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Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All? (Part Two)

Part One of this article is available here:


This whole topic raises the question of "what other form of energy is next?" If non-renewable energy remains "non-renewable" and if pollution emissions are a risk of material concern (particularly from coal), then the world must begin to find realistic sources of new renewable or alternative energy. We cannot wait until the non-renewable energy cupboard is either empty or too dirty to use any longer.

In 1972, The Limits to Growth authors pointed to three obvious energy alternatives: nuclear, wind and solar. At the time, each held great promise as the future for clean energy growth.

Nuclear energy became a reality. It was only an energy sliver in 1972, but by 2000, it has grown to 8% of the world's total energy use. It became the only significant new energy source "native to the 20th Century." It offered an even far cleaner way to create electricity than using natural gas.

Sadly, the era of nuclear energy seems to have "come and gone" in the blink of an eye. Less than a decade after nuclear energy was first introduced, the Three Mile Island disaster occurred. Within a year, the U.S. saw its last order placed for a new nuclear power plant. Other countries continued to expand their nuclear use. But even France, Germany and Japan, the most progressive nuclear users, are now under fierce pressure to not only drop any further expansion in nuclear use, but are also debating whether their existing base of nuclear supply should be maintained.

In the United States, not only have no new plants been ordered in over 20 years, we are now beginning to dismantle our current nuclear base. It has been decades since any blueprints have been developed for a new generation of nuclear power. Left to its current course, nuclear energy is being buried almost before it reached adolescence in the grand scope of energy time.

The final nuclear irony is that no solution was ever found to the one perplexing problem nuclear energy faced in 1972. Disposing of expended nuclear waste was an unsolved riddle when The Limits to Growth was published. It remains as serious of a riddle today. Scientists now debate how harmful expended nuclear waste might really be, but so far, there is not even any acceptable permanent burial grounds for this spent waste. Everyone seems to share a genuine "not in my backyard" concern to disposing of spent nuclear waste.

If nuclear energy has no growth role in the 21st Century, this puts an enormous focus on the other three horsemen of renewable energy: wind, water and sun. Sadly, all three have their own "Achilles' heel".

Water, i.e. hydro-electric power through building dams, is a time-tested reliable and clean form of electricity creation. However, most of the obvious dam sites in many parts of the world have already been erected. And, hydro-electric power also comes at a devastating ecological cost unless dammed water merely covers non-useable land.

In the current energy long-range planning, few new dams are even envisioned. The few that are now underway, like China's Three Gorges, are under savage environmental attack. A growing band of environmentalists are now launching a movement to begin "breaching" the current dams so fish spawning can better thrive over the next 100 years. Like nuclear, this form of energy might now start to wane.

If water like nuclear, also has no additive role to the 21st Century's energy mix, this leaves wind and solar as the remaining solutions - absent perfecting new forms of energy like fuel cells and cold fusion.

Wind and solar have been around for a long time as energy sources, even though both became ways to create electricity only a few decades ago. Despite a lengthy period of research, both have severe limits to creating any sizeable energy output. Neither is "dispatchable," a term used in electricity circles to connote the ability to turn on a generator when energy is needed and then immediately send the required energy to an energy consumer. Both are extremely costly on a Btu of energy equivalent. Neither has been able to "scale" to a level to create meaningful energy pools.

Since the sun does not always shine, nor the winds always blow, their dispatch will remain irregular until a technology to store massive amounts of electricity is created. No real research into this energy need is even taking place today. Despite all the research and development poured into wind and solar energy, both remain as costly to produce as they were some 20 to 30 years ago. Some critics also claim that both wind and solar use more energy in merely building each form of power generation than either produce in a year or two. Both also bring their own form of pollution - visual, and in the case of wind, noise.

In 1999, all forms of "renewable energy" (excluding hydro) generated only one-tenth of 1% of America's electricity. Of this tiny amount, geothermal accounted for almost half. Wood, the world's oldest energy form, and waste being burned accounted for almost all the remaining renewal energy. As the 20th century came to an end, wind and solar collectively only created one-tenth of 1% of renewable electricity in the U.S. What this means, in simple arithmetic, is that the two "promising new energy techniques," heralded to hold such promise when The Limits to Growth was first published, still account for only 1000th of 1% of U.S. electricity generation! To say that no progress was made in this taxing energy issue since The Limits to Growth first hit the bookstands is a colossal understatement.

There is always hope that a totally new form of energy becomes commercial long before any sheer limits begin to curtail the world's growth. Fuel cells and cold fusion both hold great promise as breakthrough new energy forms. But neither is close to proving they work on any scale or affordable price.

Fuel cell energy is "right on our doorstep" according to some proponents of this new technology. But many questions still plague this "new technology" that was actually invented 161 years ago and was put into space over 30 years ago.

The questions involve safety, cost, and the sheer availability of fuel to put into the cells. Natural gas is the primary feedstock presumed to create the hydrogen to then create this new form of energy. Given the other growth pressures which natural gas faces, the availability of spare natural gas might be a foolish assumption.

Cold fusion might suddenly become a brand new energy source. But, little is yet know about how it is even formed. Since it took 30 years to commercialize the atom, after it became a viable weapon, it would be foolish for energy planners to assume something like cold fusion could be developed into something significant in a far shorter time span. It is also worth noting that even after nuclear became commercial, it took another 20 years before it grew to only 8% of the world's total energy mix.

When it comes to creating new energy, the only certainty we know, more than a century after energy technology created the combustion engine and the refinery system's ability to crack oil into finished products, along with the great strides of manufactured affordable electricity, is that only ONE really new energy was commercialized in 100 years. And nuclear then began dying before even reaching adolescence.


The population of the world is still on a projected growth path. Only widespread war or a massive plague can turn back the fast paced growth still happening in so many developing parts of the world. Hopefully, technological advances in water desalinization, agriculture and other areas of possible limits will allow the world to grow while still avoiding the Limit risks which the Club of Rome worried about some 30 years ago. But energy limits must be a genuine concern, if the rich/poor gap is finally narrowed. Whether the world can continue its current growth path and avoid a serious energy crunch, squeeze or even chronic shortages through 2010, let alone 2030, is an issue which got largely ignored over the past 30 years. Whether there is anyway to guide the world to true global prosperity by 2050 or 2070 is an issue which should now be taxing all the world's best minds.

It is clear that the skeptics and scoffers of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth got the real message of The Limits to Growth wrong, at least from an energy perspective. They turned out to be as wrong about The Limits to Growth as they were wrong about the entire energy picture as the 20st Century came to a close. These name-plate energy economists ended up spending too much time criticizing this work and attributing doomsday dates that were never even part of this written work. They then spent far too much time pontificating on how energy was gradually becoming less important to the wonders of a New Economy and would obviously cost less as time went by.

Instead of rolling up their collective sleeves to begin addressing serious energy issues, these kibitzers spent their precious hours attacking the few voices of energy sanity. Over the years, the energy economists' incorrect dismissal of this important work was not only a mistake but their criticism also turned somewhat mean-spirited and at times even shrill! What a sad conclusion for such a well-intended work to finally produce.

Lurking in the backdrop of this silly, misinformed chirping was a body of statistics, all in the public domain, that were proving that many of the key issues raised by The Limits to Growth were not only serious,but the magnitude of the problem was growing as the gap between the rich and the poor widened and the poor population expanded at a much faster pace than the rich.

Perhaps the ultimate irony capping all the other mistakes which too many energy planners made as the 20th Century came to an end is that the work they lambasted so viciously turned out to be true.

There is obviously no certainty that the world will really run out of any precious resource by 2030. There is also no "magic" to using 2030 as a "doomsday date." The only reason I keyed so many energy extrapolations to a 2030 date is that it doubles the timeframe already spent since The Limits to Growth was first published. If you extend the time line towards 2050 or even 2070, the dates which the MIT models found too scary, and any of the current demographic, industrialization or energy usage trends continue, the numbers this model creates are almost too overwhelming to even comprehend. The feedback mechanism described by MIT's System Dynamics Model of the early 1970's is still alive and well. Before any source of energy finally runs out, or the pollution such vast added volumes or energy use imply suddenly poisons the earth, some natural break will undoubtedly stop the economic progress which devours a precious and dwindling energy supply.

Focus on a country like Nigeria, for instance. If Nigeria's rapid use of energy suddenly transformed the country into an oil importer, the jolting impact this would likely have on its economy would probably bring its growing prosperity to a halt, reversing its internal energy consumption. Negative feedback does work. But these abrupt halts to further growth were precisely what The Limits to Growth encouraged the world to find ways to avoid.

Examine carefully the demographics of the entire Middle East and ponder how any of these countries can safely plan on being energy exporters through 2030, let alone 2050 to 2070. If these countries finally use up so much energy that they have nothing left to export, is this the "final event" which The Limits to Growth warned us about?

The Limits to Growth was never meant to be a doomsday book. Rather it was hoped that it would trigger a change in the flow of human trends to avoid such a doomsday. But, the sponsors of this project were clear that it was simply a non-starter to leave the world's wealth so unevenly distributed. They were equally clear that "short of a world effort, today's (1972) already explosive gaps and inequities will continue to grow. And the outcome of this trend can only be a disaster."

They were also clear that the closer we got to the material limits to the planet, the more difficult this problem would be to tackle. (The old French Lily Pond Riddle coming back to haunt us once more.)

These civic-minded people who sponsored the modeling work and the authors who then wrote the book were also convinced that the issues raised by The Limits to Growth had to be met by "our" generation. The problems were too serious and the correction time too long to pass these thorny issues onto a "next generation."

The book closes on a poignant note: "Our posture is one of very grave concern - but not of
despair......It may be within our reach to provide reasonably large populations with a good
material life plus opportunities for limitless individual and social development."

Hopefully this optimism is still warranted, though the challenge has already been passed to a new generation and NO progress has so far taken place.

It would be naïve, in my opinion, to assume the gap between rich and poor could stay as it is now, and even more naïve to assume this gap can grow without finally creating massive civic turmoil. If the gap gets too great, the poor will finally "come over the walls of prosperity" and attempt to redistribute this wealth. History has shown this to be the case, time after time. Most of our worst wars were not ideological battles but true fights over the redistribution of wealth.

But closing the rich/poor gap needs very carefully implementation, as the exponential changes in both energy resources and a staggering number of other factors, including the pollution these increases imply, will strain the world's logistic and resources availability to its limits.

Phase One of the predicament of mankind never really made it to Phase Two. Instead, rather than merely ignoring this work and forgetting its chilling conclusions if the issues raised were forgotten, too many "experts" decided to use this thoughtful work as an easy target of intellectual scorn.

As a serious student of energy for the past 30 years, and a strong believer that compounding historical trends are often a far more reliable way to project the future than any alternate method, the world simply cannot continue the population growth in the poor parts of the world and also have these impoverished people climb the ladder of affluence. The energy usage these numbers imply do not match any sound plan for ever supplying the attendant energy this scenario creates.

Is there time to begin the thoughtful work which the Club of Rome hoped would take place post 1972? I would hope so. But, another 10 years of neglect to these profound issues will probably leave any satisfying solutions too late to make a difference. In hindsight, The Club of Rome turned out to be right. We simply wasted 30 important years by ignoring this work.

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Appendix 4

Appendix 5

Appendix 6

Appendix 7

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