Home > Uncategorized > Weekend read – Combatting global warming: The solution to China’s demographic “crisis”

Weekend read – Combatting global warming: The solution to China’s demographic “crisis”

from Dean Baker and WEA Commentaries

There have been numerous news articles in recent years telling us that China faces a demographic crisis. The basic story is that the market reforms put in place in the late 1970s, together with the country’s one-child policy, led to many fewer children being born in the last four decades. As a result, the number of current workers entering retirement exceeds the size of the cohorts entering the workforce, leading to a stagnant or declining workforce. This is supposed to be a crisis.

I used the word “supposed” because it is not in any way obvious that a declining workforce is any sort of crisis. We see shifts of population all the time, which can lead many cities or regions to have a decline in their population or workforce, even if the country as a whole does not. That doesn’t necessarily mean a crisis for the areas losing population unless of course the population decline is due to the loss of a major employer.

A drop in the growth rate of the workforce, or an actual decline, will likely mean slower GDP growth, but so what? A country’s standard of living is determined by its income per capita (along with many other factors), not its absolute level of GDP. India’s GDP is almost eight times Denmark’s, but Denmark is the far richer country. The reason is that India has more than two hundred times as many people.

If a country’s growth rate is slower because the growth rate of its workforce slows, that is hardly a disaster. People can still be seeing improvements in their standard of living, and in the case of China, these improvements would still be quite rapid even if its annual growth rate slowed by 2-3 percentage points from its recent pace of more than 6.0 percent annually.

There is a common argument that countries with aging populations, like China, will suffer because each worker will have to support a larger number of retirees. It is easy to show that this view is silly. Even a modest rate of productivity growth will swamp the impact of a declining ratio of workers to retirees. With output per worker increasing, both workers and retirees can enjoy rising living standards even as the ratio of workers to retirees fall.

That should not sound surprising. The ratio of workers to retirees has been falling in the United States for the last two decades, yet we have seen substantial increases in living standards, even if the wealthy have gotten the bulk of these gains. The idea that China’s declining ratio of workers to retirees poses a supply-side problem, where it cannot produce enough goods and services to support its population, is absurd on its face.

The Problem of Secular Stagnation

It turns out that the major problem of an aging population is not too much demand, but rather too little. Older people tend to spend less money than people in their working years. Also, when a country’s workforce is not growing, companies need to spend less money on investment. Employers need more capital when they hire more workers. This could mean desks and computers, or it could be machinery in a factory, or a truck on the road. The more workers companies hire, the more capital they need, which means more investment.

But if the workforce stagnates, then companies need to spend less on investment. They will still modernize their equipment and replace worn out items, but they don’t have to invest to accommodate the needs of a larger workforce.

With both consumption and investment falling relative to GDP, economies will face the problem of inadequate demand. In principle, the economy is capable of producing more goods and services than households and businesses are prepared to buy. This is the situation that we faced in the Great Depression, and again, on a smaller scale, in the Great Recession. It means mass unemployment. In the Great Depression, unemployment peaked at 25 percent of the workforce.

It is ironic that the economists warning about the implications of an aging population not only got the magnitude of the problem wrong, they even got the direction wrong. With our aging population, we don’t have to worry about too much demand, we have to worry about too little. This is yet another example of the old saying that economists are not very good at economics.

Spending Money: The Cure for Secular Stagnation

We discovered the cure for secular stagnation in the 1930s: the government has to spend money to make up for the failure to spend by the private sector. President Roosevelt embraced this strategy to a limited extent with his New Deal programs. These put millions of people back to work while modernizing our housing and infrastructure.

Of course, the government spending program that really got the economy back to full employment was World War II. With the country united behind the need to defeat Germany and Japan, budget deficits ceased being an issue. We saw record low unemployment rates in the war years as tens of millions of workers were either serving in the military or producing the food, clothes, and weapons needed by the military.

The war provided the political support for massive spending (and budget deficits), but it was the spending that got the economy to full employment. Money spent on civilian uses will create jobs every bit as well as money spent on the military.

This brings us back to China’s demographic crisis and global warming. As Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column, China is going to have to make a massive adjustment in its economy in the years ahead. It has been spending an incredible 43 percent of its GDP on capital formation, either investment goods purchased by businesses, or residential housing. By comparison, the figure for Japan is 24 percent and for the United States less than 22 percent.

This massive spending on capital formation made sense when China was seeing rapid growth in its labor force and also a huge shift in its population from rural to urban. But this process is now reaching an endpoint, both with a decline in its working-age population and the rural to urban shift largely completed.

Currently, over 62 percent of China’s population lives in urban areas. The figure for most wealthy countries is close to 80 percent, but the pace of shift for China will be much slower going forward than in the past. In 1980, less than 20 percent of its population was urban.

This means that China’s big problem going forward is to find a way to spend a very large amount of money. For simplicity, let’s say that their needed spending on capital formation falls to 23 percent of GDP, roughly splitting the difference between Japan and the United States. This would mean that China’s government has to figure out what to do with 20 percent of its GDP.

This is an incredible amount of money. In 2021, 20 percent of China’s GDP would be $5.4 trillion. According to the I.M.F.’s projections, the annual amount would be almost $8 trillion in 2026. Over the next decade, it would be more than $80 trillion, that’s more than 20 times the original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan. In short, it’s real money.

It is also important to note that China is already heavily invested in clean energy. China is by far the world leader in solar energy, with more than twice as much as the United States, the second-largest user of solar power. It is also by far the world leader in wind energy, again with more than twice as much installed wind power as the United States.  And, China also has more than twice as many electric cars on the road as any other country.

This means that China has a large domestic clean energy sector which can stand to gain by further spending on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, no one expects that the country will spend anything like $80 trillion over the next decade reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it certainly can commit considerable resources to this effort. In addition to the benefits to the environment, this spending will help China’s economy grow and keep its workforce employed.

This is one of the opportunities created by China’s supposed demographic crisis. The issue is that because of the aging of the population it faces the prospect of a huge shortfall of demand in the economy. This is a good problem for a country to have, if its leadership is adept at managing its resources.

There are many grounds on which to criticize China’s government. It severely represses minority populations, most extremely the Uighurs, many of whom have been imprisoned for months or even years. It also does not respect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or basic labor rights. But there is no doubt that it has done an outstanding job in managing its economy over the last four decades in a way that has led to an enormous improvement in living standards for the overwhelming majority of its population.

If China wants a path through its “demographic crisis,” or, in other words, coping with secular stagnation, devoting substantial resources towards greening its economy would be a great path forward. In the process, they can also give a big hand to the rest of the world, both by sharing the technology and showing how it can be done, as well as reducing the damage they are doing to the planet themselves.

From: pp.8-9 of WEA Commentaries 11(4), December 2021

Download WEA commentaries Volume 11, Issue No. 4, December 2021 ›

  1. Patrick Newman
    January 23, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    Declining workforce – that will do nicely for the AI/Robotics revolution and will be a powerful driver as wage costs are forced up by the market assuming aggregated demand is sustained (by the government).

  2. January 23, 2022 at 6:42 pm

    One point to note — A gently declining population is the hallmark of an advanced culture.

    Chinese editorials discuss the aging offset in terms of a qualitative shift in their population. The nation has changed from a rural population economically crushed by western capitalist drug dealers using national armies to carve out drug market territories. China now has more honors students than the US has students, for example. Additionally, the imbalance is accelerating as the US completes switching from investments in education to a privatized prison system.

    This is a great article, though it could have and should have left out the obligatory bow to propaganda about the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.

    My impression of the Chinese treatment of minorities is that people like the Uyghurs never experience the birth control squeeze placed on the dominant culture. US corporate media plays the tunes of a traitorous Chinese fringe secessionists prompted by CIA and Pentagon media specialists. Why US citizens still believe such stories is beyond me. Things will not improve much in the west until people quit believing capitalist propaganda printed by corporations like the New York Times etc.

    Where will China spend its vast reserves of capital and its increasing returns from a high quality educated population? It can ease out of being an automobile based copycat and lean even more heavily toward colonizing Luna and Mars. The superior education system in China will soon leave all competing space wannabees trying to figure out how and why their grandparents built modern stuff that can no longer be produced in the west.

    • Meta Capitalism
      January 24, 2022 at 4:48 am

      My impression of the Chinese treatment of minorities is that people like the Uyghurs never experience the birth control squeeze placed on the dominant culture. US corporate media plays the tunes of a traitorous Chinese fringe secessionists prompted by CIA and Pentagon media specialists. Why US citizens still believe such stories is beyond me. Things will not improve much in the west until people quit believing capitalist propaganda printed by corporations like the New York Times etc.

      So your excuse for ethnocide is the Uyghurs have to many children? Sounds like you have been listening to Info Wars to much. There is a large body of evidence from first hand accounts by Uyghurs of what is happening in Xinjiang.



    • Meta Capitalism
      January 24, 2022 at 2:55 pm

      A gently declining population is the hallmark of an advanced culture. ~ Garrett Connelly

      I think it is a pretty shallow definition of “advanced culture” that we see above. Japan has a declining population, so it must be an advanced culture, right? Is it an advanced culture that has such a toxic corporate work culture rife with sexism and lack of work-life balance that young men and women are refusing to have children or start families? It seems one must ask deeper sociological questions before one presumes just because there is a declining birth rate it is because they are an “advanced” culture.

      Everywhere one looks in Japan decay and decline are visible. The economic decline is visible everywhere in buildings decaying like dead corpses nobody can afford to bury. The owners may be dead themselves, or old and too poor to tear the rotting building down and build something new. Some areas are experiencing depopulation, leaving now revenue bas to support bus or train lines, creating entire areas that become isolated and further hastening declining economic and social health.

      Anyone who has watched a documentary on how China enforced it’s one child policy or the social consequences of the way the policy was carried out would hardly characterize it as the acts of an “advanced” culture.

      • Garrett Connelly
        January 25, 2022 at 12:43 am

        Hello. I had not intended to direct myself to your first point, yet those sources you stand on were mentioned today and so I pass that on, rather than try to explain PBS and the NYT in my own limited way. I have adopted a habit that was attributed to President Kennedy and read news from many sources about many subjects. I read Chinese, Russian, Cuban, Brazilian, Greek, Venezuelan and other scattered sources. PBS and NPR are not on my list.


        “Unfortunately, the mainstream media is dominated by journalists who merely take dictation, protecting their close relations with sources in the national security community. During the Kennedy and Johnson administration, CIA directors Allen Dulles and Richard Helms had close ties to important journalists such as Joseph Alsop, Drew Middleton, and Joseph Kraft. National security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski took advantage of their close ties with Les Gelb and Richard Burt, respectively, to get their views on the front page of the New York Times. When Gelb left the Times to join the Carter administration, a Times’ editorial boasted that Gelb “stepped down,” an acknowledgement of the power of the paper.

        “And then there are the out-and-out apologists for national security agencies: Middleton of the Times on behalf of the Pentagon; Roger Mudd from CBS and PBS on behalf of the Pentagon; and my all-time favorite, Ignatius, on behalf of the CIA. Early in his career, Ignatius had powerful support from the paper’s editor, Kathryn Graham, and the editor of the editorial page, Meg Greenfield. In general, the mainstream media has been particularly lazy in its coverage of the Pentagon—pandering to the military itself and using retired general officers with ties to the military-industrial complex as spokesmen. The United States is largely in an arms race with itself, but the media typically defend the bloated defense spending that both Democrats and Republicans endorse.”;

  3. January 24, 2022 at 1:42 am

    Good sense. Now if we could just learn to frame it better: “steady state” rather than “stagnation” (shudder). Really, we need to purge the “growth” fixation from our thinking.

  4. Steve McGiffen
    January 24, 2022 at 11:31 am

    Excellent analysis, but why doesn’t anyone mention that the number of children in relation to the number of productive workers also affects the ratio of productive to nonproductive? Many older people continue to work part-time, as well as providing child care for grandchildren. Many volunteer. Children are much closer to being a dead weight, presuming child labour is banned. Is there any good reason why this is consistently ignored?

    • January 24, 2022 at 1:26 pm

      Very good point! You open the question as to how progress could possibly have been made during the population explosion of the mid 1900s.

  5. Simon Colbert
    February 10, 2022 at 12:23 am

    Wind and solar are certainly not the good place to invest if one wants to reduced CO2; Germany is a case in point: spend billions in those energies which are intermittent so they must absolutely be back by coal and gas (adding to the overall coast of energy) … which produce CO2. The result? France, which kept its nuclear and hydro, produced 1/10 CO2 than Germany for half the price. Had Germany not only kept open its reactors, among the safest on earth, and spend the same billions on ‘renewable’ energy, almost all their energy would have been CO2 free, and they would had have enough to power their entire vehicle fleet instead of having almost reduced by a factor zero their CO2 emission. Anybody serious with energy production, the key for economic wellbeing of the citizen, and not irrational with science, will go with nuclear. That why Chinese are investing so much in it now and they even succeed to have intrinsic safe nuclear one (a new pebble reactor), a first. And of course, they invest in fusion energy for a latter time. So, if they have so much more money to spend, they could even accelerate nuclear energy in all its forms (smaller reactor, pebble one, breeder reactor, etc.).

    • Patrick Newman
      February 10, 2022 at 3:47 pm

      Lead times for a reactor to go on stream? How long does it have to run before it has passed its embodied CO2 accumulated from a 10-year construction project time? Why are nuclear and renewables mutually exclusive in your world?

  6. Simon Colbert
    February 12, 2022 at 5:34 am

    Not that wind and solar are to be avoid absolutely, but because of their intermittence, they absolutely need back up, which happen to be, when you remove nuclear, coal and gas; so, the overall target of reducing CO2 doesn’t show up. And actually, in France, from 2009-2018, the spent 33 billions on renewable, with the result that the carbon-intensity of French electricity increased, because the overall % nuclear in the mix did go lower and they needed more natural gas when wind doesn’t blow and there no light; and like in Germany, California and Texas, the increased in price was up (renewable received ridiculous subvention fix price in France paid at lost by EDF at the expense of the citizen; and yes, nuclear received subvention, but from ½ to 1/44 less that renewable depending where).

    As for the other matter, I’m all always astonish that people don’t realize that to produce wind and solar, you also need materials which generate CO2 in the process. Just in land area, for the same energy produced, you need from 175 to 600 time more space for wind and solar. Don’t you realize the amount of concrete you need for building all the windmill to match nuclear? 10 time more! Steel? 11 time more! (The two basics element of a nuclear power plant). If not, much concrete is use for solar, it used about 49-time steel than nuclear! And it used a lot of cement and glass. And that, is not to account that windmill and solar have a life expectancy of 25 yeas whereas with refurbishment, you can maintain a nuclear power plant up to 60 years and it could be possible to do more; so, at minimum double the material quantities produced. So, any type of CO2 emission in the ‘cycle of construction’ argument must be apply to renewable too, and on this metric, nuclear is simply unbeatable. That, because, of the virtue of the beautiful principle discovered by Einstein: E=mc2; that mean an energy density per kg of matter of many magnitudes higher than chemical bounds.

    As for time construction, I will point it out to you that Germany ‘Evergreened’ is a long process of decades and they still have a lot to do with not much CO2 reduction do show off. Had they spent the 580 billion they would have spent by 2025, they could have built 49 reactors (if we take the 12 billion cost of the last UK one) and they would have no more C02 production. Korean are building their reactors in 6 years and even reduced to 5 years. Repetition by the same teams, one planning company and the same suppliers is key. French was doing much better before: don’t you remember that after the oil shock, France went on a crash program and build 58 reactors in 25 years (launching 6 to 7 by years). You need to go with a company (a state one or not) controlling and retaining all the experience and you can make it. No countries would produce as much energy with renewable in 25 years. Of course, you need long term low interest rate (and no Volker type of interest as in the 1980s which so burden Canadian nuclear industry….), a strong commitment and not a over the top regulation put in place willingly by the US antinuclear lobby to kill the industry. True, given that the US don’t have a Hamiltonian credit system anymore, it will be hard do it there. Not so in China.

  7. Ken Zimmerman
    February 22, 2022 at 8:02 am

    In 2014 the 33rd Report to the Club of Rome in the “Limits to Growth” series is published. The peer-reviewed study is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, where he teaches physical chemistry. It includes specialist contributions from fifteen senior scientists and experts across the fields of geology, agriculture, energy, physics, economics, geography, transport, ecology, industrial ecology, and biology, among others. The first in the series by Donella H. Meadows, et al, on the Predicament of Mankind was published in 1972. It warned that limited availability of natural resources relative to rising costs would undermine continued economic growth by around the second decade of the 21st century. It’s projections have proven amazingly accurate and prescient.

    The 33rd Report’s findings are equally sobering. It forecasts that industrial civilization’s extraction of critical minerals and fossil fuel resources is reaching the limits of economic feasibility, and could lead to a collapse of key infrastructures unless new ways to manage resources are implemented.

    The authors conduct a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of mining, and argue that the increasing costs of mineral extraction due to pollution, waste, and depletion of low-cost sources will eventually make the present structure of industrial civilization unsustainable. Much of the report’s focus is on the concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), which measures the amount of energy needed to extract resources. While making clear that “we are not running out of any mineral,” the report finds that “extraction is becoming more and more difficult as the easy ores are depleted. More energy is needed to maintain past production rates, and even more is needed to increase them.” As a consequence, despite large quantities of remaining mineral reserves: “The production of many mineral commodities appears to be on the verge of decline… we may be going through a century-long cycle that will lead to the disappearance of mining as we know it.”

    The last decade has seen the world shift to more expensive and difficult to extract fossil fuel resources, in the form of unconventional forms of oil and gas, which have much lower levels of EROEI than conventional oil. Even with technological breakthroughs in fracking and associated drilling techniques, this trend is unlikely to reverse significantly. A former senior executive in Australia’s oil, gas and coal industry, Ian Dunlop, describes in the report how fracking can raise production “rapidly to a peak, but it then declines rapidly, too, often by 80 to 95 percent over the first three years.” This means that often “several thousand wells” are needed for a single shale play to provide “a return on investment.” The average EROEI to run “industrial society as we know it” is about 8 to 10. Shale oil and gas, tar sands, and coal seam gas are all “at, or below, that level if their full costs are included. Thus fracking, in energy terms, will not provide a source on which to develop sustainable global society.

    The Club of Rome report also applies the EROEI analysis to extraction of coal and uranium. World coal production will peak by 2050 latest, and could peak as early as 2020. US coal production has already peaked, and future production will be determined largely by China. But rising domestic demand from the latter, and from India, could generate higher prices and shortages in the near future: “Therefore, there is definitely no scope for substituting for oil and gas with coal.”

    As for global uranium supplies, the report says that current uranium production from mines is already insufficient to fuel existing nuclear reactors, a gap being filled by recovery of uranium military stockpiles and old nuclear warheads. While the production gap could be closed at current levels of demand, a worldwide expansion of nuclear power would be unsustainable due to “gigantic investments” needed. Report contributor Michael Dittmar, a nuclear physicist at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, argues that despite large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, only a “limited numbers of deposits” are “concentrated enough to be profitably mined.” Mining less concentrated deposits would require “far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produce.” The rising costs of uranium mining, among other costs, has meant that nuclear power investment is tapering off. Proposals to extract uranium from seawater are currently “useless” because “the energy needed to extract and process uranium from seawater would be about the same as the energy that could be obtained by the same uranium using the current nuclear technology.” Therefore within this decade, the report forecasts an “unavoidable” production decline from existing uranium mines.

    US Geological Survey data analyzed by the report shows that chromium, molybdenum, tungsten, nickel, platinum-palladium, copper, zinc, cadmium, titanium, and tin will face peak production followed by declines within this century. This is because declared reserves are often “more hypothetical than measured,” effected by many factors that can lead to the “assumption of mineral bonanzas that are far removed from reality.” “Much more suitable results can be indirectly achieved by taking into account more verifiable and consistent sets of data such as the amount of the extracted resources or annual extraction rate.”

    In particular, the report highlights the fate of copper, lithium, nickel and zinc. Physicist Prof. Rui Namorado Rosa projects an “imminent slowdown of copper availability” in the report. Although production has grown exponentially, the grade of the minerals mined is steadily declining, lifting mining costs. ‘Peak copper’ is likely to hit by 2040, but could even occur within the next decade. [2025]

    Production of lithium, presently used for electric car batteries, would also be strained under a large-scale electrification of transport infrastructure and vehicles, according to contributor Emilia Suomalainen, an industrial ecologist of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Sustainable lithium production requires 80-100% recycling – currently this stands at less than 1%. Nickel and zinc, which are used to combat iron and steel corrosion and for electricity storage in batteries, also could face production peaks in just “a few decades” – though nickel might be extended some 80 years – according to engineer and metals specialist Philippe Bihoux: “The easily exploited part of the reserves has been already removed, and so it will be increasingly difficult and expensive to invest in and exploit nickel and zinc mines.” While substitution could help in many cases, it would also be costly and uncertain, requiring considerable investment.

    Perhaps the most alarming trend in mineral depletion concerns phosphorous, which is critical to soil fertilization and sustainable agriculture. While phosphorous reserves are not running out, physical, energy and economic factors mean only a small percentage of it can be mined. Crop yield on 40 percent of the world’s arable land is already limited by economical phosphorus availability. In the Club of Rome study, physicist Patrick Dery says that several major regions of rock phosphate production – such as the island of Nauru and the US, which is the world’s second largest producer – are post-peak and now declining, with global phosphorous supplies potentially becoming insufficient to meet agricultural demand within 30-40 years. The problem can potentially be resolved as phosphorous can be recycled.

    A parallel trend documented in the report by Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) agronomist Toufic El Asmar is an accelerating decline in land productivity due to industrial agricultural methods, which are degrading the soil by as much as 50% in some areas. Prof. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that the report is “an effective piece of work” to assess the planet’s mineral wealth “within the framework of sustainability.” Its findings offer a “valuable basis for discussions on mineral policy.” But the window for meaningful policy action is closing rapidly. “The main alarm bell is the trend in the prices of mineral commodities,” Prof. Bardi commented. “Prices have gone up by a factor 3-5 and have remained at these levels for the past 5-6 years [2008-2014]. They are not going to go down again, because they are caused by irreversible increases in production costs. These prices are already causing the decline of the less efficient economies [say, Italy, Greece, Spain, etc.] We are not at the inversion point yet, but close – less than a decade?”

  8. Simon Colbert
    February 23, 2022 at 2:00 am

    Typical Malthusian pessimists: to note, practically all Club of Rome prediction were wrong, because they don’t understand human capacity to discover science principle and the capacity to harness nature forces. And some of the bottleneck such in nuclear had nothing to do with the physique, but with those Malthusian who fought it, not because it was unsafed, but because they hate that it provides cheap energy which goes against their ideological Malthusian conception; see the work of Michael Shellenberger that documented the war on nuclear by Malthusian (and natural gas lobby that financed greenies’ group to promote inefficient solar and wind production).

    As for the nuclear energy and uranium supply, it is simply bad science. For a starter, to claim that extracting uranium from sea water would cost more energy than the energy produce with it is just flatly wrong and not knowing the abc of E=mc2. If 1 kg of natural gas provides around 6 kWh of electricity, the same uranium (low enriched), provide 250 000 kWh. Is just not knowing the technique by which uranium could be extracted from sea water, which doesn’t need at all that huge amount of energy! Now, Japanese just discover a way to extract such uranium from water with polyethylene fiber coated with amidoxime in a way that is very economical (the cost is for the moment the double of mined one; but even if they don’t succeed in reducing this price lower, giving that in a nuclear power plant the cost of fuel is very low compared to the overall cost, this is not a problem, it will still be an overall low price). And the beauty of this mode of extraction is that the uranium extracted replenish itself: its renewable! Just look at the article name: Nuclear Power Becomes Completely Renewable With Extraction Of Uranium From Seawater

    Second, it is always funny to see that greenies talk about recycling, but when it comes to nuclear, they balked at it. But our typical nuclear reactor actually burned only 1% of the uranium fossil (the so-called waste is just unused energy). But by making a breeder reactor, you could recover up to 99%, thus the same kg of uranium could produce 3 500 000 kWh! Look at John K. Sutherland’s article, a real expert on nuclear, An overview of energy in society. But because of political decision, not science one, such as in France, they just stop the project Superphenix. And for the moment, the main argument against it is that it is more expensive than mining new uranium ore; but again, if mining become too expensive, breeder would be there at a cost estimate at 25% more (giving the cheapness of nuclear energy, a 25% increase is not that much compared to not have energy or the cost of solar and wind). Here again, we may count on the Chinese to go ahead with it; its seem that Occident is in decadence and destroy its Promethean impulse under Malthusian ideology influence.

    A third, why don’t you mention thorium? India is already building thorium reactors, and thorium is even more available than uranium.

    And for a final that would make your Club of Rome scream, fusion energy is in the coming (and how this research had been attacking and underfunded below breakthrough level is another long story not to be told here; but don’t talk to me that research is expensive: the amount of money spent in war either in Vietnam alone or in Irak, or in Afghanistan alone are many orders of magnitude of resources stupidly spent to destruction; the space program or the nuclear researh are just a tiny fraction that; hope that America channel better their resources instead of Malthusian war of destruction; a fraction of that cost could do much good for the country itself and the world in general.”
    And I don’t care if it takes a 1000 years to reach it, meanwhile fission energy would be there to provide energy and fresh water through desalination. A new baby is not just a mouth to be fed, it is also a brain that, if not put on drug legalization and videogame 18 hours a day, could invent. And you don’t need much: some minds in a good social setting and well funded could do the job. Again, in the short term, the bet is that the breakthrough will come from Asia rather than from our pleasure-seeking pessimist cultural trends; but hopefully, I’m wrong on that one.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      March 8, 2022 at 10:12 am

      Although many continue to dismiss what those researchers in the 1970s wrote, there is growing evidence that the original “Cassandras” were right on the mark in their general assessments, if not always in the details or exact timing, about the dangers of the continued growth of human population and their increasing levels of consumption in a world approaching very real material constraints. It is time to reconsider those arguments in light of new information, especially about peak oil.

      Thus, although there was little argument that the higher-quality resources were being depleted, it seemed to many that technical innovations and resource substitutions, driven by market incentives, had and would continue indefinitely to solve the longer-term issues. It was as if the market could increase the quantity of physical resources in the Earth. This proved a very wrong and dangerous assumption.

      In other words, when more detailed and systems-oriented analyses are undertaken, the arguments become much more complex and ambiguous, and show that technology rarely works by itself but instead tends to demand high resource use.

      Although we do not necessarily advocate that the existing structure of the limits-to-growth model is adequate for the task to which it is put, it is important to recognize that its predictions have not been invalidated and in fact seem quite on target. We are not aware of any model made by economists that is as accurate over such a long time span.

      The often heard response is that technology, combined with market economics or other social-incentive systems has enormously increased the carrying capacity of the Earth for humans. And will continue to do so. Technology, however, is a two-edged sword, whose benefits can be substantially blunted by Jevons’s paradox, the concept that increases in efficiency often lead to lower prices and hence to greater consumption of resources.

      Beyond resources collapse, there is a possibility of a huge, multifaceted failure of some substantial part of industrial civilization. Such a concept is so completely outside the understanding of our leaders that we are almost totally unprepared for it. For large environmental and health issues, from smoking to flooding in New Orleans, evidence of negative impacts has historically preceded general public acceptance and policy actions by several decades. There are virtually no extant forms of transportation, beyond shoe leather and bicycles, that are not based on oil, and even our shoes are now often made of oil. Food production is very energy intensive, clothes and furniture and most pharmaceuticals are made from and with petroleum, and most jobs would cease to exist without petroleum. But on our university campuses one would be hard pressed to have any sense of that beyond complaints about the increasing price of gasoline, even though a situation similar to the 1970s gas shortages seemed to be unfolding at present before us.

      No substitutes for oil have been developed on anything like the scale required, and most have not yet reached the standard of energy production of oil and coal. Currently renewable sources (other than hydropower) provide about 14 percent of the energy used in the US. With hydropower alone providing 6 percent of US energy. “Green” energy is beginning to overtake energy from fossil fuel sources. If we are to have a reasonable chance to successfully address pollution and climate change this trend must continue and be accelerated. We also need to make these issues central to education at all levels of our universities, and to debate and even stand up to those who negate their importance. We must teach economics from a biophysical as well as a social perspective. Only then do we have any chance of understanding or solving these problems.

      A new Club of Rome report says that: “The phase of mining by humans is a spectacular but very brief episode in the geological history of the planet… The limits to mineral extraction are not limits of quantity; they are limits of energy. Extracting minerals takes energy, and the more dispersed the minerals are, the more energy is needed… Only conventional ores can be profitably mined with the amounts of energy we can produce today.” The combination of mineral depletion, associated radioactive and heavy metal pollution, and the accumulation of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel exploitation is leaving our descendants the “heavy legacy” of a virtually terraformed world: “The Earth will never be the same; it is being transformed into a new and different planet.”

      Drawing on the work of leading climate scientists including James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the report warns that a continuation of ‘business as usual’ exploitation of the world’s fossil fuels could potentially trigger runaway global warming that, in several centuries or a thousand years, permanently destroy the planet’s capacity to host life. Despite this verdict, the report argues that neither a “collapse” of the current structure of civilisation, nor the “extinction” of the human species are unavoidable. A fundamental reorganisation of the way societies produce, manage and consume resources could support a new high-technology civilisation, but this would entail a new “circular economy” premised on wide-scale practices of recycling across production and consumption chains, a wholesale shift to renewable energy, application of agro-ecological methods to food production, and with all that, very different types of social structures. In the absence of a major technological breakthrough in clean energy production such as nuclear fusion – which so far seems improbable, recycling, conservation, and efficiency in the management of the planet’s remaining accessible mineral resources will need to be undertaken carefully and cooperatively, with the assistance of cutting-edge science. Limits to economic growth, or even “degrowth”, the report says, do not need to imply an end to prosperity, but rather require a conscious decision by societies to lower their environmental impacts, reduce wasteful consumption, and increase efficiency – changes which could in fact increase quality of life while lowering inequality.

      These findings of the new Club of Rome report (Ugo Bardi. Extracted, How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. 2014) have been confirmed by other major research projects. In January of 2013, a detailed scientific study by Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute commissioned by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, found “overwhelming” evidence for resource constraints: “… across a range of resources over the short (years) and medium (decades) term… Resource constraints will, at best, increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worse, trigger a long term decline in the global economy and civil unrest.” The good news, though is that “If governments and economic agents anticipate resource constraints and act in a constructive manner, many of the worst affects can be avoided.” According to Dr Aled Jones, lead author of the study and head of the Global Sustainability Institute: “Resource constraints will, at best, steadily increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worst, could represent financial disaster, with the assets of pension schemes effectively wiped out and pensions reduced to negligible levels.” It is imperative to recognise that “dwindling resources raise the possibility of a limit to economic growth in the medium term.” In his 2014 report to the Club of Rome, Prof Bardi takes a long-term view of the prospects for humanity, noting that the many technological achievements of industrial societies mean there is still a chance now to ensure the survival and prosperity of a future post-industrial civilization: “It is not easy to imagine the details of the society that will emerge on an Earth stripped of its mineral ores but still maintaining a high technological level. We can say, however, that most of the crucial technologies for our society can function without rare minerals or with very small amounts of them, although with modifications and at lower efficiency.” Although expensive and environmentally intrusive industrial structures “like highways and plane travel” would become obsolete, technologies like “the Internet, computers, robotics, long-range communications, public transportation, comfortable homes, food security, and more” could remain attainable with the right approach – even if societies undergo disastrous crises in the short-run. Bardi is surprisingly matter-of-fact about the import of his study. “I am not a doomster,” he commented. “Unfortunately, depletion is a fact of life, not unlike death and taxes. We cannot ignore depletion – just like it is not a good idea to ignore death and taxes… “If we insist in investing most of what remains for fossil fuels; then we are truly doomed. Yet I think that we still have time to manage the transition. To counter depletion, we must invest a substantial amount of the remaining resources in renewable energy and efficient recycling technologies – things which are not subjected to depletion. And we need to do that before it is too late, that is before the energy return on investment of fossil fuels has declined so much that we have nothing left to invest.”

      In the December 18, 2019 issue of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, John Krzyzaniak and Nicholas R. Brown, evaluate the claims made for thorium.
      Brown, an associate professor in the department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee, examined the five common claims about thorium and next-generation nuclear reactors. Brown’s responses are below.

      Overall, although existing and new nuclear reactors may indeed be part of a long-term carbon-free energy mix in the United States, the public has good reason to be skeptical that thorium can or should play any role in the future.

      Claim: Thorium reactors would be more economical than traditional uranium reactors, particularly because thorium is more abundant than uranium, has more energy potential than uranium, and doesn’t have to be enriched.
      False. Although thorium is more abundant than uranium, the cost of uranium is a small fraction of the overall cost of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy economics are driven by the capital cost of the plant, and building a power plant with a thorium reactor is no cheaper than building a power plant with a uranium reactor. Further, using thorium in existing reactors is technically possible, but it would not provide any clear commercial benefit and would require other new infrastructure.
      Additionally, there is technically no such thing as a thorium reactor. Thorium has no isotopes that readily fission to produce energy. So thorium is not usable as a fuel directly, but is instead a fertile nucleus that can be converted to uranium in a reactor. Only after conversion to uranium does thorium become useful as a nuclear fuel. So, even for a reactor that would use thorium within its fuel cycle, most energy produced would actually come from uranium fissions.

      Claim: Next generation thorium reactors would be safer than current reactors.
      True but misleading. Nuclear energy is already very safe. The current US nuclear fleet generates about 20 percent of all electricity in the United States and has an excellent safety record—despite accidents such as Three Mile Island. When it comes to new reactors, although some next-generation designs offer potential safety benefits relative to current reactors, they could be operated in either thorium-uranium or uranium-plutonium fuel cycles. Consequently, the benefits are a function of the inherent safety in the next-generation designs, not the utilization of thorium.

      Claim: The waste from thorium reactors would be easier to deal with than waste from today’s uranium reactors.
      False. A comprehensive study from the US Energy Department in 2014 found that waste from thorium-uranium fuel cycles has similar radioactivity at 100 years to uranium-plutonium fuel cycles, and actually has higher waste radioactivity at 100,000 years.

      Claim: Thorium would be more proliferation-resistant than current reactors—you can’t make nuclear weapons out of it.
      False. A 2012 study funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration found that the byproducts of a thorium fuel cycle, in particular uranium 233, can potentially be attractive material for making nuclear weapons. A 2012 study published in Nature from the University of Cambridge also concluded that thorium fuel cycles pose significant proliferation risks.

      Claim: Building new nuclear reactors will likely be necessary if the United States wants to achieve net-zero emissions by 2049.
      True. Nuclear energy is already the primary ultra-low carbon energy source for base-load electricity generation. Although solar and wind have their place in the energy mix, the primary benefit of nuclear energy is that it is not intermittent, as solar and wind are, so it is almost always available without needing energy storage. So new nuclear reactors will be necessary to both replace aging ones and to meet a net-zero carbon emissions goal. But thorium-uranium fuel cycles provide no inherent benefits relative to uranium-plutonium fuel cycles, so the new reactors need not be thorium-powered.

      Finally, on extracting uranium from seawater. The amidoxime method, in its current form, can be practically implemented only in a small subset of locations. The absorption rates of uranium are extremely sensitive to seawater temperatures, and thus it would be unprofitable to use the method in waters colder than 15 degrees Celsius. Since water temperature drops as distance from the equator increases, and as depth increases, it is only practical to use current techniques at depths of less than 100 meters in the latitude band ranging from 35 degrees South and 45 degrees North.

      One last thing: why was the Nostromo in open space when it encountered the ALIEN?

      • March 8, 2022 at 3:35 pm

        Thank you for this excellent writing. Even so, conservation is blurred by the side issue of nuclear power needed to maintain a consumption based culture.

        We cannot know what a society with slowly declining population using less and less resources per person would be like, exactly, and that story needs to be told. On the other hand, we do know there is at this time no government form on Earth capable of managing degrowth of consumption and maximum growth of health, happiness and fun.

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