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Reader riposte: Limits to Growth reconsidered



27 January 2012 11:45

Alex Burns writes:

Mark Thirlwell makes some important points about The Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report (or LtG; 1972) but the debate is more complex.

LtG and its creators, including Jay Forrester, and Donella and Dennis Meadows, focused on the controversial World3 simulation. Alan AtKisson observed in his book Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks At A Pessimist’s World:

'World3, its creators knew, was flawed. There were certain to be gaps of ignorance, errors of calculation, problems of interpretation. Estimates made to fill holes in the data were probably inaccurate. But since the whole point was to imitate, as closely as possible, the likely behavior of the real world, the consistent pattern of the model's results—rapid growth to the point of overshoot, followed by collapse—was rather disturbing. It almost didn't matter whether the inevitable estimates were optimistic or pessimistic: Collapse was the perennial outcome. Prodded by their funders, the World3 creators began to feel they had an important message to deliver to the citizens of the real world, in the form of a warning, which they attempted to deliver. Aided by a generous promotional budget and savvy media work, the image of a computer pronouncing on humanity's fate made big headlines. Unfortunately, the message was garbled in the transmission.' (pp. 5-6).

Thirlwell outlines two models: the 'fixed stock' and the 'opportunity cost' paradigms. Yet both potentially overlook a significant aspect of World3's 'overshoot and collapse' scenario. However much Forrester and the Meadows experimented with its parameters, World3's 'overshoot and collapse' scenario always occurred during the time-period of 2030-2100. Changing the model's assumptions simply altered when the scenario would occur.

The 1980 bet between Ehrlich and Simon is a great media sound-bite. However, the reality also was that commodities traders including Michael Marcus and Bruce Kovner of Caxton Corporation and Paul Tudor Jones made fortunes on the market volatility during this period — which Sebastian Mallaby details in the opening chapters of his book More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite.

LtG has many legacies. It foreshadowed the contemporary interest in resource wars, environmental and energy security, and catastrophic risk. LtG's early simulation modelling led directly to Stella's iThink and other system dynamics programs like Vensim. The second episode of the Adam Curtis documentary series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011) credits LtG with galvanising environmental activists and non-government organisations to debate elite policy-makers. The third episode notes that the logistics and supply chain for consumer electronics like Sony's PlayStation 3 and Apple's iPhone is closely connected to current resource wars and near-failed states in Africa.

The search for solutions to LtG's limits has led to other innovation initiatives, such as those in the book Massive Change, whose authors Bruce Mau with Jennifer Leonard and the Institute Without Boundaries were influenced by designer R Buckminster Fuller. The drafters of future Australian Government white papers could learn something from LtG's impacts.

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