Tag Archives: Growth

Book review: The Infinite Desire for Growth

How did we get from subsistence farming to living long, prosperous, and entertaining lives — but wanting more? Is our current economic paradigm of an always-increasing GDP a viable option for the future, given issues such as climate change, social unrest, growing inequality? Why do we want it so much in the first place, and can we afford to keep yearning for it?

The Infinite Desire for Growth tackles these very questions in a light, accessible way, while still managing to provide surprising breadth on the topic.

“The Infinite Desire for Growth”
By Daniel Cohen
Princeton University Press, 165 pages | Buy on Amazon

Economic growth always has a spot in our headlines these days — be it to celebrate good news, or report on a bad year. It’s not hard to see why: economic growth, more than any other metric, is used by officials to showcase their achievements to the public. It is, in effect, the chief indicator that we check to see if everything is alright in our countries.

Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really add up. More wealth is nice, sure, but wouldn’t happiness levels be a better indicator of how well our lives are going? Wouldn’t net worth be a better indicator of how rich we are?

Why are we looking to the growth of the economy when life expectancy, access to goods and services, and the amount of useful free time we have are much more impactful on our lives? Especially when you consider that economic growth doesn’t mean everyone gets to enjoy more wealth, due to income inequality. This growth is also responsible for more and more environmental damage — we are knowingly hurting the planet and all life on it in our pursuit. So what gives?

Daniel Cohen, a French economist, chips away at this question in his very-aptly named The Infinite Desire For Growth. And you might be surprised to hear that, in his eyes, what lies at the root of this tendency isn’t want of riches or greed — it’s hope, and a search of meaning.

Economic growth, Cohen argues, has taken the place of religion. We may not pray to the Big Dollar in the Sky, but the hope of a good afterlife in Heaven as reward for a good life has been replaced by the hope of a good life on Earth, as reward for working hard.

Growth offers the promise of a better life to all of us. Despite rarely delivering on it (due mostly to a growing inequality gap), the promise in itself is enough to keep us happy. This transition is surprisingly new, made possible mostly by secularization and industrialization.

The Infinite Desire for Growth is a very unusual book about economics, in my eyes, because I actually enjoyed reading it. Cohen doesn’t start his analysis from those tropes economists so easily fall into — such as the idea that people are always rational actors when it comes to money. His book doesn’t look for the best way to maximize wealth, offers no tips and tricks on how to increase your company’s bottom line. It looks at how culture, society, politics, science, and geography influenced the birth and development of economies.

But most fascinating to me is that he describes these through the lens of individual desires, how they compound to create supply and demand, and dictate how they’re handled.

He examines how we’ve come to virtually worship the idea of economic growth, to take for granted that there will always be more wealth to share, that we will be enjoying a better quality of life than our parents if we’re willing to work for it. And then, of course, Cohen asks what this means for today, when economic growth is stuttering, sometimes absent, and humanity is damaging the very planet that keeps it alive.

It takes a very wide look at economies and the people who create them. The cost of this is that Cohen doesn’t always go into deep detail about the concepts he discusses, but he does supply us with ample references to support his claims.

The Infinite Desire for Growth asks how we’ll contend with a simple fact: working hard no longer guarantees social inclusion or income. Automation is increasingly encroaching in the workforce, lowering the price of work (wages), and making the wealthy wealthier. Ecological degradation is threatening all of us, but the poorest will suffer the most.

Cohen ends his book by arguing that today’s selfish economic model isn’t sustainable in the future. There simply isn’t enough Earth for all of us to always be wealthier than we were yesterday. Our obsession with economic growth, he argues, has run its course. In the 21st century, humanity will have to wean itself off material gain, and rethink what “progress” actually means.

Nanotyrannus and the Skeptical Criteria for Species

The classification of varying species, even the very term species itself, has long been a puzzling element of taxonomic categorization. Pulled from the Latin phrase species (meaning “appearance”), the term, in regards to its scientific use, has more than two dozen different definitions.

Based on this information alone, we can see how precisely pinpointing what declares a specimen a specific species is not quite clear. It is, perhaps, unique to each individual case. Numerous factors need to be taken into account. When biologists examine an organism to see if it is identical to or distinct from another species, they analyze its attributes. In comparing it to other organisms, they look for common characteristics or reproduction compatibility, or the lack of either.

However, when studying the remains of organisms of eons past, definitively declaring a species can be more difficult. Take a look at the drawn-out Jane and Nanotyrranus dilemma, for example. More than 15 years ago now, a dinosaur skeleton was unearthed in Montana by a team from the Burpee Museum of Natural History from Rockford, Illinois. The remains were rather well-preserved. They belonged to a ferocious carnivore of the Cretaceous Period. But what kind of carnivore?

Skeleton of a T. Rex. Source: Wikipedia.

It was a tyrannosaurid. Well, that narrows it down a bit, kind of like narrowing one’s selection from mammals down to bears. We have eliminated countless possibilities, yet there are quite a few bear species to go through. Similarly, there is a variety of species of tyrannosaurids to compare the remains of one to.

It was 20 feet in length, 7 feet in height, and its gender was undetermined. Regardless of that trifling mystery, the tyrannosaurid was dubbed Jane. Paleontologists made their observations. But not all agreed on what the appropriate classification of this specimen should be. Some suggested it could be a Nanotyrannus, a species of dwarf tyrannosaurid, whereas others believed it to simply be a juvenile specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Jane on Display at Burpee Museum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The debate was on. Upon further research, the existence of Nanotyrannus has been a sketchy one, as far as some scientists are concerned. As Dougal Dixon puts it in his extensive World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures, “Some paleontologists regard Nanotyrannus as a juvenile specimen of something better known, or even a dwarf species of Albertosaurus or Gorgosaurus” (324)”, which are other tyrannosaurids.

Jane’s remains were not the first to be suggested to be those of Nanotyrannus. In 1942, David Dunkle found the skull of a carnivorous dinosaur which resembled that of Jane. Dunkle’s discovery was tagged “CMNH 7541.” After this, other paleontologists examined the fossil on numerous occasions. Each suggested it was a certain species of previously known tyrannosaurid, such as Albertosaurus. It would not be until the late 1980’s that the skull would be suggested to be something more.

Robert Bakker. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Bakker. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned modern paleontologist Robert T. Bakker and his associates took another look at CMNH 7541. This time though, the scientists were able to use a variety of advanced practices in their combing of the skull. One of these was the use of CAT scans. Bakker’s team ultimately determined it to be an utterly new species, calling it Nanotyrannus.

However, this skull, like the remains of Jane, has more recently fallen under scrutiny again. Some experts, such as Thomas Carr, have pointed to the presence of the factor of mere growth to explain the differences between “Nanotyrannus” and other tyrannosaurids. Carr and others have stated that the features of this supposed new species are different from those of its relatives only because the specimens of “Nanotyrannus” were juvenile examples of another species.

Once again, technology managed to come to the rescue. Fossilized bones carry LAG’s, lines of arrested growth. Like tree rings, these natural markings can allow us to better distinguish the age of a prehistoric creature. In order to detect the LAG’s, a tiny bit of practically weightless bone must be cut off. This is what was done with a segment of bone from Jane. (This could not be done with CMNH 7541 since a weightless fragment of bone cannot be extracted from the fossilized skull.)

Jane remains on display at the Burpee Museum. You can see the dinosaur in her museum habitat in this video I was able to shoot of Jane. It features some of the other skeletons on display at the Burpee Museum as well.

From the fragment taken from Jane, scientists concluded that Jane was merely a teenager, around 12 years old. With tyrannosaurs typically reaching adulthood around 20, Jane’s LAG’s showed the dinosaur was, in fact, a juvenile. Most now consider Jane simply a very well-preserved specimen of juvenile T. rex.

Despite the whole controversy over Jane’s identity, the existence of Nanotyrannus has not altogether been ruled out. This is just one example of the confusing, perpetually ongoing discussions regarding what classifies an organism under a certain species.

Flower competition.

Plants actively gauge their competition and switch strategies to one-up them

Competition isn’t only for animals, a new study has found. According to the paper, plants will size up their neighbors and then tailor a strategy to out-compete them for resources — or, in the worst case, to be frugal when outmatched.

Flower competition.

Image credits Engin Akyurt.

People aren’t the only runners in the rat race: researchers from the University of Tübingen’s Institute of Evolution and Ecology have shown that plants will actively try to one-up their competition (neighbors) in a quest for more resources. To do so, they will gauge the competition’s abilities and choose between several competitive strategies, tailoring them to their neighbors’ stature and densities.

Growing strong

In broad lines, animals handle competition through three overarching behavior patterns: confrontation, avoidance, or tolerance. Exactly which one an animal will pick in a given situation depends largely on the balance of capability between itself and its opponent. If the other guy is bigger, stronger, or otherwise more capable, animals will likely back down and prefer toleration or avoidance over direct competition — that’s why nobody messes with the bouncer at the club, for example.

When plants step on each others’ toes, it usually involves access to light. Plants will use multiple cues to pick up on the presence of competitors, such as a reduction in incoming light quantity or in the ratio of red to far-red wavelengths (R:FR, frequencies that are used up in photosynthesis). Since plants aren’t big on moving around, competitive responses typically include out-growing their neighbors to reach the best light (confrontational vertical elongation), or increasing efficiency in low-light conditions (shade tolerance) when they lose the growth battle. Some plants, such as clonal colonies, can also employ avoidance behaviors by growing away from their competition.

However, what we didn’t know is whether plants actually decide what strategy will work best in a given scenario, or if they just pick one at random and hope for the best.

“These three alternative responses of plants to light competition have been well-documented in the literature,” says lead author Michal Gruntman. “In our study we wanted to learn, if plants can choose between these responses and match them to the relative size and density of their opponents.”

For the study, the team worked with the clonal plant European cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans). Different light-competition scenarios were simulated using vertical strips of transparent green filters. These reduced both the quantity of incoming light as well as its R:FR ratio, just like actual plants would. The team could simulate neighboring vegetation of any height and density simply by altering the shape or number of filters.

Experimental set-up.

The experimental design and measured variables. Scenarios included short-sparse (a,c), short-dense (b,d), tall-sparse (e) and tall-dense (f) neighbouring vegetation.
Image credits Michal Gruntman et al., 2017, N.Comm.

The results suggest that P. reptans will pick a strategy that directly counteracts its competition. When faced with short but dense neighbors that could not be avoided laterally, the plant showed the highest confrontational vertical growth among all scenarios. Tall but sparse neighbors coaxed the plant into lateral avoidance. Finally, when faced with competitors that were both dense and tall so neither lateral nor vertical avoidance was possible, the P. reptans hunkered down and developed the most pronounced shade-tolerant characteristics.

The findings suggest that plants can estimate the density and competitive ability of their neighbors, and then decide on the best adaptive strategy to counter them. They also provide new evidence for plants’ ability to process and use complex information when adapting to their environment.

“Such an ability to choose between different responses according to their outcome could be particularly important in heterogeneous environments, where plants can grow by chance under neighbors with different size, age or density, and should therefore be able to choose their appropriate strategy” says Gruntman.

The paper “Decision-making in plants under competition” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Crowd.

The UN expects Earth’s 10 billionth inhabitant sometime in the early 2050s

Some 7,5 billion people now call Earth home, but that number may skyrocket to over 10 billion by 2050, the United Nations estimate.

Crowd.

Image via Pixabay.

Just last month, the World Population Clock announced that humanity has passed a huge milestone — the 7,5 billion people mark. While it took us a few thousands of years to get to this figure, it will take us a lot less to reach 10 billion according to a report published yesterday by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. In fact, they estimate that it will only take us a bit over 30 years.

This is the beauty of non-linear growth.

By 2030, Earth could harbor some 8.6 billion people, the report explains. By 2050, this number will likely increase to 9.8 billion, and populations will peak in 2100 at 11.2 billion, it goes on. This estimate is based on the current natality of around 83 million people per year worldwide, which the UN expects to keep driving up population numbers even as overall fertility rates go down.

This growth won’t be evenly spread around the globe, of course. Nigeria for example, which currently boasts world’s 7th largest population but the fastest growth of the world’s most populous countries, is estimated to become the world’s 3rd largest by 2050, a place currently held by the USA. The most populous country today, China, is expected to cede its place to India and sink to the 2nd place in around seven years as its policies limit growth.

Overall, this means that nine countries will concentrate about a half of the population growth estimated between now and the 2050 mark: Nigeria, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the United States.

The report doesn’t just look at the flat number of people currently living in the world but also takes into account factors such as fertility, life expectancy, immigration and refugee movements, to paint an accurate picture of how populations will evolve in time. One encouraging find is that although population numbers are on the rise, fertility rates (aka how many kids each couple has) are dropping almost throughout the globe, even in Africa. At the same time, life expectancy has risen globally from 65 to 69 years for men and 69 to 73 years for women, although the UN cautions that there are huge disparities between different countries.

Population Change Report.

Europe stands out a bit from all other areas in the report. With a predominantly old population, high life expectancy, and low fertility, Europe’s population is estimated to remain relatively stable — experiencing a slight drop up to the 2060’s as the older generations pass away, and a slight increase by 2100 close to today’s levels. All other areas are estimated to experience a definite decline in population growth by 2100.

The Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division says that the report could help agencies better tailor and implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

The story behind human growth hormone

Along the centuries, numerous explorers and scientists have searched for the fabled fountain of youth. Nowadays, most people don’t believe in magic fountains, but they’re striving for eternal youth through other ways — plastic surgeries, special diets, or hormones. Motivated by the “anti-aging” movement, people are placing their faith into all sorts of alleged cures, but does the science back things up?

Image credits: “Caveman Chuck” Coker

Hormones and short kids

As the Smithsonian eloquently puts it, genetically modified bacteria, brain-eating diseases, and short kids are all part of the history of human growth hormones (HGH) in the US. HGH is a peptide hormone that stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell regeneration in humans and other animals. It’s a tiny protein secreted by the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located near your brain, and sent to the bloodstream where it serves the functions mentioned above. Scientists have known about this hormone since the 1920s, but it wasn’t really used until the 1960s — mostly because acquiring it was so hard. The only source was humans, and gathering it from cadavers didn’t really seem like an attractive proposition.

However, conservatively, it started being administered to small children who weren’t growing properly and this went on for quite a while — until a grizzly discovery was made: one of the cadavers used for harvesting had been invested with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). CJD is similar in effects to mad cow disease or accelerated Alzheimer’s and quickly decays the brain. It can also lie dormant for decades. When researchers harvested the HGH, they also unknowingly harvested the virus and spread it. Some 26 people were killed and the life of everyone who was treated with HGH was turned upside down because the disease could manifest itself at any given time. It took a few years until researchers were able to develop another source of HGH, by using bacteria.

But people were extremely reluctant to use the hormone as the CJD panic was still fresh. Now, after about half a century, that care seems to have faded away and people are again looking into HGH.

Doping and aging

The pituitary gland sends out the hormone in short bursts, especially after exercise, trauma, and sleep. Generally, there’s more hormone secreted during the night than during the day. Research has also shown that production rises during childhood, peaks during puberty, and declines from middle age onward. It’s still used as a drug for children who suffer from an HGH deficiency (as well as some adults who suffer from this). Adults who are GH deficient get larger muscles, more energy, and improved exercise capacity from replacement therapy. They also experience increased stamina, protection from fractures, and a reduced risk of heart disease. But there’s a price to pay: Up to 30% of patients experience side effects that include fluid retention, joint and muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and high blood sugar levels.

HGH can be injected. Image credits: Psychonaught.

If you’ve ever done or followed sports, you probably see where this is going. Something that gives you bigger muscles and more energy, but is also risky? That’s doping. Indeed, HGH has been banned by the International Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the World Anti-Doping Agency — among others. That hasn’t stopped it from tainting many sports… but there’s a strange kicker.

A team of researchers from California conducted a detailed review of 44 high-quality studies of growth hormone in athletes and found that while HGH does lead to an increase in muscle mass, that increase doesn’t really translate into better results. It gets even better: subjects who were given HGH were more likely to experience fatigue and retain fluid than those who were given the placebo. So while some still vouch for HGH as an (illegal) way of boosting sportive performance, that’s still a matter of debate.

Because HGH has been linked to protein production, the burning of fat, and sugar blood levels, some people thought “Hey, why not inject this and trick my body into thinking it’s young?” Indeed, “Every man desires to live long,” wrote Jonathan Swift, “but no man would be old.” According to Harvard, one estimate reported 20,000 to 30,000 Americans used GH as “anti-aging” therapy in 2004 alone; according to another, 100,000 people received GH without a valid prescription in 2002. This happens despite the fact that the FDA has not approved the use of GH for anti-aging, body building, or athletic enhancement. There is still an ongoing debate about the potential benefits of GHG in combating aging, but that’s questionable at best. Furthermore, a team of researchers which reviewed 31 high-quality studies that were completed after 1989 reports that while subjects gained an average of 4.6 pounds of lean body mass and shed a similar amount of body fat, they also reported side effects including fluid retention, joint pain, breast enlargement, and carpal tunnel syndrome. So again, there were positive responses, but for a price.

All in all, there is no universal cure, no fountain of youth. The best thing you can do is ensure a healthy lifestyle for yourself. Eat a balanced diet, work out, don’t stress too much. The basic things really do go a long way. If you do decide to go for something else, be sure you’re informed about what you’re doing.

Douglas fir forests are buckling under the heat, pausing their growth altogether

America’s iconic Douglas firs are feeling the heat (and drought) of shifting climate patterns all across the Western U.S., finds a new University of California study.

Tiny mushrooms growing out of a Douglas Fir cone near Mount Lewis on the MiWok Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest. Image credits Alice Poulson / USFS Region 5 Flickr.

Tiny mushrooms growing out of a Douglas Fir cone near Mount Lewis on the MiWok Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest.
Image credits Alice Poulson /
USFS Region 5 Flickr.

Nobody enjoys a good old fashioned heat-wave, especially when there’s no water to be found anywhere. You’re sluggish, sweaty, bad-tempered and all you want to do is find a cool surface and put as much of your body surface against it as you can. The Douglas fir understands you. In fact, it would probably do just the same as you would, if its roots didn’t you know, root it in place.

So when confronted with a heat wave strong enough to dry the soil and air around the trees, they do the next best thing at their disposal — they stop growing altogether. And this could have huge implications for forest carbon stocks and the global carbon cycle.

“If trees are being less productive, if they are not growing as well, they are taking in less CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Christina Restaino, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis.

“Tree stress can lead to the point where trees die, and when we lose tree species on the landscape, there’s always the question of what is going to grow back in its place.”

For the study, Restaino and her team examined more than 2,000 tree cores from 122 locations across the Western United States. They found that rising temperatures hurt the growth cycle of the trees — because it removes water from both the soil and atmosphere, the heat causes the firs to lose water faster than they can take it in. The trees respond by closing their stomata, tiny pores which shuttle in carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen during photosynthesis.

Using climate models to gauge future conditions, the team determined that the air and soil which Douglas fir forests rely on could dry up for up to double the time we see today by 2080. This would also translate into double the effect on growth we see today, the team added. The effects were most pronounced in the Southwest, which is already experiencing higher temperatures. Douglas firs in the Pacific Northwest fared a bit better.

“This is a species that has been logged historically and still is, so it certainly is important in terms of thinking about not only how our ecosystems are responding to changes in climate, but also in changes of the economics of forest management, as well,” Restaino said.

The team spent three summers harvesting their own tree cores for the study instead of using the extensive tree core data set available from the International Tree-Ring Data Bank (ITRDB.) They also used data collected by co-author Jeremy Littell, lead research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Alaska’s Climate Science Center.

This way they can get an accurate snapshot of how Douglas firs respond to climate change between 1916 to 2006 across their entire U.S. range. ITRDB cores are often taken from trees in the harshest environments so they can be easily connected to the climates of past years, but that offers a biased view of the species’ response.

“We can tell a larger story about a whole range of tree-growing environments,” she said.

The full paper, titled “Increased water deficit decreases Douglas fir growth throughout western US forests” has been published online in the journal PNAS.