Sunday, October 1, 2017

Limits to Growth -- An Odyssey, part I

Things happen in cycles.  Most obviously, there is the rhythm of the day and the year; more subtle cycles govern many other aspects of our existence as well.  The relatively placid and livable climate we enjoy is but a phase in the relentless Milankovich cycles that result from the dance of the planets, bringing us periodic ice ages (though it looks likely that human activity will measurably alter the earthly aspect of this rhythm for a while).

Business cycles are familiar to us as well: periods of economic growth followed by contraction as recession takes the place of expansion.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we expect growth to dominate.  Recessions are temporary setbacks on the road to increasing prosperity and progress.

Whatever our expectations, there is a larger economic rhythm that has governed all societies since the dawn of civilization a few hundred generations ago.  Societies wax and wane with their fortunes as exploiters of the resources available to them.  The great early societies of Sumer and Babylon, the ancient Puebloans, the Classical Maya, and of course the Roman Empire are all examples of once thriving societies that are no more.

Alarmed that exponentially increasing population and resource exploitation, along with the resulting pollution, would precipitate the next crisis of civilization, a group of industrialists, civil servants, and intellectuals met in Italy in 1968, founding the Club of Rome.  They commissioned a report by scientists at M.I.T., published in 1972, with the title Limits to Growth.  The report caused a sensation and sold more than 12 million copies; even now it is the top-selling environmental book, and among the top-selling nonfiction books, of all time.

Limits to Growth was published into a time of environmental awakening.  The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was followed by the Clean Air Act of 1963; Paul Ehrlich's 1968 The Population Bomb; the creation of the EPA and the first Earth Day in 1970; and acts concerning water pollution in 1972 and 1977.  Those of you with no recollection of 1970 should be aware that this was a time of opaque, choking air in many of America's large cities and virtually unrestrained dumping of industrial, agricultural, and sewage waste on the nation's land and in its waterways.

The computer simulations generated by the authors of Limits to Growth attempted to model the interactions of, in their words, "population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation".   Employing the recently developed formalism of system dynamics, the group found that known resource availability, expected pollution generation, and plausible efficiency and technological increases combined to give a peak in human prosperity sometime in the middle of the 21st century.   Their "standard run" simulation, corresponding to "business as usual", is shown below.  It depicts the evolution of the key variables during the 20th and 21st centuries.  It is evident that, in this scenario, the going gets pretty rough by the middle of the 21st century:

In addition to the methodology, which took into account feedback mechanisms between different parts of the global economic system,  Limits to Growth incorporated a number of other innovations.  It emphasized that known resource reserves expected to last a certain number of years at current rates of consumption would be consumed over a dramatically shorter period due to consumption growth.  And it showed plainly -- in 1972! -- the exponential rise in CO2 production, discussing the eventual impacts that we are now living with.  A recent study found that human development has followed the "business as usual" trajectory surprisingly closely.

However, Limits to Growth was a direct political threat to the explosive postwar growth that had crescendoed in the 1960s, and it inevitably provoked a backlash, most concertedly from economists.  The authors had provided a hierarchy of scenarios corresponding to different actions that could be taken to forestall collapse.  Critics tended to focus on the standard run projection, taking it as a prediction and finding fault with it in their many detailed analyses, some cogent, some disingenuous.  When a twenty-year update appeared, its foes updated their arguments too.

As part of a movement that heightened awareness and led to important reforms, Limits to Growth was surely successful, though ironically, as these reforms have prevented some of the anticipated crises, they have given credence to critics' claims of excessive pessimism.

But as a manifesto provoking a sea change in the way humanity does business, it was an abject failure.  This is painfully clear on the eve of next year's fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Club of Rome: resistance to "austerity" and attempts to roll back regulations so as to promote growth are far more visible than efforts to restrain growth or to leave resources in the ground as a way of avoiding even worse climate change than is now guaranteed.

Nevertheless, the public is once again showing signs of an awareness of limits.  Mindful of this, and eager to make another attempt at intervening in the public conversation surrounding growth, the Club of Rome sponsored its first "Summer Academy" in September.  Admission required preparation of a short video explaining why the participant thought he or she would be a useful contributor.  I was admitted, paid my conference fee, booked my travel and airbnb lodging, and headed off the day after Labor Day for Florence, where the Academy was held.

Each weekend through October, I plan to publish in this space my observations of the weeklong Summer Academy, along with information I think important for you to know.  These issues are largely avoided by our political and cultural leaders.  Were the authors of Limits to Growth right -- are we on an unsustainable path that will lead to global ruin during the 21st century?  Or is the Club of Rome an evil "cabal" intent on world domination?  I want to provide a space here at the Middletown Eye for you to read about and discuss the issues surrounding growth.  Please post your questions and comments!

further reading:

The entire first edition of Limits to Growth may be downloaded here:

A recent article about a longer recent piece, Limits to Growth Revisited:

An article written on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of LTG in 2012:

The website of the Club of Rome itself:


Anonymous said...

Only change is sustainable.

We need to prepare for change, not fight it.

It's far too late to stop the drop in the human population of this planet from 9 billion to 2 billion by 2100, the rising of the oceans, the transformation of terrestrial ice into liquid, and greatly increased heat levels for two or more centuries.

The world's population was last two billion in 1927.

With all the technological improvements since 1927, there is no reason a human race of that size cannot muddle through.

But they must be willing to adapt to the new reality of violent weather and desert and near-desert conditions on remaining unsubmerged land masses.

There will also have to be a transvaluation of values.

That may not be to the liking of those who through age, weakness, poverty, lack of education, miseducation, or dysfunctional belief systems are unfit for harsh new conditions.

Such conditions will require and necessarily bring about sterner power relationships.

Many will doubtless choose to attach themselves in service to those with the will and ability not only to survive, but to triumph on what we may as well call the "New Earth."

I hope that we of this age can conduct ourselves in the coming convulsions so that if humanity lasts another thousand years on this planet, those last ones will look back on this time and say of us, "They were ruthless enough to do what had to be done to keep the race going whole centuries longer."

Brian Stewart said...

Anonymous, I agree with you up to a point.

Working in favor of your prediction is the entire history of our failure to heed warnings, some of them pretty clear, coming from numerous quarters over a long period of time and all pointing to the same disastrous outcome.

Supporting your prediction is the inertia, physical and social, that makes quick action difficult or impossible.

The policies recently adopted by the United States of America offer further support for your thesis.

However, I have two comments:

1. Social movements can change abruptly; look at stock market booms and crashes and you will see a model for how public opinion might change in a short period of time.

2. Whatever combination of mitigation and adaptation is adopted will require awareness to be effective. For example, adaptation to sea level rise will be ineffective if it consists of numerous stopgap measures ignorant of predictable further changes in sea level.

For these reasons, I do not draw the conclusion, as some have, that we should just wait passively and let history wash over us (and I am not saying that you do either).

For these reasons, I do see a role for public conversations such as the one we are engaging in. There is no reason to assume awareness will go "viral" as a result, but it is certain that silence will contribute nothing. Thank you for your contribution.

Linda said...

Brian, I very much appreciate your posting of the Club of Rome workshops. I dabbled in these analyses back in the early 1980s and was sorry to see them go out of fashion. Here's my question with relation to the Anonymous' discussion: what have I missed that predicts a population decrease over the next few centuries? Is that part of the Club's newest assumptions?
Looking forward to the next installment.