The dire predictions of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report on The Limits to Growth have supposedly been refuted by subsequent studies, but the refutations have serious shortcomings. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.
We belong to a species that dominates the planet. After millennia of steady growth which have altered regional environments and killed off many species, the human population has exploded during one lifetime. Whereas it took millennia to reach the first billion, the human population tripled in 140 years to three billion by 1960, and is currently trebling again in just 80 years, to nine billion in 2040. We have become a plague.
Many scientists, including myself, have been concerned with this picture. There is considerable evidence describing an overpopulated world, threatened by food and water shortages, a shortage of oil supplies, and huge changes due to global warming. Consider the message in the figure on the right, which adds more recent data to the Limits to Growth forecasts of Meadows et al (1972) for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. World population may hit a peak around 2040-2050 and then rapidly decline. My own research, including work with a number of international forecasting projects, suggests that the peak will happen sooner, around 2030.
This model was based on a considerable body of research and is supported by many other more detailed studies. Here we have a picture of a world in which population may plummet following an overshoot-and-decline pattern when limits are passed.
I looked at this some 35 years ago with the eyes of an applied mathematician. I had seen that a model can capture the essence of a situation and provide realistic guidance, just so long as the model is based on the key aspects of a greater complexity. The thought of possible global collapse within one lifetime impressed me and I set off on a new career. I have found that the picture based on physical science can readily be fleshed out by reference to past historical events. It is easy to foresee the repetition of population collapse, social breakdown and war.
So here am I proclaiming apocalypse in just 20 years. What do you make of it? Either I am mistaken or society is just a little bit crazy. J B Priestley made this point in relation to William Blake:
And no doubt those who believe that the society we have created during the last hundred and fifty years is essentially sound and healthy will continue to believe, if they ever think about him, that Blake was insane. But there is more profit for mind and soul in believing our society to be increasingly insane, and Blake (as the few who knew him well always declared) to be sound and healthy.
I introduce this point as I have been treated as a pariah for taking up an extremely important scientific endeavour. Should you be sceptical of those like me who talk of impending catastrophe? Certainly, but consider the alternative which is to put your faith in those who have dismissed the reality of a finite Earth. The Limits to Growth was the subject of widespread denunciation by the supporters of status quo economic growth. Let’s look at the validity of some of the critics; we at the DSIR considered many and found some bizarre arguments.
One key critique was a 1977 Report to the United Nations, The Future of the World Economy, by a team headed by Nobel Prize- winning economist Vassilly Leontief. The Dominion reported that:
Among the most significant aspects of the study are its rejection of predictions by the Club of Rome that the world will run out of resources and choke on its pollution if it continues to expand its economy.
The summary of the report emphasised this theme:
No insurmountable physical barriers exist within the twentieth century to the accelerated development of the developing regions.
Read that carefully. It says “in the twentieth century”. The Limits to Growth‘s authors made a forecast of a possible calamitous population collapse around 2050 – not within the twentieth century. By stopping their model 50 years before, in 2000, the UN team made quite sure that they avoided any possibility of such an event. In fact, as far as they went, their forecasts are very similar to those of The Limits to Growth.
Such sleight of hand is not uncommon. In 1978 I worked for six months with the OECD Interfutures project. While I was able to study an extensive collection of input information, I had no real part in the analysis, which was dominated by a small core group. The 1979 report includes a claim that would be satisfactory to the clients, the wealthy nations of the world:
Economic growth may continue during the next half-century in all the countries of the world without encountering insurmountable long-term physical limits at the global level.
There are two reasons why this statement is misleading. Firstly, all their many computer model calculations stopped in 2000 and did not reach out that far, so this is not in any way based on the work of so many of us in this project. Secondly, they look ahead for just 50 years, thus stopping short of 2050, the forecast time for crisis. It is always easy to dodge a crisis by stopping short of the due date, like the fellow falling off a building who felt that all was well as he sailed down, before he reached the pavement. They knew what The Limits to Growth forecast; they knew what they were doing.
These are examples of the way in which organisations employ expertise to generate desired results and make unjustified claims. Many readers will be sceptical of the warnings of approaching limits. Such scepticism may be better applied to many of the arguments for continuation of growth; here is a New Zealand example.
In 1990 the Planning Council published a report, The fully employed high income society (Rose 1990), which received nationwide publicity due to its suggestion that sustainable full employment with full incomes was possible by 1995 due to high rates of productivity increase – but otherwise continuing current policies.
When I read the document carefully I found some very questionable points:
(a) Estimates of employment requirements commenced in 1988 and ignored the significant loss of jobs between that date and 1990.
(b) Modelling of productivity increases commenced with modelling which has proved unrealistic and overly optimistic, and assumed a further doubling of productivity.
(c) The model run commenced in 1984 with these increases in productivity in order to generate an optimistic result in 1995, thus ignoring the negative experiences of 1984-90.
(d) The model was instructed to produce full employment by 1995 – this was not a consequence of the modelling based on policy changes as represented by input parameters.
(e) Full employment was completely generated by additional capital investment.
The model failed the most basic scientific test of forecasting even before it was published. In the four years from 1986, the date one model run commenced, to 1990, the date of the report, the model had suggested an increase in employment of 38,000, whereas the actual experience was of a fall of 90,000. Nor was that followed by a fully employed society – indeed unemployment was 11 percent in 1991.
The main feature of this work was a failure to produce the required result of full employment within realistic model parameters. The correct process would then have been to report that finding, which would have been in line with what actually happened, but they chose to tweak the model by the introduction of massive capital investment. This artificial process forced the model to say what was wanted and the result was then widely publicised.
Whereas the growth merchants have feet of clay, the limits forecasts from the 1970s hold up well when put to the test. When in 2008 the CSIRO (noted above) returned to the 1972 forecasts of The Limits to Growth and considered whether the real world had followed the forecast trends, the results were convincing. They considered measures of population (birth rates, death rates and population growth), food (and food per capita), services (basic education, electricity and suchlike), industrial output per capita, non-renewable resources and global pollution. All were tracking along the forecast paths towards the coming crisis.
The graph of population on page 3 is typical. These further graphs (right) of food and industrial output per capita, non-renewable resources and global persistent pollution show the same correlation between forecast and observation.
Data since 1972 follow the standard run closely, and do not deviate to follow alternative paths. This result echoes a study I carried out in 2000, when I found that my worrying picture built up around 1980 was robust. Trends have been intriguingly following the expected pattern, including more recently the 2008 oil peak and economic collapse, galloping global warming and the appearance of boat people off the Australian coast.
When I studied the futures literature back in 2000 I found two very different dominant themes. Each followed observed trends and each could describe features of the coming decades. Some of the articles suggested the possibility of food shortages, which would exacerbate the considerable inequalities observed today. That negative scenario may be exacerbated by water shortages and climate change. However a much more prevalent picture was of increasing human capabilities, new technologies and wealth.
No choice is needed; both sets of forecasts may prove robust, as existing trends take different regions or different groups along very different paths. There is then the possibility of the coexistence of two very different societies in the future. This is quite likely; after all it was like that in mediaeval times and in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, and this is the reality in many parts of the world today.
I have described the application of the scientific method to long-term forecasting. This is the way a scientist operates, in a search for the truth. An opposite process is followed in economics, where false analyses are widely publicised, and the fit of forecast to reality is ignored. New Zealand discourse is dominated by shonky science. The key work on global crisis comes from the Australian CSIRO while the DSIR, where I started my work, is no more. Here science is in a straitjacket of controls, totally gutted. In a recent round of grants eight out of nine applications were turned down, and initiative is killed as scientists waste time writing proposals for guaranteed results rather than asking questions and exploring the world. The human cost has also been enormous with the crushing of the lively, questioning spirit in true science. The fun of science is gone. Sadly the spokesman for the scientific community, the Royal Society (RSNZ) is quiescent.
Even in economics much more can be done. In 1989 I was able to foresee the collapsing system we have now. Sometimes I dream that we can recover the spirit of the 1970s when the debate was well-informed, when an initiative in the DSIR was supported and the Commission for the Future was set up. It is nowhere on the horizon. This is a country that is deep in denial, which can sign up to Kyoto and then do nothing as greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2007 increase 39.2 percent for energy and 35 percent for industrial processes. Where is the madness here?
Ignorance goes nowhere. A people which faces the world with eyes wide open can gain a national spirit and decide to work towards a satisfying and full life for all, even in the face of adversity, rather than put up with the massive inequality introduced in 1984 and still touted as the way forward.
Graphs are reproduced with permission from Graham M Turner 2008: A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, Global Environmental Change 18(3): 397-411.