Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Limits to Growth

More and more scientists have started to suggest that the human civilization uses natural recourses in way that will not be sustainable in a long term perspective. These issues have also gotten more and more attention in the media with movies like “Home”, “Blind Spot” and the National Geographic documentary “Collapse” based on the book by Jared Diamond. This post is an attempt to introduce the concept of “The Limits To Growth”, what the theory is and on what arguments and assumptions it is based.

The Limits to Growth
Even if these issues only lately have started to get more wide spread attention some scientists have been talking about these issues for a long period of time. One of the most criticized and famous reports of all about sustainable development is the book/report ”The Limits to Growth”. The report was written by a number of scientists; Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W Behrens in the beginning of the 1970s. The report was commissioned by the think tank “The Club of Rome”.

The report starts with discussing the problems of perception for most people, most people are totally focused on their own personal lives, their own work, their own family and what they will be doing the next couple of days. From this perspective many people have a hard time taking the time to get to know what is happening in national or even global perspective. It’s even harder to see how changes will occur on a global scale in a distant future.

Exponential Growth
The report is an attempt to describe our world and its complexity and how different factors correlate with each other through System Dynamics. One of the central parts of the report is exponential growth. Linear growth means that something increases step by step like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. Exponential growth mean that something increase exponentially. One famous examples is the Persian legend about the creator of the chess board how wanted one grain for the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the forth, eight on the fifth etc for his creation from the Prince that ordered it. On the tenth square the number would be 512, on the fifteenth 16384, and more than one million grains on the 21st square of the board. By the 64th square of the board the number of grain would be larger than the number of grain that the Prince owned. Exponential growth can quickly create enormous increases, something that can be seen in for example nature when cell samples increase in the same way until they consume all resources in laboratory experiments. If something increase with 0,1 % every year the doubling time would be 700 years, If something increases with 1% the doubling time would be 70 years, 4% mean 18 years, 7% ten years, 10% seven years and so on.

Limitation in the natural world
The base of the theory is that the world only has a certain number of non renewable resources and that if the human population continue to grow in an exponential way the human civilization will be unable to sustain the population.

The scientist also fear that this can cause an overshoot. An overshoot is a term from biology that refers to a situation when for example a species rapidly increase through exponential growth over the carrying capacity of the environment, causing the population to collapse. The theory is that the world only has a number of non renewable resources that has been accumulated during a long period of time like topsoil, ground water, forests, fossil fuels and other recourses that allow the human population to increase beyond the limits of what that is sustainable in long term perspective. So without these non renewable resources the planet will not have the carrying capacity to support the world population.

Computer models
The scientist has then used computer simulation to simulate different scenarios from the data that was available when the report was made. Some of the predictions have been very precise like the population increase in the world that has gone from 3,6 billion in 1972 when the report was written to the almost 6,8 billion people that the world has today 40 years later. The computer models were created with assistance from researchers working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Perspectives on Technology
The report also discuss Positive and Negative views on technology and what possibilities that future technology will present for solving problems with food, energy, pollution and other issues. I believe that this view can seen clearly today where some researchers believe that continued global exponential growth can cause a collapse and other how believe that technology will find solutions for every problem.

Prospects for the future
The researchers of the book also discuss the possibility of changing the system from the system that we had towards a more sustainable system. They believe that gradual change is desired but that’s it not likely that governments will take actions to ensure a sustainable development. This was written in 1972. The researchers also conclude that the longer humanity wait, the less options there will be to change the system. Another conclusion is that sooner or later there will be a change. The question is only if it will be naturally imposed by reaching the limitations to growth. In this case all we have to do is to just wait and see what happens. From this perspective taking no action is making a choice. Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world closer to the ultimate limit of growth. The solution suggested is to find a State of Equilibrium where humanity can live on the earth finding sustainable solutions without exponential growth.

The Limits of Growth suggest that if the human society continues to grow at an exponential rate the human race will sooner or later deplete the non renewable resources that it depends on causing an overshoot resulting in a situation whne the human population no longer can be sustained. There has also been two updates to the book, one 20 years after the first book was first published in 1992; “Beyond The Limits: Global Collapse or Sustainable Development” and another update 30 years later ;“The Limits On Growth the 30 years update”. The original 1972 report was written during the cold war and whole different time than the one we live in today, but the theory presented is very similar to theories presented by contemporary scientists and writers.

New additions
Many researchers view the world from a similar perspective, two new examples are Joseph Tainter, author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies” and Jared Diamond author of “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Succeed Or Fail”. Both Diamond and Tainter has done research on past human societies that have failed or collapsed and directly and indirectly support the theory that human societies often have depleted the resources and destroyed the environment on which they depend, sometimes with disastrous consequences like the case of the Eastern Islands. The Peak Oil Movement can also be viewed from a similar perspective even if it’s mainly focused on the depletion of fossil fuels and the consequences of this. Partly this concept has also been adapted by other writers like Michael Ruppert and Dmitry Orlov.

The Theory of the Limits of Growth raises some serious question about how human societies work and the future for the human civilization project. The theory is also in sharp contradiction with current political ideologies that all favor and speak of growth, no matter if they present a perspective that’s from the left / right, conservative or liberal, socialist / capitalistic or even a green perspective. Exponential growth has been the truth for the human civilization since the beginning of the industrialized revolution and is something that is deeply rooted in our minds and ideologies. This produces an enormous ideological difference between those how believe that growth has limits and those how believe that there is basically no limits to growth, a view shared by many within the economic community.

It’s my personal belief that today’s economical system is largely focused on short term profits. The focus of this system is not what will happen in ten or twenty years, but what happens with the profits and budget this year. This short term perspective is profitable for many; states, individuals and companies but may prove to be a bad lens in order to identify long terms threats. In short: We are too focused on the present to think about the future. Exponential growth has been a truth for a long time, why would anyone expect that’s this will not be the case in the future?

Personally I do that there are limits to growth and that the earth can’t sustain an unlimited amount of people. When this point will be reached and exactly what consequences this will have is hard to say. Some researchers say that we may already be there, others that it may take place within decades or hundreds of years. So what can one expect if this scenario would come true? One obvious factor is that economic growth will slow down and eventually start to decline on a regional or global level. Starvation and Famine will start to increase and the people suffering for malnourishment will start to increase. The access to other commodities like oil, land, fresh water, energy and metals will become more scares when more people will have to share fewer resources. It’s also possible that new solutions may solve problems with energy and other issues, if this will happen can only time tell.

Survival and Preparedness
If the theory of “The Limits to Growth” would become a reality the world as we know will change in drastic ways. One can only speculate how the human societies will manage such a situation, but my guess is that politicians and others will have a hard time identifying the reasons for why this decline of growth takes place and that there will be major ideological clashes between different groups. This will mean that we would have to redefine the way we perceive the world.

So how does one prepare for such a scenario? The first part that would be hard to overcome is the perception that we will always have continued economical growth. The other part would be to find sustainable solution for issues like food production, water sources, energy and eventually learning how to make do with fewer resources.

There are also organizations like the Transition Network that works to teach people self sufficiency, self reliance, canning and other skills. Some of the threats that they envision are Peak Oil and resource depletion. This type of groups does not only offer the possibility to learn skills for long term survival and self sufficiency but also offers an opportunity to get involved, network and get to know people with similar interests.

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