The greatest failing of the Australian people is the failure to understand the basic implications of exponential growth. (paraphrasing/adapting Alfred Bartlett of university of Colorado).
The greatest failure of our leaders is to adequately prepare our children for the Limits to Growth.
There are a couple of basic things we should all know about growth, compounding and the exponential function..
1. The rule of 72 lets you estimate doubling times for any rate of exponential growth by mental arithmetic. Just divide 72 by the rate of growth.
2. During the next doubling period (at whatever rate is used) of resource usage we will use more of a resource than has been used in all recorded history.
3. Estimates of resource life at current rates of usage are highly misleading in the face of annual growth in the rate of extraction.
Let's look at a few simple examples, using assumed numbers.
Assume we have 300 years of coal at current rates of extraction, but extraction is growing at 7% pa. (it has averaged over 10% growth pa over the last decade). The doubling time for the rate of extraction is just over 10 years (72 (from the Rule of 72) divided by 7% is 10.something times).
That means that over the next 10 years we will mine more coal in Australia than has ever been mined in the whole of Australian recorded history.
In very simple terms which significantly underestimate the shortening of resource life in 10 year time the resource life will have halved to 150 years from now. In a further 10 years of the same 7% rate of growth it will have more than halved again to only 75 years, but there are only 55 of those 75 years left.
Add a further 10 years of 7% growth in extraction and we can see that again the extraction rate doubles (its just simple mental arithmetic), we use more than has ever been used before in that decade (for the third decade in a row), the resource life halves again to only 37.5 years but 30 of those years are already gone.
300 years of resource at current rates of extraction are gone in 40 years at 7% compound growth per annum. (if you do this with Excel the exact answer is it runs out in the 45th year.)
If you do this exercise with Excel you will find that at 7% compound per annum the resource runs out in the 45th year, but the importance of this exercise above is to show how simple it is to work out the doubling time of the current rate of extraction and a reasonable estimate of the time of depletion of current resources using mental arithmetic.
You can convert this story to oil, iron ore, copper, brick making clay, concrete components, whatever you like. You can do it for population size, the cost of a loaf of bread. How long will it take your city to double in population at x% growth per annum.
Please don't just take my word for this. Open an Excel spreadsheet and do the numbers yourself.
Now many will say more resources will be found, human ingenuity will overcome etc. If so, what is the cost of extracting those additional resources going to be? And transporting them if oil is also growing in scarcity or cost of extraction?
Prof Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado has an excellent video (in 8 parts on Youtube) and a transcript of the lecture available on his website. I commend it to you.
111. Exponential Function transcript - Arithmetic, Population and Energy - a talk by Al Bartlett on the impossibility of exponential growth on a finite planet
111. Exponential Function - Video parts 1 through 4 of Arithmetic, Population and Energy - a talk by Al Bartlett on the impossibility of exponential growth on a finite planet
Limits of Growth
All this leads to consideration of "The Limits to Growth", both the book and its principles.
This book forecasts the collapse of life as we enjoy it in about 2050 based on increasing resource scarcity.
While it has had many detractors, many of them have not read or understood the book.
In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia published a paper called "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality".
It examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made
in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production
and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century.
In 2010, Peet, Nørgård, and Ragnarsdóttir called the book a "pioneering
report". They said that, "its approach remains useful and that its
conclusions are still surprisingly valid... unfortunately the report has
been largely dismissed by critics as a doomsday prophecy that has not
held up to scrutiny."
The implications for poor populations (even in developed countries) and poor countries of increasing resource scarcity are profound. Resource wars and colonial subjugation to control resources are clearly possible and probably likely within 50 years. Some would say the Iraq war, East Timor and the Spratley Island tensions are all at least partly about oil.