Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

Bigger, faster and more inventive 

Scale – The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economics, and Companies
Forfatter: Geoffrey West
Forlag: Penguin Press (USA)
More people with ever-increasing energy consumption assume that we are accelerating technology development at an ever wilder pace.


When we say, with a large historical overview, that civilizations "grow up", "flourish" and possibly "fade away", we speak in biological metaphors. But what if these expressions are more than metaphors – what if they actually describe reality one-on-one? Can we pursue a cultural science based on the principles of science, a doctrine of civilization according to the pattern of biology's general doctrine of living? For is not also urban and business life a kind of life experience based on production and reproduction, competition and symbiosis? What nature has more in common with civilization is the phenomenon growth – and here lies perhaps the key to a science beyond the distinction between nature and culture.


Human metabolism needs only 100 watts a day. Soon we are up in staggering 20 000.

Physicist Geoffrey West has a background as president of the prestigious Santa Fe Insitute, which since its founding in 1984 has brought together a broad, interdisciplinary research environment to explore complex dynamic systems. This general systems theory links biological systems with cultural networks such as economics and infrastructure.

Growth Offset. Front of West's book Scale – The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economics, and Companies depicting the Earth as seen from space at night, with North America at its center – and a network of illuminating nodes that testify to modern civilization. When West later refers to this picture, he reminds that only 100 years ago, the same view would have been completely dark. Not only electricity, but urbanization and infrastructure have grown explosively during these years. The same goes for the population, of course: Those born before the war have experienced a tripling of the world's population in their own lives – from 2,5 to 7,5 billion. Already with the industrial revolution, 100 years before, the population numbers rose dramatically, prompting Robert Malthus to set up his simple but shocking calculus: If productivity grows linearly and slowly, while the population increases exponentially through doubling, resources will sooner or later be too scarce to sustain the population. A graph that is becoming ever steeper goes to infinity – an impossibility that can only mean collapse and disaster.

Malthus' bleak predictions were far from embarrassed by history: fertilizers, industrialization of agriculture, mass production and mechanization caused the production of food and other goods to grow in an equally steep curve as the population. When biologist Paul Ehrlich and the much-talked about Club of Rome warned of the limits of growth in the 1970s, they were immediately accused of being neo-Maltese and pessimists, who rejected innovation's role in the economy and resource utilization. Still, West asks whether innovation optimists have not established a dangerous paradigm, where all system problems are solved by referring to future ingenuity.

General Growth Theory. West launches a theory of growth that is quite general – and builds on the well-known basic premise that when something grows quantitatively, qualitative changes also occur. For example, where a certain weight increases upon addition, there are other qualities that are multiplied or that have a negative growth. For example, energy is better utilized the larger an organism is. In this way, a growth of 100 per cent will result in an increase in energy demand of only 75 per cent. The same goes for many other phenomena: Larger cities generate more profits and create more innovation than the increase in size would indicate.

So it seems bigger always is better. The streamlining and ingenuity of urban-industrial life is the way out of the kind of crises that Malthus assumed were an iron law. The only problem is that when the population is urbanized and modernized, the individual's consumption also increases. If human metabolism is converted into a pure energy consumption measured in watts, we only need 100 watts a day. If you can pick fruit and pull roots out of the ground, you cover your energy consumption with your own help. In modern people's energy consumption, we must also include the energy consumed to produce, package and transport food. In addition, the individual's energy consumption in the form of hot showers, driving, electric lighting and heating. Soon we will be up to a staggering 20 watts per person. The efficiency of city life has energy-saving effects, but city life presupposes a high average level of consumption.

Ecology and economics, sociology and physics must blend together into a total theory, to save ourselves.

As we continue to move towards an urban-American lifestyle in the world's less developed countries – and at an accelerating pace – we are facing an explosive increase in energy consumption, as we all know. The impact West points to is less well-known: The development assumes that we can continue to accelerate innovation – that we can find new forms of technological salvation at an increasingly manic pace.

Clear question, unclear answer. "Can modern civilization be made sustainable?" asks West. With quantified and exact measures of sustainability, he manages to pinpoint and quantify the question. The battle is between those who continue to see modernization as a cornucopia, and those who believe the last stages of modernization will report as an explosive demand that no new ingenuity will be able to cover – or cover. Whether this is true is difficult to say, since innovations are the most unpredictable aspect of modern civilization. With alternative energy sources and new technological advancements, much could change – but still not everything, as West also points out. The problem that exists is that all energy use and all system building create entropy - a form of systematic chaos. West uses this highly abstract concept from the second law of thermodynamics to describe everything from slum districts to traffic jams and pollution – understood as the turbulent side effects of civilization. What West suggests is that attempts to stabilize an unstable environment in itself can help to destabilize the environment, as already the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann pointed out in the 80s. In that case, we are dealing with systematic problems that have no systematic solution.

The basic tone of West's presentation is nevertheless optimistic, and it is full of entertaining examples. The more precarious questions tend to drown in an accumulation of advanced fun facts and "astonishing patterns" while answering the answers loosely and leaving them for future research. Yet, West nonetheless conveys an ancient philosophical vision: a pythagorean insight that beneath what seems complicated and unclear, lies hidden patterns. According to West, ecology and economics, sociology and physics must merge into a total theory. Not only that: We will need this total theory to save ourselves.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

You may also like