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© Sidney Harris
© Sidney Harris

Paul Krugman and the Limits of Hubris

October 10, 2014

Economist Paul Krugman evidently feels irked and irritated by the notion that there might be limits to economic expansion: he has followed up his New York Times op-ed of September 18 (“Errors and Emissions,” to which I replied here) with a new piece titled “Slow Steaming and the Supposed Limits to Growth. It’s interesting to examine his latest assertions and arguments one by one, as they reveal a great deal about how economists think, and why they tend to disregard physical science when it comes to questions about finite resources and the possibility of infinite economic growth on a small planet.

Mr. Krugman begins by noting: “We seem to be having a moment in which three groups with very different agendas—anti-environmentalist conservatives, anti-capitalist people on the left, and hard scientists who think they are smarter than economists—have formed an unholy alliance on behalf of the proposition that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is incompatible with growing real GDP.” He omits mentioning a fourth group—ecological economists like Herman Daly, who take the position that, in the real world, the laws of physics and ecological limits trump economic theory. For Krugman, only mainstream economists are to be trusted; everybody else is prone to misconceptions. He seems perplexed why so many people are coming to the same mistaken conclusion from different directions. Could it be that they are all recognizing an unavoidable physical reality?

Next Mr. Krugman fires a volley at physicist Mark Buchanan’s recent essay, Economists are blind to the limits of growth. Back in the 1970s, Krugman’s mentor, Bill Nordhaus, led mainstream economists in denouncing the classic book Limits to Growth. Unfortunately for Krugman, Nordhaus’s attack looks in retrospect like mere hand-waving: analysis of relevant data from the last 40 years shows that the most pessimistic scenario from the 1972 Limits to Growth study is tracking reality quite closely.

Mr. Buchanan’s pithy piece zeros in on energy as the most important limit to endless economic expansion. But even though he carefully explains that we are getting more efficient at using energy (and balances that recognition with evidence that, despite this, economic growth implies using more energy overall), Mr. Krugman pretends that physicists have never heard of energy efficiency. He spends most of his op-ed explaining one instance (ocean-going freighters reducing their speed to use less fuel) as if this were proof of a new and pivotal principle that no hard scientist had previously noticed. Are there instances where we can use less energy while achieving the same effect? Of course! A better, though more shop-worn, example would be lighting: as a result of the introduction of compact fluorescent and LED lights, we’ve seen dramatic reductions in the amount of energy used to banish darkness from cities and homes.

But Mr. Krugman doesn’t follow through on his argument. If he is implying that there are no limits to growth because energy use can be made more efficient, then logically he must also argue that energy efficiency can be improved endlessly—at least to the point at which no energy at all is needed in order to run the economy (I say “at least,” because presumably even then further growth would be needed in order to prove the non-existence of limits). But of course that’s pure fantasy, as every physicist knows. Energy is defined as the ability to do work, and the ability to do work is what generates GDP. Energy efficiency can often be improved, but such improvements are subject to the law of diminishing returns: the first five percent of improvement is cheap, the next five percent costs more, and so on. Perfect efficiency in any process is either impossible to achieve, or infinitely expensive (depending on how you prefer to look at it).

My guess is that if and when Mr. Krugman honestly confronts the logical impossibility of infinite growth within a finite system, and the similar impossibility of infinite improvements in energy efficiency, he will retreat to saying something along the lines of, “Yes, but even if there are theoretical limits to growth, we’re very far from reaching them, so they’re practically irrelevant for the time being.” However, once one acknowledges that there are indeed theoretical limits to expansion, one must then ask, “What would be the likely signs that we are approaching those limits?”

I’ll suggest some: overall rising energy costs (indeed, energy production consumes a larger proportion of global GDP today than it did a decade ago); falling yields of minerals per unit of energy applied to mining and refining (this is now true almost across the board, from antimony to zinc); rising environmental costs and risks from industrial processes (see “climate change”).

Mr. Krugman writes: “So where does the notion that energy is somehow special come from? Mainly, I’d say, from not thinking about concrete examples . . . because if you think about actual economic activities even briefly, it becomes obvious that there are tradeoffs that could let you produce more while using less energy.” Again, that’s a statement no one would argue with. But Krugman’s own example of energy efficiency highlights the fact that there are often hidden costs to efficiency efforts. He writes that “After 2008, when oil prices rose sharply, shipping companies . . . responded by reducing the speed of their ships. It turns out that steaming more slowly reduces fuel consumption more than proportionately to the reduction in speed.” But moving ships slower meant deploying more ships to in order move the same amount of freight—thus substituting capital and labor for energy. This strategy didn’t require the development of new technology; the shippers were “just using the same ships differently.”

In the comments to Mr. Krugman’s op-ed on the New York Times website, Ken White (one of my colleagues at Post Carbon Institute) points out that all those extra ships represent plenty of embodied energy, which was expended in extracting and refining ores and in other aspects of ship construction. When we look at many (not all) efficiency gains this way—that is, from a systems perspective—much of the advantage tends to disappear. Does the added cost of embodied energy in this case equal the energy of the fuel saved? I don’t have the data and haven’t done the calculations, but even if there are some net savings they are probably much smaller than Krugman assumes. You can substitute capital and labor for energy in some instances and up to a point, but there is literally nothing that anyone can do without some expenditure of energy. Substitution itself is subject to limits.

Mr. Krugman clearly implies that it is only mainstream economists who think about concrete examples like the one just discussed; in contrast, hard scientists deal just in airy abstractions. For physical scientists, this must be surprising news, as most of them deal with concrete examples on a daily basis.

Here are some concrete examples:

Why is Mr. Krugman leading a crusade against the idea of environmental limits to economic growth? I believe there’s a political agenda at work here, and that it’s driven by laudable sentiments. I normally hesitate to guess at other people’s motives, but in this instance they are rather plainly implied in Krugman’s two opinion pieces cited above. He evidently is deeply concerned about climate change and wants to see humanity avert the worst likely impacts, but he believes that policy makers can never be persuaded to adopt climate protection policies if that requires reining in economic growth. He writes: “[T]here’s a lot of room to reduce emissions without killing economic growth.” Yes, there’s room. According to a study Krugman himself cited in his previous op-ed, the first 10 percent of emissions cuts can be achieved without much pain. But beyond that, they’re all at a net cost to the economy.

Like Paul Krugman, we at Post Carbon Institute are deeply concerned about climate change and want officials to adopt policies to avert it. It’s true: if informed opinion leaders pretend that full climate protection can be achieved without any real cost, politicians are more likely to sign on to available no-cost policies. But they’ll only be agreeing to weak pledges that will fail to achieve the levels of emissions cuts that are actually required. By misleading policy makers and the general public this way, we merely waste time and opportunity.

By acknowledging that climate change is a serious threat to humanity’s future, Mr. Krugman is in effect acknowledging the existence of environmental limits to economic expansion. He would probably object that climate change is merely a limit to a fossil-fueled economy, and that a renewably-energized economy could happily expand forever. But once we open the limits box and peer inside, a long series of other critical boundaries quickly comes to light.

Let’s get real. The Earth is a bounded sphere, and the human economy is an engine that extracts raw materials and produces waste. If we keep that engine’s operation within the bounds of what our planet can absorb or replenish through its normal ecosystem functions, all is well. But if the economy continues to grow year after year, at some point the planet’s systems will be overwhelmed—even if we’re using renewable energy to extract and transform raw materials. Our uses of energy and materials can be made somewhat more efficient, but only up to a point. If the Earth itself were expanding at an ever-increasing rate, perpetual economic growth would pose no problem. Yet last time I checked, the planet hadn’t gotten any bigger—while our demands upon it continue to increase.

In his latest op-ed, Mr. Krugman derides “hard scientists who think they are smarter than economists.” I can think of several snide responses to that characterization, but actually I don’t think one is required. The phrase speaks volumes about economists’ own hubris.

  • http://olduvai.ca Steve

    Infinite growth on a finite planet….what could possibly go wrong?

    http://olduvai.ca

  • didier

    Sad truth.

  • Nancy Peters

    Mainstream Economists – High Priests railing at their fate.

  • nicknick

    What would you expect from an obamapologist?

  • Larry

    Paul has a very nice life at the top of the extraction pyramid. He is after all one of its high priests. Money changers in the temple, those scribes and Pharisees must keep the debt game going at ALL COST…or they themselves will fall smack into that pit of ugly they help build and so love to soar above. I of the pyramid, bitches.

  • nma

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    This all ultimately seems to demonstrate the nihilists are correct.

    Dinosaurs, humans, next…

  • Julie

    PK taught me alot about economics. Now I don’t understand his.writing at all.
    I have double engineering degrees. In order to have economic transactions you have to have people drinking water and living on a planet.
    Pk makes no sense to.me now….

  • Marc Bernstein

    It’s the same old story. All too many successful businessmen, academics in non-science fields and various others spend so much time within man-made structures that they begin to regard them as permanent, robust and typical of what the earth’s surface constitutes. The natural world becomes foreign to them and subject to their disdain. This is perhaps part of the psychological root of the resistance to acknowledging natural limits. This tendency towards anthropocentrism (as opposed to ecocentrism or geocentrism) is particularly exacerbated among economists, who are taught from the beginning that substitutability (of physical resources, energy resources, etc.) is unlimited. It creates considerable cognitive dissonance for a successful economist to realize that a major overhaul of their discipline is in order.

  • nonice

    “hard scientists who think they are smarter than economists.” I can think
    of several snide responses to that characterization, but actually I
    don’t think one is required”

    let me give one though: he is pissed off because he couldn’t find this simple logic by himself.

  • ttman

    Republican economists believe in infinite population growth as much as Democratic ones. No limits is a bi-partisan belief.

  • MarkBahner

    “But if the economy continues to grow year after year, at some point the
    planet’s systems will be overwhelmed—even if we’re using renewable
    energy to extract and transform raw materials”

    The world economy is presently about $85 trillion. What do you think is the approximately limit to the world economy?

  • GrowthBuster

    Brilliantly put!

  • EVHappy

    Krugman also believes that yeast in a Petri dish will continue to grow forever.

    Hey, Mr. Krugman, the oil industry has been getting more efficient with their systems for over 150 years. Why then is energy five times more costly today than it was before the year 2000 (adjusted for inflation)?

    Here is another simple analogy – we are getting more efficient at going into space to mine asteroids but that will never become cheap enough for the masses to afford.

    Here is another simple analogy – humans can make Bugattis and the process has been getting more efficient since the first ones have been produced. Does that mean all of humanity will be able to drive a Bugatti? No! The amount of resources needed would make that impossible.

    Finally, perhaps we can simply tell him that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible in perpetuity. Not improbable but mathematically impossible.

    That said, it appears his pay depends on him not understanding these very simple concepts.

    The biggest problem with economists is that they do not study engineering or energy. Nothing moves or gets done without energy and that comes at a cost.

  • NicholB

    Actually, the ‘law of diminishing returns’ is not a law of physics.

    And sometimes, it is even possible to make something totally efficient. With current tech, it is already possible to build houses (or refurbish existing ones) such that no (net) extra energy is needed to heat or cool them. It helps if you have solar panels on the roof, and there is a grid that can take the excess electricity when you don’t need it, and from where you can get it when you do. And if that is the way you do it, the costs of building that way are quite reasonable. No diminishing returns. Even for ‘infinite’ efficiency for heating/cooling.

    Of course, this isn’t true for everything.

  • rtcdmc

    Heinberg is worried about Krugman’s opinion? Then he’s the only person who is.

  • EVHappy

    Don’t feed the trolls.

  • EVHappy

    Now try to conceptualize the entire infrastructure without the fossil fuel crutch. Do you really think there will be a high enough EROEI needed to design, build, operate, maintain and decommission these complex technologies? I don’t.

    It is hard for people, who lived their whole lives as kings with 100 energy slaves to imagine reality, but try to understand we must.

  • EVHappy

    Just use the number of BTUs humans burn every day and consider we are near peak net energy production. I think that just about answers that question.

    It is, was and always will be about the resources and the net energy available to utilize them. Money, paper, stocks, bonds, etc. are simply lipstick on a pig. No economy can run without energy just as no life form can live without energy.

  • Mick Price

    ” Energy is defined as the ability to do work, and the ability to do work is what generates GDP. ”
    No, ability to do work, in the sense physicists use it, is not what generates GDP. The energy to GDP ratio has been falling for a while now. The fact that you make such a BASIC mistake means you can’t be taken seriously on anything.

  • Mick Price

    “analysis of relevant data from the last 40 years shows that the most pessimistic scenario from the 1972 Limits to Growth study is tracking reality quite closely.”
    No it doesn’t as we’re not all dead. Really do some fucking research. These idiots said we’d run out of ALUMINIUM ORE which makes up about 25% of the Earth’s crust.

  • Mick Price

    “Hey, Mr. Krugman, the oil industry has been getting more efficient with their systems for over 150 years. Why then is energy five times more costly today than it was before the year 2000 (adjusted for inflation)?”

    Because idiots keep starting wars in the biggest oil producing area. Because the US government lies about inflation.

    “Here is another simple analogy – we are getting more efficient at going into space to mine asteroids but that will never become cheap enough for the masses to afford.

    Thank you for that mindless assertion. You don’t know what amount of capital per person future societies will have, what level of knowledge or technological advances. You simply assert because you’ can’t imagine actual progress.

    “Does that mean all of humanity will be able to drive a Bugatti Veyron weighs less than 2 tonnes of metal, plastics and rubber. There is no reason why the Earth’s economy could not produce this amount of material per person, or that turning it into a car couldn’t be fully automated. Nor is the amount of capital required impossible. Assuming only a 1% increase in capital per person in 700 years people will have 1,000 times as much capital per person. That’s enough to build a Veyron for everyone.

    “Finally, perhaps we can simply tell him that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible in perpetuity.”

    But indefinite growth isn’t.

    “That said, it appears his pay depends on him not understanding these very simple concepts.”

    He understands the concepts, they just have nothing to do with real life.

    “The biggest problem with economists is that they do not study engineering or energy.”

    People who say that don’t understand what economists do. You don’t need to understand engineering to understand the speed and nature of engineering achievements.

    ” Nothing moves or gets done without energy and that comes at a cost.”
    Energy is just another resource, it behaves like every other resource that can be produced. Engineers don’t get this, economists do.

  • Mick Price

    “analysis of relevant data from the last 40 years shows that the most pessimistic scenario from the 1972 Limits to Growth study is tracking reality quite closely.”
    “The Limits to Growth (1972) – projected the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury and silver by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993. It also stated that the world had only 33-49 years of aluminum resources left, which means we should run out sometime between 2005-2021. (See Donella Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: New American Library, 1972″

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/01/19/great-moments-in-failed-predictions/

    So clearly you’re lying when you say it’s tracking with the CoR’s most pessimistic scenario.

  • pakelag

    Economic growth in advance countries is largely being driven by the production of goods and services that require little or no physical material or energy. Putting entertainment on the web, developing a new, lifesaving drug, software that can be stored on servers and downloaded are some examples. These things do not require massive amounts of mining, production of steel and other metals or increased agricultural exploitation of land. In fact, in regards to the latter, scientific advancement in the development of hybrids has the potential to reduce the consumption of water, pesticides, and annual plowing. Individuals providing services to others using the intellectual capital that they attain over a lifetime of experience and education does not constitute a net increase in resource use when they would have been consuming physical energy and products anyway. Services surpassed industrial production decades ago.
    I read the Limits to Growth and the author is wrong to state that the most pessimistic estimates are tracking closely to today. I recall that every single doomsday scenario in the Limits to Growth led to a collapse early in the 21st century. Instead, scientific boundaries have pushed back the so-called limits just as economists of that era predicted. The authors of the Limits to Growth placed great emphasis on the sophistication of their computer models and the various feedback loops that they incorporated into their models. However, how could they have known how to specify those loops in the form of equations? How do they account for human ingenuity which cannot be modeled? The logic that resources are bounded may be true, but what is the level of that bounding compared to the ability of society to adapt?

  • EVHappy

    Mick Price wrote: “Because idiots keep starting wars in the biggest oil producing area. Because the US government lies about inflation.”

    Mick, I said cost, not price. Maybe we can address your statements one at a time.

  • Mick Price

    “Mick, I said cost, not price.”
    Yeah the cost goes up if the biggest production areas are disrupted, because other areas have to use more resources to make up the shortfall.

  • jh

    “the production of goods and services that require little or no physical material or energy”

    There is no form of production that requires no physical material or energy.

  • jh

    Citing wuwt does not lend your argument credibility.

  • Peak_Oil_Charlie

    The die off will begin soon and we shall see that Krugman has no clothes. Best of luck to everybody because we are surely going to need it.

  • NicholB

    Let me just add that I agree with the general post. Just citing the ‘law of diminishing returns’ in an argument based on hard physics didn’t seem so appropriate to me.

  • NicholB

    I don’t understand exactly what you mean, but I get the impression I didn’t agree with the whole article. I do. I just wanted to say that the ‘law of diminishing returns’ is mere economics, and it has notable exceptions. One of which is heating and cooling in buildings, where we currently spend a significant amount of energie. In (rare) cases, ‘efficiency’ can be made ‘infinite’.

  • secryn

    Mr. Heinberg was correct to criticize Krugman on his goofy opinions. I think much of this goofiness is due to his pathological need to find different ways to say that Obama is never wrong and is the savior of humanity, and why can’t we rabble see this. However, both Mr. Krugman and Mr. Heinberg are whacky if they think that current weather trends (or non-trends), formerly called “global warming” but now (since the world has not warmed in the last 18 years) called “climate change”, present “a serious threat to humanity’s future”. As more and more factual data rolls in to disprove the alarmist’s hypotheses, they resort to more and more bizarre arguments. Right now we’re at the “science is settled, dammit don’t discuss this anymore, we’re right” stage. John Kerry’s recent insane comments are an example of typical alarmist rhetoric that we will hear over the next few years.

  • secryn

    Price’s comments are documentable all over the place. The study in question was done by Meadows et al; wuwt merely reported on it. But Price reponds better than I could.

  • Poechewe

    Charlie, what is “soon”?

  • ttman

    I made a post over at the NY Times about this. At least I tried to. Their moderators didn’t let it through. The only reason I can see was that it was disparaging to Krugman and economists in general. Economics is a great profession. You can fail to predict the Great Recession, or any recession for that matter, and no one cares. It isn’t held against you. You just keep on putting out the paperwork and acting like you understand the economy.

  • Poechewe

    The Smithsonian article that discusses Graham Turner is perhaps too short and too general for discussion purposes. So maybe it’s better to go to Turner’s article, which can be found on Google Scholar. Because the relevant article is in pdf, it’s not directly linkable, so readers should use this link to Google Scholar:

    http://scholar.google.com

    Type in: Graham Turner Limits to Growth

    It should be the first item listed and the last few words should say “with 30 years of reality.” Just click on the pdf on the right (it says Researchgate) and you can access the freely available article.

  • EVHappy

    That is not what is most important. In this case, the cost goes up because instead of drilling a few hundred feet into an inland super giant oil field you have to melt tar sands using massive amounts of natural gas and fresh water (tar sands), drill horizontal wells into shale formations then explode and pump massive amounts of water mixed with hundreds of other ingredients into a short lived well (fracking), or building billion dollar floating cities and drilling miles into deep water wells (deep water).

    This also relates to mining. Humans go for the best formations and concentrations near the surface first. As they mine they have to go deeper and use less concentrated source rock, which requires more movement of mass and more energy, by the nature of the operation, regardless of the efficienty of it.

    That is what you do not understand, Mick. Even at 100 percent efficiency or with perfect robot facilities, there is work to be done and energy needs to perform that work. Net energy.

    This is why humans were able to build the great cities that we see today and why we will not even be able to maintain them in the future. The average EROEI of the energy resources we have left continues to go down far faster then the improvements in technology or gains in productivity.

    This is the natural concept that even highly educated economists fail to understand. This is why they will continue to fail and be blindsided by their decisions. Sorry, we live on a finite planet and not all resources were formed equally.

  • MarkBahner

    EVHappy,

    So you think that $85 trillion (in 2014 dollars) will be as high as the gross world product (GWP) ever gets? Is there some level beyond which you would admit you were wrong? For example, if the BWP (in 2014 dollars) got to $120 trillion, or $170 trillion, or $250 trillion (in 2014 dollars) would you say you were wrong?

  • Mick Price

    “That is not what is most important. ”

    Yes it is, at least right now. The price increase and cost increase are due to the best fields not being as open as they would be without idiot wars.

    “Even at 100 percent efficiency or with perfect robot facilities, there is work to be done and energy needs to perform that work. Net energy.”

    So what? You need net everything, it doesn’t mean that energy is a different type of resource to anything else.

    “The average EROEI of the energy resources we have left continues to go down far faster then the improvements in technology or gains in productivity.”

    Then why didn’t price go up without wars?

    “This is the natural concept that even highly educated economists fail to understand.”

    No they get it, they just don’t see why energy is different from every other type or resource. They don’t see why your claims have any relevance.

    “This is why they will continue to fail and be blindsided by their decisions.”
    And yet every decision made on the basis or Malthusian predictions has been WRONG, time and again.

  • Mick Price

    Oh and note that you could not refute the vast majority of my post, so presumably you know I’m almost entirely right.

  • EVHappy

    Mark, did you even read my post? I said BTUs because dollars do not matter. Understand? If we have hyper-inflation, like is predicted by many smart people, the GDP in dollars could be 10 times higher, without more BTUs of net energy actually being burnt. Get it?

    You cannot have economy without energy. I do feel we are at or very near peak net energy production (net energy = total energy production – the invested energy).

    It is very likely the total energy production will go up over the next few years (if things do not crash first) but remember that we are adding higher percentages of non-conventional resources into the global mix and those requires far higher investments in energy to get the same return (research EROEI if you are confused about that). It is the net energy that can do useful work.

  • GrowthBuster

    Applause, applause. More praise on the Wall of Fame today at Growth Bias Busted: http://www.growthbiasbusted.org/wall-of-fame/entry/heinberg-the-limits-of-hubris Heinberg makes it sound so simple and logical. Thank you, Richard!

  • EVHappy

    One point at a time is far more productive, I have found. However, it tends to trap the person who has less understanding on the topic to uncomfortable levels, often leading to insults or long rants that spread out, hoping to dilute defeat.

    Please enjoy your last word on our debate and keep on reading. The learning curve is steep but is a worthwhile pursuit.

  • MarkBahner

    EVHappy,

    Yes, I read your comments. And you either didn’t read, or simply didn’t understand, my comments. When I asked you about gross world products “in 2014 dollars” that means adjusted for inflation.

    So once again I’ll ask, is the gross world product (***adjusted for inflation***) gets to $120 trillion, or $170 trillion, or $250 trillion, would you say you were wrong?

  • EVHappy

    Mark, you say I didn’t understand your comments but you should have gotten the same understanding of my intent from my energy based answer. No?

  • Paul

    You won’t impugn Krugman’s motives, but I will. Krugman is trying to protect his mistaken writings and premises for the last 20 years. He isn’t doing it gracefully; he’s too arrogant, conceited and stuck in his ways to admit everything he has espoused and believed is crashing down like a house of cards.

  • wysinwyg

    Can you supply even one example of how GDP can grow without an accompanying increase in energy consumption?

    Note that the argument presented here is fallacious. A falling RATIO of energy use to GDP does not imply that one can increase GDP without ANY increase in energy. It merely means that one can grow GDP with LESS input of energy. This fact is acknowledged many times and at great length in the article to which you are responding.

    However, I cannot think of a single example of how one might increase GDP without doing physical work of some sort. I’m not laboring under the illusion that this failure of my imagination means it is impossible. I am merely asking for even one example where it is the case.

  • Mick Price

    “Can you supply even one example of how GDP can grow without an accompanying increase in energy consumption?”

    GDP per unit of energy has been rising for decades, maybe centuries.

    ” falling RATIO of energy use to GDP does not imply that one can increase GDP without ANY increase in energy.”

    Sure it does. If you can increase the GDP per unit energy by 20% and the GDP by 10% you can increase the energy use decreases. The reason this hasn’t happened yet, and listen because this is really important, is because ENERGY IS CHEAP AND IS GOING TO REMAIN SO.

    If energy were going to increase in price people would be conserving it, because it would be more valuable later.

    “However, I cannot think of a single example of how one might increase GDP without doing physical work of some sort.”
    Not sure why you think that’s a relevant point.
    Ok, if you’re asking why you can’t think of an example of GDP increasing without increasing energy use it’s simple. Energy is cheap and nobody relevant thinks it’s going to get more expensive. So nobody is really trying that hard to conserve it. If energy were ever to get significantly more expensive for significant amounts of time you might see higher GDP with the same or lower energy use.

  • George

    Interested to hear where you’re getting your climate data (and “factual data”) from the last 18 years, secryn. The data I’ve seen show the opposite… warming trends continue. In addition, CO2 continues to rise in the atmosphere, of course, and much is absorbed in the oceans. No side effects, I suppose, secryn?

    Here are the data on warming trends from NOAA: http://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature

  • Brian Donovan

    Sure ultimately there are limits, but energy is not the one now. even with 12B people can can provide first world energy lives using solar, wind, ecars and waste to energy. Cheaper, and many times what we need forever. 9-12B people is the expected peak population, particularity is we raise the living standards for everyone.

    So unlimited growth? no, but for all practical purposes way more than enough than we will ever need.

  • Brian Donovan

    We recycle.

  • Seba

    I have a question, scientificly speaking, why are all energy efficiency improvements affected by the law of dimishing returns?

  • Paul Basken

    Dang, this seems like a lot of name-calling among friends, and not so much illumination. PCI seems right to emphasize the limits of Earth’s resources, as clearly we have a serious society-wide problem in recognizing and accepting that fact. But since much of our energy indisputably comes from outside our “bounded sphere,” and there’s essentially an unlimited amount of it out there (at least on any scale we could imagine), assuming we keep learning how to mine more responsibly the amounts we’ve already collected here on Earth (ie, better solar technology, more wind power, battery systems, perhaps fusion, perhaps something we haven’t even yet thought of), does it really make sense to be insisting so dogmatically that someone who has noted that we may have no effective long-term limits on our energy supplies belongs in the same dungeon as one who says we have no limits on our use of Earth’s resources? The vitriol visited upon Krugman for simply observing that fact seems a bit disproportionate to whatever intellectual crime he is allegedly committing here. This is someone who has hardly seemed to be an apologist for the fossil fuel industry. Perhaps he’s pulled a thread that bears tracing, but it’s not at all clear that this analysis accomplishes that. Instead it seems a lot more interested in character assassination, which seems a bit beneath the PCI given the seriousness of the issues that it has rightly declared itself committed to engaging.

  • ashermiller

    Paul, sorry to hear that Richard’s response came across as name-calling and disproportionate. I don’t want to speak for Richard but I imagine there was some frustration with Krugman for 1) specifically calling out PCI and lumping us in with the likes of the Koch Brothers as purveyors of climate despair and 2) defending his weak positions with such categorically erroneous “evidence.”

    I’m afraid that I don’t agree with you that this response (or the previous from Richard) were more interested in character assassination.

    I agree with you that these issues are serious, which is precisely why we felt it necessary to respond strongly to Krugman. Krugman is one of those voices that “very serious people” give a great deal of credence. And his continued, conscious refusal to recognize ecological and economic limits sadly sends us in the wrong direction.

  • John Saint-Smith

    It just occurred to me that the logical extension of Krugman’s concrete shipping speed example would be the substitution of a modern bulk carrier with a 19th Century Clipper sailing ship: fossil fuel energy consumption zero! (assuming you use whale oil for the lamps). Now there might be a problem with the number of such ships, wharves, sailors and stevedores who would be needed to operate them, but as any good economists knows those considerations are called ‘externalities’ and like environmental damage are not part of the calculation.

    Slightly less facetiously, very high performance solar panel covered sailing wings (like an aero wing, uneven airflow creates a forward ‘lift’) could be combined with a future super light (and cheap) carbon fibre hull to make a viable ‘renewable energy powered cargo ship’. They would still suffer in comparison with modern diesel powered ship in terms of shear size, manoeuvrability and point to point speed. You would probably have to detour via the Roaring Forties and a trip through the Panama canal on a dull windless day might be a bit slow.
    But the problem, as Richard Heinberg points out, is not the potential for energy efficiency, but the diminishing marginal return on investment to build hyper-efficient engines, produce renewable non-fossil fuels, or the above mentioned renewable energy powered ship.
    However, creative solutions can be found to reduce energy consumption AND environmental damage per unit of production, and no doubt we will continue to be amazed by the innovations that will ‘do more with less’ for many years to come, hopefully keeping both Mr Heinberg’s and Mr Krugman’s ‘limits’ at bay.
    What is critical at the end of the day is adoption of an ecological perspective on all economic activity. What we can never overcome is the net benefit equation. If the technology does more harm than good, or fails to enhance the existing heavily degraded environment, we will lose the race and fall into terminal decline.

  • John Saint-Smith

    ENERGY IS CHEAP AND IS GOING TO REMAIN SO.

    While you make some telling points, this is not one of them, despite the shouting capitals.
    Environmentalists and now ecological economists point out that cheap, fossil, nuclear or renewable energy is not nearly as cheap as economists would like to think.
    Fossil fuels are becoming harder to find and even when there are technical fixes to make higher hanging fruit easier to harvest, the environmental cost often increases proportionately – tar sands, fracking earthquakes, and the shear number of new wells required. Last but not least, all fossil fuel burning without complete and permanent Greenhouse gas sequestration, destroys the climate balance with millennial timescales. Carbon capture and permanent safe storage is not technically impossible but the cost is proving to be astronomical and is likely to get higher as the ‘easy sites’ are filled. The long term prognoses mean any further fossil fuel exploitation is simply unaffordable and therefore not an option.
    Safe and permanent nuclear waste disposal remains a problem fifty years after it was first claimed to have been dealt with. The social (and economic) stress of making people feel safe with nuclear power has resulted in endless cost blow-outs for reactor designs.
    Renewables, as the fossil and nuclear advocates are at pains to point out, are inherently inefficient because they involve such variable and dispersed energy sources.
    So at the end of the day, we have practical limits to growth. Perhaps not quite those imagined by the Club of Rome, but real enough. Factored in to any modern capitalist growth plan is continued population growth. When you solve the problem of feeding and housing an infinite number of people on a finite planet, come back to us and share your new wisdom.

  • Mick Price

    “While you make some telling points, this is not one of them, despite the shouting capitals.”
    Well the people who actually invest money in the energy field disagree with you.
    We’ve been hearing this Malthusian crap for decades now. It’s getting old to say the least.

  • John Saint-Smith

    Predictably you offer gratuitous insults not practical solutions. Just another troll. Forget it.

  • stevenally

    You are misunderstanding GDP. If I pay you $50 an hour to sit on your couch, we are adding to the GDP….. but not increasing energy consumption.

  • Mick Price

    I don’t need to offer “practical solutions” because it’s not a problem. And it’s not me saying that it’s everyone who actually has skin in the game.

  • Tony Dominski

    In this degrowth discussion you spoke the highest truth. Yes to tech optimism and yes to eco-limits. Two essential parts of a larger truth. Exaggerating either side is a diversion from the hard work ahead! Half truths do not advance the game! Thanks.