The Limits to Growth report – still on track

Even among environmentalists, it’s standard to insert the words ‘now discredited’ in front of any mention of the Limits to Growth report of 1972. The criticisms tend to be drawn from a hatful of recurring objections, most of which would never be made by anyone who’s ever actually read the book.

Among the most common is that the authors predicted global collapse by the end of the century, and lo, we are still here. But even the most casual glimpse at the report’s graphs shows that to be an ill-informed comment. The graphs run to 2100, not 2000. That objection is 85 years too early, and yet it’s notable how often it comes up. If you see it, you know the author is either too lazy to read the book or is deliberately misrepresenting it.

The actual projections in the book – and they are projections, not predictions – so far bear up pretty well. There have been a number of studies tracking them against the real world data as they come in, some of them from the updates to the report itself, others done independently. The latest came out last week. It’s from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, and it points out that in the Limits to Growth report, industrial society basically peaks around 2015.

So with a year to go, is that peak likely? Are we at the beginning of the end?

Well, so far the model has proved pretty accurate, the data tracking the ‘business as usual’ projections fairly closely in many instances, though not all.


What’s interesting is not just the straightforward projections, but the interplay between them. This is the bit that’s harder to predict, and that reveals how smart the model actually is. And here are there are worryingly accurate signs too. For example, the model attempted to show the connection between the economy and declining resources. At the beginning of the scenario, in the 1970s, around 5% of capital would be allocated to the resource sector. As the easy to reach resources were used up, and the overall stock declined, it would take more capital to acquire resources.

Specifically, the Limits to Growth model suggested that capital would start to drain into resources once the resource stocks reached the halfway point. We’ve done that on oil – as detailed in Jeremy Leggett’s book Half Gone. And as projected, an increasing slice of capital investment is now going to resource extraction. As I wrote about last week, 20% of US investment is going to fossil fuels. Even during the Second World War, when fossil fuels were a major national priority, they never commanded that kind of share of capital.

That represents an opportunity cost too. If it’s taking more capital to keep resources flowing, that leaves less for other things, such as maintaining existing facilities and infrastructure. This is what drives the peak and decline in industrial production per capita, which the LTG report puts around 2015. Services per capita go into decline in similar fashion, while the pollution from industry (including CO2) leads on to falls in food production in due course. This begins to affect the death rate from around 2020, with a fall in global population beginning around 2030.

As always, and this counters another common and unfounded objection, this isn’t about ‘running out’ of resources. It’s about the cost of extracting them, about the energy return on energy invested.

Of course, you can only see a peak in the rear view mirror, so we’re not going to know whether 2015 is the peak of industrial society until well afterwards. But after 40 years of ignoring the warnings, are we sure we still want to leave it to chance?


7 Comments on “The Limits to Growth report – still on track”

  1. Stefan Thiesen September 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    As the two German Professors Harald Welzer (chair of transformation design at the University of Flensburg) and Claus Leggewie (chair of the research focus “Climate Cultures” at the University of Essen) wrote in their book, quoting REM “Das Ende der Welt, wie wir sie kannten” (The End of the World as We Know It): In the end we all are Easter Islanders. The warnings, in a scientific sense, may only have been on the table since the Club of Rome report, but in principle such warnings have been around for thousands of years. The difference now is that we are talking planetary scale and we are talking deep understanding. We KNOW. It’s not just common sense, old wisdom. We KNOW. It is clear that we are running with eyes wide shut into a planetary meta-crisis. Astronomers have been scanning the skies for civilizations in outer space for decades, and in the meantime we have discovered more than ten thousand planets in an infinitesimally small speck of sky, and the question in the air is: Where is everybody? One hypothesis is that most habitable planets are covered with algae and bacterial slime, and that’s it. Evolution simply is incredibly rare. Another hypothesis is the great filter – the assumption that every technological civilization will at one point tend to destroy itself. We are not reasonable. We simply cannot cope with the powers and complexities we unleashed. And there we are – the sourcerer’s apprentice was one such warning against unforeseen consequences, one such call for strong precaution. And I see no sign that that will change. We likely will see incredibly messy times in the not so far future. In many parts of the world that “mess” is well under way.

    • Jeremy Williams September 16, 2014 at 9:10 am #

      That’s the difficult thing – the fact that we know. How is it that we can know and not act, unless there is something else in play – call it denial, cognitive dissonance, or the death wish. And can we be called out of that?

  2. agreenthought September 15, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    We know we are in an ecological crisis as a consequence the unrestrained exercise of our freedom and now the global economy has floundered. Are we heading for a ‘perfect storm’ where the economic and climactic changes that threaten vulnerable parts of the world increase exponentially the realities of hunger, poverty and disease? Will those who gained most from the past now pay the heaviest price in the interests of justice? How might the human race rehabilitate itself, if we have lost the ancient intuitive skills to survive? What lessons have we learned, and have still to learn?

    • m. September 15, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

      Keep up the good work, thanks for steering head on into relevant issues.

      There is at least one level deeper then pointing out data and beyond constructing scenarios: how a change of emotional mindset, first within the ‘elites’, then translating it to the human numbers might alter data that thus steer dynamics. Mankind is beyond the point of, has become ‘the god species’, the collective attributed with what we humans subscribe to as god(s)(most of us), and science as a religion(the assumption, that everything will be explained by science, that being a matter of time within the ‘unending’ time-frame of the species and thus ignoring timeliness).

      We were not overly bright at playing god, our projection of what we want(need if you prefer) inferior to the planet’s standards and organics. It might be time to loose all false pretexts, take responsibility, harness all the potential that can be harvested instead of now wasted by calciferous power structures and make a full-out effort in constructing intelligent relationships with the universe through intelligent peer relationships not cluttering.

  3. DevonChap September 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    The opportunity cost argument isn’t a very good one. Fossil fuels maybe getting more expensive, leaving less for other things but since renewables are more expensive using them has an even higher opportunity cost. Remember things are comparative.

    This is before we get into the dodgy assumptions the Melbourne review made – such as that we can not replace fossil fuels with metal and minerals (rules out wind, solar or water power from their sums) plus the fact resources are set as 10 reserves no matter the actual situation.

    • Jeremy Williams September 16, 2014 at 10:41 am #

      Yes, but fossil fuels are getting more expensive, while the cost of renewable energy is falling – and both trends are likely to continue. There is an up-front cost to renewable energy, but in the longer term it is cheaper. Things are comparative, but you have to do that comparison with an eye on the future.

      Setting resources at 1.0 is not a ‘dodgy assumption’. It represents the known reserves at the time the model starts its run. If you want to see how the projections have fared over time, you have to use their starting points in the model. The Melbourne paper discusses the fact the oil reserves have been added to since 1972, unconventional fuels etc. Also see the distinction between ‘stock’ and ‘flow’, which is vital to understanding resource depletion.

      • DevonChap September 17, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

        We know reserves are dynamic. Since it costs money to prove resources as reserves you don’t bother proving more than 30 years reserves. Hence going reserves x 10 will get a pointless answer.

        As to renewables recent research shows they are still far away from grid comparability well you fact in the required redundancy. Plus the fact money spent now is worth more than in the future. Still no opportunity cost.

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