Sunday, November 24, 2019

Denigrating "The Limits to Growth" is Still a Popular Pastime. But can we Learn Something From it?

Many people seem to be surprised when I tell them that I follow the abominable science denial blog "Watts Up With That" kept by Alan Watts. Yes, it is abominable, sometimes, but it has one feature that makes it stand a couple of notches above the other science denial blogs: it is almost never boring, It has the same fascination that you can find in a well-done evil character of a literature piece, think of Shakespeare's Iago in Othello. And sometimes you can learn something even from WUWT: if nothing else about how your enemies think and behave.

The first report to the Club of Rome, the 1972 study titled "The Limits to Growth," is one of the typical bugaboos of those people we call "denialists," people who deny the main findings of climate science. The study didn't consider global warming explicitly, but its results relative to pollution could be seen as hinting at the problem. So, it is not surprising that the same attitude of denial embraces both studies on resource depletion and climate change. No surprise that, in the 1980s, "The Limits to Growth" started to be the target of a denigration campaign that's continuing nowadays in parallel with the one ongoing against climate science. I told the "Limits-Bashing" story in my 2011 book "The Limits to Growth Revisited."

The story is not over. Today, I found Limits-bashing alive and well in a post by Eric Worrall on "Watt's Up With That" (WUWT). The post starts with a citation from an article by Annabel Crabb on ABC news describing the split on climate change that took place 10 years ago in the Australian parliament. The story is not so easy to decipher for someone who is not Australian, but Ms. Crabb attributes the collapse of bipartisan policies on climate change on the actions of MP Andrew Robb who, apparently, had been an early supporter of the ideas of the Club of Rome but who later reversed his position.

Crabb reports:
He (Robb) mentions that when he was a much younger man, he was "a great student" of the Club of Rome, an association of scientists, bureaucrats, politicians and public thinkers who in 1972 published the book Limits To Growth, warning that the world's resources could not withstand the depredations of ceaseless economic growth indefinitely.

Limits To Growth is still the highest-selling environmental book in the history of the world, having sold 30 million copies in more than 30 languages.

But Robb's early fascination with the work gave way to distrust of its conclusions and primitive computer modelling; he says its warnings of resource exhaustion and economic collapse towards the end of the 20th century were overstated.

"The thing they didn't talk about was technology. That you could find gas 300 kilometres offshore, for example, and find a way to bring it onshore. Because of this, the Club of Rome — which was quite a reputable group of people — looked more and more ridiculous as the years rolled on."

The Club of Rome has its critics and its defenders; Limits To Growth was commonly derided by the 1990s as a misguided Doomsday scenario, but has enjoyed something of a renaissance lately. The CSIRO published a paper in 2008 finding that the book's 30-year modelling of consequences from a "business as usual" approach to economic growth was essentially sound.

But what's not deniable is that this work influenced one young man who grew up to be one member of a parliamentary party with a singular role to play in one vote on a policy that would either change or not change the course of a country.

In the end, Ms. Crabb arrives at the surprising conclusion that if the Australian parliament failed to adopt environmental policies it was a fault of a Club of Rome. A bit of a flight of fancy to say the least. It seems more likely that Mr. Robb just thought that a little "Limits-Bashing" was appropriate to justify his actions of 10 years ago. So, he engaged in a few remarkably statements for someone who claims to have been a "Great Student" of the Club of Rome. For instance, the Limits study never said that the collapse of the world's economy was expected "toward the end of the 20th century." (and, about one of Ms. Crabb's statements, 30 million copies sold for The Limits to Growth is a wildly exaggerated number).

More interesting than the somewhat convoluted Australian story is the reaction of Eric Worrall on WUWT. Apparently, he had never heard of the work of Graham Turner, so he engages in a somewhat rambling criticism of The Limits to Growth where he cites Turner more than once. The surprising thing is that Worrall doesn't engage in the usual sneers against the Club of Rome. No, Worrall makes several mistakes, evidently he doesn't know much about dynamic modeling nor about the specific study he is criticizing, but, considering the standards of the WUWT site, it is a reasonably balanced text.

But I said that you can often learn something from WUWT. What is that you can learn in this case? A typical trick they play: they publish a post that looks superficially balanced, but they know that it is a bait for their commenters who will then proceed to state what climate science deniers really think. With this post, as for many others on WUWT, the real learning experience is to read the rabid comments. Just as an example, about Turner's work, we read that "CSIRO is a cesspool of socialist academics including some IP theft specialist employees working for China; yes really!"

And we keep going and we keep learning 


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)