished panel of engineers that says solar power will scale up to produce all the energy needs of Earth’s people in 20 years.

There is 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100 percent of our energy needs, he says, and the technology needed for collecting and storing it is about to emerge as the field of solar energy is going to advance exponentially in accordance with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. That law yields a doubling of price performance in information technologies every year.

Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity Is Near” and “The Age of Intelligent Machines,” worked on the solar energy solution with Google Co-Founder Larry Page as part of a panel of experts convened by the National Association of Engineers to address the 14 “grand challenges of the 21st century,” including making solar energy more economical. The panel’s findings were announced here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Solar and wind power currently supply about 1 percent of the world’s energy needs, Kurzweil said, but advances in technology are about to expand with the introduction of nano-engineered materials for solar panels, making them far more efficient, lighter and easier to install. Google has invested substantially in companies pioneering these approaches.

Regardless of any one technology, members of the panel are “confident that we are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels,” Kurzweil said, adding that it could happen within five years.

The reason why solar energy technologies will advance exponentially, Kurzweil said, is because it is an “information technology” (one for which we can measure the information content), and thereby subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

Other technologies that will help are solar concentrators made of parabolic mirrors that focus very large areas of sunlight onto a small collector or a small efficient steam turbine. The energy can be stored using nano-engineered fuel cells, Kurzweil said.

“You could, for example, create hydrogen or hydrogen-based fuels from the energy produced by solar panels and then use that to create fuel for fuel cells”, he said. “There are already nano-engineered fuel cells, microscopic in size, that can be scaled up to store huge quantities of energy”, he said…

To be clear, I don’t see any of this as inevitable.  The economy as a whole could falter again, jeopardising “Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns”.  Less dramatically, Moore’s Law could run out of steam, or it might prove harder than expected to apply silicon improvements in systems for generating, storing, and transporting energy.  I therefore share Professor Jackson’s warning that capitalism, by itself, cannot be trusted to get the best out of technology.  That’s why this debate is particularly important.


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