Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis

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Abstract

Abstract

Climate change is a two-way street during the Anthropocene: civilization depends upon a favorable climate at the same time that it modifies it. Yet studies that forecast economic growth employ fundamentally different equations and assumptions than those used to model Earth's physical, chemical, and biological processes. In the interest of establishing a common theoretical framework, this article treats humanity like any other physical process; that is, as an open, nonequilibrium thermodynamic system that sustains existing circulations and furthers its material growth through the consumption and dissipation of energy. The link of physical to economic quantities comes from a prior result that establishes a fixed relationship between rates of global energy consumption and a historical accumulation of global economic wealth. What follows are nonequilibrium prognostic expressions for how wealth, energy consumption, and the Gross World Product (GWP) grow with time. This paper shows that the key components that determine whether civilization “innovates” itself toward faster economic growth include energy reserve discovery, improvements to human and infrastructure longevity, and reductions in the amount of energy required to extract raw materials. Growth slows due to a combination of prior growth, energy reserve depletion, and a “fraying” of civilization networks due to natural disasters. 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.

Summary

Linking physical to economic quantities comes from a fixed relationship between rates of global energy consumption and historical accumulation of global economic wealth. When growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to externalities, such as natural disasters, and is at risk for accelerating collapse.

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