Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

The following is shared with permission from Josh Kearns’ blog “Busy, busy, busy”:

I continue to be troubled by what I hear in the media, at conferences, in university lecture halls, etc. with respect to what basically amounts to the promotion of “sustainable growth.”

You can’t have economic growth forever on a finite planet, resource substitution and other measures of technological development notwithstanding.

We in the developed world got used to continual growth as “normal” over several generations’ time since the advent of fossil fuels, primarily oil. In the past, always being able to expand our access to cheap, accessible high net-energy (high EROEI, Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested) oil allowed us to grow our economy and vastly increase in societal and infrastructure complexity.

Subtract cheap high EROEI oil and growth stalls and reverses into contraction, and society rapidly decomplexifies. (Some use the term, “collapse.”)

By now we’ve run out of cheap, easily accessible, high quality oil, and have begun to exploit more dispersed, environmentally risky, geo-politically contentious, low quality, and therefore more expensive, low EROEI resources (e.g. fracked shale oil, tar sands, super deepwater offshore deposits).

The question is, what minimum EROEI is required to run a highly globalized and integrated, sub-/peri-/urbanized, industrialized, hyper-complex society, and where are we now with respect to that minimum?

In the first decades of oil drilling in PA and TX, the EROEI was 100:1 or more. Currently, conventional oil clocks in at around 25:1. Average for US oil today is about 10:1. Tar sands run from 3:1 to 5:1, biodiesel from soybeans at 1.7:1, and corn ethanol at a mere 1.3:1. (Solar, wind, and hydro fare better, but are good for electricity production, not transport, and still require a platform of cheap fossil fuels in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale.)

The fracking “boom” does not represent a real boom in new resources, or old resources opened up by technological breakthroughs in horizontal drilling. It is a combination of high ($100+/barrel) oil prices, and Wall Street financial bubble shenanigans. (The shale oil bubble – give it a year or so and this will be a household term – is the current in a series of US economy bubbles dating back at least to the S&L scandal of the 80’s, the Enron scandal and the tech bubble of the 90’s / early 2000’s, and the housing bubble and financial crash of the mid-2000s).

The trouble with high oil prices is that they reliably send the economy into a recession. (Because energy is the “master resource” that effects the production, and prices, of all other goods and services in the economy.) This destroys demand; but if oil prices drop, then it is no longer economical for energy companies to exploit expensive new “tight oil” plays. These upper and lower oil price bounds have characterized the bumpy plateau of oil production that we have been on since 2005, and go along way explaining our protracted economic non-recovery from the crash of 2008. Some analysts think that this indicates we’ve hit peak oil. Some analysts think this also signals the end of the era of economic growth – that we are not in a “recession” per se (because “recession” implies a defined trough ending with an uptrend back to “normal”), but are experiencing the first symptoms of economic stall and contraction.

We talk incessantly about sustainability when we should be talking about un-sustainability…


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