Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

The nonsense of “Sustainable Growth”*

with 27 comments

“Sustainable Growth” is a term invented by World Leaders last year at the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil.  On a finite planet with finite resources, it is a physical impossibility; it is an oxymoron; to talk about it is as delusional as pretending you will live for ever.  I’m sorry, but, as with climate change, denying the nature of reality changes nothing.

As an experienced geologist and hydrogeologist, I am a Fellow of the Geological Society of London (GSL) and a Member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).  As such, the GSL has previously published a 500-word “soapbox” item written by me, entitled ‘Know Your Limits!’, in their Geoscientist magazine.

However, I believe this has now been surpassed by an article written by CIWEM’s Executive Director, Nick Reeves, just published in CIWEM’s monthly WEM magazine.  Having obtained the permission of both author and publisher, I am delighted to reproduce the article, entitled ‘The Growth Delusion and Handlebar Tape’in full below.

Other than to say that Nick Reeves has an admirable track-record for speaking his mind and saying things very few people in positions like his are willing to say – such as his support for Latin American style environmentalism in ‘The Human Rights of Mother Earth’ (July 2011) – I do not really want to comment further at this point.  However, the conflict between notions of sustainable development and resource depletion will be picked-up in another longer-than-normal post later this week.  Therefore, without further ado, here is the 1800-word article by Nick Reeves:



The world is running on empty says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves

How do you successfully break a mistaken and destructive intellectual and economic consensus? How do you persuade world leaders that 21st century problems cannot be fixed with 20th century economics?

The UK is no longer a front-line developed nation and has fallen behind Brazil in the league table of economic powers.  It will take a lot more than handlebar tape to get a grip on things.  We need to think in different terms and get a proper fix on our place in a world that is running on empty.

The economic crisis of 2007 was a car crash in slow-motion.  The driver wasn’t fit.  And it was frustrating because nobody warned us and the banks danced to the speculative tune.  Now economists can calculate a much more dangerous event that is being greeted with even less concern: our world is rapidly running out of resources – of water, energy, metals, phosphorous and food.  The data is not in dispute.  The market is reflecting what our leaders ignore.

The Industrial Revolution allowed us to make technological progress in delivering resources, outweighing the increasing marginal effort to dig ever deeper and chase lower-quality ores, for instance.  The average price of 33 commodities (equally weighted) declined by 70 per cent (after inflation) between 1900 and 2002.  Then, abruptly and without any particular crisis, prices reversed and in ten years the average commodity tripled to give back the advantage of the previous 100 years.  It is perhaps the most important ‘phase’ change of modern times, yet it attracted, remarkably, little attention or concern.

The causes are not hidden: there has been an explosion in population and consumption since 1800 and the birth of the ‘Hydrocarbon Age’.  Global population has increased from one billion to seven billion, tripling even in my lifetime.  At the same time, consumption of hydrocarbons and some metals increased one hundredfold.  Initially, with few people and extensive high-grade resources, this did not show in prices, but more recently, with population growing still faster than ever in absolute terms, we have had to absorb an unprecedented surge in demand per capita from India, with its 1.2 billion people (growing at over seven per cent a year) and China, with almost 1.3 billion (growing for over 20 years at ten per cent a year), a rate that will double consumption every seven years.  China last year accounted for a jaw-dropping 53 per cent of the world’s cement use, 48 per cent of its iron ore and 47 per cent of all the coal used.  How could reserves not wither away under this attack and prices not rise? We have every reason to be fearful.

Low-cost, high-grade coal, oil and natural gas – the backbone of the Industrial Revolution – will be a distant memory by 2050.  Much higher cost remnants will still be available but they will not be able to drive our growth, our population and, most critically, our food supply, as before.  Conventional food production is dependent desperately on oil for insecticide, pesticide and fertiliser, and for transportation over thousands of miles.  Modern agriculture is an industry that converts oil into food.

It will require brave political decisions to survive the loss of depleted hydrocarbons without risking economic collapse.  If we permit the population to grow to the levels predicted, and if we don’t curb our greed, we must find the capital – while we still have it – to build very large-scale, very smart electricity grids, across Europe and North America, fed by increasingly efficient wind and solar power and other renewables that may come on stream.

Once they are built, the marginal operating cost will be much lower than our present hydrocarbon-dependent system and, critically, cost will be constantly falling while hydrocarbon costs rise.  This will be a great threat to the giant hydrocarbon multi-nationals, several of which fund well-organised obfuscation and propaganda campaigns to reinforce our wishful thinking.  Carbon dioxide has lost its greenhouse effect, they say, and coal is clean! In the US, even larger investments are made: Congress is bribed (legally) to ignore both climate science and the logic of finite resources.

Metal resources are the stuff of nightmares because entropy is merciless.  Every time you use a metal, some is lost.  European countries recycle between 40 per cent and 80 per cent – the US is worse – yet at even 90 per cent these precious resources will slip through our fingers.  So frugality is needed, because even an economy with zero increase in physical output will slowly lose its metals.  But which politician has the nerve to talk about the necessary zero growth in population and physical output?

The most immediately threatening shortage is in our food supply, and not just from oil constraints.  The bigger threats lie in four limiting inputs: water, soil, potassium and phosphorus.  We build homes and grow food in deserts and over-pump irreplaceable underground water.  (Already, about 300 million Indians and Chinese, among others, are fed by over-pumping reserves that will inevitably run out.) We waste over half our global water supply and we totally mis-price it.  For most countries, all of this can be fixed.  Yet some over-populated, poor nations have a more intractable problem and water scarcity will cause increasing friction for them.  Water wars is here.  It’s happening now.

Land availability and erosion are also limiting our ability to grow food.  Over the millennia, we have lost about one-third of our land, turning it into desert and stone.  We build new cities on our best river valley soil, which is replaceable only with more marginal land.  There are no New Worlds or new Midwests.  The land we have – eroded by wind and water – loses one per cent of its soil each year, about 100 times the rate of natural replacement.  If sustained, this erosion would bring our species to its knees.  But the problem can be solved relatively easily by moving towards no-till, in which crop residues protect the soil against the elements.  We need to move rapidly, though: to 100 per cent from less than ten per cent, globally, today.

The limits on phosphorous and potassium are terminal potentially.  They are elements and cannot be made.  There is no substitute for them.  They are vital for the growth of all living things, vegetable or animal (we humans are one per cent phosphorus by body weight).  And these irreplaceable nutrients on which modern agriculture depends are mined and are steadily depleting.  So what will happen when the reserves run out?

The only glimmer of hope would be if the world went organic – nurturing the soil with worms, fungi and complex micro-organisms and avoiding use of pesticides and insecticides.  Organic farming extends critical fertiliser resources many times, perhaps at best approaching the rate of natural replacement from bedrock.  However, organic farming is just one per cent of the agricultural total, and we will, typically, wait for a greater crisis in fertiliser prices before we move.

Finally, global warming’s most reliable consequence is weather extremes – droughts and floods, which have badly hit production, will continue to do so.  Far from being alarmist, scientists have consistently under-predicted the speed of environmental decline, failed to address population growth, and so we slalom our way to hell.  Scientists, with a few brave exceptions, are fearful of being criticised as doom-sayers and exaggerators – a terrible academic crime – even though underestimating, in this case, is far more dangerous and irresponsible.  (Arctic ice-melt is already at levels that, 15 years ago, were predicted for 2050.)

Both population and yield per acre for grains are growing at 1.2 per cent a year.  A stand-off? You bet.  Population growth will slow, but so will productivity as we approach the limits of each grain species.  How, with no safety margin, will we find the extra grain necessary to produce meat for the growing middle class of developing nations when a single pound of dressed beef displaces 30 pounds of grain?

There will be a single painful answer to all of these questions – rationing through price.  We the rich nations can and will be careless with our resources for decades longer, but only at the cost of pushing prices up unnecessarily fast and thereby inadvertently forcing the poor into malnutrition and outright starvation.  A typical developed country now spends ten per cent of its income on food; Egypt spends 40 per cent.  You can see easily that, if food prices triple again in the next 30 years as they did in the past ten, the numbers will not compute.  A growth-reducing and lifestyle-eroding irritant for us will become life and death for them.

Greater income equality in such countries and better education, especially for women, would help lower population growth and increase productivity.  Less corruption and more efficient distribution of the food available, especially in India, would buy decades of time.  But this is who we are: a species given to corruption, incompetence and self-interest.  Capitalism sucks because it believes that its remit is exclusively to make maximum short-term profits – come hell or high water.

We could solve all our problems if only we were the efficient, rational human beings of standard economic theory and had politicians willing to think in the long-term interest of their people rather than their own.  Perhaps later, as the crisis grows, as failing states threaten to destabilise global politics (resource pricing already played its part in the Arab spring) and China throws its increasing weight around in its correctly perceived great need for more resources, the developed world will act with resolve, as the US, the UK and others did so well in the World War II.  We must hope so.

Fortress North America with (per capita) five times the water and seven times the arable land of China, has the capability and willingness to ignore this global problem for now.  Yet eventually it, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming into world turmoil – just as it feared would happen in the 1930s – and share the pain.

In the meantime, countries such as Egypt, with surging populations, escalating food import bills and widening trade deficits, cannot afford to feed their people.  Who will do it for them? We rich countries cannot even make the tough political decisions required to keep our own resource prices down, let alone worry about others.  This attitude is epitomised by the use of one-third of the US corn crop (the world’s biggest) for desperately inefficient ethanol production as a subsidy for already rich farmers.  To fill a 4×4’s tank once would displace enough maize to feed one Indian farmer for a year.  One day, this will be seen as the moral equivalent of shooting some of the world’s poorest people, but more painful.

Closing Down Sale - Everything Must Go

27 Responses

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  1. The following video is quite a few years old now, and excuse the length, but the message is timeless. It brings into sharp focus how ridiculous the concept of sustainable growth is and demonstrates how little those who spruke it understand simple arithmetic. I use this video in my lectures to science students to help them grasp the concept of exponentiality so that when they read about growth in various sectors e.g. energy, population, pollution, they can fully understand and critically evaluate what it is they are reading.


    4 March 2013 at 00:19

    • OK, I admit it, then, the term “sustainable growth” was not invented last June! Thanks for the education.

      Martin Lack

      4 March 2013 at 11:09

  2. It may have been long at 1800 words, but Mr. Reeves’ article hit every scary nail on the head. We are doing ourselves a disservice by not addressing the fact that the way we are running the world IS the problem.

    Thank you for this info Martin.


    4 March 2013 at 00:31

    • If you enjoyed this article, I hope you followed the link back to his 2011 article about South America.

      Martin Lack

      4 March 2013 at 11:10

  3. To fill a 4×4′s tank once would displace enough maize to feed one Indian farmer for a year. One day, this will be seen as the moral equivalent of shooting some of the world’s poorest people, but more painful.

    And whose bright idea was that then?

    Not us AGW sceptics, that’s for sure.

    I believe your posterboy Fat Al Gore is one of the prime movers in the catastrophic bio-ethanol fiasco. Made some few millions of dollars out of it too, as I recollect.

    Add to that the tens of thousands of British pensioners who will die this winter as a direct result of the increased price of power due to your Green tariffs, can you see why some of us don’t believe you Greens are half as virtuous as you try to make out?

    No, of course you can’t. That would involve possessing a modicum of self-awareness, a property you sadly lack.



    4 March 2013 at 02:02

    • Who’s bright idea? I understand the first biodiesel was created in the mid 19th century by a scientist called Duffy who manged to transesterify a vegetable oil, long before the first diesel engine was invented. The first vehicle to run on biodiesel was Rudolf Diesel’s contraption, which was a long iron cylinder with a flywheel at the bottom. This was in 1893. I’m fairly confident that he,like modern day “skeptics” was pretty ignorant of climate change.


      4 March 2013 at 04:54

    • As uknowispeaksense has told you, or implied at least, Biodiesel was actually invented by someone who wanted to break the monopoly of oil companies. Sadly, instead, the oil companies pushed him overboard on a ship between Germany and Britain and then created a hydrocarbon fuel that would work in his engine.

      Blaming climate change mitigation for deaths being caused by anthropogenic climate disruption is pure reality inversion. Furthermore, given the long-term selective blindness required for humans to continue to pursue 19th Century fuel use at least 60 years after the problems it was causing were well understood, it is utterly ridiculous for you to suggest I lack self-awareness.

      Welcome back, BTW. I hope you liked the rebuttals I inserted into the last comment you made on my blog.

      Martin Lack

      4 March 2013 at 11:28

      • Don’t be disingenuous.

        We weren’t discussing biodiesel, were we? We were discussing the bio-ethanol catastrophe, which is a Green scam – as you are well aware.

        And Rudolf Diesel didn’t use any form of processed fuel, he used straight peanut oil.

        And as it happens, I run my Mercedes diesel on filtered but otherwise unaltered cooking oil, no need to mess about with caustic soda and methanol if you run a proper diesel engine in the first place.

        As to my reference to the plight of pensioners suffering and dying from fuel poverty, my point still stands. No surprise that you, with your grandiose visions of “saving the World” have no sympathy for the little people, the Left’s 200,000,000 bodycount in the 20th century is all the evidence we need of that.


        4 March 2013 at 14:00

        • I think you need to watch the Josh Tickell documnetary, Fuel, which highlights the fact that much of the anti-biofuels hysteria was/is actually whipped-up by the fossil fuel industry itself. That said, however, I am as much against poor people being made to grow things they cannot eat as I hope you are.

          Apart from that, I can only, once again, point out to you that I am not anti-Capitalist, I am just pro-environment. Despite the best efforts of English graduates like James Delingpole to brainwash people into thinking that all environmentalists are socialists; this has about as much credibility as Andrew Montford’s assertion that the UN/WMO/IPPC is an organ of wannabe worldwide Socialist government.

          Martin Lack

          4 March 2013 at 14:18

        • The points you make are hollow – similar to “vegetarians are bad because Hitler was one”, or “Nazis were Green because they held the Earth sacred” (but wanted to clear out Poland to create the Volks – the primal forest). Biofuels [and the biggest is firewood and that has limitations] are part of capitalism. It is also connected to the vast amounts of surplus corn in the US, which is not so surplus now.

          But citing pensioners and fuel poverty is a bankrupt argument – if you care you would support better insulation projects or increased benefits – but even when fossil fuels were cheap and abundant their were plenty of deaths in the UK from cold. And gas and fossil fuels are not increasing in price because of ‘green’ energy. It costs you more now than 2005 which was the cheapest year of fuel [adjusted] to fill one tank and as it happens that was the peak.

          Go into denial if you like but you fool only yourself.


          4 March 2013 at 15:59

  4. Well, OK. I will not say it’s well known, but it is. It bears repeating, right.

    BUT the message of [Mr Reeves] is hindered by a number of things. As the naive skeptic [Catweazle] himself points out, the ethanol from corn idea came from [Al Gore] (himself a sad spectacle of hypocrisy unhinged).

    Mr. Reeves makes a silly attack against capital. Of course, I know what he WANTS to say, but the fact is it comes out as incoherent babble: We want to husband the capital of the planet. What destroys it right now is welfare for plutocrats, a different thing entirely… “Capital” is not bad, far from it. Earth is our common capital, civilization is pretty much the integral of capital in many dimensions. We want a free market, source of innovation. It has to be steered by price signal, so let’s make all resources we want to use sparingly expensive… When we still can!

    Patrice Ayme

    4 March 2013 at 02:57

    • No it wasn’t Gore. You’re out by much more than a century. See my response to catweazle.


      4 March 2013 at 04:55

      • You don’t understand the difference between biodiesel and bio-ethanol, do you?


        4 March 2013 at 14:03

        • Apologies, my eyes tend to glaze over sometimes when I’m reading bullshit. Bio-ethanol was first produced in 1935 in brazil as an E5 blend, but they didn’t really get stuck into it until the mid 70’s and it wasn’t being done as a green scheme but as a way to save money. Either way, it wasn’t Al Gore. You guys love using him as some sort of posterboy for the AGW side of the fake debate. I should probably watch that movie he made one day…what was it called?


          4 March 2013 at 14:19

    • Thanks Patrice. Since you had intended it to be one comment, I took the liberty of splicing the two comments together and trashing the duplicated bit.

      Martin Lack

      4 March 2013 at 11:37

  5. Martin- funny you mention China’s consumption- I noticed how the coal ‘reserves’ will provide China with plenty of dirty growth for decades yet I find it curious they need to import so much coal. It’s supposedly because they are restricting dangerous little domestic mines! Like the Chinese government cared about workers health(?) It reminds me of Iran, which keeps claiming they have loads of oil; and yet its decline in productions looks like a classic Hubbert curve. On top of all of this, we have the rising middle classes of ‘developing nations’; once we kept them in poverty and now they demand more of their resources: Saudi Arabia, as an example, is consuming more and more of their own oil; the RED Queen Race is on.

    I think their is a lot of lying going on – the truth is hidden from the people because there will be riots if a golden future is not on offer. The carrot is imagined and, as such, the decline [in my opinion] will be sudden. Lehman suddenly collapsed along with the whole structure. And just like companies hiding their losses and getting more and more into debt and deception nations are doing the same. I admit it is a hunch but I think it might be worth looking back at records of consumption and reserves.

    I don’t think it will be a ‘mad max apocalypse’ but a slow terminal decline. I want the the UK to invest in a sustainable future and not kid ourselves that what we had is what we can reclaim. And as a greeny socialist [a real proud watermelon], I do think we need to look at cutting benefits and taking care about immigration [although the further we slip down the less people will want to come here]. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people to come here and be in poverty, I don’t want to cut for the sake of cutting.

    A healthy nation who doesn’t eat junk food will mean we could cut the NHS bill in 20 years time, and likewise spending the fortune of benefits on people consuming less will be a good investment.

    Oh- I feel a blog coming on..


    4 March 2013 at 16:16

    • Thanks Jules. Lots to think about in there. I agree with your conclusions about governments lying to themselves and their peoples; in the Middle East I think it is endemic.

      I must confess that I probably am anti-Capitalist; but only in the sense that I am anti-ecocide. Therefore rather than a watermelon, I think of myself as a kiwi fruit. Furthermore, I think I have more of a problem with liberalism than I do with socialism. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by your opposition to profligate welfare spending (and pleased to hear it too). This is because the worst aspect of Socialism is its tendency to tax people far too heavily and then waste all the money. The UK government of 1997-2010 is enough of an experience to guarantee that I will never vote Labour again. However, I am with you all the way on your views about the NHS and healthy eating…

      Martin Lack

      4 March 2013 at 18:09

      • I think my problem with the nanny state is the removal of responsibility. Some of those responsibility is best left to professionals like soldiers and deciding big questions which I am qualified to make a judgement on. We should be responsible if we want the benefits of a secure and liberal state and that includes are health but it also education must be at the top of the list of spending.

        I want to see the waste of resources ended and that include welfare. It would be so much better to be invested in so as to achieve potential rather than merely supported. I have come across unemployed families who feel sky tv is ‘essential’ for the kids or that the latest shoes or phones come before education.

        Recent experience with VSO does make me question aid monies as it seems so much stays in country. All those London wages and rents do not come cheap.

        as for immigration- well I welcome diversity and people who are desperate to come here but in the same way we don’t want criminals or business who are coming to exploit it is the environment we create that should determine the motives of immigration. If we were a hub of sustainability then I am sure we would likely attract people who want that kind of thing.


        4 March 2013 at 19:37

        • I am sorry to hear your recent experience has left you disillusioned with VSO. However, I do sympathise because some charities spend an enormous proportion of their income on salaries and advertising. Tearfund is one of very few charities that I have supported long-term; because they consistently top the charts at the Charities Commission for giving best value for donors’ money.

          Martin Lack

          5 March 2013 at 13:46

        • Best value is a phrase that is open to interpretation, I know going through some charity public accounts they will say that admin is perhaps 15%- fair enough but when they then say 20% is spent say on HIV- for instance- they are also taking into account staff and office costs. If it is a department then it can be legitimately claimed to be going directly to those who need it. There was a report [I need to find the ref] that most- more than half- of donor monies stay in country. The problem with the left is that we avoid dealing with things like immigration- welfare- aid etc because the right spend so much time knocking it and we don’t want to help them.

          The one thing used little in the past and essential for future survival is honesty. Denialists delude themselves and it essential we don’t slip into the same mindset.


          5 March 2013 at 21:03

        • In the case of Tearfund, charitable expenditure is >90% of total expenditure. I believe this is one of the highest figures for any UK charity…

          Martin Lack

          5 March 2013 at 23:20

  6. The final statement caught my attention:

    One day, this will be seen as the moral equivalent of shooting some of the world’s poorest people, but more painful.

    in as much as I have been reading Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World which is written by a historian Mike Davis, worth looking up his Wiki for more context, rather than a climate scientist.

    Reading this book one is made aware, if not already, of the crimes against humanity by the Empire makers of the nineteenth century. Given your ‘200,000,000‘ figure in a comment above catweazle666, a comment which you need to provide back up for, you should give that book a read.

    Lionel A

    4 March 2013 at 17:59

  7. […] so impressed by the ‘Growth Delusion’ article by Nick Reeves (published on this blog on Monday), that I decided to bring it to the attention of members of my extended family and to one person in […]

  8. Here’s an interesting take….


    7 March 2013 at 00:41

  9. […] I re-published an article written by the Executive Director of CIWEM, Nick Reeves, highlighting the modern delusion that perpetual growth can be sustainable. – On Wednesday, I published a summary of a conversation with a technological optimist who […]

  10. […] more than a month later, I was quoting Nick Reeves again, this time on the insanity of believing oil shale gas is, can, or should be the solution to our energy […]

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