Thought I should do a quick post about that much-cited 1970s study, The Limits to Growth. My primary reason for wanting to post this now is that I have reached the end of my tether with seeing radical environmentalists and warmists abusing and misquoting a study they clearly are not familiar with themselves.
Almost forty years after it was published, The Limits to Growth remains a favourite with the “heading for a catastrophe” crowd. Those of an optimistic nature, who believe in humanity’s ingenuity to adapt and survive, are mocked and derided by the catastrophists who point to this study as “proof” that the modern world is heading for collapse. Take The Guardian of May 2011 –
Where a decade ago there was still optimism that things could be turned around on issues like climate change, deforestation and over-fishing, people are now openly saying that it is too late. Humankind will have to experience a profound crisis before it understands that the “doom and gloom” and “limits to growth” fraternity were right after all.
Limits to Growth, according to these people, proves that humanity is heading for a crisis. The computer models prove it. It may not have happened yet, but it will happen.
Except Limits to Growth was never even intended to prove anything of the sort. For the truth about the study, let’s turn to the co-founder and president of the Club of Rome that commissioned it, Alexander King.
In his memoirs, Let the Cat Turn Around: One Man’s Traverse of the Twentieth Century (London: CPTM, 2006), King discusses the genesis, reception, and history of the Limits to Growth study. He observes that – as we are always told by radicals who refer to it – that under various “runs” of the computer models there is always an overshoot and collapse, at latest by the middle of this century. But, in this book which was never destined to be read by many outside the academic community, King points out something crucial regarding this gloomy prognosis:
It has to be remembered however that this is a ‘passive’ model in that it assumes no important economic, social, technological, or political changes will have taken place during the target years to sufficiently alter the interactions. Important changes that cannot be foreseen will, of course, take place (p. 335).
In other words, it merely extrapolated the current conditions and assumed only growth without adaptation, change, or advancement of any kind. As King says, “it is in no way a prophesy of coming doom” but a warning of what might happen if there were absolutely no changes whatsoever (p. 336).
His recollections then get particularly interesting. King recalls that environmental groups were already pushing the “limits to growth” line in newspapers, television series, and magazine articles six months before the report was published and before the research had even been completed! (A tactic now only too familiar.)
King notes that Sicco Mansholt, a socialist politician, soon to become President of the EEC, sent an open letter to the then President focusing on the “Malthusian population-food relation” and demanding new Europe-wide policies that aimed for zero growth and centralised economic planning (p. 336). All perfectly in accord with the conclusions of the study, right? Wrong:
One thing we agreed was that the Club of Rome must not be linked with zero growth, but it was difficult to dismiss the publicity that was putting the club on the map. In April 1972 Aurelio [the first president and co-founder] and I sent a letter to the EC, distancing ourselves from the Mansholt letter. We argued that the limits to growth as now being discussed would never be reached (p. 336).
It doesn’t get much clearer than that really, does it? But wait, there’s even more!
King stresses that the study was not by the Club of Rome, but for the Club of Rome who commissioned it. And what did they think of their own study?
When the Club had the opportunity to discuss Limits it was clear that many of the members were unconvinced by its conclusions on matters that they had never before discussed. Indeed, I felt that a majority did not accept it. Limits had a distinctly neo-Malthusian flavour clearly unpalatable to those amongst us who were technological optimists and we all regretted that the work had paid insufficient attention to the great human and social issues (p. 338).
That’s right – even the Club that commissioned the study did not accept its findings, in particular its gloomy, Malthusian tone. King happily agrees that “criticism concerning lack of appreciation of technological change, the power of the market and the degree of aggregation were, of course, valid” (p.339).
But don’t expect to hear the truth about Limits to Growth anytime soon. The fictional version of it is so much simpler and more useful than the reality behind it.