Sustained economic growth in 21st Century ‘impossible on finite planet’

A theory disparaged by experts when first presented in the 1970s is resurfacing as economists question if the world can sustain the current speed of development.

Resource and environmental limitations are just two key reasons why worldwide economic growth may be unsustainable over the next 80 years. A growing number of experts are again pointing to a previously discredited book, The Limits To Growth, which warns the finite nature of Earth means humanity must slow down or face almost certain doom. 

The publication originally turned heads in 1972, now 50 years on University of California San Diego Professor of Physics, Thomas Murphy, is among the voices suggesting our current trajectory cannot continue for much longer, and criticising policymakers for not heeding the half-century-old warning when it first materialised. 

‘This is something not enough people are paying attention to,’ said Murphy, who this week published an assessment of the situation in the journal Nature Physics. ‘What does life look like after resource depletion? What actions can we take now to mitigate the worst outcomes – and how do we get people to take this seriously?

‘In the past, the Earth was able to accommodate our increasing resource demands,’ he continued. ‘But remember, the Earth has never hosted 8 billion humans before, all of us pursuing increased consumption demands. We cannot base projections for future resources on the past. This is uncharted territory.’

Murphy, who has written a book on the topic, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, used a mathematical equation based on average increases in global energy consumption to calculate projected demands. Based on this, within 400 years total solar power incidence on Earth would be exceeded, while in 1,300 years from now energy needs would outstrip the entire output of the Sun in all directions. 

Meanwhile, waste heat levels also paint a grim picture. Within 400 years terrestrial conditions would be so severely impacted by total energy use on Earth that temperatures would sit at around 100C, the boiling point of water. As Murphy explained, the solution is to consider the current rate of economic growth as ‘a phase’, and begin focusing on ‘the issue of reallocating present resources more equitably’ and switching to less energy intensive economic models. 

‘We need to change our relationship with the planet. We need the humility to accept that we do not own the Earth. But how do you convince somebody of something that’s never happened before, lies in the future and requires sacrifice? I hope that we can plant some seeds soon that will lead to wiser decisions down the road,’ he said. 

In May, Environment Journal published an opinion piece on the need to abandon GDP measures of economic success in favour of those more suited to an era in which sustainability, health, wellness, and the environment should take precedence. 


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