Misunderstanding The Limits To Growth  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

I never cease to be amazed by how many people misunderstood (or more likely, never read) The Limits To Growth.

Paddy Manning at Crikey has an article both outlining a recent example and being one itself, as Paddy infuriatingly describes "Limits" as making a forecast rather than what it actually did - which was describe a set of scenarios based on a range of assumptions - Beware Hugh Morgan and the climate sceptic zombie attack!.

If Hugh Morgan is saying it, it must be wrong.

Recall the businessman’s previous campaign against the High Court’s Mabo decision — which extended to a defence of terra nullius and warnings that Australia’s territorial integrity was under threat — or his glowing 2010 endorsement of the young Australian Workers’ Union boss Paul Howes as a future Labor leader, after his starring role unseating a first-term prime minister.

And so it was again yesterday with Morgan’s declaration in an interview with The Australian that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would be remembered as a “Chicken Little”, like the Club of Rome.

Morgan is a long-time president of the climate sceptic Lavoisier Group and was a member of the Business Advisory Council on Climate Policy, established in May 2011 by then-shadow environment spokesman Greg Hunt. (Did they meet often, I wonder, in their quest for a non-policy to solve a non-problem? Does it matter?)

Morgan told the Oz that the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, based on research by a team of scientists from MIT (not mainly European, as the article states), “illustrates the dangers of academics talking about things they know nothing about”:

“‘The IPCC will be remembered in the same way as the Club of Rome for its “Chicken Little” approach.’ “Mr Morgan said political leaders should reread The Limits of Growth to understand the dangers of modelling and the risk of believing ‘academics who think they can see the future’.

“He said the Club of Rome’s prediction that most major commodities would run out within a few decades had been proven wrong because of the scientists’ failure to consider technological innovation in the resources industry and their inability to understand how companies made decisions. “‘It completely presumed there was a standstill in technology,’ Mr Morgan said.

It is hardly worth attacking Morgan, who is entitled to his opinion, and good luck to him. But it is definitely worth defending the Club of Rome against such repeated misrepresentation, which crops up too often.

Published in 1972, Limits to Growth was the most popular environment book in history, selling 30 million copies in 30 languages.

In 2008 and 2012 CSIRO research scientist Graham Turner looked at how the real world was tracking, using three and then four decades of historical data, against the business-as-usual scenario outlined in Limits to Growth, which forecast the collapse of the environment, the global economy and subsequently the population, in mid-century. The answer is: we’re on track — the data matches “surprisingly closely” (Turner outlines this well in a seven-minute podcast). He takes on the critics of Limits to Growth for misrepresenting the modelling:

“Many asserted, falsely as it turns out, that the Limits to Growth predicted we would have run out of resources by 2000 and the economy would have collapsed by then, so they then say that the Limits to Growth was wrong. This turns out not to be the case. The Limits to Growth never said that at all.”

Here's one of the scenarios from "Limits" - note the absence of doom in this one (and the underlying assumption that technology does indeed progress)...

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