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?