Cassandra's curse: how "The Limits to Growth" was demonized
As part of a mini-series on "The Limits to Growth" (earlier posts here, here, and here), I am reprinting (with some minor modifications) a post that I published on "The Oil Drum" in March 2008.
In 1972, "The Limits to Growth" study arrived in a world that had known more than two decades of unabated growth after the end of the Second World War. It was a time of optimism and faith in technological progress that, perhaps, had never been so strong in the history of humankind. With nuclear power on the rise, with no hint of scarcity of mineral resources, with population growing fast, it seemed that the limits to growth, if such a thing existed, were so far away in the future that there was no reason to worry. And, even if these limits were closer than generally believed, didn't we have technology to save us? If we could reach the Moon, as we did, in 1968, what was the problem with such trifles as resource depletion and pollution? The future could only be shiny for ever and ever.
Against that general feeling, the results of "The Limits to Growth" were a shock. The future was not to be shiny at all. The authors had developed a model that could keep track of a large number of variables and of their interactions as the system changed with time. They found that the world's economy tended to collapse at some time in 21st century. The collapse was caused by a combination of resource depletion, overpopulation, and growing pollution (this last element we would see today as related to global warming). Only specific measures aimed a curbing growth and limit population could avoid collapse.
There is a legend lingering around the first "Limits" book that says that it was laughed off as an obvious quackery immediately after it was published. It is not true. The study was debated and criticized, as it is normal for a new theory or idea. But it raised enormous interest and millions of copies were sold. Evidently, despite the general optimism of the time, the study had given visibility to a feeling that wasn't often expressed but that was in everybody's minds. Can we really grow forever? And if we can't, for how long can growth last? The study provided an answer to these questions; not a pleasant one, but an answer nevertheless.
The Limits to Growth study had everything that was needed to become a major advance in science. It came from a prestigious institution, the MIT; it was sponsored by a group of brilliant and influential intellectuals, the Club of Rome; it used the most modern and advanced computation techniques and, finally, the events that were taking place a few years after publication, the great oil crisis of the 1970s, seemed to confirm the vision of the authors. Yet, the study failed to generate further research and, a couple of decades after the publication, the general opinion about it had completely changed. Far from being considered the scientific revolution of the century, in the 1990s The Limits to Growth had become everyone's laughing stock: little more than the rumination of a group of eccentric (and probably slightly feebleminded) professors who had really thought that the end of the world was near. In short, Chicken Little with a computer.
The reversal of fortunes of "The Limits to Growth" was gradual and involved a debate that lasted for decades. At first, critics reacted with little more than a series of statements of disbelief. Just a few early papers carried a more in-depth criticism, notably by William Nordhaus (1973) and by a group of researchers of the university of Sussex that went under the name of the "Sussex Group" (Cole 1973). Both studies raised a number of interesting points but failed in their attempt of demonstrating that the Limits study was flawed in its basic assumptions.
Already these early papers by Nordhaus and by the Sussex group showed an acrimonious streak that became common in the debate from the side of the critics. Political criticism, personal attacks and insults, as well as breaks of the basic rules of the scientific debate. For instance, the editor of the journal that had published Nordhaus' 1973 paper attacking the "Limits" refused to published a rebuttal.
With time, the debate on the Limits book veered more and more on the political side. In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia noted that the reaction against the study had arrived from at least four different fronts. One was from those who saw the book as a threat to the growth of their businesses and industries. A second set was that of professional economists, who saw it as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters. The Catholic Church provided further ammunition for the critics, being piqued at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of the major causes of the problems. Then, the political left in the Western World saw the study as a scam of the ruling class, designed to trick workers into believing that the proletarian paradise was not a practical goal. And this is a clearly incomplete list; forgetting the political right, the believers in infinite growth, politicians seeking for easy solutions to all problems, and many others.
All together, these groups formed a formidable coalition that guaranteed a strong reaction against the Limits to Growth study. This reaction eventually succeeded in demolishing the study in the eyes of the majority of the public and of specialists at the same time.
The fall of the Limits to Growth was greatly helped by a factor that initially had bolstered the credibility of the study: the world oil crisis of the 1970s.
The crisis had peaked in 1979 but, in the years that followed, new oil resources started flowing abundantly from the North Sea and from Saudi Arabia. With oil prices plummeting down, it seemed to many that the crisis had been nothing but a scam; the failed attempt of a group of fanatic sheiks of dominating the world using oil as a weapon. Oil, it seemed, was, and had always been, plentiful and was destined to remain so forever. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the "New Economy" appearing, all worries seemed to be over. History had ended and all what we needed to do was to relax and enjoy the fruits that our science and our technology would provide for us.
At this point, a perverse effect started to act on people's minds. In the late 1980s, all what was remembered of the Limits to Growth book, published almost two decades before, was that it had predicted some kind of catastrophe at some moment in the future. If the world oil crisis had been that catastrophe, as it had seemed to many, the fact that it was over was the refutation of the same prediction. This factor had a major effect on people's perception.
The change in attitudes was gradual and spanned a number of years but we can probably locate a specific date and an author for the actual turning point. It happened in 1989 when Ronald Bailey, science editor of the Forbes magazine, published a sneering attack (Bailey 1989) against Jay Forrester, the father of system dynamics, the method behind the Limits study. The attack was also directed against Limits book which Bailey said was, “as wrong-headed as it is possible to be”. To prove his point Bailey revived an observation that had already been made in 1972 by a group of economists on the "New York Times" (Passel 1972). Bailey said that:
“Limits to Growth” predicted that at 1972 rates of growth the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, copper, lead and natural gas by 1993.
In 1993 Bailey reiterated his accusations in the book titled “Ecoscam.” This time, he could state that none of the predictions of the 1972 Limits study had turned out to be correct.
Of course, Bailey’s accusations are just plain wrong. What he had done was to extract a fragment of the text of the book and criticizing it out of context. In table 4 of the second chapter of the book, he had found a row of data (column 2) for the duration, expressed in years, of some mineral resources. He had presented these data as the only "predictions" that the study had made and he had based his criticism on that, totally ignoring the rest of the book.
Reducing a book of more than a hundred pages to a few numbers is not the only fault of Bailey's criticism. The fact is that none of the numbers he had selected was a prediction and nowhere in the book it was stated that these numbers were supposed to be read as such. Table 4 was there only to illustrate the effect of a hypothetical continued exponential growth on the exploitation of mineral resources. Even without bothering to read the whole book, the text of chapter 2 clearly stated that continued exponential growth was not to be expected. The rest of the book, then, showed various scenarios of economic collapse that in no case took place before the first decades of 21st century.
It would have taken little effort to debunk Bailey's claims. But it seemed that, despite the millions of copies sold, all the "Limits to Growth" books had ended in the garbage bin. Bailey's criticism had success and it started behaving with all the characteristics of what we call today “urban legends."
We all know how persistent urban legends can be, no matter how silly they are. At the time of Bailey's article and book, the Internet as we know it didn't exist yet, but word of mouth and the press were sufficient to spread and multiply the story of the "wrong predictions." Just to give an example, let's see how Bailey's text even reached the serious scientific literature. In 1993, William Nordhaus published a paper titled “Lethal Models” which was meant as an answer to the second version of the "Limits", published in 1992 with the title "Beyond the Limits". Nordhaus' paper was accompanied by a series of texts by various authors grouped under the title of “Comments and Discussion”. A better definition of that section would have been "feeding frenzy" as the criticism of this distinguished group of academic economists clearly went out of control. Among these texts, we find one by Robert Stavins, an economist from Harvard University, where we can read that:
If we check today to see how the Limits I predictions have turned out, we learn that (according to their estimates) gold, silver, mercury, zinc, and lead should be thoroughly exhausted, with natural gas running out within the next eight years. Of course, this has not happened.
All this is, obviously, is taken straight from Bailey's paper in "Forbes". Apparently, the excitement of a "Limits-bashing" session had led Stavins to forget that it is the duty of a serious scientist to check the reliability of the sources that he or she cites.
Unfortunately, with this paper by Nordhaus the legend of the “wrong predictions” was even enshrined in a serious academic journal.
With the 1990s, and in particular with the development of the Internet, the dam gave way and a true flood of criticism swamped the book and its authors. One after the other, scientists, journalists, and whoever felt entitled to discuss the subject, started repeating the same line over and over: the "Limits to Growth" study had predicted a catastrophe that failed to occur and therefore the whole idea was wrong.
After a while, the concept of “wrong predictions” became so widespread that it wasn’t any more necessary to state in detail what these wrong predictions were. The criticism could also become weird, such as when the authors were accused of being part of a conspiracy designed to create "a kind of fanatic military dictatorship" (Gloub and Townsend, 1977) or aggressive, such as when someone declared that the authors of the book should be killed, cut to pieces, and their organs sent to organ banks. Today, we can find Bailey's legend repeated on the Internet literally thousands of times in various forms. Sometimes it is exactly the same text, cut and pasted as it is; in others it is just slightly modified.
At this point, we may ask ourselves if this wave of slander had arisen by itself, as the result of the normal mechanism of urban legends, or if it had been masterminded by someone. Can we think of a conspiracy organized against the authors of the Limits book or against their sponsors, the Club of Rome? On this point we can seek an analogy with an earlier case; that of Rachel Carson, well known for her book “Silent Spring” of 1962 in which she criticized the overuse of DDT and other pesticides. Also Carson's book was strongly criticized and demonized. Kimm Groshong has reviewed the story and she tells us in her 2002 study that:
The minutes from a meeting of the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, Inc. on May 8, 1962, demonstrate this curious stance. Discussing the matter of what was printed in Carson’s serialization in the New Yorker, the official notes read: "The Association has the matter under serious consideration, and a meeting of the Public Relations Committee has been scheduled on August 10 to discuss measures which should be taken to bring the matter back to proper perspective in the eyes of the public."
Whether we can call that a "conspiracy" is open to discussion, but clearly there was an organized effort on the part of the chemical industry against Rachel Carson's ideas. By analogy, we could think that, in some smoke filled room, representatives of the world's industry had gathered in the early 1970s to decide what measures to take against the Limits to Growth in order to “bring the matter back to proper perspective in the eyes of the public.”
The recent story of the campaign against climate science, as told for instance by Hoggan and Littlemore (2010) and by Oreskes and Conway (2010), tells us that this kind of things have occurred and still occur. We have no data indicating that something like that took place against "The Limits to Growth" but it may well be the case. It is clear, anyway, that propaganda techniques are effective because they play on natural tendencies of the human mind. The 1989 article by Ronald Bailey and other attacks were no more than catalysts that unleashed our tendency to believe what we want to believe and to disbelieve what we don’t want to believe. We don't like inconvenient truths.
Now, in the early years of 21st century the general attitude towards the concepts of the "Limits" book seems to be changing again. The war, after all, is won by those who win the last battle. One of the first cases of reappraisal of the Limits study has been that of Matthew Simmons (2000), expert on crude oil resources. It seems that the "peak oil movement" has been instrumental in bringing back to attention the Limits study. Indeed, oil depletion can be seen as a subset of the world model used in the study (Bardi 2008).
Climate studies have also brought back the limits of resources to attention; in this case intended as the limited capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of human activities.
But it is not at all obvious that a certain view of the world, one that takes into account the finite amount of resources, is going to become prevalent, or even just respectable. The success of the smear campaign of the 1980s shows the power of propaganda and of urban legends in shaping the public perception of the world, exploiting our innate tendency of rejecting bad news. Because of our tendency of disbelieving bad news, we chose to ignore the warning of impending collapse that came from the Limits study. In so doing, we have lost more than 30 years. Today, we are ignoring the warnings that come from climate science and we may be making an even worse mistake. There are signs that we may be starting to heed the warnings, but we are still doing too little, too late. Cassandra's curse is still be upon us.
To know more on this subject, you can see my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited"
Bailey, Ronald 1989, “Dr. Doom” Forbes, Oct 16, p. 45
Bardi, U. 2008, "Peak oil and the Limits to Growth: two parallel stories", The Oil Drum. http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/3550
Cole H.S.D., Freeman C., Jahoda M., Pavitt K.L.R., 1973, “Models of Doom” Universe Books, New York
Golub R., Townsend J., 1977, “Malthus, Multinationals and the Club of Rome” vol 7, p 201-222
Groshong, K. 2002, "The Noisy Response to Silent Spring: Placing Rachel Carson’s Work in Context!, Pomona College, Science, Technology, and Society Department Senior Thesis
Hoggan, James; Littlemore, Richard (2009). Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone Books. ISBN 978-1553654858.
Nebbia, G. 1997, Futuribili, New Series, Gorizia (Italy) 4(3) 149-82
Nordhaus W., 1973 “Word Dynamics: Measurements without Data“, The Economic Journal n. 332.
Nordhaus W. D., 1992, “Lethal Models” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2, 1
Passel, P., Roberts, M., Ross L., 1972, New York Times, April 2
Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik, 2010, "Merchants of Doubt", Bloomsbury, US
Simmons, M., 2000, “Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?” http://www.simmonsco-intl.com/files/172.pdf
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.