Monday, November 5, 2018

Epistemology of a Dying Empire: Can Growth Last Forever?

Recently, Michael Liebreich published an article titled "The Secret of Eternal Growth." I have been mulling over in my head if it is appropriate to spend time discussing one more mishmash of legends, including the one that's by now a classic, the "errors" that the Club of Rome is said to have made with the 1972 report, "The Limits to Growth." Eventually, I decided that it was worth a post, not so much because the post by Liebreich is especially wrongheaded or silly, but because it illustrates one basic point of our civilization: who, and how, takes decisions? On which basis?

In the end, I think we have a problem of epistemology, the question of the nature of knowledge. In order to make decisions, you have to know what you are doing -- at least in principle. In other words, you need some kind of "model" of reality in order to be able to act on it. It was Jay Forrester, the father of system dynamics and the originator of the "Limits to Growth" report who pointed out that, (World Dynamics, 1971, p. 14)

Everyone uses models all the time. Every person in his private life and in his community life uses models for decision making. The mental image of the world around one, carried in each individual’s head, is a model. One does not have a family, a business, a city, a government, or a country in his head. He has only selected concepts and relationships that he uses to represent the real system.

And the big question is where these "selected concepts" come from. My impression is that the mind of our leaders is a jumble of ideas and concepts grafted from haphazard messages that come from the media. Our leaders use no quantitative model to take their decision, only whim and feelings. This is how an idea such as MAGA came about.

The point is that there seems to exist a certain convergence of ideas and concepts in the mediasphere. Somehow, a consensus tends to appear and it is reinforced by repetition. This is how the world's leadership tends to assume the existence of some self-evident truths, such as that economic growth is always good.

The article by Liebrich is a good example of this process. We have an article written by someone who is influential: he is senior contributor at Bloomberg, and also an engineer. What is most disheartening about it is how it is based on half-baked ideas, superficial interpretations, half-truths, and legends. Just as an example, we read in the article that:

. . . a group of concerned environmentalists calling themselves the Club of Rome invited one of the doyens of the new field of computer modelling, Jay Forrester, to create a simulation of the world economy and its interaction with the environment. In 1972 his marvellous black box produced another best-seller, Limits to Growth (iv), which purported to prove that almost every combination of economic parameters ended up not just with growth slowing, but with an overshoot and collapse. This finding, so congenial to the model’s commissioners, stemmed entirely from errors in its structure, as pointed out by a then fresh-faced young economics professor at Yale, William Nordhaus.

Note how Liebrich provides a reference to the "Limits to Growth" book, but none for the supposed "pointing out of the errors in its structure" by the "fresh-faced" William Nordhaus. The reality is that Nordhaus wrote a paper criticizing Forrester in 1973 and Forrester responded to it with another paper, defending his approach. It is perfectly legitimate to think that Nordhaus was right and Forrester wrong, but you can't say that that the purported "errors" in the model are an established fact. I discussed this story in my book, "The Limits to Growth Revisited" and in a recent post on "Cassandra's legacy." Basically, Liebrich reported a legend without bothering too much about verifying it.

There is much more in Liebrich paper that can be criticized in terms of mistakes, personal attacks, misinterpretations, and more (see also another critical assessment by Tim Jackson). But the point is how ideas are thrown into the mediasphere and there they float, to be picked up by human minds as flu viruses flow in the air. Here, Liebreich's thesis is likely to have a certain influence because it is so cleverly presented: basically it tells us that you can eat the pie and still have it. It tells people that humankind can keep growing while reducing its impact on the ecosystem. It is like telling a heroin addict that heroine is good for health and it is OK to continue using it because technological progress will make it possible to get the same kick - or even more kick - from a lower dose. That is what a heroin addict likes to hear, but it won't work in the real world.

The same is true for our leaders and for all of us. We tend to make choices on the basis of what we like, not on how things stand. The sickness of the Empire, in the end, is just bad epistemology.

(h/t Anders Wijkman and Nora Bateson)


  1. Look at the talent pool from which politicians are selected -by those already further along the chain similarly selected. (A relation is an MP in Spain, so I know this intimately -lovely person, but.....)

  2. Actually, you can continue to take heroin for a very long time, if you somehow manage to not increase your dose. The main problem with "H" are overdoses and infections and criminalization.
    Concerning the mind set of politicians and the self organization of "facts" in the media, I am completely with you.
    Concerning "growth", it is essential to make clear, what exactly you mean by this term. Economically, it is the value of the agregate goods and services, measured in money. It does not say anything about the underlying value structure. This is the basis of the well known hypothesis of the decoupling of economic growth from resource use (which happens to a certain extent, but not enough by a far cry). But nevertheless, it is a good thing and deserving to be increased. But what kind of goods or services may that be, that are not coupled to resource use increase? Basically things people can give one another with their hands and minds and - maybe - hearts, such as education, care, healing, all kinds of culture and fine crafts, like tayloring. Produce less, but finer and more excellent goods.
    Just my 5 cents.

  3. I think the problem goes deeper than epistemology. One of the things Trump has made clear is that some people do not even think in terms of right and wrong. Whether as statement is correct is completely irrelevant to them. They are always going to select the information which supports their short-term goals. The following paper is quite interesting:

  4. As Dennis Meadows opined, Voters lead, politicans follow, or as George Carlin stated, "as long as we have greedy self absorbed voters, we'll have greedy self absorbed politicians" and is perhaps why Jurgen Randres suggests democracy can't solve any of this ? I suspect he's right and is why collapse is inevitable.

    That aside, a good article here from a physicist, about economics v physics

  5. I sospect that the Theory of infinite growth stands over "poor" assumptions

    This is an interesting economic lecture about the aggregate production fuction theory for macroeconomics science.

    I studied the Cobb-Douglas function, it's a modest tool because if economy system doesn't run, you can't ask to aggregate production function to explain what's wrong into an economy of a nation. If you want to fix what's wrong, you have to look into microeconomic dimension, to understand the reasons of the bad economic dynamics at low level.

    I never heard the theory of aggregate production function made by Von Neuman and I don't care about that. But as a lot of macroeconomic models do, I sospect that the "infinite growth theory" stands over poor assumptions.

    -all goods/services are always replicable in the world
    -all factors of production are always available in the world.

    Those assumption are false:

    -there are thousand of reasons because in the real world goods/services are not always replicable in short and even in the long term.

    -the production factors have different level of rigidity in the short term, so in medium and long run it is not true that all factors of production are always availbale.

    Assumptions are ipothesis, and if the ipothesis are not in pair with reality, models are wrong and useless.

  6. I had time so I read the long post here:

    it seems to me that:

    1-there's a pure faith in technology push factor, the article hope that it will fix the climate change issue.
    This assumption is false, it should be correct say: technology push factor could fix the climate issue in the long run.

    For me the meaning of "it should" it means to mankind for finding a coerent answer for:

    a)to invest ca$h in terraforming technologies, what happen if mankind does not invest in this area?

    b)to solve the problem how make sufficient energy to capturing, waterproofing, storaging gas serra emissions without using fossil fuels

    c)can mankind manage the methane hydrate bomb in Siberia? Science says no, because this bomb is an uncontrollable variable for mankind.

    d)even if mankind will find in future efficient terraforming technologies, what if it will be too late OR impossible to reverse climate change negative impact in short time?

    d)the meaning of "long run": 200 or 300 years are very very long time for mankind scale, but it is a blink of eyes for nature. So it seems to me that people have to watch out for what mankind usually mean on saying "long run", because long term has a quite different scale of time for nature and for mankind.

    2-the articole says:"In the longer term, there is nothing in physics to stop the economy from growing forever".
    This sentence is false, because:

    .binomial of (climate change + overpopulation) issues will conduce to war on earth: economy will fall down because wars destroy things and kill people.

    .when you run out of some factors of production, you have to adapt.
    Adapting is remplacing a factor of production with another, but a remplacement is never ever simple, and it is not possible in short term. You have to study the problem and fixing the technology and for doing that you have to do a priority scale, then put money in one direction rather than another, and you have to ignore less important needs to focus important scale issue only.

    Adapting in long run is not simple: when you run out of something, or when you lose important area for sea level rise, it will mean to mankind to remove some kind of comsumption. Consumption may be futile stuffs, may be not. Lacking of futile needs can be absorbed, lacking of essential stuffs lead to wars, and wars always destroy economy because war kill people and blast stuffs.

    So to me, for sure the article upstairs it is not climate fiction, but it seems to me a piece of bad science fiction.

  7. I find it amazing (and quite disheartening) the logical twists and convolutions that the human mind can make in defending the concept that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. But getting someone to confront this myth when their livelihood very much depends upon it is not easy nor new. Reducing the obvious cognitive dissonance that would be created by such an endeavour becomes paramount and the mind looks for all sorts of evidence to support the idea. Given that those who tend to control some of the most important complex systems that impact beliefs (e.g. education, financial/economic, military, political, etc.) are benefitting significantly from the status quo and the infinite growth narrative, it is unlikely to ever be overthrown. And when collapse does come, you can be sure the champions of infinite growth will point their fingers at some other ultimate cause (such as a geopolitical competitor).

  8. Everyone I have ever taken time to communicate with makes it clear that they conjure up a future scenario that they can feel good about projecting themselves into. They then consume only the information that supports their future scenario or generate the info themselves if they must.

    I know of only a handful of individuals that seek to understand the real situation, draw reasonable conclusions about the future, and act accordingly.

  9. it is really incredible how this guy uses Olstrom to justify his thesis... awesome... he didn't understood her at all...

  10. Good rebuttal of Liebreich by Tim Jackson "It’s a surprising ad personam rant, based on a flagrant disrespect for anyone taking a contrary view. And it’s peppered with an unhealthy dose of outright hubris, typified by a glowing endorsement of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood B-list mantra: ‘there are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder’. The music swells, our hero lifts his gaze, the camera pans away, across the wide savannah"



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)