Sunday, August 7, 2011

Richard Heinberg and the limits to growth

A recent video, scripted and narrated by Richard Heinberg and based on his book "The End of Growth"

Heinberg's thesis is that the end of growth has started in 2008 and that the so called "recovery" is only a sleight of hand to mask, for a while, the unavoidable decline. Among many interesting considerations, the video contains a reference to the 1972 book "The Limits to Growth" (see it at minute 2.10) which is described as having been "attacked by mainstream economists using nasty rhetorical tricks."

It seems that we are seeing, finally, the gradual death of the old legend that has that "The Limits to Growth" was just a set of "wrong predictions" invented by a group of lunatic scientists. We are beginning to understand that the study never made the mistakes that critics attributed to it; it is only the result of those "nasty rhetorical tricks" played out in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, if the end of growth started in 2008, as Heinberg says, it is a stunning success for "The Limits to Growth" study and, in particular, for the "base case" scenario that generated the start of the decline of the industrial system within the first two decades of the 21st century. Exact "predictions" never were the objective of the study and the ongoing crisis may not necessarily be the end of the cycle that started with the industrial revolution, more than two centuries ago. Nevertheless, it is impressive that the authors of the study had understood, already in 1972, how a combination of resource depletion and accumulation of persistent pollution was going to slow down, and then reverse, the growth of the world's economy. It is, clearly, the phenomenon that we are seeing today and that Heinberg describes.

On this point, you may also see my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited".


  1. There are two unfortunate aspects to the new video:

    1)It is above John Q. Public's comprehension level, and
    2) It fails to provide a new economic paradigm that can replace the collapsing capitalist system

  2. And you think that if they do 2) that 1) will be solved?

    We haven't entered the stage of solutions and new economic paradigms yet. First, enough people have to realize that there are many global problems, AND that these are mainly caused by the dominant economic theory of infinite growth. Once enough people realize that business-as-usual is not an option, we as a society can start discussing solutions.

    And I believe this video is very good at making that clear. Because it's as simple as can be. John Q Public's comprehension level isn't too low, it's just that he has been brainwashed for 3-4 generations. The crisis will break through that.

    Nevertheless, it is impressive that the authors of the study had understood, already in 1972, how a combination of resource depletion and accumulation of persistent pollution was going to slow dawn, and then reverse, the economic growth of the world's economy.

    I'm amazed every time I see someone from the 70's already understanding back then what was wrong with the system and what it would lead to. In the past two years I have read books by Howard T. Odum, Herman Daly and am now reading a book by Ivan Illich called De-schooling Society where he sometimes says things along the lines of 'schools are there to turn individuals into consumers and producers to satisfy the need of everlasting growth'. Amazing. Spot on.

    The next books I'm going to read were suggested by John Michael Greer on his blog and in his book The Ecotechnic Future: E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful and a book called Muddling Toward Frugality.

    Of course, before we already had great thinkers like Aldous Huxley who already had a bit of a premonition of what was happening in the 50's and early 60's, but it was in the 70's that all of the thinking on limits to growth was done. Awe-inspiring, IMHO.

  3. Oh, yes, "Deschooling society". A great book by Ivan Illich; I remember it perfectly; I read it in 1982!

  4. It's not written very smoothly in my opinion, and you can clearly sense that it's written from an leftist viewpoint (I'm allergic to ideology), but what I particularly like is the idea of a web of educational exchange, and as mentioned, the fact that he so clearly sees what compulsory schooling is meant to do (stimulate economic growth by shaping the way our youngest think).

    With regards to education: I often think that instead of teachers for every subject taught in schools it would be much better if they picked the best teachers, let them do their thing, record it and put it on Internet, so kids can watch it in their own time and get the very best and passionate explanation of a certain subject. The teachers would then have much more time assisting the children and giving them personal attention.

    But of course, the best thing of all, would be no more school in the traditional sense. Ivan Illich shows very clearly that school as an institution always ends up reinforcing the dominant dogma. Which in our current age is infinite economic growth.

    In about 10 year's time I'll let my daughter watch some Youtube videos of you, Ugo! And Albert Bartlett. And Bill Mollison. And so on. She will hopefully understand much more, much sooner than I did. :-)

  5. Indeed, "Deschooling society" is somewhat ideological; it was one of the first books by Illich. You may consider to add to your list a later one; "In the mirror of the past," which I still consider one of the deepest books I've ever read.

  6. Step Back; I think Heinberg is doing something like what I said about Marcus Aurelius: you can't beat entropy, but you must behave as if you could.

  7. Thanks, Ugo. It's on my wish list.

  8. And then of course, we have Growth Busters, new documentary:

    Hooked On Growth

  9. Finally. I kept donating to that one to see it finished. :-)



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)