This piece from Scientific American:
is mostly about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). But on the way, it gets into some interesting musings on exponential growth, energy usage, and whether our picture of what “advanced civilization” entails is realistic. Here’s a quote:
In 2011 the science fiction author Karl Schroeder coined an all-too-plausible reason for the apparent absence of aliens: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” In this view the future of technology would not consist of star-hopping civilizations spreading like wildfire through galaxies, disassembling planets and smothering suns, but rather of slow-growing cultures becoming more and more integrated with their natural environments, striving for ever-greater efficiencies and coming ever-closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. Simply put, profligate galaxy-spanning empires are unsustainable and therefore we do not see them. “SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products,” Schroeder has written. “Waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals—we merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.”
The phrase “tragedy of the commons” is used generally in environmental writing to talk about the way some shared resource can be damaged when individuals – striving to maximize their personal gains in utility – use more than their socially optimal share of the resource. The term was introduced though in a famous paper by Hardin
which refers specifically to population issues. This is a disquieting article to read today, with its echoes of early 20th-century eugenicists’ fears of the “lower classes” outbreeding the elite, but it is also an important one in the history of environmental thought.
There’s been an interesting dialog just recently initiated by an op-ed by economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times.
Here’s Krugman’s original piece: Errors and Emissions. He wants to argue against what he calls “climate despair” – the argument that rising carbon dioxide emissions and economic growth are inextricably tied together.
Some responses: from physicist Mark Buchanan, Economists are blind to the limits of growth, and from Richard Heinberg at the Post Carbon Institute, Paul Krugman’s Errors and Omissions.
Krugman responded by doubling down on his argument with Slow Steaming and teh Supposed Limits to Growth
Heinberg again: Paul Krugman and the Limits of Hubris