There seems to be no news yet. The recent 40th anniversary meeting at the Smithsonian on the publication of “The Limits to Growth” and the clearly most urgent of our many dire environmental dilemmas of our time, with little exception, has gotten almost no attention in the mainstream popular or environmental press. So you’ll have to hear it from a real scientist as to why.
The reason is that the mainstream press is limited to discussing social issues. That our means of sustaining our prosperity is rapidly exhausting the earth just isn’t one of them, as the resource scientists who study “the blue ball” actually “have no social standing”. There’s a fascinating history to that, that reveals some eye opening new science.
A nice place to visit,
Was a wonderful place to live,
with tremendous open spaces, and overflowing with natural wealth
The Limits to Growth – On the 40th anniversary of publication
There was a well attended meeting in Washington on Mar 1, the 40th anniversary of the Club of Rome sponsored study “The limits to Growth” by Dennis and Donella Meadows et. al. The study’s major predictions are largely being upheld as accurate predictions of the future, as far as sharp resource shortages developing globally if no prompt action is taken (in the 1970’s). The great interest in the subject has dwindled since then, accompanied by popular negative characterization of the study as “professional doomsaying that often dominates development discourse”.
How the seemingly authoritative environmental blogs have responded, characterized by Dot Earth of the NY Times, is with silence. Said “doomsaying” is in fact often discredited as in the Mar 8 post on Dot Earth, Closer Look: Deep Poverty in Retreat. It contrasted the anxious views of resource scientists with the highly optimistic work of Charles Kenny, described the latter as “an invaluable counterweight”, to said “doomsaying”.
There is undoubtedly cause for optimism about the limitless resources of the earth when looking how we have always succeeded in accelerating our use of them. What optimists like Charles Kenny omit, and others such as Hans Rosling too, is how completely unsustainable that history is. It’s just not socially popular to discuss that at the moment. All our giant steps of social progress over the last dozen generations have been based on inventing ways of depleting the earth’s resources ever faster.
There is also a quite long history of first rate science on understanding our future being treated as “doomsaying” to be distained and ignored, with the limits to growth just one of them. To be balanced, of course, there is surely a great deal of the opposite in history too, lots of “doomsaying” that was popular for a moment but groundless. Instead of just falling flat of , what seems to happen to the good science treated that way is for social groups to select the more negative parts for ridicule? Ostracizing people and groups by selecting out offending aspects of what they represent is very common way of social decision making, as in the social discrediting of opposing politicians we see so very much of.
So it’s not surprising that after introductions and formalities, one of the first topics Dennis Meadows raised was just that. Why did the public only give attention to ridiculing the danger of our doing nothing? A number of the scenarios the study presented showed successful outcomes, but the journalists who called him for comment simply never brought those up! All the public and popular press responded to was the chance to discredit the astounding predictions for ignoring the findings and doing nothing. Even the huge irony of that has been missed it seems.
The public never seems to notice that even the most pessimistic studies tend to show the very same thing as the most optimistic, up to the point when our fortunes suddenly reverse, as now seems to be taking place. The point has always been that getting better and better at using things up comes to a relatively sudden end. The deeper problem that warning is intended to help identify is that of the economy, our collective creativity, and their resource use, have long been managed to expand by ever bigger steps the bigger they get. That’s also how money is managed and needs to pay ever growing returns to investors. It creates a kind of societal “joy ride” that people don’t seem to understand much, and definitely don’t want others to spoil for them
Since Malthus published “The principle of population” two centuries ago, his finding that population growth seemed to have no limit but the exhaustion or the food resources of the earth has been ridiculed by generation after generation. We now see a substantial form of what he predicted physically happening, though, as a continually spreading world “food crisis”. It’s occurring even as prospering parts of society can continue to increase their food consumption. The form it is taking is as a global price spiral for all resources, not just food.
The important work of Stanley Jevons has long been discredited in popular circles too, for pointing to the quite clear evidence that technological efficiency makes resource use more profitable. It’s very evident with no more analysis than just plotting the world GDP, energy use & energy use GDP efficiency, as I discuss in talks. Consequently it generally gets used for profitable investments. That accelerates the expansion of the whole economy and the depletion of every resource the economy uses. It does save resources for any use, but then multiplies uses.
The major contribution to the field of J M Keynes was also ridiculed and discarded. He observed in Chapter 16 of “The General Theory” , to the great dismay of the economics profession, that over-expansion of capital investment would naturally cause “employment  low enough and the standard of life sufficiently miserable to bring savings to zero.” Identifying over-investment as making the economy unprofitable as a whole as a problem, the alternative he identified was for investors to voluntarily end their automatic use their financial savings to accumulate ever growing capital investments.
It’s helpful compare the reception to the IPCC’s studies of CO2 and climate change to that given The Limits to Growth. The two studies are quite similar, discussing ranges of good and bad scenarios, using similar kinds of computer models, having similarly valid assumptions and now being similarly successful in their predictions, for the “do nothing” option.
The limits for rapidly depleting the earth’s resources are coming far sooner than the effects of climate change, is one difference, and the consequences would arguably be much more severe, already being felt with regularly escalating price spikes for resource of most kinds. Logically it would be given priority attention. At least everyone’s heard of the IPCC studies, though, and most people today might never have heard of the Limits to Growth.
I think the real reason the public as well as most of the scientific community is largely ignoring the rather well established hard limits to growth, is that it presents the scientific community a new problem it hasn’t yet learned how to deal with. It has yet to find a good way to make sense of self-designing and self-managing systems, like weather systems, cultures and economies, that have working designs that are hidden internally, displaying organization much too complex and localized to be determined by external forces.
I think the real reason the public is largely ignoring both is that science has yet to find a good way to make sense of self-designing and self-managing systems, like weather systems, cultures and economies. Science is built around identifying how one thing controls another, not on how uncontrolled systems design and work by themselves. So science is naturally somewhat lost in discussing how they work, having no model for what are better described as “opportunistic” than “deterministic” systems. Though both climate and economies display highly inventive systems, they do still necessarily operate within what traditional science can define as their natural bounds. Climate is still fundamentally a complex pressure-temperature behavior, of unchanging deterministic processes following fixed laws of science.
Economies though, are able to be far more creative, and move the boundaries of what is possible by innovative design, much further than the push and pull forces of the weather can. It has given traditional science very little to anchor reliable theory on, except as in the Limits to Growth study, fixing boundary conditions and experimenting with multiple options. Still, because economies do display deeply creative behavior, constantly inventing new ways to use energy as a normal rule, that natural science still lacks a widely accepted way to study them as natural systems, adds uncertainty for others to what anyone might say about them.
Constantly inventing new organization is just what natural systems ‘do’. It lets economies as well as ecologies create new kinds of organization and uses for their energy resources, making formerly useless things highly profitable often enough. Using the profits as returns on energy investment to grow by building more innovations. It’s complicated by not being a ‘numeric’ process, though we can see it through our measures. It’s an “organizational process”, of fitting complementary parts together, more amenable to study as a “pattern language” of “design elements” than equations.
The rigid limits of any mode of productivity still do exist, of course, but as limits of the organizational processes science has yet to find a way to study. Those limits are still determined by the earth and the organization of the internal and external systems that any innovation depends on, but with each new innovation there are new unknown limits. It leaves a stubborn problem for traditional scientific prediction. What seems to work better is a language of observing such systems to see when their own organization is being stretched.
That big problem for science also makes a big and very fascinating subject of study, that science has quite generally not realized is there, having avoided the study of self-designing and managing systems in general. Self-designing ans managing systems not only seem to develop by themselves, but to have their “works” hidden internally within the boundaries of their design, as an individual system maintaining internal organization for responding to external systems, like we see in living systems as a special case in point.
So their behaviors are not really determined externally, as if by the information outside observers can collect the way deterministic systems can be modeled. They have to be studied as negotiating their own behaviors between independently organized internal and external systems, quite an unusual posture for traditional science. I means outside observers normally have no information on their critically important internal designs a behaviors. How that becomes a fascinating subject of study is recognizing their natural boundaries define enormous holes in our information about how things work, a true gold mine for new science.
How to begin studying the thermodynamics of energy crossing boundaries of self-organization is a very basic but important step, and the subject of my longer research paper last year, System Energy Assessment (SEA). By aggregating the data not by our arbitrary categories for how we collect it, but by how the system’s parts are connected to work together, produces a profoundly meaningful new result, the ability to study such systems as individual wholes.
There are many ways to identify the natural boundaries of self-managed systems, as closely interconnected parts distinct from an otherwise passive environment, for example. When a concentration of energy uses is notably more complex than the external forces on it, you identify the system by its distinctive “miss-match in variety”. You can confirm such identifications with tracing how they developed, always displaying “S” curves of accumulative design over time, with recognizable processes for generating an energy surplus to be invested in expanding the system producing it. Those identifiers locate the heart of the working system, and how it is organized to work as a whole. You then understand what you are looking at, as you see them:
- responding to environmental conditions in uniquely original ways,
- using low complexity inputs and producing low outputs,
- working by highly complex and organized internal means,
- that remain largely hidden from view.
You see that form of organization in societies, ecologies, as local, regional and global energy economies of nature, as well as in the local, regional and global energy economies of people, identified by the same method. Being internally organized, like how a family lives in their own home, means you may see something of the deliveries that arrive and wastes discarded, but generally nothing about what’s done with them internally, making the family unit work. It’s logically obvious once you think about it, but part of how an internally managed system must work is to collect more resources than needed. Surplus resources can be used for anything, so parts can help each other out, or doing new and purely enjoyable things. That’s called “net-energy” and is a major key to how self-managing systems work independent of their surroundings internally, hidden from outside view.
Maybe the most important insight to come from it, at least at first, is an appreciation of what large gaps in our information on how things work by the designs of natural systems being so hidden from view. For traditional science it messes up everything. Traditional science has been a highly productive way of using information to identify predictable patterns, so our use of them can be determined from our equations for them. For subjects that science has little or no information about leave gaps in our understanding too. What science needs is a way to define useful questions about the self-managed and self-designed systems of our world, a “pattern language” for the study of natural systems, a way to ask better questions about the distinct gaps in our information that natural systems create. I think not having that yet is why these very serious subjects are not treated seriously.
The term “pattern language” in its widest usage refers to useful building blocks of design, a concept originated by Christopher Alexander (RNS links), today gaining major interest from “object oriented” software design, with quite similar usage for the study of the building blocks of internally organized individual natural systems, as has been the focus of my work since the 70’s. ed: 11/16/14
There were only five other speakers after Dennis Meadows, giving each with ample time to go into their areas of expertise. Jorgen Randers, a co-author, made interesting observations on different societies on earth were more or less able to respond to great challenges, comparing the EU Commission’s relatively free reign in making technical decisions for all of Europe, and how the decision making of the democracies had become so very ineffective.
Lester Brown addressed the question “how much time did we have” before natural events cause humanity to be shocked into awareness of the “big crunch” now beginning to take place. He suggested it was just a matter of luck, that the Russian heat wave of last summer did not hit the US grain belt in the Midwest. If it occurred in a critical location like that it would have caused a drastic global food panic and shortage lasting the year at least. We can even see it coming, like a freight train, in the slow motion explosion of food and fuel prices already. Evidence of that is was also discussed on Dot Earth recently, in Beyond the Eternal Food Fight. I also published an article a British journal last year, as A decisive moment for Investing in Sustainability. It’s from a more comprehensive view of the resource crisis, somewhat like Jeremy Grantham’s, evidenced by all food and fuel resources having started rising in price about ten years ago, at around 20% a year, more or less all together.
Doug Erwin, Dean of Santa Fe Institute, discussed the mixed perils of biodiversity, as the rate of habitat loss and species extinction accelerate due to our ecological impacts. The present rate of loss doesn’t seem on the verge of causing food chain collapses like the unrecoverable mass extinction events of the past, but precipitous ecosystem collapses seen to be the usual mechanism behind the great extinction events of the distant past. In addition to species loss the present effects seen in how over exploited species are evolving to become smaller and smaller. That’s a trend that might be reversed in a few hundred years if a species is left to itself, rather than taking a the few hundred thousand years, to reverse the extinctions of a major ecosystem collapse.
The Penn State geologist, Richard Alley presented a collection of highly clear cutting evidence of climate change and its real pace at present. He started with what I have long hoped someone would, showing a heat image of the earth from outer space. The gaps in the spectrum of radiant heat from the earth exactly matched those of the various greenhouse gases, and one new clear indicator.
Neva Goodwin, the economics textbook author, professor at Tufts and co-director of the New Economics Institute, brought out a very important but rarely mentioned sustainability issue, that as hitting the limits to growth creates more and more difficult environments to work in, labor (and technology as automated labor) return less value for the material invested. Labor today is requiring higher and higher individual investments of education and effort for relatively shrinking returns. That’s parallel to the declining resource productivity seen in it taking ever more energy to find more energy, as declining EROI, the subject of Charlie Hall’s special collection of papers that my SEA paper on energy accounting is in.
Why I mention Dot Earth is that this subject caught some attention there, in recognition of my comment on how this affected global warming too , also displayed as common pattern of wonderful discussions of “the problem” shifting to shaky discussions of “the solutions”. The panel of all six speakers discussing The Limits to Growth was called on for solutions, posed as “why don’t we act”. I noticed nearly all the panel switching from scientific to social thinking. I think that’s what we all naturally fall back on when science offers no sound basis, such as for understanding how self-managing systems like economies work or what steers them. I’ve noticed that same switch at many other conferences too, from highly expert problem analysis to problematic wishful solutions. Most often the comments have the sense “we must to do something”, “everyone can join together” and “we can be more efficient”.
Maybe the most notable characteristic of economies, of course, is how they have always actively joined everyone together in dong things to become more and more efficient. That’s the essence of growth, with efficiency devoted to making profits. If you apply efficiency to multiply profits that naturally results in economies consuming more and more, not less and less, and that’s what the success of the economy seems based on. There were other good observations, but the best answer to why we don’t act on such pressing common needs seemed to be from Dennis Meadows. He said he had studied it all his life and he didn’t know.