Can a physicist support growth?

The coal-fired power station at Battersea, London, now decomissioned. Fossil-fuel emissions are one thing that we don’t want to grow. Credit: Flickr @Mendhak

“We are in a race for growth”, says David Cameron frequently. Politicians do not dwell on the meaning or timescale of this growth, so I would like to offer some thoughts from the perspective of a physicist and engineer. I am 70 years old, and have only a marginal personal interest in the performance of the UK or world economies over the next ten or fifteen years. However I am deeply concerned about the prospects for the society in which my grandchildren will grow up over the next 80 years or so, and in which their grandchildren will have to live. This gives me an interest horizon of at least 100 years, and if I am more altruistic, many hundreds of years, since I wish a good life on all future residents of the planet. This is not an idle bit of utopian idealism: this very long journey starts today with the first step, as the old, allegedly Chinese, proverb might have it.

Let me start by suggesting what we do not wish to grow. The most obvious, and probably uncontroversial, items on this long list would include the population, use of non-renewable energy, use of non-renewable materials (that’s most of them!), and the CO2 or CH4 content of the atmosphere. More political but to me equally important for our survival are the gap between rich and poor (within a country or between countries) and the level of unemployment. Both of these tend to destabilise societies, and increase our descendants’ chances of having to live through war or civil unrest.

So, if this is the long-term background, should we try to grow GDP in the UK? And if so, how far or for how long? GDP is defined as the monetary value of the goods and services we produce, and tends to be used as a proxy for economic health, and ultimately for the health of our whole society.  In the short term we are assured that the growth of GDP is the only, or the least painful, way to recover from the problem of debt. But what about the longer term? As numerate scientists we know that we cannot continue to use finite resources at an ever-increasing rate. At present the production of the “goods” referred to above involves exactly this. The “success” of our economy currently depends on the depletion of natural resources. Additionally, if we are successful – that is, we win the “race for growth” referred to by the Prime Minister – we will have increased the gap between the rich (who won) and the poor (who lost).

For these reasons I believe that it would be responsible of us to attempt to halt the growth of GDP per capita in the UK, and simultaneously to try to stabilise or reduce the population. This is not in any way a counsel of doom: those of you with metallurgical training will recognize the phenomena of Ostwald ripening and nucleation and growth. Within a closed system it is quite possible for individual entities to grow, although others must shrink to provide the resource. Thus successful companies can grow by innovating, thereby improving our quality of life, while others must shrink to provide the resource. That’s OK – a hundred years ago stables shrank and garages grew. More recently tape recorder production dropped but hard drive manufacture increased. When entities get too big, as the banks did a few years ago,  we have to intervene to dissolve them, thus providing the resource for nucleation and growth of new entities, but without any need for new material or energy resources. To give another close-to-home example: I am happy to have a safer car with lower fuel consumption, but what we do not need is more cars or cars with a shorter lifetime.

In order to take the first step towards our great-grandchildren’s future we need to consider not a race for growth but a relentless plod towards a steady-state society with full employment, negligible use of new materials and a smaller gap between rich and poor. We could start by taxing the use of new raw materials. Indeed, there is a strong argument that this, and a tax on energy, are the only taxes we need. We should also de-tax the employment of people and talk not about growth but about the improvement of the quality of life. Let’s learn a lesson from the now-extinct tribes of Easter Island. They collaborated to make and erect huge statues, but failed to plan ahead at all: who cut down their last tree for short-term use as firewood or as a roller, thus ensuring that they would starve to extinction? I would prefer that this did not happen to our grandchildren, but it seems to be no easier for the G7 or G20 (never mind another 150 countries) to agree on any way forward than it was for the 13 tribes on Easter Island. Therefore despite the undoubted ingenuity of my engineering colleagues and the habit of things turning up when we really need them, I remain rather pessimistic for my great-grand-children.

To answer my initial question, what growth might a physicist be able to support? We should grow our ingenuity, our best companies, our efforts to use less energy, our commitment to educate voters about the exponential law and the finite nature of most resources and – most of all – grow our self-restraint. We could start by replacing every occurrence of the word “growth” with “sustainable increase in the quality of life”.

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