The Futility of Growth
Jeremy Grantham, one of the world’s most successful investors, shares the same concerns in his April 2011 newsletter, backed up with some pretty startling numbers:
Four years ago I was talking to a group of super quants, mostly PhDs in mathematics, about ﬁnance and the environment. I used the growth rate of the global economy back then – 4.5% for two years, back to back – and I argued that it was the growth rate to which we now aspired.
To point to the ludicrous unsustainability of this compound growth I suggested that we imagine the Ancient Egyptians … whose gods, pharaohs, language, and general culture lasted for well over 3,000 years.
Starting with only a cubic meter of physical possessions (to make calculations easy), I asked how much physical wealth they would have had 3,000 years later at 4.5% compounded growth.
Now, these were trained mathematicians, so I teased them: “Come on, make a guess. Internalize the general idea. You know it’s a very big number.” And the answers came back: “Miles deep around the planet,” “No, it’s much bigger than that, from here to the moon.”
Big quantities to be sure, but no one came close. In fact, not one of these potential experts came within one billionth of 1% of the actual number, which is approximately 10 to the 57th power, a number so vast that it could not be squeezed into a billion of our Solar Systems…
…The bottom line really, though, is that no compound growth can be sustainable. Yet, how far this reality is from the way we live today, with our unrealistic levels of expectations and, above all, the optimistic outcomes that are simply assumed by our leaders.
The key point that I took away from this is “that no compound growth can be sustainable”. It doesn’t matter if you use 4.5% or 1%, eventually things will end badly if we don’t figure out a way to break our addiction, as a species, to growth.