The 30 Year Update

This discussion will reference and review the finding of a 30 Year Update produced by the authors of the original 1972 Limits To Growth (LTG) model. In 1972, the authors had tried to balance the ‘dire’ warning of a potential ‘over-shoot and collapse’ of the world economy by suggesting another ‘kinder’ possibility, e.g.

“It may be possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity.”

Therefore, it will be interesting to find out whether the authors still retained the same degree of optimism given the hindsight of 30 years of actual data against which to compare the findings of their original model. While the original model was used to produce many different potential outcomes, we might possibly summarise the sum total into a smaller subset as follows:

  • Unrestricted growth or 'standard run'
  • Self-imposed limitation to growth
  • Nature-imposed limitation to growth,

In 1972, the authors stated that only the last two options were actually possible, as sustainable solutions, because in the long-term, unrestricted growth would always be a physical impossibility in any real-world system. The second ‘kinder and more logical’ option would rely on global policy change to provide more time for technology to help move the economy towards a position of sustainable equilibrium. The final option essentially represents ‘natural selection’ whereby ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ returns to effectively ‘cull’ the weak. It is recognise that many may find this last description offensive in its bluntness, but it might be suggested that the world may quickly move beyond ‘political correctness’ such that the harsh reality of the world has to be stated in such blunt terms. However, despite the initial suggestion that the first option was impossible, at least in the long-terms, it would appear that the path of unrestricted growth described as a the ‘standard run’ is still being pursued by economies and governments around the world. On the first page of this update report, the authors list a number of ‘signs’ that the world is indeed still following the standard run:

  • Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.

  • In 1998 more than 45% of the globe’s people had to live on incomes averaging $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the richest one-fifth of the world’s population has 85% of the global GNP. And the gap between rich and poor is widening.

  • In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75% of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.

  • The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38%, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.

  • Fifty-four nations experienced declines in per capita GDP for more than a decade during the period 1990–2001.

Today, any basic search of the ’web’ using keywords such as ‘detrimental global change’ will open up a Pandora’s Box of issues debated in terms of claim and counter-claim. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we might simply accept, or just assume, that the list above may only be representative of the ‘tip-of-a-melting-iceberg’. The author then caption this list by stating:

“These are symptoms of a world in overshoot, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. They are leading us toward global environmental and economic collapse—but there may still be time to address these problems and soften their impact.”

However, while it seems that the authors still want to hold out the possibility of some alternative outcome, if we all act now, subsequent comments appear to take a more negative position, e.g.

“In 1972, however, the world’s population and economy were still comfortably within the planet’s carrying capacity. The team found that there was still room to grow safely while we could examine longer-term options. In 1992, this was no longer true.”

Given that this update was published in 2005, not 1992, it is not clear that the authors could have believed that the situation had got any better. However, it has to be realised that these people are advocates of constructive change and it would not be productive to simply preach ‘doom and gloom’ to a powerful elite who were still unwilling to listen, at least, in public. Therefore, on this note of caution, the review will proceed to examine the finding of the update starting with this overview of the state of the global ecological system: see 'Human Footprint' for more details

This graph is described as a plot of the human ecological footprint against the natural capacity of the Earth. As such, it is said to reflect the number of Earths required to meet the resource demands of humanity and to absorb the pollutant by-products for each year since 1960. On this basis, it is being suggested that human demands have exceeded the natural supply of resources from the 1980s onward, over-shooting it by some 20% by 1999. While some might wish to challenge the details underpinning this graph as being too pessimistic, the LTG model is really only being forwarded as an indicator of the direction we appear to be heading. However, the following paraphrased section, taken from the update, may actually suggest that the LTG model is far too optimistic:

..the LTG model is a simplification of reality, which does not distinguish among different geographic parts of the world, nor does it represent separately the rich and the poor…… there is no military capital or corruption explicitly represented in the model, because incorporating those many distinctions would not necessarily make the model better and very much harder to comprehend. This probably makes the model highly optimistic. It has no military sector to drain capital and resources from the productive economy. It has no wars to kill people, and destroy capital, nor waste lands. It has no ethnic strife, no corruption, no floods, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, or AIDS epidemics. As such, the model represents the uppermost possibilities for the ‘real’ world.

Today, we might need to add the growing problem of religious and politically inspired terrorism plus the growing dominance of the Chinese economy and the 2008 global financial crisis from which most western economies are still trying to recover. The point being that the world does not seem to be getting any better, it fact it possibly looks a lot worse than 1972 in many fundamental respects, which the LTG model might argue is because we are all closer to the ‘over-shoot and collapse’ outcome of unsustainable growth.

But has the model really accounted for further technology breakthroughs?

In many ways, the only way that we might assess the value of technology in the current context would be to consider all the technology breakthroughs of say the last 30 years and then speculate on all the possible breakthroughs that might happen in the next 30 years. While this discussion will not attempt to do this in any detail, the following list of  innovations, developed in the last 30 year, might provide some initial insight as to whether any technology has really changed the fundamental nature of the LTG debate:

Internet, broadband, WWW, Laptops/Tablets, Smart Mobile Phones, E-mail, DNA Testing, Human Genome, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Microprocessors, Fibre-Optics, Software Applications, Laser/Robotic Surgery, Light Emitting Diodes, Liquid Crystal Display, GPS Systems, E-Commerce, Media File Compression, Photovoltaic Solar Energy, Large-scale Wind Turbines, Graphic User Interfaces, Digital Photography, Genetically Modified Plants, Bio-Fuels, Bar Codes and Scanners, ATMs, SRAM flash memory…...

While some of these innovations have clearly been beneficial to saving lives, thus maintaining population growth, others have probably only added to the demand for resources that exceed the natural capacity of planet Earth. However, the following statement taken from the update seems to be a succinct appraisal as to why technology, in isolation, has not and will not be a panacea for the problems being discussed:

“One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

In 2008, a ‘Living Planet Report calculated that humanity was using 30% more resources than the planet Earth could replenish each year, leading to deforestation, degraded soils, polluted air and water plus dramatic declines in numbers of fish and other species. The cost of this situation has been estimated to be equivalent to $4 trillion/year based on the economic value of services provided by ecosystems being destroyed. The report claims that the problem is also getting worse as populations and consumption keep growing faster than technology can finds new ways of expanding what can be produced from the natural world. This led to the report predicting that by 2030, if nothing changes, mankind would need two planet Earth’s to sustain its lifestyle. Unfortunately, the probability of find a second planet Earth any time soon is effectively zero.

What might be said about natural resources in general?

Again, the LTG model must be seen in terms of an aggregation of many variables and factors, such that we might evaluate the probability of a trend in some given direction. We might start by assuming that most people accept that some natural resources are ‘non-renewable’ and once used are effectively gone forever. Of course, while there is another class of resources labelled as ‘renewable’, if these are also over-exploited, it may take years, if not, decades for them to fully recover. Here is a quote taken from the LTG 30 year update:

If population rises, and if those people are to have housing, health services, education, cars, refrigerators, and televisions, they will need steel, concrete, copper, aluminium, plastic, and many other materials. However, if an eventual 9 billion people on Earth all consumed materials at the rate of the average American, world steel production would need to rise by a factor of 5, copper by a factor of 8, and aluminium by a factor of 9. From source to sink, the processing, fabricating, handling, and use of materials leaves a trail of pollution.

Here, the brutal pragmatist might take issue with the authors of the LTG model. For it would seem that the authors of the LTG model are constrained, possibly by political correctness, or their own personal morality, to assume that any solution should always be based on a more equitable distribution of resources. However, despite much progress in terms of basic human rights over the last few hundred years, it is unclear that resources, when equated to wealth, have ever been equitable distributed. In fact, charts like the one below might be a better indicator of what is actually happening:

If you want to extrapolate Machiavellian conspiracy to its limits, then it might be naïve to assume that only idealists produce models to predict future outcomes. For there must be a high probability that many affluent governments around the world have also engaged in ‘what-if’ models to determine whether their nation-state or specific interest group remains on the ‘right side of the line’ should the ‘overshoot and collapse’ of the LTG model actually occur.

Surely this is an absurd suggestion?

Why - reading between the lines of the various commentary in support of the basic tenets of the LTG model, most actually appear to suggest that very little can now be done to avoid the outcome predicted by the ‘standard run’.  If so, the real question to ask is:

Why wouldn’t governments do some ‘contingency planning’ for this event?

However, it is unclear how indulging in speculative conspiracy theories helps the majority of us, who are on the ‘wrong side of the line’ , when it comes to ‘winners and losers’ of the ‘brave new world’ to come. For the ‘standard run’ of the LTG is not predicting ‘Armageddon’ for all, only a potential collapse of the current economic model and partial collapse of the global population to a level that can be supported by remaining resources.

So what outcome does the 30 year updates support?

It is unclear as to what, if any, refinements have been made to the underlying LTG model in the 30 years, since 1972, but we may assume that the authors would have only introduced changes to improve its accuracy. Of course, there may have been major updates to the data fed into this model, but again we might assume that these changes would only contributed to the general accuracy of the various outcomes. In fact, the update report presents 10 different scenarios, where each represents a modification of one or more of the key variables. However, not unsurprisingly, most outcomes follow the general prediction of the ‘standard run’ that results in ‘overshoot and collapse’ , mainly due to resource depletion, food shortages, industrial decline or other combinations of factors.  As such, you might be hard pressed to see a major difference in the shape of the curve in the following 2005 plot below and the one previously presented for 1972.

As stated, this plot basically reflects governments proceeding along the same path for as long as possible. As a consequence, the global population has risen from 3.5 billion in 1972 to 7 billion in the first decade of the 21st century. However, as a result of the resource consumption required to support this ever growing population, growth efficiency of the economy stops and reverses abruptly. As natural resources become harder to find, produce and/or extract,  more and more capital has to be pumped into the process, which ultimately leads to the overall decline in industrial output with a corresponding decline in the service and agricultural sectors. Around the year 2030, the population peaks and begins to fall, as the death rate is driven upwards by lack of food and health services. However, the focus of this overall discussion will now turn its attention towards the ‘40 Year Update’ in which other possible, but not necessarily probable, outcomes are reviewed.