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The wrong way

By John Coulter - posted Monday, 2 September 2013

As science warns of impediments to business as usual (BAU) both major parties seem oblivious or uncaring about these warnings. Nor does the main-stream media pay much attention and rarely draws conclusions from these warnings that bear on the imminent federal election.

An appropriate label for the election coverage would be the traffic sign on many freeway interchanges 'Go Back You are going the Wrong Way'.

Energy (joules and kilowatt hours) is what drives the human enterprise. It is not money. Without an energy flow nothing changes. About eighty per cent of global energy is presently derived from fossil fuels. Humanity exploits these energy sources in exponentially increasing amounts. But the higher grades and more easily accessed of these resources are rapidly being exhausted. The harder to get deposits require more energy to obtain and to use. We are rapidly approaching a time when the energy costs of getting energy will greatly reduce the availability of this one resource that makes all other resources available.


The fundamental flaw in the thinking of both main party leaders is their failure to understand the impact of exponential growth occurring on a finite planet. Both continue to link Australia's future to the continual growth of the Chinese economy. This is growing at 7% pa which means that it will double in size in just ten years. A most important but little recognised characteristic of exponential growth is that within each doubling period more resources are consumed than in all previous history.

Both Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott will try to achieve a growth rate for the Australian economy of 3%. If achieved the Australian economy would be twice as large 23 years from now and in that 23 years more resource would flow through the economy than in all previous history. Most other countries will try to achieve similar growth. These enormous demands on a finite planet cannot and will not be met.

Humanity is not living environmentally sustainably now, either globally or within Australia. Emerging energy constraints make it certain that these exponentially increasing demands on planet Earth cannot be met and well within these time-frames economic growth will cease.

This general analysis based on the mathematics of exponential growth is backed by many studies of concrete examples. The 1972 'Limits to Growth' report from MIT and the Club of Rome projected forward a number of factors: population, resource use, pollution etc. within a number of different scenarios. One of these scenarios was 'business as usual' which they called 'the standard run'. This scenario indicated an economic collapse within the first half of the present century. This study was much criticised at the time by conventional economists. However, real data is now available with which to compare the 'Limits' projections. Dr Graham Turner of CSIRO has carried out two studies using the actual data from the last 30 and now 40 years and has shown that we are indeed right on track with the 'Limits' BAU scenario. This is the very track our leaders are pushing us toward.

Energy is the fundamental driver of production and therefore of the economy. It was the emergence of cheap and abundant energy that facilitated rapid economic growth and the exponential increase in the exploitation of all other non-renewable resources from about 1800 to recent years. But the era of cheap energy is now closing. Conventional petroleum resources, on which so much of our production is critically dependent, including food and water, peaked in 2006. The present plateau of production/consumption has been extended perhaps to 2015/16 by the exploitation of expensive and hard to get petroleum resources such as 'tight oil' by fracking and deep-ocean drilling. After that, while demand may try to grow, supply will fall ever further behind.

Herein lies a paradox. Two outcomes are possible and neither is within the mindset of our would-be leaders.


· If fossil energy sources do peak as many predict: oil in two or three years, coal and gas a decade or so later, then the worst effects of climate change are avoided but the growth economy crashes and cannot bounce back.

· If through advanced technology we can maintain the use of fossil fuels for a few decades longer, then in a growth oriented economy climate change tips over into a cataclysmic 4 - 6°C rise; the economy and humanity are decimated.

What is clear is that our leaders need to understand that continual growth of GDP is neither desirable nor possible. Our leaders and many media commentators seem not to understand that GDP is a very poor measure of human welfare. Many renowned economists, a few political leaders in other countries and the UN are now looking to much better, more comprehensive measures of human progress.

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About the Author

John Coulter is a retired medical research scientist who spent the last eight years of his working life, 1987- 1995, as a Democrat Senator for South Australia. He is no longer a member of any political party. He has been heavily involved with the conservation movement since the mid 1950s at all levels from local to international.

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