The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

8 08 2018

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.

There are pictures of masses of dead fish on the surface of the stream. Some eyewitnesses reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream, dead from drinking contaminated water. It was the third such incident in the space of seven years in an area which has seen a sharp rise in mining activity, including operations run by BYD, the world’ biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. After the second incident, in 2013, officials closed the mine, but when it reopened in April 2016, the fish started dying again.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Workers drill though the crust of the world’s biggest salt flat with large rigs. They are aiming for the brine underneath swathes of magnesium and potassium in the hope of finding lithium-rich spots. Since the 2000s, most of the world’s lithium has been extracted this way, rather than using mineral ore sources such as spodumene, petalite and lepidolite

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.

But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.

Tahua, Bolivia. Salt miners load a truck with lithium-rich salt. The ground beneath Bolivia’s salt flats are thought to contain the world’s largest reserves of the metal. (The Bolivian Andes may contain 70 per cent of the planet’s lithium.) Many analysts argue that extracting lithium from brine is more environmentally friendly than from rock. However, as demand increases, companies might resort to removing lithium from the brine by heating it up, which is more energy intensive.

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

In South America, the biggest problem is water. The continent’s Lithium Triangle, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its otherworldly salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. That’s a real issue, because to extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.

Then they leave it to evaporate for months at a time, first creating a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and so on. After between 12 and 18 months, the mixture has been filtered enough that lithium carbonate – white gold – can be extracted.

It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.

There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

Rio Grande, Bolivia. An aerial view of the mineral formations along the Rio Grande delta, at the edges of the salt flats. The delta is mostly dry due to the effects of lithium mining, which is heavily reliant on water for its shallow artificial salt-pans, or solar evaporation ponds, in which saline solutions are left to dry out over a period of months, leaving the minerals behind. This drying out of the delta has led to a lack of stability in water levels, both on top of and below the surface. The river is home to a wide variety of freshwater fish, many originating in the Amazon basin

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries. It is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future, albeit through a very energy-intensive process.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Lino Fita, head of potassium extraction for mining company Comibol, looks out over his factory. The brine in this region is rich with potassium and magnesium, which makes it harder and more expensive to extract lithium. The brine is put in large ponds for many months to evaporate excess water and separate its salts. The remaining compound is then purified and processed. Very few lithium-processing experts work in the factory, as there is a nationwide shortage of staff. In the past, as few as three people have run the factory’s entire production line

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more in danger of creating a bottleneck in the move towards electric vehicles, and at a potentially huge environmental cost. Cobalt is found in huge quantities right across the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa, and hardly anywhere else. The price has quadrupled in the last two years.

Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

“One of the biggest challenges with cobalt is that it’s located in one country,” he adds. You can literally just dig up the land and find cobalt, so there’s a very strong motivation to dig it up and sell it, and a a result there’s a lot of motivation for unsafe and unethical behaviour.” The Congo is home to ‘artisanal mines’, where cobalt is extracted from the ground by hand, often using child labour, without protective equipment.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Brine is pumped out of a nearby lake into a series of evaporation ponds and left for 12 to 18 months. Various salts crystallise at different times as the solution becomes more concentrated. It is also treated with lime to remove traces of magnesium. When the minerals are ready for processing, they are taken to the nearby Planta Li lithium factory to produce the ions that will go into batteries. In 2017, the factory produced 20 tonnes of lithium carbonate

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

There’s also a political angle to be considered. When Bolivia started to exploit its lithium supplies from about 2010, it was argued that its huge mineral wealth could give the impoverished country the economic and political heft that the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. “They don’t want to pay a new OPEC,” says Lisbeth Dahllöf, of the IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, who co-authored a report last year on the environmental footprint of electric car battery production.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Yushin and his co-authors argued that new battery technology needs to be developed that uses more common, and environmentally friendly materials to make batteries. Researchers are working on new battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.

But, if new batteries are less energy dense or more expensive than lithium, they could end up having a negative effect on the environment overall. “Assessing and reducing the environmental cost is a more complex issue than it initially appears,” says Valimaki. “For example, a less durable, yet more sustainable device could entail a larger carbon footprint once your factor in transportation and the extra packaging required.”

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Graves such as this one are a common sight on the salt flats. The area has experienced very little rainfall over the last two years, which has affected the lives of local quinoa farmers. The lithium plants, which use vast amounts of water, have exacerbated shortages: in locations such as Pastos Chicas, near the Argentina/Chile border, additional water had to be shipped in from elsewhere to meet demand

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

At the University of Birmingham, research funded by the government’s £246m Faraday Challenge for battery research is trying to find new ways of recycling lithium-ion. Research in Australia found that only two per cent of the country’s 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion waste was recycled. Unwanted MP3 players and laptops can end up in landfill, where metals from the electrodes and ionic fluids from the electrolyte can leak into the environment.

A consortium of researchers, led by the Birmingham Energy Institute are using robotics technology developed for nuclear power plants to find ways to safely remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There have been a number of fires at recycling plants where lithium-ion batteries have been stored improperly, or disguised as lead-acid batteries and put through a crusher.

Xiangtan, China. Workers on the production line at Soundon New Energy, a huge lithium-ion battery company in eastern China. Most electric vehicles in use today are yet to reach the end of their cycle. The first all-electric car to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, the Tesla Roadster, made its market debut in 2008. This means the first generation of electric vehicle batteries have yet to reach the recycling stage

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Because lithium cathodes degrade over time, they can’t simply be placed into new batteries (although some efforts are underway to use old vehicle batteries for energy storage applications where energy density is less critical). “That’s the problem with recycling any form of battery that has electrochemistry – you don’t know what point it is at in its life,” says Stephen Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones is not cost effective. You get this sort of soup.”

Another barrier, says Dr Gavin Harper of the Faraday Institution’s lithium recycling project, is that manufacturers are understandably secretive about what actually goes into their batteries, which makes it harder to recycle them properly. At the moment recovered cells are usually shredded, creating a mixture of metal that can then be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques – burning. But, this method wastes a lot of the lithium.

Linyi County, China. A production line at Chinese electric-car company ZD, in Linyi County. The company’s small, urban electric two-seaters are made exclusively for the Italian market, where ZD has a joint-venture company Share’ngo, a car-sharing startup in Milan. China is the world’s largest electric car manufacturer, and over the past few years, the country has been looking to increase the number of countries it exports to

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

UK researchers are investigating alternative techniques, including biological recycling where bacteria are used to process the materials, and hydrometallurgical techniques which use solutions of chemicals in a similar way to how lithium is extracted from brine to begin with.

For Harper, it’s about creating a process to shepherd lithium-ion batteries safely through their whole lifecycle, and making sure that we’re not extracting more from the ground unnecessarily, or allowing chemicals from old batteries to do damage. “Considering that all of the materials in these batteries have already had an environmental and social impact in their extraction, we should be mindful of ensuring good custody,” he says.


Is this a sign of collapse gathering pace…?

15 05 2018

The articles coming from the consciousness of sheep are getting more and more interesting… after reading this one, I could not help but think that while Australia’s energy dilemmas are different to the UK’s, the following quote really struck a cord with me…:

Underlying all of this is a fundamental truth that few are prepared to contemplate: with the end of the last supplies of cheap fossil fuels, there is no affordable energy mix for the foreseeable future.  No combinations of gas, nuclear and renewables can be developed and deployed at the same time as prices are held at levels that are only just affordable to millions of British households.  Nor is there any option of returning to cheap gas from depleted North Sea deposits; still less reopening coal deposits put out of reach by the Thatcher government.

We are ‘lucky’ to have more coal and gas than we know what to do with, until that is it becomes so obvious we can’t keep burning these climate destroying fuels, we just stop. Hopefully before it’s too late.  But consider this……  if the UK economy collapses, what effect would it have on ours? Oil is creeping up, and our electricity rates are the subject of much moaning all over the country. An economic shock is coming, as sure as the sun rises in the East…..

Centrica may not care

Sometimes a story is repeated so often that its veracity is never challenged.  One such is the myth that British households are in thrall to a wicked energy cartel that puts excessive profits above common decency.  So much so, indeed, that the government and the opposition parties have all signed up to some form of energy cap designed to keep energy prices affordable.

The grain of truth in this story is that, aided by a craven regulator, the “big six” – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power, and SSE – have on many occasions operated a cartel to hold prices up.  How else can we explain, for example, recent British Gas price increases in the face of a collapse in their customer base?

“British Gas owner Centrica lost 110,000 energy supply accounts in the first four months of the year.  That is roughly equivalent to 70,000 customers as many households buy their gas and electricity from British Gas, so will have two accounts.

“Last year, the company lost 1.3 million energy accounts…

“In April, British Gas announced a 5.5% increase in both gas and electricity bills, which comes into effect at the end of this month.  It blamed the rising wholesale cost of energy and the cost of meeting emissions targets and introducing smart meters.

“Other big energy firms have also announced price increases this year, including Npower, EDF and Scottish Power.”

This is surely evidence of a cartel being operated behind the back of the regulator… or is it?

There is an alternative explanation for the recent behaviour of the soon to be Big Four that should send a shiver through the UK economy.  Toward the end of last year, Jillian Ambrose at the Telegraph reported that:

“Britain’s second-largest energy supplier is eyeing the exit as the Government’s crackdown on energy bills threatens profits.

“SSE, formerly known as Scottish and Southern Energy, may turn its back on supplying gas and power to almost 8m British homes ­after years of political threats against the six largest energy companies comes to a head.

“City sources say the FTSE 100 energy giant is quietly discussing early plans to sell off its customer accounts, or even spin the business off as a separate listed company in order to focus on networks and renewable energy and avoid the Government’s looming energy price cap.”

Some months earlier I took the time to examine Centrica’s (British Gas’ parent company) annual accounts.  The results are not pretty:

“While Centrica profits were down (but still high) the division of British Gas that supplies electricity to UK consumers (businesses and households) actually made a loss of £61.1 million last year – in the household market, the loss was even bigger at £71.9 million.  That is, business electricity consumers are subsidising household electricity to some extent, while Centrica itself is subsidising its UK electricity business out of the profits from its other divisions.  Despite this, of course, electricity consumers are facing increasing bills even as they scale back their consumption.  This is exacerbated by the government decision to load the cost of renewables, new gas and new nuclear onto customers’ bills; effectively creating in all but name an even more regressive tax than VAT.”

Centrica’s response at the start of this year was to axe 4,000 jobs; having previously ceased maintaining the strategically essential Rough natural gas storage facility in the North Sea.  SSE in the meantime has announced a merger with N-Power in an attempt to rationalise both company’s retail energy business.  Unfortunately, no business to date has managed the trick of cutting its way to greatness… particularly in an economic climate in which ever fewer consumers can afford the service.

Centrica’s route out of an increasingly unprofitable domestic energy supply sector will be to focus on its much larger international energy business.  Britain’s remaining retail energy suppliers – all of which are foreign owned – may not enjoy this option.  For example, EDF’s wholesale energy investments are tied up in an increasingly risky and very-likely loss-making nuclear power sector.  Nor is there much to be gained from investment in renewable energy technologies that depend upon uncertain government subsidies that have become politically toxic among ordinary voters.

Underlying all of this is a fundamental truth that few are prepared to contemplate: with the end of the last supplies of cheap fossil fuels, there is no affordable energy mix for the foreseeable future.  No combinations of gas, nuclear and renewables can be developed and deployed at the same time as prices are held at levels that are only just affordable to millions of British households.  Nor is there any option of returning to cheap gas from depleted North Sea deposits; still less reopening coal deposits put out of reach by the Thatcher government.

For the moment, the UK government is content to fill Britain’s energy gap with imports.  However, as global energy supplies begin to tighten once more, pricing and profitability issues are likely to rise up the political agenda again.  Faced with an increasing struggle to remain profitable, and in the face of a government determined to add the cost of green energy onto domestic bills while legislating to prevent those bills from rising, companies like Centrica may simply choose to walk away.  After all, one of the blessings of being a private corporation (as opposed to a public utility) is that nobody can stop you from closing when you run out of money.

Three Things We Don’t Understand About Climate Change

3 09 2017

ANOTHER great article from Ahmed Nafeez’ new Medium website…….  Please support his magnificent efforts.

This is the most honest item on Climate Change I hace seen in quite a while. It almost goes as far as saying what I’ve now concluded, we must de-industrialise. Almost.

Go to the profile of Aarne Granlund
Aarne GranlundFollow



Thinking about climate change is not something that comes natural to humans — or ‘consumers’ as we have been called for decades. It is not only emotionally unpleasant, but analytically extremely challenging.

I argue that most of us do not grasp how immediate this situation has become, how fast it is progressing and what the scale of change needed is to reach the stabilisation targets of the Paris Agreement.

I also argue that after individuals, nations and corporations understand the urgency and the rate, they should be honest about the scale of action needed in order to avoid collapse of the biosphere and thus civilisation.

North America on 29th of August 2017. Tundra and forest fires in the Arctic + British Columbia and Hurricane Harvey off the coast of South Texas (Terra / MODIS @ Nasa WorldView).

Human society is deeply and permanently coupled to the Earth System. In the geological epoch we have entered called the Anthropocene, that system is undergoing immediate, massive disruption. The previous epoch of Holocene gave us agriculture and settled living arrangements.

Since the onset of industrial production at an accelerating rate and scale, human society has had deep and far ranging influence on natural processes which it depends on. Climate change is only one of the manifestations — there are multiple large-scale indicators of our presence on this planet from erosion to nitrogen runoff, species extinction to uncontrolled population growth.

1. Urgency

The first misunderstanding about climate change is related to how we perceive its impacts in the temporal space. It is not (only) a future issue, not a polar bear issue and certainly not an issue which only affects a few remote parts of the world.

Situation has become dangerous during the last three years of 2014, 2015, 2016 and now continuing into 2017. Certain parts of the world see less immediate danger but systematic changes affect us all.

NASA GISS dataset on land and ocean temperature anomalies (2017).

How is it possible that the Earth System has taken up our presence on the surface so lightly even when we have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean with our carbon pollution?

Ocean heat uptake has doubled since 1997 (Gleckler et al, 2016).

Most of the energy (heat) human carbon pollution creates ends up warming the world ocean, some 93% of our pyromania ends up there. Every passing year we pump 41 gigatons (that is a very big number) of carbon dioxide into the Earth System, where roughly half of it is absorbed by natural sink capabilities of the ocean and the land biosphere. Rest of it ends up in the atmosphere with all the other gases we put up, including aerosols and certain novel entities that have never occured in the natural state of the Earth System.

The fact that increasing greenhouse gas loading from human sources in the carbon cycle is cumulative makes this an extremely vicious political, economic and social problem. The increment which ends up in the atmosphere can only be drawn down by the natural climate system on time scales extending to tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

The Global Carbon Budget from GCP, 2017.

One component of urgency is that when surface temperatures increase after being buffered by the ocean — without the world ocean we would already be 36°C hotter on the surface of continents from the increased atmospheric forcing — they can do so in a non-linear fashion.

This creates immediate impacts. Single exceptional extreme weather events are not caused by climate change but happen in a distinctively new climate. Hotter atmosphere holds more moisture which increases precipitation. Extreme heatwaves become more common. Ice in all its forms melts.

Right now there are multiple imminent disasters occuring in various parts of the planet. Global fire situation has been exceptional in Siberia, Greenland, Canada and in other parts of North America. Tundra burns, forests burn, people suffer. Europe has been under severe heat waves and there have been mass casualties from forest fires in Portugal.

There is extreme flooding in South Asia, impacting multiple cities and the country of Bangladesh of which one third is currently under water. Hurricane Harvey just hit South Texas at Category 4 strength and produced record precipitation totals for many locations, including but not limited to the City of Houston. Tens of millions suffer from these impacts — right now.

Arctic climate change is proceeding at fast pace (AMAP SWIPA, 2017

2. Rate and Scale of Change

The Arctic, area located on the top of the planet from 66°N north, is a prime example of systematic exponential change. It is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet. There is less inertia in the Arctic than there is in the general climate system.

But even the general climate system is being pushed in ways which have no previous analogue in natural climate changes going back tens of millions of years. It is about the rate of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases added. There have been periods in the deep geological past of Earth when greenhouse gas concentrations have been much, much higher than they are today but increases have never occured this rapidly.

Proxy measurements of carbon dioxide from ice cores (NOAA @ NASA Climate Change

Earth is a fluid, non-linear system capable of abrupt and total change. Earth System has been in a hothouse state and for a while was mostly covered by ice. At current pathways we are literally going to lose very large portions of both continental polar ice sheets, possibly in their entirety. This will take centuries but when we commit, the result will be permanent. Permafrost is thawing, threathening both the carbon cycle and our settled living arrangements in the Arctic.

When climate scientists project future climate change up to and beyond 2050 and 2100 they refer to scenarios. They are used in policy making to set stabilisation targets.

Tipping elements in the climate system (Schellnhuber et al, 2015).

What is worrying is that humanity is currently putting in place an atmospheric forcing comparable to something between the RCP4.5 and 8.5 (watts per square meter) end results. The choice between the Paris Agreement ‘well below 2°C’ framing and higher, 3–4°C level of warming is the choice of having a civilisation with global governance capability or losing it.

At any pathway we choose to follow, in order for the climate to stabilise at a higher level of change, emissions need to be zero. If new carbon pollution enters the climate system, temperatures will go up. This also applies to 2.5°C emissions budgets as well as 3°C budgets.

3. Stabilisation

What is to be done? Multiple actions are under way. Our energy system is changing with global energy demand growth continuing to rise due to industrialisation of developing nations, but new added electricity capacity in the form of solar and wind power only appear to offset some of the added growth. Electricity is only a portion of our energy use profile.

The massive use of fossil fuels is the prime driver of human-caused climate change. The fraction of low-carbon energy is the same now that it was a few decades ago. Fossil fuels absolutely dominate our energy system at >80% share in total final energy consumption. Deforestation and other land-use change also contribute significantly, but our profligate use of fossil energy commits us to possibly catastrophic breakdowns of the climate system.

For a reasonable chance of keeping warming under 2℃ we can emit a further 865 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). The climate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2030 are a first step, but recent analyses show they are not enough (Canadell and Smith, 2017

The trouble with negative emissions (Peters and Anderson, 2016

The carbon budget framing might seem like a radical socio-political construct but it is in fact the best depiction of the physical reality of climate change. Cumulative emissions dictate the mitigation outcome — there is absolutely no doubt about this as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown.

The relationship between temperature change and cumulative CO2 emissions (in GtCO2) from 1870 to the year 2100. (IPCC 2014 Synthesis Report).

It is indeed the fact that many applications of fossil energy are growing exponentially that is the problem for climate stabilisationAir travel, road freight, shipping. Exponential global growth. Based on sound understanding of the physical reality, their fossil carbon use should be declining exponentially.

Three years to safeguard our climate (Figueres at al, 2017

All of this is sadly true and supremely distressing. Emissions from fossil fuels and land use change are 60% higher than they were in 1990 when scientists established most of what has been shown above with high certainty. Only the resolution of understanding has increased along with worsening climate impacts.

F/ Honesty

Finding out the reality of this situation is a profound experience. It is a state shift in human cognition, comparable to expansion of internet and global connectivity.

What I argue as citizen is to stop lying to ourselves. We have to obey the ancient laws of nature. No amount of economic growth, green shift, denial or activism can negotiate with physical constraints of the Earth System.

Our energy system will never be able to transform fast enough to meet the Paris Agreement stabilisation target without mad assumptions of building a carbon draw down device on this planet three times the size of the current oil industry, capable of sequestering greenhouse gases from ambient air on the order of what the natural sinks like the world ocean and the land biosphere are currently doing.

Roughly 10% of us generate almost as much greenhouse gas emissions from our lifestyle as the rest of the people on this planet. Finnish household consumption added to territorial emissions at >15 tons CO2 equivalent per capita will breach the global carbon budget for lower stabilisation targets within a decade. This is a pragmatic, but also a moral issue. Nobody can escape it, no matter how much one tries.

Finnish emissions reductions and negative emissions to meet Paris Agreement framing (Climate Analytics, 2016.)

We have to transform our diets, mobility systems, energy production and conspicuous consumption within a decade to limit risks of profound magnitude. The first decade should cut all of our carbon pollution in half. The next one should halve the portion left and so on. We have to put in policies which enchance natural sinks and research artificial new sinks.

This is not an obligation just to protect future generations, poor people or animals anymore. It is a threat to huge amounts of people living in the present moment on this finite planet in our vast universe.

We have to push through this mentally, keeping focus on what there is to be done with resolute purpose against nearly impossible odds. We have to be honest to ourselves, respectful of others and lead by example in everything we do.

Everybody can enter this space with relatively little sacrifice. It might be very painful in the beginning but truth is, after all, one of the most precious things this world has to offer.

Do what comes naturally, but always remember three things: how immediate this is, what kind of rates it is progressing at and what the scale of change needed must be in order to limit risk.

Limits to growth: policies to steer the economy away from disaster

14 09 2016

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

Samuel Alexander

If the rich nations in the world keep growing their economies by 2% each year and by 2050 the poorest nations catch up, the global economy of more than 9 billion people will be around 15 times larger than it is now, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). If the global economy then grows by 3% to the end of the century, it will be 60 times larger than now.

The existing economy is already environmentally unsustainable. It is utterly implausible to think we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact so significantly, especially since recent decades of extraordinary technological advancement have only increased our impacts on the planet, not reduced them.

Moreover, if you asked politicians whether they’d rather have 4% growth than 3%, they’d all say yes. This makes the growth trajectory outlined above all the more absurd.

Others have shown why limitless growth is a recipe for disaster. I’ve argued that living in a degrowth economy would actually increase well-being, both socially and environmentally. But what would it take to get there?

In a new paper published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, I look at government policies that could facilitate a planned transition beyond growth – and I reflect on the huge obstacles lying in the way.

Measuring progress

First, we need to know what we’re aiming for.

It is now widely recognised that GDP – the monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy – is a deeply flawed measure of progress.

GDP can be growing while our environment is being degraded, inequality is worsening, and social well-being is stagnant or falling. Better indicators of progress include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for a wide range of social, economic and environmental factors.

Cap resources and energy

Environmental impact is driven by demand for resources and energy. It is now clear that the planet cannot possibly support current or bigger populations if developing nations used the same amount of resources and energy as developed nations.

Demand can be reduced through efficiency gains (doing more with less), but these gains tend to be reinvested in more growth and consumption, rather than reducing impacts.

A post-growth economy would therefore need diminishing “resource caps” to achieve sustainability. These would aim to limit a nation’s consumption to a “fair share” of available resources. This in turn would stimulate efficiency, technological innovation and recycling, thereby minimising waste.

This means that a post-growth economy will need to produce and consume in far less resource-intensive ways, which will almost certainly mean reduced GDP. There will of course be scope to progress in other ways, such as increased leisure time and community engagement.

Work less, live more

Growth in GDP is often defended on the grounds that it is required to keep unemployment at manageable levels. So jobs will have to maintained in other ways.

Even though GDP has been growing quite consistently in recent decades, many Westerners, including Australians, still seem to be locked into a culture of overwork.

By reducing the average working week to 28 hours, a post-growth economy would share the available work among the working population. This would minimise or eliminate unemployment even in a non-growing or contracting economy.

Lower income would mean we would have less stuff, reducing environmental impact, but we would receive more freedom in exchange. Planned degrowth is therefore very different to unplanned recession.

Redirect public spending

Governments are the most significant player in any economy and have the most spending power. Taking limits to growth seriously will require a fundamental rethink of how public funds are invested and spent.

Among other things, this would include a swift divestment from the fossil fuel economy and reinvestment in renewable energy systems. But just as important is investing in efficiency and reducing energy demand through behaviour change. Obviously, it will be much easier to transition to 100% renewable energy if energy demand is a fraction of what it is today.

We could fund this transition by redirecting funds from military spending (climate change is, after all, a security threat), cutting fossil fuel subsidies and putting an adequate price on carbon.

Reform banking and finance

Banking and finance systems essentially have a “growth imperative” built into their structures. Money is loaned into existence by private banks as interest-bearing debt. Paying back the debt plus the interest requires an expansion of the monetary supply.

There is so much public and private debt today that the only way it could be paid back is via decades of continued growth.

So we need deep reform of banking and finance systems. We’d also need to cancel debt in some circumstances, especially in developing nations that are being suffocated by interest payments to rich world lenders.

The population question

Then there’s population. Many people assume that population growth will slow when the developing world gets rich, but to globalise affluence would be environmentally catastrophic. It is absolutely imperative therefore that nations around the world unite to confront the population challenge directly.

Population policies will inevitably be controversial but the world needs bold and equitable leadership on this issue, because current trends suggest we are heading for 11 billion by the end of this century.

Anyone who casually dismisses the idea that there is a limit to how many people Earth can support should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria. Watch as the colony grows until it consumes all of the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste.

The first thing needed is a global fund that focuses on providing the education, empowerment and contraception required to minimise the estimated 87 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year.

Eliminating poverty

The conventional path to poverty alleviation is the strategy of GDP growth, on the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. But, as I’ve argued, a rising tide will sink all boats.

Poverty alleviation must be achieved more directly, via redistribution of wealth and power, both nationally and internationally. In other words (and to change the metaphor), a post-growth economy would eliminate poverty not by baking an ever-larger pie (which isn’t working) but by sharing it differently.

The richest 62 people on the planet own more than the poorest half of humanity. Dwell on that for a moment, and then dare to tell me that redistribution is not an imperative of justice.

So what’s stopping us?

Despite these post-growth policy proposals seeming coherent, they face at least four huge obstacles – which may be insurmountable.

First, the paradigm of growth is deeply embedded in national governments, especially in the developed world. At the cultural level, the expectation of ever-increasing affluence is as strong as ever. I am not so deluded as to think otherwise.

Second, these policies would directly undermine the economic interests of the most powerful corporations and institutions in society, so fierce resistance should be expected.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that in a globalised world these policies would likely trigger either capital flight or economic collapse, or both. For example, how would the stock markets react to this policy agenda?

Finally, there is also a geopolitical risk in being first to adopt these policies. Reduced military spending, for instance, would reduce a nation’s relative power.

So if these “top-down” policies are unlikely to work, it would seem to follow that if a post-growth economy is to emerge, it may have to be driven into existence from below, with communities coming together to build the new economy at the grassroots level.

And if we face a future where the growth economy grows itself to death, which seems to be the most likely scenario, then building up local resilience and self-sufficiency now will prove to be time and energy well spent.

In the end, it is likely that only when a deep crisis arrives will an ethics of sufficiency come to inform our economic thinking and practice more broadly.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Extreme Implausibility of Ecomodernism.

20 07 2016

Another essay by Ted Trainer.


Ted Trainer


Abstract: “Ecomodernism” is a recently coined term for that central element in mainstream Enlightenment culture previously well-described as “Tech-fix faith”. The largely taken for granted assumption has been that by accelerating modern technologies high living standards can be achieved for all, while resolving resource and ecological problems.  The following argument is that ecomodernism falls far short of having a substantial, persuasive or convincing case in its support. It stands as a contradiction of the now voluminous “limits to growth” literature, but it does not attempt to offer a case against the limits thesis. Elements in the limits case will be referred to below but the main line of argument will be to do with the reasons why achievement of the reductions and “decouplings” assumed by ecomodernism is extremely implausible. The conservative social and political implications are noted before briefly arguing that the solution to global problems must be sought via The Simpler Way.

What is ecomodernism?.

The 32 page Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), by 18 authors, is a clear and emphatic restatement of the common belief that technical advance within the existing social structure can or will solve global problems, and there is therefore no need for radical change in directions, systems, values or lifestyles. Thus the fundamental commitment to ever more affluent “living standards”, capital intensive systems, technical sophistication and constantly rising levels of consumption and GDP is sound, and indeed necessary as it is the only way to enable the future technical advance that it is believed will solve global problems. This will enable human demands to be met while resource and ecological impacts on nature are reduced, thus making it possible to set more of nature aside to thrive. Modern agriculture for instance will producer more from less land, enabling more to be returned to nature and freeing Third World people from backbreaking work while moving into urban living.  Thus the fundamental assumption frequently asserted is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from the environment.

These kinds of visions would obviously require vastly increased quantities of energy but renewable sources are judged not to be capable of providing these, so it is no surprise to find late in the document that it is being assumed that nuclear reactors are going to do the job, nor that the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute champions the Manifesto.

Unfortunately the Manifesto is little more than a claim.  It provides almost no supporting case apart from giving some examples where technical advance has improved human welfare at reduced resource or ecological impact. It does not deal with the many reasons for thinking that technical advance cannot do what the ecomodernists are assuming it can do.  Above all it does not provide grounds for thinking that that resource demand and ecological damage can be sufficiently decoupled from economic growth. When one of the authors was asked for the supporting case reference was made to the 106 page document Nature Unbounded by Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, (2015.) However this document too is essentially a statement of claims and faith and can hardly be said to present a case that those claims can be realized.

The following discussion is mainly intended to show how implausible and unsubstantiated the general “tech-fix” and decoupling claims are, and that they are contrary to existing evidence.  Most if not all critical discussions of ecomodernism and of left modernization theorists such as Phillips (2015), e.g., by Hopkins (2015), Caradonna et al., 2015, Crist, (2015) and Smaje, (2015a, 2015b), have been impressionistic and “philosophical”. In contrast, the following analysis focuses on numerical considerations which establish the enormity of the ecomodernist claims. When estimates and actual numbers to do with resource demands, resource bases, and ecological impacts are attended to it becomes clear that the task for technical advance set by the ecomodernists is implausible in the extreme.

The basic limits to growth thesis.

The “limits to growth” thesis is that with respect to many factors crucial to planetary sustainability affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. It has already greatly exceeded important limits. Levels of production and consumption are far beyond those that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Present consumption levels are achieved because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate.

But the unsustainable present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact only begin to define of the problem.  What is overwhelmingly crucial is the universal obsession with continual, never ending economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, incomes and GDP as much as possible and without limit.  The most important criticism of the ecomodernist position is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth.  The main concern in the following discussion is with quantities and multiples, to show how huge and implausible ecomodernist achievements and decouplings would have to be.

The magnitude of the task.

It is the extent of the overshoot that is crucial and not generally appreciated. This is the issue which the ecomodernists fail to deal with and it only takes a glance at the numbers to see how implausible their pronouncements are in relation to the task they set themselves. Their main literature makes no attempt to carry out quantitative examinations of crucial resources and ecological issues with a view to showing that the apparent limits can be overcome.

Let us look at the overall picture revealed when some simple numerical aggregates and estimates are combined.  The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be around 10 billion by 2050.  At present world  $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now.  If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.

However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact.  The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate.  (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions, the multiple is far higher.) This indicates that the target for the ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100. In other words, by 2050 technical advance will have to have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels.

The consideration of required multiples shows the inadequacy of the earlier pronouncements and expectations of the well-known tech-fix optimist Amory Lovins who enthused about the possibility of “Factor Four” or better reductions in materials and energy uses per unit of GDP.  (Von Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 1999).If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by such technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed.  For instance if use and impact rates per unit of GDP were cut by one-third, but 3% p.a. growth in total output continued, then in about 17 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in another 23 years.

This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required.  There appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this.  At best their case refers to a few instances where impressive decoupling has taken place.

Note also the importance here of the Leibig “law of the minimum.” It does not matter how spectacular various technical gains can be if there remains one crucial area where they can’t be made on the required scale.  Plants for instance might have available all the nutrients they need except for one required in minute quantities but if it is not available there will be little or no growth.  High-tech systems often depend heavily on tiny quantities of “mineral vitamins”, notably rare earths which are extremely scarce.

The typically faulty national accounting.

An easily overlooked factor is that in general measures and indices of rich world resource and ecological performance greatly misrepresent and underestimate the seriousness of the situation, because they do not include the large volumes of energy, materials and ecological impact embodied in imported goods.  Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the goods they consume from Third World plantations and factories.  The implications for resource depletion and ecological impact have only recently begun to be studied. (Weidmann, et al., 2014, 2015, Lenzen, et al., 2012, Wiebe, et al,

2012, Dittrich, et al., 2014, Schütz, et al., 2004.)

An example is given by the conventional measure of CO2 emissions. Australia’s 550 MtCO2e/y equates to a per capita rate of around 25 t/y, which is about the highest in the world. But this does not include the emissions in Third World countries generated by the production of goods imported into Australia.  For Australia and for the UK this amount is actually about as great as the emissions within the country.  (Clark, 2011, Australian Government Climate Change Authority, 2013.)

In addition Australia’s “prosperity” is largely achieved by exporting coal, oil and gas and these contain about three times as much carbon as all the energy used within Australia.  It could be argued therefore that the country’s contribution to the greenhouse gas problem more or less corresponds to five times the official and usually quoted 25 t/pp/y.  The IPCC estimates that by 2050 global emissions must be cut to about 0.3 t/pp/y. (IPCC, 2014.)  This is around one-three hundredth of the amount Australia is now responsible for. Again the centrality of the above magnitude point is evident; how aware are tech-fix optimists of the need for reductions of such proportions?

Assessing the validity of the general “tech-fix” thesis.

Firstly attention will be given to some overall numerical considerations which show the extreme implausibility of the general tech-fix claim, such as the gulf between current “decoupling” achievements and the far higher levels that ecomodernism would require. But that does not take into account the fact that it is going to take increasing effort just to maintain current achievements, for instance as ore grades deteriorate. This what the limits to growth analysis makes clear.  The added significance of this will be discussed later via brief examination of some domains such as energy scarcity, declining ore grades, and deteriorating ecological conditions.

How impressive have the overall gains been?

It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate.  As a generalisation this belief is quite challengeable. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960.  He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (2009) “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960.” This has been partly due to greater use of accessories since then. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise selected isolated spectacular technical advances and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Mackay (2008) reports that little gain can be expected for air transport.  Huebner’s historical study (2005) found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining.  He says that for the US the peak was actually in 1916.

Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline since the 1970s. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”

The historical record suggests that at best productivity gains have been modest. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods.  Thus the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed.   Hattfield-Dodds et al. (2015) say that the efficiency of materials use has been improving at c. 1.5% p.a., but they give no evidence for this and other sources indicate that the figure is too high. Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the above issue of failure to include energy embodied in imports. Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004,  Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” They note that the figures would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World. Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use.

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity…”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

These sources and figures indicate the lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. But even if the 1.5% p.a. rate Hattfield-Dodds et al. say has been the recent achievement for materials use could be maintained the reduction would only be around a factor of 1.7, and various sources noted above say that their assumed rate is incorrect. There appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale.

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Previously productivity has been analysed only in terms of labour and capital “factors of production”, but it is now being recognized that in general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to fuels of higher “quality”, such as from coal and gas to electricity.)  Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says  “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect  that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

The changing components of GDP.

Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes moving electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, and these have significantly contributed to GDP figures. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.

When output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered very different impressions can be gained.  For instance Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%, and land area used increased 40%. This aligns with the above evidence on steeply falling productivity of various inputs for ores and energy. It is therefore desirable to avoid analysing productivity, the “energy intensity” of an economy, and decoupling achievements in relation to the GDP measure.

Factors limiting the benefits from a technical advance.

There are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first.  Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.

“Technical potential”  refers to what could be achieved if the technology could be fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.

Economic (or ecological) potential”.  This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much.  For instance some The Worldwide Fund for Nature quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but they say that the ecologically tolerable potential is only 8 EJ/y.

What are the net gains?  Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value.  For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing. There are also knock-on effects.  The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertlilzer, seeds and irrigation, and created social costs to do with the disruption of peasant communities.

  • What is socially/politically possible?  There are limits set by what people will accept.  It would be technically possible for many more people in any city to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.
  • The Jeavons or “rebound” effect.  There is a strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved, or something else.

Thus it is important to recognise that initial claims usually refer to “technical potential”, but significantly lower savings etc. are likely in the real world.

Now add the worsening limits.

The discussion so far has only dealt with decoupling achievements to date, but the difficulties involved in those achievements are in general likely to have been much less severe than those ahead, as there is continued deterioration in ore grades, forests, soils, chemical pollution, water supplies etc.  It is important now to consider briefly some of these domains, to see how they will make the task for the ecomodernist increasingly difficult.

Before looking at some specific areas the general “low hanging fruit” effect should be mentioned.  When effort is put into dealing with problems, recycling, conserving, increasing efficiency etc. the early achievements might be spectacular but as the easiest options are used up progress typically becomes more difficult and slow. This is so even when there are no problems of dwindling resource availability.


The grades of several ores being mined are falling and production costs have increased considerably since 1985. Topp (2008) reports that the productivity for Australian mining has declined 24% between 2000 and 2007. While reserve estimates can be misleading as they only state quantities miners have found to date, and they often increase over time, there is considerable concern about the depletion rate.

Dierderen (2009) says that continuation of current consumption rates will mean that we will have much less than 50 years left of cheap and abundant access to metal minerals, and that it will take exponentially more energy and minerals input to grow or even sustain the current extraction rate of metal minerals. He expects copper, nickel, molybdenum and cobalt to peak before 2035. Deideren’s conclusion is indeed, as his title says, sobering; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.” (p. 23.) “Without timely implementation of mitigation strategies, the world will soon run out of all kinds of affordable mass products and services.”  Such as… “cheap mass-produced consumer electronics like mobile phones, flat screen TVs and personal computers, for lack of various scarce metals (amongst others indium and tantalum). Also, large-scale conversion towards more sustainable forms of energy production, energy conversion and energy storage would be slowed down by a lack of sufficient platinum-group metals, rare-earth metals and scarce metals like gallium. This includes large-scale application of high-efficiency solar cells and fuel cells and large-scale electrification of land-based transport.” Deideren points out that Gallium, Germanium, Indium and Tellurium are crucial for renewable technologies but are by-products currently available in low quantity from the mining of other minerals.  If the latter peak so will the availability of the former.

Scarcities in one domain often have knock-on and negative feedback effects in others.  Diederan says, “The most striking (and perhaps ironic) consequence of a shortage of metal elements is its disastrous effect on global mining and primary production of fossil fuels and minerals: these activities require huge amounts of main and ancillary equipment and consumables (e.g. barium for barite based drilling mud)”. (p. 9.)

The ecomodernist’s response must be to advocate mining poorer grade ores, but this means dealing with marked increases in energy and environmental costs.

  • The quantity of rock that has to be dug up increases. For ores at half the initial grade the quantity doubles, and so does the energy needed to dig, transport and crush it.
  • Poorer ores require finer grinding and more chemical reagents to release mineral components, meaning greater energy demand and waste treatment.
  • Meanwhile the easiest deposits to access are being depleted so it takes more energy to find, get to, and work the newer ones. They tend to be further away, deeper, and smaller.
  • Processing rich ores can be chemically quite different to processing poor ores. Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth’s crust has been concentrated by natural processes into ore deposits, between .001% and .01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates which are more energy-intensive to process than oxides and sulphides.  To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores used today.

Now consider the minerals situation in relation to the multiples issue. At present only a few countries are using most of the planet’s minerals production.  For instance the per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries combined. (Weidmann et al., 2013.) How long would mineral supply hold up, at what cost, if 9 – 10 people billion were to try to rise to rich world “living standards”? How likely is it that in view of current ore grade depletion rates and the miniscule decoupling achievement for minerals, the global amount of producing and consuming could multiply by 27, or 120, while the absolute amount of minerals consumed declined markedly?

The ecomodernist cannot hope to deal with the minerals problem without assuming very large scale adoption of nuclear energy, which they are willing to do.


Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013) in analyzing in terms of a budget, an amount of carbon release that must not be exceeded if the 2 degree target is to be met.  They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below this the amount of CO2e that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. By 2012 emissions accounted for 36% of this amount, meaning that if the present emission rate is kept up the budget would have been used up by 2033.  Given the seriousness of the possible consequences many regard a 67% chance as being too low and a2 degree rise as too high. (Anderson and Bows, 2008, and Hansen, 2008.)  For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes.

Few would say there is any possibility of eliminating emissions by 2033. Many emissions come from sources that would be difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electric production of steel and aluminium. Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation. Thus power station Carbon Capture and Storage technology cannot solve the problem.

Even the IPCC’s most optimistic emissions reduction scenario, RCP 2.6, could be achieved only if as yet non-existent technology will be able to take 1 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere every year through the last few decades of this century. (IPCC, 2014.)

Ecomodernists mostly regard the climate problem as solvable by the intensive adoption of nuclear energy. However even the most rapid build conceivable could not achieve the Meinschausen et al. target.


About half the world’s people now live in cities, and the ecomodernist strongly advocates increasing this markedly, on the grounds that intensification of settlement will enable freeing more space for nature.  This is an area where knock-on effects are significant. Urban living involves many high resource and ecological costs, including having to move in vast amounts of energy, goods, services and workers, to maintain elaborate infrastructures including those to lift water and people living in high-rise apartments, having to move out all “wastes”, having to provide artificial light, heating, cooling, air purification, having to build freeways, bridges, railways, airports, container terminals, and having to staff complex systems with expensive highly trained professionals and specialists.  Little or none of this dollar, energy, resource or ecological cost has to be met when people live in villages (See on Simpler Way settlements below).

The frequent superficiality and invalidity of the Manifesto’s case is illustrated by the following statement. “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” This statement overlooks the vast areas needed to produce and transport food etc. into the relatively small urban areas. If four billion were to live as San Franciscans do now, with a footprint over 7 ha per person, the total global footprint would be almost 30 billion ha, 200% of the Earth’s surface, not 1- 3%. (WWF, 2014.) Urbanisation does not  “decouple humanity from nature”.

Biological resources and impacts.

Perhaps the most worrying limits being encountered are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of biological resources and environmental systems. The life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends, are being so seriously damaged that the World Wildlife Fund claims there has been a 30% deterioration since about 1970. Steffen et al., (2015) state much the same situation. A brief reference to a number of impacts is appropriate here to again indicate the magnitude of present problems and their rate of growth.

Biodiversity loss.

Species are being driven to extinction at such an increasing rate that it is claimed the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers or mass of big animals has declined dramatically. “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” (Carrington, 2014.) The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half what it was about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)

Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

Humans are releasing about as much nitrogen via artificial production, especially for agriculture, as nature releases. This has been identified as one of the nine most serious threats to the biosphere by the Planetary Boundaries Project. (Rockstrom and Raeworth, 2014.)

The increasing toxicity of the environment.

Large volumes of artificially produced chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them.  This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans and killing marine life.


Serious water shortages are impacting in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, such as salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in these rivers might be cut to half the present amount, as the greenhouse problem impacts.


Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished and the global fish catch is likely to go down from here on.  The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago. Ecomodernists assume that aquaculture will solve the fish supply problem. It is not clear what they think the farmed fish will be fed on.


Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of many ocean animals, including the krill which are at the base of major ocean food chains.  This effect plus the heating of the oceans is seriously damaging corals.  The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a good chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)

Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production increase trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries.  If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet we would need 5 billion ha of cropland, but there are only 1.4 billion ha on the planet and that area is likely to reduce as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming has a number of negative effects on food production.

Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010) both report the rate of food producing land loss at 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a.  For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to incoming sand from the expanding deserts. If the estimates by Burn and Vidal are correct then more than 1 billion ha of cropland will have been lost by 2050, which is two-thirds of all cropland in use today.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto devotes considerable attention to the issue of future food production, using it as an example of the wonders technical advance can bring, including liberating peasants from backbreaking work. It is claimed that advances in modern agriculture will enable production of far more food on far less land, enabling much land to go back to nature. There is no recognition of the fact that modern agriculture is grossly unsustainable, on many dimensions.  It is extremely energy intensive, involving large scale machinery, international transport, energy-intensive inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, packaging, warehousing, freezing, dumping of less than perfect fruit and vegetables, serious soil damage through acidification and compaction, carbon loss and erosion, the energy-costly throwing away of nutrients in animal manures, the destruction of small scale farming and rural communities, the loss of the precious heritage that is genetic diversity … and the loss of food nutrient and taste quality (most evident in the plastic tomato.)

On all these dimensions peasant and home gardening and other elements in local agriculture such as ”edible landscapes”, community gardens and commons are superior. The one area where modern agriculture scores better is to do with labour costs, but that is due to the use of all that energy-intensive machinery. Ecomodernists do not seem to realize what a fundamental challenge is set for them by the well-established “inverse productivity relationship”, i.e., the fact that small scale food producers achieve higher yields per ha. (Smaje, 2015a, 2015b.) They are able to almost completely avoid food packaging, advertising and transport costs, to recycle all nutrients to local soils, benefit from overlaps and multiple functions (e.g., geese weed orchards, ducks eat snails, kitchen scraps feed poultry…) Possibly most importantly, local food production systems maximize the provision of livelihoods and are fundamental elements in resilient and sustainable communities.

Again a daunting challenge is set for the ecomodernist. Presumably the far higher yields from far less land will involve energy intensive high-rise greenhouses, water desalinisation, aquaculture, near 100% phosphorus and other nutrient recycling, elimination of nitrogen run-off, restoration of soil carbon levels, synthetic meat, and extensive global transport and packaging systems. Again numerical analyses aimed at showing what the energy, materials  and dollar budgets would be, or that the goals can be met, are not offered. In addition a glance at the tech fix vision for future food supply reveals the many knock on effects that would multiply problems in many other areas, most obviously energy, infrastructure and water provision and the associated demand for materials.

A glance at the energy implications for beef production should again establish the magnitude point. To produce one kg of beef take can take 20,000 litres of water, and it can take 4 kWh to desalinize 1 liter of water. Again it is evident that there would have to be very large scale commitment to nuclear energy.

            Summarising the biological resource situation.

The environmental problem is essentially due to the huge and unsustainable volumes of producing and consuming taking place.  Vast quantities of resources are being extracted from nature and vast quantities of wastes are being dumped back into nature. Present flows are grossly unsustainable but the ecomodernist believes the basic commitment to ever-increasing “living standards” that is creating the problems can and should continue, while population multiplies by 1.5, resources dwindle, and consumption multiplies perhaps by eight by 2100.

The energy implications.

In all the fields discussed it is evident that the ecomodernist vision would have to involve a very large increase in energy production and consumption, including for processing lower grade ores, producing much more food from much less land, desalinisation of water, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures. The “no-limits-to-growth” scenario for Australia 2050 put forward by Hattfield-Dodds et al. concludes that present energy use would have to multiply by 2.7, more than most if not all other projections, and their scenarios do not take into account the energy needed to deal with any of the knock-on effects discussed above. (And their conclusion is based on a highly implausible rate of decoupling materials use from GDP growth, i.e., up to 4.5% p.a.)

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. Let us assume it is all to come from nuclear reactors, that technical advance cuts one-third off the energy needed to do everything, but that moving to poorer ores, desalinisation etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain.  The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.

Conclusions re the significance of the limits to growth.

This brief reference to themes within the general “limits to growth” account makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by presentconditions. As Steffen et al. (2015) stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration. It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse.  It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration.  Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.

            The implications for centralisation, control and power.

The ecomodernist vision would have to involve vast, technically sophisticated, expert-run, bureaucratized and centralized global systems, most obviously for the control of the nuclear sector, e.g., to prevent access to weapons grade material. Both corporate and governmental agencies would have to be very large in scale, and relations between the corporate sector and top levels of government would set problems to do with openness, public accountability, democratic control, and corruption. Most production would be from a relatively few gigantic and automated mines, factories, feed lots, mega-greenhouses and plantations compressed into the relatively few best sites.  How this would provide jobs and livelihoods to perhaps 6 billion Third world poor would need to be explained. The provision of large amounts of capital would probably become much more centralised and problematic than it has been in the GFC era.

A “development” model focused on these massive, centralized, expert-dependent and capital intensive systems is not obviously going to improve the already severe problem of global inequality. Mega corporations will run the automated vertical farms and desal plants, assisted by governments who in the past have had no difficulty legislating to clear the locals out of the way, as when Third World governments enable GDP-raising palm oil plantations, logging, big dams and aquaculture. Thus Smaje regards ecomodernism as a new enclosure movement.

Morgan (2012) and Korrowicz (2012) provide disturbing accounts of the fragility and lack of resilience of highly integrated and complex systems. Tainter, (1988), draws attention to the way increasing system complexity leads towards negative synergisms and breakdown. For instance where two roads cross in a village no infrastructure might be needed but in a city multi-million dollar flyovers can be required. As Rome’s road system grew the effort needed just to maintain them grew towards taking up all road building capacity. Among the chief virtues of the small and local path are its robustness, redundancy and resilience, the capacity for simple repairs to simple systems, as well as its capacity to provide livelihoods to large numbers of people.

Above all the ecomodernist vision stands for the rejection of any suggestion that the economy needs altering, let alone scrapping, or that rampant-consumer culture needs to be replaced.  The problems are defined as purely technical. If minerals are becoming scare the solution is not to reduce use of them but to increase production of them. Thus there is no need to think about giving up consumerism, economic growth, the market system or the capitalist system. Radical thought and action need not be considered. Smaje describes it as “neoliberalism with a green veneer.” These messages are as consoling to the present working class and the precariat as they are to the capitalist class.

The mistaken “uni-dimensional” assumption.

Frequently evident in ecomodernist thinking is the way that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future.  At the modern end of the dimension there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. It is taken for granted that your choice is only about where you are on that dimension. Third World “development” can only be about moving up the dimension to greater capital investment, involvement in the global market, trade, GDP and consumer society. Thus they see localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation.  Opposition to their advocacy of more modernism is met with, “…well, what period in history do you want to go back to?”

This world-view fails to grasp several things.  The first is the possibility that there might be more than one path; the Zapatista’s do not want to follow our path.  Another is that we  might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to.  A third is that we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernization takes us, and on some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further.  Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; Smaje sees how it endorses being incessantly driven to strive for bigger and better, and he notes the spiritual costs. Many ecovillages are developed enough.

Possibly most important, it is conceivable that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

The inability to think in other than uni-dimensional terms is most tragic with respect to Third World “development”.  Conventional-capitalist development theory can only promise a “growth and trickle down” path, which if it continues would take many decades to lift all to tolerable conditions while the rich rise to the stratosphere, but which cannot continue if the limits to growth analysis of the global situation is correct. Yet The Simpler Way might quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. (Trainer, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, Leahy, 2009.)

In his critique of Phillips (2014) Smaje (2015b) sees the Faustian bargain here, the readiness to suffer, indeed embrace, the relentless discontent, struggle, disruption and insecurity that modernism involves, without realizing that we might opt to take the benefits of modernism while dumping the disadvantages and designing ways of life that provide security, stability, a relaxed pace and a high quality of life for all.

A radically alternative vision; The Simpler Way.

Until the last decade or so there was no alternative to the dominant implicit ecomodernist world view, but now significant challenges have emerged, most evidently in the overlapping Eco-village, Degrowth, Transition Towns and localism movements. The fundamental beginning point for these is acceptance of the “limits to growth” case that levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact are extremely unsustainable and that the resulting global problems cannot be solved unless there are dramatic reductions.  The core Simpler Way vision claim is that these reductions can be made while significantly improving the quality of life, even in the richest countries, but not without radical change in systems and lifestyles.  Following is a brief indication of some of the main elements in this vision. (For the detailed account see Trainer, 2011.)

The basic settlement form is the small scale town or suburb, restructured to be a highly self-sufficient local economy running mostly on local resources and requiring a minimal amount of resources and goods to be imported from further afield.  State and national governments would still exist but with relatively few functions. There would be extensive development of local commons such as community watersheds, forests, edible landscapes, workshops and windmills etc. and cooperatives would provide many goods and services. Extensive use could be made of high tech systems but mostly relatively low technologies would be used in small firms and farms, especially earth building, hand tool craft production, Permaculture, community gardening and commons. Leisure committees would maintain leisure rich communities, and other committees would manage orchards, woodlots, agricultural research, and the welfare of disabled, teenage, aged and other groups. Local economies would dramatically reduce the need for vehicles and transport, enabling conversion of many roads to community food production.

These settlements would have to be self-governing via thoroughly participatory procedures, including town meetings and referenda. Citizens are the only ones who can understand local conditions, problems and needs, and they would have to work out the best policies for the town and to own the decisions arrived at. Centralised states could not govern them at all effectively, especially given the much diminished resources that will be available to states.  More importantly the town would not meet its own needs well unless its citizens had a strong sense of empowerment and control and responsibility for their own affairs.

Systems, procedures and the overriding ethos would have to be predominantly cooperative and collective, given the recognition that individual welfare would depend heavily on how well the town was functioning. It would not be likely to thrive unless there was an atmosphere of inclusion and care, solidarity and responsibility.

An entirely new kind of economy would be needed, one that did not grow, rationally geared productive capacity to social need, had per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and GDP far below current levels, was under public control, and was not driven by market forces, profit or competition. However, there might also be a large sector made up of privately owned small firms and farms, producing to sell in local markets, but operating under careful guidelines set by the town to ensure optimum benefit for the town. The transition period would essentially be about slowly establishing those enterprises, infrastructures, cooperatives, commons and institutions (Economy B) whereby the town developed its capacity to make sure that what needs doing is done, within the exiting mainly fee enterprise system (Economy A.) Over time experience would indicate the best balance between the two, and whether there was any need for the market sector.

There would be many free” goods from the commons, a large non-cash sector involving sharing, giving, helping and voluntary working bees, and almost no finance sector. Small public banks with elected boards would hold savings and arrange loans for maintenance or restructuring.  Some people might pay all their tax by extra contributions to the community working bees. Communities would ensure that there was no unemployment or poverty, no isolation or exclusion, all felt secure, and that all had a livelihood, a worthwhile and valued contribution to make to the town. Because the goal would be material lifestyles that were frugal but sufficient, involving for instance small and very low cost earth built houses, on average people might need to work for money only two days a week. It can be argued that the quality of life would be higher than it is for most people in rich countries today. Lest these ideas seem fanciful, they describe the ways many thousands now live in ecovillages and Transition Towns.

Beyond the town or suburban level there would be regional and national economies, and larger cities containing universities, steel works, and large scale production, e.g., of railway equipment, but their activities would be greatly reduced, and re oriented to provisioning the local economies. There would be little international trade or travel. The termination of the present vast expenditure on wasteful production would enable the amount spent on socially useful R and to be significantly increased.

A detailed analysis of an Australian suburban geography (Trainer, 2016) concludes that technically it would be relatively easy to carry out the very large reductions and restructurings indicated, possibly cutting in energy and dollar costs by around 90%.

It is obvious that the Simpler Way vision could not be realised unless there was enormous “cultural” change, especially away from competitive, acquisitive, maximising individualism and towards frugality, collectivism, sufficiency and responsible citizenship. Fortunately there is now increasing recognition that pursuing ever greater material wealth and GDP is not a promising path to greater human welfare. In a zero-growth settlement there could be no concern with the accumulation of wealth; all would have to be content with stable and secure circumstances, to enjoy non-material life satisfactions, and to be aware that their “welfare” depended not on their individual monetary wealth but on public wealth, i.e., on their town’s infrastructures, systems, edible landscapes, free concerts, working bees, committees, leisure resources, solidarity and morale.

Thus from The Simpler Way perspective the solution to global problems is not a technical issue; it is a value issue. We have all the technology we need to create admirable societies and idyllic lives. But this can’t be done if growth and affluence remain the overriding goals.

At present there would seem to be little chance that a transition to The Simpler Way will be achieved, but that is not central here; the issue is whether this vision or that of the ecomodernist makes more sense.


Aadrianse, A., (1997), Resource Flows, Washington, World Resources Institute.

Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics,(ABARE), (2008),  Energy in Australia, Canberra.

Alexander, S., (2014), A Critique of Techno-Optimism: Efficiency Without Sufficiency is Lost, Post Carbon Pathways, Working Papers.

Anderson, K. and A. Bows, (2008), “Reframing the climate change challenge in the light of post 2000 emission trends”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 266, 3863 – 3882.

Asafu-Adjaye, J., et al., (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April,

Australian Government Climate Change Authority, (2013), Targets and Progress Review.]

Ayres, R. U., L. W. Ayres and B. Warr, (2002), Is the US Economy Dematerialising? Main Indicators and Drivers, Center for the Management of Environmental Resources INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France, June.

Ayres, R. U., and B. Warr, (2009), The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, Massachusetts, Edward Elgar.

Ayres, R. U., et al., (2013), ”The underestimated contribution of energy to economic growth”, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, 27, 79 – 88.

Ayres, R. and V. Vouroudis, (2013), “The economic growth enigma; Capital, labour and useful energy?”, Energy Policy, 64 (2014) 16–28.

Berndt, E. R., (1990), “Energy use, technical progress and productivity growth: a survey of economic issues”, The Journal of Productivity Analysis, 2, pp.  67-83.

Blomqvist, L., T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenbeger, (2015), Nature Unbound; Decoupling for Conservation, Breakthrough Institute.

Brown, L., (2011), “The new geopolitics of food”, Foreign Policy, May.

Carradonna, J., et al., (2015), “A Call to Look Past An Ecomodernist Manifesto: A Degrowth Critique”,  | May 6.

Carrington, D., (2014), “Earth has lost half its wildlife in forty years, says WWF,” The Guardian, Oct. 1.

Ceballos, G., et al., (2015), “Accelerated modern human induced species loss. Entering the sixth mass extinction”. Sci. Adv., 9, 16.

Clark, D., (2011), “New data on imports and exports turns map of carbon emissions on its head,” The Guardian, 4th May.

Cleveland, C. J., R. Costanza, C. A. S. Hall, and R. K. Kaufmann, (1984), “Energy and the U.S. economy: A biophysical perspective”, Science, 225, pp., 890-897.

Crist, E., (2015), “The Reaches of Freedom: A Response to An Ecomodernist Manifesto”, Environmental Humanities, 7, pp. 245-254.

Diederen, A. M., (2009), Metal minerals scarcity: A call for managed austerity and the elements of hope, TNO Defence, Security and Safety, P.O. Box 45, 2280 AA Rijswijk, TheNetherlands.

Dittrich, M., S. Giljum, S. Bringezu, C. Polzin, and S. Lutter, (2011), Resource Use and Resource Productivity in Emerging Economies: Trends over the Past 20 Years, SERI Report No. 12, Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI), Vienna, Austria.

Giljum, S., M. Dittrich, M. Lieber, and S. Lutter, (2014), “Global Patterns of Material Flows and their Socio-Economic and Environmental Implications: A MFA Study on All Countries World-Wide from 1980 to 2009”, Resources, 3, 319-339.

Hall, C. A. S., J. G. Lambert and S. B. Balough, (2014), “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society”, Energy Policy64, January, 141–152.

Hansen, J., et al., (2008), “Target atmospheric CO2; Where Should humanity aim?”, The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2, 217 – 231.

Hattfield-Dodds, S., et al., (2015), “Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures”, Nature, 527, 5 Nov., 49 –

Hoegh-Guldberg, (2015), “Coal and climate change: a death sentence for the Great Barrier Reef”, The Conversation, 20th May.

Huebner, J., (2005), “A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72, 980-986.

Hawken, P., A. B. Lovins, and H. Lovins, (1999), Natural Capital, London, Little Brown.

Hopkins, R., (2015) Book Review: Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts by Leigh Phillips.  Transition Network, 24th Nov.

IPCC, (2014), Summary for Policymakers.  Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Kaufmann, R. K., (2004), “A biophysical analysis of the energy/real GDP ratio: implications for substitution and technical change”, Ecological Economics , 6: pp. 35-56.

Kolbert,. E., (2014), The Sixth Extinction, Henry Holt and Co., New York.

Korowicz, D., (2012), Trade Off; Financial System Supply Chain Cross Contamination; A Study in Global Systemic Collapse, Mettis Risk Consulting and Feasta.

Latouche, S., (2014), Essays on Frugal Abundance; Essay 3. Simplicity Institute Report, 14c.

Leahy, T., (2009), Permaculture Strategy for the South African Villages, Permaculture InternationaI Productions, Palmwoods, Queensland.

Lenzen, et al., (2012) “Biodiversity: Remote responsibility”, Nature, 486, 36–37, (07 June 2012), doi:10.1038/486036a

Mackay, D., (2008), Energy – without the Hot Air.

Meinshausen, M., N. Meinshausen, W. Hare, S. C. B. Raper, K. Frieler, R. Knuitti, D. J. Frame, and M. R. Allen, (2009), “Greenhouse gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C”, Nature, 458, 30th April, 1158 -1162.

Morgan, T., (2012), Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth, Tullet Prebon.

Morillo-Zamorano, L., (2005), “The role of energy in productivity growth: A controversial issue?”, The Energy Journal, 26,2, 69-88.

Murphy, D., (2010), “What is the minimum EROI for a sustainable energy?”, The Oil Drum, 24th March.

Office of Technology Assessment, (1990), Energy Use and the U.S. Economy, US Congress, OTA-BP-E-57, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

Phillips, L., (2014), Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, Zero Books, Winchester UK.

Ray D. K., Mueller N. D., West P. C., Foley J.A., (2013), “Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050.” PLOS ONE 8(6): e66428.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066428

Rockstrom, and K. Raeworth, (2014), Planetary Boundaries and Human Prosperity, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm.

Schandl, H., et al., (2015), ”Decoupling global environmental pressure and economic growth; scenarios for energy use, materials use and carbon emissions”, Journal of Cleaner Production,

Schurr, S., and B. Netschert, (1960), Energy and the American Economy, 1850-1975, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schütz, H., S. Bringezu, S. Moll, (2004), Globalisation and the Shifting Environmental Burden. Material Trade Flows of the European Union, Wuppertal Institute, Wuppertal, Germany.

Smaje, C., (2015a), “Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism”, Dark Mountain Blog, 12th August.

Smaje, C., (2015b), “Promethean porn and Malthusian mistakes: a letter to Leigh Phillips”, Small Farm Future, 12th Nov.

Smeets, E., and A. Faaij, (2007), “Bioenergy potentials from forestry in 2050 —  An assessment of the drivers that determine the potentials”, Climatic Change, 8, 353 – 390.

Sorrell, S., (2010), “Energy, economic growth and environmental sustainability; Five propositions”, Sustainability, 2, 1784 – 1809.

Steffen, W., W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney and C. Ludwig, (2015), “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration.” The Anthropocene Review, 2, 1 81-98.

Stern, D. and C. J. Cleveland, (2004), “Energy and Economic Growth”, in C. J. Cleveland (ed.), Encyclopedia of Energy. San Diego: Academic Press.

Topp, V., L. Soames, D. Parham, and H. Block, (2008), Productivity in the Mining Industry: Measurement and Interpretation, Productivity Commission Staff Working PaperDecember , Australian Government Productivity Commission.

Tainter, J. A.,  (1988), The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press.

Trainer, T., (2011), The Simpler Way; The Alternative Society.

Trainer, T., (2012), Third World Development; Conventional/capitalist way vs The Simpler way.

Trainer, T., (2013a), Chikukwa; An Alternative Development Model in Zimbabwe.

Trainer, T., (2013b), The Catalan Integral Coperative Movement.

Trainer, T., (2016), Remaking settlements; The Potential Cost Reductions Enabled by The Simpler Way.

Victor, P., (2008), Managing without growth: Slower by design, not disaster. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Vidal, J., (2010), “Soil erosion threatens to leave earth hungry”, The Guardian, 14th Dec.

Vitousec, P. M., H. A. Mooney, J. Lubchenki, and J. M. Mellilo, (1997), “Human domination of earth’s ecosystems”, Science, July, 277, 445-499.

Von Weizacker, E., and A. B. Lovins, (1997), Factor Four: Doubling Wealth – Halving Resource Use : A New Report to the Club of Rome, St Leondards, Allen and Unwin.

Warr, B.,  (2004), Is the US economy dematerializing? Main indicators and drivers, Economics of Industrial Ecology: Materials, Structural Change and Spatial Scales. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Washington, H., (2014), Addicted to Growth, Fenner Conference on the Environment, Canberra, 2 – 3 October.

West, J., (2013) Personal communication reported in Weidman et al., 2014, from CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences.

Wiebe, C., M. Bruckner, S. Giljum, C. Lutz, and C. Polzin, (2012), “Carbon and materials embodied in the international trade of emerging economies: A multi-regional input-output assessment of trends between 1995 and 2005”, J. Ind. Ecol., 16, 636–646.

Weidmann, T. O., H. Shandl, and D. Moran, (2014), “The footprint of using metals; The new metrics of consumption and productivity,” Environ. Econ. Policy Stud.,  DOI 10.1007/s10018-014-0085-y

Wiedmann, T. O., H. Schandl, M. Lenzen, D. Moran, S. Suh, J. West, and K. Kanemoto, (2015), “The material footprint of nations”, PNAS, 6272 -6276.

Word Wide Fund for Nature, (2014), Living Planet Report,  WWF International, Switzerland.

How “Green” is Lithium?

17 04 2016

Originally published on the KITCO website in 2014….. interesting how this makes no mention of NiFe batteries, they are simply ‘under the radar’……


The market for battery electric and hybrid vehicles is growing slowly but steadily – from 0.4% in 2012 to 0.6% in 2013 and 0.7% in 2014 (year-to-date) in the United States alone.

Consumers buy these vehicles despite lower gas prices out of a growing conscience and concern for the environment. With this strong attraction to alternative energy, grows the demand for lithium, which is predominantly mined and imported from countries like Bolivia, Chile, China and Argentina.

Within the U.S., only Nevada, future home of Tesla’s new “Gigafactory” for batteries, produces lithium. However, the overall ecological impact of lithium ion batteries remains somewhat unclear, as does the “well-to-wheel” effort and cost to recharge such batteries.

To fully grasp the relevance and environmental impact of lithium it is important to note that lithium ion batteries are also found in most mobile phones, laptop computers, wearable electronics and almost anything else powered by rechargeable batteries.

Dozens of reports are available on the ecological impact of lithium mining. Unfortunately, many of them are influenced by the perspective of the organizations or authors releasing them. Reducing the available information to studies carried out by government bodies and research institutes around the world, a picture emerges nonetheless:

  • Elemental lithium is flammable and very reactive. In nature, lithium occurs in compounded forms such as lithium carbonate requiring chemical processing to be made usable.
  • Lithium is typically found in salt flats in areas where water is scarce. The mining process of lithium uses large amounts of water. Therefore, on top of water contamination as a result of its use, depletion or transportation costs are issues to be dealt with. Depletion results in less available water for local populations, flora and fauna.
  • Toxic chemicals are used for leaching purposes, chemicals requiring waste treatment. There are widespread concerns of improper handling and spills, like in other mining operations around the world.
  • The recovery rate of lithium ion batteries, even in first world countries, is in the single digit percent range. Most batteries end up in landfill.
  • In a 2013 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that nickel and cobalt, both also used in the production of lithium ion batteries, represent significant additional environmental risks.

A 2012 study titled “Science for Environment Policy” published by the European Union compares lithium ion batteries to other types of batteries available (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride and sodium sulphur). It concludes that lithium ion batteries have the largest impact on metal depletion, suggesting that recycling is complicated. Lithium ion batteries are also, together with nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the most energy consuming technologies using the equivalent of 1.6kg of oil per kg of battery produced. They also ranked the worst in greenhouse gas emissions with up to 12.5kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per kg of battery. The authors do point out that “…for a full understanding of life cycle impacts, further aspects of battery use need to be considered, such as length of usage, performance at different temperatures, and ability to discharge quickly.”

Technology will of course improve, lithium supplies will be sufficient for the foreseeable future, and recycling rates will climb. Other issues like the migration of aging cars and electronic devices to countries with less developed infrastructures will, however, remain. As will the reality of lithium mining and processing. It is therefore conceivable that new battery technologies (sea water batteries or the nano-flowcell, for instance) will gain more importance in years to come, as will hydrogen fuel cells.

We will report about the pros and cons of each of these alternatives in future issues of Tech Metals Insider.

Bodo Albrecht,

No really, how sustainable are we?

28 02 2016


This is a most interesting piece I found on the interweb, written by Paul Chefurka almost three years ago.  Paul is happy for this article to be reproduced in full, no questions asked, and as I feel it needs to be widely read, the more internet presence it has the better, and now you DTM readers can share it too…

Paul, who is Canadian, has an interesting website chockablock full of insightful stuff you may also want to read.



Ever since the writing of Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s, and especially since Paul Ehrlich’s publication of “The Population Bomb”  in 1968, there has been a lot of learned skull-scratching over what the sustainable human population of Planet Earth might “really” be over the long haul.

This question is intrinsically tied to the issue of ecological overshoot so ably described by William R. Catton Jr. in his 1980 book “Overshoot:The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change”.  How much have we already pushed our population and consumption levels above the long-term carrying capacity of the planet?

This article outlines my current thoughts on carrying capacity and overshoot, and presents six estimates for the size of a sustainable human population.

Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity” is a well-known ecological term that has an obvious and fairly intuitive meaning: “The maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” 

Unfortunately that definition becomes more nebulous and controversial the closer you look at it, especially when we are talking about the planetary carrying capacity for human beings. Ecologists will claim that our numbers have already well surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity, while others (notably economists and politicians…) claim we are nowhere near it yet!

This confusion may arise because we tend to confuse two very different understandings of the phrase “carrying capacity”.  For this discussion I will call these the “subjective” view and the “objective” views of carrying capacity.

The subjective view is carrying capacity as seen by a member of the species in question. Rather than coming from a rational, analytical assessment of the overall situation, it is an experiential judgment.  As such it tends to be limited to the population of one’s own species, as well as having a short time horizon – the current situation counts a lot more than some future possibility.  The main thing that matters in this view is how many of one’s own species will be able to survive to reproduce. As long as that number continues to rise, we assume all is well – that we have not yet reached the carrying capacity of our environment.

From this subjective point of view humanity has not even reached, let alone surpassed the Earth’s overall carrying capacity – after all, our population is still growing.  It’s tempting to ascribe this view mainly to neoclassical economists and politicians, but truthfully most of us tend to see things this way.  In fact, all species, including humans, have this orientation, whether it is conscious or not.

Species tend to keep growing until outside factors such as disease, predators, food or other resource scarcity – or climate change – intervene.  These factors define the “objective” carrying capacity of the environment.  This objective view of carrying capacity is the view of an observer who adopts a position outside the species in question.It’s the typical viewpoint of an ecologist looking at the reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or at the impact of humanity on other species and its own resource base.

This is the view that is usually assumed by ecologists when they use the naked phrase “carrying capacity”, and it is an assessment that can only be arrived at through analysis and deductive reasoning.  It’s the view I hold, and its implications for our future are anything but comforting.

When a species bumps up against the limits posed by the environment’s objective carrying capacity, its population begins to decline. Humanity is now at the uncomfortable point when objective observers have detected our overshoot condition, but the population as a whole has not recognized it yet. As we push harder against the limits of the planet’s objective carrying capacity, things are beginning to go wrong.  More and more ordinary people are recognizing the problem as its symptoms become more obvious to casual onlookers.The problem is, of course, that we’ve already been above the planet’s carrying capacity for quite a while.

One typical rejoinder to this line of argument is that humans have “expanded our carrying capacity” through technological innovation.  “Look at the Green Revolution!  Malthus was just plain wrong.  There are no limits to human ingenuity!”  When we say things like this, we are of course speaking from a subjective viewpoint. From this experiential, human-centric point of view, we have indeed made it possible for our environment to support ever more of us. This is the only view that matters at the biological, evolutionary level, so it is hardly surprising that most of our fellow species-members are content with it.

The problem with that view is that every objective indicator of overshoot is flashing red.  From the climate change and ocean acidification that flows from our smokestacks and tailpipes, through the deforestation and desertification that accompany our expansion of human agriculture and living space, to the extinctions of non-human species happening in the natural world, the planet is urgently signaling an overload condition.

Humans have an underlying urge towards growth, an immense intellectual capacity for innovation, and a biological inability to step outside our chauvinistic, anthropocentric perspective.  This combination has made it inevitable that we would land ourselves and the rest of the biosphere in the current insoluble global ecological predicament.



When a population surpasses its carrying capacity it enters a condition known as overshoot.  Because the carrying capacity is defined as the maximum population that an environment can maintain indefinitely, overshoot must by definition be temporary.  Populations always decline to (or below) the carrying capacity.  How long they stay in overshoot depends on how many stored resources there are to support their inflated numbers.  Resources may be food, but they may also be any resource that helps maintain their numbers.  For humans one of the primary resources is energy, whether it is tapped as flows (sunlight, wind, biomass) or stocks (coal, oil, gas, uranium etc.).  A species usually enters overshoot when it taps a particularly rich but exhaustible stock of a resource.  Like fossil fuels, for instance…

Population growth in the animal kingdom tends to follow a logistic curve.  This is an S-shaped curve that starts off low when the species is first introduced to an ecosystem, at some later point rises very fast as the population becomes established, and then finally levels off as the population saturates its niche.

Humans have been pushing the envelope of our logistic curve for much of our history. Our population rose very slowly over the last couple of hundred thousand years, as we gradually developed the skills we needed in order to deal with our varied and changeable environment,particularly language, writing and arithmetic. As we developed and disseminated those skills our ability to modify our environment grew, and so did our growth rate.

If we had not discovered the stored energy stocks of fossil fuels, our logistic growth curve would probably have flattened out some time ago, and we would be well on our way to achieving a balance with the energy flows in the world around us, much like all other species do.  Our numbers would have settled down to oscillate around a much lower level than today, similar to what they probably did with hunter-gatherer populations tens of thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, our discovery of the energy potential of coal created what mathematicians and systems theorists call a “bifurcation point” or what is better known in some cases as a tipping point. This is a point at which a system diverges from one path onto another because of some influence on events.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that bifurcation points are generally irreversible.  Once past such a point, the system can’t go back to a point before it.

Given the impact that fossil fuels had on the development of world civilization, their discovery was clearly such a fork in the road.  Rather than flattening out politely as other species’ growth curves tend to do, ours kept on rising.  And rising, and rising. 

What is a sustainable population level?

Now we come to the heart of the matter.  Okay, we all accept that the human race is in overshoot.  But how deep into overshoot are we?  What is the carrying capacity of our planet?  The answers to these questions,after all, define a sustainable population.

Not surprisingly, the answers are quite hard to tease out.  Various numbers have been put forward, each with its set of stated and unstated assumptions –not the least of which is the assumed standard of living (or consumption profile) of the average person.  For those familiar with Ehrlich and Holdren’s I=PAT equation, if “I” represents the environmental impact of a sustainable population, then for any population value “P” there is a corresponding value for “AT”, the level of Activity and Technology that can be sustained for that population level.  In other words, the higher our standard of living climbs, the lower our population level must fall in order to be sustainable. This is discussed further in an earlier article on Thermodynamic Footprints.

To get some feel for the enormous range of uncertainty in sustainability estimates we’ll look at six assessments, each of which leads to a very different outcome.  We’ll start with the most optimistic one, and work our way down the scale.

The Ecological Footprint Assessment

The concept of the Ecological Footprint was developed in 1992 by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems. It is a standardized measure of demand for natural capital that may be contrasted with the planet’s ecological capacity to regenerate. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate associated waste. As it is usually published, the value is an estimate of how many planet Earths it would take to support humanity with everyone following their current lifestyle.

It has a number of fairly glaring flaws that cause it to be hyper-optimistic. The “ecological footprint” is basically for renewable resources only. It includes a theoretical but underestimated factor for non-renewable resources.  It does not take into account the unfolding effects of climate change, ocean acidification or biodiversity loss (i.e. species extinctions).  It is intuitively clear that no number of “extra planets” would compensate for such degradation.

Still, the estimate as of the end of 2012 is that our overall ecological footprint is about “1.7 planets”.  In other words, there is at least 1.7 times too much human activity for the long-term health of this single, lonely planet.  To put it yet another way, we are 70% into overshoot.

It would probably be fair to say that by this accounting method the sustainable population would be (7 / 1.7) or about four billion people at our current average level of affluence.  As you will see, other assessments make this estimate seem like a happy fantasy.

The Fossil Fuel Assessment

The main accelerator of human activity over the last 150 to 200 years has been our exploitation of the planet’s stocks of fossil fuel.  Before 1800 there was very little fossil fuel in general use, with most energy being derived from the flows represented by wood, wind, water, animal and human power. The following graph demonstrates the precipitous rise in fossil fuel use since then, and especially since 1950.

Graphic by Gail Tverberg

This information was the basis for my earlier Thermodynamic Footprint analysis.  That article investigated the influence of technological energy (87% of which comes from fossil fuel stocks) on human planetary impact, in terms of how much it multiplies the effect of each “naked ape”. The following graph illustrates the multiplier at different points in history:

Fossil fuels have powered the increase in all aspects of civilization, including population growth.  The “Green Revolution” in agriculture that was kicked off by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug in the late 1940s was largely a fossil fuel phenomenon, relying on mechanization, powered irrigation and synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. This enormous increase in food production supported a swift rise in population numbers, in a classic ecological feedback loop: more food (supply) => more people (demand) => more food => more people etc…

Over the core decades of the Green Revolution from 1950 to 1980 the world population almost doubled, from fewer than 2.5 billion to over 4.5 billion.  The average population growth over those three decades was 2% per year.  Compare that to 0.5% from 1800 to 1900; 1.00% from 1900 to 1950; and 1.5% from 1980 until now:

This analysis makes it tempting to conclude that a sustainable population might look similar to the situation in 1800, before the Green Revolution, and before the global adoption of fossil fuels: about 1 billion people living on about 5% of today’s global average energy consumption, all of it derived from renewable energy flows.

It’s tempting (largely because it seems vaguely achievable), but unfortunately that number may still be too high.  Even in 1800 the signs of human overshoot were clear, if not well recognized:  there was already widespread deforestation through Europe and the Middle East; and desertification had set into the previously lush agricultural zones of North Africa and the Middle East.

Not to mention that if we did start over with “just” one billion people, an annual growth rate of a mere 0.5% would put the population back over seven billion in just 400 years.  Unless the growth rate can be kept down very close to zero, such a situation is decidedly unsustainable.


The Population Density Assessment

There is another way to approach the question.  If we assume that the human species was sustainable at some point in the past, what point might we choose and what conditions contributed to our apparent sustainability at that time?

I use a very strict definition of sustainability.  It reads something like this: “Sustainability is the ability of a species to survive in perpetuity without damaging the planetary ecosystem in the process.”  This principle applies only to a species’ own actions, rather than uncontrollable external forces like Milankovitch cycles, asteroid impacts, plate tectonics, etc.

In order to find a population that I was fairly confident met my definition of sustainability, I had to look well back in history – in fact back into Paleolithic times.  The sustainability conditions I chose were: a very low population density and very low energy use, with both maintained over multiple thousands of years. I also assumed the populace would each use about as much energy as a typical hunter-gatherer: about twice the daily amount of energy a person obtains from the food they eat.

There are about 150 million square kilometers, or 60 million square miles of land on Planet Earth.  However, two thirds of that area is covered by snow, mountains or deserts, or has little or no topsoil.  This leaves about 50 million square kilometers (20 million square miles) that is habitable by humans without high levels of technology.

A typical population density for a non-energy-assisted society of hunter-forager-gardeners is between 1 person per square mile and 1 person per square kilometer. Because humans living this way had settled the entire planet by the time agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, this number pegs a reasonable upper boundary for a sustainable world population in the range of 20 to 50 million people.

I settled on the average of these two numbers, 35 million people.  That was because it matches known hunter-forager population densities, and because those densities were maintained with virtually zero population growth (less than 0.01% per year)during the 67,000 years from the time of the Toba super-volcano eruption in 75,000 BC until 8,000 BC (Agriculture Day on Planet Earth).

If we were to spread our current population of 7 billion evenly over 50 million square kilometers, we would have an average density of 150 per square kilometer.  Based just on that number, and without even considering our modern energy-driven activities, our current population is at least 250 times too big to be sustainable. To put it another way, we are now 25,000% into overshoot based on our raw population numbers alone.

As I said above, we also need to take the population’s standard of living into account. Our use of technological energy gives each of us the average planetary impact of about 20 hunter-foragers.  What would the sustainable population be if each person kept their current lifestyle, which is given as an average current Thermodynamic Footprint (TF) of 20?

We can find the sustainable world population number for any level of human activity by using the I = PAT equation mentioned above.

  • We decided above that the maximum hunter-forager population we could accept as sustainable would be 35 million people, each with a Thermodynamic Footprint of 1.
  • First, we set I (the allowable total impact for our sustainable population) to 35, representing those 35 million hunter-foragers.
  • Next, we set AT to be the TF representing the desired average lifestyle for our population.  In this case that number is 20.
  • We can now solve the equation for P.  Using simple algebra, we know that I = P x AT is equivalent to P = I / AT.  Using that form of the equation we substitute in our values, and we find that P = 35 / 20.  In this case P = 1.75.

This number tells us that if we want to keep the average level of per-capita consumption we enjoy in today’s world, we would enter an overshoot situation above a global population of about 1.75 million people. By this measure our current population of 7 billion is about 4,000 times too big and active for long-term sustainability. In other words, by this measure we are we are now 400,000% into overshoot.

Using the same technique we can calculate that achieving a sustainable population with an American lifestyle (TF = 78) would permit a world population of only 650,000 people – clearly not enough to sustain a modern global civilization.

For the sake of comparison, it is estimated that the historical world population just after the dawn of agriculture in 8,000 BC was about five million, and in Year 1 was about 200 million.  We crossed the upper threshold of planetary sustainability in about 2000 BC, and have been in deepening overshoot for the last 4,000 years.

The Ecological Assessments

As a species, human beings share much in common with other large mammals.  We breathe, eat, move around to find food and mates, socialize, reproduce and die like all other mammalian species.  Our intellect and culture, those qualities that make us uniquely human, are recent additions to our essential primate nature, at least in evolutionary terms.

Consequently it makes sense to compare our species’ performance to that of other, similar species – species that we know for sure are sustainable.  I was fortunate to find the work of American marine biologist Dr. Charles W. Fowler, who has a deep interest in sustainability and the ecological conundrum posed by human beings.  The following three assessments are drawn from Dr. Fowler’s work.


First assessment

In 2003, Dr. Fowler and Larry Hobbs co-wrote a paper titled, Is humanity sustainable?”  that was published by the Royal Society.  In it, they compared a variety of ecological measures across 31 species including humans. The measures included biomass consumption, energy consumption, CO2 production, geographical range size, and population size.

It should come as no great surprise that in most of the comparisons humans had far greater impact than other species, even to a 99% confidence level.  When it came to population size, Fowler and Hobbs found that there are over two orders of magnitude more humans than one would expect based on a comparison to other species – 190 times more, in fact.  Similarly, our CO2 emissions outdid other species by a factor of 215.

Based on this research, Dr. Fowler concluded that there are about 200 times too many humans on the planet.  This brings up an estimate for a sustainable population of 35 million people.

This is the same as the upper bound established above by examining hunter-gatherer population densities.  The similarity of the results is not too surprising, since the hunter-gatherers of 50,000 years ago were about as close to “naked apes” as humans have been in recent history.


Second assessment

In 2008, five years after the publication cited above, Dr. Fowler wrote another paper entitled Maximizing biodiversity, information and sustainability.”  In this paper he examined the sustainability question from the point of view of maximizing biodiversity.  In other words, what is the largest human population that would not reduce planetary biodiversity?

This is, of course, a very stringent test, and one that we probably failed early in our history by extirpating mega-fauna in the wake of our migrations across a number of continents.

In this paper, Dr. Fowler compared 96 different species, and again analyzed them in terms of population, CO2 emissions and consumption patterns.

This time, when the strict test of biodiversity retention was applied, the results were truly shocking, even to me.  According to this measure, humans have overpopulated the Earth by almost 700 times.  In order to preserve maximum biodiversity on Earth, the human population may be no more than 10 million people – each with the consumption of a Paleolithic hunter-forager.

Addendum: Third assessment

After this article was initially written, Dr. Fowler forwarded me a copy of an appendix to his 2009 book, “Systemic Management: Sustainable Human Interactions with Ecosystems and the Biosphere”, published by Oxford University Press.  In it he describes yet one more technique for comparing humans with other mammalian species, this time in terms of observed population densities, total population sizes and ranges.

After carefully comparing us to various species of both herbivores and carnivores of similar body size, he draws this devastating conclusion: the human population is about 1000 times larger than expected. This is in line with the second assessment above, though about 50% more pessimistic.  It puts a sustainable human population at about 7 million.




As you can see, the estimates for a sustainable human population vary widely – by a factor of 500 from the highest to the lowest.

The Ecological Footprint doesn’t really seem intended as a measure of sustainability.  Its main value is to give people with no exposure to ecology some sense that we are indeed over-exploiting our planet.  (It also has the psychological advantage of feeling achievable with just a little work.)  As a measure of sustainability, it is not helpful.

As I said above, the number suggested by the Thermodynamic Footprint or Fossil Fuel analysis isn’t very helpful either – even a population of one billion people without fossil fuels had already gone into overshoot.

That leaves us with four estimates: two at 35 million, one of 10 million, and one of 7 million.

The central number of 35 million people is confirmed by two analyses using different data and assumptions.  My conclusion is that this is probably the absolutely largest human population that could be considered sustainable.  The realistic but similarly unachievable number is probably more in line with the bottom two estimates, somewhere below 10 million.

I think the lowest two estimates (Fowler 2008, and Fowler 2009) are as unrealistically high as all the others in this case, primarily because human intelligence and problem-solving ability makes our destructive impact on biodiversity a foregone conclusion. After all, we drove other species to extinction 40,000 years ago, when our total population was estimated to be under 1 million.


So, what can we do with this information?  It’s obvious that we will not (and probably cannot) voluntarily reduce our population by 99.5% to 99.9%.  Even an involuntary reduction of this magnitude would involve enormous suffering and a very uncertain outcome.  It’s close enough to zero that if Mother Nature blinked, we’d be gone.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Homo sapiens is an inherently unsustainable species.  This outcome seems virtually guaranteed by our neocortex, by the very intelligence that has enabled our rise to unprecedented dominance over our planet’s biosphere.  Is intelligence an evolutionary blind alley?  From the singular perspective of our own species, it quite probably is. If we are to find some greater meaning or deeper future for intelligence in the universe, we may be forced to look beyond ourselves and adopt a cosmic, rather than a human, perspective.




How do we get out of this jam?

How might we get from where we are today to a sustainable world population of 35 million or so?  We should probably discard the notion of “managing” such a population decline.  If we can’t even get our population to simply stop growing, an outright reduction of over 99% is simply not in the cards.  People seem virtually incapable of taking these kinds of decisions in large social groups.  We can decide to stop reproducing, but only as individuals or (perhaps) small groups. Without the essential broad social support, such personal choices will make precious little difference to the final outcome.  Politicians will by and large not even propose an idea like “managed population decline”  – not if they want to gain or remain in power, at any rate.  China’s brave experiment with one-child families notwithstanding, any global population decline will be purely involuntary.


A world population decline would (will) be triggered and fed by our civilization’s encounter with limits.  These limits may show up in any area: accelerating climate change, weather extremes,shrinking food supplies, fresh water depletion, shrinking energy supplies,pandemic diseases, breakdowns in the social fabric due to excessive complexity,supply chain breakdowns, electrical grid failures, a breakdown of the international financial system, international hostilities – the list of candidates is endless, and their interactions are far too complex to predict.

In 2007, shortly after I grasped the concept and implications of Peak Oil, I wrote my first web article on population decline: Population: The Elephant in the Room.  In it I sketched out the picture of a monolithic population collapse: a straight-line decline from today’s seven billion people to just one billion by the end of this century.

As time has passed I’ve become less confident in this particular dystopian vision.  It now seems to me that human beings may be just a bit tougher than that.  We would fight like demons to stop the slide, though we would potentially do a lot more damage to the environment in the process.  We would try with all our might to cling to civilization and rebuild our former glory.  Different physical, environmental and social situations around the world would result in a great diversity in regional outcomes.  To put it plainly, a simple “slide to oblivion” is not in the cards for any species that could recover from the giant Toba volcanic eruption in just 75,000 years.

Or Tumble?

Still, there are those physical limits I mentioned above.  They are looming ever closer, and it seems a foregone conclusion that we will begin to encounter them for real within the next decade or two. In order to draw a slightly more realistic picture of what might happen at that point, I created the following thought experiment on involuntary population decline. It’s based on the idea that our population will not simply crash, but will oscillate (tumble) down a series of stair-steps: first dropping as we puncture the limits to growth; then falling below them; then partially recovering; only to fall again; partially recover; fall; recover…

I started the scenario with a world population of 8 billion people in 2030. I assumed each full cycle of decline and partial recovery would take six generations, or 200 years.  It would take three generations (100 years) to complete each decline and then three more in recovery, for a total cycle time of 200 years. I assumed each decline would take out 60% of the existing population over its hundred years, while each subsequent rise would add back only half of the lost population.

In ten full cycles – 2,000 years – we would be back to a sustainable population of about 40-50 million. The biggest drop would be in the first 100 years, from 2030 to 2130 when we would lose a net 53 million people per year. Even that is only a loss of 0.9% pa, compared to our net growth today of 1.1%, that’s easily within the realm of the conceivable,and not necessarily catastrophic – at least to begin with.

As a scenario it seems a lot more likely than a single monolithic crash from here to under a billion people.  Here’s what it looks like:

It’s important to remember that this scenario is not a prediction. It’s an attempt to portray a potential path down the population hill that seems a bit more probable than a simple, “Crash! Everybody dies.”

It’s also important to remember that the decline will probably not happen anything like this, either. With climate change getting ready to push humanity down the stairs, and the strong possibility that the overall global temperature will rise by 5 or 6 degrees Celsius even before the end of that first decline cycle, our prospects do not look even this “good” from where I stand.

Rest assured, I’m not trying to present 35 million people as some kind of “population target”. It’s just part of my attempt to frame what we’re doing to the planet, in terms of what some of us see as the planetary ecosphere’s level of tolerance for our abuse.

The other potential implicit in this analysis is that if we did drop from 8 to under 1 billion, we could then enter a population free-fall. As a result, we might keep falling until we hit the bottom of Olduvai Gorge again. My numbers are an attempt to define how many people might stagger away from such a crash landing.  Some people seem to believe that such an event could be manageable.  I don’t share that belief for a moment. These calculations are my way of getting that message out.

I figure if I’m going to draw a line in the sand, I’m going to do it on behalf of all life, not just our way of life.


What can we do? 

To be absolutely clear, after ten years of investigating what I affectionately call “The Global Clusterfuck”, I do not think it can be prevented, mitigated or managed in any way.  If and when it happens, it will follow its own dynamic, and the force of events could easily make the Japanese and Andaman tsunamis seem like pleasant days at the beach.

The most effective preparations that we can make will all be done by individuals and small groups.  It will be up to each of us to decide what our skills, resources and motivations call us to do.  It will be different for each of us – even for people in the same neighborhood, let alone people on opposite sides of the world.

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that each of us will do whatever we think is appropriate for the circumstances, in whatever part of the world we can influence. The outcome of our actions is ultimately unforeseeable, because it depends on how the efforts of all 7 billion of us converge, co-operate and compete.  The end result will be quite different from place to place – climate change impacts will vary, resources vary, social structures vary, values and belief systems are different all over the world.The best we can do is to do our best.

Here is my advice: 

  • Stay awake to what’s happening around us.
  • Don’t get hung up by other people’s “shoulds and shouldn’ts”.
  • Occasionally re-examine our personal values.  If they aren’t in alignment with what we think the world needs, change them.
  • Stop blaming people. Others are as much victims of the times as we are – even the CEOs and politicians.
  • Blame, anger and outrage is pointless.  It wastes precious energy that we will need for more useful work.
  • Laugh a lot, at everything – including ourselves.
  • Hold all the world’s various beliefs and “isms” lightly, including our own.
  • Forgive others. Forgive ourselves. For everything.
  • Love everything just as deeply as you can.

That’s what I think might be helpful. If we get all that personal stuff right, then doing the physical stuff about food, water, housing,transportation, energy, politics and the rest of it will come easy – or at least a bit easier. And we will have a lot more fun doing it.

I wish you all the best of luck!
Bodhi Paul Chefurka
May 16, 2013