The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome

In its day the Club of Rome was a very influential book.  I was around in its day and bought a copy.  The woman I was later to marry bought a copy too, so for many years we had two copies.  It seemed particularly inappropriate given that one of its messages was that we are using resources too prolifically.  It is hard to imagine how big an impact it had nowadays.  After Silent Spring I would say it was the book that did most to create the environmental movement.  

But while Silent Spring has continued to be read and is often quoted, Limits to Growth has vanished from popular consciousness more or less completely. The main reason is that we simply aren’t impressed by this kind of thing anymore.  When it came out the idea of a group of academics getting together around a table to create a model of where the world was going and feeding it into a computer to generate the results seemed really credible.  Computers were part of the future and so it made sense that they could also predict it.  After millennia of being limited in our ability to calculate the consequences of our actions, the new technology could now do all the sums to work out how things were going to, well, work out. And the predictions that it came up with were dire.

We were running out of resources.   The population was out of control.  Pollution was building up to poison us.  As an impressionable teenager I was convinced that I was not going to live to old age – the collapse of industrial civilisation was both inevitable and imminent.  Whether we would starve, be poisoned or simply succumb to the hordes of the desperate and hungry poor people rampaging the globe to find the diminishing supplies of food seemed a bit academic.  With so many plausible doom laden scenarios to choose from it seemed beyond doubt that one or other would do for us.

I don’t doubt that this was a sincere book on the part of the authors.  They believed in what they were doing and made some pretty clear predictions.  It wasn’t long before the predictions started to be disproved by events, and looking back from 40 years in the future it is clear that they Club of Rome got just about everything wrong.  But we live in interesting times, even if they aren’t quite as interesting as it seemed they might be back in the seventies.

We have a most remarkable set of climatic events occurring at the moment.  Here in the UK we have major floods caused by getting six months worth of rainfall in six weeks. Simultaneously the United States is experiencing unprecedented snowfall on the east coast, while simultaneously suffering a massive drought on the west. Argentina and Australia are both also experiencing droughts that are threatening to become dangerous while Tokyo is under a covering of snow that has broken all records, and in some places doubled them. The question is are the climate scientists and the environmental scientists right? Are the predictions of climate change being vindicated?

A lot of the debate centres around how much credence you give the climate change models that various groups have developed. These are supported by the greens and denigrated by the climate change skeptics. And they are in essence the more sophisticated descendants of the model made famous by the Club of Rome. Given the track record you can perhaps sympathise with the skeptics. And in one sense they would be right. The models aren’t predicting this kind of weather yet. The acid test of a model is its predictive power. If a model predicts something happening but at the wrong time there is obviously something wrong with it.

But models have other uses besides predictions. The much maligned Limits to Growth at least created an awareness of the environment which was more realistic than how we saw it before. It turns out that in fact we aren’t facing a general shortage of energy or mineral resources. The growth in the population is certainly a problem, but not an insurmountable one. We can feed everyone if we put our minds to it, and the chances of giving everybody on the planet the kind of lifestyle that makes it likely they will voluntarily limit their family sizes now seems a lot more plausible. And most forms of pollution can be managed and controlled. The bulk of the green agenda is in fact actionable and much more has been achieved than anyone could have hoped.

But not everything. We still have climate change, and far from looking easier to solve the indications are that it is actually worse than we thought. I think like the Club of Rome’s models, the climate models are going to end up being shown to be wide of the mark. Climate change is happening far faster than anyone expected. The models may have seriously misled us. It might have been better if rather than trying to come up with working predictions the scientists had simply stated the problem. We are doing the equivalent of painting a white shed black. If you do that, when the sun shines it is going to get hotter. There might be something special about this shed that means it won’t happen – but until we know what that something is it is better to work on the assumption that the obvious is going to happen and the shed will get hotter. We don’t necessarily need to now how fast or even just how much hotter to know that something needs to be done.

Now there are technical answers to this problem and I don’t think we are doomed yet. It seems to me that the awareness raised by the Limits to Growth is going to be one of the things that will help. It was mistaken, but it was a mistake from which we can learn. Let’s hope we do.

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