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The last few hundred years have seen more growth in wealth and human basic living standards than the entirety of human history. While not mutually exclusive, this is, in part, thanks to a level of economic growth and technological innovation never before thought possible.
Most human existence has been described as "'nasty, brutish and short," with growth and improvement in living standards relatively flat for long periods of time. That all changed about 200 years ago, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and everything that followed.
According to a report published in 2017 by the National Academy of Sciences, "Economic studies conducted before the information-technology revolution have shown that even then, as much as 85 percent of measured growth in U.S. income per capita is due to technological change."
What's more, this is only set to increase in the future. But, this development has come at a cost -- it has had a tangible negative effect on the natural world.
For this reason, many now believe that we may have reached the limits of economic, and by extension technological, growth. It is simply not sustainable.
Or so the argument goes. But is this true?
Let's find out.
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Setting the scene: where we are today
As we have previously mentioned, the level of wealth and living standards we enjoy today would be practically unthinkable even 100 years ago. Let alone thousands of years ago.
According to J. Bradford DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, between year 1 AD and 1800 AD, the average GDP per capita was about $200. After this period, GDP per capita rose rapidly, reaching $6,539 by the year 2000 AD.
We have, quite literally, never had it so good.
While most of the benefits of this growth have been enjoyed by just a handful of nations, even lesser developed countries have seen tangibly accelerated growth. Across the board, albeit with some disparity, per-capita wealth and living standards like higher life expectancy, and decreased mortality rates from disease and malnutrition have been markedly improved.
But how has this been achieved?
The answer is, in part, thanks to what Adam Smith termed "the division of labor". Freeing progressively more people to specialize in particular tasks has allowed for an explosion in technological progress.
However, we are beginning to understand that this has also led to the massive overconsumption of resources, as the natural world experiences the collateral damage from this growth. From microplastics to heavy metals and fertilizer runoff, to the effect of our activities on increasing greenhouse gases and climate change, we have not been great custodians of this beautiful planet.
Some are using this as evidence that the growth cannot continue forever, and may even have reached its peak. It is also argued that the continued exponential growth will result in the consumption of more resources, continued loss of ecosystems, and ever-larger mountains of waste and pollution.
Not to mention a growing inequality between the have and have nots.
While this has certainly been true, it doesn't necessarily follow that this trend has to continue into the future. Far from it.
Technology may have contributed to these problems, but it could also be the cure for them. But first, let's unpack the idea of a finite planet.
What is a finite planet?
Any planet, like Earth, has a set amount of resources to offer. It necessarily has a limited, aka finite, amount of raw materials.
While the Earth is very large, from our perspective, only a relatively small amount of it (the uppermost crust, oceans, and atmosphere) can be exploited for use by humans. At least for now.
However, this line of thinking assumes that resources can only be consumed a limited number of times, and not used an unlimited amount of times. But, as we know, energy (and by extension, mass) cannot be created nor destroyed, only changed in form.
In theory, at least, since everything we create from Earth's raw materials stays on the planet, we could, with the right technology, reuse all of it an unlimited number of times. In other words, while converted in form, Earth's raw materials are never actually gone -- they have only been "borrowed".
That is, unless we begin making fleets of gargantuan spacecraft to explore the galaxy, never to return.
But, it is interesting to note that the Earth does appear to be losing mass over time. It is estimated that somewhere in the region of 50,000 metric tons are lost to space every single year.
But don't let this frighten you. At this rate, it would take a very long time to shed a significant proportion of Earth's estimated 5.9724 x 1024 kgs.
However, this isn't really the point of the argument. Sustained overconsumption of resources on Earth will likely cause irreparable damage and potential loss of its life support system -- the biosphere. We are animals and, therefore, need access to breathable air, food, potable water, and a habitable environment to survive.
Constant economic/technological growth at the cost of the environment will, inevitably, reach its limit. The delicate balance of ecosystems will be thrown off wildly, leading to mass extinctions, melting of the polar ice caps, and other catastrophic events, if we are not careful.
This would be not an ideal outcome, to say the least. Something has to give somewhere.
In such a scenario, we might end up technically wealthy, but unable to survive. But could there be a way for us to have the best of both worlds (no pun intended)?
Can an economy keep growing forever?
What does the economy have to do with technological development? In short, everything.
The economy, love it, or loathe it, underpins everything. It covers everything from money to the production, transportation, trade, and consumption of goods and services that keep our civilization ticking along.
It is also nothing new. Even our ancient ancestors had some form of economy. After all, they made stuff, used it, and traded it, even if they did not use money.
Put simply, no economy, no technology.
Arguments like the concept of a "finite planet" are a prime example of a zero-sum game. It assumes that infinite economic growth must necessarily equate with environmental degradation or, at least, the complete exhaustion of Earth's finite resources.
But is this really the case?
If we restrict our thinking to a single planet, like Earth, it is theoretically possible to have limitless growth. But this will need an efficient way of using raw resources, or reusing "old" ones, that produces imperceptible damage to, or works in harmony with, the natural world.
Since it is unlikely we will ever be able to exist in complete isolation from the environment, this is of paramount importance. Unless, of course, we find a way to produce nutritious food, clean water, and breathable air using our technology.
But one thing is clear, we cannot, by definition, have continuous growth in technological and economical terms if it results in permanent (at least in human timescales) damage to the planet.
This is where sustainable development becomes the key to technological development in the future. We must decouple economic growth from its potential damage to the environment.
To a certain extent, we are seeing the beginnings of this process today. For example, there is some evidence that when a society reaches a particular wealth threshold, it becomes "cleaner", less wasteful, and more efficient with its use of resources.
To put this another way, when all the basic economic needs are met, people feel they have the "luxury" of preserving the environment around them. For many wealthier nations, this has been achieved in part by exporting their "dirtier", resource-intensive needs to poorer nations. But some have also been proactive in developing environmental protection laws, too.
In theory, poorer nations should also hit this threshold, eventually. This theory, however, is not without its critics.
If this is the case, what kinds of technological innovation could theoretically allow for infinite growth? Let's take a peek into the future...
Could the age of the robot help us achieve infinite growth?
One technology that could, conceivably, not only maintain, but accelerate technological development and growth, is the field of robotics. It is likely that automation will continue to become more sophisticated and take over an increasing number of laborious and repetitive tasks.
Robots are well-suited to perform tasks that require a high level of precision, or a high rate of speed, or that do not offer the opportunity for rest. As long as their parts are in good working order, and they have the resources, such as electricity, which they need to run, they can continue to work indefinitely.
Robots are also becoming ever-more complex in their design and abilities. They can even build other robots themselves.
In some areas, robots have increased productivity to highs that were not possible using human beings alone.
Robots have the potential to not only improve how efficiently we use natural resources and to reduce our impact on the environment, but also to reduce waste from errors in manufacturing. Of course, robots also require a large input of resources in their construction.
And there is the matter of how to support the people who lose their jobs to robot workers. To avoid robots having a negative effect on inequality, they need to produce enough excess capital needed to support the workers they displace.
3D printing and additive manufacturing will be of paramount importance
Conventional subtractive manufacturing, including CNC milling, may no longer be the most efficient way of making things. While manufacturing techniques have improved dramatically over time, their very nature often leads to the wasting of natural resources.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, on the other hand, is incredibly efficient when it comes to using raw materials to build stuff. Very little source materials are wasted, as they tend to be when drilling, cutting, and milling, because the materials can be more easily recycled for reuse.
At present, 3D printing tends to be more energy-intensive than some other traditional manufacturing methods, but it is improving all the time. Some of the energy loss is also compensated for with reduced distribution costs.
Since additive manufacturing allows many materials to be printed on-site and on-demand, this also drastically reduces the size of the supply chain needed for production. It is not out of the question for on-site printing to one-day replace the need for extensive inventories in shops and warehouses.
3D printed parts also tend to be considerably lighter than traditional parts, which also reduces the cost of transportation.
3D printing methods are also being developed that use eco-friendly materials, such as biodegradable, plant-based, or recyclable resources.
3D printers have been developed that are even capable of printing food, medicine, and human organs!
While most 3D printers today are used for prototyping, developing custom items, and making small batches of items for commercial purposes, the technology is getting cheaper and better every year.
You can even get yourself a relatively cheap machine to tinker around within the comfort of your own home. However, the tech is not yet ready to replace traditional manufacturing. Restrictions in the types of materials the printers can use are one of the main bottlenecks to their expanded use, at least for now.
However, many industries, from aerospace to automotive and healthcare, have already embraced additive manufacturing. 3D printing is also well-suited to smaller components with difficult shapes, that would normally be tricky to machine.
3D printing will certainly be an important technology to help maintain technological and economic growth for some time to come.
Nanotechnology could help with infinite growth
One technology that could yield a limitless future of growth is nanotechnology. This wondrous technology is incredibly promising for the future.
It is quite possible that this technology will soon allow the development of materials like unbendable metals or metals with elastic memories. Such materials could significantly reduce the consumption of raw metals by greatly extending their usable lifespan.
Nanotechnology could also lead to paints that can warn of overheating or medical surfaces that can detect pathogens. They could also yield practically unbreakable glass that can also switch from opaque to clear, again, reducing the need for more materials.
Nanotech also promises to produce coatings for wooden, or other flammable materials, that stop them from burning, and frictionless coatings on machinery to vastly improve its lifespan.
They may also yield fertilizers that are non-toxic to the environment.
Work is already underway to use nanotechnology to convert seawater into freshwater.
With all the concerns of overpopulation and dwindling water resources, this could be of tremendous use.
Nanotechnology can help with waste management and recycling. Nanotech robots, sometimes called nanites, could one day be able to turn our trash back into useful raw materials.
They can also be deployed to clean up toxic-chemicals and turn them into harmless alternatives.
When, and it is likely a matter of when, not if, we are able to design and build devices at the molecular scale, we will be able to take full advantage of this technology.
This could create entirely new industries for future generations to keep themselves busy.
These are but some of the amazing benefits to the environment that could come from nanotechnology. By optimizing utility and resource use efficiency, while also reducing waste, nanotechnology is an example of how technology could enable continued high growth rates into the far future.
The internet has and will continue to be, a brave new world for business
The rise of the internet has changed the way we do many things. It has also created many new industries never dreamed of before.
It has led to an entirely new way to make money -- the digital economy. A vast swathe of new enterprises has emerged over the last few decades each with, theoretically, unlimited potential.
The creation and distribution of ideas and other services have never been easier. It has also never been easier for people to start their own businesses than today, thanks to the net.
The only real limit to the growth of the internet is data storage, resources needed for making hardware, and, of course, electricity. The hardware side of things will continue to improve in material use efficiency through a combination of other technologies already discussed, but electricity generation could be a significant issue if "business as usual" continues.
Finding an eco-friendly solution to this problem will require the development of more diverse energy generation systems - perhaps including nuclear energy, renewable energy, hydrogen fuel cells, or something else.
The internet has also given rise to the Internet of Things (IoT). This is a network of internet-connected objects able to collect and exchange data, and much more.
The possibilities of this technology are mindblowing. From making autonomous cars a truly viable technology to drastically revolutionizing farming, IoT promises to make our lives easier, but also possibly less damaging to the environment.
Smart homes, using IoT, could enable near-autonomous management and reduction in waste, including more efficient uses of energy, water, and other resources.
Farming is also benefiting from the Internet of Things by the remote micromanagement of resources, like water, in real time. This could eventually make farming a much more energy and resource-efficient industry.
Sensors, and other monitoring devices, can already be used to collect data and monitor situations like pollution levels and air quality. But, IoT can also be used to directly help nature.
IoT technology is already being used to protect bees, combat poaching and create an automated farm-in-a-box.
Space: infinite resources could lay at our fingertips
If all else fails, we are inching closer to being able to access a potentially unlimited source of raw materials -- space. From meteorite mining to colonizing other worlds, space exploration could someday provide a means of infinite technological and economic growth.
If we can make space resource exploitation a reality, we will never, practically speaking, have to worry about limited resources ever again. But this will need a significant investment of energy, technological development and, yes, resources, to become a reality.
However, if we are destined to use up Earth's limited resources, despite our best efforts to maximize their efficient use, this will time and money well spent. It will truly be an investment in the future of our species and the planet.
We may even reach a point where Earth's resources can be left untouched, and the natural world left to its own devices forevermore.