The African elephant and the rhinoceros are giving us a nudge

Various world bodies are now estimating the post-2008 world economic growth rate at about 1.5% p.a. of GDP — and that mostly due to China’s exports and imports. Indeed, it might become lower still if China’s rate of exports continues to abate.

Before 2008, and since the end of World War 2, growth rate was about 3% briefly touching 4% sometimes. Previously, during the latter years of the 19th century, world growth was about 4% p.a. briefly touching 5% or 6% sometimes. Before the industrial revolution, and for thousands of years before then, world economic growth was barely 0.5% at the very most, even then only spasmodically during the peak years of previously ‘high’ civilizations.

The present impasse in world trade since the 2008 Credit Crunch has been going on now for seven years. Many economists –apart from those employed by governments or central banks who have career interests — think that it might go on for another ten years, and some think it might be twenty — or more.

Could it be that world economic activity is already close to the steady state implied by the laws of thermodynamics — in particular, the law of least effort? It could be. In other words, was the industrial revolution a flash in the pan historically? In order to resume the rate of economic growth and establish the higher activity that most governments are looking for, then energy inputs would have to be raised two or three times higher than now.

Is this at all possible? Unlikely it seems to me without running into huge problems in the natural environment — degradations that we are only just becoming aware of because of our deepening knowledge of science. Besides, whether increased man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a cause of global warming or whether it is yet another symptom of waste heat generated by any energy technology — whether fossil fuel, ‘renewable’ or nuclear — is a moot point yet to be decided.

Now that there are now no new consumer goods to be discovered then, if we are to maintain roughly the same level of energy inputs, the standard of living of the whole world could be gradually raised if energy use could be better conserved. There’s a lot more scope for that.

Also by far, because scientific-man will continue to make breakthrough discoveries for as far into the future as we can foresee, we’ll also be able to greatly improve the energy efficiency of our production machines — probably in my view with the development of carbon-based materials made by DNA-based techniques — but otherwise just by improved automation from generation to generation.

Now that we face the prospect of the extinction of the African elephant and the rhinoceros and thousands more species, the earth deserves a break. The present post-2008 impasse and the possibility of a steady-state world economy might be telling us that the inviolable laws of thermodynamics are now working in the earth’s — and our — favour when thinking of survival over the longer term.

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