The Physical Limits to Society’s Progress

Michael EdesessOur immense progress in improving society’s standard of living over the last several centuries was possible because of advances in the discovery and production of energy. To assume that will continue is a grave error.

At the heart of the question of how our civilization can sustain its economic growth in the long run lies a paradox: (1) To sustain modern civilization and the economy and make the necessary energy transition away from finite carbon-emitting energy we will have to mine gigantic, unprecedented quantities of ores from the earth and transform them into useful material products; (2) our efficiency in doing so has increased enormously in past decades due to continuing innovation, and could continue to increase in the future, and we could even use more and more recycled materials; (3) but to do all of that will require monumentally increased quantities of energy.

Thus, to propel the energy transition necessary for a sustainable future we will have to use much, much more energy. Do we really have a good sense of how much energy will be required and of what kinds, and where we will get it? Will we be able to do it?

The material world is 90% of the iceberg

Almost all the attention these days goes to the “immaterial” or intangible world: the digital world, the world of computers, of finance, of artificial intelligence. It even makes up the largest percentage of the economy, of GDP.