The recent change from years of continuous economic growth though most of the world to much slower growth in Asia and negative growth in America and Europe has shown just how addicted we’ve become to continuous growth. It seems that without growth our economies cannot cope. Unemployment rises, assets fall in value and bankruptcies rise. Governments see that the boom that began by excessive debt and the illusion that property prices have made us rich without working for it has ended, so they use government debt and money creation to attempt to stimulate growth.
This apparent inability to manage without growth throws up significant problems. Economic growth increases living standards and richer people consume more of the Earth’s resources, especially fossil fuels. Indeed, it is only due to the availability of this energy collected from the sun millions of years ago that we have lifestyles undreamt of 100 years ago. Unfortunately these fuels are finite, the main reserves of oil and gas are in unstable, unreliable or unfriendly countries and their continued burning is causing the climate to change in a way that threatens our future food supply.
Does that mean that there are just two very unpalatable choices? Should we resume rapid fossil-fueled economic growth, consuming more and more of the Earth’s resources and emitting more and more greenhouse gases until the inevitable time, perhaps not far away, when we reach a rapid decline in oil and gas availability, at the same time as we experience weather related food shortages? Farming is now so dependent on finite energy inputs that food supply will in any case fail when these fuels become scarce. The panic, hoarding and breakdown of the economic system as well as law and order, that will take place when this happens will make the present recession seem like heaven.
The second option doesn’t look much better. This would be to drastically reduce our consumption of energy, thereby slowing the depletion of oil and gas reserves at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The snag with this, of course, is that economic growth would stop, the recession would turn in to a longterm depression and the billions in the developing world would continue in abject poverty.
Looking at these two options, it appears as if we are leaving the next generation with no hope. However there is in fact a third way foreword that would be possible if the world’s leaders accept that we are facing disaster.
That third way is to use ingenuity, innovation and invention to collect far more of the abundant solar energy reaching us each day using solar panels, wind, wave and tidal collectors but most of all the age old method of collection by the plant leaf using photosynthesis.
Because fossil fuels have been so cheap and plentiful, there has been no incentive to improve the inefficient and wasteful farming methods that have become nothing more than a way to convert finite but cheap, fossil energy in the form of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and diesel fuel, into a much smaller amount of more expensive food energy. How can anyone think that this will not fail in the long run?
A large proportion of the energy in crops is wasted, either in the field, during processing, in the home or by feeding it to animals. There are now ways to efficiently harvest more of the crop and turn the previously wasted portion in to liquid fuels or gas. Besides traditional crops, there are developments to turn cellulose from any organic such as managed woodland or grasses, into ethanol fuel. Similarly oil can be produced from algae grown on the water that covers 70% of the planet.
If we also use technology to make it possible for us to enjoy a satisfactory lifestyle while using less total energy, we would be able to delay the depletion of fossil fuels and also reduce climatic change. What a result that would be!
The only way to make this happen quick enough to avoid disaster is to drastically change the price relationship between fossil energy and renewable energy through the tax system. We could replace income and other taxes by a carbon tax on all fossil fuels, or introduce a carbon tax with a 100% dividend. That would mean all the proceeds of the tax would be distributed back to the population.
These changes would bring about vast new industries producing both the renewable energy and the new low energy appliances, buildings and transport methods. Economic growth would no longer be leading us to disaster. It’s a possible solution.
Not many people would welcome a recession, but we must ask if it is possible to continue with economic growth forever, especially now that Asia with it’s billions of people, has joined the party. As we have said before, our prosperity and our food supply has been built on finite fossil fuels, the use of which is causing climatic change. If we continue on the present path of continuous growth, we will be hit by energy, water and land shortages causing food supplies to peak and then go in to rapid decline.
We do have an alternative, but without public understanding, it would be unpopular.
We need to put a proper price on fossil fuels, reflecting their finite nature and damaging effect, by moving the tax burden from income and sale taxes to a massive carbon tax to encourage innovation and invention at the speed needed to transform our society to using the abundant solar energy reaching us each day
New industries need to spring up to provide goods that use much less energy and other resources, and to collect much more solar energy through water, wind, photovoltaic panels and the plant leaf.
The present recession has caused a very small reduction in oil consumption. It will be tragic if we quickly go back to rapid growth in consumption of all recources until disaster hits.