In my post ‘Darker side of growth’ in European Journalism Centre I asked a question: In a pond if lotuses grow such that every next minute they double and if this minute the pond is half full, how long will it take for the lotuses to fill the pond?
While it sounded like a quiz to some, I intended to impress my readers about the scary aspect of exponential growth in any finite system. Such growth is certainly runaway and anything designed to grow in that manner is easily unsustainable. I cannot take Kenneth Boulding lightly. Meanwhile I found a more impressive audio visual way to carry the message home.
But then I still come across people who believe earth’s resources are infinite. Some, who may feel that within the limits of economics infinity is a rather silly idea, take it out to a point where it is claimed that human ingenuity is limitless and capable of devising technologies that can extract utility out of finite resources, practically infinitely. Such infinite progression of growth is popularly attached to energy appropriation and some convenient refuge for many infinity optimists are Nikoloai Kardashev Civilization models, where human civilization is still within Type I. We see appeals from scientists as famous as Stephen Hawking for extraterrestrial proliferation, as is seen in Youtube’s spacelab channel’s introductory video. Reaching out to space in pursuit of knowledge is alright but I do not feel we humans are yet ready to evolve into homo spatium, not with such limited idea of growth in terrestrial scale.
Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.
Kenneth Boulding, economist
In 1972, when Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III authored the book ‘The Limits to Growth’ commissioned by the Club of Rome, a global think tank that deals with a variety of international political issues, the infinity optimism of the business-as-usual economic models of Capitalism was made to stand before a critical question. We cannot grow exponentially and how long before we face a collapse of our viral growth. The book used the World3 model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the Earth’s and human systems by considering five variables, namely, world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The book offered predictions about explosion and collapse of human civilization in terms of economic and technological growth studied under the five variables and echoed many Malthusian concerns in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). While there still remained the question of accuracy of the prediction of collapse, the debate took a turn about how long we have before our infinite growth balloon bursts.
Despite being a pioneering work of science employing computer simulations and introducing systems dynamics approach, feedback loop and exponential reserve index for the first time ever, the book met with immediate criticism and open hostility. Soon after publication prominent economists, scientists and political figures criticized the Limits to Growth. They attacked the methodology, the computer, the conclusions, the rhetoric and the people behind the project. Yale economist Henry C. Wallich agreed that growth could not continue indefinitely, but that a natural end to growth was preferable to intervention. Wallich stated that technology could solve all the problems the Meadows were concerned about, but only if growth continued apace. By stopping growth too soon, Wallich warned, the world would be “consigning billions to permanent poverty”. Robert M. Solow from MIT, argued that prediction in The Limit to Growth was based on a weak foundation of the data (Newsweek, March 13, 1972, page 103). Dr. Allen Kneese and Dr. Ronald Riker of Resources for the Future (RFF) stated: “The authors load their case by letting some things grow exponentially and others not. Population, capital and pollution grow exponentially in all models, but technologies for expanding resources and controlling pollution are permitted to grow, if at all, only in discrete increments.”
In retrospect, it now appears that much of the criticism of the pioneering work of Meadows et al was out of the inertia of a contemporary paradigm of progress or development instead of observation and critical analysis. In 2008 researcher Peter A. Victor wrote, that even though D.H. Meadows et al. probably underestimated price-mechanism’s role in adjusting, their critics have overestimated it. He states that Limits to Growth has had a significant impact on the conception of environmental issues and notes that the models in the book were meant to be taken as predictions “only in the most limited sense of the word” as they wrote. In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia published a paper called “A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality“. It examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book’s predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century. In 2010, Peet, Nørgård, and Ragnarsdóttir called the book a “pioneering report”, but said that, “unfortunately the report has been largely dismissed by critics as a doomsday prophecy that has not held up to scrutiny.” In 2011 Ugo Bardi analyzed the ‘The Limits to Growth’, its methods and historical reception and concluded that “The warnings that we received in 1972 … are becoming increasingly more worrisome as reality seems to be following closely the curves that the … scenario had generated.”
For all who are interested, The Limits to Growth, contrary to popular belief, did not predict world collapse by the end of 20th Century. It gave three scenarios, namely, (a) standard run – the business as usual growth that simply ignores the negative effects on the five variables, (b) comprehensive technology – response by world systems in terms new and low-waste technology evenly penetrating into the whole world and (c) steady state – response by world systems in terms of new economic price-mechanisms that takes into account the environmental costs and thereby limits the growth rate within an equilibrium. Common experience shows that world is moving along scenario (a) that is standard run – and I shall contend that the world has so far shown neither the political wisdom nor the economic ingenuity to do any better – the analysis of last 30 years of historical data compares favorably with the Standard Run Scenario prediction, which results in the collapse of global systems midway through 21st Century or 2050 AD. See picture below:
If this is the future in anticipation, and for a minute we agree to wake up from denailist dream of infinity optimism, what is the adaptive/mitigative response of the world? I shall attempt to present that in my next post.
A Comparison of the Limits To Growth With Thirty Years of Reality by Graham Turner
Feature Image Credit: Policy Progress
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