The Limits of Efficiency

A few months ago I wrote about the myth of decoupling – how you cannot separate economic growth from environmental impact. I touched on a topic in that post that is critical to the argument against continued economic growth: the limits of efficiency and the physical constraints of thermodynamics on the economy. That post received a lot of good feedback, as well as a few requests to talk about efficiency limits in more detail.

Neoclassical Arguments Defy Natural Laws

Gravity is a basic law of our existence. To hear someone claim that gravity is a myth would be astounding. A large group of people believing such a claim would be even more ridiculous (sounds like climate change deniers, actually). Yet, anyone trumpeting infinite economic growth does just that: makes a claim that violates basic laws of nature.

You might be asking yourself how I can make such an accusation when we are obviously still growing as an economy. Well, sure we are, but this is actually uneconomic growth, false growth, and debt-driven growth. All that debt is expanding while our natural resources do not – which spells C-O-L-L-A-P-S-E, if you’re curious.

The most common argument for economic growth continuing indefinitely without undermining the environment is “technological progress.” This really means technological efficiency, or our ability to do more with less and less. Neoclassical economists, policy makers, politicians, and even the average citizen today all believe technology will save us in the end. The thought is that we’ll move to an “information economy” or to a “space economy” and produce growth by using less resources.

The basic claim is we will continue to make leaps in technological progress that will maintain economic growth at the same level of ecological impact (resource use, waste, etc). We can make more today with less material per unit and less energy per unit than we could two decades ago. However, as a pointed out in my earlier post, this relative decoupling is weak in comparison to the growth of the economy as a whole. That is besides the point. The matter at hand is efficiency.

We can get better and better at production only to a certain point. Efficiency cannot improve infinitely, therefore the economy cannot rely on it for infinite growth. Period.

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