Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos recently announced a wildly ambitious plan to ultimately put up to 1 trillion humans in vast cylindrical space colonies near the Earth.
But while the goal is over-the-top, the justification is both absurd and hypocritical. Bezos argued at length on Thursday in a major presentation at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center that we need such a future to save the Earth “if the world economy and population is to keep expanding.”
Bezos’s core argument is that this never-ending growth will drive an unsustainable doubling of energy use every 25 years that will lead to humanity running out of energy in 200 years. But the Amazon chief has apparently missed recent trends in population and energy efficiency that show the rate of growth of energy use has already slowed. Independent projections suggest Bezos is overestimating energy growth by a factor of three.
Even more important, long before the year 2219, much of the earth will be all but uninhabitable thanks to catastrophic climate change — driven in large part by a monomaniacal pursuit of growth at all costs.
And, hypocritically, while Bezos rails against an unsustainable long-term future, he himself is contributing to destroying this planet right now. Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest provider of cloud computing, has its own “Oil & Gas” division, which promises it can help Big Oil “unleash innovation to optimize production and profitability.” It already works with oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell and BP.
This will serve to help the industry continue to burn fossil fuels contrary to what science advises; most of the world’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground, scientists have warned, if there is any chance of averting dangerous climate change.
Yet, Bezos never once mentions climate change in his 50 minute presentation on Earth’s urgent, long-term problems. The solution he offers for these long-term challenges is a permanent moon base and an ever-growing number of space colonies each containing a million people living on giant cylinders stationed between the earth and the moon.
That is a conspicuous omission given Bezos’s long-held belief in endless growth in both population and energy consumption.
As Bezos explained, he has been passionate about space travel since he watched the lunar landing in 1969 at the age of five. Showing a newspaper article with an interview of him in his high school days, Bezos quoted his younger self saying, “The Earth is finite, and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.”
He immediately adds, “I still believe that.”
This is truly an astonishing worldview for the richest man in the world.
The notion that endless growth — and eventually 1 trillion people — is somehow both inevitable and desirable, is controversial to say the least. As the environmental writer Edward Abbey famously said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Scientists have repeatedly explained the world cannot sustainably support the existing population, which is now approaching 8 billion — and that if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply in the next decade, then billions will suffer from deprivation for decades if not centuries.
Also, many economists have explained that the goal is not to keep expanding economic growth, narrowly defined by GDP, but to expand economic welfare, which includes factors such as health and pollution and sustainability.
But while the world’s richest man focuses on a future 200 years from now, he ignores the unfolding realty climate change. Recent research finds warming has “exacerbated” global economic inequality since the 1960s. Global warming has slowed economic growth in hotter countries relative to that of cooler countries, boosting the gap between rich and poor countries.
In fact, because population growth in some places has started to slow, and economic growth has become less energy intensive, the world is making progress towards achieving sustainability — we are just making progress too slowly to avert catastrophic climate impacts.
Bezos appears oblivious to this. His entire argument for his massive space plan comes down to his claim, “we will run out of energy on earth. This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.”
Unfortunately, Bezos gets his arithmetic wrong. He says, “the historic rate of [growth] of global energy usage is 3% per year,” which, he explains, “is the equivalent of doubling human energy use every 25 years.”
He says the problem is that while you could meet the world’s energy demand today “by covering Nevada in solar cells,” this would mean that in 200 years at the 3% growth rate, “we will have to cover the entire surface of the earth in solar cells. Now, that’s going to happen.”
His analysis has many flaws (beyond the fact that there are many other sustainable sources of energy besides solar) but the most basic one is that the world’s energy consumption is not growing at 3% a year. It is much closer to 2%. And it is slowing.
Most leading energy forecasters say it will be closer to 1% growth over the next two decades, and that’s without a big push to avoid a catastrophic climate change.
That’s the conclusion of BP, an Amazon client, in its 2019 Energy Outlook. (The solid black line in the chart below shows net energy demand growth.)
A big push toward efficiency in this country is what has helped keep total U.S. energy demand flat for over two decades.
As BP’s chart shows, ongoing improvements in energy intensity (the energy consumed per dollar of GDP) along with slower population growth, is largely responsible for slowing down energy demand.
If Bezos made his focus helping the world avoid catastrophic climate change over the next two decades — rather than preparing for an imaginary future that isn’t going to happen — then we could actually make the earth sustainable.
This isn’t to say that going back to the moon and a renewed space program isn’t worthwhile. There are clearly many reasons to do so. But Bezos’s claim we are going to run out of energy in 200 years is just not one of them.