Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: The End of Growth

Review: The End of Growth
Author: Richard Heinberg
Published Date: Sept. 2011

  Infinite growth is an infrequently employed practice over the long term: cancer, black holes, and 21st century economists are the only subscribers that come to my mind.  The End of Growth addresses the economists specifically not by locking horns and declaring their models inaccurate, but by simply walking through the consequences should our society continue to follow their proscriptions. 

  The central insight is that the temporary bout of exponential growth humanity has been experiencing for the last 100 years has been made possible by cheap, hydrocarbon based energy.  Because of limited resources, and the environmental impact we've created so far, this growth cannot continue.  We are already reaching the point where less coal and oil of lesser quality is available at a increasingly high cost of extraction.  It is further stipulates that our debt based economy has vaulted off the tail end of the energy boom in an attempt to continue simulating infinite growth.  We are now at the unhappy nexus of "peak debt" as well as peak oil, peak water, peak rare earth metals, etc.  This doesn't make for a gloomy read though; the book is filled with ideas and examples on how humanity can transition to a steady state economy and culture.

  I agree with The End of Growth in that technology and innovation will not be able to save us from the pain inherent in the transition to steady state.  My response to the Rational Optimists is that there is diminishing returns and higher costs for every subsequent technology advance.  When the work of a whole office floor's worth of accountants could be done by one PC in the same time, the cost of accounting departments shrank greatly.  What is the next step? Were the efficiency gains as great?  Since the cost will never be zero, and each processor innovation will cost more, there does exist a point where innovation and technology just can't make much more of a difference.

  The End of Growth is a well cited book full of data and further readings.  His neutral tone achieves the commendable ideal of learning objectively from any source, regardless of that sources popular associations on the political spectrum.  I'd recommend this book to anyone and everyone.