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The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth



The electric vehicle (EV) has become one of the great modern symbols of a world awakened to the profound challenges of unsustainability and climate change. So much so that we may well imagine that Deep Thought’s answer today to Life, the Universe and Everything might plausibly be “EV.” But, as Douglas Adams would surely have asked, if electric vehicles are the answer, what is the question?

Let us imagine the “perfect” EV: solar powered, efficient, reliable and affordable. But is it sustainable? EVs powered by renewable energy may help reduce the carbon footprint of transport. Yet, the measure of sustainability is not merely the carbon footprint but the material footprint: the aggregate quantity of biomass, metal ores, construction minerals and fossil fuels used during production and consumption of a product. The approximate metric tonne weight of an EV constitutes materials such as metals (including rare earths), plastics, glass and rubber. Therefore, a global spike in the demand for EVs would drive an increased demand for each of these materials.

Every stage of the life cycle of any manufactured product exacts environmental costs: habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and pollution (including carbon emissions) from extraction of raw materials, manufacturing / construction, through to disposal. Thus, it is the increasing global material footprint that is fundamentally the reason for the twin climate and ecological crises.

The global material footprint has grown in lockstep with the exponentially rising global economy (GDP) since the industrial revolution. This is largely because of egregious consumption by the super-affluent in a socioeconomic system founded on growth without limits. Can we resolve this fundamental conflict between the quest for limitless growth and the consequent environmental destruction?


Technological innovation and efficiency improvements are often cited as pathways to decouple growth in material use from economic growth. While technology undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in the transition to a sustainable world, it is constrained by fundamental physical principles and pragmatic economic considerations.

Examples abound. The engine efficiency of airplanes has improved little for decades since they have long been operating close to their theoretical peak efficiency. Likewise, there is a hard limit on the efficiency of photovoltaic cells of about 35 percent because of the physical properties of the semiconductors that constitute them; in practice few exceed 20 percent for economic and pragmatic reasons. The power generation of large wind farms is limited to about one watt per square meter as a simple yet utterly unavoidable physical consequence of wake effects. The awesome exponential increase in computing power of the past five decades will end by about 2025 since it is physically impossible to make the transistors on the computer chip, already roughly 5 percent of the size of the coronavirus, much smaller.

Whether it is principles of classical, quantum or solid state physics or thermodynamics, each places different but inexorable constraints on technological solutions. Basically, physical principles that have allowed incredible technological leaps over the past century also inevitably limit them. We might consider that extensive recycling of materials would offset efficiency limits. Recycling is crucial; however, while glass and metals can be recycled almost indefinitely without loss of quality, materials such as paper and plastic can be recycled only a few times before becoming too degraded.

Additionally, recycling itself may be an energy- and materials-intensive process. Even if physical laws could be broken (they cannot) to achieve recycling with 100 percent efficiency, added demand from the imperative for economic growth would necessarily require virgin materials. The key point is that efficiency is limited by physics, but there is no sufficiency limit on the socioeconomic construct of “demand.”

Unfortunately, the situation is even more dire. Economic growth is required to be exponential; that is, the size of the economy must double in a fixed period. As referenced earlier, this has driven a corresponding increase in the material footprint. To understand the nature of exponential growth, consider the EV. Suppose that we have enough (easily extractable) lithium for the batteries needed to fuel the EV revolution for another 30 years. Now assume that deep-sea mining provides four times the current amount of these materials. Are we covered for 120 years? No, because the current 10 percent rate of growth in demand for lithium is equivalent to doubling of demand every seven years, which means we would only have enough for 44 years. In effect, we would cause untold, perhaps irreversible, devastation of marine ecosystems to buy ourselves a few extra years’ supply of raw materials.

Exponential growth swiftly, inevitably, swamps anything in finite supply. For a virus, that finite resource is the human population and in the context of the planet it is its physical resources.

The inescapable inference is that it is essentially impossible to decouple material use from economic growth. And this is exactly what has transpired. Wiedmann et al., 2015 did a careful accounting of the material footprint, including those embedded in international trade, for several nations. In the 1990-2008 period covered by the study, no country achieved a planned, deliberate economywide decoupling for a sustained length of time. Claims by the Global North to the contrary conceal the substantial offshoring of its production, and the associated ecological devastation, to the Global South.

Recent proposals for ecocidal deep-sea and fantastical exoplanetary mining are an unsurprising consequence of a growth paradigm that refuses to recognize these inconvenient truths.


These observations lead us to a natural minimum condition for sustainability: all resource use curves must be simultaneously flatlined and all pollution curves simultaneously extinguished. It is this resource perspective that allows us to see why EVs may help offset carbon emissions yet remain utterly unsustainable under the limitless growth paradigm.


We have argued that the inextricable link between material consumption and GDP makes the infinite-growth paradigm incompatible with sustaining ecological integrity. Thus, while EVs constitute a partial answer to the climate question, within the current paradigm they will only exacerbate the larger anthropogenic crises connected to unsustainable resource consumption.

The real question is this: how do we transition to alternative economic paradigms founded on the reconciliation of equitable human well-being with ecological integrity?

Industrial era exponential rise in the use of primary and derived physical resources: cropland (a), fossil fuels (b), freshwater (c), metals (d), plastic (e). Credit: Our World in Data (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU).

Sustainability from a resource perspective: Exponentially rising resource use and pollution (a and b) are unsustainable. We define sustainability as flatlined resource use (c) and extinguished pollution (d). Credit: Aditi Deshpande

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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COVID, Quickly, Episode 9: Delta Variant, Global Vaccine Shortfalls, Beers for Shots



Today we bring you a new episode in our podcast series: COVID, Quickly. Every two weeks, Scientific American‘s senior health editors Tanya Lewis and Josh Fischman catch you up on the essential developments in the pandemic: from vaccines to new variants and everything in between.

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Coronavirus News Roundup: June 5 to June 18



The items below are highlights from the free newsletter, “Smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.” To receive newsletter issues daily in your inbox, sign up here.

Novavax reports that its two-dose protein-based vaccine against COVID-19 has been 100% effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, as well as 90.4% effective against COVID-19 symptoms in large-scale human studies. These studies, which involved thousands of people in the U.S. and Mexico, showed that the vaccine also was highly effective against “Alpha,” the SARS-CoV-2 variant first identified in Great Britain, reports Carl Zimmer at The New York Times (6/14/21). “Novavax plans to apply for authorization in UK, EU, India, South Korea, and possibly the U.S.,” according to an Unbiased SciPod post (6/15/21).

A 6/17/21 story by Tanya Lewis at Scientific American describes some of the incentives being offered to people for getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — including lottery tickets, college scholarships, train tickets, firearms, cash pay-outs, cannabis joints, doughnuts, free trips, cruises, and gift certificates. “Public health experts use incentives all the time to get people to quit smoking, exercise more, and so on,” the story describes the director of the Health Decision Sciences Center at Massachusetts General Hospital’s general medicine division as saying. An unpublished study by the Mass General researcher suggests that incentives might effectively induce people to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Lewis reports. But for some people the best inducement is an opportunity to stop wearing a mask and a general return to normalcy, the story suggests.

Some positive news for people who have transplanted organs and thus take immune-suppressing drugs: a third dose of a mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 provoked a stronger immune response, at least in the form of antibodies, in organ transplant patients than the standard two doses did, per various reports. The findings, from a small study of patients who received a third dose this spring, were published 6/15/21 in Annals of Internal Medicine. The findings are “part of a broader discussion about whether and when to offer extra doses to vulnerable individuals,” writes Jennifer Couzin-Frankel at Science (6/14/21). In past studies, organ transplant patients who got a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine were far less likely to make protective antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 than the general population was. Some larger three-dose studies among people with compromised immune systems are under way, Couzin-Frankel reports. A medical oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania is not very worried about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines among people with cancer, the story states. The story then describes two recent studies of cancer patients showing that they produced antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. However, a third study found much lower antibody levels among vaccinated cancer patients than it did among their healthy family members who also were vaccinated, Couzin-Frankel reports.

The Unbiased SciPod posted some helpful informational graphics about Pfizer’s ongoing studies of its COVID-19 vaccine in children under 12 (6/11/21). The post states that dosages have been set based on initial smaller studies in children (one-third the adult dose for ages 5-11 and one-tenth the adult dose for ages 6 months to 5 years), and that researchers will enroll 4,500 children across 90 sites globally for the larger safety and effectiveness studies. “Children have immune system components that are more potent compared to adults. They may not need as high a dose for protection. Age criteria are related to immune system development, not physical size,” the post states. The results will likely become available this fall for review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with a first batch — from studies in children ages 5 to 11 — expected in early September, the post states.

Nearly one quarter of all people in the U.S. who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 last year, including 19% of those who never reported COVID-19 symptoms from their infection, had new medical problems within a month or more of recovering from the virus, according to a large study covered by Pam Belluck at The New York Times (6/15/21). Belluck writes: “Those affected were all ages, including children. Their most common new health problems were pain, including in nerves and muscles; breathing difficulties; high cholesterol; malaise and fatigue; and high blood pressure. Other issues included intestinal symptoms; migraines; skin problems; heart abnormalities; sleep disorders; and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.” The study, conducted by non-profit organization FAIR Health and not formally reviewed by experts for flaws, involved evaluating electronic health-insurance records.

A 6/11/21 story by Emily Anthes at The New York Times runs down some evidence-based approaches that employers can take to reduce the risk of SARS-Cov-2 infections and other health problems as workers return to offices nationwide. Employers should flush unused taps and other plumbing to clear any metals or Legionella bacteria colonies that accumulated, the story states. Employers also should upgrade their ventilation and filtration systems, the story states. The goal is four to six air changes per hour, the story states, which is equivalent to completely refreshing air every 10 to 15 minutes in a room. Portable air purifiers or even “desktop level HEPA filters” can help. And continue to wash your hands routinely, for at least 20 seconds each time, advises a Northwestern University environmental microbiologist who is quoted in the story. Not solutions: desk shields (plexiglass barriers are a good idea in grocery stores though), foggers, fumigators, ionizers, ozone generators and other ‘air cleaning’ devices,’ the story states. In most non-medical or non-lab settings, wiping down surfaces with bleach solutions or disinfectant solutions or wipes does little to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Besides, inhaling these substances is harmful. “The no. 1 thing is to get vaccinated,” the story quotes Joseph Allen at the Harvard School of Public Health as saying.

A debate among scientists about whether SARS-CoV-2 spreads mainly by fallen respiratory droplets on surfaces that people touch or spreads in air hampered public health efforts to control the pandemic and to prevent deaths. The implications for this debate were crucial, as Megan Molteni at Wired writes (5/13/21) — officials need to know whether public-health messages should focus on hand washing or on masking and isolation or both, particularly before vaccines become available. The general debate is over, as you probably know — the virus is mostly spread in indoor air. But why did researchers disagree until recently? In part, it’s because the arguments against airborne SARS-CoV-2 all rested on an assumption that only particles smaller than 5 microns could hang in the air; larger ones, aka droplets, fall to surfaces. But in reality, larger particles can stay afloat and behave like aerosols, many scientists and engineers have known, including aerosols expert Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech, Molteni and others have written. Molteni’s story masterfully traces the events, conversations, and research that came to expose the “fallacy of the 5-micron boundary.” The hero of this engaging story is Katie Randall, a graduate student who specializes in detective work to figure out how bits of knowledge are passed along through published research papers over time.

Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in April stated that international and domestic travel are low-risk activities for people vaccinated against COVID-19 (so, this does not pertain, unfortunately, to U.S. children under 12, for whom COVID-19 vaccines are not yet authorized). In response to that update, Ceylan Yeginsu at The New York Times has written up answers to some of the questions that vaccinated travelers have these days (6/15/21). A summary of the answers (again, this information is all for vaccinated people in the U.S.): 1) Yes, you must still wear a mask at the airport and on flights; 2) No, you don’t have to quarantine or test if you travel domestically, unless it is required by a state or territory; 3) No, you don’t have to take a coronavirus test before departure to international destinations — not for the U.S. at least; check for your destination; 4) Yes, you have to test, even if vaccinated, three days before you return by air to the U.S.; 5) Check lists of countries that will accept people from the U.S. under certain conditions, including some destinations in Europe and the Caribbean.

Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland are working on a vaccine that could protect us against all coronaviruses. In this 6/9/21 podcast at Scientific American, Emily Mullins interviews Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad who is leading the effort at Walter Reed to develop a so-called universal coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine candidate that is being tested “combines nanoparticles from a blood protein called ferritin with coronavirus proteins.” (Sorry, I’m not sure what that means either.) Modjarrad says 200 different combinations of spike proteins (a type of complex molecules that are found on the surface of all coronaviruses), types of ferritin, and ways to link them eventually yielded a vaccine candidate that repeatedly provoked a strong immune response against SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2 and three of its variants in several species of animals ranging from rodents to sharks. The vaccine now is being tested in a small group of humans. “If it works and is safe, it could provide a foundation for a universal coronavirus vaccine,” Mullin says.

You might enjoy, “A lexicon for the late pandemic,” by Jay Martel for The New Yorker (6/14/21).

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How End-of-Life Doulas Help Ease the Final Transition



Birth and death are the bookends of life, yet we welcome one and dread the other. Why is it that birth is celebrated, but death is taboo?

When a friend was expecting her first child, she needed additional support through her pregnancy, so she hired a birth doula. The idea of women helping other women during childbirth is not new. Since the beginning of time, women have labored and birthed at home, attended by a midwife and their female friends and kin. This camaraderie of women, once universal, was a way to provide birth support and also to pass on knowledge about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting.

The natural birth movement of the 1960s begged a return to this approach with women demanding unmedicated, less interventional births. Hence, the inception of the birth doula–a nonmedical caregiver who assisted pregnant women in the transition to motherhood.

Can the same idea apply to death? The evolution of death care has followed a similar trajectory to that of childbirth care. For most of human history, people were cared for and died at home, with corpses even displayed on the dining room table for mourning. This began to change in the mid-20th century as society saw great advancements in medical technology for diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. These developments moved health care away from the local doctor, who made house calls, to inpatient stays at hospitals. When people fell ill, they went to the hospital and eventually died there. In 1980, 60.5 percent of people died in hospitals. This number peaked in the mid-1980’s, but has since steadily decreased in response to a growing movement for death to be less medicalized, less institutionalized, and more natural. By 2016, half as many people (29.4 percent) were dying in hospitals, roughly equaling the number of people dying at home (30.5 percent). While this trend is encouraging, these numbers still do not reflect the fact that 71 percent of people would prefer to die at home.

I am a death doula, or what is now more commonly termed an end-of-life doula. This role grew out of the increasing awareness of and desire for more humane and compassionate ways to die. Similar to birth doulas, end-of-life doulas are nonmedical professionals offering emotional, spiritual, informational and physical support–not at birth, but at the other end of the spectrum of life–at death.

An elderly man with a terminal illness is afraid to die. He fears for the family he will leave behind–his wife, children and grandchildren–and how they will cope after he is gone. He has not expressed this fear to his doctors or to his wife, who is already handling so much. I listen. I hold space for his despair and angst. He realizes the fear is based on his immense love for his family. He drinks champagne with them on his deathbed. Reconciliation with the things that are important can allow one the peace to let go.

End-of-life doulas work with those with serious illnesses who are facing death–and also for those who are healthy and just want to prepare for death. On practical matters, doulas can advise on advance care directives, vigil planning and postdeath options, and assist with life review and legacy. On more emotional matters, doulas can facilitate conversations about unresolved issues or complex family dynamics and offer space for the fears and uncertainties around death and dying. When we are prepared for death, we are better able to face it when the time comes.

Despite her wish to die at home, an elderly woman is taken to the hospital by her son, who can no longer bear to watch his mother die in excruciating pain. The hospital wants to discharge her, finding nothing wrong, and, at her age, what can be done anyhow? The family is distressed by the hospital’s response and calls me. I suggest that they ask for a palliative care consultation. Eventually, the mother is placed on a proper pain management plan and discharged to hospice care. How do you know what to ask for, if you don’t know the choices?

Palliative and hospice care are philosophies of care that focus on comfort and symptom management to alleviate pain and suffering. Both are available to persons with serious illnesses. While palliative care can be given concurrently with curative care, hospice is typically for those who no longer seek curative treatments.

End-of-life doulas advocate for the wishes and needs of the dying person. We work with the health care team in ongoing care and coordinate with the support network of family and friends in place or help to establish a needed support system. We fill gaps in care and tackle tasks that are difficult to do or face. All the while, we can be a calming presence for loved ones and the dying person, especially for those who are facing death all alone.

A middle-aged man lies actively dying, completely nonresponsive, in his bed. He displays “death rattle” breathing, and his body has occasional violent spasms. At his bedside, a petite woman sits, his aunt, pained to watch her nephew die this way. After creating rapport with the aunt, I seek to allay her distress and encourage her to speak to him. The aunt responds gratefully, awakened to the possibility of making a difference for her nephew. He dies peacefully, immersed in soft light, music and love. Sometimes all a loved one needs is permission to be an active participant in the process, to turn helplessness into empowerment.

While death brings sadness and loss, there can also be positive emotions of love, honor and pride. It is possible to feel seemingly contradictory emotions all at the same time–because death is loss, and grief is the natural expression of love.

On the end-of-life journey, we doulas are your personal advocate, cheerleader, companion, guide, ear, rock–whatever you need us to be to face a difficult, intense and emotional time, because no one who wants support at the end of life should have to go without.

This is an opinion and analysis article.

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