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Exploring ‘The Third Curve’ with Mansoor Khan

by Bumblebee
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New Picture (67Mansoor Khan studied engineering at IIT, Cornell University and MIT but then went on to make four feature films including Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. In 2003, he moved to Coonoor, to realize his first passion of living on an organic farm. His first book, ‘The Third Curve – The End of Growth as we know it’ explains the limits of growth in economy and industry from an Energetics perspective. In this interview we try to find out more about him as well as his book.


BB: Tell us a little bit about the ‘The Third Curve – The End of Growth as we know it’ and the central argument being made in the book. In other words, – your take on the energy predicament of the nation.

MK: For a start I never really wanted to be part of the entertainment or film world. I always knew that I wanted to move out from the city and live in a non-urban environment. But while I was trying to make that happen, I had to do something responsible to kind of redeem myself in my parents’  eyes. I had wasted enough of their money in my academic pursuits and other things and it was time to face the real world. So I dug inside me to see what I could do and there was a bit of a story-teller in me that I decided to explore and that is how the films happened. And all this while I was making my effort to move to a farm. Somewhere in between I became aware of the other side of life that we are not told about in our mainstream education. We are fed with an industrial perspective of productivity and growth and development with very little consideration about what it entails and what will be the backlash of this kind of merely quantitative outlook to life. And so when my land where I planned to move and that of 30,000 other villagers came under the threat of acquisition for the development of an airport, I was forced to think about these things. What exactly do we mean by development and what are the other implications of it. What I studied is what is missed out completely from our education and belief system. And that changed my complete world view. One thing led to another and my research in defending my land led me to understanding energy and Peak Oil issues that relate to Limits of Growth and eventually lead off the complete environmental and human crisis that we are witnessing presently. It is common sense really, but as I read further and spoke to people I realised how little people were aware that energy drives the economy and so you better learn the limits and laws of energy.

BB: Tell us a little bit about the ‘The Third Curve – The End of Growth as we know it’ and the central argument being made in the book. In other words, your take on the energy predicament of the nation?

MK: The central argument of the book is that exponential economic growth started because we found cheap and dense energy in the form fossil fuels in 1750. Before that global GDP was steady and a very low figure. Since then we have designed and built our world on not only fossil fuels but also the by products which are unique to fossil fuels and cannot be replaced by any other alternative. And the reality of fossil fuels or any resource that we get from the earth is that we get in the form of a bell curve. Slowly at first then rising to a peak when half of that resource is over and then declining permanently. We reached Peak Oil in 2005 and that is the prime reason for the 2008 economic collapse. Ever since we have been on a plateau and will shortly start a permanent descent in available energy. Thus real economic growth is over and we are now in economic shrinkage globally.

This is because the true currency of the universe is energy and not money. While you can get energy out of the ground at ever-increasing speeds, the global economy can grow in a real sense. But sadly the earth is finite, and even more the earth starts giving you energy slower when only half of it is depleted from an oil well. This is a geological fact not taught in any education system anywhere in the world. That does not make it less true. The availability of fossil fuels and most other resources follow the laws of geology which is a bell curve. When you reach the top of the bell curve in terms of extraction rate, then it can only go down and that is exactly what happened with oil reaching its global peak in 2005 as predicted by the renowned geologist King Hubbert in 1970.Hubbert incidentally was working for Shell oil and not some doom saying tree-hugger. Today 72% of the world’s oil producing nations are in steep decline. Based on this people like us were predicting the impact it would have on world economies when oil peaked in 2005 and that is exactly what happened in 2008. The global economy collapsed as oil is the true driver of industrial and economic growth.

“The central argument of the book is that exponential economic growth started because we found cheap and dense energy in the form fossil fuels in 1750.”

Remember our modern industrial world runs not merely on available energy as in from the sun but on a humongous store of 300 million years of sunlight called fossil fuels that we were lucky to stumble upon in 1750. That level of energy availability started the industrial age from use of coal to oil to natural gas. These 3 sisters are the energy base on which our modern industrial world has been built and designed. This tremendous store of energy allowed us to grow exponentially for the last 250 years and that has conditioned us to believe that this kind of growth is possible for ever. So we have designed our money, banking, financial and industrial systems premised on compounding interest and returns which will on last till we reach the top of the bell curve of oil. So if you talk about the energy predicament for our nation, it is even more dire. We are a country of 1.3 billion, with no significant oil trying to ape a western model of development and 7% compound growth. Yes it happened for a while and that gave us tremendous goodies and the delusion that this can go on forever. But the energy reality begs the question – “How you are going to run this just 20 years down the line?” The implications are logically dire if we believe that we can repeat what the US did (and now collapsing) and that too after half the energy and resources are over on this planet. Traditionally there are far better ways to design our world only if recognise the fallacy and impossibility of perpetual growth. Chasing infinite growth can only lead to collapse, which is what the first world is facing and that is why they are coming here in a great hurry to exploit our balance cheap resources in order to make their money grow. We are importing a model of chasing growth through consumerism and blatant development for the sake of growth. Mark my words, we going to rush down the same tunnel and bang our heads really hard at the end. What a way to plan the future for ourselves, our kids, our animals, plants, rivers, forests and everything that we so lovingly call India. A country that was once the seat of wisdom and now sold out to a delusion called Growth.

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BB: Can you elaborate a little on the idea of an Energy Descent and how it is going to impact our future?

MK: Like I said, the availability of all resources follows a bell curve. You start extracting slowly and then the rate picks up until it reaches a peak and beyond that it only declines. This is true about all our energy sources and in particular of fossil fuels. You have to remember that it is fossil fuels that started the concept of growth in 1750 when we first started using coal and that kick-started the industrial world. It was the available cheap energy that started the industrial mode of manufacture, production and plenty. It was not some great idea that started it.

Most people are under the illusion that we generate energy. We don’t and we never have. We only extract it in the form of fossil fuels. Other so called forms of generation like solar, wind, nuclear are nothing more than energy converters as they are all basically built with fossil fuels. And even worse they only generate electricity that does not fundamentally run our modern industrial world which runs 87 per cent on fossil fuels. Even more, the very fabric of our modern industrial world is built with the by-products of fossil fuels like bitumen, plastics, lubricants, fertilisers, insulators, etc. and those you don’ get from any of the so-called alternatives. So when fossil fuels descend down the bell curve that is called Energy Descent and that intrinsically shrinks the way we run our world. The idea of money growing becomes false and all our financial systems are premised on the assumption that we can generate compounding interest by increasing our production of goods and services. When money cannot grow legitimately we make up imaginary means of growth like share prices, options, derivatives and hedge funds which are intrinsically betting models and we count that as real growth to perpetuate the myth in our minds that perpetual growth is actually possible and happening.

“So we have designed our money, banking, financial and industrial systems premised on compounding interest and returns which will on last till we reach the top of the bell curve of oil.”

And the truth of that gets revealed eventually as we saw in the 2008 global economic collapse when we reach and cross the era of cheap energy. That is what is called Peak Oil that people like me are aware, studying and trying to make the mainstream understand. There are many more corrections like this to come if we remain in denial that growth is over and that we should shape a sensible and smaller world. There is absolutely nothing wrong or scary about that. That is the way the energy descent is already taking us whether we want to accept is or not. My book starts with a simple thought – ‘Deal with Reality or Reality will deal with you’. Energy descent is a reality that we need to understand and accept. Only then can we shape a secure and healthy future. And if you ignore this reality then reality is in no mood to negotiate with you. As Ayn Rand said, ‘you can ignore reality but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality’.

“When money cannot grow legitimately we make up imaginary means of growth like share prices, options, derivatives and hedge funds which are intrinsically betting models and we count that as real growth to perpetuate the myth in our minds that perpetual growth is actually possible and happening.”

“When money cannot grow legitimately we make up imaginary means of growth like share prices, options, derivatives and hedge funds which are intrinsically betting models and we count that as real growth to perpetuate the myth in our minds that perpetual growth is actually possible and happening.”

BB: The idea of a growth model or calculations of progress in terms of GDP may be faulty, but do you genuinely believe that a shift in national priorities from current growth trajectories to a more steady state and pace is actually possible. Or is it just a Utopian dream?

MK: Yes of course the current trajectories will be affected and that too not in a steady state direction but in a very definite descent pattern till we reach down to the real energy budget of our planet which is sunlight. Sunlight is the true income of energy on this planet and is far less and in a completely different form from how we have designed our world to run. Moving from 300 million years of stored sunlight to real-time sunlight implicitly means energy descent which spells end of growth. So how on earth are you going to increase GDP? It is not a matter of choice. Like I just said, end of growth is a non-negotiable geological and thermodynamic reality and not the figment of a Utopian dream. In fact GDP chasing was an illusion. You can only increase Gross Domestic Product in a real manner when you have more and more cheap energy and resources to produce more and more products and services whether they are needed or not.

Oh and another wonderful irony of GDP as a measure of well-being is that GDP goes up whether you make machine guns or medicines for man-made diseases. Great arrangement won’t you say? Does not make much sense to me as a measure of well-being in any case. In fact in my book I show the positive correlation between our exponential chasing of GDP with the exponential decay of all life systems on this planet. Yes chasing GDP is the root cause of all the converging crises we are seeing erupt all over the planet. But then again that was not out of choice but out of the possibility that fossil fuels provided for a short time.

So yes the choice is before the nation only if the understood the non-negotiability of energy descent. The national priorities of chasing an impossible goal will meet their own painful end because of the limiting laws of Energetics. It is not a moral argument or imposition. Very important to understand this. I have mentioned this at the beginning of our book. Insisting that we will make growth happen against these odds is a dangerous and losing battle.

To understand the intricacies of the predicament of energy I would recommend that people read and research the many excellent books and literature on the subject. I have given plenty of references at the end of my book.

BB:  Current growth models are based on an economic model of continuous consumption. Can this trend actually be reversed given the common aspirations of the average Indian?

MK: My last answer explains this. Just because Indians have been misled to aspire for perpetual growth-based models does not mean the reality of resource and energy availability is going to changes its laws. This is a frequent argument I have faced when I give lectures on Energy and the end of growth. It sounds like a spoilt child crying for bigger and bigger toys and not recognising the limited ability of his parents (in this case the earth) to provide them. The Earth is limited and no amount of crying or moral or economic pleading can change that.

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BB: How do your formulations of growth correlate and address the issue of the economic realities of rural and urban poor. How do you balance out ecological imperatives with the developmental needs of the majority?

MK: For a start, my argument is not ecological. My argument is geological. I am not saying that we SHOULD NOT have growth. I am saying we will NOT BE ABLE to have limitless, exponential growth because of the laws of Energy Descent and a finite resource base which needs to be understood in great detail. So everyone including the poor will have to deal with this. And let me tell you, honestly a far better world is possible that is not premised on perpetual growth. Just because people live with less does not mean we lead a qualitatively inferior life. Sounds hard to believe because we have been fed with the idea that growth creates prosperity and well-being. Sorry this is completely wrong. Well-being has nothing to do with growth. In fact perpetual growth is a mode of cancer that automatically affects well-being by depleting and destroying life supporting systems like water tables, forests, rivers, clean air and bio-diversity. The last chapter of my book talks about the transition that we need to make from a quantity-based paradigm to a paradigm that the rest of nature actually follows. Once again this is not a matter of choice. It is happening anyway. We have to recognize it and move in sync with it. When the tide goes out you don’t argue with the moon.

“The most surprising thing I learned is that the less formally educated a person is, the more easily he or she understood the obvious idea that it is not possible to have perpetual growth on a finite planet.”

BB: Where did you get your inspiration or idea for your book and how long was it in gestation?

MK: I became aware of Peak Oil and Limits to Growth and related subjects as early as 1999. It made sense to me straight away and so I started reading extensively on the subject. There is a huge community of people, including people in the oil industry and other disciplines, who are studying and talking energy realities. They were predicting the financial collapse post global Peak Oil. When the Financial Collapse eventually happened in 2008, I thought there would be lots of people who would write about this in India but no one did. India is sweetly unaware of the energy aspect and so is busily making false and dangerous plans to expand and grow that has already proved disastrous in the first world countries. And so we want to go and make the same mistake. Imagine a country with one quarter the land mass, four times population and no oil of its own making plans like the U.S. in the second half of oil availability on the planet. This is a sure recipe for doom. And we can see the signs in our unstable economies.

BB: What was the hardest part in writing this book?

MK: The toughest part was to constantly remind the reader that my argument is not a moral one but a reality and possibility one. Because we have recently become so aware of the environmental and inequity aspects of our present world we assume that this is what is being said and so the energy descent argument becomes reduced to an environmental argument. Sorry to say this but you can look at your own questions too. You asked me in 3 different questions in 3 different ways about how people will not accept this or that we needed to grow for some reason and put aside environmental consideration a bit. I am saying something even more blatantly bold. I am saying even if you throw environmental consideration out of the window and we remove all environmental clearance hurdles and we allow digging every mountain, cutting every forest, damming every river and plundering every coal, oil and natural gas source – you still will not be able to make growth happen because all these resources are in descent as per laws of geology. So to constantly keep drawing the reader’s attention to the IMPOSSIBILITY of growth rather than the IMMORAL aspect of perpetual growth was the toughest part of writing the book and answering your questions 🙂

BB: What was the most surprising thing you learned while you were writing the book? Any interesting anecdotes to share?

MK: The most surprising thing I learned is that the less formally educated a person is, the more easily he or she understood the obvious idea that it is not possible to have perpetual growth on a finite planet. Our global mainstream education system conditions and brainwashes you to believe that it is possible. And we actually waste so many precious years of our life to get deluded. Wonderful. As I always say that to understand that perpetual growth is firstly impossible and secondly a form of cancer, you need only a small amount of common sense but a whole lot of honesty.

BB: What kind of feedback did you get from your readers?

MK: I got stunningly positive response from my readers and the audiences where I have spoken. This included professors, students, finance people, CEOs, chartered accountants and policy makers. The list of venues where I have spoken includes all the 4 IIMs, Indian School of Business, The Energy & Resources Institute in Delhi, Foreign Services Institute (New Delhi), Cognizant, Allegis, Yahoo, Morgan Stanley, CII groups, IIT groups, Symbiosis Institute of Business Management (Bangalore), Commits Institute of Journalism (Bangalore), Bombay Chartered Accountants Association (Mumbai) and 3 TEDx talks. You have to listen to my 1 hour presentation that takes you systematically through the energy argument to understand where the flaw in our mainstream economic understanding is. It is because we think it is money and capital that runs the world whereas in fact it is energy. Money is a map of energy and resources in fact. So we can make the laws for money which becomes economics but we cannot make the laws for energy the discipline for which is Energetics. All systems from an ant to a complete eco-system instinctively and honestly follow energetics. They grow only proportionate to available energy and when that declines they shrink. Only we got the illusion that we could grow forever because found a humongous stash of stored sunlight capital in the form of fossil fuels and that is allowing us to soar upwards for a while. Short while I must say because we have burnt half of a 300 million year store of energy in just 150 years. Please do the accounting and tell me if this enterprise called the modern industrial world can run like this for long.

And my audiences and readers got it so strongly that they were demanding that I take it a wider audience through a film. Easily said. Film is not the best medium to communicate this paradigm shifting reality. You know what is going to convince people the most? It is the reality of Energy Descent unfolding day by day that we are not recognising as the root cause. We are calling it all kinds of other things like weak administration, policy failure, liquidity crisis, corruption and what not.

BB: Most students’ work very hard to get into IIT and very few leave before they finish. If we are not mistaken you are one of the rare exceptions. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that decision came about?

MK: Initially I was very keen on engineering but as my thinking expanded I felt that is not what I wanted to do as a profession. I also became aware of my innate urge to move away from the urban. This was tied up with my questioning of mainstream industrial paradigm, the 9 to 5 world and made chase for material growth. It all added up in my mind and I started planning to find a place outside Mumbai city to settle down in. But along the way there were other events that completely transformed the way I look at things I found then getting increasingly at loggerheads with the mainstream. As time goes by, I feel that I was correct and the choices that I was making at a personal level are also universally true. One needs peace, harmony, a healthy environment and limits to growth to be content. Everything that we are told is in the opposite direction. And you can see the result of that in the modern industrial world. The irony is that the bubble of this illusion is bursting not because somebody is convincing people to change their minds. Reality of energy and resource shrinkage is doing it naturally.

BB: After QSQT there were not any other hit films that followed. Did you lose interest in film making and Bollywood and moved on? A little bit more on that Journey.

MK: This is the same as the last question. I never wanted to make films so I never lost interest. I was doing it as a stop-gap activity. I did the best I could with my films but the plans we always to get away and do what I am doing now – living in a small town on a farm and studying and writing about the converging crises that the world is facing that are all actually intimately connected with the dangerous and illusory idea of perpetual growth. As economist and educator Kenneth Boulding said ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell’. Think about it. We are behaving exactly like a cancer cell on the body of the earth. No wonder it is dying. And we call it progress!

BB: What next after The Third Curve? Do you have another book planned?

MK: I am planning to take the thoughts of my book further through various other mediums that are easier to access and assimilate like a stand-alone PowerPoint presentation, a short film and hopefully a full length film. The last one is not easy as the subject is a bit academic and hard to translate to a feature film format. But I will explore every medium to communicate this. I do have 2 other books planned but they go way beyond this subject. Can’t tell you more on that yet.

1 comment

Varadarajan Seshamani November 29, 2017 - 5:42 am

Glad to see that such deep thinking exists in our society in the senseless pursuit of consumption led growth ad infinitum
To this should be added the synergistic effect of Global warming destruction of environment exponential growth of population as well as competitive population growth in some societies and the khicchidi that will result will be disastrous
It is necessary to get to a recyclable consumption based model of bringing self sufficiency and a level of prosperity to all


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