OOS 26-6 - Sustainability: Just how far are we from you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011: 3:20 PM
16B, Austin Convention Center
Tadeusz W. Patzek, University of Texas, Austin

I have used thermodynamics and allometric scaling to model the social "metabolism" as a function of throughput of hydrocarbons through a monetary economy.  I have many reservations as to the usefulness of Gross Domestic Products (GDP's), but I have used them, because I lack a better measure of human productivity in over 200 countries on the Earth.  The questions I tried to answer are the following:

1.      Do fractal energy flows through a human society generate GDP per capita, just like blood flow distributes oxygen to mammalian bodies?

2.      If so, what are the environmental, social, and political implications?


The surprising result is that, yes, indeed, the hydrocarbon energy flow through a society scales with the GDP per capita, just like oxygen intake in mammals scales with their body mass.

Here are the really bad implications of this finding (and of some other scalings of other data):

  1. The rate of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are virtually identical and have grown exponentially over the last 40 years.  
  2. The impact of large dams and nuclear power plants has been barely visible, and disappeared by 2007.
  3. The renewable energy sources, wind turbines, biomass cogeneration, and biofuels (photovoltaic panel area is too small to be relevant), are barely keeping up with the deforestation and general paving of the world.
  4. Increased efficiency leads to more energy use and the ratio of the slopes has remained constant (3.8) over the last 40 years.  Thus, just as Stanley Javons predicted, higher efficiency leads to more energy use which leads to still higher efficiency.
  5. Since the Earth is finite, this trend cannot continue and the current global economy must break down.  There is nothing we can do about it, unless we fundamentally change, and the approach to breakdown is exponential.
  6. For example, the expected period of doubling of global energy consumption is 34-37 years.  Since this doubling is impossible, claims to the contrary by the IPCC notwithstanding, the global economy as we know it today will cease to exist within the next 10-20 years.

Now the good news:

  1. Something's gotta give! It is quite possible that earthlings can learn and act when faced with an old problem with no old solutions.
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