On Growth

There is a fundamental assumption in almost every business news article. That assumption is that growth is necessary. I submit that this is a false presentation, and that those stating it should know better.

There is only so much sunlight coming down onto the earth. Photosynthesis, despite fibs that copying plant chemistry will be more efficient, is only about .25% efficiency. A decent photovoltaic is about ten, perhaps toward 20, percent. What this means is, using only plants to feed ourselves, there is a limit to how much food can be grown and how many human beings can be supported. I suspect the planet is actually beyond that limit now. Famines occur all too regularly. (For the facto-geeks, I’ve seen the power of sunlight estimated at four watts per square metre. That means a megawatt at ten percent requires ten million divided by four, or about 2.5 million square metres of solar cells. And sunlight.)

The population of the planet should, ideally, stabilize. (Until it does, expect every group and special interest to try to get as much more than their share as is possible.) With stability of numbers should come stability of needs. Only “progress” items, real improvements, will create new markets. Only “value” items, with real added value, will have an initial high price before commoditization and mass production make it reasonably affordable.

In this potential, stable, future world, it will not make sense to borrow on the assumption that any business can automatically expect to grow. Market share will only be available at the cost of competitors. Sensible governments (unlike ours, pushed about by lobbyists) will enforce anti-price-fixing and anti-monopoly laws.

Meanwhile, when company X is being excoriated for not meeting its analysts’ growth targets, ask yourself, is this in a naturally growing market, or are we expecting monopolization, or is this just a sort of Ponzi scheme whereby we believe that X should be borrowing to make itself bigger. (There is a hidden assumption here that growth can exceed the interest rate cost, eh? How come in today’s near-zero interest rates, nobody’s investing in real job creation as opposed to robotization?)

If the world is limited in its resources, once these are distributed equitably, or even stably, growth as an expectation should be laughed at. It just isn’t mathematically possible, just as a Ponzi scheme can’t run forever.

Once the limit is reached, things break. As sensible people, we should be writing letters and perhaps marching, with the message that, the limits should be approached cautiously and not overstepped.

In the case of global warming, it is probably already too late. Now there is one potential growth industry: creating mechanisms to sequester carbon dioxide and perhaps methane. Too bad our Prime Minister loves the tar sands so much; the extra cost to the extractors is not going to be asked for under his, and his lobbyists, watch.

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