The communicative challenge is to convey the paradox that, on the one hand, we have been able to observe exponential growth in many markets to date, which has led to success, but that in the future it is precisely this strong growth that will limit itself and lead to absurdity. It has been ignored so far that growth and prosperity decouple as they move along the growth curve, and that any further growth eats up substance, thereby diminishing prosperity and ultimately even depriving people of their livelihood. Communicating the reversal of trends has never been easy.
Yet the indications of this trend reversal are obvious: The now global competition for raw materials and primary energy sources is making the fundamentals of economic growth as we have known them to date scarcer and more expensive. Expenditures that must be made in order to repair environmental damage already done and to prevent or compensate for future damage are increasing noticeably and will push previous approaches to their limits.
The majority of agricultural land is now highly erosion-prone, depleted and enriched with fertilizers and pesticides. As the world’s population grows and superficial prosperity increases, food becomes scarce and expensive. People are gradually trading temporary prosperity for poverty, hunger and conflict.
A similar trend is looming in the industrial sector. Water consumption is increasing exponentially and the quality of available water is deteriorating through use. Unavoidable health costs and costs for restoring nature and for climate protection are already placing a significant direct and indirect burden on industrial business models.
These “ancillary costs” are already being felt:
Plastic granules and electrical energy are becoming so expensive that some products can hardly be manufactured and marketed in an economically viable way. The electrical engineering industry is highly dependent on the availability of scarce raw materials such as tantalum. Metalworking industries depend on the availability of raw materials such as magnesium.
There is another dimension to this: the more hopeless the mission to continue working as before is, the more likely people are to miss the meaning in what they are doing and to identify themselves to a decreasing degree with the tasks assigned to them. With the focus on material success, less time is devoted to the community in the form of families, but also in the form of society, and less importance is attached to it. People isolate themselves on their way to material success. If material gain is the focus of interest and no other values are developed, people will feel unsuccessful and disoriented as soon as it becomes clear that their material goals can no longer be achieved. The resulting loss of motivation will bring the tangible limit of growth closer as economic pressure increases.
In a finite world, there can be no infinite growth. Economic activity, when we consider it embedded in its environment, is always a zero-sum game. It is a transformation of primary energy and raw materials into products, heat and mobility. Or a transformation of human skills and capacities into ideas, concepts and innovations.
We are already feeling the effects in the form of massively rising ancillary costs in the broader sense with a comparatively small increase in benefits. In the meantime, these ancillary costs are incurred primarily as a hedge against effects that become apparent when sources are exploited to a greater extent. Dealing with uncertainty at the limits costs considerable additional effort. We are dealing with a self-reinforcing mechanism (positive feedback).
To illustrate the relationship between higher yield and increasing uncertainty, the logistic equation [i] according to the Belgian mathematician Pierre François Verhulst can serve. In 1838, he extended the linear equation dp/dt = r, where dp/dt is any further growth and r is the growth rate, by adding a term that introduces the aspect of approaching the upper limit of growth. The result is the following equation: dp/dt = r ((K-p before)/K), where K is the growth limit. Surprisingly, this equation is no longer linear. The equation initially shows an expected asymptotic approach to a growth limit. But what is really amazing about this equation is that when the growth limit is sufficiently approached, the volume begins to jump between discrete values with further increase (boom-or-bust effect), and falls into complete chaos with still further increase.
This observation is consistent with our experience with the limits of economic growth.
The growth spiral will continue to spiral only until it threatens to finally run out of food. If it continues to increase, we will have to go through a path of suffering that cannot be controlled and has no prospects.
Alternatively, we will switch over in time. However, the starting conditions for new ways become the worse, the longer we wait before we switch over. The fading out of this well-known connection and the occupation with illusory solutions do not lead at all to an improvement.
The system of nature and economy inevitably regulates itself, and we are all components of this system. Thus, the perceived dilemma that issues such as climate protection can only be solved globally and that the initiative of individuals supposedly cannot have a resounding effect will dissolve naturally. We will have no alternative at all but to face up to the challenges of a world without quantitative growth. Individuals can certainly provide impetus and set influential movements in motion.
Therefore, work to raise people's awareness of development and of the need for effective countermeasures in your environment.