In a comment to my “Just a little thought” (12 December) Arthur Cordell suggests I googled Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) for someone with some insights to offer. What concerned him greatly was the prospect of running out of natural resources and of the general degradation of the earth under the weight of population and economic growth. He was also the mentor of Herman Daly. Between them, they supplied much of the theoretical foundation for the green movement.
In principle, Georgescu-Roegen, Daly and the green movement generally are correct. A finite earth cannot possible support continuing economic growth. There must come an inevitable point when growth has to stop –when countervailing restraints become too powerful. Otherwise known as the Law of Least Effort, this was a principle long intuited by thinkers and, in fact. a derivative of the law of thermodynamics.
As for the shortage of resources which Georgescu-Roegen thought would cause collapse of our present economic system, he lived a bit too soon to realise the enormous potential of organic chemistry — the activities of molecules that are based on carbon. The effects of these varied and stupendous. A cubic centimetre of DNA can contain thousands more data than an electronic chip. Spiders’ web material can be many times stronger than steel. Graphene (pure carbon) can conduct electricity far better than copper.
All these new superior materials are already being deeply researched and will be developed in the next few years, based on synthetic DNA. We won’t need the intensive type of energy that is presently required for steel and copper production. Whereas someone in 1780 might have been able to make a good stab as to what might be going on in 1880, nobody in 2015 today would have the remotest idea of what sort of economy we’ll be into in 2115 — at least some of the advanced countries — those that continue with a high level of scientific research into biology.
As for the size of this new carbon-based economy we cannot have the faintest idea. Since we don’t know where the present metals-based economy is going in size — dallying as it’s doing for now — we’ll have even less with the new one with a far larger repertoire of materials and a more complex set of constraints.