Our Infinity Problem

The problem of infinity cannot be solved in our finite world. The problem is far more serious than we think. It’s unavoidable, and it involves capitalism and almost everything else of importance. One could say there is no more important problem. What is this infinity problem? The infinity we seek cannot exist in a finite world. Our small blue dot of a world is finite.

It’s useful to restate the impossibility as a problem of compounding. In essence, anything that regularly increases by a percentage can only end at infinity. This includes population, pollution, use of natural resources, and of course, capitalist wealth. Everything that increases by compounding sooner or later ends up with a “hockey stick” distribution, with a sharp rise coming to the present. Everything.

The problem of infinity
cannot be solved
in our finite world.

We cannot change any of it with window dressing. A kind and gentle capitalism is not possible because the problem is in its DNA, not in its practitioners. It will require a profound and complete change of direction. No matter how benign we think we are personally, how noble our intentions, the innate attributes of capitalism compel it toward infinity, a characteristic that was well known even to Adam Smith. Capitalism must have endless growth, and the same holds for every single measure with the characteristic of compounding. It’s impersonal, in the nature of the math.

This is not a problem that will come someday. It’s here, now, and we have no choice but to meet it head-on. But of course we are not. We’re not even aware of it yet.

The commonly accepted economic goal is for 3% annual growth. That mere 3% will double the size of the economy in 24 years. The same 3% will give us an economy four times larger in 48 years, and so on. Calculating the results if population doubled at 3%—which fortunately it does not—makes the point dramatically. Try it. (There are 7.3 billion of us now.)

The problem is here, now,
but we’re not even aware of it.

This insight has enormous implications for our near future. Many of the problems that have been building for centuries have suddenly arrived at a crisis point, and none of them will be solved except by completely changing how we do things.

Scientists have been well aware of the inherent danger of compounding as it applies to global warming. Unfortunately, with attempts to avoid overstating conditions, every calculation of global warming has proven to be too conservative. But it’s all the same problem: the impossibility of infinity in a finite world.

Karl Marx’s insights into the nature of capital are a century and a half old, but they have held up, and in fact are reinforced with real data by Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century). What Marx (and even Adam Smith) intuited was the capitalist imperative of infinite growth.

Growth of wealth
for the very rich is infinite,
but wealth itself is finite.

The new insight that Piketty demonstrated is that great wealth is self-reinforcing. The richest use investment advantages that are available to no one else. As a result, wealth grows faster for them, creating worsening inequality for everyone else. This occurs because growth of wealth for them compounds, and is infinite, but wealth itself is finite.

The 1.0% most wealthy now own fully half the world’s wealth. Soon the they will own 60%,  then 70%, and so on until something stops them. The very wealthiest (0.001%) already own preposterous fortunes, which are growing at a rate significantly greater than that of the mere 1%, who are slouchers by comparison. [Addendum: The total wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by 10% in 2014, $0.65 trillion. ]

All this might extend into the distant future except we have bumped smack up against our planet’s finite limits. This little blue dot is all we have. Wealth is finite, as is everything else in our world.

There is a finite amount of oil in the ground, and good reason to think we have already pumped and burnt up the easiest half. If this were not so, why are we destroying forever many thousands of acres in Canada for a paltry blob of the dirty stuff found in sand? Why is Big Oil determined to drill in treacherous Arctic seas where they have already given us two disasters?

We have bumped smack up
against our planet’s finite limits.

The atmosphere is not infinite either. You can easily see this with every horizon photo taken from space. The blue atmosphere is paper thin, and we have been pumping it full of greenhouse gasses generated by burning fossil fuels because of our failure to understand finiteness. That has created a full-fledged worldwide disaster that is very apparent in the US with this winter’s extreme weather.

Nor is it possible for the human population to grow infinitely. Long, long ago we passed the point of sustainable population. World population today is increasing by one Germany per year. Now almost 7.3 billion, world population will cross 10 billion sometime in the ’60s. Now, even with the best science we can come up with, disaster is inevitable, and we haven’t even acknowledged our infinity problem, let alone started to do something about it.

Reliance on the infinite clearly cannot continue. Capitalism must be replaced by something, which we have scarcely begun to define, something that ends the irrational and impossible striving for infinity. The population must be reduced. Gross atmospheric pollution must end right now. The capitalist imperative must be replaced. All these impossible infinities will either be recognized and reversed, or there will be worldwide catastrophe unprecedented in our 200,000 years as a species.

It’s not optional. Either we learn how to work together to solve our infinity problems, now, or nature will take over.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


  2. You and your other readers may have already seen this, but there is a really excellent and engaging talk on exponential growth by Prof Al Bartlett emeritus of U Colorado. He explains the math of exponential growth in a way that is accessible to anyone who got through about 9th grade algebra. It really illuminates the underlying concepts here:


    If you are not already familiar with doubling times and the rule of 70 and all that, it’s well worth an hour to watch the lecture.


  3. Thank you very much. This is just the sort of thing everyone needs to understand.


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