Dennis Meadows. Peak Oil and Limits to Growth. Wednesday 19th July 2006.

The Fifth International Conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO-5) July 18-19 2006 in San Rossore, Italy.

meadowsDennis Meadows is one of the key figures in the environmental movement over the last 50 years, and one of the authors of perhaps the single best known environmental book “Limits to Growth”, published in 1972. His presentation was one of the highlights of ASPO5 for me, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do an interview with him afterwards, which you’ll see as soon as I have transcribed it. You can download Meadows’ full presentation here.

ltg‘Limits to Growth’ was criticised for predicting that oil would run out and for being wrong in that prediction. However, oil depletion is not mentioned once in the original 1972 report, this is a completely bogus criticism. Now that oil actually is running out and peak oil is impending, it is tempting to say “we told you so”, but we didn’t!

The key issue here is the relationship between oil flow and reserves, which I call the usage rate. Peak oil looks at this usage rate, whereas critics look at discovered resources, not the usage rate. The feedback loops controlling this are changing, the feedback loop that has managed this relationship over the last 50 years is changing (here I confess he lost me a bit, you’ll find his description of these feedback loops in his presentation).

There are four effects of a rise in oil price.
From the fastest to the slowest;

  • Lowered quality of life – i.e. drive less
  • Increased energy efficiency – buy a Prius
  • Adapt a new energy supply – ie. ethanol.
  • Changed cultural aspirations- ie. buy a house in the city, no need for a car.

When we try to envision life over the next 100 years these 4 are adjusting to reduce energy supply. Alternative energy will never replace oil, and we will face a decline in the 4 ways above.

meadowsMatt Simmons recently wrote that he had reread Limits to Growth and was amazed at its accuracy. Limits to Growth began in the 1970s with the Club of Rome, a group who sought to raise awareness of environmental problems. No-one paid any attention, so they organised conferences, published books and so on, and after a few years people began to see that there was a problem. It was at this point, as all they had been able to contribute was observations on the nature of the problem, that they began to become irrelevant. ASPO needs to be aware of this possibility too, and to be helping people at a local level, offering solutions rather than just observations on the problem.

We don’t need a computer model to be able to prove that there are physical limits to physical growth on a physically finite planet. Some people will believe the premise and won’t need a computer model to convince them, and other people who refuse to even accept the premise won’t be swayed or convinced by all the computer models you can produce.

The contribution of Limits to Growth was to show that population and industrial growth are inherently exponential, and that exponential growth takes a resource to its limits very quickly. It showed that global society will most likely adjust to these limits by overshoot and collapse, not an S-shaped growth curve. However, I do still believe that sustainable development is possible, if important changes are made.

What I will be going on to say; 35 years of data shows that our original study results were correct. Climate has already peaked, global food production will peak in the next 15 years, even with no energy crisis, water is nearing its peak, oil being just one peak of many. Critics of LTG have shifted their criticisms over time. In 1972 when the first LTG was published we were below the limits to growth. Now we are well above. We have overshot the Earth’s carrying capacity.

We never considered the model to be predictive, the scenarios we developed in 1972 for world population and industry were accurate.

So what do LTGs critics say? They have gone through a series of phases. First they said there are no effective limits. Then they say perhaps there are, but they are far away. Then they say perhaps there are, but technology will save us. Then they say that perhaps technology won’t be able to solve all the problems, but the market will solve it for us. Finally they say markets do not always work, but it is too late to avoid the overshoot, we must learn to adapt. In any event, don’t worry!

ltgPeople are starting to get worried. LTG is now in its 3rd edition. World population is increasing exponentially. The gap between rich and poor is widening, in China now 60% of the wealth is controlled by 1% of the population. Our ecological footprint was overshot in the 1970s.

Wackernagel developed the ecological footprint model, not perfect but the best seen yet. We are now at 120% of global capacity, and can’t go much higher. Some indicators of overshoot are the deterioration in renewable resources, surface and ground water, forests, fisheries, agricultural land, rising levels of pollution. Also growing demand for capital, resources and labour by military and industry to secure, process and defend resources, and rising levels of personal debt. Insurance company losses are also rising.

The issue is not that you are running out of something, rather that the quality of the resource depletes. One of the reasons it is hard to (see change coming? Change direction quickly?) is long delay and ambiguous signals. For example, capital investments for US energy. The US energy structure at the moment includes;

  • 150 oil refineries
  • 4000 offshore platforms
  • 160,000 miles of oil pipelines
  • 10,400 electricity generating plants
  • 410 underground gas storage fields
  • 1.4 million miles of gas pipelines
  • 160,000 miles of high voltage powerlines
  • Port facilities to handle 15 million barrels/day of oil.

Replacing oil with another energy source is one thing, replacing the infrastructure is a whole other area.

He then talked about the dangers of short term thinking, best illustrated in the diagrams below. His point was that the actions that will actually lead us to a sustainable society require early steps that look difficult and uncomfortable, whereas the things we could do in the short term that look like we are doing something actually lead us to a place where we are actually far more vulnerable.

s2People are unable to do things that they know will make life harder. The problem is that most politicians and decision makers only look forward in a short time frame, the trick is to stretch the time horizon out so that the benefits become clear and it all becomes more realistic (this has echoes to me of the difference between Holmgren’s Green Tech Stability scenario and his Earth Stewardship one).

m3We will not be writing a new version of LTG, as it is now too hard to think of policies for sustainable development. He then gave an energy breakdown of a nuclear power station which showed that they are not in any way a response to peak oil.

Comments and Reflections.
It was quite a coup for ASPO to get Dennis Meadows to attend the conference. I really enjoyed his talk, although you couldn’t exactly call it uplifting. Dennis has spent 40 years number crunching this information, and his thoughts and conclusions are based on really knowing his material. I was lucky enough to get to interview him later that day, which was very illuminating, although being at the more gloom and doom end of the spectrum he wasn’t the best person to ask the Skilling Up for Powerdown questions…