Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Limits to Growth, Part 5

In my last post we looked at The Limits to Growth, Chapter V—The State of Global Equilibrium. The post concludes my review of this book, with a look at the last two sections and some thoughts of my own.


This chapter is by the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome and contains their comments on the book. They make it clear that they did want a study on limits.

...we had two immediate objectives in mind. One was to gain insights into the limits of our world system and the constraints it puts on human numbers and activity....

A second objective was to help identify and study the dominant elements, and their interactions, that influence the long term behavior of world systems....

The report has served these purposes well. It represents a bold step toward a comprehensive and integrated analysis of the world situation, an approach that will now require years to refine, deepen, and extend. Nevertheless, this report is only a first step. The limits to growth it examines are only the known uppermost physical limits imposed by the finiteness of the world system. In reality, these limits are further reduced by political, social, and institutional constraints, by inequitable distribution of population and resources, and by our inability to manage very large intricate systems.

But the report serves further purposes. It advances tentative suggestions for the future state of the world and opens new perspectives for continual intellectual and practical endeavor to shape that future.

A preliminary draft was submitted to 40 people, mostly members of the Club of Rome, who responded with just the kind of weak criticisms that have become so familiar in the years since the book was published.

1. Since models can accommodate only a limited number of variables, the interactions studied are only partial. It was pointed out that in a global model such as the one used in this study the degree of aggregation is necessarily high as well. Nevertheless, it was generally recognized that, with a simple world model, it is possible to examine the effect of a change in basic assumptions or to simulate the effect of a change in policy to see how such changes influence the behavior of the system over time. Similar experimentation in the real world would be lengthy, costly, and in many cases impossible.

2. It was suggested that insufficient weight had been given to the possibilities of scientific and technological advances in solving certain problems, such as the development of foolproof contraceptive methods, the production of protein from fossil fuels, the generation or harnessing of virtually limitless energy (including pollution-free solar energy), and its subsequent use for synthesizing food from air and water and for extracting minerals from rocks. It was agreed, however, that such developments would probably come too late to avert demographic or environmental disaster. In any case they probably would only delay rather than avoid crisis, for the problematique consists of issues that require more than technical solutions.

3. Others felt that the possibility of discovering stocks of raw materials in areas as yet insufficiently explored was much greater than the model assumed. But, again, such discoveries would only postpone shortage rather than eliminate it. It must, however, be recognized that extension of resource availability by several decades might give man time to find remedies.

4. Some considered the model too "technocratic," observing that it did not include critical social factors, such as the effects of adoption of different value systems. The chairman of the Moscow meeting summed up this point when he said, "Man is no mere biocybernetic device." This criticism is readily admitted. The present model considers man only in his material system because valid social elements simply could not be devised and introduced in this first effort. Yet, despite the model's material orientation, the conclusions of the study point to the need for fundamental change in the values of society.

Overall, a majority of those who read this report concurred with its position. Furthermore, it is clear that, if the arguments submitted in the report (even after making allowance for justifiable criticism) are considered valid in principle, their significance can hardly be overestimated....

Although we can here express only our preliminary views, recognizing that they still require a great deal of reflection and ordering, we are in agreement on the following points:

1. We are convinced that realization of the quantitative restraints of the world environment and of the tragic consequences of an overshoot is essential to the initiation of new forms of thinking that will lead to a fundamental revision of human behavior and, by implication, of the entire fabric of present-day society.

2. We are further convinced that demographic pressure in the world has already attained such a high level, and is moreover so unequally distributed, that this alone must compel mankind to seek a state of equilibrium on our planet.

3. We recognize that world equilibrium can become a reality only if the lot of the so-called developing countries is substantially improved, both in absolute terms and relative to the economically developed nations, and we affirm that this improvement can be achieved only through a global strategy.

4. We affirm that the global issue of development is, however, so closely interlinked with other global issues that an overall strategy must be evolved to attack all major problems, including in particular those of man's relationship with his environment.

5. We recognize that the complex world problematique is to a great extent composed of elements that cannot be expressed in measurable terms. Nevertheless, we believe that the predominantly quantitative approach used in this report is an indispensable tool for understanding the operation of the problematique. And we hope that such knowledge can lead to a mastery of its elements.

6. We are unanimously convinced that rapid, radical redressment of the present unbalanced and dangerously deteriorating world situation is the primary task facing humanity.

7. This supreme effort is a challenge for our generation. It cannot be passed on to the next. The effort must be resolutely undertaken without delay, and significant redirection must be achieved during this decade.

8. We have no doubt that if mankind is to embark on a new course, concerted international measures and joint long-term planning will be necessary on a scale and scope without precedent.

9. We unequivocally support the contention that a brake imposed on world demographic and economic growth spirals must not lead to a freezing of the status quo of economic development of the world's nations.

10. We affirm finally that any deliberate attempt to reach a rational and enduring state of equilibrium by planned measures, rather than by chance or catastrophe, must ultimately be founded on a basic change of values and goals at individual, national, and world levels. This change is perhaps already in the air, however faintly.

But our tradition, education, current activities, and interests will make the transformation embattled and slow. Only real comprehension of the human condition at this turning point in history can provide sufficient motivation for people to accept the individual sacrifices and the changes in political and economic power structures required to reach an equilibrium state.

The question remains of course whether the world situation is in fact as serious as this book, and our comments, would indicate. We firmly believe that the warnings this book contains are amply justified, and that the aims and actions of our present civilization can only aggravate the problems of tomorrow. But we would be only too happy if our tentative assessments should prove too gloomy.

The commentary concludes with the following thoughts:

The last thought we wish to offer is that man must explore himself-his goals and values-as much as the world he seeks to change. The dedication to both tasks must be unending. The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.


Simply a list of related studies, and the last section in the book.

My thoughts

I think it is first and foremost important to understand that the idea of exponential growth leading to overshoot and collapse should not be a surprise to anyone. This is simply the way ecosystems behave. It is the height of hubris to believe that the human race is an exception to this. Of course, many people do believe exactly that—that because we are intelligent and can anticipate problems before they occur, we will always be able to solve them.

There is also a common misconception that there is "a balance of nature", that leads us not to expect ecosystems to undergo change. Of course our ecosystem has undergone drastic change during the last two centuries, but many people have become inured to this, see it as normal and expect that it can go on forever.

It may be that the authors of The Limits to Growth should have spent more time familiarizing their readers with these issues...

At any rate, once one has understood the implications of exponential growth, it also should be of no surprise that none of the proposed technological solutions in Chapter 4 provide more than temporary relief. Or any other technological solutions, really. The problem, after all, is the exponential growth, not the technology. If we could just get the growth under control (stopped, in other words), the judicious application of appropriate technologies might lead to a stable system, as discussed in Chapter 5.

Stopping that growth, though, would be a social, not a technological solution. And it seems that we don't have a very good grasp of how to engineer social change. For the most part it just happens in reaction to whatever is going on, rather than as part of any sort of plan.

I can't help observing that except for the Standard Run, all the other model runs in The limits to Growth involve ridiculously optimistic assumptions. Even the ones that still end in collapse. The "successful" ones shown in Figures 46 and 47 take that optimism even further, especially as regards social change. And while population and industrial activity are stabilized in those runs, resources are still being used in a non-sustainable way. If those runs were continued on into the twenty second century, at some point they too would run into a resource crisis.

A great many otherwise intelligent people were totally gobsmacked by this book, and reacted very negatively. They simply didn't believe in limits and it seems that The Limits to Growth only hardened that irrational disbelief.

But here we are 44 years after the book was published. Can't we just look at how things turned out to see if there was anything to the future they predicted? Yes, indeed we can—have a look at Is Global Collapse Imminent? An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data by Dr Graham M. Turner, who is a Principal Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, Australia.

It turns out that the Limits to Growth standard model run is a pretty good match to how things have turned out since then. In the standard run, resource depletion started early in this century and required more capital to be diverted to the resource sector.

With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient capital available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output (per capita) begins to fall precipitously from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g. health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

I'd say there is every indication that we have already seen the start of something very much like this in the past decade or two. As early as the 1990s real economic growth slowed due to resource depletion and surplus energy issues. The markets started blowing bubbles in an attempt keep growth going. First the dot com bubble and then the real estate and derivatives bubble in 2008. After that, higher prices for depleted resources (especially energy) slowed a faltering economic recovery, reduced the demand for those same resources and brought their prices down below what it costs to produce them, leaving the extraction industries in a very rough spot. I certainly expect a further down turn and eventually collapse during the next few decades—just what the standard run shows us.

But you can look at the same evidence, squint a little and hold your mouth just right, and conclude that what we are seeing is just a bump on the way to growth with no end in sight—the techno-optimist's wet dream. Are we already deep into overshoot or just nicely getting started on our way to the stars? Depending on who you ask, you can hear spirited arguments on either side of the issue.

Based on The Limits to Growth and the intervening years of history, during which essentially nothing was done to address our headlong approach to those limits (and lots of other evidence as well), I'd say you'd have to be pretty deep in denial not to see that we are already well into overshoot. Time will tell, but my nature is such that I want to be prepared for the worst. In the unlikely event that it doesn't happen, I'll be quite relieved.

I've just finished reading Nicole Foss's The Boundaries and Future of Solution Space. I mention this here because it deals mainly with defining things that are outside the set of feasible responses. And because most of what is suggested in The Limits to Growth is indeed outside of that set. She looks in detail at the kind of changing social conditions which will be brought on by collapse—the sort of thing that was anticipated but not explored in detail by the authors of The Limits to Growth.

I think looking at things to avoid is a very good place to start. Here's Nicole's list:

  • Given that the cost of capital will be very high, and there will be little purchasing power, proposed solutions which are capital-intensive will lie outside solution space.
  • Proposed solutions to our predicament that depend on the functioning of large-scale organizations operating in a top-down manner do not lie within viable solution space.
  • If proposed solutions depend on a cooperative social context at large scale, they will not be part of solution space.
  • Given that the energy supply will be falling, and that there will, over time, be competition for increasingly scarce energy resources that we can no longer take for granted, proposed solutions which are energy-intensive will lie outside of solution space.
  • Proposed solutions dependent on the current level of socioeconomic complexity do not lie within solution space.

In the early 1970s, The Club of Rome was advocating the sort of top down, co-operative response that needed to be started almost immediately if it was to be successful in moving towards a "equilibrium state". None of this happened, and the model run illustrated in Figure 48, where stabilizing policies are not put into effect until the year 2000 and which leads to another collapse, serves as a cautionary tale. All the more so in 2016 with no move toward stabilizing policies anywhere in sight.

Ms. Foss believes there is little hope of ever achieving a worldwide steady state economy. The fact that there is no such thing as a "balance of nature" would tend to support that. It is a new concept for me, but one worth considering. I definitely agree with her that our efforts need to be focused at the family and local community level. And that reliance on government and high level activism to convince governments to change course, would be foolhardy in the extreme.

I should add at this point my usual comments about the shape of the collapse I am expecting. First of all, I am not talking about sudden, apocalyptic change. The collapse I expect, and indeed am already seeing, will take place very unevenly both geographically, chronological and across the various social classes. It will take place over decades—a slow, step-wise descent to a level of economic activity that can be support by our remaining energy resources.

For many people it will be detectable only after it has happened. If you are a member of the elite, moderately lucky and perhaps a bit dense, you may not be aware that it is happening until it is pretty much over. On the other hand, if you are a refugee in a war zone or starving in the middle of a famine, collapse has already happened for you. And if your investments have turned out to be worthless and you've just lost your job and your house, then collapse will very real for you, even if most of the people around you are oblivious.

Already, even for those of us that collapse hasn't quite caught up with yet, it is easy to see what Ms. Foss is talking about. Most of us don't have access to much in the way of capital, or much influence in large scale organizations or government. So what shape should our preparations take?

In the early days of this blog, I talked about that quite a bit and I think most of what I said still applies. You might have a look at the following posts:

Well, this concludes my first attempt at a book review. I still have several shelves full of books I'd like to talk about, but I clearly need to find a way to do this that doesn't take more than one post per book!

As an aid to those who are reading this whole series of "Limits to Growth" posts, here is a complete set of links.

The Limits to Growth

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