Continual (Solar-Powered) Economic Growth

Last Saturday I attended an event at the University of Minnesota showcasing professors and their research. Each gave a presentation and took questions from the audience. One spoke about depression economics, another about social justice and the environment. And interestingly, both of these distinguished men had very different opinions on a basic issue.

The sociologist speaking on the environment was concerned about the ransacking of resources humans are committing on the planet. He spoke of the inability to sustain economic growth (growth we’ve been used to the last several decades) as there is only one Earth with a growing population that is already taking its toll on the planet. To continue this, and especially to increase, such consumption and environmental affects would be to destroy the Earth.

The economist talked about depressions in the world economy and explained their definition as not a dip in living standards, but a dip in growth. In other words, growth is to be expected. When challenged by an audience member about growth inevitably coming to an end, he shrugged it off by countering his belief in indefinite growth.

Both sides have reason. The former in that resources are scarce and present methods for production won’t keep up; the latter in that growth has been occurring–at an increasing pace–for several generations. And with the accelerating rise of gargantuan India and China, why would growth slow down–let alone cease?

After the economist’s lecture, the audience member who challenged him approached a bit annoyed. “We’re going to need five Earths to fulfill demand of the world’s population by 2050”, she warned with a wrinkled brow. “Where are we going to go once we’ve taken everything off the earth?!”

I interjected, “We’ll colonize Mars.”

She looked at me like I was crazy.

Maybe colonizing Mars is crazy–though I don’t think so. Regardless, the point I wanted to make is that over the last several decades humanity has met the demand of their needs despite those who have fretted about the end of oil, minerals, and even food. What they’ve neglected is that there will be technological and logistical innovations which they can’t account for today. They assume the rates of consumption, population growth, prices, etc. will continue, and that no innovations will meet future demand–whether they are ways to get more oil or grow more food, or whether it’s an adjustment of how we get our energy.

“Solar will be the plurality of power within 20 years”

This quote ran across my computer earlier this week. It was made by Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla electric car. While there’s no way to know if he’s right, this is precisely the kind of thinking and optimism that will allow humanity to continue to thrive. It’s not about ignoring current warning signs about population and consumption, it’s about seeing them and so knowing we have to do something about them.



to new plateaus,




What say you?