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“…the Second Law also demands that nothing can do anything without consuming concentrated energy, or fuel, and then dissipating it as unusable waste heat. For example, the Earth “consumes” concentrated sunlight to power weather and the water cycle, and then radiates unusable thermal energy to the cold of space. Like the weather in our atmosphere, all economic actions and motions, even our thoughts, must also be propelled by a progression from concentrated fuel to useless waste heat. The economy would grind to a halt absent continued energetic input. Buildings crumble; people die; technology becomes obsolete; we forget. Civilization must constantly consume in order to sustain itself against this constant loss of energy and matter…” ~ Tim Garrett

On average the human brain experiences 70,000 thoughts daily and requires roughly 24 watts or roughly 500 Calories during that time to function. To keep modern civilization running, 17 trillion Watts of power are consumed, 4% of which goes to keeping humanity’s 7 billion bodies alive while the rest powers our buildings, machines, and agriculture. The laws of thermodynamics require that all systems, whether natural or inorganic, evolve and grow through the conversion of environmental potential energy into a dissipated form known commonly as waste heat. Most of the energy we need to run industrial civilization still comes from fossil fuels with coal being the primary source, and projections are that this will remain so far into the future. Since fossil fuels give off nasty greenhouse gasses that heat up the planet and destabilize the biosphere, the obvious question is whether our economic engine can be decoupled from CO2 emissions.

Atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett has a few papers on this subject and a new paper on collapse which I’ll mention at the end, but first let’s review and get an understanding of what he said in his censored paper, ‘Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?‘, as well as the following recorded speech. I consider Garret to be a biophysical economist firmly rooted in geophysics and reality, much like Albert Bartlett and Charles Hall.

Conclusions of the paper entitled ‘Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?’:

  • Improving energy efficiency accelerates CO2 emissions growth.
  • Absent collapsing the economy (In other words turning the inflation adjusted GDP to zero), emissions can be stabilized only by building the equivalent of one nuke plant per day globally (or some other non CO2-emitting power supply)
  • Emissions growth has inertia (due to the high probability of points one and two)

The present state and growth of civilization are determined by the past, and the past fundamentally cannot be changed. Thus we are set on a trajectory that can lead to simplified predictions of the future.

Where does the value of money come from?

An economist would say that its value is fundamentally belief-based. I believe it has value and you believe it has value; therefore, it has value.

From a physics perspective, this explanation is a bit unsatisfactory because it doesn’t really explain where that belief comes from. Why is that belief so resilient? Presumably that belief has some physical representation because civilization certainly is part of the physical universe. It’s not separate from it. We are all pat of the physical world.

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Civilization is an organism that can be defined by how it consumes/transforms energy. Physics can be used to describe civilization. There are basic laws of thermodynamics and, fundamentally, physics is about the transformation of energy from one state to another or really the flow of energy downhill, or more strictly, the flow of material downhill from a high potential state to a low potential state. You can think of a ball rolling from a high gravitational potential to a low gravitational potential.

Money is a representation of some energetic flow [economic activity] from high potential to low potential. Economic wealth represents the rate of consumption of energy in civilization. An example of this in nature would be a beaver dam which represents civilization.


The energy reservoir for the beaver dam (civilization) is the water behind the dam. The flow of water across the dam from a high gravitational potential to a low gravitational potential represents the size of the beaver’s ‘civilization’. Something similar applies to human civilization which represents a gradient between available energy supplies (coal, oil, uranium) and a point of low potential (outer space).

We consume energy, things happen in civilization due to the flow across that potential gradient (high to low) releasing waste heat which radiates to outer space at a cold temperature of about 255 Kelvin (-18ºC).

We can treat civilization as a single organism that interacts on a global scale with available energy reservoirs and through the transformation of that energy (stuff is done, economic activity occurs). Money is a representation of that capacity to do stuff physically (or how fast it can consume that energy).

This is a testable hypothesis and it can be expressed mathematically which means we can look at this quantitatively.

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Wealth is the value of something that has accumulated over time. Based on what we currently have, we are able to produce more which gives us more power to produce even more in the future. It’s through this spontaneous feedback process that civilization (or a beaver dam) is able to grow.

The question is, “How do you calculate this accumulated wealth?”

Economists use GDP as a wealth indicator. All the economic production added up from the beginning of history up to the present is the total accumulated wealth for civilization.

GDP has units of currency per time, so it’s a production per year. Inflation-adjusted production is producing something new to be added to what we currently have and that added over time creates our wealth. The hypothesis says that this process is related to our rate of energy consumption through a constant value λ (9.7, plus or minus 0.3, milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar].

This can be tested with various historical GDP statistics along with records of world total energy production and CO2 emissions.

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This hypothesis is supported by the data to an extremely high degree of confidence.

What turns that piece of paper (currency) into a potential to do something is the milliwatts per dollar, as calculated in the chart below:

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The graph below shows statistics from the year 1700 onward for inflation-adjusted world GDP(P) Green line. The time integral of GDP, or wealth of civilization(C), is represented by the blue line which has increased by a factor of 6 or 7($300 trillion to $1700 trillion) since 1700. Bursts of growth are seen around 1880 and 1950 in the purple line(η) which is the annual percentage growth rate of world GDP, calculated by dividing the GDP(P) by the wealth of civilization(C). Today the world GDP is about 100 times larger than it was in 1970.

The growth of red line(a), primary energy consumption rate, is essentially moving in tandem with the wealth of civilization (blue line). This suggests that, fundamentally, money is power.

The black line represents the constant coefficient of the power of money λ (9.7, plus or minus 0.3, milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar).

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How is emissions related to wealth?

It is the relation of energy consumption and the resultant emissions. Emission rates are fundamentally linked to the wealth of civilization:

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You cannot reduce emission rates without reducing the “wealth” of civilization. Wealth is energy consumption; energy consumption is carbon dioxide emissions. The two are inseparable.

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In order to just stabilize CO2 levels, you would have to decarbonize as fast as the current growth rate in energy consumption which would work out to about one nuclear power plant per day (or some other comparable non CO2-emitting energy supply).

If you look at atmospheric CO2 concentrations in parts per million by volume (from various sources including ice cores) and compare that to the world GDP going back to 2 A.D., the values increase pretty much in tandem through history:

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“If we want to reduce CO2, something has to collapse.”

In more recent years, the world GDP plotted against atmospheric CO2 shows an even more tight relationship between the two:

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“You could just go to the top of Mauna Loa with a CO2 monitor and measure the size of the global economy to a high degree of accuracy.”

The positive feedback of building wealth in civilization

Wealth is a representation of energy consumption rates. Real GDP is a representation of the growth rate in energy consumption rates. This cycle is fundamentally linked to physics through the parameter lambda λ (9.7 milliwatts per inflation-adjusted dollar).

GDP is really just an abstract representation of an ability to increase our capacity to consume more energy in the future.  That’s what the production really represents.

Civilization is always trying to expand its energy consumption to accumulate more wealth, or reduce the cost of maintenance by improving energy efficiency. More available energy translates into more accumulated wealth which in turn requires more energy for maintenance, creating a vicious circle of unending growth. Energy conservation essentially does not help. The fear of contraction permeates every corner of the economy.

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In nature a tree takes available energy in sunlight through photosynthesis to incorporate nutrients from the soil and air in order to grow, and as it grows, it is able to do more of that process in the future. For a healthy tree, increased efficiency speeds up this process. If the tree is diseased, then the efficiency would be compromised until it dies, creating exponential decay.

We could apply this to civilization. If we increase efficiency, it leads to accelerated growth and more energy consumption. This phenomenon is known as Jevon’s paradox, first noted in 1865.

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Increased energy efficiency increases the positive feedback of building wealth in civilization which can lead to super exponential growth, and that leads to an ever accelerated increase of CO2 emissions. This feedback loop (rate of return) for building wealth in civilization has increased from about 0.1% per year in 1700 to 2.2% per year, the highest it’s ever been in history.

As mentioned before, there are a couple of inflection points in history for this rate of return, one in 1880 and another in 1950 which likely correspond to new energy reservoirs coming online. This means the problem is fundamentally a geologic problem. 1950-1970 was a boom time for the wealth rate of return. This rate of return has been stagnant in recent years for the first time since the 1930’s, probably related to the current economic crisis. The sheer size of modern civilization has vastly overshot the Earth’s regenerative abilities. Biophysical limits on resource extraction are likely a major contributor to this stagnant rate of return. The extraction of low-grade, dirty fossil fuels is a sign of civilization’s energy desperation.

Future Scenarios

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Emissions Impossible

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We aren’t really decarbonizing. Perhaps we’re trying to, but not really.

The model shows that reducing carbon requires a rapid reduction in the size of maintained wealth, as well as rapid abandonment of carbon-burning energy sources at the global rate of 300 GW of new non carbon-emitting power capacity—approximately one new nuclear power plant per day.

“Extending the model to the future, the model suggests that the well-known IPCC SRES scenarios substantially underestimate how much CO2 levels will rise for a given level of future economic prosperity. For one, global CO2 emission rates cannot be decoupled from wealth through efficiency gains. For another, like a long-term natural disaster, future greenhouse warming can be expected to act as an inflationary drag on the real growth of global wealth. For atmospheric CO2 concentrations to remain below a “dangerous” level of 450 ppmv, model forecasts suggest that there will have to be some combination of an unrealistically rapid rate of energy decarbonization and nearly immediate reductions in global civilization wealth. Effectively, it appears that civilization may be in a double-bind. If civilization does not collapse quickly this century, then CO2 levels will likely end up exceeding 1000 ppmv; but, if CO2 levels rise by this much, then the risk is that civilization will gradually tend towards collapse.” ~ Tim Garrett

With business-as-usual, by 2100 the world GDP would be 10 times higher than today and the atmospheric CO2 would be around 1200 ppm.

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The developed countries like the U.S., Britain, and Europe have simply offshored their manufacturing base to China and elsewhere for the most part:


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Garrett’s latest paper “Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis” explains key components determining whether civilization can “innovate” itself toward faster economic growth through new energy reserve discovery, improvements to human and infrastructure longevity, and more energy efficient resource extraction technology. Growth slows due to a combination of prior growth, energy reserve depletion, and a “fraying” of civilization networks due to natural disasters… While growth must initially be positive for civilization to emerge, positive growth cannot be sustained forever. Civilization networks are always falling apart, and presumably in a world with finite resources, we will eventually lose the capacity to keep fixing them.” Future loss of useable Land and Water is already in the pipeline from all prior carbon emissions, and CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated. “Whether collapse comes sooner or later depends on the quantity of energy reserves available to support continued growth and the accumulated magnitude of externally imposed decay… Theoretical and numerical arguments suggest that when growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to such externalities as natural disasters, and the risk is for an accelerating collapse.”

Rip rip woodchip
Turn it into paper
Throw it in the bin
No news today
Nightmare dreaming
Can’t you hear the screaming
Chainsaw I saw more decay