Reading the 1972 Edition of The Limits to Growth

Last month, I read an Ecology 101 textbook (specifically, Ecology: Concepts and Applications by Manual C. Molles Jr., 2nd edition) as part of this “deindustrial reading list”. I don’t know if I will go through with the whole list, but I did read the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth this week.

The thesis of the book is pretty simple: exponential growth of both human population and industrial output cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Furthermore, they calculate that, without major social/cultural changes, there will be a major economic and human population crash before 2100.

I had heard about this book a long time ago, and a lot of the ideas in this book have circulated widely. Yet I found this book was full of insights which have not circulated widely.

For example, I knew years ago that this book had a standard run model (a.k.a. “business as usual”) which led to a major human population crash before 2100, and that it various models associated with various policies which delayed the crash yet failed to prevent it, and that it also had a model in which the crash was prevented altogether. I had also read that the standard run “business as usual” model predicted remarkably well what has happened since 1972 (according to this and another source I cannot find right now). I had assumed that, because the standard run model predicted the collapse happening soonest, that it was the most dire scenario.

Now that I have read the book, I have found that the “standard run” scenario is not the the scariest scenario.

Yes, the collapse happens sooner under “standard run” than other scenarios. However, in many of the other scenarios, even though the collapse is delayed by decades, it still happens before 2100, and the longer the collapse is put off, the greater it is. Furthermore, the longer the collapse is put off, the greater the overshoot, and the more it will reduce the carrying capacity of the planet to support human beings (Wikipedia explains what overshoot is). “Standard run” does not result in the lowest final carrying capacity. In that sense, it is not the most frightening scenario.

Now, again, the book says that technology alone cannot solve the problem. Nothing I had heard or read about the book had indicated that it had that insight, but it makes a really good case for that point. The book runs the model in which nonrenewable resources are ‘unlimited’ due to amazing technological advances in resource usage efficiency and recycling. The collapse still happens in the 21st century, due to pollution.

The book admits that pollution is the hardest for them to predict because it is the factor for which they have the least good input. One of the pollutants they looked at was carbon dioxide. Their projections for how concentration of how carbon dioxide would increase in the atmosphere in a ‘business as usual’ scenario turned out to be … not far off.

Think of collapse via nonrenewable resource exhaustion vs. collapse via pollution this way (this is my example, not an example from the book). ‘Peak Oil’ is a shorthand for ‘fossil fuels are nonrenewable, and if we keep using them we will run out of economically viable fossil fuel supplies’. Given that nuclear power is only viable with massive economic subsidies, once fossil fuels run out, we will be left with only renewable power. Given that renewable power is nowhere close to being able to replace fossil fuel power right now, that means a sharp reduction in energy supplies, which could trigger a collapse of industrial civilization. However, if fossil fuels continue to be available indefinitely anyway for whatever reason, and they continue to be used, it keeps on increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which triggers collapse by extreme climate change. Collapse by resource depletion, or collapse by pollution? Even now, some people argue that climate change is what will trigger the collapse of civilization, before economically viable fossil fuels run out, and others say that the depletion of economically viable fossil fuels will happen before the more dire climate change scenarios can happen (climate change is already happening, so it’s too late to talk about stopping it completely).

As far as collapse happening earlier or sooner … imagine that the planet had been endowed with way less in the way of accessible fossil fuel supplies, and that economically viable fossil fuels had been depleted by, say, 1920. It probably would have caused a collapse of industrial civilization back then, and lots of human suffering, but it would have completely prevented climate change by carbon dioxide, and the crash which would have happened in that scenario would have been much less severe than the crash it looks like we are going towards.

Furthermore, the book has a scenario in which technology magically solves the nonrenewable resource problem and the pollution problem … and it just delays the collapse a little, and then it’s collapse by food shortage and global famines. Basically, any scenario they came up with which had a solution which was technology alone ended with a collapse by resource depletion, pollution, or food shortage, before the year 2100.

The models they had which did *not* lead to a population/civilization crash before 2100 included both technological and social change. Specifically, societies find mechanisms – which would have to be social, not technological – to ensure that the birth rate equalled the death rate, and that investment in industrial capital did not exceed depreciation.

Sara, the reading list says that that you should note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the ecological concepts you learned from the ecology textbook.

Well, I don’t have much to say. Yes, the ecology textbook went over population growth of individual species, that population growth tends to be exponential until it reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, and then the population tends to stabilize. The ecology textbook I read does not, however, describe overshoot. The ecology textbook goes into great detail about interactions between different organisms and the environment, which I suppose helped me make a little more sense of the emphasis in The Limits to Growth to studying complex interactions between different factors. However, The Limits to Growth explains its concepts so well that I doubt that reading the ecology textbook did much to influence how I made sense of it.

Is there anything else you want to say about The Limits to Growth?

The book also has some very interesting psychological insights. For example, it points out that so many people insist that technology can solve these problems because, for the past few hundred years, technology has solved problems, which is what has allowed the human population to grow as much as it had. This has established a culture which expects technology to solve society-wide problems. However, it can only do so *before* the hard limits of this planet have been reached. It has some insights into why it is so difficult to get humans to respond to problems such as pollution (there is a great car driving metaphor in the book).

There are also a few bits in the book which, in my opinion, are simply bullshit. But they are in the details, not in the general ideas. I’m not going to discard the value of this book just because they got some minor stuff wrong.

I highly recommend reading this book. Though I have not read the 1992 or 2004 updates, I recommend the 1972 version over those two for these reasons:

1) The 1972 version is the shortest.
2) The 1972 version was the bestseller which sold millions of copies, so it is the best for tracing the origins of various ideas.
3) Seeing what they actually said in 1972 and compare it today.

Sara, this book seems like it’s a real downer! I don’t want to read it!

If you don’t want to read it, then you don’t have to read it. But this is what I have to say about this book being a ‘bummer’.

First, it does not predict the extinction of human beings, even after the collapse. Since a lot of people do predict the near-future extinction of human beings, I consider this book to be more optimistic than those predictions. Also, as I already explained, current data indicates that we are not going into the scariest scenario described in the book.

Second, I don’t know about your life expectancy, but my current life expectancy, according to charts and whatnots, says that I am most likely to die in the early 2070s. I may, of course, live into the 2080s, and I may die a heck of a lot sooner than 2070 as well. That means that, if the Limits to Growth projections continue to predict the future as accurately as they have so far, there is a very high chance I will live long enough to witness the collapse. And if they are right about the death rate sharply rising in the middle of the 21st century, that may very well cut off my life and cause me to die in the 2050s rather than the 2070s. I cannot prevent the crisis, but if I am going to live long enough to get into the thick of it, I would rather have a better understanding of why such awful things are happening than a worse understanding of why such awful things are happening.

I looked up Donella Meadows, the lead writer of the The Limits to Growth. She was not much older than I am now when she did the studies which are the basis of The Limits to Growth. She died in 2001, at the age of 59 years old. That was significantly younger than her projected life expectancy in the early 1970s. It just goes to show that, even in good times, some people still get their lives cut short. On the flipside, even during times of general crisis, some people get really lucky and live long and satisfying lives anyway.

Soon, I plan to read the next book on that reading list, Overshoot. Based on what I know about it, it seems like it will be more of a downer than The Limits to Growth. I’ll see how I will react to that one.

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One thought on “Reading the 1972 Edition of The Limits to Growth

  1. Pingback: Catton’s Five Questions for an Old World | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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