14 June 2010

The Limits to Growth -- The Review

This 1972 book is subtitled "A report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind."

The collective authors -- much like the IPCC group -- wrote this book after meeting from 1968 to 1970. Their purpose was to work with the complexity of many trends -- poverty, environmental degredation, weakening institutions, urban sprawl, insecure employment, rejection of traditional values, inflation and so on. Their remit was to examine the factors that would limit growth: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution. They used the most advanced computer models to map out the future dynamics of these five factors, as they influenced each other, with positive and negative feedback, over decades. (As you know, I am skeptical of models -- and especially of computer models -- but they can be useful as a means of visualizing interactions that are too complicated to describe.)

The Club concludes that:
  1. Current (1970!) behavior will limit growth within 100 years. "The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity" [p 29]
  2. It's possible to avoid this result, to establish ecological and economic stability.
  3. If we want the second outcome, we'd better get to work.
This struck me as both prescient and sad. Since 1970, we have surely made some progress on natural resources and industrial & agricultural production, but we have not done very well on population control or pollution. Certainly not on the scale that the Club's authors suggested.

The main point of the book is that exponential growth (in pollution or population) will exhaust finite resources. This is a mathematical fact that the authors pound into the reader. (That doesn't mean that the reader will believe it!) And these folks do not just naively draw a exponential curve for the demand for minerals against a finite supply and then conclude that a shortage will result. They discuss the interaction of supply and demand and how those forces affect price and quantity in the market. So their reasoning is sound; they take limits and dynamic changes in behavior into account and THEN reach a dark conclusion.

Carbon wonks will be interested to know that the Club explicitly discusses CO2 as a pollutant that is being absorbed into the air and oceans, and how that CO2 will raise global temperatures. They predict (rather, hope) that nuclear power will displace fossil fuels before "the increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions... has any ecological or climatological effect." [p 87] They also say that they do not know how much CO2 can be absorbed without causing a response. We know now that the "no effect" threshold was passed a few years ago, perhaps at the same time as the report was issued.

As I flipped through the simulations, I was impressed by the analysis of binding constraints. (Like MIT guys need to impress me!) The basic idea is that you need keep all five factors (population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution) within a sustainable range. Get too much, and you crash; get too little and you crash. They conclude, e.g., that unlimited resources will not "fix" our problem because pollution will get out of control. (Something I said 25 years later :)

They also pour cold water on the silver bullet: "technological optimism is the most common and the most dangerous reaction to our findings from the world model. Technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes. Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem -- the problem of growth in a finite system -- and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it." [p 159] Their solution? Limit our activities to a sustainable level.

Bottom Line: This book got a lot of attention nearly 40 years ago. Too bad that we haven't implemented its recommendations. We are still running towards that cliff of "rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity." Can we stop the committees and inquiries and take some actions? I give this book FIVE STARS for being clear and relevant; I give its readers ONE STAR for failing to follow through.


  1. As we have discussed many times, writing out a prediction and having humans pay attention to the prediction are different things.

    Humans and the politicians that they elect have a very high discount rate.

    Other books that show that humans have ignored predictions before include "The Prize," "Collapse," "The Teapot Dome Scandal," "War and Peace," "A Short History of Islam," "The Rise and Fall of the the Roman Empire," most of Shakespeare, the Bible, and the epic of Gilgamesh.

    "We have met the enemy and they is us." Pogo by Walt Kelly, circa 1955.

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth

    More information

  3. Will the young people rise up and take the bull by the horns? They will inherit the Earth, such as it is and will be.

  4. Aren't you begging the question? Limits to Growth is one prediction about how the future might look, but there are others. Maybe "we" (whatever that means) have looked at the evidence in Limits to Growth and decided it isn't convincing. Or maybe we have decided that the cost of addressing the concerns in the book is higher than the benefit. Or both.

    Julian Simon, for one, spent a good chunk of his career refuting the Malthusian line of thought, including this book's. (You're probably aware of his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich -- the biggest, wrongest doomsday prognosticator or them all.)

    To paraphrase Eric above, Writing out a prediction and having it be worth paying attention to are different things.

  5. Interestingly, I'm closer to Outsider on this one.

    First, the population growth fear is not just overblown, it's wrong. Even the U.N.'s estimates show a declining global population after about 40 years or so, and their previous estimates have been extremely wrong. We are in the middle of a population growth curb, and very soon we will start to see a global population decline. What that means for our current economic foundation is anyone's guess, but I'm hoping we wake up and see that the purpose of economic activity isn't to maintain the morality of hard labor, but to provide goods and services.

    We absolutely do need to work on consumption patterns, which increase exponentially with decreasing population growth rates, and create a horrible conundrum vis a vis developing countries. However, at least two current examples show that we can maintain good living standards while polluting fewer GHG's, at least, but I think we can extrapolate to see that far less pollution is possible.

  6. It's interesting to contemplate cause versus effect in some of the correlations you mention, Josh. What drives slowing population growth? It's a good bet that wealth is one driver. So, paradoxically, the route to reduced consumption may be increased consumption...

  7. Outsider, that is exactly the conundrum I was referring to.

    The two biggest positive impacts to population growth are economic development and womens' education (even through elementary school). We have the room to house the 9 billion we may reach before our population begins to decline, but we don't have the materials to keep them all consuming the way we in the U.S. have consumed at our current levels.

    Thankfully, there are at least two examples of countries consuming at 1st World levels while emitting far, far fewer GHG's, and I truly believe the same can be done for other types of harmful pollution (hence my vehement defense of higher output farming enterprises, for example).

  8. Why are you so sure we can't produce excellent standards of living for 9 billion people? At every step, progress has outpaced population. Why are you so sure this time is different? I don't get it.

  9. Outsider, are you talking to me? Because I do believe we can produce excellent standards of living for 9 billion people within our resource constraints. I don't believe it can be the 20th Century (and early 21st) American model, but I think it can be, for sure, and with the good things of the American model - big freedoms, a largely democratic republic, etc.

  10. Josh, right. But you said we shouldn't expect to consume at the level we have been in the US. Why not? And what do you mean by resource constraints? If you mean constraints on creativity and productivity, I see no reason to agree.

    I think I'd put it this way: Just as I'd rather be poor by today's standards than rich by yesterday's, so I assume I'd rather be poor tomorrow than rich today. Do you agree with that?

    To my mind, the uncertainties have to do with the things in your last sentence - whether the liberal West will rouse itself in time to survive the next hundred years - not whether wealth will increase. it will.

  11. Outsider, again we are agreeing. I guess I'm not clear enough, but I promise I'm trying!

    I said (or at least meant to say) I don't think we can consume in the manner in which we consumed in the U.S. in the 20th Century. The amount of pollution from those processes is too much for the size of our planet. For example, we are responsible for about 25% of the planets pollution, yet we are only about 4% of the planet - and even within our population the vast majority of that pollution is from a smaller subset.

    However, we can set restraints (like the Clean Air Act) that attempt to internalize pollution and make it economically preferable to either design systems that don't pollute, or pollute in a manner that doesn't pose a long-term threat to the environment.

    To sum: We agree that next year can, and probably will be, better. We also agree that we can support the entire human population at its current projections. We also agree that we can offer a good life to them.

  12. Okay. Yes, we agree. We appear to part company only in our assessment of the benefits of regulations, such as the Clean Air Act. I suspect this kind of top-down stuff will only make it harder to get to the point where India and China are rich enough to start worrying about clean air.

    But the bottom line: there's plenty of "stuff" out there -- when coupled with human ingenuity.

  13. To laugh, or cry? That is the question, when I read Outsider dismissing clean air as a luxury for wealthy people; when Josh claims we can offer "a good life" to 9 billion people; when Outsider claims he'd "rather be poor tomorrow than rich today." (No relative-wealth effect for him!)

    Just the slowing of population growth right now is causing havoc, and in countries where population is actually declining, economists are in panic. Couple that with increasing scarcity of key resources, and it's hard to see the bright future Josh and Outsider envision.

    There's a pattern of more frequent and more severe "Black Swan" events occurring, and that pattern looks creepily familiar to people who have studied history.

  14. @Eric -- yes, and that's the trouble.

    @Outsider. Simon was *wrong* about the environment. Read my lined post in the OP.

    @Josh -- 9 billion will impact the environment.

    @abionwood -- Paygo is the main reason that economists are freaking out. Politicians are freaking out b/c they want more voters to abuse and taxes to waste :)

  15. David, "impact" ain't all bad.

    How big a biomass are we right now? Well, ONE bloom of plankton in the South Atlantic is six times our biomass. The total ants on Earth are many times our biomass. Are we freaked because of their impacts?

    It's not going to be our sheer numbers that drive this planet down - it'll be our means of consumption. We can change those means and still provide a good life for people.

    Albionwood, it sounds like you are freaked out about both the possibility for decline and growth. What would you prefer?

    There are no more "black swan" events than before - that's hogwash. What was the average life expectancy 110 years ago? 48. Today? 78. And wars from 100+ years ago killed far larger numbers of people as percentages of the population, and at times as a total - just look at the various civil wars in China in the 1800's. Heck, we are probably long overdue for a pandemic... except that we keep nipping them in the bud.

    We haven't even had a decent meteor crash in ages. And do you know the frequency of earthquakes of the magnitude that struck Mexico this year? I've heard that happens somewhere on Earth every four minutes or so.

    My point is that we are doing well, and we can and probably will do better, even though bad things will happen to us from time to time.

    Please don't tell me you think the world will end in 2012. And don't tell me the market crash was a "black swan" either. That was all us, man. All us.

  16. @Josh -- don't set me up as an idiot straw man with 2012 BS. Please tell me how we are going to get 9 billion "to behave" when 7 billion will not.

  17. David, the 2012 reference was to Albionwood, not you. And it was over the line, so I apologize to Albionwood.

    David, the 9 billion mark is not much scarier than the 7 billion mark, which isn't scary at all, per se.

    Take all 9 billion people, divide by four for a typical family, and then see how much land they would need for a 1/8th acre lot. You need an area well less than twice the size of Texas.

    That's right - we can fit everybody within four middle America states, and that includes giving each of them land big enough for a two-story house and a swimming pool. As for food production for us, consider that probably half of food produced in the world is wasted. Also consider that small, multicropping farms regularly produce from 2 to 25 times as much food on an acre of land compared to large monocrops. The national average apparent food consumption (food available for consumption) daily for the whole world is at 3050kcal right now. Just keeping our current system, and only capturing an additional 30% of wasted food could adequately feed the 9 billion. Instituting better farming practices could supply us while using even less land.

    It's about our consumption patterns, which have changed before and can change again, and not our simple population size.

  18. That's question-begging, David. Who says the 7 billion aren't behaving? Just because you can imagine things being better does not mean things are so bad right here and now. And it also doesn't mean they're getting worse.

  19. @Josh and Outsider -- 7 billion is NOT working out well. I agree that 3 is too many as far as negotiating climate change, etc., but the drive for consumption (of goods and energy and environment) among the 7 billion is NOT sustainable. Take world fisheries or forests if you must.

  20. David, I totally agree that 7 billion under the current consumption patterns is not working out. However, if we removed (ONLY as a thought experiment) about 10% of them selectively (basically, Europe and the U.S. & Japan), we'd see that the remaining 6.3 billion are pretty close to making it. If we add back in their technological advances (Denmark and Japan, especially), we see that there are ways of living with a lot of people without the consumption patterns that bring about global catastrophe.

  21. Wow. We do not share common assumptions!

  22. The late Julian Simon had a great perspective on this, showing that humans are capable of increasing their consumption while protecting the environment, and that we certainly are not running out of resources. For example, he pointed out that prices for oil are not going up (when measured against gold; the inflating dollar is another matter). But even if oil runs out, there's natural gas. And so on. Read his books, such as "The Ultimate Resource."

    And there's his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon-Ehrlich_wager


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