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)


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)