1972: did they get it right?

December 11, 2008 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Are you worried about 2009? I’ve been chatting to friends and some work colleagues about Christmas – are they going to ignore the financial hissy fit and help spend our way out of a recession? Or will they be tightening the belts? It’s business as usual for me. I don’t celebrate Christmas anyway – no, I’m not part of some weird cult that doesn’t recognise the holiday period. I oppose it on commercial grounds. It’s just a huge excuse for shops and department stores to cash in, whilst we all go silly in the Silly Season and party away on credit cards. Then get a humungous headache in January when the credit card bill arrives. So I skip the Silly Season. Mostly everyone I’ve spoken to is using Christmas as a way to forget the 2008 meltdown (guess that means hangovers) and they are going to spend.

So I’ve been contemplating 2009. I hate years with odd numbers so already I don’t like the sound of the upcoming year! I’m no genius when it comes to economics so I’ve really been trying to educate myself on who/what/why – how the hell did we get to this point of the world teetering on the brink of a global depression, sorry recession? As part of my ferreting around, I came across a New Scientist article. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it – pretty gloomy.

Apparently, more than 30 years ago, it was predicted that the wheels would come off the global financial system in the 21st Century. Way back in 1972, the Club of Rome published a book called Limits to Growth. I’ve always wondered if the Club of Rome dudes are some secret squirrels up to shadowy stuff. But they’re a global think tank : an NGO founded in 1968. And they meet in some villa in Rome or used to, not sure if they still do. I’ve often thought of setting up a secret squirrel club in Newcastle and starting  the myth that we are privy to some secret about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail. But the Club of Newcastle just doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Club of Rome.

I digress! So they published this book in 1972, which rang the alarm bells by saying exponential economic growth could not be sustained and the financial system would meltdown and we’d also see environmental collapse. Actually, it was a report to the Club of Rome written by a Harvard biophysicist and her colleagues and apparently it caused worldwide outrage and condemnation at the time. I can’t recall a thing from 1972 (okay I was around then!). Actually, I don’t recall much from 2002 either!

I’ve managed to track down a used copy on Amazon and hope to get it before Xmas so I can subject myself to prophesies of doom and gloom. Computer models were used  (hard for me to think of computer models way back in 1972) to investigate five major trends of global concern – accelerating industrialisation, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources and a deteriorating environment. And the news wasn’t good even then.

The report predicted:

  • sometime in the next 100 years, the planet would reach the limit of growth it could tolerate
  • the result would be a sudden and uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity
  • when many different quantities are growing simultaneously in a system and when all the quantities are interrelated in a complicated way, analysis of the causes of growth and of the future behaviour of the system becomes very difficult. So it’s unlikely that future historians will pinpoint climate change say as the reason for collapse.

So the book was all about the shortages we would face in the 30 years following 1972 but the 1980s and 1990s didn’t really bring that – we all partied up. But recently, I’ve been noticing references to the Club of Rome and this 1972 book. Back in October, Margaret Atwood (a novelist I very much like) was pretty well ripped to shreds in an article in the Ottawa Citizen for mentioning Limits to Growth in a New York Times article she wrote about the credit crisis. Well, I can’t say I disagree with what Atwood said:

“If fair regulations are established and credibility is restored people will stop walking around in a daze, roll up their sleeves and start picking up the pieces. Things unconnected with money will be valued more — friends, family, a walk in the woods. ‘I’ will be spoken less, ‘we’ will return, as people recognize that there is such a thing as the common good….If fair regulations are not established and rebuilding seems impossible, we could have social unrest on a scale we haven’t seen for years.”

There was neo-con rebuff of the Limits of Growth in the 70s. Yale economist Henry C Wallich declared it “a piece of irresponsible nonsense” and the authors were accused of being “a group of scientists going by the pretentious name “The Club of Rome”. Check out the Wikipedia entry to read more about the book and its modelling.

But back to where I was heading. Now, a CSIRO scientist, Graham Turner, has compared the book’s predictions with data since 1972. And it still ‘aint looking too good. Turner reckons the five variables the modelling was based on are still on track for collapse some time after 2020. To avoid falling into the black hole of doom and gloom, Turner says we must pursue an alternative model:  stopping population growth, resource depletion and pollution.  A CSIRO press release says:

”The real-world data basically supports The Limits to Growth model. It shows that for the first 30 years of the model, the world has been tracking along the unsustainable trajectory of the book’s business-as-usual scenario. The original modelling predicts that if we continue down that track and do not substantially reduce our consumption and increase technological progress, the global economy will collapse by the middle of this century. We’ve had the rare opportunity to evaluate the output of a global model against observed and independent data. The contemporary issues of peak oil, climate change, and food and water security, resonate strongly with the overshoot and collapse displayed in the business-as-usual scenario of The Limits to Growth.”

Seems as though this Australian scientist is the first to actually test the predictions and the really dire bit that scared the bejesus out of me is that the recommendations offered up in 1972 were never seriously examined or implemented. So we’ll be toast by about 2020 if not before and the Club of Rome dudes got it right!  Where’s an application form to join this Club?!

You can listen to a podcast by Turner here. Warning: you might need a Valium or vodka after listening to it. There’s also a 30-year update of the original 1972 book available. One of the authors, Donella H Meadows is dead – shame because I’d love to hear what she’d have to say right now. But one of the other authors, Professor Jorgen Randers, is still kicking around and speaking at conferences. You can listen to what he has to say in this podcast. The third author, Dennis L. Meadows, is also still around. Let’s hope their 1972 work is now taken seriously. Because if it’s not……

Entry filed under: Future predictions, Future trends, Useful resources. Tags: , , .

CoPs 101 A twist of lime

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paris  |  December 14, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    What really upset me as a young woman, is that it seems our parents and grandparents have known how bad we were heading to doom and how to solve the issue for around 40 years (hippies were in the 60s 70s right?), but they did NOTHING to change the world!
    It seems as if they partied as long as it last, thinking “o what the fuc$ about our children, we’ll be dead, we don’t care about them”.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  December 15, 2008 at 1:00 am

    Hi Paris

    I this book (The Limits to Growth) is a fairly exceptional piece of work for its time. The 60s (hippies) and 70s were all about economic growth & prosperity following WWII, the beginnings of globalisation and the spread of technology. So it wasn’t that people around that time necessarily knew about climate change and ignored it. In fact, I don’t think they had access to the types of data & computer modelling needed to predict what might happen. But this book & its authors clearly did. It’s a shame they were not taken more seriously.
    We can only hope we haven’t reached “the point of no return”.

  • 3. Paris-too young to be mom yet  |  December 16, 2008 at 12:03 am

    I tend to agree with you, people never want to learn bad news, they prefer to ignore them until they explode at their faces.

    I’ve worked in a climatic lab reasearch around Paris, and I’m afraid we’ve reached the point of no return with regard to climate change.

    Of course it’s still time to stop demographic increase, and manage our scarce fish stock, mineral and energy ressources to last as much as possible, but first that’s utopic (human ain’t gonna change tomorrow cause the 2 of us want to), and second it will be a lot harder because of climate change.

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  December 16, 2008 at 12:18 am

    Hi Paris

    You probably won’t be too happy to read about the Australian Federal Government’s announcement yesterday about the target on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’m still shaking my head. Go here:


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