By Nazarul Islam- Only fifty years ago, our world was put on notice that infinite economic expansion on a finite planet— is a recipe for disaster. It came in the form of thought, and a book—The Limits to Growth. It wasn’t the only warning. During the heady decades of the Sixties and Seventies, many scientists and scholars explored and explained how industrial civilization was backing itself into a corner.
But The Limits to Growth had defined the high-water mark of that tide of belated common sense — the point at which we came closest to evading the noose that is now tightening around humanity’s neck.
The volume was the result of a research project funded by the Club of Rome and carried out at MIT, which at the time had some of the world’s most sophisticated computers. It was translated into 30 languages and sold somewhere over 30 million copies.
Robert C. Townsend, author of the then-famous book Up the Organization, summed up the general reaction in a neat sentence: “If this book doesn’t blow everybody’s mind who can read without moving his lips, then the earth is kaput.”
Of course, there was pushback. Within days of its publication, articles denouncing its conclusions started popping up in the media. Books followed, claiming to prove that there was nothing to worry about and infinite growth really could continue forever. Two things made the pushback fascinating to students of human folly.
The first is that it so systematically misstated everything that the scientists behind The Limits to Growth were saying. The second was that it succeeded in drowning out what the scientists were saying and replacing it with a caricature that was easy to dismiss.
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The same caricature remains glued in place today. Listen to defenders of the conventional wisdom, and you’ll find any number of supposedly serious thinkers insisting that the ideas claiming that the world would run out of petroleum by the end of the 20th century, or that some other catastrophe would arrive long before now.
It requires no more than a casual reading of the book to discover that these statements are quite simply wrong. The book said no such thing. Yet the lie continues to circulate because it makes it easier for most of us to avoid asking hard questions about the future of our fast expanding industrial world.
It is thus worth taking a moment to understand exactly what the book was trying to say. To begin with, it wasn’t offering predictions. It was exploring principles. The World3 computer model used to generate the famous graphs went through dozens of different runs, each with its own set of initial assumptions. The goal of the project was to show how the complex system we call human industrial civilization unfolds over time. It showed that two crucial factors, both of which behave in counterintuitive ways, set the stage for disaster.
The first of these is exponential growth. Most people have encountered the old story about the Indian sage who challenged a king to a game of chess and asked for a simple gift if he won: one grain of rice for the first square on the board, two for the second, four for the third, and so on through all 64 squares, with each square getting double the number of rice grains as the one before it.
When the king lost the game, he discovered that he had offered the sage an impossible boon: the total amount of rice he owed the sage amounted to more than 210 billion tonnes, enough to cover the entire nation of India with a meter-thick layer of rice.
Most people, when they encounter this story, insist that there has to be something wrong with the maths — that there’s no way a mere 64 doublings could amount to that much rice. There’s something wrong, all right, but it’s not the maths. The human mind instinctively imagines growth in linear rather than exponential terms.
There’s probably a good evolutionary reason for that — in the world our tribal ancestors inhabited for all those millennia, linear growth was the rule and exponential growth was the almost unheard-of exception. But it’s a lethal liability now when technology has unleashed a whole cascade of exponential growth curves that our minds can’t even begin to grasp without a serious struggle.
That’s one of the two crucial issues that were put forth threadbare and analyzed. The other is the impact of delaying factors on the ability of human societies to adjust to change. To borrow a helpful analogy from the book, one of the things that drivers have to take into account is the delay between when they see a problem in the road ahead and when the car can respond to it. That’s why good drivers slow down when visibility is low, or when they are driving in residential neighborhoods where a child might dart out into the street without warning.
We must understand that the bigger the vehicle is, and the faster it’s moving, the more time it will take to swerve or stop.
Delaying factors play an equally challenging role in steering or breaking modern industrial civilization, the biggest and fastest vehicle of all. Anthropogenic climate change makes a good example. Billions of tonnes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases were dumped into the atmosphere from smokestacks and car exhausts before anyone noticed that the planet was warming and climate belts were shifting unpredictably.
Most of the climate impacts of the pollution already absorbed by the atmosphere have not yet happened, since the sheer mass of atmosphere and oceans imposes a big delaying factor on them.
In other words, even if we slammed on the brakes now, skidding to a halt is going to take a while — and since it’s still politically possible to ignore the consequences, most nations are still paying lip service to the climate change crisis and continuing to burn fossil fuels as though there’s no tomorrow.
In the real world, exponential growth leads to crises far sooner than our intuitive models lead us to expect. In the real world, delaying factors make it a lethal mistake to wait until the crisis arrives before enacting countermeasures. Combine those two principles and you end up with a stark warning of impending trouble— and that’s exactly what The Limits to Growth provided
The warning, as we all know, was not heeded in any meaningful way. Talking heads pontificated for a few years before other topics seized the collective imagination of the chattering classes, and the environmental movement struggled on gamely for another decade or so, before selling out to moneyed interests and turning into yet another set of slick corporate enablers.
Most people dismissed the environmental prophecies of the Seventies out of hand and embraced the conviction that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived. Meanwhile, every variable tracked by the MIT study did exactly what the World3 model predicted it would, setting us up for our present predicament.
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Curated By: Leen Hamade