Skip

Prophesy of economic collapse 'coming true'
November 23, 2008 10:15 AM   Subscribe

In 1972 the Club of Rome published the famous book Limits to Growth that predicted exponential growth would eventually lead to economic and environmental collapse. It was criticized by economists and largely ignored by politicians. Now Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia has compared the book's predictions with data from the intervening years. According to Turner (PDF report) changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of collapse in the 21st century. According to the book, the path we have taken will cause decreasing resource availability and an escalating cost of extraction that triggers a slowdown of industry, which eventually results in economic collapse some time after 2020.(via; previously; previously)
posted by stbalbach (80 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
So ...does this mean I can eat all the cheeze puffs I want?
posted by The Whelk at 10:23 AM on November 23, 2008


you eat cheese puffs. i'm going to get my girlfriend's dad to teach me how to hunt.
posted by klanawa at 10:29 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Obviously we can't continue having exponential growth forever, it will be interesting to see if a "soft landing" can be engineered.

That said, I don't think the subprime problem/credit crisis really has anything to do with exhaustion of the earth's resources, although there are some people who say that the housing bubble and before that the tech bubble were simply band aides covering up the underlying failure of the growth forever model.
posted by delmoi at 10:30 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wanna play spot the Malthus?
posted by The White Hat at 10:34 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


What I don't understand is how can an economic collapse happen after the Mayan calendar apocalypse? Will someone please create some sort of apocalyptic timeline site so we can all reference it when making our predictions. For the sake of world peace at least. I mean, c'mon, this is a no-brainer here.
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 10:38 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I hope the economy and the environment collapse before I get old.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:49 AM on November 23, 2008


Obviously we can't continue having exponential growth forever

Or any growth.

Every time I hear about "economic growth" like it's a great thing I rage a little. You know what we call something that just keeps growing and never stops? CANCER.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:51 AM on November 23, 2008 [14 favorites]


It should be obvious this conclusion is based on things staying the way they are without a change in trends, e.g., consuming less, moving towards renewable resources, reusing more, distributing wealth more fairly ... huh. Yeah, we're screwed.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:58 AM on November 23, 2008


you eat cheese puffs. i'm going to get my girlfriend's dad to teach me how to hunt.

I'm just trying to check off the last box on my Personal LifeQuest Vision Empowerment To-Do List.

"Die ignobly in some horrible futuristic catastrophe."
posted by The Whelk at 11:05 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Solar, nuclear, wind, and hydro need minimal extraction and resources in comparison to the more traditional way. I know that our current energy consumption can't be comprised entirely from these more enviro-friendly methods, but they can make a large dent. But wouldn't one of the larger questions be, even if the developed countries can get their shit together, can the developing countries have a more holistic approach to exponential growth. Wouldn't it be odd to think that WWIII could begin something like this:
United Nations: (In English, of course) China, you better build more nuclear power plants or else!!!
China: (translated) I do wut I want!
United Nations: We gonna shoot you down! We swear!
China: I'm big, you gonna need lots of bombs!
Slim Pickins takes a ride, large cloud of doom encircles the earth, polar bears move back to Santa's homeland, and the ghosts of Mayan priests do the hokey pokey.

Looking at the bright side, couldn't this current economic downturn actually buy us a few extra years? I mean if it gets really bad, 2020 might become 2030, or if we're really lucky, maybe even 2112.
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 11:23 AM on November 23, 2008


klanawa: the idea that hunting will help one survive a massive ecological/economic collapse such as the club of Rome talk about misses the point. What causes the collapse is having too much people putting too many demands on the environment so that there are no resources left to extract and pollution poisons everything. So you'd be hunting rats, mostly.
posted by freedryk at 11:32 AM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Aurelio Peccei's One Hundred Pages for the Future is a good read. And yeah, we're screwed.
posted by daniel9223 at 11:33 AM on November 23, 2008


So you'd be hunting rats, mostly.

Or as I call them, Small Pig.

Isn't eating rats, or any urban animal considered Bad News cause they'll eat anything, and rats specifically cause they turn into walking bags of CANCER! in 3 years?
posted by The Whelk at 11:35 AM on November 23, 2008


2025: the end of US dominance
posted by homunculus at 11:35 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


So basically, I should stop trying to look for a job and plan for the future, because we are all going to be dead in 10 years anyway? (Unless of course we all die 4 years, 2 weeks, and 5 days from now instead, of course.)
posted by paisley henosis at 11:47 AM on November 23, 2008


freedryk: joke.

you know, it's not, by definition, possible to destroy nature. where i live, even if civilization goes to shit, the rain will still fall, the trees will still grow. even if all the wildlife dies, the best source of protein will be, as it is now, termites. the termites aren't going anywhere. the mushrooms aren't going anywhere. the salmonberries aren't going anywhere. fact is, 99.9% of the population of the world hasn't the foggiest idea how to make use of the resources that go untouched by our industrial machine.

my little post-apocalypse fantasy world requires that those 99.9% go the way of the dodo, but i'm not worried. if i can avoid the stragglers, a 50-km stroll out of town, and i'll be back in the promised land!
posted by klanawa at 12:05 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


God. Malthusians are always, always saying, "Well, our last prediction didn't turn out to be right, but never mind that, we're still on track for disaster and mass starvation in just a few decades. Trust me." They've been doing this since, oh, Malthus. In a few decades, they'll come up with a new reason that despite higher-than-ever living standards for more people than ever, we're only 30 years away from all dying unless we stop having children. Just how many times does a theory have to fail in its predictions before we ignore it once and for all?
posted by Dasein at 12:16 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Malthus.. Just how many times does a theory have to fail in its predictions before we ignore it once and for all?

Did you not read the FPP and linked report? In fact it shows the predictions have turned out to be correct based on real world data and observation. The report is not a prediction, it is an analysis of a 40 year old prediction to see if it reality turned out as predicted. It has. Also, the 1972 report is not Malthus.
posted by stbalbach at 12:21 PM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


That said, I don't think the subprime problem/credit crisis really has anything to do with exhaustion of the earth's resources,

Our excessive lifestyles, greed, and short sightedness have indeed led to both problems. It's just how we do. It's us.
posted by gman at 12:26 PM on November 23, 2008


Malthus.. Just how many times does a theory have to fail in its predictions before we ignore it once and for all?

Did you not read the FPP and linked report? In fact it shows the predictions have turned out to be correct based on real world data and observation. The report is not a prediction, it is an analysis of a 40 year old prediction to see if it reality turned out as predicted. It has. Also, the 1972 report is not Malthus.


But, But, But... Malthus.
posted by peppito at 12:36 PM on November 23, 2008


Also, the 1972 report is not Malthus.

Of course not, but neo-Malthusians all make the same basic mistake of not taking into account the fact that scarcity spurs innovation and substitution. Running out of food? We'll have a Green Revolution. Running out of oil? Okay, we'll put our heads together and create electric cars for transportation, or better yet we'll grow our oil from algae. We respond to price incentives and to problems created by scarcity. And as our technology gets better and better, our capacity to innovate our way out of serious shortages just grows and grows.

People have always gotten a kick out of predicting the end of society/civilization/the world/time. It makes them feel superior to all the oblivious peons running around consuming their way to the apocalypse. But it's not more correct coming from modern-day environmentalists than it was from medieval religious nutcases, or 19th Century economists. We'll be fine. Really.
posted by Dasein at 12:47 PM on November 23, 2008


Now, if I just had enough money to buy the stacks of nickel-iron batteries I'll need to survive the coming collapse and still be able to watch DVDs.
posted by adipocere at 12:51 PM on November 23, 2008


Dasein: "Just how many times does a theory have to fail in its predictions before we ignore it once and for all?"

Looking at history broadly, and not just at the thread that represents the antecedents of our current European-derived civilization, the Malthusian hypothesis pans out fairly frequently. In fact, we have the somewhat dubious honor of living in the only civilization that has neither found a sustainable balance with its surrounding environment, nor died out, nor been subsumed.

It seems like gross hubris to simply assume that we are destined to succeed at endless growth, when the world is littered with the remnants of civilizations that collapsed when they ran into a limit they weren't clever enough to work around. (And who probably also they were singular and destined for success where others had failed, as evidenced by their own histories viewed alone.)

And even worse than that is to simply take on blind faith, as so many people seem to do, that we will be able to always engineer our way out of more and more serious problems. Perhaps we will solve many of the issues that seem pressing at the moment, but this is not absolutely certain. Every existential challenge is a gamble: maybe the engineers and scientists and policymakers will find a solution in time, or maybe they won't. There is always a nonzero chance of failure so long as we continue to push the envelope. And even if that chance is remote on any given attempt, eventually it will occur. And that means disaster on an unimaginable scale. It's a never-ending Russian Roulette game.

This risk can be avoided by aiming not for growth, but for steady-state sustainability; given the stakes, this seems like the only sane thing to do. Rather than continually pulling the trigger and arguing about how many chambers are left to go, we could put down the gun.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:56 PM on November 23, 2008 [26 favorites]


Our excessive lifestyles, greed, and short sightedness...

Our? Perhaps we're all guilty to some extent, but some of us are much guiltier than others.
posted by pracowity at 12:57 PM on November 23, 2008


Dasein: "People have always gotten a kick out of predicting the end of society/civilization/the world/time. It makes them feel superior to all the oblivious peons running around consuming their way to the apocalypse. But it's not more correct coming from modern-day environmentalists than it was from medieval religious nutcases, or 19th Century economists. We'll be fine. Really."

This rhetoric is also not new or original, and it's logically flawed. It convienently ignores the data showing that the predictions made in 1972 by the Club of Rome have, up to this point, been mostly accurate, as describes in the above linked FPP report. Just because some 19th century scientists and religious nutcases have been wrong doesn't mean the Club of Rome is wrong.
posted by stbalbach at 1:05 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


In reference to some previous comments....

I agree, humans do not have the power to destroy the earth, simply it's ability to support such diverse and populous life-forms. Life will prevail. Worst-case, no Mona Lisa or American Idol for an eon or several.

I remember a show (probably NOVA) about a study of collapsed civilizations and if I remember correctly, with few exceptions, they all were felled not by foreign invaders, moral decay, disease, etc., but exhaustion of available resources (which in turn led to foreign invaders, moral decay, disease, etc.).

I know there is an belief that our "rational/reflective" mind should allow us to avoid the fate of other species (populate/exhaust resources/de-populate/re-achieve sustainability/populate/etc.), but maybe just because we know it is happening doesn't mean we can really do anything about it. Maybe we're just supposed to try to be more polite.
posted by secondhand at 1:09 PM on November 23, 2008


You're not going to see the end of the modern world as we know it without a sudden and dramatic contraction. The same contraction spread throughout enough time won't provide the doomsday scenario everyone likes to get all hand-wavy about.
posted by oaf at 1:16 PM on November 23, 2008




So you'd be hunting rats, mostly.

And people ... PEEEEEEOPLE ...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:49 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, I read the linked report and I'm not ashamed to say that I found it hard to comprehend. It wasn't helped by the absence of graphs from the PDF, but the numbers referred to are from data sets I'm not familiar with, and I don't always understand the consequences. For instance: global food supplies are within 5% of the supply level predicted by the standard run model - is that 5% enough to make a big difference? I'm not an expert, and the report (reasonably, as it's a technical working paper) doesn't feel the need to explain it.
posted by athenian at 1:59 PM on November 23, 2008


The same contraction spread throughout enough time won't provide the doomsday scenario everyone likes to get all hand-wavy about.

I'm starting to get hand-wavy about "hand-wavy". This seems to have become the catch-all phrase to say, "You care too much" or even "I don't care as much", when it should mean "hysterical".

I would much prefer "shrieky-hair-pully" to replace the old meaning of "hand-wavy", and "IDGAS" to replace the current meaning.

Just because some 19th century scientists and religious nutcases have been wrong doesn't mean the Club of Rome is wrong.

Come, come. If science has taught us anything, it's that new research, regardless of its accuracy, can always be dismissed based on the results of older predictions.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:11 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think soft landing scenarios are physically possible, but due to politics and human nature itself, they simply will not occur. I've seen some projections that hint at maybe a quarter of a billion people being "sustainable," but even if you multiply that by a factor of four, how could you achieve compliance?

Trying to get the number of humans down that far, that fast, in any sort of organized manner ... short of some kind of bio-engineered sterility plague, I don't see it happening. You'd get no buy-in from the world's major religions. Even if we had a world-wide totalitarian state imposing a "one child per couple" setup, we still couldn't get the numbers under control quickly enough. You'd need some kind of eugenics nightmare scenario, where only selected individuals could breed. That alone would cause so much strife that the situation would fall apart.

Yeah, it's either a secretive society making a plague or a very hard crash. At some point later, the survivors pick through the rubble, mine the landfills, and maybe get it right next time. If they don't all have kuru-kuru or something from the cannibalism.
posted by adipocere at 2:14 PM on November 23, 2008


It may be a valid point, that growth cannot continue forever, but there are many people here and elsewhere who permit themselves the luxury of criticising growth while benefiting from all the advantages.

I dare you to look at a citizen of the developing world in the eye and tell them that they shouldn't experience economic growth because it harms your guilty Western conscience.

Westerners railing against growth piss me off because there's one thing that my country of origin needs and that's economic growth.
posted by adricv at 2:48 PM on November 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


Solar, nuclear, wind, and hydro need minimal extraction and resources in comparison to the more traditional way.

This simply isn't true. Hydro has huge impacts and is horrifyingly expensive if you add in the environmental impacts -- have you visited one of the big US dams recently, or read about China's recent big hydro projects? Nuclear isn't cheap either, especially if you add in the cleanup costs, waste storage, etc. Wind is coming on in a big way, but is more of a supplemental addition to the grid, rather than replacing, say, coal fired plants, because the wind isn't all that reliable. Wind projects also sometimes get a lot of resistance based on their visual impact; I've also seen claims that the windmills have big impacts on bats and birds. And solar is only cheap when it is heavily subsidized; the costs are still prohibitively high, and I don't think the production of the solar panels themselves is a completely benign process, either.

Pretty much all the big hydropower dams in the US date back thirty to seventy years -- in other words, hydro already is one of the "traditional" ways we generate power. (And given the current trend towards dam removal, good luck getting funding and environmental approval for a new dam on the scale of the Grand Coulee or the Hoover Dam -- it just isn't going to be happening.) They are putting in huge wind farms as fast as they can build them, and soon you will see them going in offshore, too -- give it a decade, and wind will be as "traditional" as anything else.

The point being, if we are in danger of hitting the limits of our capability to find and utilize energy (and absorb the costs of doing so), "alternative energy" is not going to provide the solution. It'll buy us time, certainly, but thinking that it is cost free is just wishful thinking.
posted by Forktine at 2:53 PM on November 23, 2008


We may be the first major civilisation to have (so far) avoided a Malthusian collapse, but is it just a coincidence that we're the first major civilisation to have conceived of such a thing?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:56 PM on November 23, 2008


Is this the thread where I come to complain about people's irrational and irritating adoration of Stephen Malkmus?
posted by Eideteker at 2:56 PM on November 23, 2008


Westerners railing against growth piss me off because there's one thing that my country of origin needs and that's economic growth.

I've always interpretted the "railing" as, in part, recognition of the amazing disparity between different areas of the world. At least, I've never heard, seen nor read any discussion on the planet's resources without it being mentioned just how much is concentrated in the hands of so few. I personally feel that "growth" which enriches everyone would actually help us consume more wisely - as was pointed out in an unrelated thread. Higher standards of living = lower infant mortality rates = fewer children being born. A higher standard of living also gives us the luxury to explore renewable energy sources, as opposed to mowing down forests and digging up coal. So no, I don't think the head of the pyramid shifting from one geographic region of the world to another helps anyone but the cap of the pyramid, if that's what "railing against growth" is, but I do believe that parity and equity around the world would in the long run help us out.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:57 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


You're absolutely right.

As you say, the point is to bring everyone up to a certain standard, not shift the pyramid around.

Hearing a Briton, say, complain about economic growth sounds very very hypocritical to someone who hasn't had the benefit of such economic growth.
posted by adricv at 3:11 PM on November 23, 2008


Neat. We can finally stop worrying about global warming.
posted by tkolar at 3:15 PM on November 23, 2008


Hearing a Briton, say, complain about economic growth sounds very very hypocritical to someone who hasn't had the benefit of such economic growth.

Barack Obama is on the Youtubes this weekend talking about his plan to "lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy." Man ain't talking about providing say, medicine and clean water for the third world. He's talking about more useless plastic shit for Americans who have too much of it already.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:36 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Speaking as one, the idea of economists making exquisitely predictive models about the arcs of the growth and collapse of society a hundred years out is flattering but insane. That's your -- whadd'ya call it -- psychohistory. I'm fairly confident the idea would be treated with a fair amount of scorn if its conclusions were not so in line with the underlying biases here. (Which, I hasten to add, I share. I think David Suzuki said we had 20 years to save the environment 20 years ago, and he hasn't lied to me yet.)
posted by ~ at 3:38 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Westerners railing against growth piss me off because there's one thing that my country of origin needs and that's economic growth.

Not just that kind of energy dependant growth. First forget about that vague and oscillating value that is energy market price at any given time, as it's heavily influenced by speculation and special interest. Second, consider that no amount of market ideology is going to fuel any car, as cars currently burn gasoline, not hot air words. Third, gasoline is just part of the equation, we should also consider all the oil derived products, such as plastic, fertilizers, lubricants and a vast array of useful chemicals.

Regardless of any utopia or dystopia, an obvious fact so far is that oil requires geological timespans to replenish, which means hundred thousand years if not more. Surely we have coal, gas, nuclear fission , hydrotermal , ocean waves and you name it, but still no fusion technology and possibly not even an electrical grid capable of distributing "almost free and infinite" energy.

So as restructuring world to use fuel more efficiently will take quite some time, while we keep our fingers crossed for fusion, it's better to start early. Additionally, there are also other scarcities to keep an eye for : food, water and healthy environment just to name the big ones that run to mind.

From this point of view, it would be a lot wiser for emerging economies to keep these priorities present while planning their future. Clearly not any economy will be able to build, for instance, a mass transit system right from the start, but I can't really can't imagine why they shouldn't incorporate as much possibile by starting, for instance, with a road system designed from the start to support bicycles and surface light rail or buses.

It's called learning from other people mistakes and it's not necessarily an attempt to make other people unhappy.
posted by elpapacito at 3:42 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just how many times does a theory have to fail in its predictions before we ignore it once and for all?

Exactly! What makes people^Weconomists think that exponential growth in a finite space is possible?

The mind boggles...
posted by Djinh at 3:44 PM on November 23, 2008


psychohistory

I love it.

As for global warming, developed countries are well within their rights to indulge in luxurious experimentations with their economies to save the environment if they want to, but this is something that developing countries cannot afford.

Am I the only one who sees it as somewhat amoral to benefit from hundreds of years of virtually non-stop economic growth only to stop and say "no, that's enough, nobody else gets to develop to the point we did because growth is, get this, bad."
posted by adricv at 3:45 PM on November 23, 2008


I agree with Djinh's point of learning from other people's mistakes.

But is there really a way, today, of generating enough growth to reach a Western threshold of development without passing through fossil fuels? Unfortunately, it doesn't seem so.
posted by adricv at 3:49 PM on November 23, 2008


And it's not Djinh's point of view, it's elpapacito's. My bad!
posted by adricv at 3:50 PM on November 23, 2008


Of course not, but neo-Malthusians all make the same basic mistake of not taking into account the fact that scarcity spurs innovation and substitution. Running out of food? We'll have a Green Revolution. Running out of oil? Okay, we'll put our heads together and create electric cars for transportation, or better yet we'll grow our oil from algae. We respond to price incentives and to problems created by scarcity. And as our technology gets better and better, our capacity to innovate our way out of serious shortages just grows and grows.

Your religious beliefs are touching and delightful.

I dare you to look at a citizen of the developing world in the eye and tell them that they shouldn't experience economic growth because it harms your guilty Western conscience.

It's less to do with the "guilty concience" problem and more to do with they, "Hey, let's have a mass die-off and eat dirt for a few centuries" problem.
posted by rodgerd at 3:51 PM on November 23, 2008


On a similar note to adricv's, the economy we've got in Europe and the US etc. was created at a time when we were in pretty serious need of growth and development too.

Up until recently, here in the US, we weren't just struggling to grow and mine and build more because the economy depended on it. We were doing it because we were trying to attain a certain basic level of comfort and security. It's only in the past few generations that significant numbers of Americans have been able to look around and say "Yeah, I'll be happy if my kids' life is like mine" (and maybe even "man, I can't imagine what more they might want") rather than "Please, let them have something better than I had."

Of course, now we've got this juggernaut of an economy that "wants" us to keep developing and expanding in ways that we no longer want. And I think that disconnect will be interesting to watch over the next few decades.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:52 PM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


As you say, the point is to bring everyone up to a certain standard, not shift the pyramid around.

...once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity...
posted by adamdschneider at 4:05 PM on November 23, 2008


Nuclear isn't cheap either, especially if you add in the cleanup costs, waste storage, etc.

Make Coal accountable for their cleanup costs and waste storage and all of a sudden coal becomes a lot more expensive and the world would be a bit more greener.

But hey, I suppose railing on the easy target that is nuclear is so much easier. Don't worry about France having the lowest power bills and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the developed world. That's just the exception that proves your assumption.
posted by Talez at 4:10 PM on November 23, 2008


One possibly positive by-product of "growth" in the sense of greater connectivity to resources around the planet: you start hearing a lot of the same ideas being brought up on an international scale that we're more accostumed to hearing between different income brackets within a single nation - investment instead of aid, parity instead of charity.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:17 PM on November 23, 2008


But hey, I suppose railing on the easy target that is nuclear is so much easier. Don't worry about France having the lowest power bills and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the developed world. That's just the exception that proves your assumption.

Was I defending coal? Really? Are you sure?

I was responding to this:

Solar, nuclear, wind, and hydro need minimal extraction and resources in comparison to the more traditional way.

My point was that these (particularly hydro and nuclear) are hugely expensive and not at all "alternative" in any sense of the word, not that coal is some great alternative. The solution is going to be in some combination of using less energy, decentralized/micro generation, and accepting some pretty serious environmental costs -- not in some magic combination of "alternative" technologies.

The one and only advantage of coal is that we have (literally) mountains of it, so we can keep the lights on for a long time to come. But it's a nasty, nasty source of energy, and the dirty coal plants that China has been building are spreading those impacts far and wide.

France has done some interesting things with nuclear power, but those nice cheap power costs no more internalize the environmental externalities of nuclear power than the cheap power in the pacific northwest internalizes the environmental externalities of hydropower. Those bills get charged forward for future generations to deal with, which is great for those of us living now, sure, but maybe not such a great model to base an entire energy policy around.
posted by Forktine at 4:20 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The PDF had some interesting and useful things to say about the way the "Limits To Growth" has been misrepresented over the years, but the analysis of the data to me did not seem to prove anything apart from showing that our society is following the early part of the path envisaged in LtG's "standard run" to some extent. This does not seem to be news because this was the "business as usual" projection, based on continuing the course of the years 1900-1970. I don't think this part of the projection was the controversial part!

I also thought he might be cherry picking his proxies. It seems problematic to me to use CO2 as the sole proxy for pollution, when this was not on the radar at the time of LtG - while things like CFCs very much were. Making the curve fit by changing the definition of pollution over time seems like a sleight of hand to me.
posted by pascal at 4:22 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one who sees it as somewhat amoral to benefit from hundreds of years of virtually non-stop economic growth only to stop and say "no, that's enough, nobody else gets to develop to the point we did because growth is, get this, bad."

You aren't the only one. I recently had a conversation with coworkers where I discussed the world's overpopulation and that we have 5 billion to many (hyperbole, but fodder for discussion). I said that we'd (US) be doing the world a favor by not having any kids and halving our population. We would go through a couple of decades of real hurt (as Japan and parts of Europe are now with their inverted population pyramids) but come out stronger, as we'd have a leaner, more educated population that can support itself while maintaining a high living standard. They had the audacity to tell me that starvation, malnutrition, and wars in Africa and Asia would instead serve that purpose.

Killing growth, allowing deflation, and various expensive initiatives (environment, health care, education) are lovely goals for Western civilization because it has the luxury and potential incentive to embark on such goals. For the rest of the world (living on less than $2/day), killing growth is like holding your breath. At some point, you die.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:37 PM on November 23, 2008


And for those who'd like to know more about growth in developing countries, might I suggest the excellent book The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics by William Easterly.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:40 PM on November 23, 2008


France has done some interesting things with nuclear power, but those nice cheap power costs no more internalize the environmental externalities of nuclear power than the cheap power in the pacific northwest internalizes the environmental externalities of hydropower. Those bills get charged forward for future generations to deal with, which is great for those of us living now, sure, but maybe not such a great model to base an entire energy policy around.

We're already charging the bills forward. Hell, the bills from the coal extravaganza are coming due now and my generation are about to start paying for them. The bills from the "cleaner" and "cheaper" oil fired power craze of the 80s have started to nudge their way forward as burning oil in power plants (one of the most useless uses of oil ever devised) takes its heavy toll on world oil reserves.

The long and the short of it is that nuclear is the only drop-in replacement for fossil fuels that we have available. Both solar and wind aren't able to provide base load power and geothermal provides near insignificant amounts of power out of each hole.

It's not something great to model an entire energy policy around but unless we want to keep going with the status quo it's our only practical option. I don't like the idea of using nuclear on a wide scale that much (I much prefer natural gas for power generation but GHG emissions these days aren't something we can't exactly ignore) but in terms of the lesser of two evils you can't go past nuclear.
posted by Talez at 4:40 PM on November 23, 2008


Bah. Global poverty and malnutrition rates have dropped like a stone since 1972. We in a strange time when pessimism and doom are mistaken for wisdom.
posted by LarryC at 5:10 PM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Talez, even if everyone agreed nuclear was the way to go, it would be decades to scale up. These plants take forever to build, not to mention hugely exspensive and monolithically byzantine in terms of regulations, insurance etc.. my money is on the entrepreneurs fighting it out in the free market going after the biggest money pot in history.
posted by stbalbach at 5:41 PM on November 23, 2008


Metafilter: my little post-apocalypse fantasy world requires that those 99.9% go the way of the dodo
posted by CautionToTheWind at 6:05 PM on November 23, 2008


I would recommend those doubting the anti-Malthus people to check out the Simon-Elrich wager.

I'd also suggest reading The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon. I will concede that I think he's far too optimistic in some respects but I think he's right that in the most part, things are getting better and will keep on getting better in the world and that Malthus was and still is wrong.
posted by champthom at 6:40 PM on November 23, 2008


Some might wonder how the predictions from Limits to Growth were made. There's quite a bit more to it than a simple reassertion of Malthus or a mindless doom and gloom for the sake of doom and gloom, as other comments have suggested.

The Club of Rome contracted Jay Forrester to model the world's socioeconomic system using the techniques of System Dynamics. Forrester's team attempted to map the dominant causal loops and time lags in the system of resource flows and consumption, taking into account positive and negative feedback loops. These loops make prediction of the long term behavior of such a complex system quite intractable without computer simulation.

By the way, this intractability would also prevent the casual commenter from making an accurate assessment of whether the model was correct in its predictions, though that hasn't stopped many of us here from trying.

Systems Dynamics is still around (website) but regrettably after the Limits to Growth it never reached the same level of prominence in public policy discussions. Ideally the model would have been updated numerous times since 1972. Also regrettable is the apparent absence of any free or open source version of the modeling software (DYNAMO) they used (you could try the trial version of Stella, which is similar but aimed at high school students). All of this is regrettable because even if the Limits to Growth has been accurate so far, this does not guarantee that further predictions will be accurate; more modeling is needed.

There's a somewhat recent piece about Jay Forrester (PDF) where he says "I consider myself an optimist, because I feel that with sufficient understanding and education, these issues can and will be dealt with."
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:49 PM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


The first separation in this discussion is breaking out the populations who believe that the Earth can sustain an infinite numbers of people and those who believe the number to be finite. All else, to paraphrase Churchill, is haggling over the final number.
posted by adipocere at 7:08 PM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Right. So, people who believe in the singularity form up over there on the left.
posted by tkolar at 7:52 PM on November 23, 2008


Easter Islander #1: Dude, I think we're running out of trees.

Easter Islander #2: Fuck off, you fucking commie. Trees come from the ground. We have plenty of ground.

[cannibal holocaust]

[fin]
posted by Avenger at 8:10 PM on November 23, 2008 [9 favorites]


Reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is strongly indicated here. It's many case studied of societies that ran out of some fundamental resource. Nearly always the results were they all died, or most of them died.

Easter Island's one where some of them survived, and the story is still pretty grim. They had good records - except they deliberately expunged about 50 years from their history books. During that time, the archeological record shows they invented new technology to destroy the stone heads that they'd created so labouriously; they started eating each other; and about 90% of them died.

The Anasasi people and the Greenland colony didn't have quite such a dramatic result - they simply all died.

So don't go around saying that this stuff doesn't happen, 'cause it already has...

Also, I'd add that the "they've been predicting doom for years and nothing happened" argument is rather like "they keep telling me smoking's bad for your health but I've been smoking for 20 years" - past results aren't necessarily a prediction of future performance, particularly when the future involves running out of a lot of things that are currently plentiful.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:30 PM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


The long and the short of it is that nuclear is the only drop-in replacement for fossil fuels that we have available.

No, nuclear is just another fossil fuel, and if everyone starts using it, all those brand new expensive power stations are going to rapidly run up the price of fuel to excruciating levels, and then run out.

Uranium is one of the most abundant elements on earth.
Like gold.

But it's very heavy, the earth is a liquid, and we live on the crust of a liquid. The pickings are far more limited than you seem to be imagining.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:37 AM on November 24, 2008


Let's say the 1972 prediction is substantially accurate. How can we make money out of it?
posted by magic curl at 2:06 AM on November 24, 2008


Wait, so am I understanding that "unlimited growth" in this context simply means exponential population growth? Because I don't really know anyone who thinks that will happen, and am sort of confused who exactly all the hate here is for.

Also, was the low birth rates experienced in the developed world an expected thing back then? That is, could the limited population growth from freely chosen low birth rates be aligned with population growth limited by constraints in the model?

Also, what say you then about programs like Social Security and Medicare being based upon the assumption of and dependent on unlimited growth (either population or economic)?
posted by FuManchu at 2:26 AM on November 24, 2008


If you sit in your garage with the doors shut, running your vehicle's internal combustion engine you will die from the change in the atmosphere. We are experimenting with how long it will take to kill us all if we substitute the global atmosphere for the garage and all atmospheric pollution for the single car.
The air-purifying mechanisms that the planet has evolved are pushed past their functional limits.
Bio-diversity is suffering a cataclysm the like of which has not been experienced for millions of years.

adricv, please define what you mean by development. That would help me understand what you are trying to say.

Development to me would mean taking the few advantages that modern society has, such as universal health care, good public transport, telecommunications, freedom of speech and expression and melding them with a sustainable way of life. There is little need to increase energy use or impact the biosphere. Most of what passes for the benefits of modern society are actually distractions for a population who are divorced from the planet and society that supports them and are subsequently suffering a chasm of emptiness.

Metafilter is an example of something good that can come from technology. And what is the main ingredient for it's success? A respectful and vibrant community! That is something that has been denied as intrinsic to the human condition by years of paranoia and selfish, ignorant utopianism perpetrated by highly functional sociopaths beholden to ugly ideas of humanity that resonated with their own eviscerated moral cores.

We don't need that any more.

Indeed, if we manage to survive into the information age, the internet and the ability to broadcast, discuss and develop ideas may be the only thing that enables us to continue to have a level of existence above simple subsistence. One can only hope!
posted by asok at 5:21 AM on November 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


i'm going to get my girlfriend's dad to teach me how to hunt.

I'm going to get the Marines to teach me how to hunt hunters and take thier stuff. I'm also going to start hoarding leather jackets, shoulder pads, and spikes so I'll at least have a kick ass outfit
posted by Pollomacho at 5:56 AM on November 24, 2008


dude, i've been having that same ol' dream!
posted by klanawa at 8:51 AM on November 24, 2008



Development to me would mean taking the few advantages that modern society has, such as universal health care, good public transport, telecommunications, freedom of speech and expression and melding them with a sustainable way of life. There is little need to increase energy use or impact the biosphere. Most of what passes for the benefits of modern society are actually distractions for a population who are divorced from the planet and society that supports them and are subsequently suffering a chasm of emptiness.

See, this is precisely the kind of sanctimonious first-world posturing that adricv is talking about. Who the hell are you to tell people what they do or do not need?
posted by nasreddin at 10:14 AM on November 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Well, at least as the human race slowly dies off over the next two hundred years or so, plenty of people on all sides of the debate will continue to enjoy the singular pleasure of remaining nice and comfortably ensconced up their own asses with the unshakable conviction of their moral superiority.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:07 PM on November 24, 2008


I agree with nasreddin.

In principle:

Development to me would mean taking the few advantages that modern society has, such as universal health care, good public transport, telecommunications, freedom of speech and expression and melding them with a sustainable way of life. There is little need to increase energy use or impact the biosphere. Most of what passes for the benefits of modern society are actually distractions for a population who are divorced from the planet and society that supports them and are subsequently suffering a chasm of emptiness.

is not necessarily a bad idea. If Britain decides to implement exotic new green tax codes to build a sustainable future, sure, go right ahead. But you can't make Malawi experiment with luxurious new forms of energy generation. It's amoral to experiment with people who need real development right now.

David Maliki's Wondermark has a surprisingly touching and heart-wrenching comic which illustrates my point quite well:
posted by adricv at 1:21 PM on November 24, 2008


FuManchu:
"Wait, so am I understanding that "unlimited growth" in this context simply means exponential population growth?"

No, it means economic growth. You hear it all the time. For example an "economic slowdown" is when the rate of growth decreases. ie the economy is still growing, but not as fast as desired.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:47 PM on November 24, 2008


The problem with concentrating on the developing world is that the 1st. world is expecting the poorest nations of the world to continue in abject poverty en masse to prevent a collapse, when obviously the focus should be on the nations consuming the most resources.

When you consider that the most developed nations in Europe and the U.S. consume 30 times as much resources per capita as the poorest nations, and the solution becomes clear. Every American or Western European who gives up luxuries such as electricity, cars, computers, and clean water, will be the equivalent of reducingthe resource intake of 30 people from say, Momzambique. If we get only a mere 10 million Europeans and Americans to give up their lifestyles to live in 3rd. world poverty, then that will be the equivalent of reducing overall consumption by 3 billion people. If we get 100 million Americans and Europeans to take on a Brazillian slum lifestyle, then our problems of resource consumption will be over.

I'm sure that the members of metafilter who are seriously concerned about the club of rome's predictions will be more than happy to give up ther computers, fresh meat and veggies, and space heaters for the cause. For my part, iwill contribute to teh cause by remaining as part of the control group.
posted by happyroach at 3:14 PM on November 24, 2008


See, this is precisely the kind of sanctimonious first-world posturing that adricv is talking about. Who the hell are you to tell people what they do or do not need?

Suggest you treat his comment as an attempt to objectively think about what forms of growth are desirable for the planet and respond accordingly, rather than grinding a "first world vs third world" axe on it and challenging his right to speak an opinion. It disrespects him and lowers the tone of the site.
posted by magic curl at 8:49 PM on November 24, 2008


But you can't make Malawi experiment with luxurious new forms of energy generation. It's amoral to experiment with people who need real development right now.

All nations need to set realistic goals that take the environment into consideration. First-world nations can help third-world nations grow responsibly by tying environmental goals to trade and security deals.

Malawi is a good example. It needs to stop growing tobacco, which is bad for everyone, including Malawi, and start growing other things. Other nations need to encourage this: stop buying tobacco from them directly or indirectly, start buying other crops from them directly or indirectly, and start building up clean industries there that will give people income without destroying their country. Malawi has a lot of problems (AIDS, corruption, poor women's rights, etc.), and none of it will be improved by encouraging Malawi to go along as it is going.

Meanwhile, first-world nations need to shrink in a number of respects: smaller homes, smaller yards, fewer cars, smaller cars, shorter commutes, less driving, less flying, less heating, less air conditioning, less shopping, less packaging, smaller food portions, less waste.
posted by pracowity at 1:03 AM on November 25, 2008


The Club of Rome contracted Jay Forrester to model the world's socioeconomic system using the techniques of System Dynamics. Forrester's team attempted to map the dominant causal loops and time lags in the system of resource flows and consumption, taking into account positive and negative feedback loops. These loops make prediction of the long term behavior of such a complex system quite intractable without computer simulation.

By the way, this intractability would also prevent the casual commenter from making an accurate assessment of whether the model was correct in its predictions, though that hasn't stopped many of us here from trying.


We can make some general statements about the trends in our infrastructure however. When you simultaneously increase the connectivity of a system and decrease the redundancy within it (which is what we've been doing at breakneck speed), you necessarily increase the number of critical nodes and place a higher load on them, significantly increasing the probability of critical node failure leading to cascading failure of the system as a whole.

This means we must decreasing complexity both at the core (by building in redundancy in critical systems) & periphery (by decreasing dependence on global systems) to increase the resilience of our civilization.
posted by scalefree at 8:51 AM on November 25, 2008


Development to me would mean taking the few advantages that modern society has, such as universal health care, good public transport, telecommunications, freedom of speech and expression and melding them with a sustainable way of life. There is little need to increase energy use or impact the biosphere. Most of what passes for the benefits of modern society are actually distractions for a population who are divorced from the planet and society that supports them and are subsequently suffering a chasm of emptiness.

Have you ever been outside of a developed country? You know what people need before univeral health care? Hospitals. Doctors. Clean water. Sanitation. Adequate nutrition. Adequate work and income, so they can afford decent food for themselves and their children. You know what people need before public transport? Roads. Railroads. Telecommunications means laying down thousands of miles of wires and cables. Freedom of speech means having a press, being able to use it, having the electricity to run it. It means having a government that's democratically elected. It means having a country that's stable enough to be governed democratically.

Oh, and by the way, haven't you seen those "comical" pictures of brown people overloading a train or bus or van? That's third world transportation, and it's public transportation. Private transportation is a luxury largely enjoyed by the developed world. The global South has no need to be taught about the benefits of public transportation.

Metafilter is an example of something good that can come from technology.

I love MetaFilter too, but you know what? For the billions living in poverty, no website, no matter how great, is going to have any direct positive effect in their life. Sure, organizations are using them to improve communication and information exchange all along the line of accountability: donors, headquarters, field offices, and sometimes the clients themselves. However, ultimately poverty is about a lack of resources, both physical/economical and political/social. People really really really want poverty to be an information problem, because information is cheap. But the family in Egypt that isn't getting enough healthy nutrients aren't lacking information about better foods to eat; they simply can't buy them.

Getting everyone in the third world a computer, even assuming that they could be made using a very efficient manufacturing process, would still be an ecological nightmare. That would require lots of infrastructure development to build the cables for communication and for power. Recycling would actually not be a problem -- most of the semi-developed world (places like Egypt, India, and southeast Asia) -- has been into recycling waay before we were, because why on Earth would you throw something away that was perfectly good. Well, let me amend that -- even when you do throw it away...why on earth wouldn't someone else sort through the trash and recycle it? That's what the people living in Garbage City in Cairo do.

Suggest you treat his comment as an attempt to objectively think about what forms of growth are desirable for the planet and respond accordingly, rather than grinding a "first world vs third world" axe on it and challenging his right to speak an opinion. It disrespects him and lowers the tone of the site.

No way, sorry, he does not get a free ride. This guy is suggesting that things like free speech and universal healthcare can just magically float on "sustainable living" -- whatever that means. The truth is these things depend on an incredibly wealthy society using plenty of excess resources so they can afford things that people wouldn't pay for on their own (the "free" media is hugely dependent on advertising, which in turn depends on an overconsumptive society. Independent media who shun advertising often have a very hard time remaining solvent). Nearly everything in the developed world that appears "free" or "cheap" or "easy" depends on an underlying engine of overconsumption.

It's a real problem, because obviously I would personally want Egypt to have things like an adequately fed population, free speech, decent healthcare, and so on. I would want everyone in the world to have that. And I don't want us to destroy the world.

We're in something of a difficult position. Personally, I blame capitalism. The problem is that the motivation to increase profit means that companies always move towards greater efficiency. This means fewer hours of labor for the same amount of products. So the answer is overconsumption. So long as people buy more than they actually need, production and efficiency can keep going up. That's not exactly sustainable.

On the other hand, say we start consuming less. That will mean a slowdown, not just in the developed world, but in the developing world, where we have outsourced pretty much all of our production. If we are good environmentalists and stop buying things, then factories in China and India and Egypt will shut down, and people will be laid off, and maybe they will starve to death.

I think it's a pretty gloomy scenario overall and I'm not honestly sure what the solution is. I think now might actually be a good time to take a hard look at free trade and decide whether it might be better if countries were just a little bit more self contained. Not completely, but enough that there was a bit of a buffer to prevent the collapse of one economy to cause the collapse of another (especially in the developing world, where problems in one country can cause all bordering countries' economies to fall like a bunch of dominoes). Even more than that there needs to be some oversight on things like loans in developing countries and global finance exchange.

It occurs to me the universal health care, public transport, telecom, freedom of speech, etc are all sort of "big" things that are largely governmental in nature. I wonder if it might not be better to start out with a strong focus on community and regional building, localized economic development, and building sustainable industries. It's inevitable for energy use to increase but we can have some control over how clean it is and how efficiently it's used. One of the bright spots is there isn't, to my knowledge, a whole lot of downsides to increasing energy efficiency or reducing energy use overall.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:40 PM on November 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


« Older Everything with a Schmear   |   Sunday Paper Pledge Drive? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post