What happens when you’re exponentially growing, but realize there’s an inevitable ceiling to this growth followed by a collapse? Is there a way to stop before hitting that ceiling? Can we raise that ceiling?
This is the big question asked in “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies”
Geoffrey has done a beautiful job with this book and has opened my eyes to the different fundamental laws of growth that govern our world. The main theme Geoffrey explores in Scale is how biology, infrastructure, and culture scale in similar ways. The bigger question I walked away from after reading this book is how is humanity able to continually grow at the exponential rate we’re growing at without falling off the inevitable cliff we’re rapidly approaching? A bit depressing I know…
The “cliff” mentioned above is manifesting itself in many different forms, but the most obvious is our limited resources on Earth. As our population increases and underdeveloped countries work to improve their living conditions (as they should) we’re exponentially increasing our use of the limited resources we have on Earth. Some like to think this growth can last forever, but sadly this is far from correct… The story ends and it’s not pretty.
Our mission as a species is to figure out how we’re able to continue this infinite growth or change our collective value system away from our current obsession with growth.
In this post, I’ll share some of the most interesting ideas and thoughts I had throughout.
Closed vs. Open systems
Geoffrey has brought a new perspective to my mind on energy consumption and generation. When most of us think about a more renewable future we default to a basket of renewables (wind, solar, hydro, etc.), plus a little nuclear fission sprinkled throughout. This traditional mindset works, but only in the short term as we transition to a carbon-free world. The eye-opening perspective that I didn’t really consider is “What happens next?”
Once we’ve reached this carbon-free world, we’ll need to quickly transition towards solar or nuclear fusion because this is our only way out of this closed-loop system we’re living in. Let me explain…
Most of the energy we use today comes from resources that are guaranteed to run out (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, etc.). These resources are a part of our closed-loop system (Earth), to avoid this we need to reach outside of this system for our resources to transform into an open-loop system. The only resource available that’s basically limitless is our sun. The two ways we can do this are… Leveraging the sun for all our energy needs by creating better solar capturing devices and way better batteries for storage… Or we create our own little sun here on earth through nuclear fusion… Or preferably both.
Geoffrey came to this closed vs. open-loop conclusion through a first-principles approach, which is why this book is so unique. As a physicist, it’s natural for him to apply first-principles thinking to all the topics throughout this book, sometimes contradicting what traditional biology or sociology says about humans.
Life + Entropy = Death
In the first portion of the book, Geoffrey explores a question we all ask at some point in our lives… Why do we die?
After many years of research, it all comes back to “Entropy”. This word is related to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all energy produced will always have wasted energy and damage.
All living things survive through their “metabolism”, which is how we consume stuff (food, water, sun, etc.) and turn that into energy, but this transformation from stuff to energy has waste. The waste from our metabolism, especially in humans causes issues down the road to our internal infrastructure, eventually leading to our death.
This beautifully sad fact shows us that the very thing that’s keeping us alive (metabolism) will bring us closer to death.
The amount of time each animal has on this planet is directly related to how efficient their metabolic rate is. This is why an elephant can live up to 80 years and a mouse can only last 2.
This entropy and lifespan point can be directly connected to humanity as a whole. Think about humanity as one massive animal… Our exponential increase in energy consumption is speeding up the entropy (e.g. energy waste/damage) we’re undergoing.
Scaling in all areas
Animals and cities have a weird thing in common, they both leverage “economies of scale”, meaning they’re both more efficient the larger they become. As I mentioned before elephants live longer than mice because their metabolism is more efficient, but this same concept applies to cities.
On average, the larger a city is, the more efficient it becomes. Strange I know.
Larger cities have a more efficient infrastructure for utilities, roadways, public transport, healthcare, etc. A surprising finding while reading this book was that NYC is actually more environmentally friendly on a per-person basis than most small towns due to its ability to leverage scale.
All this efficiency is nice, but not enough. Our population is increasing and the Western consumer-centric way of life is spreading, which is great for the quality of life, but not so great for our limited supply of resources. This growth is coming at an “exponential” rate, which is a buzzword everyone loves to use, without thinking about the second-order effect of what this means. If we continue to consume at an exponential rate, without exponentially creating more supply, then there’s only one ending to this story… Collapse
Most of us have seen the exponential graphs that go straight up and to the right, but all of these graphs are missing the second half – the collapse.
If we continue to consume at our current pace, then we’re almost guaranteed to run into this sooner or later. The only way we’ve historically avoided this collapse is through fundamental innovations that have to reset the clock…
Resetting the clock
Throughout history, some of the fundamental technologies that have reset the exponential clock are iron, steam, coal, computation, and, most recently, big data + machine learning. An interesting analogy used in the book to better understand this concept are treadmills.
Imagine you’re running on a treadmill that’s getting faster approaching an ending point and the only way you’re able to survive is by jumping onto another treadmill right next to you… but this treadmill is actually going twice as fast, so you’ll need to keep up, eventually needing to jump onto another and another and another… Always resetting the clock that’s getting faster.
These rapid innovation cycles can be found in most futurist presentations that pontificate about our futures…
There’s a question we need to ask ourselves when looking at this increasingly fast growth and constant resetting of the clock – Can we rely solely on technological innovation forever?
Like any good scientist, Geoffrey leaves us with more questions, than answers.
Near the end of this book, he introduced a framework to use when thinking about this “scaling” problem, which he called the “Grand Unified Theory of Sustainability”… The idea is that instead of only relying on technological innovations to get us from one treadmill to the next, we should take a more holistic approach.
This holistic perspective is needed because we’re dealing with highly interconnected complex adaptive systems. Meaning, we need to not only improve our use of energy and infrastructure, but we need to shift our collective values from a consumer-centric society to a more relationship-focused society. – Put in simple terms, we need to focus on the way people think and not just the tech… Here’s a great interview with Geoffrey explaining this idea.
If you’re interested in ideas similar to this, I’d recommend you check out this video of Daniel Schmachtenberger explaining his perspective on the problem.
Until next time my fellow Wanderers! 😉