What are examples of physical limitations to economic and energetic prosperity?
By physical we mean attributes of a finite world that put hard constraints on continued improvements to economic and energetic prosperity. Examples include:
Amongst the most consequential limits humankind is beginning to bump into are those commonly linked to Climate Change:
- Temperatures: Agriculture and Biology put limits on the highest temperatures compatible with human presence and economic activity.
- Extreme weather events: Frequent wind, fire and/or flood events can put a limit to human presence and economic activities in affected regions.
Non renewable energy sources
Ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, our economy and way of life have grown to massively depend on Fossil fuels:
- Reserves of oil, gas and coal on Earth are all finite; because they took hundreds of million of years to form, they are non-renewable on any human timescale.
- Their high energy density has been one of the key drivers of economic growth since the industrial revolution. It has also contributed to moving the world closer to some of the Climate limits.
- Planet earth is finite - and so is the world we live in, at least until we expand onto other planets…
- Earth has an area of about 510 Million km2, of which 30% is land (the rest are oceans), of which 70% is habitable (the rest are glaciers or barren lands).
- Of this habitable land, 50% is devoted to Agriculture, 37% to Forests, 11% to Shrub and just 1% to Urban and built-up land (the remaining 1% is Freshwater).
Finite stocks and sinks
- We have a finite (if very large) stock of minerals, several of which are critical to the manufacturing of modern devices or to high yield agriculture for example.
- Similarly we have a finite set of sinks to absorb our waste products.
Does prosperity matter?
Since the 1950s, through hard work and invention, through peacetime and wars, in starts and fits, humanity has managed to more than quadruple the average income of each human on earth.
This is an enormous achievement. It has lifted 100’s of millions out of extreme poverty, brought education, lower infant mortality and a better life, to billions around the world. Much remains to be done for the world population to be able to exercise its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Economic and Energetic prosperity is one of the building blocks toward this important, and we believe achievable, goal.
We ask ourselves what path we should take to see another quadrupling of the average income of each human on earth during the 21st century while working around the physical limits of our finite world.
Is sustained prosperity even possible?
Surprisingly our early work shows that physical limitations put a strong ceiling on the human population that the earth can support, but they do not put a sharp limit on economic and energetic prosperity.
The reasons are many:
- Near infinite energy resources are known and available, from renewables like solar and wind to next-generation nuclear power plants.
- If the world population plateaus at the levels some forecasters currently foresee, land and agriculture limitations become manageable.
- With a plateauing population, aggressive material sobriety and recycling, many strategic minerals could last centuries (though their extraction will require more energy over time).
- Even liquid fuels, which may be hard to replace in some applications (think rockets), can be produced abundantly and cleanly, if sufficient source of energy are available, once we stop relying on non-renewable fossil fuels.
This is not to say that it will be easy, nor that we will succeed. But the most important point is that it is possible. Therefore it can happen, and many would say it must happen.
What are the risks?
Human decisions and actions can cause us to overshoot some of the world’s physical limitations, slowing down or even sharply reversing economic prosperity for all. By the same token, human decisions and actions can steer us clear of these limitations and set us on a path to sustained economic prosperity.
We are facing two types of risk:
Path risk: we may or may not make the right decisions to put the world on a long term path to sustained prosperity. Reliable decision making on this scale relies on the availability of good data, on the dependability of price signals, and generally on a broad consensus about the dynamics of the situation. We are not taking any of these for granted.
Transition risk: we may or may not act fast enough to steer the economy clear of the physical obstacles to growth. Acting early enough is essential because of the inertia inherent to any complex natural, industrial, or economic system. If we see the iceberg too late, we may still hit it.
What are the objectives of the Ogee Foundation?
To accurately pinpoint the physical constraints to economic growth. To identify the paths that will put the world on a sustained prosperity trajectory, and the ones that will box us in and prevent it. To raise awareness by providing clear, science based information to the public in any appropriate format and medium
What the Ogee Foundation is, and is not
We are a non profit and an open collaboration organization; we are committed to making our work product freely accessible to the largest audience possible under the most liberal open source licenses available.
We do not recommend policies, nor are we a political organization. We are focussed on gathering accurate data, on building reliable models that help us understand the issues at hand, and on broad dissemination of these tools to the general public.
Want to help?
We are always on the lookout for outstanding reviewers, content producers, data contributors and/or model makers. Email us at with a brief description of your background and how you could help us out.