I know the title sounds like a paradox, but there are
ways to have an economy that maintains a steady state in terms of its
physical consumption, while actually growing. In fact we can even reduce our consumption while growing the economy.
I've divided this into seven parts:
Initially, the most important strategy is to apply efficiency to everything. We waste appalling amounts of energy and materials in everything we do. We can use far less and maintain the same levels of productivity and comfort by simply being more efficient.
Internal combustion engines discard about 60% of their energy as waste heat, even spending more energy pumping water through a heavy water jacket to remove that heat. They have a narrow band of usable torque, requiring heavy gearboxes. Electric vehicles don't require gear systems, differentials, clutch, ignition, cooling, water pump, fuel pump, oil pump, carburetter, water jacket, radiator, and so on. At the moment vehicles are built in the most wasteful ways possible, as huge, heavy metal and glass machines using about 1% of their energy to actually move what is usually a single occupant. Instead, vehicles can be made stronger and lighter with modern carbon-composite plastic bodies, so that they expend far less energy in moving.
Buildings are astonishingly wasteful, being so badly designed and built that they require expensive heating and cooling systems to maintain a comfortable internal climate. We've known about passive heating and cooling systems for thousands of years. Termites have been building their cities using passive regulation techniques for hundreds of millions of years. The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe very successfully copied some of those techniques, using 10% of the energy of a "conventional" building its size, and saving $3.5 million because air conditioning didn't need to be installed.
Properly calculated eaves on homes can allow sunlight in during winter and exclude it during the summer. Careful choice of insulation, coupled with judicious use of materials that have high thermal inertia also make it easier to passively heat and cool. Moving air via convection instead of forcing with fans saves energy. Natural lighting through skylights and reflection, where possible, lessens the need for artificial light. Siting buildings underground, or semi-underground, not only gives thermal efficiency, but allows double use of land, and saves energy and materials because exterior walls and roof no longer need expensive maintenance. Even simple design choices such as clustering all rooms that use water services, especially hot water, can lead to great savings in initial and ongoing costs by eliminating waste, and simplifying any maintenance.
Manufacturing can be made more efficient by such simple techniques as removing right-angle bends in all pipes (reducing losses due to turbulence and drag in the pumped materials), gathering waste heat and re-using it elsewhere, and forcing companies to re-use physical materials where possible by making pollution and rubbish disposal prohibitively expensive. Recycling is a very important part of efficiency.
Telecommuting began with the letter, continued through phone calls, to video conferencing over the net. The more we visit people using such technologies the less energy we waste on unnecessary transport. As robotics comes of age we are beginning to see the first clumsy examples of telepresence, in which a person operates a robot from great distance. This shows great promise.
Efficiency has its limits, but considering we waste around 90% of the energy we consume, and vast amounts of material end up as rubbish, we have a long way to go. Efficiency lets us reduce our consumption of materials and energy without impacting growth in other areas.
We have been quietly growing the non-physical economy for centuries, but recently it has, in some ways, begun matching and exceeding the physical economy in size and power. Because the non-physical economy doesn't necessarily use more physical materials while growing this is a great way to safely redirect much of our capitalist growth-at-all-costs economy.
We can grow information and knowledge without apparent limit and it will contribute to better ways of doing things, including greater efficiency. Entertainment (as ebooks, game virtual worlds, videos, audiobooks, and music) can be created and used entirely electronically. My smartphone doesn't weigh any more or use more electricity whether I have zero or a couple of hundred ebooks on it. Electronic files cost nothing to duplicate (or the cost is so close to nothing that it isn't worth calculating).
I have built genuinely infinite-sized virtual worlds inside a limited desktop computer -- a lovely paradox that has always tickled me. When I write stories, I create, out of nothing, something real -- though it exists only electronically, immaterially. When I draw and paint pictures on my computer, I create an insubstantial thing of light out of nothing.
Information technology can grow without limit while being based upon a slowly growing, or steady-state, or even contracting physical base.
This has already found great use in electronics, letting us all carry highly functional supercomputers in our pockets that use a tiny trickle of electricity. (Compare this with the monsters that took up whole floors of buildings, used many kilowatts of electricity, and required a science and maths degree to operate them.)
Nanotechnology is beginning to produce other marvels, such as surfaces that never need to be cleaned. Tiny laboratory-on-a-chip devices have been built to test quickly and cheaply for various diseases and can also test food safety.
Nanotechnology also lets us use cheap everyday materials to replace rare, expensive ones because it turns out that many of the characteristics of materials can be altered at the nanoscale. We can even make things, such as lasers, out of literally nothing by engineering sub-microscopic holes in materials as "quantum dots". The physical characteristics of ordinary materials change at their surfaces too. Float a sewing needle on the surface of a glass of water to see an example of this. Fibreglass in epoxy is another example. Bullet-proof kevlar vests are another. Stacking many layers of surfaces together can engineer super materials. Some of our hardest ceramics fashioned in high temperature kilns are rivalled by the inside surface of the abalone shell which uses microscopic layers of ordinary chalk and protein, and it is built at room temperature.
Nanotechnology lets us build more while using less physical goods. It lets the economy grow while contracting the use of physical resources. There is likely a limit to miniaturisation, but it is a long way off.
The biological world has developed ways to manufacture an astonishing array of useful materials from the most commonly available elements using absolutely minimal energy. We can use those technologies to improve our wasteful ways.
Our livestock and crops are destroying much of the world, with forests devastated, rivers polluted, arable land losing topsoil, and oceans depleted. Biology can show us ways to reverse each of those problems.
The new industry of vat-grown meat (originally developed from organ culture for surgery) can replace livestock and not only avoid cruelty to animals and the destruction of the natural landscape, but also eliminate the problem of meat-borne diseases.
New varieties of plants can better suit local conditions and increase yields, but we need to be rid of companies like Monsanto that misuse biotech, giving it a bad name.
The brewing industry has thousands of years' experience in harnessing microorganisms to work for us. Many substances are now created more efficiently by microorganisms in vats instead of by industrial chemists. For example algae have been used to create oil from sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Microoorganisms can also be used to mine materials that are at such low concentrations that they make conventional mining methods uneconomic. They're also being used to rehabilitate toxic sites.
The service industries, such as healthcare, tourism, cleaning, legal, home-care, shop assistant, accountant, and so on, don't produce physical goods and need not use more physical resources than they would if their workers were unemployed and at home. In practice they often do, because they travel more, tend to wear special clothes, and can be more wasteful of resources, but this doesn't have to be so. The service sector can use efficiency to grow and take over more of the conventional economy without using additional physical resources and energy.
Cities are often thought of as great sources of waste, but this is only because pollution becomes more visible when concentrated. In fact cities are much more efficient than rural settlements. Supply of goods and services, and use of energy are much more effective over the close distances between people in cities. People in cities tend to view the natural world with nostalgia and push for laws to conserve it in national parks and reserves, whereas people in rural settings tend to see animals and plants as enemies to be eliminated, and often don't notice the slow degradation of their environment. Encouraging people into cities leaves more land to be released back to nature. Concentrating on efficiency in cities delivers much more bang for the buck.
This is a very important topic that I'll only touch on here. We stand at the brink of a new technology that can change everything. Already AI has been used to bring about unexpected efficiencies in things from data centre operation to vehicle design.
AI can help with all aspects mentioned earlier in this article, by enhancing efficiency, assisting in the growth of knowledge and entertainment, improving miniaturisation, and helping us find and design better biological solutions. Many of us already use AI as the personal assistants in our smartphones, and when performing online searches. It will become even more important as population growth continues to slow (as it has been doing since the mid-1960s), because the greater preponderance of older people will need ever more help from declining numbers of young people. AI will increasingly provide that help.
It seems likely that most jobs will eventually be made redundant by AI, beginning with transport which can already be performed more safely and more fuel-efficiently by AI. Unlike previous industrial revolutions, AI is encroaching upon more highly paid jobs, and is expected to gradually replace much of the white-collar workforce. This will create disruption, but will also deliver enormous efficiencies in energy and resource use. It could also herald a new age of leisure and equality... or it could create a new underclass and widespread dispossession. We get to choose.
So... there are a few ways we can maintain a steady-state, or even a contracting, physical economy while still growing the wider economy without limit. This is much easier to sell to business people instead of simply making them think they will be held back or hemmed in.2017-12-25