Limits To Growth

The authors of the report were wrong about everything:

The Limits of Growth got it so wrong because its authors overlooked the greatest resource of all: our own resourcefulness. Population growth has been slowing since the late 1960s. Food supply has not collapsed (1.5 billion hectares of arable land are being used, but another 2.7 billion hectares are in reserve). Malnourishment has dropped by more than half, from 35 percent of the world’s population to under 16 percent.

Nor are we choking on pollution. Whereas the Club of Rome imagined an idyllic past with no particulate air pollution and happy farmers, and a future strangled by belching smokestacks, reality is entirely the reverse.

In 1900, when the global human population was 1.5 billion, almost 3 million people – roughly one in 500 — died each year from air pollution, mostly from wretched indoor air. Today, the risk has receded to one death per 2,000 people. While pollution still kills more people than malaria does, the mortality rate is falling, not rising.

Nonetheless, the mindset nurtured by The Limits to Growth continues to shape popular and elite thinking.

Because it gives them an excuse to run our lives for us.

[Update a couple minutes later]

I agree with Glenn: “Personally, I’ll be more impressed if we’re ever warned of a pending doom whose aversion won’t require giving a lot of power to bureaucrats, technocrats, and other hangers-on while being left poorer and more constrained ourselves. Because no matter what the crisis being propounded, the remedy always seems to be the same…”

18 thoughts on “Limits To Growth”

  1. I read Limits to Growth at a time when I was just getting interesting in computer modeling. One thing that struck me about the report was an appendix that discussed playing with the model parameters in order to find a way to avoid the certain doom that awaited us.
    According to the models, there were no changes we could make to avoid our fate. A curious result which hinted at some sort of attractor basin and implied that either we really were doomed or the models were ‘stuck’. In hindsight, the models were obviously wonky. Still, all in all, it was a fun scare, right along with that Malthusian classic The Population Bomb.

    1. I did a paper on Limits to Growth in college. You’re right, the models do suck, and so do the conclusions based on them.

      While the book correctly notices that our problems (land use, resource depletion, pollution, etc.) are increasing exponentially (the first half of the book repeatedly tries to explain the concept and the implications of exponential growth to a lay audience), it makes the assumption that our ability to deal with those problems is increasing linearly. It even states flat-out that no matter how steep the slope of the line representing our abilities, the exponential curve representing our problems will eventually overtake it.

      This assumption, of course, is not true. Our ability to deal with problems (our economy and our technology) is also increasing exponentially. Mathematically speaking, the exponential curve with the shorter doubling time will eventually overtake the other one. I made the case in my paper that our ability to deal with problems had a shorter doubling time than our problems.

      1. Michael, I agree humans are clever and will continue to produce great advances in knowledge and technology, hence your argument seems sound and gives some confidence. Problem is, its not about our ability to create technology or solutions, its about energy and resources (basic laws of physics dictate the boundaries of what is possible here, not human ingenuity).

        If you look at these facts you will see the problem:

        1) Completely decoupling an economy from energy and resource use is not possible (there will always be some minimum level for energy and resource consumption for any economic activity – even the financial sector consumes resources, data centres don’t appear for free and they use lots of energy to keep them running)

        2) Year on year increasing GDP has an exponentially increasing curve as you describe. If this remains the case, due to 1 above, energy and resource consumption will ultimately continue to rise (the only argument against this is to argue that energy and resource use can be exponentially reduced, this may be possible for a period of time, but every system will have some minimum energy/resource requirement past which it cannot be reduced, hence breaking your argument).

        3) Current economic structures require growth to survive (due to our debt based money system).

        Hence, something has to change, otherwise physics will dictate our fate.

          1. Hi Bart, I 100% agree. I’m not saying energy will run out, I’m saying that our energy consumption is required to increase (with current economic structures anyway).

            If we don’t change this fact, we will at the very least need to address the consequences of our current main energy sources (externalities from current sources are not going to be pleasant over the next 50-100 years).

            In some respects this energy issue is a shorter term aspect of the GDP growth issue, but they are closely linked.

            If we manage to become a multi planet species exploring the universe, the problem goes away (the universe is effectively infinite, where as the planet earth is definitely finite).

  2. “Nor are we choking on pollution. Whereas the Club of Rome imagined an idyllic past with no particulate air pollution and happy farmers, and a future strangled by belching smokestacks, reality is entirely the reverse.
    In 1900, when the global human population was 1.5 billion, almost 3 million people – roughly one in 500 — died each year from air pollution, mostly from wretched indoor air. Today, the risk has receded to one death per 2,000 people. While pollution still kills more people than malaria does, the mortality rate is falling, not rising.”

    I’m not sure this is true.

    “Early signs of health problems are emerging in the capital city of Riau province, with hospitals experiencing shortages and seeing a spike in respiratory ailments as weeks of air pollution take their toll on residents.”


    “Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data ”


    “China’s appalling air quality made headlines around the world this winter. But people living in New Delhi and in dozens of other cities throughout the developing world consistently endure air with heavier loads of soot than do the residents of Beijing. While most Americans and Europeans now enjoy cleaner air than they did for much of the last century, air pollution is worsening in Asia, claiming millions of lives every year.”

    I’ve been to India, I’ve seen the wretched pollution.

    1. You raise a valid point. Air pollution in most American and European countries is far less than it was 40 years ago. In many parts of the world, air pollution is likely worse. Countries that have experienced recent, rapid growth like China, India and Vietnam often have high pollution levels because they have not implemented the measures we took long ago. Forty years ago, there weren’t many cars in China where today, there are millions. Between cars with few emissions controls and factories and power plants with none at all, their pollution levels are very high compared to the West. When I visited Saigon in 2011, my eyes burned from the pollution caused by millions of scooters and motorcycles. They told us that Saigon was a city of 8 million people and 4 million motor scooters and I think the actual numbers are much higher.

      One of the things George W. Bush tried to implement was increased sales of pollution reduction technology to China and India. I don’t know what ever became of that effort. I’ve seen satellite data showing the flow of pollution from China all the way across the Pacific to America. Helping them reduce their pollution levels would go a long way to cleaning things everywhere.

      1. All I can say is that Llomberg is at best wrong when he writes about pollution.
        I’ve been to south asia, you’ve been to south asia, and anyone who went to the Beijing olympics can testify to the quality of the air there.

        1. He is right to point out that life before the industrial revolution wasn’t some utopia. The conditions people lived in were pretty bad. They didn’t have cars and factories but they did have everyone burning fires all day long. Ever seen the smoke from 20,000 fires?

          After we get rid off natural gas and coal and our electricity only comes during short periods when it is windy or sunny, how will people heat their homes and cook food?

          1. “Ever seen the smoke from 20,000 fires?”

            I have looked over the smoke from 1 million fires in a city.
            I’d suggest you take a trip for a month through south asia.

            “After we get rid off natural gas and coal and our electricity only comes during short periods when it is windy or sunny, how will people heat their homes and cook food?”

            Germany is now at 25% renewable electricity headed to 50%

            ” The share of electricity produced from renewable energy in Germany has increased from 6.3 percent of the national total in 2000 to about 25 percent in the first half of 2012.[1][2] In 2011 20.5% (123.5 TWh) of Germany’s electricity supply (603 TWH) was produced from renewable energy sources, more than the 2010 contribution of gas-fired power plants.[3][4]
            Siemens chief executive, Peter Löscher believes that Germany’s target of generating 35 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 is achievable – and, most probably, profitable”

            I suspect we will see renewables become about 70% of the electricity mix (Hydro, Wind, Solar) with 10% nuclear for another decade, 10% coal and 10% gas. Fossil fuel Co-Gen is too useful for process steam to go away entirely, and Gas is too convenient for little drop outs.

          2. Even after the Industrial Revolution but before cars, trucks and busses were available for transportation, there were other problems:

            Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning. All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.

            The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of. (See Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

          3. “Germany is now at 25% renewable electricity headed to 50%”

            And the cost of electricity in Germany is 31 cents / kWh and headed higher, compared to about 12 cents / kWh in the United States.

            Are you suggesting that we Americans dramatically reduce our standard of living by paying 2-1/2 times what we currently pay for energy?

          4. “Germany is now at 25% renewable electricity headed to 50%”

            Ah, so that’s why they’re building all those coal fired power plants. Oh, wait…

            Learn to read past the hype.

  3. Incidentally, right now the worst pollution problems are in Singapore and they are (AFAIK) entirely naturally caused; Singapore is under a pall of smoke from forest fires in Indonesia.

    However, Malthus was to some degree correct in the long run. The carrying capacity of Earth for humans is high but not infinite, and also depends on how many other species you’re willing to throw under the bus.

    The solution to that problem is basically for humanity to get off this rock.

    1. Last I checked, Indonesia had forest fires because they the farmers were burning the forests to clear them for agriculture.

  4. In “A step farther out,” Pournelle takes on the limits of growth and the population bomb directly. The only way to control population, according to his data, is wealth. Wealthy population have fewer children.

    This is what makes idiocracy so chilling.

    1. “Wealthy population have fewer children.”

      This seems to be the case for both economic as well as personal reasons.

      However a group that has a shrinking population can be easily overwhelmed by a group with a roaring growth in population. And in that case the idyllic setting is destroyed.

      See: Yerp.

  5. Regarding air pollution, specifically that caused by gasoline IC engines, there is a point that isn’t much discussed. I may have some of the details wrong – but apparently, the current rules in the UK that mandate catalytic converters for cars were based on similar rules in California. In California, that requirement did its job. However, slavishly following California rules in the UK led to more pollution compared to an alternative route to emission control.

    The problem is that cat converters take time to warm up to operating temperature. That isn’t much of a problem in California, with its long distances and warm weather (at least in Southern California) but it is in the UK, where many car trips are less than ten miles and the weather is colder on average. The upshot is that in the UK, a lot of the time, the “cat” isn’t working.

    The alternative? Lean burn engines – which for some arcane reason I don’t pretend to understand, can’t be used with catalytic converters. So we have less efficient engines, and more pollution, than we might have. And also more expensive cars; catalytic converters aren’t cheap and never will be unless someone finds something cheaper than platinum to put in them.

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