The 40 Year Update

The final update report on the LTG model is sourced by an organisation called Gaia’ that claims to be a trans-disciplinary journal for scientists and other interested parties concerned with the causes and analyses of environmental and sustainability problems and their solutions’. While the 2012 publication can be reviewed in full via the previous link, some of the key arguments of the article will be outlined as its provides an easier comparison of the latest data against the original 1972 LTG model. First, the article presents a good summary of all the current data sources with respect to the main variables and outputs of the LTG model, i.e.

  • population covering birth and death rates
  • industrial output per capita
  • food supply per capita
  • services per capita
  • persistent global pollution
  • non-renewable resources

While the authors of both the original and 30 year update documented many different outcomes of the LTG model, the following summary of just 3 permutations probably reflects the most salient ‘possibilities’:

  • Standard Run: Current policy with respect to population control and resource usage remains essentially unchanged and anchored in the values and trends established between 1900 to 1970.

  • Comprehensive Technology: This approach attempts to solve the issues surrounding longer-term ‘sustainability’ by making assumptions about a broad range of possible technology solutions. However, in summary, this approach appears to assume that 75% of material resources can be recycled, while pollution is reduced to 25% of 1970 values. As such, it is unclear as to whether this more optimistic outcome reflects a ‘probable’ solution.

  • Stabilized World: The final approach assumes both technological solutions and proactive socio-political policies, if quickly implemented, can help achieve ‘sustainability’ by addressing the problems of population, material wealth, food and services per capita.

However, given the perspective of the last 40 years, there is no obvious evidence that either the ‘comprehensive technology’ or ‘stabilised world’ scenarios  being actively pursued in the required timeframe. As such, they may both appear questionable as likely outcomes in any near future world covered by the LTG model. This pessimistic view seems to be borne out by the article’s abstract from the outset:

“The ‘standard run’ scenario produced 40 years ago continues to align well with historical data that has been updated in this paper, following a 30-year comparison by the author. The scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment, and subsequently the population. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030, with death rates reversing contemporary trends and rising from 2020 onward,  the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the ‘standard run’ scenario.”

Clearly, there is a suggestion that the ‘limits to growth’ is not only continuing, but the trend towards collapse has actually started to emerge. However, while the graphics produced by this article are excellent, they are possibly still open to debate, as will be outlined in the following summary:

While the article argues that the data from the last 40 years, shown in orange, supports the ‘standard run’, the graph actually appears to fit more closely to the ‘comprehensive technology’ model. However, while technology may have helped, a little, it can still be argued that its impact has been minimal given the size of the overall problem and the lack of global political coordination. The following comparative graph of birth rates shows the same ‘too close to call’  trend between the ‘standard run’ and ‘comprehensive technology’ models.

The reasons for falling birth rates can only be partly attributed to technology in the form of contraception as it is clear there are many other important social factors, e.g.

  • emancipation of women
  • increasing number of working women
  • child care costs and life-style impacts
  • improved education

The actual fall in death rates over the last 40 years does not necessarily align well with any of the 3 outcome model defined, although we might outline some of the causes and effects that might be driving the figures.

While it is clear that advances in medical technology has made a major contribution to the falling death rates throughout the 20th century, it is also clear that there were other socio-political factors, e.g. food nutrition and welfare programs. In the early part of the 20th century, the majority of deaths were attributable to infectious diseases, e.g. pneumonia and influenza. However, continuing improvements in food nutrition and public health measures were particularly important in helping to address childhood mortality rates. Of course, at the same time, the use of use of penicillin and antibiotics were another major factor in the continuing fall of deaths rates, especially in the elderly. Therefore, we may have to reflect further on the dependency of the death rates on future economic output, food production and social services.

In the context of ‘industrial output’ the actual trend data appears to be more pessimistic and well below the ‘comprehensive technology’ model. However, the optimists may still argue that the ‘knee of the curve’ has not been reached and therefore any subsequent decline is still speculative. Of course, time to do anything about the trends being predicted would appear to have past, if the optimists are wrong. For the LTG model proceeds based on the argument that increased industrial activity combined with increasing resource extraction costs will eventually lead to a decline in output. So, with ever-larger amounts of capital going into resource extraction, there is less to maintain this sector, let alone improve the industrial infrastructure in the face of growing population demands and pollution control. Ultimately, the fall in industrial output, combined with many pollution impacts on agricultural land leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita as reflected in the next graph.

While the article details other trend graphs, for the purposes of this outline, the other major consideration in any future outcome must be the usage of non-renewable resources, which we might introduce in the following wider terms:

Resource Type Usage
Plants Renewable Cotton, jute, linen, medicines,
 food products, cardboard
Trees Renewable Paper, cardboard, furniture, medicines
e.g. coal, oil, gas
Non-renewable Energy source, plastics, soaps, detergents,
solvents, drugs, fertilizers, explosives,
rubbers and synthetic fibres, paints,
flooring, insulating materials.
e.g. iron, copper, aluminium
Non-renewable Planes, electrical wiring, cars,
buildings, tools

While plants and trees are usually defined as a ‘renewable’ resource, this is only true if they are replaced at an equal rate to usage. However, plants and trees also need resources in the form of land and water, both of which have to be unpolluted, which might put an additional question mark against the definition of their ‘long-term renewability’. In contrast, petrochemicals in the form of coal, oil and gas along with certain metals are clearly ‘non-renewable’, although people may argue over the timeframe in which these resources will be exhausted. However, what historical data appears to suggest is that extraction costs will continue to increase as these resources become harder to find and more expensive to buy in a market driven by ‘supply and demand’. However, the following graph is primarily based on the production data linked to energy resources, while all other resources are conservatively assumed to be essentially sustainable, which appears to be a very questionable assumption. To account for the uncertainty in the figures, the trend data, shown in orange, provides upper and lower estimates.

While optimists, pessimists and realists may continue to argue over the exact outcome of the LTG model, basic logic would suggest that growth, neither exponential or linear, cannot be sustained forever, if resources are finite. The fact is that planet Earth is a finite resource, which the human race is unlikely to escape in the foreseeable future and, if so, humanity may not have any other choice but to face up to some fairly inevitable change, the scope of which few will accept in today’s world, but then again, tomorrow may see another world emerging.