Are limits to growth real?

In 2002, global warming denialist and anti-environmental gadfly Bjørn Lomborg consigned the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, to “the dustbin of history.” However, 42 years of data now appear to vindicate the book’s premise, that the human enterprise must accept some limits on economic growth.

Research published in 2014 by Dr. Graham Turner at the University of Melbourne shows that four decades of data track closely to the Limits “Business As Usual” (BAU) scenario, which they warned could lead to resource constrained economies and large-scale economic collapse in this century. The Limits authors did not make predictions; rather, they outlined possible futures and explained how those scenarios could arise, and what the consequences might be.

In outlining the BAU scenario, the The Limits to Growth researchers concluded: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

The Melbourne study shows that their warning is reasonable. The study makes particular note of peak oil and the decline in “Net Energy” available to society after the rising energy costs of extracting low-grade, marginal, highly polluting hydrocarbon reserves. We witness this today in the Canadian tar sands and in the shale gas fracking industry.

The Denial Chorus

Growth economists and pundits ridiculed The Limits to Growth within a week of its publication.  Yale economist Henry C. Wallich, dismissed the book in Newsweek magazine as “a piece of irresponsible nonsense.”

New York Times economist Peter Passel attacked the Limits book by conjuring false claims that all the study’s simulations “invariably end in collapse” and that the book predicted depletion of critical resources by 1990. The book, however, made no such predictions, and on the contrary, offered sound suggestions to avoid collapse. These facts did not deter the denialists.

“There are no great limits to growth,” U.S. president Ronald Reagan declared in 1985, “when men and women are free to follow their dreams … because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.”

This inspiring Reaganism serves as the official corporate rebuff to any talk of environmental limits. Lomborg claimed: “Smartness will outweigh the extra resource use.” Dreams. Imagination. Smartness. Humans, the theory went, are just too clever to be restricted by biophysical limits.

In 2008, in Canada, Ottawa Citizen, columnist Dan Gardner attacked Canadian writer Margaret Atwood for even mentioning The Limits to Growth book in an interview. “You mean the one that said world supplies of zinc, gold, tin, copper, oil and natural gas would be completely gone by 1992?” barked the columnist. “You mean that report?” The glitch in Gardner’s harangue, of course, is that the Club of Rome book says no such thing.

The Limits to Growth authors provide a table (p. 56 in my edition) in which they display three columns of numbers to explain potential depletion rates of commodity reserves:

  1. A static index, showing how long known reserves could last at 1972 rates of consumption. 

  2. An exponential index, showing depletion at increasing consumption rates. 

  3. An optimistic index, allowing for future resource discoveries and new technologies.

The denialists cherry-pick the middle column, the fastest possible depletion, and then misrepresent this as a “prediction.” In the 2011 BBC documentary, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” filmmaker Adam Curtis repeats the erroneous claim that the Limits authors “Predicted an imminent global collapse,” presumably because, according to Curtis, they believed nature was a machine that operated like a computer. They did not. The Limits authors recognized the complexity of biological systems, they understood that the map is not the territory, and they carefully explained that “resource availability … will be determined by factors much more complicated than can be expressed by either the simple static reserve index or the exponential reserve index.”

Jean-Marc Jancovici, environmental consultant to the French global warming study, Mission Interministérielle de l’Effet de Serre, refers to Limits to Growth and the IPCC report on climate change as “documents that 99% of the people that quote them never read.”

Ecologists and social planners will benefit from understanding that resource depletion does not imply that we will “run out” of those resources, but rather that as we deplete finite reserves, we find ourselves spending more money and energy to retrieve lower quality reserves, with greater ecological impact, exactly as we are now doing in the tar sands and fracking fields. 

In his Ottawa Citizen attack, Gardner ridicules Margaret Atwood for suggesting that eventually “Things unconnected with money will be valued more – friends, family, a walk in the woods.” Ms. Atwood makes a valid and important point: We might indeed achieve happier lives with less stuff. In 1979, Norwegian ecologist Arne Naess explained this as: “Richer ends, simpler means.”

Cassandra revisited

In 2007, as the world economy soared, The Wall Street Journal reported commodity shortages in “New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears,” an essay referring to nineteenth century economist Thomas Malthus, who had warned of limits on a finite planet. Although the business journal documented cases of scarce energy, water, land, and resources, they clung to the denialist dream: “Powerful voices have warned that human activity would overwhelm the earth’s resources. The Cassandras always proved wrong. Each time, there were new resources to discover, new technologies to propel growth.”

We might note, that these authors misread the Cassandra myth. In the Greek story, Apollo lusts after Cassandra, beautiful daughter of Trojan king Priam, and bestows upon her the gift of prophecy. However, she spurns the deity’s advances, so Apollo takes revenge with a curse that no one will believe her. This is not a tale about erroneous predictions; it is a tale about blundering humanity ignoring the truth and mocking the visionary. 

In addition to sleeping through the classics, certain economists may also have skipped calculus and natural science classes. High school biology students know that bacteria in a petri dish or fruit flies in a jar will grow until they exhaust available nutrients, and then perish. Wolves in a watershed will grow beyond the capacity and then die back. A similar fate befell humans on Easter Island and Reindeer on St. Matthews Island. There are zero cases in nature of endless growth. None. 

In real ecosystems, growth has only two possible futures: 1. Dynamic stability (oscillation within limits) or 2. collapse. “All growth after maturity,” explains Dr. Albert Bartlett, late emeritus professor of physics at Colorado University, “is either obesity or cancer.”

In 1900 the grand banks around Newfoundland provided habitat and nutrients to support 10-15 tons of commercial fish per square-km. Now, that figure has dropped to less than 1.5 tons, a 90 percent reduction in ocean productivity, triggering economic disaster in Atlantic fishing communities.

In 2008, after decades of denial, the International Energy Agency admitted that hydrocarbon “energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable.” The data is now irrefutable, but geologists had warned of peak oil production in the 1950s, and The Limits to Growth had alerted humanity four decades ago. Meanwhile, most hydrocarbon reserves must stay in the ground to avoid disastrous global warming according to a study by Christophe McGlade and colleagues at University College London, and published by Nature

In 2009, Nature published “Planetary Boundaries” by Earth systems scientist Johan Rockström and colleagues, showing that human activity has pushed seven essential systems – biodiversity, temperature, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use, fresh water, and ozone depletion – near or beyond critical tipping points. 

In 2012, Nature published “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” by 22 international scientists, warning that human activity is risking a planetary-scale transition, “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” 

Dr. William Rees, at the University of British Columbia, creator of “ecological footprint” analysis, wrote in “the Way Forward” in Solutions Journal: “A virtual tsunami of evidence suggests that the global community is living beyond its ecological means.”

We live on a vast planet, whose bounty appears at times almost infinite, but human enterprise has reached the scale of the Earth itself, and we now witness a big difference between “smartness” and the physical requirements of economy such as energy, trees, and fish. And because global society remains severely unjust, with rich nations consuming most of these dwindling resources, we have to simultaneously reduce wasteful consumption in those rich nations and share Earth’s bounty more equitably.

We cannot make nature’s limits disappear with wishful thinking. Cassandra, remember, really did see the future. The fools around her brought down Troy. 

Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.

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References: 

Donella Meadows (D. H. Meadows, D. L. Meadows, J. Randers, W. Behrens), Limits to Growth 1972; New American Library, 1977; and the 30-Year Update (Meadows, Randers; Chelsea Green, 2004).

Turner, G. (2014) ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

Christophe McGlade, Paul Ekins, “The Geographical Distribution of Fossil Fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2C,” Nature, v. 517, January 2015.

John Rockström, et. al., “Planetary Boundaries,” Nature, v. 461, September 23, 2009

Anthony D Barnosky, et. al., “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, v. 486, June 7, 2012.

Williams Rees, “The Way Forward: Survival 2100,” Solutions, v.3, #3, June 2012.

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