We Saw This Coming 50 Years Ago. We Didn't Listen Then. We Aren't Listening Now.
It was in 1972, 49 years ago, that the Swiss-based think tank, the Club of Rome, warned that the clock was running out on human civilization.Its first report in 1972, The Limits to Growth, was conducted by a scientific team at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), and warned that limited availability of natural resources relative to rising costs would undermine continued economic growth by around the second decade of the 21st century.
Although widely ridiculed, recent scientific reviews confirm that the original report's projections in its 'base scenario' remain robust.
The projections of half a century ago still hold.
Now, with the climate crisis increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and many single events shown to have been made worse by global heating, the Club of Rome, publisher of original MIT paper, has returned to the study.
“From a research perspective, I felt a data check of a decades-old model against empirical observations would be an interesting exercise,” said Gaya Herrington, a sustainability analyst at the accounting giant KPMG that recently described greenhouse gas emissions as a “shared, existential challenge.”
“The MIT scientists said we needed to act now to achieve a smooth transition and avoid costs,” Herrington told the Guardian this week. “That didn’t happen, so we’re seeing the impact of climate change.”
Herrington, 39, says she undertook the update (available on the KPMG website and credited to its publisher, the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology) independently “out of pure curiosity about data accuracy”. Her findings were bleak: current data aligns well with the 1970s analysis that showed economic growth could end at the end of the current decade and collapse come about 10 years later (in worst case scenarios).
Only a Fool.
The model on our left below is the current economy of extraction, production, consumption and waste, the preferred model of those who adhere to perpetual, exponential growth. The example on the right models the Circular Economy, a variant of steady state economics. The circular economy model encourages growth in knowledge, not production. The idea is to make better, not more.
“Amidst global slowdown and risks of depressed future growth potential from climate change, social unrest, and geopolitical instability, to name a few, responsible leaders face the possibility that growth will be limited in the future. And only a fool keeps chasing an impossibility.”
A fundamental reorganisation of the way societies produce, manage and consume resources could support a new high-technology civilisation, but this would entail a new "circular economy" premised on wide-scale practices of recycling across production and consumption chains, a wholesale shift to renewable energy, application of agro-ecological methods to food production, and with all that, very different types of social structures.
Limits to economic growth, or even "degrowth", the report says, do not need to imply an end to prosperity, but rather require a conscious decision by societies to lower their environmental impacts, reduce wasteful consumption, and increase efficiency – changes which could in fact increase quality of life while lowering inequality.
The Time for Resource Constraints Is Here - If We're Wise Enough to Change.
In January last year, a detailed scientific study by Anglia Ruskin University's Global Sustainability Institute commissioned by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, found "overwhelming" evidence for resource constraints:
"... across a range of resources over the short (years) and medium (decades) term… Resource constraints will, at best, increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worse, trigger a long term decline in the global economy and civil unrest."
The good news, though is that "If governments and economic agents anticipate resource constraints and act in a constructive manner, many of the worst affects can be avoided."
According to Dr Aled Jones, lead author of the study and head of the Global Sustainability Institute:
"Resource constraints will, at best, steadily increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worst, could represent financial disaster, with the assets of pension schemes effectively wiped out and pensions reduced to negligible levels."
It is imperative to recognise that "dwindling resources raise the possibility of a limit to economic growth in the medium term."
About the 2030 "end of growth" prediction. It seems outlandish. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years and the human story is a story of growth. There have been plenty of setbacks along the way and it wasn't until roughly 1814 that mankind reached the billion mark. It took until the end of WWII for us to grow to 2.5 billion. Now, about two centuries after first hitting a billion and we're closing in on 8 billion. Think about that. Tens of thousands of years to reach 1 billion. Two more centuries to grow that to 8 billion. For most of that growth spurt we were mostly oblivious to the consequences of our fossil energy addiction.
It's called "The Great Acceleration." Here are a couple of dozen graphs that may open your eyes to where we have brought ourselves.
Fossil fuels enabled that extraordinary growth. Coal then oil then gas fed into the mix of abundant, cheap energy.
Cheap fossil energy allowed us to pillage the Earth's resources to the point where we could economically deplete its reserves of both renewable and non-renewable resources. Our leaders are still oblivious to the obvious consequences of exhausting the resources on which the continuation of our global society depends. We're depleting resources at 1.7 times replenishment rates. Growth is becoming more difficult on its path to becoming impossible. Around 2030 mankind's love affair with growth will end. We will be in a new, very much man-made reality.
Governments aren't preparing for this day. If anything they're hastening its arrival, ensuring that it will be more socially punishing than it need be. And they know they can count on our votes until our day of reckoning materializes.
As the threat emerged from the fog of confusion, I, like many of my generation and even those a bit younger, told ourselves that we'd be long and safely gone by the time chaos set in. The fact is that many of us will be around in 2030 and a somewhat smaller but still substantial percentage will be around to experience what follows that. If, today, you're under 50, count yourselves as in for that ride.
The problem we've got is a generation of leaders devoted to the pursuit of perpetual, exponential growth. The priests of neoliberalism, including the leaders of every major political party in Canada and most of the developed world, find "resource constraint" and the circular economy absolutely heretical. Left to their own devices they will be this nation's and possibly the next generation's undoing. They place this country and our people in real peril. And yes I mean Erin O'Toole, Jagmeet Singh, and Justin Trudeau.