Things Come Undone: One Reason Global Economic Troubles Are Becoming Chronic


We humans devise all sorts of methods for obstructing or “damming” the second law [of thermodynamics] for considerable periods of time. A mundane example: We paint iron to prevent it from rusting.

Frank L. Lambert (Professor Emeritus, Chemistry), Entropy Is Simple — If We Avoid The Briar Patches!, Occidental College website, February 2008.


Our scenario shows that over the coming twenty years the world evolves from being mostly poor to mostly middle class. 2022 marks the first year more people in the world are middle class than poor. By 2030, 5 billion people – nearly two thirds of global population – could be middle class.

Homi Kharas and Geoffrey Gertz, The New Global Middle Class: A Cross-Over from West to East, Wolfensohn Center for Development, Brookings Institution, 2010.


When we add a new person to the world we create a need to increase the amounts of energy and materials devoted to the production of food, clothing, shelter and other necessities that keep people alive.  We know this almost intuitively.

We are less aware of the fact that every time we add a new item of wealth (social or material) to the world we also create a need to increase the amounts of energy and materials devoted to maintaining our stock of wealth and to replacing items of wealth when they wear out or break.  We know that our cars malfunction and wear out, weeds grow in our gardens, our toys break, and alienated youth vandalize our buildings, but we tend to see these processes and events as personal or local losses, not as losses to our global stock of wealth.

Essentially, the world’s stock of wealth is an enormous and ongoing confrontation with natural forces that work to undo the things that we have done.  The more wealth the world’s people create, the larger and more costly that confrontation becomes.

This means that growing the world’s middle class (a class associated with enormous amounts of personal and social wealth) comes at the cost of devoting more and more of the world’s available energy and resources to repairing and replacing existing items of wealth.  The rates at which energy and materials are produced must continuously increase in order to produce enough to both maintain the existing level of wealth and add new wealth.

The world is finite.  At some point the rates at which energy and materials must be extracted from natural systems just to repair and replace existing items of wealth bump up against the natural and institutional limits to those rates of extraction.  Economic growth (net increases in global wealth) slows and then stops.

The global economic troubles that began with the 2008 financial crisis seem to have become chronic.  Most economists argue that the world economy continues to be troubled because the world’s governments are not pursuing the correct policies.  A few, though, admit to being perplexed by the persistence of the world’s economic troubles.

Perhaps the heart of the problem is that the world is already bumping up against limits.  Perhaps economic policies no longer work as well as they once did because the policy goal (economic growth) is becoming less and less attainable.

And if economic growth is becoming less attainable, so too is the job growth associated with economic growth.