Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Apparently if you adjust a few factors and squint just right, the 1972 Limits to Growth is a remarkably good fit for the doomed trajectory of our modern world.
Yep, it’s bleak, says expert who tested 1970s end-of-the-world prediction
Sun 25 Jul 2021 16.00 AEST
A controversial MIT study from 1972 forecast the collapse of civilization – and Gaya Herrington is here to deliver the bad newsSun 25 Jul 2021 16.00 AEST
At a UN sustainability meeting several years ago, an economic policy officer came up to Gaya Herrington and introduced himself. Taking her name for a riff on James Lovelock’s earth-as-an-organism Gaia hypothesis, he remarked: “Gaya – that’s not a name, it’s responsibility.”
Herrington, a Dutch sustainability researcher and adviser to the Club of Rome, a Swiss thinktank, has made headlines in recent days after she authored a report that appeared to show a controversial 1970s study predicting the collapse of civilization was – apparently – right on time.
Coming amid a cascade of alarming environmental events, from western US and Siberian wildfires to German floods and a report that suggests the Amazon rainforest may no longer be able to perform as a carbon sink, Herrington’s work predicted the collapse could come around 2040 if current trends held.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/25/gaya-herrington-mit-study-the-limits-to-growth
The study confirming we are on track for certain eco-doom is available on the KPMG investment bank website.
Update to limits to growth
Comparing the World3 model with empirical data
In the 1972 bestseller Limits to Growth (LtG), the authors concluded that, if global soci- ety kept pursuing economic growth, it would experience a decline in food produc- tion, industrial output, and ultimately population, within this century. The LtG authors used a system dynamics model to study interactions between global variables, vary- ing model assumptions to generate different scenarios. Previous empirical-data com- parisons since then by Turner showed closest alignment with a scenario that ended in collapse. This research constitutes a data update to LtG, by examining to what extent empirical data aligned with four LtG scenarios spanning a range of technological, resource, and societal assumptions. The research benefited from improved data avail- ability since the previous updates and included a scenario and two variables that had not been part of previous comparisons. The two scenarios aligning most closely with observed data indicate a halt in welfare, food, and industrial production over the next decade or so, which puts into question the suitability of continuous economic growth as humanity’s goal in the twenty-first century. Both scenarios also indicate subsequent declines in these variables, but only one—where declines are caused by pollution— depicts a collapse. The scenario that aligned most closely in earlier comparisons was not amongst the two closest aligning scenarios in this research. The scenario with the smallest declines aligned least with empirical data; however, absolute differences were often not yet large. The four scenarios diverge significantly more after 2020, suggest- ing that the window to align with this last scenario is closing.
Read more: https://advisory.kpmg.us/articles/2021/limits-to-growth.html
Of course, the original scenario had to be updated a little, to make it fit the evidence.
1.5 Updates to LtG
Several qualitative reviews of the LtG publications have described how dynamics in World3 could be observed in the real world (Bardi, 2014; Jack- son & Weber, 2016; Simmons, 2000). One such review was from LtG author Randers (2000). Around 1990, it became clear that non-renewable resources, particularly fossil fuels, had turned out to be more plentiful than assumed in the 1972 BAU scenario. Randers therefore postulated that not resource scarcity, but pollution, especially from greenhouse gases, would cause the halt in growth. This aligns with the second scenario in the LtG books. This scenario has the same assumptions as the BAU, except that it assumes double the amount of non-renewable resources. This sce- nario is referred to as BAU2, and received more focus than the BAU scenario in the second and third LtG books. More natural resources do not avoid collapse in World3; the cause changes from resource depletion to a pollution crisis.
BAU2 was quantitatively assessed in a 2015 recalibration study of World3-03 (Pasqualino, Jones, Monasterolo, & Phillips, 2015). Results indi- cated that society had invested more to abate pollution, increase food productivity, and invest in services compared to BAU2. However, the authors did not compare their calibration with SW, nor did they use their recalibrated version of World3 to run the scenario beyond the present to see if collapse was avoided. Thus, their findings could not be taken as an indication that humanity had done enough to avoid declines, as the authors themselves made sure to point out.
Quantitative comparisons between LtG scenarios and empirical data were conducted by Turner (2008, 2012, 2014). He compared global observed data for the LtG variables with 3 of the 12 scenarios from the first book: BAU, CT, and SW. Turner concluded that world data compared favorably to key features of BAU, and much more so than for the other two scenarios.
Read more: Same as above
One of the criticisms of the original Limits to Growth was gross oversimplification, they had a single factor labelled “pollution”, which we were supposed to pretend meant something. There was a suggestion pollution was alluding to air pollution, though it was clear they meant pollution in general, whatever that is.
In this makeover, pollution is now called Pollution (CO2) and Pollution (plastic). Neither of which is a genuine problem.
But an even bigger criticism is the setting of arbitrary limits on available resources. Bjørn Lomborg wrote a scathing critique of The Limits to Growth in 2013, which is well worth reading, which as far as I can tell applies equally to this remake.
The Limits to Panic
Jun 17, 2013
We often hear how the world as we know it will end, usually through ecological collapse. Indeed, more than 40 years after the Club of Rome released the mother of all apocalyptic forecasts, The Limits to Growth, its basic ideas – though thoroughly discredited – are still shaping mindsets and influencing public policy.
COPENHAGEN – We often hear how the world as we know it will end, usually through ecological collapse. Indeed, more than 40 years after the Club of Rome released the mother of all apocalyptic forecasts, The Limits to Growth, its basic ideas are still with us. But time has not been kind.
The Limits to Growth warned humanity in 1972 that devastating collapse was just around the corner. But, while we have seen financial panics since then, there have been no real shortages or productive breakdowns. Instead, the resources generated by human ingenuity remain far ahead of human consumption.
But the report’s fundamental legacy remains: we have inherited a tendency to obsess over misguided remedies for largely trivial problems, while often ignoring big problems and sensible remedies.
The genius of The Limits to Growth was to fuse these worries with fears of running out of stuff. We were doomed, because too many people would consume too much. Even if our ingenuity bought us some time, we would end up killing the planet and ourselves with pollution. The only hope was to stop economic growth itself, cut consumption, recycle, and force people to have fewer children, stabilizing society at a significantly poorer level.
That message still resonates today, though it was spectacularly wrong. For example, the authors of The Limits to Growth predicted that before 2013, the world would have run out of aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc.
Read more: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-growth-and-its-critics-by-bj-rn-lomborg
My question – given the Limits to Growth has already proven to be spectacularly wrong, why does anyone still take it seriously today?
Our cities today, at least in rich countries, are clean and healthy, with well managed pollution, except of course for those cities unfortunate enough to be managed by politicians who focus more on combatting CO2 than basic urban hygiene.
There is no evidence of any hard limit to resources. 7/8th of the Earth, the vastness of the ocean depths has barely been touched, in a few short years we shall have the technology to enormously enlarge our resource gathering scope.
Beyond Earth even greater riches beckon – the moon, asteroids whose mass suggests billions of tons of precious metals, resources beyond any imaginable rate of consumption, just waiting for us to reach out and take them.
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