Limits To Growth

A World Bank paper has calculated that if developing countries are to reach the level of per capita income now enjoyed by Western countries there needs to be a 46-fold improvement in technological efficiency just to hold resource consumption and environmental emissions constant.7 And another author argues that the industrialised countries themselves need to dematerialise their goods and services by a factor of 10, if they are to move on to a sustainable course.8 Neither of these estimates allows for continuing economic growth in the industrial nations.9

Clearly, all the strategies outlined in earlier chapters of this book, and all the policies described in this chapter, will be of crucial importance if reductions in material intensity of this order are to be achieved. And it is possible that an intensive reorientation of the industrial economy along these lines could go some way towards meeting dematerialisation targets. But the final arbiter on the question of dematerialisation is once again thermodynamics.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is possible to achieve a 50-fold reduction in material intensity over existing levels for all material throughputs, but that economic activity levels are allowed to grow indefinitely. The total material burden will fall for a while. But it will start to grow again once the level of economic activity exceeds fifty times its present level. In other words, if we insist on envisaging an economy which continues to grow indefinitely, then we must insist on a dematerialisation process which also continues indefinitely. And here we are led into something very close to an impossibility.

The second law of thermodynamics suggests that a certain minimum throughput of materials and energy is needed in order to maintain a complex organisational structure. The bigger the structure, the greater the requirement for maintenance energy. We can pursue certain kinds of efficiency improvements to minimise these requirements. But once we arrive at the limits of thermodynamic efficiency, increasing the level of activity implies increasing material dissipation.10 In other words: dematerialisation cannot go on indefinitely. There are irreducible lower bounds to the material intensity of human activities. Once these bounds have been reached, an increase in activity levels signals an increase in material throughput.

In the light of this constraint, we need to revise our intellectual trajectory. It is vital of course to pursue the technological avenues for dematerialisation which have been outlined in the last few chapters of this book. But we must also be prepared to re-examine the underlying forces which have forged the industrial economy. In particular, the concept of economic growth has provided the springboard for the industrial economy, and continues to underpin it. And if we want to understand the full dimensions of the environmental problem, we must understand that concept.

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