On limits

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

Stein’s law

There are, it seems to me, two kinds of people in this world: those for whom Stein’s Law is self-evidently true, and those for whom it is not. I don’t think the second group can really be all that numerous, even though as a species we are specialists in denial. But the majority of people fall into a third category, those who might be prepared to admit the truth of it in theory but refuse to apply it in practice.

Take economists. It is simply assumed that economic growth is normal and indeed inevitable; it is the default state of things, and if for some reason economic growth slows down, or heaven forfend goes into reverse, then this is a problem and someone ought to do something. This is because mainstream economics assumes that there are no physical or other limits to growth.

Partly this is because it’s easy to suppose that any really big number is more or less the same as infinity, even though of course it isn’t. A lot of the time you can get away with this, and in any case most people have a really poor intuition about really big numbers. If an oil company were to announce the discovery of a new field with three billion barrels of the black stuff, you might be impressed; if instead they said they’d found enough to fuel the world for about a month, possibly less so.

But there’s a deeper reason, I suspect. There is a well-known line, often but apparently wrongly attributed to Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I first came across it as the slogan of the software company Adobe. It sounds great, but of course it isn’t true (especially if you’re trying to do it with tools from Adobe, but maybe I’m just bitter). I’ve had dreams in which I can fly, for instance; lots of people do. That doesn’t mean that flinging myself off a cliff is likely to end well for me.

It isn’t true, but we want to believe it. We want so desperately to believe it that we will swallow almost anything if it means we get to have our dream. EVs are the poster child for this. There are any number of reasons why it is not physically possible to replace the current vehicle fleet with electric vehicles, but we are so fixated on the dream of leaping into a car and driving off into the great beyond that we will never accept those reasons until we absolutely have to. This despite the fact that we all know that 99% of actual motoring bears no similarity to the dream. There are no car commercials that show the product sitting in a queue on the Hanger Lane gyratory system.

Our inability to let go of the dreams of freedom symbolised by the private car is going to end up costing us a lot more than dreams if we aren’t careful. An immense amount of damage is already being done to the world in order to satisfy our hunger for electronic gizmos of all sorts. We manage to ignore this, because it might make us uncomfortable, and the ugly stuff is mostly happening in poor countries a long way away, and so we can.

This is a lithium mine. Isn’t green energy marvellous?

We even manage to lie to ourselves about our motives. We aren’t moving in this direction because we want to “stop” (at best mitigate) climate change. The fact is, it won’t have that effect, and on some level I suspect many people know it. We are going down this route because fossil fuels are getting less abundant and harder to extract, which has the side-effect of making them more expensive.

Germany has invested massively in renewable energy sources. Now that cheap natural gas from Russia is no longer available, Germany is screwed. Of course everyone blames the evil Putin for exploiting the laws of physics, but he didn’t put them there in the first place. We have been extracting fossil fuels from the planet like crazy for over a century, and the high-quality, easy-to-access stuff has mostly gone. This is why we are reduced to fracking and cooking sludge to get more and more of our fuel. It’s been known pretty much since forever that we would reach this point; the petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert was even putting tentative dates on it as far back as 1956. (His numbers have actually held up pretty well.)

The same applies to every other non-renewable resource too, including of course lithium. Again, this has been known about and studied for a long time. The original Limits to Growth report came out back in 1972, and subsequent updates have tended to validate its findings. There’s nothing in the least surprising about any of this. It’s infant-school stuff. If I have five apples and I give you two, how many apples do I have left? The answer is not infinity.

Not having access to an infinite supply of apples may be inconvenient. Not having access to abundant cheap fossil fuels is going to put a major spanner in the works, because it undermines everything, from how we eat to how we move ourselves and goods around to how we communicate. We’re so used to having that around that we’ve come to take it for granted. It’s become hard-wired into our understanding of how the universe works.

It turns out that is not, in fact, a natural law that electricity simply flows from your wall-socket whenever you want it to. Nor is it a natural law that you shall have your own private vehicle to take you wherever you please, even if that involves navigating the Hanger Lane gyratory system. When so august a body as the United Nations claims that internet access is a basic human right, it’s clear that something is seriously out of whack. After all, no electricity, no internet – using carrier pigeons isn’t really going to cut it.

Railing against limits will not make them go away. Limits are actually valuable from a creative point of view, which is why poets down the ages have come up with all sorts of complicated verse-forms. Working within constraints can paradoxically be easier than working without them. Writing a good sonnet is much simpler than writing good vers libre, if only because after fourteen lines you know it’s time to stop.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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