Revised 17 October 2023

Humankind’s survival requires consumption of food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter. Each of these basic needs are provided by the environment. In early years of civilisation, production of the above essentials was enabled by stint of human effort and use of basic tools. We now use energy slaves in the form of machinery to replace human labour and we now rely on sophisticated technology in place of simple tools (Cottrell, 1955).   

Consumption, production, and energy, are inextricably connected. Without production there can be no consumption, and without energy there can be no production. Human created money and debt enable transactions and purchase of energy (Graeber, 2011), but it is energy itself that enables and drives production (Smil, 2017). Energy is subject to the Laws of Thermodynamics, and it is these laws and not laws or theories of economics which dictate the limits of production and possible pathways to sustainable human settlements.   

Material consumption includes consumption of minerals, fossil fuels, and ecological systems which provide both food and resources. Minerals and fossil fuels form stocks of resources, whereas ecological systems can provide a sustainable flow (Odum & Odum, 1976). It requires energy to mine stocks of minerals. The low hanging fruit of easily accessible and concentrated stocks of minerals are mined first. As the more concentrated stocks of minerals become depleted, more and more energy is required to mine the remaining less concentrated stocks (Bardi, 2014). The same applies to solid fossil fuels. The low hanging fruit are mined first and subsequent mining for solid fossil fuels and drilling for liquid oil or gas requires more and more energy. Ultimately continued extraction of fossil fuels from the ground will require as much energy to extract as that energy contained in the extracted energy resource (Giampietro, 2013). By this stage there will still be fossil fuels remaining in the ground and it will still be possible to continue extracting fossil fuels from the ground for use and value as a chemical by using subsidies from other energy sources. There would be no sensible purpose in extracting fossil fuels for its use as energy when the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) is less than 1.0. 

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Sources (to be added):

Arrow, K., P. Dasgupta, L. Goulder, G. Daily, P. Ehrlich, G. Heal, S. Levin, K. Möler, S. Schneider, D. Starrett and B. Walker. ‘Are We Consuming Too Much?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives—v. 18, No. 3, 2004, pp. 147–172.

Bardi, U. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet, White River Junction, Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.

Cohen, J.E. How Many People Can the Earth Support?, New York, Norton & Company, 1995

Cottrell, F. Energy and Society: The Relation Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press Publishers, 1955.

Gillespie, A. The Illusion of Progress: Unsustainable Development in International Law and Policy. London, Earthscan, 2001.

Graeber, D. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, New York, Melville House Publishing, 2011.

Jackson, T. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, London, Earthscan, 2009

Shorrocks, A., J. Davies, and R. Lluberas.  Global Wealth Report 2018, Credit Suisse, 2018. 

Veblen, T. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1925 (First published 1899).