Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The return of "The Limits to Growth"

The main results of the "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" study, from a recent article on the New Scientist by Debora McKenzie (available upon registration)

The return of interest in "The Limits to Growth" continues. After decades of ridicule and insults, the value of the 1972 study and of its sequels is more and more recognized. The latest item in the series of revisitations is the article published by Debora McKenzie in the New Scientist on Jan 10, 2012 and titled "Boom and Doom, revisiting prophecies of collapse" (can be read on the New Scientist site after registration)

On the whole, the article by McKenzie is very well done and it summarizes all the main points of the story: how Limits never made the mistakes it was accused to have made, how the study was demonized, and how its scenarios are still relevant to our situation today. The article has been extensively researched and it cites the opinion of most of the researchers who have been working on the reappraisal of the study and of its methods, including my book, "The Limits to Growth Revisited".

A point that is less than satisfactory in the New Scientist's article is about the relation of the Limits scenarios with the present findings of climate science. It says that Limits "was too optimistic about the future impact of pollution," but I think this is not the case. The study did contain at least one scenario in which economic collapse took place because of the rapid rise in pollution. But the main point is that Limits was perhaps the first study able to identify the interaction of pollution and the industrial system that produces it. What the authors of Limits called "persistent pollution" in 1972 could later be identified with the forcing effect of greenhouse gases. It is not possible, today,  to say whether the economy will collapse because of resource depletion or because of global warming; but that the terms of the dilemma were already clarified in 1972 must be considered as a remarkable intuition!

The other point that connects "The Limits to Growth" to climate science is the demonization treatment that the study received after its publication. This point is well covered in McKenzie's article. The smear campaign set up against Limits and its authors is surprising similar to the one unleashed in our times against climate science and against climate scientists. The only difference is that the methods used nowadays against science are much more aggressive. The authors of "The Limits to Growth" were often ridiculed and insulted; occasionally they also received death threats, but the level of abuse that climate scientists have been receiving in recent times is much higher. That is, perhaps, because the consequences of global warming on our society could be much more radical and fearsome than anything that Limits had foreseen decades ago.

This said, it is clear that we can learn a lot from the story of the Limits and its demonization. Unfortunately, one of the things we learn from history is that we almost never learn from history.


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)