Cover of the 2004 updated edition of The Limits to Growth
Here's a piece of conventional wisdom: chicken little is always wrong. The sky is never falling, and anyone who says otherwise can safely be dismissed as a crackpot. Cassandra's fellow Trojans called her a chicken little, when she said letting in that big wooden horse was a bad idea, because of what would happen after the equine monument was admitted inside the city walls.
Illustration of the conventional wisdom about chicken little: a book called The Limits to Growth, originally published in 1972. The book described the results of a social science research study sponsored by an international think tank called the Club of Rome. The book used systems dynamics models to examine long-term ecological consequences of a continuously expanding global economy. The authors concluded that economic growth would eventually cause a major economic and ecological collapse, for the simple reason that a finite stock of physical resources can't be drawn upon indefinitely.
The Limits to Growth drew immediate, furious denunciation by mainstream economists. Neoclassical economics -- in 1972 and today -- fails to incorporate the physical fact of finite resource quantities into its quantitative models. In essence, neoclassical economic models treat resource supplies as if the supplies were infinite. Economists, and therefore the overwhelming majority of policymakers, conclude that resources are, in fact, literally infinite. For all practical purposes. The Limits to Growth tried to argue otherwise, and so mainstream attempts to discredit it were ferocious and sustained.
Italian academic Ugo Bardi, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Florence, has written a book (published by Springer) examining the campaign to debunk The Limits to Growth. In the 1970s and beyond, according to Bardi, attacks against the book often boiled down to a simple, clear, compelling argument. The attacks said the book had predicted that quantities of various raw materials would be completely exhausted by the 1980s or 90s -- including gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas. Bardi's account of the attacks contends that The Limits to Growth actually made no such prediction. It simply used certain numbers in a very small segment of the book to illustrate certain technical aspects of number-crunching (having to do with exponential curves). Critics dishonestly took that one segment and deceitfully insisted that the Club of Rome study made predictions that in fact it never made.
Nevertheless, the belief that those predictions were in the book persists to this day, thanks to a sustained campaign of disinformation that created what amounts to an urban legend. According to the legend, The Limits to Growth made ludicrous predictions of imminent raw material depletion, and those predictions never happened. So we can safely consign the Club of Rome's research to the ash heap of history. Everything will be just fine.
Bardi insists that, in reality, The Limits to Growth offered a careful, nuanced study, predicting resource depletion and catastrophic over-pollution to set in sometime during the twenty first century, resulting in a drastic contraction of the world economy and the human population.
Bardi implies that this portrayal is, in fact, being vindicated by events taking place today. Consistent with forecasts of global resource depletion and hyper-polluion, we see climate change (carbon hyper-pollution) accelerating, mass extinction unfolding in the world's ecosystems, and key stocks of raw materials -- including petroleum -- showing early signs of possible strain. Not complete exhaustion, just evidence of an inability to meet market demands in an infinitely growing economy, which is a different thing altogether.
Bardi has written a brief account of the debunking campaign against the Limits to Growth at Energybulletin.net.
He doesn't offer much guidance, though, on how to convince policy-makers to pay attention. They didn't want to hear about limits to growth in 1972, and nothing has changed in the years since. How to deal with that willful ignorance remains the critical problem. How can we make social institutions based on something other than infinite economic growth a feasible subject for discussion in today's political environment?
For now, we can't. That may change as events continue to bear out the long-ago forecasts in The Limits to Growth.
But for that change to happen, someone will have to transmit a message like Cassandra's, and equally unwelcome. The horse is inside the walls already, and some of the citizens in the city have seen the threat emerging out into the streets, the enemy silently creeping into guard posts and slitting throats. Those who see have shouted warnings, but no one is listening. Or at least no one who matters all that much.
We have to figure out how to change that. How do you be honest about the what's happening, about the scale and horror of it, without causing the listener to shut down and withdraw?
Let us not speak falsely now, for the hour is getting late.