colin f lane

Smil: Growth

Smil, Vaclav. Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019.


At the same time, billions of mobile phone users participating in social media voluntarily surrender their privacy so data miners can, without asking anybody a single question, follow their messages and their web clicking, analyzing the individual personal preferences and foibles they reveal, comparing them to those of their peers, and packaging them to be bought by advertisers in order to sell more unneeded junk -- and to keep economic growth intact. Nd, of course, streams of data are produced incessantly simply by people carrying GPS-enabled mobile phones. Add to this the flood of inane images, including myriads of selfies and cat videos (even stills consume bytes rapidly: smartphone photos take up commonly 2-3 MB, that is 2-3 times more than the typescript of this book) -- and the unprecedented growth of "information" appears more pitiable than admirable. (xvi)

There is no doubt, no hesitation, no humility in Kurzweil's categorical grand pronouncements because according to him the state of the biosphere, whose functioning is a product of billions of years of evolution, has no role in our futures, which are to be completely molded by the surpassing mastery of machine intelligence. (xvii)

1 Trajectories: or common patterns of growth

And before leaving the topic of exponential growth, this is an apposite place to note a simple rule for calculating the doubling period of quantities subject to it, be they cancerous cells, bank accounts, or the processing capacity of computers, or, in reverse, to calculate a growth rate by using the known doubling time. Exact results are obtained by dividing the natural logarithm of 2 (that is 0.693) by the prevailing growth rate (expressed as a fraction of one, e.g. 0.1 for 10%), but a quite good approximation is dividing 70 by the growth rate expressed in percent. When the Chinese economy was growing at 10% a year, its doubling period was seven years; conversely, the doubling of components on a microchip in two years implies an annual exponential growth rate of about 35%. (25)

And there is no doubt about the long-term trajectory of hyperbolic growth on the Earth: it must either collapse or it must morph into a confined progression which might become a part of a homeostatic coexistence of humanity and the biosphere including an eventual upper limit on the information content in the external memory (Dolgonosov 2010). (31)

Autocatalytic processes
'reactions showing rate acceleration as a function of time followed by eventual saturation -- are essential for the growth and maintenance of living systems and without them abiotic chemistry could not have given rise to replication, metabolism, and evolution (Plasson et al. 2011 Virgo et al. 2014).' (37)
"80-20 Rule"
'What has become perhaps the most famous power-law distribution (thanks to the influence of economics in public affairs) was described by Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist (Pareto 1896). He noted that much like 20% of pea pods in his garden yielded 80% of all harvested peas, just 20% of rich Italians owned 80% of all land, and this principle turned out to be applicable to many natural, economic, and social phenomena.' (62-3)

4 Artifacts: or growth of man-made objects and their performances

The diversity of artifacts is at least comparable to the diversity of organisms ... the total of anthropogenic "species" is far larger (225)

'No matter if we compare overall diversity (species through evolution, artifacts through deliberate design) or the ranges of mass, capacity, or typical performance, the universe of man-made objects and structures is as rich, and in some ways even richer, than the variety contained within the biosphere (228)

Many tools, devices, and simple machines [eg cranes, grain production, sails] followed the pattern ... of long periods ... of stagnation or marginal growth followed by a rapid expansion that started at different times between 1700 and 1850 (232-3)

For those who might see skyscraper numbers as a proxy for economic power, the latest distribution offers convincing proof of Asia's rise, American decline, and Europe's near-total absence in the rankings (246)

Planes could be engineered to fly faster but additional drag generated as they surpass 1 M[ach] would make them significantly more expensive to operate: a speed plateau dictated by the economics of commercial operation has been thus in place ever since the beginning of the jetliner era (281)

Kondratiev wave
'The post-1930 envelope of the maximum power density of vacuum devices forms a straight line on the semilog graph, gaining nearly 1.5 orders of magnitude every decade and corresponding to an average annual exponential growth of about 35%. That turns out to be exactly the average annual growth rate of post-1965 crowding of transistors, solid-state electronics performing the function previously done by vacuum tubes ... vacuum electronics had seen gains anticipated by Moore's law for decades before that growth rule was formulated by Gordon Moore in 1965' (286-7)

5 Populations, Societies, Economies: or growth of the most complex assemblies

"Material Metabolism" of cities

Growing cities enjoy disproportionate increases in productivity, average income, and accumulated wealth that can be attributed to the phenomenon of agglomeration ... in terms of transport, cost savings, customer-supplier interactions, labor pooling, and exchange of knowledge allowing companies, regardless of their size, to take advantage of economies of scale and scope (341)

These realities are far more important than any natural advantages (such as a deep port or a location in a heavily frequented valley) that may have played some role in the past but that now appear to explain no more than about one quarter of existing industrial concentrations

Remarkably, even the post-1950 rise of inexpensive long-distance transportation and the rapid post-1980 diffusion of highly affordable instant communication, information and data sharing have not weakened the process of agglomeration (341)

Tobler's Law
everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.

Cities are our civilization's most complex and most intensive dissipative (entropy-producing) structures (342-3)

Taagepera (1968) on imperial growth:

We may overestimate the additional complexity involved in humans, as compared to cells in a sunflower. The reason why the simple logistic curve can apply to sunflowers and empires is that not all aspects of a complex system need to be complex, in particular, the simpler laws of physics and biology are not suspended for political science and history (367)

China's ascent will be, inevitably, self-limiting. As its economic growth moderates and as its population continues to age faster in the coming two generations than the EU has done since 1970, the dynamics of the world's longest surviving empire will soon enter a new phase of gradual retreat. (375)

The fundamental physical necessities and outcomes of growth, that is energy and material flows that are now commonly overlooked (or deliberately ignored) as if the process could be only about energy-free, dematerialized changes of abstract aggregates quantified so imperfectly in such an inadequate measure of real value as money. Although economists have a long history of ignoring energy, all economic activities are, in fundamental physical (thermodynamic) terms, simple or sequential energy conversions aimed at producing specific products or services. (376)

Traditional economies were energized overwhelmingly by biomass fuels (wood, charcoal, straw, dung) and by animate power (human labor, draft animals), with very small shares of inanimate power derived from flowing water and wind ... traditional economies broke free from the constraints imposed on their growth by reliance on animal products of photosynthesis supplemented by relatively small contributions of wind and flowing water. Wrigley sees an intriguing paradox in the fact that this liberation was done "by gaining access to the products of photosynthesis stockpiled over a geologic time span. It was the steadily increasing use of coal as an energy source which provided the escape route". (377)

Basic material inputs:

During the early modern era (1500-1800) even the best performers (18th century England and Qing China) had overwhelmingly wooden economies (wooden houses, ships, carriages, and tools) supplemented by considerable (but highly variable) masses of stone and bricks in construction (common in Europe, rare in East Asia) and by very limited number of metallic, glass, and ceramic objects, ranging from armor to fine porcelain. Only the 19th century saw the introduction of affordable steel and cement and the first production of aluminum, and only the 20th brought the synthesis of ammonia (the base of all nitrogenous fertilizers) and plastics, and later of solid-state electronics based on silicon. (376-7)

GDP is not a reliable measure of the total economic product, and it is an outright inferior measure as far as the quality of life and real prosperity are concerned. From a long-term perspective, the most fundamental failure of GDP accounts is to ignore diverse forms of environmental degradation caused by economic activities and treat the depletion of finite resources as current income that adds to wealth. These are, of course, utterly unsustainable premises as no society can exist without adequate support provided by natural capital stored in biodiversity and in photosynthesizing species and maintained by many indispensable environmental services ranging from soil renewal to water retention by forests and wetlands. (402)

Little's Constant:

Nobody with a background in complex systems (be they natural ecosystems or productive anthropogenic agricultural and industrial assemblages) would try to reduce the explanation of their roots, preconditions, and causes to a few dominant drivers. But economists have been trying to do precisely that for more than two centuries. Their search for the roots of economic growth might be conveniently divided into identifying proximate causes and finding the ultimate reasons, but neither approach has all the answers (419)

'In many respects the much-touted "New Economy" -- based on exploiting computing, information processing, and telecommunication advances, made possible by the growth of microprocessor capabilities (conforming to Moore's Law) -- does not measure up to the great inventions of the past. (423)

Economic concepts ... lack any systematic awareness of the implications of the laws of thermodynamics for the physical process of production. A corollary, almost worthy of being a separate bad idea on its own, is that energy can be ignored ... as if output could be produced by labor and capital alone -- or as if energy is merely a form of man-made capital that can be produced (as opposed to extracted) by labor and capital ... the essential truth missing from economic education is that energy is the stuff of the universe, that all matter is also a form of energy, and that the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing, and transforming energy, as resources into energy, embodied in products and services (Ayres 2017, 40) (426)

Since the onset of the industrial revolution economic growth has been driven largely by declining energy costs resulting from the discovery and extensive exploitation of relatively inexpensive and highly energy-dense fossil fuels. (426)

Kondratiev Waves
'New energy sources and prime movers led to cyclically accelerated investment'
  • 1787-1817 (coal extraction, stationary steam engine)
  • 1844-1875 (steam engines on rail and ships, iron metallurgy (Bessemer steel))
  • 1890-1920 (commercial electricity, steam replaced with electric motors in industry)
  • 1939-1974
  • 1984-2008 (electronics)