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Limits to Growth: An alternative history

In 1972, the report titled "The Limits to Growth" discussed a series of scenarios of the current trends that foresaw a global economic collapse for some moment in the 21st century. The report also recommended actions designed to avoid such a collapse and stabilized the economic system. However, these recommendations were ignored and the report was demonized by means of a propaganda campaign. In this post, Max Iacono examines an "alternative history" in which  the report would have included scenarios based on its own acceptance or rejection.

Guest post by Max Iacono

Max Iacono holds a  B.S. from MIT in Chemical Engineering;  PhD in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan. His career has been in human resources and institutional development with several U.S. multinationals, consultancy firms, the World Bank and the International Labour Organization. 

Let us hypothetically consider that the Club of Rome and the original MIT team- authors also might have added two additional "scenarios" (which I will call the pessimistic book-reception scenario and the optimistic book-reception scenario) that they might have considered as part of their work and perhaps included in some suitable form as an Appendix.

But these two additional scenarios would NOT have dealt with any of the future likely or unlikely World Model Scenarios and their related variables being modeled by the book, (that work was already well done and certainly thoroughly enough)  but instead would have dealt with  the likely acceptance or rejection of the book itself by society, and of its most likely acceptance-trajectory and its societal impact in terms of either spurring humanity towards assorted remedial or preventive actions (by either governments, civil society or various private sector actors or by the international public sector or by some combination of these) or failing to do so,  or perhaps even (perversely) having an opposite effect.  

What additional variables would have had to be considered by the authors to try to model and come up with the above two scenarios and how would these variables most likely interact with the other variables already treated by the book?

And if the ultimate impact on society and its future trajectory (economic and population wise)  was indeed the purpose of the book then perhaps it would have been better to consider not only the optimistic scenario of the book’s gradual acceptance followed by various positive actions by various actors, e.g. new policies and etc. to alter humanity's collision course with various physical and natural limits, but also the pessimistic scenario that the book would either at best be misunderstood or at worst be either "naturally" or deliberately and purposefully maligned and discredited.   (and that therefore it’s impact would be very little over the next 40 years)

Would this have been a legitimate question to ask back around 1972?  And had it been asked and answered correctly might anything have been done differently  regarding either the content of the book or its explanation and promotion, or its defense?

If one takes a quick look now at the more recent formulation by the Club of Rome of "A New Path to World Development," which can be viewed here, one readily sees that the Club now sees this overall PATH as consisting of FIVE interactive components or “clusters of inter-connected issues” and namely:

1. Environment and Resources: Climate Change, Energy Security, Ecosystems and Water

2. Globalisation:  Distribution of Wealth and Income, Employment, Economic Restructuring,  Trade and Finance

3. International Development:  Demographic growth, Environmental Stress, Poverty, Food Production, Health and Employment

4. Social Change:  Values, Culture, Identity, and Behavior

5. Peace and Security:  Justice, Democracy, Governance, Solidarity, Security and Peace

I very much agree with the above path based on my own professional experiences in the development assistance field.

But I also wonder whether if the Club of Rome had tried to come up with such a “New Path to World Development” formulation back in 1972 it would have (or even could have) come up with the same five issue clusters and interactive variables now listed above.  Since many ideas and practices and their underlying theories have evolved significantly since then in each of the five areas and domains listed. e.g. remember “the commanding heights” of the economy,  and later on,  the back and forth between State and Market and what might be the right balance between the two in various different national contexts?

But what seems clear is that the first book Limits to Growth focused mainly on modeling variables fitting under items 1 and 3 above and only secondarily (or at least much less so) on those variables fitting under items 2, 4 and 5.  

And this even though the ultimate objective of the book (some kind of positive impact on humanity’s trajectory going forward) probably would have been better served or attained by achieving some positive change in the variables and sub-variables that might fit best under items 2,4, and 5.   Because without some change to these key intermediate or “mediational” variables the remaining important economic and physical variables treated by the study, might never be paid attention to sufficiently.

And in fact this reality very likely also points to some of the probable reasons why out of the two scenarios which I suggested for consideration above….(the optimistic one and the pessimistic one) it was the pessimistic one which turned out to be more correct.   Namely the book was NOT particularly well received, accepted or acted upon.  And very regrettably humanity lost 40 years of precious time.

Ugo Bardi already described quite well and in detail the specific reasons why this happened and how and who the “negative” actors or forces or influences were in his Revisiting Limits to Growth.  So there is no need to repeat them here. 

I would just like to point out for the consideration of the readers of this blog that if “social (or societal) change” was indeed the objective of the first LTG book and if its content and scenarios were geared to having such societal change eventually occur, it might have been possible to predict that the overt or even just tacit and implicit suggestion of any such change needing to come about would have come up against many existing societal values, many existing identities, many existing aspects of culture, and many existing aspects of human behavior. 

That is, the content and implicit or tacit implications of the first LTG book even if it made no explicit “recommendations” to governments, civil society or private sectors or to the international public sector (such as for instance to establish an IPCC institution to study climate change in depth and make recommendations)   would be in open and obvious conflict with the (then) current status of many of the human social, cultural, political, institutional and ideological variables subsumed under item 4 above.  

And equally the book also would come into conflict with the then current status of the variables in item 5 above namely:  existing governance systems, existing democratic political systems, as well as various people’s different understandings of  “justice and solidarity” (both intra and inter-generational). Since many existing aspects of these key variables would be threatened by the book and by its arguments and evidence,  it might have been possible to predict that the book would be rejected and eventually actively discredited by various actors…..until such time as the evidence in its favor observable all around became overwhelming, namely the point we are rapidly reaching –or have already reached- right now, 40 years later.

The above is not meant to be in any way a criticism of either the Club of Rome or of the authors of the original LTG book who I think did an admirable and worthy job.   And of course it is also rather easy for me –or for anyone else- to point out “ex post” that the book’s rejection “could have been anticipated or predicted”.   I certainly did NOT predict it myself and in fact I was in the “optimistic scenario” camp or “mode of expectation” until such time as I started to clearly see and analyze what was occurring all around as being much more in line with the “pessimistic scenario”. 

But now after the fact it seems rather easy to “predict” (or to “post-dict”) that various particular actors and forces would have come out ever more actively against the book. I will list just a few generic ones that come to my own mind (of course there could well be many more):

i) The professional identities of various either well-known or lesser known economists and schools of economics who may have felt threatened or who may have thought that the book did not give their field and its theories and models the consideration and status (and priority?)  that  they thought they deserved.  But did economics and its theories and some of its key players indeed “deserve” such consideration? Was “dynamic systems theory” an “intruder” into an otherwise private or exclusive domain of economics?

ii) Various general business or economic interests and their respective advocacy groups and supporters who did not want to hear (and certainly did not want the public at large to hear) that “economic growth forever” was not going to work and that some qualitative or quantitative restraints or limits may sooner or later have to placed on their activities

iii) Various political interests, groups, parties or tendencies who directly or indirectly work for those same private sector interests above

iv) Various ideological and cultural interests in broader human society at large and in various wealthier countries in particular (or in less materially wealthy countries whose populations aspired to the mainstream definition of “development” as material wealth)  regarding any modifications to current or future “lifestyles” that acceptance of the book’s ideas and findings might eventually require

v) Various religious interests who might have thought that the book might imply having to curb population growth and therefore end up being in conflict with either religious doctrine or its related cultural practices or norms (of all of the main monotheistic religions and their various subgroups)

vi) Various academic and media interests who might actively come out in favor or in support of any of the other interests already listed above

vii) And once mainstream media and mainstream academia (or at least selected parts thereof) come into the picture it is clear that the current “propaganda systems” also might eventually also come into play to do what propaganda systems know how to do best.  Which is to do much more than merely lie and deceive about single facts,  but to directly or indirectly subtly or not so subtly misinform, misrepresent, mislead, discredit, put forward wrong or otherwise not-very-constructive ideas, values, or cultural identities,  or general or specific conclusions, or courses of action, simply because they favor certain particular groups or “clients” or political, economic or cultural interests,  of the propaganda system itself;   and at the same time to actively vilify and diminish more correct or scientific,  or more constructive or careful,  or more sensible or plausible ideas, values, identities, conclusions or courses of action. 

Anyone who has any doubt about this last point and how one component of a propaganda system works only needs to watch Fox “News” for a few days to observe how its anchors and commentators treat the idea of climate change, the oil and gas industry, the coal industry, fracking for shale gas, tar sands development, “drill baby drill”,  and all those “misguided” “tree huggers” and assorted “lefties”.   And since, generally speaking, propagandists’ last concern is for facts or truth, ever more careful and correct arguments and scientific evidence will not help in the least;  the most capable among them are able to lampoon and discredit in the mind of the public, years of painstaking and careful scientific work with a single cultural or identity insinuation or slander against the presumed ideology or even the nationality or regional identity of the scientists or their supporters.

In this respect in the minds of some segment of U.S. audiences just the term “Club of Rome” could already be suspect which is probably why it is often emphasized by the propagandists and ideologues over the harder to attack and to discredit “MIT” which is well known in the U.S. for its scientific and technical work and for various contributions also to the U.S. military-industrial complex.  Whereas it is much less difficult for the O’Reillys of this world to indirectly paint black institutions such as the Club of Rome as “a bunch of pro-U.N. European socialists”.  (which to a significant portion of the U.S. TV audience has gradually become pure anathema again thanks to the same kinds of propaganda)

So although perhaps not much now can be done about the fact that the first Limits to Growth effort did not really foresee or address the above fairly predictable reactions of at least some significant parts of human society’s political, ideological and cultural systems and their sub-systems (e.g. parts of the media and even parts of academia) it certainly is indispensable to do something about all of this now.   And I think the latest related book “The World in 2052” by is far more realistic in taking all of the above into account within its narrative.

I don’t wish to try to delve any further than Jorgen Randers already has done on the most likely future scenarios.  I think he already does an excellent job and I would have very little to add,  so I simply accept his current views (and those of the authors of his various “glimpses”) as the most probable and the best qualified at this point in time.  Namely to “sum up” in reductionist fashion,   that we have a roughly fifty-fifty chance of going over 2.3 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures sometime during this century and thereby triggering runaway climate change.  But this does not mean that further improved or more refined technical and scientific arguments and models (and the research that would permit making them) in favor or against certain scenarios could not or should not be made or done.   And more recent forecasts are far less favorable and foresee at least a 3.6 degree rise, if not much higher,  if key tipping points are breached.  (as recently looks increasingly likely).

For instance how likely is it (and when is this most likely to happen) that Arctic methane will begin to contribute significantly to so called “runaway” temperature increases and related self-amplifying feedback loops?  Much has been studied and written about this topic too and we probably still need to know much more although we probably already know enough to know that it has a strong likelihood of occurring, or at least we know about as much as we ever can hope to know within realistic margins of empirical or conceptual error.  After it has happened (if it happens) we will know for sure.  And in the meantime an ounce of prevention is worth not just one pound but about 1000 pounds of cure  (since no ex-post cure is likely to exist or to work at all).

So in my opinion although it is every important to continue to do more and more, and better and better, scientific research and analysis in all the areas and variables and their relationships which are related to Limits to Growth,  (and on climate change variables in particular)  it may be more important at this point to work on precisely those other variables that were not sufficiently addressed in or by the first book.  Namely how to get what remains a largely mostly ignorant and/or even actively recalcitrant humanity (we should not consider only those who have been convinced, namely the various groups and components of the so called “sustainability” crowd or movement,  but the vast majority of our 7 billion earthly human denizens who still either do not know,  or do not care enough,  or do not know what to do or how to get it done) to take on board and start acting on the existential threat that all of humanity very likely faces.  Even as the precise extent and timing and the specific evolution of the threat continues to be studied scientifically. 

In other words it may be more important now to bring to bear not only what we know or can still learn in the geophysical, physical, natural, biological and ecological and demographic sciences regarding sources and sinks and “carrying capacity” and Limits to Growth,  but ALSO what we know about human society and how to go about changing it in terms of political science, political economy, culture, the various components of human identity, psychology, ideology, governance and all of their related institutions and the various means and methods available to attempt to modify or change these sufficiently in order to try to bring about the significant societal and economic and political systemic changes which are needed to achieve authentic sustainability before it could well be too late. Forty years have been lost since the first totally crystal clear warning and forty more years should not be lost now.   Should a brand new Limits to Growth book sequel now be written focusing on “how to practically change and reconfigure human society” and its current systemic paradigms so that these will conform much better to various planetary physical, ecological and/or demographic limits?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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