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 



13 comments:

  1. I can imagine people suffering from Bulimia using "Watt's Up With That" to induce vomiting !! That's the gaging response it invokes in me!

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    1. Kevin, if you vomit in the face of your enemy, you are not a good fighter. As Sun Tzu never said, "the best way for thee to lose a battle is to despise thy enemy"

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  2. Mix up of politician Surnames here. Should be Andrew Robb (not Rudd, as it was Kevin Rudd who was the Australian Prime Minister at the time).
    I read a online article about this. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-24/10-years-of-climate-change-inertiaand-the-role-of-andrew-robb/11726072
    I remember this, being a Greens supporter, and reading about it at the time. The Greens party still get blamed, especially by Labor Party, the government of the time. If the Labor Party had in fact compromised with either the greens or liberals, the legislation might have passed, but just about everyone had their own interpretation of the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation, its huge amount of adjustments for the mining industry, and the motives behind it. What was missing was any trust between parties, and it was apparently easy for just one of Liberals to be put the rest into revolt over this.

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    1. Yes, thanks. It was Robb, not Rudd. Corrected!

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  3. Annabel Crabbs article on Andrew Robb and his dismissal of the Club of Rome, in my opinion, does not nearly do justice to the long term influence of Coal Lobby on the Australian major political parties. The Minerals Council of Australia is the closest commercial building to the Federal Parliament, and its lobbyists and industry have close ties to politicians, and their influence seems to have resulted high degrees of climate change denial, and the annulment of all climate change legislation passed by a subsequent Julia Gillard Labor minority government with greens and independents 2010 - 2013. Andrew Robb's statements on "cleaner coal" without any qualification or evidence, are directed propaganda from the Minerals Council of Australia.

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    1. Indeed. The Club of Rome is truly a lame excuse for Robb having acted on behalf of the coal lobby!

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  4. Dear Ugo FYI, and not related to the above, but I thought you might be amused by this:
    http://timharford.com/2019/11/cautionary-tales-ep-3-lala-land-galileos-warning/

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  5. Nothing looks more superficially balanced than claiming you were once a proponent of limits to growth and now you are not. Looks are deceiving because this can only be a lie. Knowledge of limits to growth is a one way street. You don't get to undo the knowledge. It is fact based and that is a fact that can't be undone.

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    1. And from memory there are good reasons why Andrew Robb may have been deceptive. He became the proponent of a very unbalanced trade agreement with China, then retired with an enormous parliamentry pension then took up an additional lucrative role working for a Chinese Govt owned company(?)

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  6. Ugo, you need to critique the errors in Robb's post on the WUWT site itself. Yes, you will have to engage in give and take with some very brainy commenters, but as long as you don't stoop to something like insane rants or ad hominem attacks, WUWT will not censor criticisms (a pleasant contrast to the treatment many dissenters have received on cult-like AGW blogs, and one of the reasons why WUWT is the most widely followed climate blog in the world). Dyed-in-the-wool true believers in man made greenhouse warming offer their best counter arguments on WUWT all the time. Instead of dismissing people who sincerely disagree with you as "evil," why don't you try engaging them? Unlike many of their critics, the "deniers" do not all march in lockstep or toe a shared party line. You should push back (on WUWT, not just here where you are preaching to the choir) against the LTG bashers while the topic is still hot there.

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  7. Okay, I just posted a thoughtful defense of LTG at WUWT:
    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/11/23/how-the-limits-to-growth-broke-australias-bipartisan-climate-policy/#comment-2856751
    I think it will be interesting to view and perhaps debate the responses. In the US, we begin what is for many a four day national holiday for the next four days, so there should be lots of people with free time to debate this. I encourage others also to post INFORMED AND THOUGHTFUL responses to Mr. Worral's essay, but be prepared to defend you views. The blog is read by many people with backgrounds in engineering, geology, and physics, so you can't just BS your way through the debates there.

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    1. I saw your comments on the WUWT site. It may be a good idea to go there and engage. My personal experience is that these communities are "sealed," in the sense that it is not normally possible to present different viewpoints. I think WUWT does not censor dissenters, but they are torn to pieces by the other commenters. But, as I said, I think WUWT has some good points in comparison to other sites. Let's see how your comments are received

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  8. Limits to Growth is denigrated because it's obviously wrong and ridiculously simplistic. Vaclav Smil had a devastating critique:

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/3401443?read-now=1&seq=4#page_scan_tab_contents

    Note in particular Smil's criticism of the Limits to Growth (LtG) modeling of "pollution" and its effect on mortality. Also note his comments on LtG handling of population.

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Who

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)