Wed. Jan 27th, 2021
The Possibility of Infinite Technological Development on a Finite Planet

The previous few hundred years have seen extra in wealth and human primary dwelling requirements than the whole thing of human historical past. Whereas not mutually unique, that is, partially, due to a stage of financial development and by no means earlier than thought attainable.

Most human existence has been described as “‘nasty, brutish and short,” with development and enchancment in dwelling requirements comparatively flat for lengthy durations of time. That each one modified about 200 years in the past, due to the Industrial Revolution and all the pieces that adopted. 

Chart plotting varied elements in human historical past together with life expectancy, % of individuals dwelling in poverty, and many others over the past 3000 years, Supply: Analyzing Trends

In accordance with a report published in 2017 by the Nationwide Academy of Sciences, “Financial research carried out earlier than the information-technology revolution have proven that even then, as a lot as 85 p.c of measured development in U.S. earnings per capita is because of change.” 

What’s extra, that is solely set to extend sooner or later. However, this improvement has come at a value — it has had a tangible damaging impact on the pure world.

For that reason, many now imagine that we might have reached the bounds of financial, and by extension technological, development. It’s merely not sustainable.

Or so the argument goes. However is that this true?

Let’s discover out. 


Setting the scene: the place we’re in the present day

As we’ve beforehand talked about, the extent of wealth and dwelling requirements we take pleasure in in the present day can be virtually unthinkable even 100 years in the past. Not to mention 1000’s of years in the past.

In accordance with J. Bradford DeLong, an economics professor on the College of California, Berkeley, between 12 months 1 AD and 1800 AD, the common GDP per capita was about $200. After this era, GDP per capita rose quickly, reaching $6,539 by the 12 months 2000 AD.

We’ve, fairly actually, by no means had it so good. 

Whereas many of the advantages of this development have been loved by only a handful of countries, even lesser developed nations have seen tangibly accelerated development. Throughout the board, albeit with some disparity, per-capita wealth and dwelling requirements like increased life expectancy, and decreased mortality charges from illness and malnutrition have been markedly improved.

Supply: Sidonius/Wikimedia Commons

However how has this been achieved?

The reply is, partially, due to what Adam Smith termed “the division of labor”. Releasing progressively extra individuals to specialise in specific duties has allowed for an explosion in technological progress. 

Nevertheless, we’re starting to grasp that this has additionally led to the large overconsumption of sources, because the pure world experiences the collateral harm from this development. From microplastics to heavy metals and fertilizer runoff, to the impact of our actions on growing greenhouse gases and local weather change, we’ve not been nice custodians of this lovely .

Some are utilizing this as proof that the expansion can’t proceed ceaselessly, and will even have reached its peak. It is usually argued that the continued exponential development will outcome within the consumption of extra sources, continued lack of ecosystems, and ever-larger mountains of waste and air pollution.

To not point out a rising inequality between the have and have nots. 

Whereas this has definitely been true, it does not essentially comply with that this pattern has to proceed into the longer term. Removed from it. 

Expertise might have contributed to those issues, however it is also the remedy for them. However first, let’s unpack the concept of a planet.

What’s a finite planet?

Any planet, like Earth, has a set quantity of sources to supply. It essentially has a restricted, aka finite, quantity of uncooked supplies.

Whereas the Earth may be very massive, from our perspective, solely a comparatively small quantity of it (the uppermost crust, oceans, and environment) might be exploited to be used by people. At least for now. 


Nevertheless, this line of considering assumes that sources can solely be consumed a restricted variety of instances, and never used a limiteless quantity of instances. However, as we all know, energy (and by extension, mass) can’t be created nor destroyed, solely modified in kind. 

In concept, at the very least, since all the pieces we create from Earth’s uncooked supplies stays on the planet, we might, with the suitable expertise, reuse all of it a limiteless variety of instances. In different phrases, whereas transformed in kind, Earth’s uncooked supplies are by no means really gone — they’ve solely been “borrowed”. 

That’s, except we start making fleets of gargantuan spacecraft to discover the galaxy, by no means to return.

However, it’s attention-grabbing to notice that the Earth does look like dropping mass over time. It’s estimated that someplace within the area of 50,000 metric tons are misplaced to house each single 12 months. 

However do not let this frighten you. At this price, it might take a really very long time to shed a major proportion of Earth’s estimated 5.9724 x 1024 kgs

Nevertheless, this is not actually the purpose of the argument. Sustained overconsumption of sources on Earth will seemingly trigger irreparable harm and potential lack of its life assist system — the biosphere. We’re animals and, subsequently, want entry to breathable air, meals, potable water, and a liveable atmosphere to outlive. 

Constant economic/ at the price of the atmosphere will, inevitably, attain its restrict. The fragile steadiness of ecosystems will probably be thrown off wildly, resulting in mass extinctions, melting of the polar ice caps, and different catastrophic occasions, if we aren’t cautious.

SupplyМихаил Руденко/iStock

This could be not a super consequence, to say the least. One thing has to provide someplace.

In such a situation, we would find yourself technically rich, however unable to outlive. However might there be a means for us to have the most effective of each worlds (no pun supposed)?

Can an financial system continue to grow ceaselessly?

What does the financial system must do with technological improvement? In brief, all the pieces.

The financial system, find it irresistible, or detest it, underpins all the pieces. It covers all the pieces from money to the production, transportation, trade, and consumption of goods and services that hold our civilization ticking alongside. 

The Silk Highway was as soon as instrumental to financial development and improvement, SupplyDavid Roberts/Wikimedia Commons

It is usually nothing new. Even our ancient ancestors had some form of economy. In spite of everything, they made stuff, used it, and traded it, even when they didn’t use cash.

Put merely, no financial system, no expertise. 

Arguments just like the idea of a “finite planet” are a main instance of a zero-sum recreation. It assumes that financial development should essentially equate with environmental degradation or, at the very least, the entire exhaustion of Earth’s finite sources.

However is that this actually the case?

If we prohibit our considering to a single planet, like Earth, it’s theoretically attainable to have limitless development. However this can want an environment friendly means of utilizing uncooked sources, or reusing “previous” ones, that produces imperceptible harm to, or works in concord with, the pure world. 

SupplyGavin Schaefer/Wikimedia Commons

Since it’s unlikely we are going to ever be capable of exist in full isolation from the atmosphere, that is of paramount significance. Until, after all, we discover a option to produce nutritious meals, clear water, and breathable air utilizing our expertise. 

However one factor is evident, we can’t, by definition, have steady development in technological and economical phrases if it ends in everlasting (at the very least in human timescales) harm to the planet. 

That is the place sustainable improvement turns into the important thing to technological improvement sooner or later. We should decouple financial development from its potential harm to the atmosphere.

To a sure extent, we’re seeing the beginnings of this course of in the present day. For instance, there’s some evidence that when a society reaches a specific wealth threshold, it turns into “cleaner”, much less wasteful, and extra environment friendly with its use of sources.

To place this one other means, when all the fundamental financial wants are met, individuals really feel they’ve the “luxurious” of preserving the atmosphere round them. For a lot of wealthier nations, this has been achieved partially by exporting their “dirtier”, resource-intensive must poorer nations. However some have additionally been proactive in growing environmental safety legal guidelines, too. 

The Kuznets curve means that financial improvement initially results in a deterioration within the atmosphere, however after a sure stage of financial development, a society begins to enhance its relationship with the atmosphere and environmental degradation ranges off, and reduces, Supply:

In concept, poorer nations must also hit this threshold, ultimately. This concept, nonetheless, will not be with out its critics.

If that is so, what sorts of technological innovation might theoretically enable for infinite development? Let’s take a peek into the longer term… 

May the age of the robotic assist us obtain infinite development?

One expertise that would, conceivably, not solely keep, however speed up technological improvement and development, is the field of robotics. It’s seemingly that automation will proceed to turn out to be extra subtle and take over an growing variety of laborious and repetitive duties. 


Robots are well-suited to carry out duties that require a excessive stage of precision, or a excessive price of pace, or that don’t supply the chance for relaxation. So long as their components are in good working order, and so they have the sources, akin to electrical energy, which they should run, they’ll proceed to work indefinitely. 

Robots are additionally changing into ever-more complicated of their design and talents. They’ll even construct different robots themselves. 

In some areas, robots have elevated productiveness to highs that weren’t attainable utilizing human beings alone.

Robots have the potential to not solely enhance how effectively we use pure sources and to scale back our impact on the environment, but additionally to scale back waste from errors in manufacturing. After all, robots additionally require a big enter of sources of their development.

And there’s the matter of how one can assist the individuals who lose their jobs to robotic employees. To keep away from robots having a damaging impact on inequality, they should produce sufficient extra capital wanted to assist the employees they displace.

Supply: Depositphotos

3D printing and additive manufacturing will probably be of paramount significance

Typical subtractive manufacturing, together with CNC milling, might not be essentially the most environment friendly means of creating issues. Whereas manufacturing methods have improved dramatically over time, their very nature usually results in the losing of pure sources.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, then again, is extremely environment friendly in the case of utilizing uncooked supplies to construct stuff. Little or no supply supplies are wasted, as they are usually when drilling, chopping, and milling, as a result of the supplies might be extra simply recycled for reuse. 

At current, 3D printing tends to be extra energy-intensive than another conventional manufacturing strategies, however it’s enhancing on a regular basis. A number of the vitality loss can also be compensated for with lowered distribution prices.


Since additive manufacturing permits many supplies to be printed on-site and on-demand, this additionally drastically reduces the scale of the provision chain wanted for manufacturing. It isn’t out of the query for on-site printing to one-day substitute the necessity for extensive inventories in shops and warehouses. 

3D printed components additionally are usually significantly lighter than conventional components, which additionally reduces the price of transportation. 

3D printing methods are additionally being developed that use eco-friendly supplies, akin to biodegradable, plant-based, or recyclable sources. 

3D  printers have been developed which can be even able to printing food, drugs, and human organs!

Whereas most 3D printers in the present day are used for prototyping, growing customized objects, and making small batches of things for industrial functions, the expertise is getting cheaper and higher yearly. 

You possibly can even get your self a comparatively low cost machine to tinker round throughout the consolation of your individual dwelling. Nevertheless, the tech will not be but prepared to exchange conventional manufacturing. Restrictions within the types of materials the printers can use are one of many principal bottlenecks to their expanded use, at the very least for now.

Supply: mebner1/Pixabay

Nevertheless, many industries, from aerospace to automotive and healthcare, have already embraced additive manufacturing. 3D printing can also be well-suited to smaller parts with tough shapes, that will usually be difficult to machine.

3D printing will definitely be an essential expertise to assist keep technological and financial development for a while to come back. 

Nanotechnology might assist with infinite development

One expertise that would yield a limitless way forward for development is nanotechnology. This wondrous expertise is extremely promising for the longer term.

It’s fairly attainable that this expertise will quickly enable the event of supplies like unbendable metals or metals with elastic recollections. Such supplies might considerably cut back the consumption of uncooked metals by enormously extending their usable lifespan.

Nanotechnology might additionally result in paints that may warn of overheating or medical surfaces that may detect pathogens. They might additionally yield virtually unbreakable glass that may additionally swap from opaque to clear, once more, decreasing the necessity for extra supplies. 

Nanotech additionally guarantees to provide coatings for picket, or different flammable supplies, that stop them from burning, and frictionless coatings on equipment to vastly enhance its lifespan.

Supply: Wallpaperflare

They could additionally yield fertilizers which can be non-toxic to the atmosphere. 

Work is already underway to make use of nanotechnology to transform seawater into freshwater. 

With all of the considerations of overpopulation and dwindling water sources, this may very well be of great use.

Nanotechnology may help with waste administration and recycling. Nanotech robots, generally known as nanites, might in the future be capable of flip our trash again into helpful uncooked supplies. 

They may also be deployed to wash up toxic-chemicals and switch them into innocent options.

When, and it’s seemingly a matter of when, not if, we’re capable of design and construct units on the molecular scale, we will take full benefit of this expertise. 

Supply: CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons

This might create solely new industries for future generations to maintain themselves busy. 

These are however a few of the wonderful advantages to the atmosphere that would come from nanotechnology. By optimizing utility and useful resource use effectivity, whereas additionally decreasing waste, nanotechnology is an instance of how expertise might allow continued excessive development charges into the far future.

The web has and can proceed to be, a courageous new world for enterprise

The rise of the internet has modified the way in which we do many things. It has additionally created many new industries by no means dreamed of earlier than.

It has led to a completely new option to generate profits — the digital financial system. An enormous swathe of recent enterprises has emerged over the previous couple of a long time every with, theoretically, limitless potential.

The creation and distribution of concepts and different companies have by no means been simpler. It has additionally by no means been simpler for individuals to start out their very own companies than in the present day, due to the web.

Supply: bllickpixel/Pixabay

The one actual restrict to the expansion of the web is information storage, sources wanted for making {hardware}, and, after all, electrical energy. The {hardware} facet of issues will proceed to enhance in materials use effectivity by way of a mixture of different applied sciences already mentioned, however electrical energy era may very well be a major concern if “enterprise as ordinary” continues. 

Discovering an eco-friendly answer to this downside would require the event of extra numerous vitality era methods – maybe together with nuclear vitality, renewable vitality, hydrogen gas cells, or one thing else.  

The web has additionally given rise to the Internet of Things (IoT). This can be a community of internet-connected objects capable of accumulate and change information, and way more.

The probabilities of this expertise are mindblowing. From making autonomous vehicles a really viable expertise to drastically revolutionizing farming, IoT guarantees to make our lives simpler, but additionally presumably much less damaging to the atmosphere. 

Sensible houses, utilizing IoT, might allow near-autonomous administration and discount in waste, together with extra environment friendly makes use of of vitality, water, and different sources. 

Supply: metamorworks/iStock

Farming can also be benefiting from the Web of Issues by the distant micromanagement of sources, like water, in actual time. This might ultimately make farming a way more vitality and resource-efficient business. 

Sensors, and different monitoring units, can already be used to gather information and monitor conditions like air pollution ranges and air high quality. However, IoT may also be used to instantly assist nature. 

IoT expertise is already getting used to protect bees, combat poaching and create an automatic farm-in-a-box. 

Area: infinite sources might lay at our fingertips

If all else fails, we’re inching nearer to with the ability to entry a probably limitless supply of uncooked supplies — space. From meteorite mining to colonizing different worlds, house exploration might sometime present a method of infinite technological and financial development.

If we will make space resource exploitation a actuality, we are going to by no means, virtually talking, have to fret about restricted sources ever once more. However this can want a major funding of vitality, technological improvement and, sure, sources, to turn out to be a actuality. 

Supply: NASA

Nevertheless, if we’re destined to make use of up Earth’s restricted sources, regardless of our greatest efforts to maximise their environment friendly use, this can money and time effectively spent. It can really be an investment in the future of our species and the planet.

We might even attain some extent the place Earth’s sources might be left untouched, and the pure world left to its personal units forevermore. 

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