The Limits To Scenario Planning  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , , ,

I was involved in one of those periodic discussions that spring up about "The Limits To Growth" recently (one of my eternal bugbears) and found myself wondering, not for the first time, if other people have read a completely different version of the book to the one I possess.

In this case, the remark that prompted this was an assertion that the book only mentions energy once - when it actually mentions energy at least 40 times. However, most misconceptions about "Limits" fall into one of 2 categories:

1. Doomers and cornucopians alike claim the book makes a prediction that industrial civilisation will collapse, as we overwhelm our resource base and the environment (the doomers view this as a correct prediction, the cornucopians as a prediction that has been proved wrong - see this article at The Economist for a classic example).

2. Conspiracy theorists claim the book advocates world government and forced population reduction in order to avoid the collapse that it predicts.

Both of these views are completely false, yet I have never come across a rational discussion of what the book actually describes - which is a number of scenarios involving population, economic growth and resource consumption that have been generated using a computer model (known as World3) operating under various sets of assumptions and looking at a timeframe spanning the next 100 years.

The book doesn't actually "predict" anything. The authors explicitly note that it is not a forecast, and that they do not believe the available data and theories would enable an accurate prediction of what will happen to the world over the next century. The scenarios are simply a range of different examples of how the world might evolve.

Given this, I wondered why so many people have misunderstood what the book actually says...

[The graphs below display part of the output for scenario 9 in "Limits" - the forgotten scenario that I am complaining about.]

The Scenarios

Each scenario in "Limits" describes a number of factors - state of the world (population, food, pollution, available resources and industrial output), material standard of living (life expectancy, food/person, services/person, consumer goods/person) and human welfare and footprint (human welfare index, human ecological footprint).

In the most recent edition of the book, the "30 Year Update", there are 9 scenarios described, plus an additional show what might have happened if the recommendations in earlier editions of the book had been put into practice 20 years ago.

Most scenarios do end in various levels of overshoot or collapse - it certainly isn't an optimistic tome.

* Scenario 1 shows the model's output assuming "business as usual" continues, with all indicators heading down by 2050, and population back at 1970's levels by 2100.
* Scenario 2 looks at a variant of BAU that assumes a much higher availability of nonrenewable resources (imagine if we could ramp up tar sand / heavy oil / shale oil extraction to keep oil production growing for another 40 years), which it calls the "global pollution crisis" scenario. Again, it ends badly.
* Scenario 3 combines the large nonrenewable resources assumption with widely deployed pollution control technology - this delays the peaking of the indicators, but still ends in disaster, starting around 2070.
* Scenario 4 extends scenario 3 with the assumption that agricultural yields can be further improved using technology - again, things start to fall apart around 2070.
* Scenario 5 adds better control of land erosion to the previous scenario - this delays the onset of problems by another 10 years or so (all of these scenarios basically run into trouble once the extraction of non renewable resources has peaked and gone into decline).
* Scenario 6 considers the outcome of making much more efficient use of resources on top of the assumptions listed previously. This scenario looks much better - the overall human welfare index and population both increase for a while and then level out. By the end of the modeled period industrial output, goods/person and food/person are in decline as a result of what they call a "cost crisis" (apparently because increasing efficiency can't indefinitely sustain production based on a depleting base of non renewables). No overshoot or collapse has occurred at the end of the 100 year period.
* Scenario 7 is based on the same assumptions as scenario 2, but with universal birth control availability resulting in an average 2 children per couple. Like scenario 2, it ends in a "pollution crisis".
* Scenario 8 extends scenario 7 with a political limit on industrial production that restricts output per capita around current levels. Again, this starts to fail around 2050.
* Lastly, scenario 9 (the one everyone seems to forget) assumes pollution control technology, increasing efficiency of resource utilisation, increased agricultural yields, stable population (growth easing down to replacement rate) and stable industrial output per capita. This scenario (shown above) ends with all indicators stable and above present levels at the end of the century.

Obviously there are a lot of other variations that could have been modeled - the set above isn't exhaustive.

Following the scenarios is a section entitled "Transitions to a sustainable system", which recommends a wide range of practices to be implemented in order to make scenario 9 the one which eventuates (which presumably is the one most people would choose if given the option). The recommendations include:

* improved monitoring of our impact on the environment and the resource base
* improved response times to signals from the monitoring described above
* extending planning horizons
* increased use of renewable resource (such as clean energy sources)
* aiming for maximum efficiency in use of resources
* closed loop industrial techniques (commonly known as "cradle to cradle" manufacturing)
* regenerative agricultural practices
* poverty reduction
* nonviolent conflict resolution
* accurate/unbiased media
* “decentralisation of economic power, political influence and scientific expertise”
* “stable populations” and “low birth rates” by “individual choice”

Influence and Critiques

"Limits" is one of a number of books that have influenced the study of issues such as peak oil and global warming. Matt Simmons produced a 2 part "Energy White Paper" back in 2000 called "Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?" (part 2). "The internet's ultimate malthusian", Jay Hanson, also appears to have been heavily influenced by it (I might note once again that I'm thoroughly against Jay's national socialist "solution" to peak oil, as described at "").

"Limits" has also been the subject of a number of critiques of varying degrees of quality - some of the most prominent being "Thinking About The Future" (also known as "Models Of Doom") by a group of authors (and including a reply by the "Limits" authors) and Herman Kahn's "The Next 200 Years", which I reviewed a while back in "The Fat Man, The Population Bomb And The Green Revolution" (and which I'm soon to write a follow up to).

Scenario Planning

"Limits" is an exercise in scenario planning (you can find a great set of resources on the topic from Martin Börjesson here), a practice popularised in the business world by Shell.

Shell's latest exercise in scenario planning ("Blueprints or The Scramble") was the subject of a lot of attention in peak oil cricles recently. Shell also has a set of resources for learning about scenario planning. Another prominent group in this area is the Global Business Network (GBN) which includes a number of Shell alumni.

One ex-GBN scenario planner who is prominent in the Viridian world and has written frequently about energy and the environment is Jamais Cascio, who co-founded WorldChanging and now runs a site called "Open The Future".

Jamais writes about both the art of scenario planning and actual scenarios considering a diverse range of issues - some posts that are worth checking out are one on "Open Source Scenario Planning", which I think is particularly relevant for group blogs like TOD with a large readership, and "Green Tomorrows: The Scenarios", which considers a set of scenarios involving responses to global warming. These scenarios are also largely applicable to peak oil (as global warming solutions are often solutions to peak oil as well - though the converse frequently isn't the case).


Given that Jamais has a lot of experience modelling scenarios and presenting the results to decision makers, I thought I'd ask him if the problem we encounter with people misunderstanding "Limits" is a common one - do people only remember the scenarios that fit their preconceptions (and thus seem the most plausible, to them), particularly when the modellers don't assign probabilities to the scenarios ?

Jamais responds:
[This happens] all too often. It is a recurring problem when scenarios move from the hands of the people who worked on them (and thus have an emotional investment in all of a set) to people who are supposed to act on them. The classic example is when the strategy group offers scenarios to the executives, who proceed to focus on a single one and ignore or dismiss the others.

Today, many scenario strategists, rather than simply present the set of scenario options, walk the recipients through a set of experiences around the set of scenarios, in order to provoke a visceral response.

This, in my experience, has been one of the most useful recent developments in the scenario practice -- it works. That's what the fictional narratives try to provide for written scenarios, although they obviously don't work as well as in-person encounters.

So how do you achieve this effect when you publish your scenarios in book form then ?
Then it's time to get creative: add a game of the scenarios to the book, or give instructions as to how to build a walk-through, that sort of thing...

Tenuously Relevant Closing Items

While scenario planning usual involves considering a set of scenarios (whether the 9 scenarios of "Limits" or the 2 scenarios in Shell's latest report), it can be useful to consider a single scenario in isolation to test responses to it.

Stuart Staniford from The Oil Drum (now frequently referred to simply as "Staniford" in peak oil circles - depending on who is doing the talking this can sometimes sound like "Gandhi" and other times like "Hitler" - in the case of some angry "reversalists") recently posted an article called "Powering Civilisation To 2050", which looked at a scenario where our future energy needs are increasingly met by solar (PV) power.

I'm a little miffed by this, as it has quite a degree of overlap with a post I've been writing at an excruciatingly slow pace over the last 18 months called "Our Clean Energy Future" - but the scenario I'll be outlining is sufficiently different that I think I'll still have some value to add, whenever I manage to finish it.

Stuart's scenario considers a world where PV (including thin film) is deployed on an immense scale, with a GENI like global energy grid distributing the energy called the Genesis Project, which is being proposed by a Japanese group including Sanyo. As seen from the graphic below, this idea has a weak spot during the northern hemisphere winter - though from an Australian point of view this could provide yet another opportunity for our politicians to make grandiose plans about our future as an "energy superpower".

I'll close with a tinfoil decoration - a pair of conspiracy style links from a site called "Questions, Questions" which I came across while researching this post - appropriately enough, these take a paranoid look at the scenario modelling world, the green techno-libertarians and the peak oil world (which narrows things down quite considerably) without coming to any firm conclusions - About that Pentagon "Climate Change" report... and Catherine Austin Fitts, libertarian.

I guess if you were sufficiently open-minded about this sort of thing you could consider a scenario where the idea of imminent peak oil is an engineered meme hatched at The Arlington Institute under the guidance of James Woolsey and released into the wild for some nefarious purpose (given the apparent political outlook of the site, the demise of socialism being a guess).

If this is true I can tell you one thing for sure - I'm not in on the conspiracy...


Discussion at The Oil Drum...

The intrepid IC pointed to this while on a rant about Limited thinking and the like.

It is actually apropos (though I think once again the Club of Rome has been misunderstood) - from Robert Anton Wilson's "Right Where You Are Sitting Now" ( :

Malthus, Machiavelli, and Pop-Ecology

[True] Ecological science, like all science, is relativistic, evolutionary, and progressive; that is, it regards all generalizations as hypothetical and is always ready to revise them. It seeks truth, but never claims to have obtained all truth.

Pop ecology, or ecological mysticism, is the reverse in all respects. It is absolutist, dogmatic, and fanatical. It does not usually refer its arguments back to ecological science (except vaguely and often inaccurately); it refers them to emotions, moral judgements, and the casual baggage of ill-assorted ideas that make up pop culture generally. Ecological mysticism, in short, is only rhetorically connected with the science of ecology, or any science; it is basically a crusade, a quasi-religion, an ideology

.....It is my suspicion that the usefulness of the ideology to the ruling elite is no accident....The tax-exempt foundations which largely finance Pop Ecology are funded by the so-called Yankee Establishment -- the Eastern banking-industrial interests of whom the Rockefellers are the symbols. If this Yankee financing is not "coincidental" and "accidental" (based on purely disinterested charity)--if the ecological-mystical movement is serving Yankee Banker interests--a great deal of current debate is based on deliberately created mutual misunderstanding

...Consider the following widely-published and widely believed propositions: "There isn't enough to go around." "The Revolution of Rising Expectations, since the 18th Century, was based on fallacy." "Reason and Science are to be distrusted; they are the great enemies." "We are running out of energy." "Science destroys all it touches." "Man is vile and corrupts Nature." "We must settle for Lowered Expectations."

Whether mouthed by the Club of Rome or Friends of the Earth, this ideology has one major social effect: people who are living in misery and deprivation, who might otherwise organize to seek better lives, are persuaded to accept continued deprivation, for themselves and their children.

That such resignation to poverty, squalor, disease, misery, starvation, etc. is useful to ruling elites has frequently been noted by Marxists a propos pre-ecological mysticism; and, indeed, people can only repeat the current neo-puritan line by assuming that the benefit to the Yankee oligarchy is totally accidental and not the chief purpose of the promulgation of this ideology.

"I don't think humanity deserves to survive," stated one letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly. ....The only rationale for continuing the neo-puritan Lowered Expectations, in the light of these data, would be (a) to prove that Fuller, Gabel and their associates have been fudging or corrupting their figures--a demonstration none of the eco-puritans have attempted; or (b) a blunt assertion that most of humanity deserves to live in misery.

...For perspective,it should be remembered that the ideology of Lowered Expectations arrived on the historical scene immediately after the upsurge of Rising Expectations. That is, after the Utopian hopes of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, almost as if in reaction, an employee of the British East India Company, Thomas Malthus, created the first "scientific" argument that the ideals of those documents could never be achieved. Malthus had discovered that at his time world population was growing faster than known resources, and he assumed that this would always be true, and that misery would always be the fate of the majority of humanity.

The first thing wrong with Malthus's science is that "known resources" are not given by nature; they depend on the analytical capacities of the human mind. We can never know how many resources can be obtained from a cubic foot of the universe: all we know is how much we have found thus far, at a given date. You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn't identified wheat as edible. Real Wealth results from Real Knowledge, which is increasinng faster all the time.

Thus the second thing wrong with Malthus's scenario is that it is no longer true. Concretely, more energy has been found in every cubic foot of the universe than Malthus ever imagined; and, as technology has spread, each nation has spontaneously experienced a lowered birth rate after industrializing.

Unfortunately, between the 28th century inventory of Malthus and the 20th century inventory of Fuller et al., the Malthusian philosophy had become the pragmatic working principle of the British ruling class, and a bulwark against French and American radicalism. Malthusianism-plus-Machiavellianism was then quickly learned by all ruling classes elsewhere which wished to compete with the British for world domination. This was frankly acknowledged by the "classical" political economists of that period, following Ricardo, which led to economics being dubbed "the dismal science" Benjamin Jowett, an old-fashioned humanist, voiced a normal man's reaction to this dismal science: "I have always felt a certain horror of political economists since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 [in Ireland] would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good." In fact, the English rulers allowed the famine to continue until it killed more than two million.

In the 1920's, Karl Haushofer studied Malthusian-Machiavellian political economy in England with Prof. H.J. Mackinder--whose coldblooded global thinking coincidentally inspired Bucky fuller to begin thinking globally but more humanistically. Haushofer took the most amoral aspects of Makinder's geopolitics, mingled them with Vrill Society occultism, and forged the philosophy of Realpolitik, which Hitler adopted as part of the official Nazi ideology. the horror of the Nazi regime was so extreme that few ruling classes dare express the Malthusian-Machiavellian philosophy openly anymore, although if is almost certainly the system within which they do their thinking.

As expressed openly by British political economists in the 19th century, and maniacally by the Nazis, Realpolitik says roughly,"Since there isn't enough to go around, most people must starve. In this desperate situation, who deserves to survive and live in affluence? Only the genetically superior. We will now demonstrate that we are the genetically superior, because we are smart enough and bold enough to grab what we want at once.

Since the fall of Hitler, this combination of Malthus and Machiavelli is no longer acceptable to most people. A more plausible, less overtly vicious Malthusianism is needed to justify a system in which a few live in splendor and the majority are condemned to squalor. THIS IS WHERE POP ECOLOGY COMES IN.

The pop ecologists now state the Malthusian scenario for the the ruling elite, since it sounds self-serving when stated by the elite. There is an endless chorus of "There isn't enough to go around...Our hopes and ideals were all naive and impossible... Science has failed...We must all make sacrifices," etc., until Lowered Expectations are drummed into everybody's head.

Of course, when it comes time to implement this philosophy through action, it always turns out that the poor [those making $200,000 or less] are the ones who have to make the sacrifices, not the elite. But this is more or less hidden, unless you are watching the hands that moves the pea from cup to cup, and if you do notice it, you are encouraged to blame "those damned environmentalists." Thus, the elite gets what it wants, and anybody who doesn't like it is maneuvered by the media into attributing this to the science of ecology, the cause of environmentalism, or Ralph Nader." "The Ultimate implications of eco-mysticism are explicitly stated in theodore Roszak's "Where the Wasteland Ends". Roszak argues that science is phychologically harmful to anybody who pursues it and culturally destructive to any nation which allows it. In short, he would take us back, not just to a medieval living standard, but to a medieval religious tyranny where those possessing what he calls gnosis -- the Illuminati -- would be entirely free of nagging criticism based on logic or experiment.

The Inquisition would not try Galileo in Roszak's ideal eco- society; a man like Galileo simply would not be allowed o exist. the similarity to the notions of Haushofer and the Vril society is unnerving." "(On the Vril Society, see L. Pauwels and J. Bergier, "Morning of the Magicians". On the parallels between the Vril society and Roszakian pop ecology, see the excellent novel, "The Speed of Light", by Gwyneth Cravens.)

Or consider this quotation from Pop Ecologist Gary Snyder, 'But what I'm talking about is not what critics immediately call 'the Stone Age.' As Dave Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, is fond of saying, 'Heck, no, I'd just like to go back to the 20's.' Which isn't an evasion because there was almost half the existing population then, and we still had a functioning system of public transportation." ("City Miner", spring 1979)

In short, Snyder wants to "get rid of" two billion people. Those who believe that none of the Pop Ecologists realize that their proposals involve massive starvation for the majority should consider this question profoundly. Benjamin Jowett, who experienced horror at the deliberate starvation of one million Irishmen, would have no words to convey his revulsion of this proposed genocide of millions.

In this context, note that the only ideology opposing eco- puritanism usually well-represented by the mass media is that of the Cowboys-new Western wealth, which is still naive and barbaric in comparison to the Yankee establishment. the cowboy response to Pop Ecology, as to any idea they don't like, is simply to bark and growl at it; their candidate, now in the White House, is famous for allowing vast destruction of California's magnificent redwoods on the grounds that "if you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." Other and more intelligent criticisms of Pop Ecology, such as have come form some Marxists and some right-wing libertarians, are simply ignored by the media, with the consequence that ecological debate--as far as the general public knows it--is, de facto, debate btween the Yankees and the Cowboys. Once again, it may be "happy coincidence" that keeps the debate on that level is just what the elite wants, or it may be more than a "happy coincidence." "George Bernard Shaw once noted that an Englishman never believes anybody is moral unless they are uncomfortable. To the extent that Pop Ecology shares this attitude and wishes to save our souls by making us suffer, it is just another of the many forms of puritanism. To the extent, however, that it insists that abundance for all is impossible (in an age when, for the first time in history, such abundance is finally possible) it merely mirrors ruling class anxieties. "The ruling class elite shares the "robin Hood" myth with most socialists; they do not think it is possible to feed the starving without first robbing the rich.

Perhaps these ruling class terrors and the supporting cult of Pop Ecology will wither away when it becomes generally understood that abundance for all literally means abundance for all ; that, in fuller's words, modern technology makes it possible to advantage everybody without disadvantaging anybody.

In this context, look for a minute at some very interesting words from Glenn T. Seaborg, representative Yankee bureaucrat, former chairman of the Atomec Energy Commission. "American society will successfully weather its crises and emerge in the 1990's as a straight and highly disciplined, but happier society. Today's violence, permissiveness and self-indulgence will disappear as a result of a series of painful shocks, the first of which is the current energy crises...Americans will adjust to these shortages with a quiet pride and a spartan-like spirit "

Is it necessary to remark that phrases like "highly disciplined" and "spartan-like" have a rather sinister ring when coming from ruling class circles? Does anybody think it is the elite who will be called upon to make "spartan" sacrifices? Is it not possible that the eco-mysticism within this call for neofascism is a handy rationalization for the kind of authoritarianism that all elites everywhere always try to impose? And is there any real world justification for such medievalism on a planet where, as Fuller has demonstrated, 99.99999975 percent of the energy is not yet being used?

We live in an age of artificial scarcity, maintained by ignorance and fear. the government has been paying farmers not to grow food for fifty years--while millions starve. Labor unions, business and government conspire to hold back the microprocessor revolution-- because none of them know how to deal with the massive unemployment it will cause. (Fuller's books could tell them.) The utilities advertise continually that "solar power is at least forty years in the future" when my friend Karl Hess, and hundreds of others already live in largely solar powered houses. These propaganda advertisements are just a delaying action because the utilities still haven't figured out how to put a meter between us and the sun.

And Pop Ecology, perhaps only by coincidence, keeps this madness going by insisting that scarcity is real, and nobody wonders why the Establishment pays the bill for making superstars of these merchants of gloom.

I agree with what Jamais Cascio said. Scenario planners must indeed be creative in order to evoke response from the strategy planners and decision makers such as the executives. Letting them clearly see and understand the scenarios is imperative in order for appropriate strategies to be developed. If they are successful in making the executives consider all scenarios, then they become more effective as scenario planners.

Here's a definition of scenario planning for those new to the concept.

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