Monday, August 24, 2015

The Limits to Growth in the Soviet Union and in Russia: the story of a failure

Above, you can see the full recording of a 2012 lecture given in Moscow by Dennis Meadows; one of the authors of "The Limits to Growth" report of 1972. It is long, more than an hour, but - if you don't have the time to watch all of it - I suggest that you go to minute 21 and watch Dennis Meadows showing this book.

It is titled "Soviet Union and Russia in the global system." According to Meadows, in the 1980s, Viktor Gelovani, first author of the book, adapted to the Soviet Union the world model used for "The Limits to Growth" and he ran it; finding that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. Then, Meadows says "he went to the leadership of the country and he said, 'my forecast shows that you don't have any possibility. You have to change your policies.' And the leader said, 'no, we have another possibility: you can change your forecast'"

Meadows' anecdote is basically confirmed by Rindzevičiūtė, who wrote an excellent article that tells the whole story. It turns out that it is not true that "The Limits to Growth" was ignored in the Soviet Union, as it could be the impression from the documents available in the West. The "Limits" study was translated into Russian, although it was distributed only to very limited circles (generating, by the way, a brisk black market, as Rindzeviciute describes at p. 6). Several Soviet scientists knew very well the study, they had contacts with its authors and a number of them made a considerable effort to warn the Union's leadership that the system was going to collapse. They didn't have much success, as Meadows says in his talk.

Theoretically, you could think that the Soviet leaders could have seen "The Limits to Growth" as a useful planning tool. In principle, they had ways to put into practice the recommendations obtainable from the models in order to avoid collapse. But that wasn't the case. The reaction of the Soviet leadership was the same as it was in the West. Both the Soviet and the Western leaders were completely tied to the concept of "growth at all costs" and refractory to changes. So, the warning was ignored on both sides of the iron curtain.

Another, hugely interesting element of this story is how it shows that the Soviet Collapse was a systemic one; it was caused by the huge military and bureaucratic expenses that the production sector of the economy was becoming unable to bear. In other words, it seems clear that it wasn't caused by Mishka Mecheny, (Gorbachev the madman) or by an evil plot of the Western secret services (although both may have played a role). On the whole, we have here a remarkable confirmation of the predictive power of world modeling: in the 1980s, it succeeded in predicting the collapse of a large chunk of the world's economy. Another, even larger, chunk is collapsing right now.

One more interesting point comes from examining whether the present Russian leadership learned something from the experience of the old Soviet Union. Apparently not; because today there doesn't seem to exist a serious debate on mineral depletion in Russia. Most Russians seem to be convinced that their mineral resources are abundant and that they can tap them at will for the foreseeable future. Hence, depletion is not a problem they should be worried about.

Meadows' talk confirms this impression. Even without paying attention to what Meadows says, do look at the faces and the body postures of the young people in the audience - they are occasionally shown in the movie. I can tell you that, over the years I have developed a certain degree of telepathic capabilities in understanding the feelings of my audience. And I can tell you that most of the students listening to Meadows completely disbelieve him - or so it seems to me (also a Russian friend of mine said that this was "the most boring talk she had ever heard"). Note also the silly and marginal questions the students asked Meadows at the end of the talk. He told them about the upcoming end of the world and they ask him if it is convenient to invest in water producing companies... Come on!

But the lack of understanding about the limits to growth in Russia is really nothing special. It is the rule all over the world. In addition, Russia, right now, is in full emergency mode and the main priority for the Russians is to save their economy from external attacks. They can't be blamed if they don't have (and, possibly, they don't need), the group of Cassandras we have in the West, white haired people who keep telling of dark and dire things to come and whom no one listens to.

With or without Cassandras, the situation in Russia may not be so bad. Dmitry Orlov has described  how the Soviet economy was much better suited than the Western market economy to adapt and survive to the kind of systemic collapse described by "The Limits to Growth." The same considerations may apply to the present Russian system. So, the future is, as always opaque, but, if you ask me which will be the next economy to collapse, I wouldn't bet it will be Russia.

h/t Michael Hebenstreit and Tatiana Yugay. 


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)