Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Club of Rome data revisited

So, for those of us old enough to remember, the Limits to Growth predictions of an economic collapse driven by depletion and pollution came out in 1972.  Its predictions have been viewed as alarmist and scare mongering.
In the booming dot.com years, or before 2008, those were easier arguments to make.

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse
Grahm Tunere Kathy Alexander, The Guardian (U.K.), 1 September 2014 (hat tip: NC)
The 1972 book Limits to Growth, which predicted our civilisation would probably collapse some time this century, has been criticised as doomsday fantasy since it was published. Back in 2002, self-styled environmental expert Bjorn Lomborg consigned it to the "dustbin of history”.
It doesn’t belong there...
So were they right? We decided to check in with those scenarios after 40 years. Dr Graham Turner gathered data from the UN (its department of economic and social affairs, Unesco, the food and agriculture organisation, and the UN statistics yearbook). He also checked in with the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration, the BP statistical review, and elsewhere. That data was plotted alongside the Limits to Growth scenarios.
The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.
So the projections for the "do nothing" scenario, is inline with the data for today's world.
So far, Limits to Growth checks out with reality. So what happens next?
According to the book, to feed the continued growth in industrial output there must be ever-increasing use of resources. But resources become more expensive to obtain as they are used up. As more and more capital goes towards resource extraction, industrial output per capita starts to fall – in the book, from about 2015.
As pollution mounts and industrial input into agriculture falls, food production per capita falls. Health and education services are cut back, and that combines to bring about a rise in the death rate from about 2020. Global population begins to fall from about 2030, by about half a billion people per decade. Living conditions fall to levels similar to the early 1900s.
The folks doing the study note that the scenario does not have to continue to line up with reality.  Major policy shifts, or war, would have a dramatic effect on outcomes.
Since I am on the pessimistic side of the resource versus population versus ever compounding economic growth, I am going to give my logic toward being pessimistic about the Club of Rome's pessimism.
One issue is that the Club of Rome heavily weighted the issue of pollution. While I think pollution is a major issue, it was also very much an issue for its times.  Unless you take a very expansive view of what is pollution (damaging invasive species for instance) it is not that clear that we are greater polluters so much as more sensitive to the pollution.  You could add global warming and rising sea levels into the equation, but again you have the problem that it is too much a "flavor of the moment" problem, and your not likely to get much serious discussion with all the hand wringing from both sides of the issue: denying the obvious versus near term extinction.
So if I am pessimistic about the specific pessimistic notes, why am I still pessimistic?  It's the whole compounding cumulative growth issue.  If your economic model requires more of everything, and ours currently does, you have to eventually run out of things. 


PioneerPreppy said...

I noted that the pollution levels were showing as less than the 70's report predicted but not by much.

While the west has tried to put a cap on pollution no one else has so your thinking maybe a bit sheltered from it.

Or maybe you're right.

Anyway not much time left even by natural standards I doubt the powers that be can do anymore than make the finale come faster.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: I don't pretend to have done the research for a definitive answer, thus my pessimism on "revealed truths" from either side on such a hot topic. To me it is more of an obvious math issue, unless you come up with some sort of paradigm shift in how we operate our society. And subsidized tend to do a good job of fighting off paradigm shifts.