Planetary boundaries, Limits to Growth and the climate debate

There are many reasons mining interests might dismiss a publication which proposes planetary limits to exploitation. Bert Kaufman

Do the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Club of Rome deserve a reputation as modern Chicken Littles who claimed repeatedly that the sky is falling? According to Hugh Morgan - former mining executive and president of climate sceptic organisation the Lavoisier Group - they do.

The Australian Newspaper reported Morgan as saying that the IPCC will be “remembered in the same way as the Club of Rome for its ‘Chicken Little’ approach”.

This deserves critical examination. Morgan’s claim is eminently debatable, if not highly dubious, for a number of reasons.

Still stands up to scrutiny

After four decades, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth actually stands up well to scrutiny. A modern version of “Chicken Little” hysteria it was not.

Vilified by countless critics, including Morgan, this innovative study provides a credible example of complex system modelling. Its scenarios highlight the intricate interdependencies between the economy and Earth’s resources.

This pioneering report remains useful; in fact, researchers have found “its conclusions are still surprisingly valid … it is time to revive the derailed discussion about economic growth and the environment.”

It is worth emphasising that the published study itself is quite different to the way it is described in criticism. Outspoken critics demonised it as simplistic doom mongering. According to CSIRO, sustained, ill-informed attacks on the study claimed falsely “that The Limits to Growth predicted resources would be depleted and the world system would collapse by the end of the 20th Century”. The Australian perpetuates the mythology.

In this way, analysis of Limits to Growth may be a useful progenitor to the intense criticisms levelled at the IPCC. They too challenge powerful vested interests, including some in the mining and energy sectors.

Despite persistent attempts to discredit the study, retrospective analyses have found the scenarios remarkably accurate. While some analyses are from the report’s authors independent analysis by CSIRO compared 30 years of reality with the model runs, and found the “business as usual” scenario matches pretty closley with what has occurred.

Graham Turner at CSRIO found the “observed historical data for 1970–2000 most closely matches … the ‘standard run’ scenario” and given the complexity of global feedbacks “it is instructive that the historical data compares so favorably with the model output.”

Finally, the book has had lasting influence. More than 12 million copies have sold in over 30 languages. Interest in the study is sustained because it is a forebear to the global consensus on sustainable development. Contemporary work on planetary boundaries and negotiating a “safe operating space for humanity” builds on its intellectual foundations.

Used on the cover of Limits to Growth, this first photo of Earth from space inspired people to think about our planet’s limits. NASA

Prediction, claim and counter claim

The Limits to Growth did not attempt to make accurate predictions. It aimed to explore system behaviour when growth in human populations and resource use interacted.

Five scenarios were generated based on computer simulations. They explored interactions between:

  • population
  • food production
  • industrial production
  • pollution
  • natural resources depletion.

The Australian claims that “The Club of Rome used computer modelling to warn that the world would run out of commodities, including gold, mercury, silver, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, oil and natural gas, within 30 years.”

The Limits to Growth never made this claim. According to Turner’s CSIRO review, critics selectively use this claim of imminent resource depletion, but the depletion claims were falsely attributed to the study in a New York Times Sunday Book Review article. The Limits to Growth mentions this depletion, but as a statement made by the US Bureau of Mines, not something they derived from their analysis.

The Australian also claims that, “The book captured the public’s imagination by warning of the ‘sudden and uncontrollable collapse" of economic life". Turner refutes this stating it

did not predict collapse of the global system … contrary to pervasive but incorrect claims. In fact, all … scenarios show the global economic system growing at the year 2000 … and nearly all … shows continuing growth … into the early decades of the 21st Century … Furthermore, the general trends and interactions involved in the “standard run” scenario resonate with contemporary environmental and economic pressures.

A thinly veiled attack on science?

So if the sky is not falling, what can we conclude about the Limits to Growth? Is the comparison with the IPCC useful?

The book’s cover photo - the earth from space - is one of the most influential images of the 20th century. The book and this image became icons of an emerging awareness – summed up by the slogan “there is only one earth”.

Computational power and understanding of global systems have improved substantially since 1972. Awareness of the interdependencies of global systems continues to grow.

It seems that in Australia, a concerted compaign to discredit the IPCC is underway despite the strength and intensity of its scientific efforts. By denigrating the IPCC and comparing it with the Club of Rome, Morgan warns us to be wary of those who “claim to be able see the future”.

My response: be wary of powerful vested interests dengigrating science.

The IPCC and the Club of Rome demonstrate the value of science-based scenario generation. I see no viable alternative to the ongoing synthesis of science to provide us with understanding of how complex global systems interact. That these should help inform public debate and policy formulation seems self evident.

Perhaps the most salient lessons from the comparison should be the way important studies can be “spun” to irrelevance.

In their study, The history of the Limits to Growth, Peet, Nørgård, and Ragnarsdóttir ask “How was it possible to derail the… debate to the extent that the book and its message were essentially ignored (or, arguably, covered up) for decades?”

They answer that “a book that hints at the necessity of curbing economic growth is very unwelcome to those who have a large stake in the status quo".

Morgan wants politicians to reread The Limits of Growth, and it’s an excellent suggestion. Despite the hype the book is fundamentally optimistic – it argues that sustained economic growth within planetary limits is possible, if desicive policy is implemented.

This book generated controversy since publication and its legacy remains contested. That it is still debated, demonstrates its relevance.

The Limits to Growth proved controversial, useful and insightful because it stimulated debate about how to live within the planetary boundaries. That is just what the IPCC is doing today.

Both ask us to think and act. Both are issuing profound warnings based on unprecedented global scientific cooperation and genuine concern for the future of this beautiful blue-green planet. Let us celebrate their scholarship!