The Limits to Growth, 30 Years Later

Posted: April 21st, 2008 by: h2

I was talking to some friends, the kind who are reasonably smart, well educated, but, sadly all too prone to repeat as fact what is in fact a myth. In this case, the myth that Peak commodity production was predicted in the 1970s (in books like The Limits to Growth [LTG]), and never happened. The Oil Drum had a nice article that analyzes how this myth came to be:

The success of the smear campaign against the LTG ideas shows the power of propaganda and of urban legends in shaping the public perception of the world, exploiting our innate tendency of rejecting bad news. Because of these tendencies, the world has chosen to ignore the warning of impending collapse that came from the LTG study. In so doing, we have lost more than 30 years. Now, there are signs that we may be starting to heed the warning, but it may be too late and we may still be doing too little. Cassandra’s curse may still be upon us.

This article goes quite in-depth to explain most of the actual mechanisms used to misguide people into massively misreading, or in most cases, never even reading, then making claims of or against, the Limits to growth book and thesis.

You might want to give it a quick read, just to avoid that generic, oh, we did this in the 1970s re limits, argument, which is basically 100% wrong, and is just recreating day after a day what is actually a total myth.

What happened, without paraphrasing the text above too much, was quite simple: the book The Limits to Growth was published after a very serious amount of modeling and research was done, using best in class methods etc.

Like the initial global warming /climate change stuff, because the claims made require actions that will essentially require dismantling growth based economic systems, like capitalism, the initial studies are VERY conservative, out of fear of generating a negative extremist backlash.

So what happened is quite simple: two groups of people formed, neither of which, unfortunately, actually read, or if they did read, radically misread, The Limits to Growth. On the one side, you had the wingnuts who misread the book to say that the end is now, 1970. On the other side, you had the system, economists, etc, most of whom never even read the book, but then proceeded to vilify it by pointing to things like oil production increases in the 80s and 90s.

But there was one problem, and it’s not small: The Limits to Growth never said a word about oil, it never made any short term predictions of shortages, but was looking at a point about 80 years in the future, and listed a series of phases, with optional actions and results along each step of the process, like if a country takes this conservation action, if global population is held to x y or z levels, and so on.

In other words, they were analyzing different scenarios, then extending each one out to its conservatively logical outcome. At no point did that book ever way we’d run out of anything in the next 20-30 years.

When you hear someone repeating this claim of, oh, they said this in the 70s, just so you understand this, ‘they’ NEVER said this, the people who say they said it were: a: people who simply did not read the book, and b: people who set out to discredit the book by saying it made claims it never made.

Apparently this dual handled fiction has now reached the level of mythology, and is again being repeated in recent NYT articles, for example this one by Krugman

Right now, I’m feeling sympathetic to peak oil types. But are they the modern version of the Limits to Growth crowd? (I don’t think so — the peakers I read don’t suffer from the kind of uninformed intellectual arrogance that was behind the early-70s doomsaying.)

What’s he talking about here? Some people seem to think that starting to prepare for running out of commodities 30 years before the real problems start is somehow a radical, insane idea. What’s radical or insane is NOT preparing, and then just seeing what happens when commodities do actually start to hit short supplies, demand exceeds supply, and so on.

There is also a brief discussion in

BA: In his blog on the NY Times, economist Paul Krugman links to The Oil Drum, as an example of the peak oil types that he’s reading. Unfortunately, he also pushes the untruth about the “Limits to Growth” book being wrong or overblown. For details, see Ugo Bardi’s Cassandra’s curse: how “The Limits to Growth” was demonized, posted at The Oil Drum.

Contributor JMG wrote to Paul Krugman:
Funny how so many economists badmouth “Limits to Growth” and then you ask them and they’ve never read it; they’ve simply absorbed the infinite growth paradigm through their skins and sneer at anyone who suggests otherwise.

Also worth reading is the article by Matt Simmons, which I’ve mentioned before, who had basically grown up being fed this myth, then decided to actually sit down and read the book, and, like his own recent book, Twilight in the Desert, the difference between what the critics say about the books and what the books actually say are quite stunning.

In the early 1970’s, a book was published entitled, The Limits To Growth, a report of the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. Its conclusions were stunning. It was ultimately published in 30 languages and sold over 30 million copies. According to a sophisticated MIT computer model, the world would ultimately run out of many key resources. These limits would become the “ultimate” predicament to mankind.

Over the past few years, I have heard various energy economists lambast this “erroneous” work done. Often the book has been portrayed as the literal “poster child” of misinformed “Malthusian” type thinking that misled so many people into believing the world faced a short mania 30 years ago. Obviously, there were no “The Limits To Growth”. The worry that shortages would rule the day as we neared the end of the 20th Century became a bad joke. Instead of shortages, the last two decades of the 20th Century were marked by glut. The world ended up enjoying significant declines in almost all commodity prices. Technology and efficiency won. The Club of Rome and its “nay-saying” disciples clearly lost!

The critics of this flawed work still relish in pointing out how wrong this theory turned out to be. A Foreign Affairs story published this past January, entitled Cheap Oil, forecast two decades of a pending oil glut. In this article, the Club of Rome’s work was scorned as being the source document which led an entire generation of wrong-thinking people to believe that energy supplies would run short. In this Foreign Affairs report, the authors stated, “….the “sky-is-falling school of oil forecasters has been systematically wrong for more than a generation. In its dramatic 1972 The Limits to Growth report, the group of prominent experts known as The Club of Rome wrote that only 550 billion barrels of oil remained and that they would run out by 1990.”
Since becoming aware of this Club of Rome work in 1994, I continually hear the “Club of Rome” shortage thesis raised by various energy economists who thoroughly condemn the work as being absolutely wrong. But I have never given any thought to what the Club of Rome’s specific predictions actually were, nor have I ever known who this “mysterious” Club plotting the end of the world even was.
I kept thinking about the implications of the poor population of the globe finally becoming normal citizens of the world. This led me to muse about the whole Club of Rome issue. The more I mused, the more I began to wonder whether this group might have been correct in their concerns after all. Perhaps they were only wrong in their timing by 30 to 50 years. Or perhaps this group envisioned that by 2000, the world would have closed the gap between the rich and the poor, thus creating the shortages which their report warned would occur.

After reading The Limits to Growth, I was amazed. Nowhere in the book was there any mention about running out of anything by 2000. Instead, the book’s concern was entirely focused on what the world might look like 100 years later. There was not one sentence or even a single word written about an oil shortage, or limit to any specific resource, by the year 2000.

The members of the “Club or Rome” were also not a mysterious, sinister, anonymous group of doomsayers. Rather, they were a group of 30 thoughtful, public spirited-intellects from ten different countries. The group included scientists, economists, educators, and industrialists. They met at the instigation of Dr. Aurelia Peccei, an Italian industrialist affiliated with Fiat and Olivetti.

The group all shared a common concern that mankind faced a future predicament of grave complexity, caused by a series of interrelated problems that traditional institutions and policy would not be able to cope with the issues, let alone come to grips with their full context. A core thesis of their work was that long term exponential growth was easy to overlook. Human nature leads people to innocently presume growth rates are linear. The book then postulated that if a continuation of the exponential growth of the seventies began in the world’s population, its industrial output, agricultural and natural resource consumption and the pollution produced by all of the above, would result in severe constraints on all known global resources by 2050 to 2070.
“Phase One” of the project of the predicament of mankind took shape in 1970. The group commissioned a team of Economic Modelers at MIT to forecast, in approximate terms, what pressures the globe would undergo if the current growth trends continued for another 100 years. This research was financed by the Volkswagen Foundation.

At the time, the technique of conducting computer based integrated modeling was quite new. The technique was called “System Dynamics”, where various inter-related elements and positive and negative feedback loops influence the various ingredients and outputs of the model.

The initial results of this modeling work were sufficiently alarming that Club of Rome participants decided to publish them, and call the book The Limits to Growth. The book was published by Potomac Associates, a non-partisan research and analysis organization seeking to encourage lively inquiry into critical issues of public policy.

The book painstakingly acknowledged that the model’s work was still “preliminary.” Much more detailed analysis was needed to hone in on the issues this model raised. The decision to publish the results, as rough as they were, was driven by a desire to quickly get the issues into the public domain. This would hopefully command critical attention to the work and spark debate in all societies about the changes needed to avoid the catastrophic elements that the model indicated would occur by 2070, absent any changes.

While many readers concocted various “imaginary” assumptions, the book’s conclusions were quite simple. The first conclusion was a view that if present growth trends continued unchanged, a limit to the growth that our planet has enjoyed would be reached sometime within the next 100 years. This would then result in a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The second key conclusion was that these growth trends could be altered. Moreover, if proper alterations were made, the world could establish a condition of “ecological stability” that would be sustainable far into the future.

The third conclusion was a view that the world could embark on this second path, but the sooner this effort started, the greater the chance would be of achieving this “ecologically stable” success.
The world is now 30 years into this 100-year view. It did grow as fast as the book warned. The gap between rich and poor never narrowed. Instead, the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” grew by a significant measure. It is interesting to contemplate how horrified the book’s authors would be today, given the population trends that happened post 1972. The current strain on many of our precious resources is already becoming serious. It would have been far worse by 2000, given the rate of expansion which happened to the world’s poor population, had these people also begun to significantly improve their standard of living at the same time. An accidental safety valve for many potentially scarce resources turned out to be the widening of the rich/poor gap.

Now, I have to repeat the question: Why is this myth, this almost willful misreading of the past, being repeated to this very day, when, as Simmons notes, the book takes only a few hours to read?

Be careful of falling into this mass media generated myth, it’s simply not true, it’s an almost deliberately generated misinformation campaign to fight the actually highly conservative, and fast proving to be far too optimistic, timelines and models constructed in the Limits to Growth.

Yes, I did pick up the Limits to growth, I started reading it, but honestly, it’s so out of date now, and it’s so conservative, and tries so hard to not be wrong or extreme, that they I think missed the worst case scenarios by about 20 years.

It was only 10 / 15 years ago that reading these very same highly conservative, careful estimates, which were essentially BEST case scenarios, not worst as they were painted by their critics, would lead you to conclude that oil would not start to peak before 2020 at worst, and 2040 most likely.

That is still the position being pushed by industry oriented groups like CERA, which continues to give utterly absurd predictions which are proven so far off that it’s becoming comical, especially in terms of their price predictions, which are now routinely at least 100% wrong in any given year. Why? Because their premise is wrong, they are assuming petroleum/natural gas will not peak when most best guesses currently believe global production has either already peaked, or will peak in the next few years.

It doesn’t help that the monthly so called ‘liquids’ production numbers are having more and more non crude components thrown in, like condensates, heavy tar sand liquids, and so on, even though actual standard crude oil peaked some years ago.

…[April 2008] 110+ dollars per barrel. Countries such as Gambia, Burundi and Liberia are being deprived of necessary oil supplies because they can no longer afford expensive imports. Long car queue’s are forming in front of the remaning suppliers, and social unrest is brewing. Unfortunately, nothing much can be done about the situation, since we live in a world wherein all countries are locke
In 2008 this pace of growth appears to continue. Consumption in Saudi-Arabia in January was 1.44 million b/d and consumption in Iran was 1.64 million b/d. Compared to a consumption level of 1.52 mllion b/d and 1.52 million b/d in both Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2007.

In 2008 this pace of growth appers to continue. Consumption in Saudi-Arabia in January was 1.44 million b/d and consumption in Iran was 1.64 million b/d. Compared to a consumption level of 1.52 mllion b/d and 1.52 million b/d in both Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2007.

See some discussion on this months production in The Oil Drum.

But one thing I want to make very clear, and you’ll start to understand why these points are so important if you read a really solidly researched book like Twilight in the Desert:

Slight increases in total global liquid fuel production are NOT something to celebrate, because they mean that we are simply going to run out sooner, because we are extracting more NOW.

The vaunted ‘technological fix’ simply allows us to extract more oil faster, it doesn’t create more oil. So as prices hang over > $100 a barrel, and every drop of production is squeezed out, all this means is that when fields start to go into steep declines, the declines will be faster. Any modern oil field, developed with modern drilling and water/gas injection technologies, is going to run out sooner, having produced its extractable reserves more quickly.

So don’t get all excited about a few monthly boosts in total liquids, keep in mind the costs, those include tar sands, which take roughly 1 barrel of oil energy to produce 6 barrels of synthetic oil. And the total production numbers do NOT count the energy cost of extraction, just the total. This is VERY important to understand, it’s the same with deep sea, or highly complex deep sea, like the Brazilian oil finds, production. It’s very energy intensive to extract each barrel.

The same problem of overly conservative estimates hampering political and social response, by the way, goes for Climate Change, currently it’s looking like all officially supported worst case scenarios are in fact going to be best case.

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