THE LIMITS TO GROWTH
I am circulating this excellent essay on Limits to Growth, published by the
The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB4 0WS
I published an essay on the subject in my Greenhouse Bulletin No 27 December 1992, which reviewed "World Dynamics" by Jay W Forrester (1971) and "Limits to Growth" by Donella H Meadows et al. (1972). I included several diagrams from these books and showed how pitifully wrong they were in forecasting what happened to the price of oil in 1992.
They are still at it; and what might be claimed as an example of their inability to forecast anything is the cold winter currently devastating Europe.
The reason that the population of humans has grown to its present extent is our capacity to develop and exploit new technologies. It began with the development of weapons and sharp flint cutters and fire, to assist food production from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, and then an entire structured society devoted to maintenance and development of human activity. For most of us today we benefit from improved conditions of living unimaginable by our ancestors and even by ourselves when we were younger. Yet there is a widespread belief that we are too properous, that we should be more interested in the welfare of other organisms, and that we should strive to stop any changes which might alter current reality, by harping on difficulties and problems as if they are insoluble.
As an example, the rise in population which is undoubtedly happening is deliberately distorted. There seems to be no recognition that there are two seperate problems we now face, instead of one. Westren countries are actually facing the prospect of population decline, as replacement is insufficient. The increase is predominantly taking place in Africa and parts of India. The causes are the result of good intentions. For advanced countries, instead of working for an improvement in the status of motherhood, women have been encouraged to stop raising families and seek to compete for the too highly paid men's jobs. For Africa the desire to help has misunderstood the value of high birthrate in a socviety with high disease rate and little economic change We concentrate too much on prevention of disease without encouraging birth control or economic changes that could employ extra people. As a result the gaps in Western economies have to be filled with unwilling, culturally divergent people. Change in either of these policies is proving difficult.
The idea that there is a shortage or a depletion of "resources" was always nonsense. It ignores the evolution of technoligy and the influence of economics. The United Nations Handbook of Energy seperately lists "measured", "projected" and "estimated" resources and each category changes all the time. The "Limits to Growth" people play the dishonest trick of pretending that the "measured" figure comprises everything and tries to scare people by claiming that it is being depeleted. In practice no prospector is so foolish as to spend money on measuring more thgan he can plan currently to develop economically at present and the amouth changes every year with economics, technology and potential customers. Since the earlier "Limits to Growth" propaganda the rise of China and India has completely changed customer demand and the changed electronics technology has opened a demand for "rare earths" whose only use used to be gas mantles and lighter flints.
The article below speaks approvingly of the recent discovery of means to increase oil output, unanticipated by "Limits to Growth people, but it does not mention the barriers it faces from the luddite attitude of those who believe that carbon dioxide harm s the ckimate or who no longer care about simple economics. The world has ample energy supplies. There is enough coal for many hundred years. Oil and gas are certainly not running out. The attitude to nuclear power is baffling. It is an industry with a safety record that is second to none, even when you include Chernobyl. Fukishima was caused by an earthquake and tsunami that killed 20,000 people, yet it is the nuclear industry that is regarded as the main risk, despite the fact that not a single person whose health was harmed by the damage to the nuclear plant.
Water is another issue that is deliberately distorted. There is no shortage of water. Rainfall continues to be received in approximately the same quantities and most of it is not retained for human use. It is expensive to build dams, reservoirs and pipelines and somebody needs to pay for them. If the Romans and the Mayans could do it why can't we? We even have the advantage over them, that we can desalinate sea waterith our abundant energy.
I think I had better leave it at that and give you a chance to read this essay.
LIMITS TO GROWTH
by The Scientific Alliance
Most readers will probably remember this title instantly. For those of a more tender age, The Limits to Growth was an influential book published in 1972, on behalf of the Club of Rome, which made pessimistic predictions about the future of humankind, based on a combination of a rapidly growing population and a declining resource base. It was very much of its time, coming out only a few years after Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Together, these two books formed the basis of a neo-Malthusian movement, predicting a dark future for humans a decade after Rachel Carson had kick-started the modern environmentalist movement with Silent Spring, which predicted a similar fate for other species.
Malthus predicted exponential growth of population but only linear increase in food output, leading to starvation. Limits to Growth applied the same model to include resources other than food – oil, metals etc – and also assumed that pollution would continue to increase in a similar fashion. Although they did not make specific predictions, the authors put forward the view that the human population would, sooner or later, outgrow the available resources, leading to inevitable societal collapse. Although this view was heavily criticised, the underlying philosophy is shared by many in the environmentalist movement; Malthus, Ehrlich and the Club of Rome may not have been proved right yet, but it’s only a matter of time is how they might sum it up.
The Club of Rome has certainly not changed its position. Some of the authors published The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update in 2004, and the COR itself is hosting an event in Washington on 1 March to mark the 40th anniversary of the original publication. In the preface to the 2004 book, the authors say “In every realistic scenario, we found that these limits force an end to physical growth...sometime during the twenty first century. ...In our scenarios the expansion of population and physical capital gradually forces humanity to divert more and more capital to cope with the problems arising from a combination of constraints. Eventually so much capital is diverted to solving these problems that it becomes impossible to sustain further growth in industrial output. When industry declines, society can no longer sustain greater and greater output in the other economic sectors: food, services and other consumption. When those sectors quit growing, population growth also ceases.”
They also expressed the view that, by the early 1990s, humans had already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. The concept of sustainability, first given real prominence by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, had started to gain real traction. And since 2003, the Global Footprint Network has published its estimate of our species’ ecological footprint. Their current message is that we are using resources at a rate equivalent to those provided by 1.6 Earths, and by 2030 we are likely to be exploiting natural resources at double the sustainable rate. This is overshoot in spades and, if the message is right, we are in for a potentially catastrophic correction before too long.
To set against this, of course, there is the alternative worldview that, although technically resources are finite, in practice the extractable quantities depend on price; as demand goes up, costs rise and previously-uneconomic reserves become profitable to exploit. Proven oil reserves have continued to increase, despite continuing high extraction rates, shale gas production has transformed the American natural gas market (at least for now), and many metals can be recycled or potentially concentrated from much more dilute sources than are currently mined (seawater, for example).
The famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on the prices of a range of five metals during the 1980s (which Simon won, because all had decreased in price) is often quoted in support of this so-called cornucopian view. However, we should not be too complacent; after all, oil prices are now much higher than a decade ago, and many other commodities have see their prices increase dramatically, largely because of soaring demand from China.
It seems likely that there are some practical limits to at least the rate of growth but, to some extent, it depends how boundaries are set. Although there are many critics of globalisation, the most recent phase of this has enabled the world’s resources to be shared irrespective of geography (although, it must be said, not irrespective of income). In previous times, horizons were much closer and many societies much more self-contained.
The ultimate warning often given is that of Easter Island, where an isolated civilisation apparently exceeded the carrying capacity of the land it had available, and went into terminal decline. Many other once-thriving civilisations have suffered the same fate, sometimes because of outside pressure and internal decline, but in other cases apparently because regional changes to climate made them unsustainable (in the absolute sense of the word) or because they had no access to more resources.
Globalisation, together with enormous scientific and technical progress, has allowed the global population to grow far more rapidly since the beginning of the 20th Century than ever before in history. And the great majority of those extra billions have an incomparably better quality of life than earlier generations. Against the gloomy backdrop painted by the environmentalist lobby – compounded by the rich world’s economic crisis – it is sometimes easy to forget that.
But the question now is whether this is a classic bubble, which might burst with disastrous consequences, or part of an ongoing trend which will see living standards continuing to rise across the world. The Limits to Growth school of thought, the UN and other high-level international institutions want to move us away from ‘business as usual’, but in the meantime China, a single country with 20% of the world’s population, continues to grow at an unprecedented speed, and other developing countries are not far behind.
As with climate change, global elites may want to impose their own policies on the world economy, but have had little success. But they should take heart and trust self-interest as a driver, because experience shows that more prosperous societies take more care of their environment and use their resources more efficiently. And if a straight line projection of current trends shows a particular type of behaviour to be unsustainable, they have the skills and innovative ability to do something about it. I believe we have the capacity to deal with changes of circumstance and live within our means in the longer term, although there may be some rocky patches along the way. The Club of Rome would beg to differ, but in practice is going to have little impact on the outcome.