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Roger Arnold's picture
Director, Silverthorn Institute

Roger Arnold is a former software engineer and systems architect. He studied physics, math, and chemistry at Michigan State University's Honors College. After graduation, he worked in...

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  • Jul 21, 2021

This is a sobering report in LiveScience. It concerns a recent followup to the famous (or infamous) 1972 MIT / "Club of Rome" study on "The Limits to Growth". LTG, as it's often referred to, is sometimes viewed as "gloom and doom" literature from a decade when predictions of the imminent collapse of techno-industrial civilization were in vogue. The study is widely taken to be discredited by the fact that no signs of collapse became evident in the first quarter century after its publication. 

That characterization is unfair. First, LTG was never intended to predict what definitely would happen in the future. It was an attempt to rigorously model how various economic and.policy scenarios might play out. Second, none of the scenarios modeled ran into dire consequences within the remaining years of the 20th century. Hence, the failure of doomsday to arrive by the turn of the millennium can't be taken as discrediting evidence. The basic message was simply that planetary resources are finite, and that there are limits to growth. That message made it politically controversial. For the past 300 years, we've lived with a dominant economic and social culture that implicitly assume that growth can be sustained, and that it's always a good thing. The expectation of continuing growth has become woven into the fabric of our lives.

The new study that the LiveScience article covers is something of a report card on the original LTG study. It looks at how the LTG models track with what has actually been playing out, for the LTG scenarios that correspond to the trajectory we've actually been following. The study's conclusion is that in terms of population, resource consumption, resource availability, and other indices that were projected, the world actually been tracking pretty close to what the models showed. That's sobering, because for the scenarios we've been following, LTG had serious problems beginning to show up, well, just about now.

And that was before global warming and rapid climate change were recognized as looming problems.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 21, 2021

Roger, the condition of life on planet Earth 50 years from now is anyone's guess, but thirty years ago Paul Ehrlich lost his bet with Julian Simon, disappointing the hordes of neo-Malthusians who predicted it might confirm their worst fears. And from that I see a glimmer of hope.

I also tend to view the entire premise blaming "growth" disappointing. Consumption, yes. Climate change, yes again. But economic growth is a good thing. If you've ever been to sub-Saharan Africa, you know that on a local scale doomsday happens on a daily basis. Governments collapse, anarchy reigns, starvation, rape, robbery, and murder, at least for a time, are the norm. Economic growth promotes stability, and it's well-known fact that economic growth lowers birth rates. With prosperity, things tend to work themselves out.

Another MIT study from ~2004 predicted global population would level off somewhere between 9-10 billion, then gradually decline, despite greater life expectancy and lower infant mortality. Since I won't be around, that's the one I'll choose to believe for my limited time left. It's not popular among doomsayers, but they need to get a life anyway.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 22, 2021

I'd make a distinction between elimination of poverty and economic growth. Elimination of poverty means universal access to a minimum standard of living: adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and education. Economic growth, OTOH, is about consumption, extraction of resources, and GDP. On a finite world, it can't be sustained indefinitely -- regardless of technology.

I agree that elimination of (involuntary) poverty is essential to achieving a benign, sustainable society. Crushing poverty and extreme disparity in the distribution of wealth are toxic to social stability. But trusting its elimination to economic growth and the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory won't work. Today, the rising tide mostly lifts the big yachts. The little rowboats have been shot full of holes.

It wouldn't actually take much in the way of physical resources to eliminate gross poverty and inequality. The problem is not one of physical resources. The problem is corruption and the absence of an equitable rule of law in most of the former colony nations of the world.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 22, 2021

"But trusting its elimination to economic growth and the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory won't work. Today, the rising tide mostly lifts the big yachts. The little rowboats have been shot full of holes."

Agree 100%. We're on the same page here, Roger, and instead of "economic growth" perhaps "overconsumption" would make a better target - one, however, that puts me (and you, I would guess) right in the crosshairs. Though I don't consider myself wasteful, or my lifestyle extravagant, by any global standard of resource adequacy I'm among the worst overconsumers on the planet.
Forcing the question: "Would it be possible for everyone on the planet to enjoy my standard of living without destroying our common home?"
I believe it would, and it all comes down to access to clean energy. As I look around my home office - my computer, my printer, my cellphone, the roof over my head, the prints on my wall, even my carbon bike - if manufactured with clean energy their environmental impact would be minimal. There are a few caveats, of course - everything but the bare essentials would have to be exorbitantly expensive, promoting recycling of both goods and materials. Luxury items made from materials with a large or toxic waste imprint would have to be all but unavailable.
But it's no accident the original Simon-Ehrlich bet was based on the price of five useful, mined metals. Ehrlich lost the bet because all five of these resources were available at lower cost in 1990 than 1980, and it was because humanity had used technology to locate and mine them more efficiently and less expensively.
Limits of land use might be the first to be tested. We would all have to take up less space, with food and energy production being top priorities. Leading to the inevitable conclusion of my post: the only source of energy that can provide the abundant clean electricity necessary to provide a minimal standard of living, for all inhabitants of Planet Earth, is nuclear fission. A sufficient quantity of solar, wind, biogas, biofuel, or other source of "renewable" energy would require accepting unacceptable quantities of both industrial pollution and land use.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 21, 2021

A steep downturn in human population and quality of life could be coming in the 2040s, the report finds

I feel like you can't help but think of the natural burn of wildfires that in nature serve to 'reset' an ecosystem and wonder if we're pushing ourselves quickly towards a analogous event. Obviously, the events described aren't anything we can just accept and constantly improving the quality of life across the country and staving off various incoming disasters will remain a priority-- hopefully the difference between us and the forest dwellers is we have the human ingenuity to care for our surroundings in a more fruitful and long-term way!

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 21, 2021

Interesting post. as usual.

Collapse is very possible, but so is an age of enlightenment. The reference date of 1972 was a very bad year. Enlightenment and innovation prevailed to postpone a day of reckoning.

Freedom and civility are the keys to survival. New ideas, opportunity must be embraced.

For example, I described to friends how most farms are closer to 5 acres than 5 thousand acres, without proper modern tools. "Electric wagons" are a good internet search. We have eliminated historic beasts of burden and replaced them with huge power tools, displacing billions of farmers. Hearing nothing of this topic from the political activists, I checked ebay and was delighted to discover all manner of electric tool conversion kits. Innovators are busy out there. We need to fear the current incarnation of Stalinists and Maoists that intend to use humans as beasts of burden.

Roger Arnold's picture
Thank Roger for the Post!
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