The Limits To Growth  

Posted by Big Gav

Matthew Simmons made these comments while revisiting this work from the 1970's - in essence, he (along with many other people) believe the Club of Rome and the likes of Paul Ehrlich were right on many counts (although they were clearly wrong about mineral resources).

Ideology, technology, the 1970's economic slowdown and a focus on extracting oil as quickly as possible have made it possible for us to ignore the limits for quite a while, but they are now becoming apparent to anyone who keeps their eyes open.

In the early 1970's, a book was published entitled, The Limits To Growth, a report of the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind. Its conclusions were stunning. It was ultimately published in 30 languages and sold over 30 million copies. According to a sophisticated MIT computer model, the world would ultimately run out of many key resources. These limits would become the "ultimate" predicament to mankind.

Over the past few years, I have heard various energy economists lambast this "erroneous" work done. Often the book has been portrayed as the literal "poster child" of misinformed "Malthusian" type thinking that misled so many people into believing the world faced a short mania 30 years ago. Obviously, there were no "The Limits To Growth". The worry that shortages would rule the day as we neared the end of the 20th Century became a bad joke. Instead of shortages, the last two decades of the 20th Century were marked by glut. The world ended up enjoying significant declines in almost all commodity prices. Technology and efficiency won. The Club of Rome and its "nay-saying" disciples clearly lost!

The critics of this flawed work still relish in pointing out how wrong this theory turned out to be. A Foreign Affairs story published this past January, entitled Cheap Oil, forecast two decades of a pending oil glut. In this article, the Club of Rome's work was scorned as being the source document which led an entire generation of wrong-thinking people to believe that energy supplies would run short. In this Foreign Affairs report, the authors stated, "....the "sky-is-falling school of oil forecasters has been systematically wrong for more than a generation. In its dramatic 1972 The Limits to Growth report, the group of prominent experts known as The Club of Rome wrote that only 550 billion barrels of oil remained and that they would run out by 1990."

This past May, Rice University's Baker Institute held an energy forum entitled "Running on Empty?" where the topic of future energy reliability was carefully addressed. John Lichtblau, Chairman of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation (FIRING) made reference to this work in his keynote remarks. In a comment on how virtually all global forecasts of resource-constrained oil production turned out to be wrong, he said "Many of you still recall the widely quoted, very prestigious "Club of Rome" report of 1972 which predicted a fundamental resource constraint on oil supplies by the end of the 20th Century."

For a publication that is almost 30 years out of print, it is fascinating that anyone still even remembers what the book said. I have occasionally been privately amused at the passion this Club of Rome work still evokes. As I have heard this study thoroughly discredited, I have wondered whether the anger this book still creates is the equivalent of getting livid at a bartender "the morning after," when one's headache was so wicked. Could the core angst this work still generates result from a backlash or an embarrassment by these same critics for embracing these shortage concepts and then being proved wrong?

The original book itself has now been revised again - its not as gloomy as most peak oil books, but it is clear we need to begin addressing the problems now.


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