Running Out of Stuff

Hubert Murray
4 min readMar 9, 2022

I was on a Zoom call the other day with principals of architectural firms in Boston. In the chit-chat prior to our meeting there was talk of how busy everyone is, how hard it is to find staff, how there is a log jam with Inspectional Services and how frustrated clients and developers are with all the delays. Everyone seems to be busy and so long as people are busy most of them are happy.

The AIA’s Architectural Billings Index bears this out. For the last six months the Billings have ranged from 51.0 to 56.6 and design contracts from 54.7 to 58.0. 50 represents stability. Anything above that number denotes growth. Whatever may survive of the Build Back Better bill will of course augment these positive indicators.

Not only are building professionals doing well, they are doing good. Responding to the dire prognoses about global warming coming from scientists and (some) policy makers, recently heard at the COP-26 gathering in Glasgow last December, and in February by the latest IPCC report and the NOAA report on Global and Regional Sea Level Rise, architects and engineers are getting better all the time at producing high efficiency low energy buildings, getting closer to Net Zero carbon emissions as the norm, at least for new construction. This is all good news for bending the climate warming curve downwards.

The sobering news however is growth. According to the World Economic Outlook, thanks to the pandemic, global growth is expected to moderate from 5.9% in 2021 to 4.4% in 2022, still well above the 3% rate regarded as the threshold for maintaining the economy in equilibrium. While this is good news for capital, it is altogether a different story for the planet. Consider for a moment the implications of adhering to the norm of 3% growth per annum. Applying the Rule of 72, this implies that the global economy will double in size in 24 years, i.e. by the time today’s newborn will have graduated from college. Architects, engineers and scientists will no doubt in that time have invented ways of mitigating the effects of climate change, and politicians may have convinced a recalcitrant electorate to pay for the necessary investments to forestall disaster.

Cantinela copper mine, Chile Photo David Maisel | 27.10.2019

But if the economy is to grow at 3% that implies that we, the global community, shall be extracting and consuming natural resources at a similar rate, doubling our consumption of minerals by 2046. In their book Thanatia, Antonio Valero Capilla and Alicia Valero Delgado, scientists at the University of Zaragoza in Spain, review each of the elements in the Periodic Table, the volume and location of known sources for the minerals and the rate of extraction so far recorded. By 2050, they forecast, the world will have been scraped clean of gold, silver, copper, nickel, tin, zinc, lead and antimony. Add lithium and coltan, and we can see that in the global rush to electrify our vehicles and the infrastructure, the social and economic strife we see in the Congo and Bolivia for instance is but a prelude to far greater distress.

As much as we strive for net zero, and as much as we would like carbon trading to work, we have a resource problem. This is not news. In 1972 Donella Meadows and her MIT colleagues wrote The Limits to Growth (the title connotes the thesis) and more recently Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics has outlined the socio-economic territory bounded on the inner ring of the “doughnut” by the food and resources we need to sustain ourselves, and on the outer ring, by the boundary we may not exceed if we wish to have a future. As it is we Americans are consuming resources at five times the rate of replenishment.

Rising seas, heatwaves and all the other effects of climate change are one thing. Running out of stuff is another. The scramble to electrify the nation may mitigate the former but is likely to exacerbate the latter. The critical issue is how to create an economic model that allows us to reduce our consumption and at the same time maintain a reasonable standard of living. There are no easy answers but unless we work at it, our grandchildren will be the victims of our indecision.

Walking over the Mass Ave bridge a few days ago, I marveled at the number of cranes I could see from one vantage point. Fourteen or fifteen maybe and doubtless many others I could not see. Boston is doing well and politicians get re-elected when there is employment and prosperity. But in the long run we have to ask where the cranes are flying.



Hubert Murray

Hubert Murray is an architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.