Friday, February 10, 2012

There are No Limits to Growth Anytime Soon: A Critical Analysis of One Anti-Growth Proponent Robert Ayres

Be wary of anybody who tells you:
“There are limits to growth because we live on a finite planet”
“Growth is an addiction” 
“A steady-state economy is good and preferable to a growing economy”
“Zero percent interest rates will grow the economy

We don’t have an energy crisis. Our current problems have nothing to do with a lack of energy or exergy…there’s plenty of both for the next billion or so years. Our main problem is a lack of growth. (Which was in part due to high energy prices, but also due to the fact that we don't have an energy/electricity backed currency to encourage us to save/invest more when energy prices start rising.)
In fact, in the US, Japan, Canada & the E.U. over the last decade, we’ve had essentially zero growth…and that’s a problem. You can call it an investment crisis…we don’t spend enough on those things that yields positive return on investment, and we spend too much on those things with negative return on investment. I think that 5%/yr real growth is the bar that we should try to meet and then exceed.
So, in this post, I want to discuss some quotes from an influential proponent of the anti-growth agenda who happens to be very well versed in thermodynamics: Robert U. Ayres, a professor in France right now, but formerly at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Engineering & Public Policy. (Ironically, the hard work of Andrew Carnegie a hundred years ago helped support an anti-growth professor like Ayres.)
Here’s a quick list of just a few of the major anti-growth advocates [Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren, John Kenneth Galbraith, and E. J. Mishan]. I listed a few more anti-growth philosophers in my post reviewing the book  The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. In this post I want to focus on Robert U. Ayres, a professor who has written many articles and books on thermodynamics and economics because in some ways he looks at things nearly the same as I do, but yet we come to such different conclusions on the goal of life. In some ways, Robert Ayres gets it.  In many of his articles, he points out that we should be measuring the wealth of a nation based on its yearly generation of “Useful Work.” (i.e. Mechanical & Electrical Power) He understands the fundamental relationship between the generation of wealth and the generation of work. Wealth is the capability to do work.   (This requires capital… power plants…and it requires a source of exergy… fuel.) Some of the work generated by power plants must go back into building more capital (to replace aging equipment and to grow), some of the work generated must go into bringing the fuel to the power plant, and then the remaining work can go towards human needs, wants and desires.
However, Robert Ayres is also one the largest proponents of an anti-growth philosophy. This is something that I find so mind boggling. How can somebody get it at so many levels, but then totally miss the boat? (There are a lot of people who fall into this camp. I encourage you to read their works, but be wary of their anti-growth philosophy, hidden under the disguise of thermodynamics and entropy minimization, especially David Sanborn Scott or Adrian Bejan.) My goal in the rest of this post is to quote Ayres and point out some of his most ridiculous statements regarding growth, and then to discuss why Ayres misses the boat so completely.

 “On the contrary, the declining birthrate is more hopeful than worrisome.”

This is a scary statement…and one that I unfortunately hear way too often from colleagues. Progress can only be measured by the amount of work generated by living creatures and by their power plants. Declining birthrates by themselves might not be bad, if people are living longer and are more productive at generating work, but I would never state that declining birthrates is good and/or hopeful. The goal of life is to grow, so we need to figure out how to a) get birth-rates up in Europe/Japan, b) extend life expectancy, and c) improve productivity across the globe. There are plenty of resources on this planet and on other planets to support a growing population of living species (human and other) so there is no need to enforce population control. (Remember, one way to get a lot more food production is to just end ethanol/biodiesel subsidies in the US, Brazil, & E.U. Another way is to fund more research into growing algae in desert climates as a food source, not a fuel source. A third way to get more food production is to use coal as source of humic acid, which can be used to regenerate soil that has been degraded. There's a lot of ways of growing life on Earth; the question whether we all have the courage and the fortitude to help grow life.)
“However, the fact that economic growth depends so much on growth itself is very worrying indeed. In effect, growth is as addictive to Western society as cocaine and nicotine are to individuals.”

This is an absurd statement to make. In fact, it’s downright silly. Try telling a bacteria or a bobcat that it’s addicted to growth.   “Hey you, bobcat…you’re addicted to growth…so stop growing and stop making baby bobcats. You should stop making bobcats because they are consuming all of the Earth's finite resources and they are producing carbon dioxide.” Why is it okay to tell humans that they are addicted to growth?  Would Robert Ayres ever tell any other animal species that it’s addicted to growth?  (I highly doubt that.) The goal of a bacteria is to grow, just as the goal of a human is to make more humans, and the purpose of a power plant is to make more power plants. (...really the power plant is part of the human system that allows for more humans…so this last statement of mine is purposely over-the-top…just to emphasize the point that a power plant is not here to make us happy, but to help make more of us and help us live longer, more productive lives.)
This doesn’t have to be a soul-deadened thought. Wanting growth doesn’t make you, in the words of Radiohead, “a pig in a cage on antibiotics.” Most of what Radiohead rages against is a soul-deadening world in which our ego and our judging and our competition makes us so unbearable to be around that we fail to either live life to its fullest or we lose our ability to listen to other people. There are plenty of ways to be pro-growth without losing your soul…and by soul, here, I mean a) your ability to listen to people of differing opinions, b) your willingness to help other people, c) your ability to sympathize with other people, and d) your ability to appreciate beauty. You can’t build an economy without trust, and you can’t build trust without a soul. You also can’t build an economy without ego, so there’s got to be a balance between ego and soul. What’s the right balance? Only history can give us a clue as to what’s worked and what’s failed.  Good examples would be:  Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Alva Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, James Watt, Henry Ford, and many others in other fields.

“Darwin's  work in biology presented a clear and convincing story of evolution of  living systems towards ever-increasing complexity and  structure or organization,  at  least  on the  Earth' s surface, culminating in  the development of the  human  brain… Unfortunately, there is a tendency to circularity in Darwin’s  theory, since "fitness" can probably only be  defined in terms of ability to survive.”

Why does Ayres use the word “unfortunately” here? Instead, I say, “Jump into circular, self-referential nature of evolution.” Darwin’s theory of evolution can be summed up as follows, “The amount of available resources available for conversion is often limited. In such as situation, a species can survive by either a) moving to a new habitat, b) destroying competitors to the food source, or c) evolving new metabolisms so as to survive off of a different source of potential energy. [Note that this last form of evolution has been demonstrated in the lab…where bacteria have evolved new metabolisms during the course of a multi-year experiment. In Richard Lenski's study using E.Coli, he and his team of researchers supplied a group of bacteria two potential sources of chemical energy (glucose and citric acid), but the bacteria initially only had the genes to metabolize glucose. During the course of the experiment, the bacteria evolved the capability to metabolize citric acid, perhaps because the glucose was always being used consumed to completion. This is groundbreaking research that proves the basic tenets of evolution, and it should give us great optimism knowing that life has the capability to evolve so that it can grow off of new sources of energy.]
But remember that the sources of chemical energy are not always limited (as in the experiment mentioned above where glucose was limited.) For example, there are abundant sources of exergy on the Earth that can be converted into work  using existing technologies, and the amount of exergy available increases as we develop/evolve new technologies. But it’s also important to remember that the goal of life is not to make more complicated structures or higher levels of organization…these just happen to be by-products of species who have found successful ways of growing. Higher levels of organization can bring with it economies of scale, but it can also bring with it increased levels of irreversibility, such as increased bureaucracy and distance of travel. Is bigger better or is smaller better? My answer is: it depends on a lot of factors. But right now on Earth, the most successful species as far as the production of useful work are bacteria. It will be a few more decades or centuries before humans and their power plants can generate more useful work than bacteria (if we were to combine all bacteria into a single group and all humans into a group…which is of course arbitrary…the goal of life is for all life to it’s not like we are in some kind of competition with the bacteria…more power to them.)
So to go back to Ayres’ quote, I would respond, “Don’t focus on the complexity of species and don’t focus on meaningless words like 'fitness.' What makes Darwin’s theory of evolution so interesting is that he was probably the first person to realize and to support with evidence the fact that all life forms have descended from some common life form(s), and that we have evolved whenever we have faced challenges to our energy supplies. Things are not stagnant; the times are changing, and we grow as we evolve ways of metabolizing new energy sources.”

“Whereas Lotka's principle suggests that evolution seeks to maximize the ability to process free  energy, it is suggested below[in Ayres’ manuscript] that evolution seeks to maximize the ability to capture exergy and, most important, to convert some of it to morphological information embodied as structure or organization. To the extent that intelligence enhances this ability, evolution seeks to maximize intelligence. Yet the new perspective does not seriously conflict with Lotka's, in as much as capturing exergy also implies processing (i.e., metabolizing) it.”
Even though the Lotka principle (i.e. the maximization of power production) is not an actual law of physics, it does a better job of describing how nature operates than Ayres’s idea of Maximization of Intelligence, i.e. the Maximization of the Storage of Information. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading history, doing math/physics, designing power plants, etc…, but as I’ve done before when disagreeing with Richard Feynman’s philosophy of life, I'd like to emphasize the point that the goal of life is not to generate a bunch of information about the universe and its laws, just for the sake of generating this information. The goal of life is to grow and to consume exergy. The information and the intelligence are important because they helps us consume more exergy. But the information and the intelligence are not important in of themselves. There’s no magic door that opens and teleports you to eternal bliss once you know all of the forces and particles in nature. Some days, when I’m reading papers by physicists or mathematicians, I get the feeling the author secretly believes that something magical will happen once we combine all of the laws of physics into one beautiful equation. And if he or she is that person, then they will receive everlasting praise and bliss. On the other hand, I am not going to hold my breath waiting for a final theory of the universe. Let’s continue to do research in basic physics, but let’s also focus on applying the laws we do know to help us grow. My concern is that many physicists right now seem to be going after the high-hanging fruit with little practical application (such as the Higgs boson and Supersymmetry) while largely ignoring practical applications of physics, such as non-equilibrium thermodynamics and the microscopic cause of irreversibility…which has billions of real world applications. The question is: how do we promote the ‘free-thinking’ in the sciences that generates breakthroughs without creating a situation in which more and more physicists are debating theories that can’t even be tested like String Theory (see the book and blog Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit.)  So, in summary, the storage and the generation of information is not the goal of life…it’s a means to the end, which is growth and reproduction. Only an intelligent species (like us humans) can design robots that can self-replicate on the Moon and Mars. Only an intelligent species (like us humans) can predict when or if a comet is likely to strike to the Earth (and hopefully with enough time to do something about it.) And of the living species on Earth, only an intelligent species (like us humans) has figured out how to use nuclear potential exergy to generate work. Our intelligence is something to be proud of, but we need to check our egos every so often and remember that bacteria still consume more exergy than humans. We’re smart and we’re slowly growing, but we still don’t consume as much exergy as bacteria. This should humble us.

“The underlying notion that living organisms seem to retard the global increase of entropy has been frequently been expressed in the biological literature, e.g., by Johns tone  (1921), Breder  (1942), Needham (1943) and Blum (1955).”
Once again, this is an absurd statement to make, and is not supported by the references that Ayres lists. Photosynthetic life forms converts sunlight into microwave energy. There is a huge amount of entropy generation here. As photosynthetic life grows, it consumes more sunlight, and hence generates more entropy. The idea that life retards the global increase of entropy is silly. There is no scientific basis for such a completely absurd statement. Life consumes exergy, and due to irreversible processes, there is a net overall increase in the entropy of the universe.  If you want to argue that the goal of life is to generate entropy, there is some basis to do so, but there is absolutely no basis for stating that life retards the global increase in entropy. While there are people like Steve Chu who are telling us to paint our rooftops white (and other so called intellectuals like Adrian Bejan who want us to stop generating entropy), I have never seen an example within non-human nature in which an organism went out of its way in order to prevent the generation of entropy that would have occurred by non-living processes. For example, I have never seen a deer purposely kick white snow onto a black asphalt road so that the road would reflect rather than absorb more sunlight. (Now that would be an example a living organism retarding the global increase of entropy…And I’ve never seen it happen other than in humans, which I did today just as proof that there’s no universal law against life forms from retarding the global increase of entropy…I also sat perfectly still for a minute today just to disprove Lotka’s maximum power principle.)  If you have an example of a non-human organism that went out of its way to retard the increase of entropy generation (that would have occurred had it not acted), then please share it with me. I am open to changing my mind on this topic if there is some evidence that life forms actually retard the growth of entropy production. [Note that the evidence I’ve seen suggests that locations with life (such as a jungles) generate more entropy than they would if there were converted to deserts because the jungle operates at a lower temperature…meaning that the flow of entropy out of the jungle (Q/T_jungle) is larger than it would be a desert (Q/T_desert)…for the same amount of input/output energy Q.  My understanding is that, given the same land area and input energy, life generates more entropy than non-life because it can convert the photons to lower energy microwaves than can most non-living processes. More life, generates more entropy. And more life is a good thing.
So, I’d like to wrap up this post by reminding you that you should be wary of anybody (and especially scientists) who tell you:
“There are limits to growth because we live on a finite planet”
There are plenty of sources of exergy on this planet and on other planets. In addition, we have all of the building blocks to build the capital to convert the exergy into useful work. There are no limits to growth in next billion or so years.

“Growth is an addiction”
                Growth is not an addiction. Growth is the goal of life. That’s like saying you’re addicted to breathing…well in that case…I'll admit it...I’m addicted to breathing.

“A steady-state economy is good and preferable to a growing economy.”
A steady-state economy (as many would like us to have…such as Ben Bernanke and his zero percent interest rates) is not a good thing. Would a steady-state economy colonize other planets? Would a steady-state economy have the money to invest into basic physics? What would be the goal of a steady-state economy?  The happiness of those whose parents were luckiness to be allowed to reproduce??? The idea of a steady-state economy makes me sick to hear because it's completely against the goal of life.

While there are probably more people in power right now in the US, Japan, Canada, and E.U. that believe in the steady-state economy rather than a growing economy, I think that this is only a short-term problem. We do have a growth problem in the “West” but I’m pretty confident that we will solve this growth problem (i.e. a lack of real growth in the U.S., Japan, Canada, & E.U.) by changing our philosophical belief system. This will probably take awhile, but I’m hopeful that we all will slowly increase the amount that we save & invest, and slowly decrease the amount that we consume on items with negative unsubsidized return on investment. I won’t go on a rant on all of the things that I think are luxuries because I’d rather focus on those things that are good investments, such as natural gas power plants in the Northeast, municipal-waste-to-natural gas near major cities (with CO2 that there's no air emissions what so ever from the waste-to-natural gas plant), oil/gas development in Wyoming/North Dakota/Northern BC, educating people online, health-care via the internet, video games that also teach you business skills, clothing with flexible organic antennas/computers/energy generator/energy storage,  and on and on til the break of dawn. If you have other good ideas for where to invest and obtain a >7%/yr RROI, please put them in the comment section below.


  1. Hey, Eddie. Thanks for a good laugh. How was the monster truck show? Making any progress on your GDE? Do you suppose anyone takes what you've written here seriously?

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary,
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  2. Let the hate flow through you. Your hate has made you powerful. Give in to your anger...

    Join me and I will teach you the ways of the dark side of the force...mewahaha


    All kidding aside, could you do me a favor and tell me what your philosophy of life is so that I know where you are coming from? I watched a preview of your film and it seems like you are blaming growth on both a loss of biodiversity and poverty in third world countries. It seems like you are treating "growth" as some bogeyman that's out to destroy the world and make everybody poor.
    If you step back, I think that you'll see that the goal of life is to grow, and by life I mean all life. Does that scare you? What do you think is the goal of life?
    Are you against growth in general or are you just against cutting down forests to make way for new shopping malls?
    I'm against cutting down forests just to make new shopping malls. There is such things as smart growth: recycling, waste-to-energy, natural gas combined cycle power plants, hybrid and hybrid-plug-in vehicles, and eventually sending robots to colonize other planets.

    I freely admit to being "hooked on growth," it's just that I disagree with you that it's bad thing.