Cassandra's curse: how "The Limits to Growth" was demonized

Cassandra's story is very old: she was cursed that she would always tell the truth and never be believed. But it is also a very modern story and, perhaps, the quintessential Cassandras of our age are the group of scientists who prepared and published in 1972 the book titled "The Limits to Growth". With its scenarios of civilization collapse, the book shocked the world perhaps more than Cassandra had shocked her fellow Trojan citizens when she had predicted the fall of their city to the Achaeans. Just as Cassandra was not believed, so it was for the "Limits to Growth" which, today, is still widely seen as a thoroughly flawed study, wrong all along. This opinion is based only on lies and distortions but, apparently, Cassandra's curse is still alive and well in our times.

Above: image from an Athenian red vase from 5th century BC: Cassandra falls victim of the usual destiny of those who tell inconvenient truths.

The first book of the "The Limits to Growth" series was published in 1972 by a group of researchers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William Behrens III. The book reported the results of a study commissioned by a group of intellectuals who had formed the "Club of Rome" a few years before. It examined the evolution of the whole world's economy by means of a mathematical model based on "system dynamics", a method that had been developed earlier on by Jay W. Forrester. Using computers, a novelty for the time, the LTG world model could keep track of a large number of variables and of their interactions as the system changed with time. The authors developed a number of scenarios for the world's future in various assumptions. They found that, unless specific measures were taken, the world's economy tended to collapse at some time in 21st century. The collapse was caused by a combination of resource depletion, overpopulation, and growing pollution (this last element we would see today as related to global warming).

In 1972, the LTG study arrived in a world that had known more than two decades of unabated growth after the end of the Second World War. It was a time of optimism and faith in technological progress that, perhaps, had never been so strong in the history of humankind. With nuclear power on the rise, with no hint that mineral resources were scarce, with population growing fast, it seemed that the limits to growth, if such a thing existed, were so far away in the future that there was no reason to worry. In any case, even if these limits were closer than generally believed, didn't we have technology to save us? With nuclear energy on the rise, a car in every garage, the Moon just conquered in 1968, the world seemed to be all set for a shiny future. Against that general feeling, the results of LTG were a shock.

There is a legend lingering around the LTG report that says that it was laughed off as an obvious quackery immediately after it was published. It is not true. The study was debated and criticized, as it is normal for a new theory or idea. But it raised enormous interest and millions of copies were sold. Evidently, despite the general optimism of the time, the study had given visibility to a feeling that wasn't often expressed but that was in everybody's minds. Can we really grow forever? And if we can't, for how long can growth last? The LTG study provided an answer to these questions; not a pleasant one, but an answer nevertheless.

The LTG study had everything that was needed to become a major advance in science. It came from a prestigious institution, the MIT; it was sponsored by a group of brilliant and influential intellectuals, the Club of Rome; it used the most modern and advanced computation techniques and, finally, the events that were taking place a few years after publication, the great oil crisis of the 1970s, seemed to confirm the vision of the authors. Yet, the study failed in generating a robust current of academic research and, a couple of decades after the publication, the general opinion about it had completely changed. Far from being considered the scientific revolution of the century, in the 1990s LTG had become everyone's laughing stock. Little more than the rumination of a group of eccentric (and probably slightly feebleminded) professors who had really thought that the end of the world was near. In short, Chicken Little with a computer.

The reversal of fortunes of LTG was gradual and involved a debate that lasted for decades. At first, critics reacted with little more than a series of statements of disbelief which carried little weight. There were a few early papers carrying more in-depth criticism, notably by William Nordhaus (1973) and by a group of researchers of the university of Sussex that went under the name of the "Sussex Group" (Cole 1973). Both studies raised a number of interesting points but failed in their attempt of demonstrating that the LTG study was flawed in its basic assumptions.

Already these early papers by Nordhaus and by the Sussex group showed an acrimonious streak that became common in the debate from the side of the critics. Political criticism, personal attacks and insults against the LTG authors, and in general a rather rude attitude. For instance, the editor of the journal that had published Nordhaus' 1973 paper refused to published Forrester's response to it. With time, the debate veered more and more on the political side. In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia, noted that the reaction against the LTG study had arrived from at least four different fronts. One was from those who saw the book as a threat to the growth of their businesses and industries. A second set was that of professional economists, who saw LTG as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters. The Catholic world provided further ammunition for the critics, being piqued at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of the major causes of the problems. Then, the political left in the Western World saw the LTG study as a scam of the ruling class, designed to trick workers into believing that the proletarian paradise was not a practical goal. And this by Nebbia is a clearly incomplete list; forgetting religious fundamentalists, the political right, the believers in infinite growth, politicians seeking for easy solutions to all problems and many others.

All together, these groups formed a formidable coalition that guaranteed a strong reaction against LTG. This reaction eventually succeeded in demolishing the study in the eyes of the majority of the public and of specialists at the same time. This demolition was greatly helped by a factor that initially had bolstered the credibility of the study: the world oil crisis of the 1970s

The crisis had peaked in 1979 but, in the years that followed, oil started flowing abundantly from the North Sea and from Saudi Arabia. With oil prices plummeting down, it seemed to many that the crisis had been nothing but a scam; the failed attempt of a group of fanatic sheiks of dominating the world using oil as a weapon. Oil, it seemed, was, and had always been, plentiful and was destined to remain so forever. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the "New Economy" appearing, all worries seemed to be over. History had ended and all what we needed to do was to relax and enjoy the fruits that our high technology would provide for us.

At this point, a perverse effect started to act on people's minds. In the late 1980s, all what was remembered of the LTG book, published almost two decades before, was that it had predicted some kind of catastrophe at some moment in the future. If the world oil crisis had been that catastrophe, as it had seemed to many, the fact that it was over was the refutation of the same prediction. This factor had a major effect on people's perception of the LTG study.

The change in attitudes was gradual and spanned a number of years, however we can locate a specific date and an author for the actual turning point, the switch that changed LTG from a respectable, if debatable, study to everybody's laughing stock. It happened in 1989 when Ronald Bailey, science editor of the Forbes magazine, published a sneering attack (Bailey 1989) against Jay Forrester, the father of system dynamics. The attack was also directed against the LTG book which Bailey said was, “as wrong-headed as it is possible to be”. To prove his point Bailey revived an observation that had already been made in 1972 by a group of economists on the "New York Times" (Passel 1972). Bailey said that:

“Limits to Growth” predicted that at 1972 rates of growth the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, copper, lead and natural gas by 1993.

In 1993 Bailey reiterated his accusations in the book titled “Ecoscam.” This time, he could state that none of the predictions of the 1972 LTG study had turned out to be correct.

Of course, Bailey’s accusations are just plain wrong. What he had done was extracting a fragment of the LTG text and criticizing it out of context. In table 4 of the second chapter of the book, he had found a row of data (column 2) for the duration, expressed in years, of some mineral resources. He had presented these data as the only "predictions" that the study had made and he had based his criticism on that, totally ignoring the rest of the book.

Reducing a book of more than a hundred pages to a few numbers is not the only fault of Bailey's criticism. The fact is that none of the numbers he had selected was a prediction and nowhere in the book it was stated that these numbers were supposed to be read as such. Table 4 was there only to illustrate the effect of a hypothetical continued exponential growth on the exploitation of mineral resources. Even without bothering to read the whole book, the text of chapter 2 clearly stated that continued exponential growth was not to be expected. The rest of the book, then, showed various scenarios of economic collapse that in no case took place before the first decades of 21st century.

It would have taken little effort to debunk Bailey's claims. But it seemed that, despite the millions of copies sold, all the LTG books had ended in the garbage bin. Or, perhaps, browsing one's shelves was considered too much of an effort to be worth doing in a moment when, with the new economy starting to run, there were better things to do. Whatever the case, Bailey's criticism had success and it started behaving with all the characteristics of what we call today “urban legends." We all know how persistent urban legends can be, no matter how silly they are. At the time of Bailey's article and book, the internet as we know it didn't exist yet, but word of mouth and the press were sufficient to spread and multiply the legend of the "wrong predictions" of the LTG study.

Just to give an example, let's see how Bailey's text even reached the serious scientific literature. In 1993, William Nordhaus had published a paper titled “Lethal Models” which was meant as an answer to the second edition of LTG, published in 1992. Despite the title, a little aggressive to say the least, it was a serious study. In it, Nordhaus criticized the 1992 LTG study, but also corrected some of the most glaring mistakes of his first study on the subject (Nordhaus 1973). However, the paper was accompanied by a series of texts by various authors grouped under the title of “Comments and Discussion”. A better definition of that section would have been "feeding frenzy" as criticism of this distinguished group of academic economists clearly went out of control. Among these texts, we find one by Robert Stavins, an economist from Harvard University, where we can read that:

If we check today to see how the Limits I predictions have turned out, we learn that (according to their estimates) gold, silver, mercury, zinc, and lead should be thoroughly exhausted, with natural gas running out within the next eight years. Of course, this has not happened.

That, obviously, is taken straight from Bailey. Apparently, the excitement of a "Limits-bashing" session had led Stavins to forget that it is the duty of a serious scientist to check the reliability of the sources that he or she cites. Unfortunately, with this paper the legend of the “wrong predictions” of LTG was even enshrined in a serious academic journal.

With the 1990s, and in particular with the development of the internet, we can say that the dam gave way and a true flood of criticism swamped LTG and its authors. One after the other, scientists, journalists, and whoever felt entitled to discuss the subject, started repeating the same line over and over: the LTG study had predicted a catastrophe that didn’t take place and therefore the whole idea was wrong.

After a while the concept of the “wrong predictions” became so widespread that it wasn’t any more necessary to state in detail what these wrong predictions were. At some point, it became politically incorrect even to declare that LTG might have been, after all, not so wrong as some people thought. The criticism could also become aggressive and I can cite at least one internet page where you can read that the authors of the LTG book should be killed, cut to pieces, and their organs sent to organ banks. Hopefully, that was meant as a joke (perhaps). Today, we can use Google to find Bailey's legend repeated on the internet literally thousands of times in various forms, with minimal variations. In hundreds of cases, it is exactly the same, cut and pasted as it is; in others it is just slightly modified.

At this point, we may ask ourselves whether this wave of slander had arisen by itself, as the result of the normal mechanism of human legends, or it had been somehow masterminded by someone, the result of what we call nowadays "viral marketing". Can we think of a conspiracy organized against the LTG group, or against their sponsors, the Club of Rome?

The question is not unreasonable since the LTG authors were accused in all seriousness by ostensibly respectable researchers to be themselves the acting branch of an evil conspiracy organized by the oil multinationals in order to enslave most of humankind and create "a kind of fanatical dictatorship" (Golub and Towsend, 1977). Could it be that the LTG group were victims, rather than perpetrators, of a conspiracy?

On this point we can seek an analogy with the case of Rachel Carson, well known for her book “Silent Spring” of 1962 in which she criticized the overuse of DDT and other pesticides. Also Carson's book was strongly criticized and demonized. Kimm Groshong has reviewed the story and she tells us in her 2002 study that:

The minutes from a meeting of the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, Inc. on May 8, 1962, demonstrate this curious stance. Discussing the matter of what was printed in Carson’s serialization in the New Yorker, the official notes read: "The Association has the matter under serious consideration, and a meeting of the Public Relations Committee has been scheduled on August 10 to discuss measures which should be taken to bring the matter back to proper perspective in the eyes of the public."

Whether we can call that a "conspiracy" is open to discussion, but clearly there was an organized effort on the part of the chemical industry against Rachel Carson's ideas. By analogy, we could think that, in some smoke filled room, representatives of the world's industry had gathered to decide what measures to take against the LTG study in order to “bring the matter back to proper perspective in the eyes of the public”

We can't rule out that something like that took place, but it seems unlikely. Surely, think tanks and political groups financed studies that were likely to arrive to conclusions differing from those of LTG. But the demolition of the LTG ideas seems to have been mainly a spontaneous process, probably helped, but not directly caused, by economic interests. The 1989 article by Ronald Bailey was no more than a catalyst for something that, most likely, would have taken place anyway. It was the result of the tendency of our minds to believe what we want to believe and to disbelieve what we don’t want to believe.

Now, in the early years of 21st century the general attitude towards LTG seems to be changing again. The war, after all, is won by those who win the last battle and the LTG ideas are becoming again popular. One of the first cases of reappraisal has been that of Matthew Simmons (2000), expert on crude oil resources. It seems that the "peak oil movement" has been instrumental in bringing back to attention the LTG study. Indeed, oil depletion can be seen as a subset of the world model used in the study (Bardi 2008).

Climate studies have also brought back the limits of resources to attention; in this case intended as the limited capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of human activities. In this field, the LTG study can be seen as having taken the right approach from the beginning; modeling for the first time the interaction of the environment with the human industrial and agricultural system.

But it is not at all obvious that a certain view of the world, one that takes into account the finite amount of resources, is going to become prevalent, or even just respectable. Consider that, in the 1980s - 1990s, a decade of lull in oil prices was enough to convince everyone that all worries about resource depletion were akin to the substance that male bovines produce from their rear end. Now, imagine that for some reasons the world's average temperatures were to stabilize, or even slightly go down, for some years. Or imagine that oil prices were to stabilize or go down for some years. That wouldn't change anything to the concepts of global warming and peak oil, which deal both with long term changes. But it would be sufficient to unleash a smear wave similar to that which engulfed LTG. It could easily do the same damage to the efforts against global warming and oil depletion.

Prophets of doom, nowadays, are not stoned to death, at least not usually. Demolishing ideas that we don't like is done in a rather subtler manner. The success of the smear campaign against the LTG ideas shows the power of propaganda and of urban legends in shaping the public perception of the world, exploiting our innate tendency of rejecting bad news. Because of these tendencies, the world has chosen to ignore the warning of impending collapse that came from the LTG study. In so doing, we have lost more than 30 years. Now, there are signs that we may be starting to heed the warning, but it may be too late and we may still be doing too little. Cassandra's curse may still be upon us.


Bailey, Ronald 1989, “Dr. Doom” Forbes, Oct 16, p. 45

Bardi, U. 2008, "Peak oil and the Limits to Growth: two parallel stories", The Oil Drum.

Cole H.S.D., Freeman C., Jahoda M., Pavitt K.L.R., 1973, “Models of Doom” Universe Books, New York

Golub R., Townsend J., 1977, “Malthus, Multinationals and the Club of Rome” vol 7, p 201-222

Groshong, K. 2002, "The Noisy Response to Silent Spring: Placing Rachel Carson’s Work in Context!, Pomona College, Science, Technology, and Society Department Senior Thesis

Nebbia, G. 1997, Futuribili, New Series, Gorizia (Italy) 4(3) 149-82

Nordhaus W., 1973 “Word Dynamics: Measurements without Data“, The Economic Journal n. 332.

Nordhaus W. D., 1992, “Lethal Models” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2, 1

Passel, P., Roberts, M., Ross L., 1972, New York Times, April 2

Simmons, M., 2000, “Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?”

A fine essay, thank you.

Reminds me of a time when I was part of an academic workshop and brought up Limits to Growth with one of my colleagues (who I really like and respect) and he blurted out "but they got all their predictions wrong." I just stopped in my tracks, dumbfounded, because I had just read the book and it appeared to have done just the opposite: not making any "firm" predictions, while still developing frightening scenarios that looked eerily familiar when reading the news.

Exactly so, and thank you Ugo. I read the original in 1972 and have always held the view that Meadows got it about right and so I have let the book influence me throughout my adult life. I think it has helped me to see the world as it really is. I commend, to those who haven't read it yet, the 2005 version, Limits to Growth the 30 Year Update, Meadows, Randers and Meadows. Pub. Earthscan.

I can say that it had a similar impression upon me as a new engineering (ChE) student. We were required to read it as part of the Introduction to Engineering Course that we all took. Seems we read Jay Forrester's work before LTG came out.

The lesson objective was that in dealing with complex exponentials counter-intuitive outcomes and counter-intuitive steps to "prevent" disaster were likely to be required and definitely considered.

It is a common experience. Still last month I was interviewed by a journalist who started it asking me something like: "Don't you think that your views could turn out to be as wrong as the predictions of the Club of Rome in the 1970s?" The power of propaganda is truly awesome.

I have read M R Simmons summary "Revisiting the Club of Rome", also his book TITD.

Is the CERA Lynch/C.J Campbell saga not disimilar to this? Campbell is often accused of incorrectly predicting oil depletion dates. I,m not sure he actually did. He may have made reference to dates, but not necessarily predictions. From where I'm standing, the Simmons/Campbell camp may have the last "laugh" on this one. (It won't be funny)

Hi Ugo,

Thank you for the thoughtful post and starting this discussion. I have also had the experience, after a seminar, of hearing, "Your work is like Limits to Growth and the Club of Rome. They got it wrong."

In that context, it is interesting to look at nonrenewable resource use in the two scenarios from Limits to Growth, The 30-Year Update, shown below.

Figure 4-11 Scenario 1: A Reference Point

Figure 4-12: More Abundant Nonrenewable Resources

"Resources" in the graph means nonrenewable resources, and the top of the resources scale is given in Appendix 1 as 2x10^12. The units are not specified, but if we identify fossil fuels with nonrenewable resources, Ttoe is a reasonable fit. If this interpretation is wrong, someone please correct me. In Scenario 1, the ultimate would then be 1Ttoe, and the cumulative production would reach half of this by 2016. In Scenario 2, the ultimate would be 2Ttoe, and we would reach the half-way point by 2040. This range of years for the half-way point would probably be considered reasonable by many Oil Drum regulars.

There are 8 other Scenarios in the book, and they all use the higher ultimate. The nonrenewable resource use in most is similar to Scenario 2, but there are a wide range of responses for the other quantities.


A fine essay, thank you.

Reminds me of a time when I was part of an academic workshop and brought up Limits to Growth with one of my colleagues (who I really like and respect) and he blurted out "but they got all their predictions wrong." I just stopped in my tracks, dumbfounded, because I had just read the book and it appeared to have done just the opposite: not making any "firm" predictions, while still developing frightening scenarios that looked eerily familiar when reading the news.

Seconded (both your praise of Ugo's post and the following note).

I never cease to be amazed at how many people misunderstood LTG...

Look, do you guys seriously expect people to read something before criticising it?

Next you'll be saying we have to taste a meal before saying it's good or bad, watch a movie before reviewing it, and look at a woman before deciding she's ugly.

Really this is just a ridiculous standard that's being set here.

As an undergraduate at Carnegie-Mellon in the early seventies, one of the profs actually got a copy of the program used and we got to run it for one of our chem-eng courses (box of Fortran cards running on an IBM 360). Made an impression on me at the time, mainly because of the assumptions you had to make to not have a disaster in the 21st century.

I graduated from high school the year LTG came out. I was fascinated by the idea and had some programming experience so took on the project of translating the code in Jay Forrester, "World Dynamics" into Fortran and duplicating his results. I would have arguments with my dad in those days about the validity of the whole thing. I would argue that if you did not like some aspect of the model, then suggest something more likely - and we can test out that supposition. My father would argue that there are human factors - our response to conditions, that can't be included in models. We are at the crossroads now. Is humanity able to collectively see our current conundrum and change direction in time, or are we subject to the coefficients in the LTG models?
Since that time the study of complex systems has become an independent discipline of its own. We now know more about the evolution of chaotic systems, about islands of stability, and bifurcation in state space to new uncharted regimes. At the time, the LTG study just said that when the lines on the graphs became too vertical, the models broke down. From the perspectives of complexity theory, this is still the way it is - we just expect that after a period of unpredictable thrashing, the system will come to another quasi-stable equilibrium - that may or may not include a population of human beings.

I think a key problem for those of us trying to prepare for the future is the tendency of humans (reinforced by the media) to want "predictions." I was struck by how the Limits to Growth study discussed scenarios - which opponents then claimed were predictions. Problem is, no one can predict the future - but we can reasonably consider the evidence and anticipate possible scenarios as to what might happen, so as to be prepared, as Limits to Growth was advocating.

Even though the Limits to Growth didn't fall into The Prediction Trap (the title of my upcoming book, which you can preview at my web site), their opponents realized the power of painting the study as a prediction. As noted, if you demolish one prediction, credibility for the rest of the information plummets - though for some reason this doesn't seem to apply to economic predictions...

In fact, maybe that is the way out for Peak Oil awareness. Rather than trying to convince people of peak oil, maybe we should make a significant effort to publicize the predictions of peak oil deniers - like the oil price predictions that the EIA and others have made for years, that are widely off base.

P.S. Another frustrating piece of history: Jimmy Carter's speech on energy April 18, 1977:

Thanks for writing this. The opening chaper of LTG, the 30 Year Update (prior mentioned) discusses the smear campaign. There were also numerous other models created that puported to show more "opimistic" outcomes, though the primary suppression technique of LTG was, as you mentioned, to make false quotations of specific predictions and then shoot them down. I use the LTG 30 Year Update graphs in a traveling slideshow I conduct. One of the most fascinating things about the LTG models is how little future growth we get our or increased/ new energy supplies. A doubling of available resources only gives us 10-15 years more growth. Again, not an exact prediction, but it points out how powerfully growth can consume resources, and the moot nature of "alternative" fuels if we cannot control growth. LTG remains a profound and powerful study, but one that contradicts the western cosmology, hence the suppression. Ted Trainer's more recent book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society makes some similar points.

There are two other groups that are doing good work within a limits to growth model. The folks over at


have done quite good work assessing the condition of fresh water, fisheries, forests, soil, etc. and have concluded that humanity crossed into overshoot sometime in the 80's. Overshoot can last only so long. It seems that we are going to bump into the limits rather soon, perhaps led by biofuels and increased food prices.

As for why the populace "spontaneously" denigrated Limits to Growth, I think a good place to look is the various discourses (long-lived, society-wide conversations) that are operating at any given moment in the network of human conversations. In fact, I assert that the response the LTG researchers got was in no way spontaneous.

Foucault distinguished various epistemes for humanity, which could loosely be thought of as "proscribed ways of thinking" and these, he said, were governed by discourses. To Foucault, we are currently living in the "things always progress" episteme, which started, I believe, at the beginning of the 19th century. A discourse will express itself in various sub-conversations. Obama's "audacity of hope" message is a variant of "things always progress." The expectation that our standard of living "should" always increase is another variant. Given that episteme/discourse (I shall use discourse herein), it's no wonder LTG was fought against.

Discourses have the effect of acting like a paradigm or context inside of which we think. Almost everything thought by most humans will have reference to or live inside of the current prevailing discourses. Some discourses live in just one society, others seem to be shared by most humans (the discourse for war seems to be global, the discourse for women's equality is specific to just a few countries). The few people who recognize the prevailing discourses and step outside of them will trigger the immune system of the prevailing discourse.

The people who express the discourse defending itself don't say to themselves, "Such and such a person is breaking the discourse." They often reason and gather evidence and make cogent arguments (or not so cogent as it happens) — all inside the discourse — all while they have no idea of the constraints that are operating on them. They don't know that the discourse is, in a very real way, using them to express itself. This doesn't negate the concept of "free will," it just means that an individual must "be woken up" by someone who teaches them that that discourses are running the show most of the time. The Eastern concept of enlightenment is merely the individual distinguishing them-self from the discourses. Just by reading this, some people will have something click that never did before and thus become "enlightened." (Others will resist what I'm saying but perhaps the seed will be planted.)

In my experience, especially when significant emotion is present, it's almost always a discourse doing the speaking; the individual and any "free will" recedes to the background.

My wife and I have fun asking ourselves: which conversation is running me right now? When I'm "plugged in" during an argument with her, it's the "I'm right, you're wrong" conversation and it takes effort to interrupt that. When we discuss money, a whole host of conversations want to take over, but the predominant one for me is "conserve in case the future brings something unknown" and I have to watch that or I won't take calculated risks.

A discourse that is arising in the world right now is the one to do with peak oil. A discourse that took a while to graduate from being just a conversation to a full-fledged discourse is "global warming."

If people respond to this comment, the perceptive reader will try to distinguish which discourses are operating. Blogs are wonderful places to study discourses.


A brilliant jewel of a post.

Connecting dots, there's also the ArchDruid:

and Transactional Analysis

and Apperception and Narrative

.. which like all evolving systems, are challenged to adapt - when the bases and assumptions on which they are founded and grow - and if the change is too great they will fail to thrive.

Which underlies my realistic-assumption/pessimism about PO and GW; we seem no more able to avoid catastrophe than and ant's nest in a forest fire...

Discourse: 'me too' / 'im ok, youre ok' ;)


Hi, jmullee. Thanks for the kind words.

The ArchDruid post is fabulous...the author definitely was noticing discourses operating in their blog.

The Transaction Analysis post is good because it shows that conversations can be assigned an age to them. For instance, when I am emotional, my conversations tend to become quite young ("I did too leave my keys right there, you must have taken them!" — an embarrassing actual conversation).

"It's not fair" is another very young conversation that we learn very early and most of us never really let go. In fact, the concept of fairness is employed everywhere and is the basis of much legislation and generally how we interact with each other. People become quite indignant when the "it's not fair" conversation is operating them. Something being fair or not is simply a product of a prevailing discourse. The universe at its core is just doing its universe thing and it takes us humans to assign the concept of "fair" or "unfair." Without humans (more specifically, without the presence of representational language), "fair" could not exist.

Many people are going to see peak oil as "unfair" and stay at that age. For people who speak publicly about peak oil or any other serious matter that occurs as threatening to people, the job is always to lead the audience into an adult conversation before the speech is complete.

The age of conversations on blogs often becomes quite young, somewhere around the 3 to 6 year-old range. I like The Oil Drum because the age of the conversations is overwhelmingly adult (although every once in a while it does get quite young). The people conversing here, I think, are very good at keeping the conversation age high and I see them often resisting to lower the age when someone else has started down that road.

I didn't read the whole of the last link but it appears to distinguish the set of conversations that humans use as part of their identity (their concept of self), particularly as it shows up in novels and stories.

You assigned your response "me too" / "i'm ok, you're ok" (thanks for playing with me!) and it seems valid to me. Because of your comments re: our inability to avoid catastrophe, the larger discourse your comments might fit within might be "it's hopeless" or as some people have chosen to label it, "we're doomed."

That, of course, is just another discourse. :-)



From all accounts, and from a fairly wide and varied bunch of friends here in little old Ireland, our societies are basically captive to these discourses that focus on economic performance to the exclusion of practically all else.

Within my lifetime i've seen televisions supplant and eradicate a sustained culture which has probably survived on the irish western seaboard for something like 8000 years.

Archaelogical finds suggest that after the ice age, our forebears lived day to day with essentially the same equipment used by my grandparents, minus a bit of metal and finer textiles.

If 'the powers that be' - and these same powers have had the foresight to avoid investing in public transport, education and health for decades (/sarcsm) - continue to ignore anything not of immediate concern to a tiny group of undereducated postcolonial investors (who are all assured positions on the board of directors from birth), then indeed it is prudent to cost-benefit some preparations for the worst-case scenario.

These people have homes without bookshelves ! - they remind me of the migratory groups that Jared Diamond described in 'guns germs and steel' who, in adapting to the very easy life on a paradisiacal island, even lost the ability to make fire.

Editorial control of the narrative, of the consensual hallucination, has historically here in ireland been the privilege of the Fili, or druids and poets.

These days the same power lies in the hands of the 'free' press, entirely beholden to advertisers eager to appeal to the most-easily-stimulatable desires of thier selected demographic segments.

So this situation has very carefully stripped out any consideration of, or responsiveness to, anything but the bottom dollar and the quarterly result.

I even heard that G.W.Bush's administration excludes from consideration anything further away than 3 months.

The extreme feminist views of kristeva and cisoux etc, demolishing the entire patrifocal linear narrative seemed to me to be a recipie for mass psychosis (might explain the huge number of pharmacies in urban france !).

Narratives seem essential to psychological coherence, though perhaps I lack the imagination to see beyond the camp-fire-light.

I can't forsee the emergence of any force or factor sufficiently strong and coherent to cause real change in the discourse, except for the olduvai cliff itself.

TVs are still filled wall-to-wall with car and holiday adverts (last time I looked at one).

The only examples I can think of, of societies whose discourses were demolished, are those vanquished by colonising forces; think of proud, fierce and wild amazonas hunters ending up shining shoes in a slum in Rio.

Perhaps that is what is really in store for us all - an end to captivity and return to the feral state, ironically just at the point when we have captured the last remaining wild humans in the snares of consumerism.

At end also I should confess that in selecting the doomer banner to march behind, I find purpose and invigoration .. which I lacked whilst contemplating a future history comprised only of ever-more-'efficient' mass consumerism!

So, in conclusion, am I betting my kids lives that somehow Bruce Willis will turn up and compel us all to power-down to 19th century tech?


I wouldn't miss this for all the chi in china :)


The universe at its core is just doing its universe thing and it takes us humans to assign the concept of "fair" or "unfair." Without humans (more specifically, without the presence of representational language), "fair" could not exist.

Many people are going to see peak oil as "unfair" and stay at that age. For people who speak publicly about peak oil or any other serious matter that occurs as threatening to people, the job is always to lead the audience into an adult conversation before the speech is complete.

Andre, I wanted to thank you and note an appreciation for your posts in general and this one in particular. Well done.

"fairness" may be one of the most intransigent and harmful "monkey concepts" we have to come to grips with (and probably won't). Even among intelligent folks, "making the situation fair" is often a tacit overlay for any consideration or action. It drastically limits the rational options for action.


You're welcome, greenish. Thanks for reading them :-).


Andre - what a thoughtful post!

Last year I was having a conversation with my sister about what I call "the unsustainable growth economy" (GDP growth of 2 to 3% anually). She is an economist so she more than anyone should realize that economic growth always reaches a peak and then deminishing returns. She argued against my assertions and finally at the end of the conversation she made a plea, "I need that growth to continue because otherwise my IRA will fail to mature and I won't ever be able to retire!"

LTG is an emotional issue for people and the challenge of defusing that psycology is difficult to impossible. Simply winning an argument is a waste of time if the loser of the argument is still attached to their original beliefs.

I was one of 3 speakers at an evening set of presentations around earth day once and one of the speakers mentioned this "need for retirement accounts to grow" as one of the last arguments put forth by academics who find themselves failing to respond in any other way.

Reminds me of Andre's child talk!

Well, that's what it is. People believe in things because those things make the world make sense to them.

About three years ago I was talking to a friend with a heavy mortgage. He said it was alright because "house prices will always go up", so if the payments were too hard for him they could just sell.
"They can't go up forever," I said.
"Why not?"
"At some point the price of housing will be greater than the average family can afford."
"Oh then people will demand higher wages, wages will go up so it'll be okay."
"When incomes and prices go up together, that's called inflation, mate. If I earn $10 an hour and bread is $1, if tomorrow bread goes to $2 then my income going to $20 an hour leaves me exactly where I was, paying 10% of my income on bread."
"But... prices have to keep going up."
"Why? They might even go down. Houses are like anything else, demand is high up goes the price, demand is low down goes the price."
"House prices can't drop!"
"Why not?"
"Because then we'd be fucked. What would we do?"

Lots of people confuse the way they want things to be with the way they are :) Thus the difficulty in understanding the concept of limits to growth.

Hey André

Great comment! Foucault discources seem very similar to meme theory that I was first exposed to in Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.

Jason Brenno and I at the Hubbert Tribute are uncovering startling new information about how the "things always progress" discourse has manifested itself in United States energy policy over the past six decades.

If we continue on the current trajectory of misinformation about the tightening of the oil market in major media (i.e., anything but peak), the new dominant post-peak discourse will be that the permanent energy crisis we are experiencing was a result of our not understanding energy or perhaps ignoring some obscure experts. We will likely be told that our energy policy of the past really was not an energy policy but that no one really knew what was happening at the time - that it was all just misguided, unorganized optimism and that we could not have done anything differently given the circumstances of the time. This is far from the truth.

In reality, all the information was on the table in the decade of the 1950s. Recoverable resource estimates in 1950s - which have proven to be highly accurate - indicated that we needed to be very careful with how we planned our future. Various experts including Hubbert, Pogue and Hill of Chase Manhattan Bank, and Andrew Crichton predicted that U.S. oil, natural gas, and coal resources could not possibly support a high growth economy for any reasonable length of time. A rational review of the recoverable resource estimates of the time suggests that we needed to begin a long term plan to create a sustainable society based on proven renewable energy sources.

As an example, take a look at the peak diagram that Chase Manhattan Bank's Petroleum Group put out in 1956. Hubbert was not alone in the wilderness. At least not at first.

In the stupor technological optimism, we have overestimated the value of technology and underestimated that of energy as explained by Stuart Udall's 1976 essay "Super Technology: The God that Failed" and now as you point out by Robert Hirsch.

Over the next year, The Hubbert Tribute will show that the discourse of "things always progress" has led us over the past six decades to bet our economy and future on speculative technological advances that never come to fruition. In the late 1950s, key individuals in government, think tanks, and corporations opted to use their influence and decision making capacity to forward a perpetual high-growth economy dependent on high-grade finite fossil fuels in the hopes that technology would make low-grade resources economic over time.

They believed that speculative technological advances including coal to liquids, oil shale, breeder reactors, fusion, and enhanced oil recovery would become economic in the long run, thereby justifying the continuing growth of a consumerist suburban, car-oriented way of life and fueling the development of a highly industrial globalized system for the rest of the world.

This discourse still governs a highly ineffective mainstream energy policy discussion peppered with oft-unchallenged assumptions that many of the speculative "solutions" of the past and a few newer concepts (e.g., hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol) will be able to seamlessly replace oil, capture any carbon that is emitted in the process and eventually substitute any finite fossil fuel resource when its exhaustion is imminent.

Stay tuned...

Cassandra falls victim of the usual destiny of those who tell inconvenient truths.

I have sometimes described an encounter I had after I gave a presentation on Peak Oil to a local Rotary Club in Dallas. A gentleman came up and said that while he agreed with what I had said, he was surprised that I had not yet been assassinated. He was of course (mostly) kidding, but it does illustrate the old adage about the difficulty of trying to get someone to understand something when their income is depdendent on them not understanding you.

Thank you, Ugo, for posting your interesting historical perspective on the research efforts surrounding Dennis Meadows and his book Limits to Growth.

When the first of these reports were published in the early 70s, I was a young graduate student at ETH Zurich. I read all of those books with great interest and intensity. The first of these books was Forrester's World Dynamics book, published in 1971. Forrester's WORLD2 model was considerably simpler than Meadows' WORLD3 model, described in the book Limits to Growth that was published in 1972. Whereas Meadows presented in his book only the results obtained with his model but not the model itself, Forrester included his entire model in his book. Consequently, I was able to quickly implement it in a simulation tool that I had available at that time and started playing around with it. Meadows subsequently also published his entire model in 1974 in a separate book: Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World. Yet, as the model is quite complex, it wasn't easy to extract all of the equations governing that model from the book. Subsequent yet more refined models included the model by Mesarovic and Pestel, described in the 1980 book World modeling: The Mesarovic-Pestel world model in the context of its contemporaries by Barry Hughes. The only one of these books that has seen multiple editions is the book Limits to Growth that is currently in its 3rd edition, published in 2004.

I met many of the early actors personally, including Forrester, Meadows, Mesarovic, Pestel, Rademaker, and a few more. In my view, your assessment paints a picture that is a bit too black-and-white. On the one hand, the stigmatization of these efforts started long before 1989. Precisely because the books by Forrester and Meadows were so immensely popular initially, selling millions of copies over night (Forrester's 1971 book sold 65 million copies and was translated into 25 languages), politicians, especially in the U.S., immediately killed all funding sources for this type of research. Researchers in the U.S. found it impossible to receive any further research funds for their efforts, making it impossible to pay graduate student salaries, unless they agreed to work for one of the national laboratories under strict order that any and every manuscript would have to be approved by the DIA before it could be sent off to publication. Most researchers rejected to work under those conditions, because it is unfair toward their graduate students. On the other hand, the stigmatization never fully succeeded. Meadows and his co-workers never became the "laughing stock" of the scientific community that you made us believe. For example, a research effort was created at ETH Zurich around 1990, called the Alliance for Global Sustainability that initially funded research at ETH Zurich and at MIT, later also at Tokyo University and at Chalmers University, paid for initially by a Swiss industrialist (Max Schmidheiny). Meadows and co-workers were always well received at the AGS and were always highly respected for their seminal efforts.

The WORLD3 model is currently available as a STELLA program by Dennis Meadows. If you are interested in receiving a copy, you can send an email message to Dennis. He usually responds to email quickly and reliably. STELLA is a commercial product, but the software is fairly cheap, and you can get a STELLA reader for free. The reader doesn't allow you to develop your own codes, but it enables you to look at existing programs.

I myself recently ported both the WORLD2 and the WORLD3 (2004 edition) models to another software called Modelica. My codes contain all of the scenarios listed in the books by Forrester and Meadows. Dennis Meadows and Jørgen Randers were kind enough to supply me with all information necessary to reproduce the 10 scenarios of the book Limits to Growth. My library is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free. However in order to run these models or even to look at them, you need a Modelica implementation. I myself use Dymola, a commercial product that is rather expensive (but very powerful). There is also available a free open-source implementation, called OpenModelica. You then also need a separate graphical front-end, called MathModelica Lite, which is also free.

Last week, I presented a paper, entitled World3 in Modelica: Creating System Dynamics Models in the Modelica Framework describing my new library at the 2008 Modelica Conference held in Bielefeld, Germany. Through the above link, you can download the paper itself (in PDF format) and also my Powerpoint presentation.

Francois, you are right, the reaction against LTG started much before 1989. In order to keep the text short, I had to compress the story and perhaps it looks a little "black and white". However, from what I could gather from the ancient literature I managed to dig out, the feeling is that there was an abrupt change around mid 1980s. Before, there were many papers criticizing LTG, but always with some caution. Well, not exactly always. Good old Julian Simon criticized LTG in his "the Ultimate resource" in 1981 in a way that is still worth reading to see how propaganda works and how much facts can be twisted to suit one's purposes. I have collected a lot of data on the debate; one of these days I should write a whole book on that. In fact, I plan to do so; if I can. Thanks for adding some more details about the debate to my data base.

Ah.... just a note: you are a bit optimistic in saying that FOrrester's book sold "65 million copies". It was a success, but from the data I have, it sold a few tens of thousands of copies. About LTG sales, there are wild numbers over the web. I asked to Dennis Meadows about that and he says that nobody really knows the exact number of copies sold. The records were lost, apparently, when Aurelio Peccei was forced to leave his office at Fiat, in Torino. According to Dennis, it is "a few million copies" but not tens of millions


In the summer of 1974, I attended the SCS Summer Simulation Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Houston, Texas. I gave my first scientific presentation, and my visit to Houston was also my very first trip to the U.S. I was very young, and the trip left a deep impression with me.

Jay Forrester was the luncheon speaker at the event. He talked about his world model.

As I mentioned in my comment above, I had by then played around quite a bit with his model. One thing that I had done was to place a negative sign in front of every one of the five state equations, thereby simulating the model backward through time starting in 1900. It turned out that almost immediately, the population started climbing, and we know that this never happened.

Hence after the presentation was over and the audience was asked whether they had any questions for Jay, I raised my hand and told him about what I had done, asking for his reaction.

His reaction was very swift. His face turned red, and he told me (and everyone else in the room): "Young man, my book has sold 65 million copies, it has been translated into 25 languages, and that should be answer enough for you."

I remember his reaction verbatim to this day ( :-) ).

One thing that I had done was to place a negative sign in front of every one of the five state equations, thereby simulating the model backward through time starting in 1900.

Hi Francois,

Can you quote said equations, please, or post a link? And maybe quote your modified versions?

I'm sure they're not just physical laws, but a lot of physics (mostly irreversible thermo) fails or blows up if you reverse the flow of time.




State equations are those equations that determine the "levels" (or "stocks"). They are differential equations. For example, we can write:

dPOP/dt = BR - DR

i.e., the change in population equals the birth rate minus the death rate.

Forrester's WORLD2 model contains five "levels": population, pollution, natural resources, capital investment, and percentage of capital investment in the agricultural sector (a funny choice of a state variable).

If you negate every one of the state equations, e.g.:

dPOP/dt = -(BR - DR)

you obtain (at least theoretically) the same trajectories as before, but now you are simulating backward through time.

You are correct with your assessment that the model is unstable when simulated backward through time. When I simulate the WORLD2 model backward through time without any further consideration using DASSL as a numerical ODE solver, I can simulate the model across roughly 18 years before the simulation blows up. This is shown below.

The graph shows a superposition of four different simulations. In the first run, I simulated forward in time across 200 years, then backward in time until the simulation started blowing up. Superposed is a second simulation run, where I simulated forward in time across 150 years, then backward in time until the simulation blows up, etc.

I can stabilize the simulation, e.g. using a leap-frogging approach. The way this works is that I actually simulate forward in time across one step with unknown initial conditions and vary those initial conditions until the final value meets the known final condition, which is the initial condition of the backward simulation. Once I have completed the step in this fashion, I freeze the initial condition, go one step back, and once again simulate forward in time until I meet the meanwhile known final value of that step. Well, it's a bit more tricky than that, but this may suffice to provide a general idea of the method.

However, this is not what my comment was alluding to. When you simulate the WORLD2 model backward in time from 1900, the population starts growing almost immediately. Already by 1894, the population is considerably larger than in the year 1900. This is not a numerical artifact, but a feature of the model itself.

My Modelica implementation provides the code for simulating forward and backward in time using DASSL without any additional stabilization as one of the WORLD2 scenarios.


I wonder what became of DYNAMO - the modelling language that Forrester used? I was rather fond of it.

DYNAMO is long dead. The program was replaced in the mid 80s by STELLA, a program with a graphical user interface originally developed for the (then brand new) Macintosh.

When STELLA became available, it was a quite revolutionary program. It even offered some sort of animation. The water level in the "stocks" (state variables) rose and shrank as the amount of stock changed its value, and the tabular functions had gauges attached to them that indicated the current value of these functions during simulation.

Meanwhile, STELLA is available for PCs also, but it lost its animation in the transition.

In my view, DYNAMO was outdated already the day it became available. Continuous states were simulated using a hand-coded fixed-step forward Euler integration algorithm, and that was the only simulation engine available in DYNAMO, although other tools developed earlier (like MIMIC and CSMP, for example) already offered fourth-order Runge-Kutta algorithms, and although SCS had already published its CSSL standard by then that advocated a number of language features missing in DYNAMO.

STELLA is still the most widely used tool for System Dynamics programming even today, although it no longer represents state-of-the-art technology. First, its numerics leave to be desired. Since STELLA is often used by economists, the numerical accuracy of real numbers is limited to two digits after the comma (as needed when representing Dollars and Cents), which causes huge simulation errors in scenario #4 of the WORLD3 model, for example. Second, STELLA is not object-oriented. It doesn't support the concept of hierarchical modeling, and it doesn't offer an icon editor, for example. Instead, it operates on an infinitely large virtual canvas across which the physical screen can be scrolled. However, STELLA is still a nice program, because its user inerface is quite intuitive and easy to learn.

That is also very interesting.

Personally, I doubt whether accuracy is very meaningful in the context of these models. I think that once one has a small number of feedback loops it becomes difficult to tell in advance whether a particular level or rate is going to go up or down over time. In fact, the whole thing is more educative than predictive.

Unfortunately, our politicians and those who make the really big decisions are operating on the more primitive and apparent first-order effects and so they always "win" the arguments.

DYNAMO is actually not long dead. PA Consulting still runs it and they have their own tool called Jitia(?).

Stell did not repalce DYNAMO, it was one of three system dynamics tools to arrive as PCs and Macintoshes became powerful enough to run the simulations and permit an iconic based interactive development environment. Many current practitioners have translated older DYNAMO code into the format of more recent languages.

The market for system dynamics software is now dominated by three firms providing graphics based tools, isee systems, Powersim, and Ventana. Historically commercial versions were released as follows: Stella - 1985, Vensim - 1991 and SimTek – 1988 (Powersim Studio’s original product name).

A simple search can lead you to the appropriate websites.

Thanks Francois for all these links, I've already OpendModelica and MathModelica Lite, fascinating stuff!

In an attempt to avoid a Cassandra style fate of being chopped to pieces and have my innards fed to the gulls, I won't labour my opinion here with unbounded verbiage but keep it short, to wit:

Any attempt to mitigate through science and technology will be fruitless and not only that but will produce a result worse then allowing events to follow their natural course. A war of attrition is generally more destructive than a war of moment ... Of course in the first scenario, relating it to our current war on energy deficiency, us current fat pigs live a longer if ever diminishing quality of life, much to the detriment of any following generations. Have a good day fellow fat pigs:)

If there any way to avoid the danger of specific predictions (or predictions taken out of context) being proven(?) wrong, and used to destroy the credibility of a line of thought? We have seen this phenomena with a lot of systems issues. A few recent examples: LTG, global warming denial (as weather occasionally means cooling), economics, real estate bubbles, etc. I have several times criticized some TOD articles, as being too specific, when in my opinion short term variation might leave scope for propagandists to claim that it is all wrong. Id there any consensus as to how to present results that limits the Cassandra dander, without obscuring the results?

Maybe be as vague as Pythia, that seemed to work for her:)

BTW on that, Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Club of Rome fame seemed to me to be quite fond of saying that the universe is unfolding as it should. How is that for unassailable as far as predictions go?

It is unassailable and completely valid, just as valid as saying the universe "should" be another way. Says who? That something should be this way or that way is a function of the prevailing conversation (see my above comments).

The universe is doing its universe thing and we can assess whether we like it or not and it won't care much, as far as I can tell.

I'm not saying that we are helpless or "shouldn't act" on global warming/peak oil or anything of the sort. I'm merely pointing out that whether something should be a certain way is an opinion, not a fact, and humans tend to waste a great deal of time arguing over whether an opinion is true or not true. It's both and neither: that's the paradox of representational language.

The far more interesting conversation to me is: what does each point of view/opinion reveal?


Hi aangel, never ran into episteme before and so am far from up to speed there , ran to Wiki found this :

The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific.[1]

I have to run ,once more now, as I need a new wheelbarrow wheel as mine sacked out yesterday, but will come back here to see if you can tell me that ... once one has characterised something as scientific or not ...what then? For something in the department of reveal, I am sort of of the analogue-true/false mind set about a lot of things, with science as tool for the purpose of ______.

Personally I think that Foucault in that particular quote went in a direction that I wouldn't have gone (or perhaps I would have were I doing the groundbreaking work — who knows?).

I've treated epistemes as paradigms or models of thought with no particular bias to a particular domain i.e. no particular emphasis of the set of conversations and discourses we would now label "science." I think the concept has great value without needing to attach itself to science. But it's his idea so he gets to define it any way he wants.

As for the true/false conversation, it is of course very useful in many situations but it is, in my view, far overused. When I ask, "What is revealed?" I'm specifically precluding an assessment (as true/false throws the mind into) so that exploration can occur. There is value to be gained from every point of view but we use our time arguing over what is right or wrong rather than exploring. This is especially true for people who have never put in the effort of being able to hear points of view with which they don't agree or that don't conform to their current worldviews. It is a rare individual who can "hear anything" without their natural reactions interrupting the hearing. Scientists as a whole I think are more able to "hear anything" without what I call their reaction machine getting in the way because they are trained to focus on the data. But they too let emotions and young conversations operate from time to time because they are human. Crisis counselors and others that deal with trauma are trained to be able to hear anything, too. People with the capacity to hear anything will occur as peaceful to the rest of us and we tend to notice them.

Before I got married I was dating a woman whose grandmother raised her and was dying in her home while under hospice care. My girlfriend had an enormous capacity to be with what was happening (that is to say, she could "hear anything") while the rest of the family, who had flown in from around the country, literally had to leave the room when certain conversations came up. The hospice nurse quickly learned to communicate only with my girlfriend. My girlfriend's capacity to hear anything allowed her to organize everyone while still expressing her love for her grandmother.

So if you see yourself as a true/false person (you're not set in any particular way, by the way, you simply have a set of conversations that have become habits) and if you are interested in being a different sort of presence within conversations capable of bringing forth creativity always and anywhere, the muscle to build is to interrupt the assessments, the reaction machine. Then explore. Conversations can be magical when people are operating that way.


Thanks aangel, sorry to be late responding but I will no longer need to argue with my wheelbarrow. One down!:)

So from what you say could I interpret episteme as being: cultural discourse rigidity within a non specific frame of reference?

Possibly I was a bit opaque in my expression analogue-true/false as you say: As for the true/false conversation, it is of course very useful in many situations but it is, in my view, far overused. When I ask, "What is revealed?" I'm specifically precluding an assessment (as true/false throws the mind into) so that exploration can occur. What I mean seems to agree with what you are saying by my using analogue in conjuction with true and false to mean that there are shades of grey to issues and that one needs be able to move ones point of view, that truth, on a meat and potatoes level, is a variable.

To identify oneself as ones ideas takes a lot of fun out of a discussion. The free flow of ideas and changes in ones bias are very much restricted if one identifies their self as consisting of any particular idea or set of ideas. I think you have touched on this in one of your posts above. The big trouble is that it is one thing to feel that way and another to be that way.

About scientists you say they are trained to be impartial, I would say they are not impartial and often use data to enforce their views, or their masters views. As an instance one can easily see how science has been used to stall the implementation of GW mediation.

BTW, you do not say if the woman you were dating was a scientist or just a person with that rare quality of having an open mind. (haw! I just reread this and it strikes me as sort of humorous if looked at eyeballs slightly askew:)

On the question of there being something to be done in the face of GW, I say there is but that the open examination of just what is the 'best' recourse seems to have become bogged down in a question of how 'best' to quickly implement alternate energy, which I feel in itself is no solution at all and likely will only worsen the climate change problem.

When the Club of Rome study came out, I gave a little talk entitled "the computer as a future machine". It was a total flop. Adults all in effect responded "Aw, that can't be true, something will turn up".

So I gave up on the adults and went to the kids, made a super simple computer model which I called Bush Biter. There is a field of bushes, all nice and evenly spaced, and N bushes in diameter. At the middle is a bush biter. The rule is that at every click of the clock, the bush biter bites the bush in front of it, and divides into two bush biters, each of which go stand in front of another bush ravenously waiting for the next click of clock. The bushes do nothing unless there is a space in front of them never having had a bush on it, in which case the bush divides and occupies that space. That is to say, the field of bushes expands only on its perimeter, while the desert of bit bushes expands internally over the area rushing ever more rapidly toward the thinning perimeter.

Of course, I needn't tell you that in a highly predictable number of clicks of the clock, all pushes are bit, and at the next click, all bush biters have no bush to bite, so bite the dust, and it's all over. The kids loved it.

They also discovered that the number of clicks to all over had hardly anything to do with the initial diameter of the field of bushes.

I then asked the critical question "Assume the bush biters are as smart as you are, at what click of the clock will they realize that its all over?"

The answer was instantaneous "They don't need any clicks, they see this game is all over when you set the rules, it's obvious.".

Right. So?

Next question - How do you change the rules so those bush biters have a future????

The answer was instantaneous "They don't need any clicks, they see this game is all over when you set the rules, it's obvious.".

To which you answer "right". [I hear Bill Cosby answering the Lord "Right..., what's an ark?"] No, I don't buy it. My bet would be on them treating this as an exception to the current episteme of growth. How long ago did you run that kid's program? Can you follow up, even anecdotally, to see if any of the kids generalized what they learned? How many of them are planning to become marketing majors and looking forward to employment in the Marketing Department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation?

I can't help but think of Dawkins' and the selfish gene. Yet he suggested that the next evolutionary step might be the "meme". Picking the right meme matters to survival, but it won't add to survivability of the species unless some survive and others do not. Still, I guess we don't need to worry about being a problem.

cfm in Gray, ME

wimbi: The bush biters have a future, it's just not the one you like/want. That's an assessment. (See how insidious assessments are? It takes practice to catch them.) Instead, try exploring. Given the circumstances that are about to occur, what do you say we can create?

dryki: the conversation wimbi had with them that day almost certainly had a short life because there was nothing to keep the conversation alive. It is in the nature of conversations to disappear. Something must keep them alive. That's one of the reasons it's so difficult for change "to stick" and we often go back after much work has been expended to change something to see the situation has reverted to the prevailing discourse.

As for memes, in the model I use they would be equivalent to something like "conversations that persist." To persist they must be repeated by people within the network of conversations. Exploring what sustains a conversation is a fascinating intellectual playground but something I'm not inclined to explore today because where I am it is very sunny right now and my bike is calling to me. :-)


It happens that these kids were self selected attenders at a saturday science seminar. They talked a lot about what happened at those sessions. Many of them went on to become scientists, and some of them come back every now and then to talk with me over the problems we set, including this one.

Here's another one they did not forget-- "Ok, now I am gonna mix this nice white salt with this cup of dirty sand and stir it around. I will give you 20 bucks if you can get me back my nice white salt. Go to it".

I myself am still working on an extra credit problem my thermo prof gave me in 1948. When I get it right it will save the world and I can quit work and go write my memoirs.

Ah, very good. I'm glad I wrote "almost certainly" instead of "certainly."

wimbi impresses with his imaginative tasks to entice kids to creative solutions. But the real challenge is the automatic denial of adults, who don't even want to "go down that road" and risk the possibility seeing the world differently. Our "world is too much with us".

I am repeatedly astonished and exasperated by how well humans compartmentalize their understanding. You can go to a city council meeting and watch them glowingly vote for something that conserves resources, acknowledges our environmental/resource constraints and smile like "They get it!" The next item on the agenda will find them approving paving over prime ag land for high end McMansions in the name of improved "growth of the economy" and "progress."

Afterwards they may even tell you they "made a mistake."

I just signed up for a GE "eco" credit card. As they say every little bit helps. You know to save the environment. Now I can shop carefree are you doing your bit? Next on my list is an eco car and eco air conditioner :) I like it how we are the "smart" ape.

Unfortunately most people and maybe even a majority of scientists (physicists in particular) view science as defined by reductionism. I think we need to start educating people that just because a theory doesn't make specific numerical predictions doesn't mean it isn't science. And science is a lot more than reductionism.

Why do you seem to wish to reduce everything to science (and technology?)? We do that and we create a monster that will not submit to common sense! Have you not read your Mary Shelley?:)

Right now I am drinking a cup of green tea with lemon and Splenda sweetener and feeling oppressed by our science of weights and measures. In this case little packets of that sweetener scientifically measured and packeted defining my needs as either just too much or just too little and not just right.

I think physicists want rigor in their subject and reductionism is a means of getting it sometimes. But, I see much more adherence to strict protocols in less mathematical sciences such as biology, and this is not because they have physicists looking over their shoulders, though perhaps they feel that way. In physics, it may well be that our fundemental quantities are emergent rather than fundemental. The standard model of particle physics is very much incomplete without the detection of the Higgs boson. Should it be detected, then one would have to call mass an emergent property of particle interactions. Our notions of distance and time are certainly unified by general relativity but lacking a theory of quantum gravity we don't know all that much about their fundemental nature though their linkage both in general relativity and through the uncertainty relations in quantum mechanics (position-momentum, energy-time) make them seem like they will yield to a broader picture. To me, this suggests that reductionism is a needed step to showing that holism is is a required element of a rational world view. Physics is also making progress in this direction through chaos theory. The concept of self-organized criticality is finding broad application in fields where rigor is difficult to obtain such as economics and ecology.

I see the the success of reductionism in physics, where rigor can be had with some effort, as leading, in physics, to exploration of broader concepts, and in less rigorous subjects to an often misapplied reductionism that turns out to be less fruitful than starting with a broader picture to begin with. Certainly, the separation of economics from moral philosophy as a reductionist step has been, for the most part, harmful rather than helpful. I think that it is not physicists but rather physics envy that is behind the phenomenon that you are criticising. It should not be too surprising that harm has come from this. It is a manifestation of covetousness forbidden by the tenth commandement.


Thank-you Ugo for a well written and thought provoking post. I read the entire thing aloud this morning to my wife over coffee.

Although I tend to agree with your assertion that resistance to unpopular theories may rise spontaneously. However, when I look at the case of Rachel Carson, and her timely publication of Silent Spring, groups that had vested interests that were threatened by Carson's ideas (e.g. companies that produced pesticides)may have arisen spontaneously but these separate groups soon becamse allies in a concerted campaign to debunk Carson as a scientist & a theoritician. Should "birds of a feather" operating in concert be considered a conspiracy? I think yes!

The same denial and confederacy of interests is at work in response to Peak Oil theorists. CERA comes first to mind but the list is long and overwhelming. But the tendency to believe what people choose to believe is sometimes even a stronger impulse. I have been preaching Peak Oil to my family for years. My father just bought a new motorhome?#$%!

A $150,000 investment in gas and wheels is compelling evidence of denial.

$150,000 investment in depreciation.

My father just bought a new motorhome?#$%!

There are other ways to look at it. For example, my property tax (house + lot) is $12K/yr. My vehicle tax is $55/yr. So... I can afford to pay a site fee of $30/day to park my imaginary motorhome. Or... I can migrate seasonally, which is what a lot of these folks do. Essentially you trade property tax for mobility tax. If your plan is to migrate seasonally, you're not looking at high milage use anyway. You're also probably looking at lower site rental as well. If your father-in-law is living in the north, he's paying $400/mo to heat the house, so there are additional energy expenses he might avoid.

It's not for everyone, but it's not "denial" if your plan is well considered (and you want to downsize).

it might make sense for some, if you plan to live in it full time.
i have a friend who has made it work, not to the $150k tune(never mind that they are nudists and like to use it to travel around to all the "hot" colonies).

I didn't read the book; so, if you will bear with me, I have a few questions. Did the authors foresee thin-film solar? Did they anticipate gene-splicing: the ability to make crops tolerant to acidic soils (almost of half the arable land in the world?) Did they take into account the computer chip that would allow Variable valve timing, direct injection, variable ratio turbos, with displacement on demand, combined with PHEV - technologies that will allow the average passenger car to get 40 mpg on biofuels.

Did they consider nano-technologies that will allow entire cities to thrive on desalinated water, or the whole state of Texas to be irrigated using drip-irrigation? Did they even allow for no-till farming? Did they consider the possibility of harnessing the power of the Gulf Stream to electrify half the State of Florida, or advanced generation Windmills, or even Pyrolysis to produce Char which can cut our need for fertilizers by up to 80%?
If they didn't take these things (and a thousand others) into their calculations, I would say that, perhaps, they overlooked the most important element of all - The incredible ability of man to learn, and adapt.

But, that's just me - a troll.

An example: What if Corn, and Rice could "Fix" their Own Nitrogen?

The thing is: Half of all the Scientists, and Engineers that ever lived are working, today. And, the Percentage is getting steadily larger. Think of it This Way; as China and India (2.5 Billion People) build a middle class the number of people getting an advance education, and becoming research scientists, and engineers skyrocket. Right now, it seems, almost, as if all of them are working on agriculture, and bioenergy.

the troll

.. The argument isn't that something /can't/ be done, but rather that humanity are collectively in denial about the scale and immediacy of the problem.

Recently I chatted with a random stranger about peak oil, and his reaction was that yes, it will cause terrible crises, but that he was glad it wouldn't happen in /his/ lifetime !!

The reasons for our being in denial is the inertia of the current narrative / discourse / meme pool.

Maybe all those scientists should be thinking about where to put the fulcrum and how to make a really really long lever.

But, that's just me - a troll.

Whatever solutions there are to our future needs they must be profitable - so, until you can demonstrate that any of your propsals are actually profitable let alone adequate, you are correct - Troll it is - especially since you didn't read the book!

You need a sharper sword, "Trollkiller." Everything, except, I guess, thin film solar, and capturing the gulf stream is being done profitably, now, or within the next year, or so. I'm, also, kind of betting on thin-film being profitable in certain situations, fairly soon.

Look, a LOT of things that weren't profitable when oil was $8.00/barrel, and NG was $1.00 are profitable, NOW. Cellulosic Ethanol might be Marginal, NOW; but, when Gasoline is $5.00/gal things might look a lot different.

Well, Okay; I guess we're not irrigating "the whole state of Texas, yet," but they are using drip irrigation quite profitably in places, and, if commodity prices stayed at these levels they could probably farm a large part of the state that way. If commodity prices double from here I'm quite sure drip irrigation would be profitable in the whole state. Given this scenario, and conflating Pioneer's prediction of 40% increase in crop yields in a decade, and factoring in GE's prediction of a 90% Decrease in the cost of Desalinization, and the whole thing gets very, very interesting.

Yes, and for something to be profitable it must be affordable, or no one can buy it so it won't be profitable. I use this analogy, if oil went to $1000, or perhaps more, per barrel it might be profitable to dig the top of the Ghawar oil field and get all the oil out. It won't happen though because at that price the oil won't be afforable.

Kdolliso, your objection is not new. It has been stated many times, most famously by Julian Simon in his 1981 book "the ultimate resource". But you, unlike Simon, are honest enough to say that you didn't read the book.

The answer would require some space, Let's just say that technology can be taken into account in several ways in these models. You can use specific parameters that operate on the equations of the model, for instance a gradual increase in the efficiency of energy use, or of agricultural yeld, or things like that. Another way is to change the model's parameters - say - what if we have much larger fuel reserves than we think we have? This is equivalent to assuming that we can develop some much more efficient way of extracting oil or gas. Now, if you run the model, you'll discover that more and better technology postpones the collapse but also makes it worse.

You need not one technological miracle, but several in order to keep the world's economy and population growing throughout 21st century. These matters are very clearly eplained in the 2004 edition of LTG. I strongly suggest that you read it.

Ugo, One Question:

What if the increases in energy efficiency, and agricultural yield aren't "gradual," but, instead, are exponential?

btw, thanks for not calling me a troll :)

Kdikkiso, you are thinking of Vinge's "spike" aren't you? I am working at a post on that subject.

Ugo, I have to admit to total ignorance, here. I have no idea what Vinge's spike is. I've always worried about what would happen when the oil ran out; but, I guess I've always had a bit of a cornucopian strain to me, also.

I have noticed that societies seem to have fewer children when they become more economically secure. I tend to believe that, at present, the greatest cause of food/energy insecurity is poor governance (Zimbabwe comes to mind.)

So, I guess that, while I believe there will be extreme challenges facing us in the 21st Century, we have a pretty good chance of overcoming them due to the tendency of Science to yield, from time to time, Exponential Results.

The "spike" or the "technological singularity" is exactly what you mentioned in your previous post. That is, an exponential (or even faster) increase in technological progress. According to a certain view, this growth will bring a cornucopian abundance of gadgetry that will solve all our problem. There are several concepts related to it, look for "extropians" and "transhumanism".

Unfortunately, at least expressed in these terms, it seems to me more like a form of cargo cult than a real perspective for the future. There is no evidence that "progress" is growing exponentially and I wouldn't bet on technological miracle for planning my future. But it is also true that, as always, the future always surprises you.....

Hi kdolliso,

what Ugo meant was Vinge's singularity:

That singularity might occure but we should not count on it. It is always better to have a plan b.

And: Vinge -living in cornucopian times- ignored that energy is paramount to intelligence because without some form of energy (be it electricity generated from coal or adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) generated from sugar) life and intelligence will cease to exist. (We all still have a long way to go. What we might become depends on our actions taken now or might depend on the actions we haven't taken 1956/1972 :-()

Cure your ignorance!

Do us all a favor and watch:

And please try to watch all eight parts.

(Afterwards you probably will have converted from a cornucopian to a doomer and will never talk about "gene splicing" again. "Gene splicing" will not save us because it will not help us overcome Liebig's Law of the minimum. [Fertilizer containing nitrogen is made from natural gas. And that will run out to. The question is just when.])

Thank you,

J. Daehn

I just came to think that the real singularity happened, when Malthus, Pogue and Hill, Rickover, Hubbert, Carter, the authors of LTG and others discovered and decided to speak out the truth.

Unfortunately we decided not to listen.

Been reading Taleb's "Black Swan" lately.

I think Peak Oil, Population bomb, etc. are examples of what Taleb would call a "Gray Swan" instead of a Black Swan because these phenomenon are predictable and are seen by the trained few (TOD readers).

Peak Oil is a once-in-human-history event and thus we cannot look back to historical records to see another example of it. It will happen only once every couple of billion years.

Over-population on the other hand is not a once in human history event. But it is sufficiently rare that memory of previous examples fade quickly from generational memory. Also, because "technology" has advanced far beyond what Malthus envisioned, we fool ourselves into believing we have beat the inevitable outcome of the Malthus exponential curve model. But we haven't. We just delayed it a bit.

You need not one technological miracle, but several in order to keep the world's economy and population growing throughout 21st century. These matters are very clearly eplained in the 2004 edition of LTG. I strongly suggest that you read it.

This is trivially, obviously wrong from just a pure examination on the fuel resources provided by nuclear power, even in the once through LWR cycle.

They didn't look at any specific technology but they did things like "Let's run the models as if technology makes resource use more efficient by 5% per year, every year going forward." Keep in mind this is efficiency in the total global use of resources. Even if a technology is 5 times more efficient than what it replaces, it must be manufactured and distributed, so they model the build up of industrial capacity to deploy the new infrastructure.

Let me give you an example. A Large percentage of the World's soils are "Acidic" (almost half?) Until recently, these soils were, essentially, worthless as regards agriculture. NOW, we have genetically-altered sorghum that will grow in these acidic soils. Also, in areas with less rain. Also, in areas with high concentrations of Al. In short, as regards sorghum, the world's production capacity has probably jumped by somewhere between 50, and 500%. Can corn, and wheat be far behind?

This is "Exponential."

Now, they're working on making corn, and other crops, capable of fixing their own nitrogen. This would, overnight, Decrease the world's need for fertilizer by 80%, or so.

This is Exponential.

I'm going to back away from the keyboard, now; because, as I said, "I have not read the book;" but it seems to me that (paraphrasing Yogi Berra - I think) "Predictions are very hard, Especially when they involve the future." :)

Hello Kdolliso,

Your Quote: "Now, they're working on making corn, and other crops, capable of fixing their own nitrogen. This would, overnight, Decrease the world's need for fertilizer by 80%, or so."

I agree it would reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, but you still have to mine, move, beneficiate, and distribute massive, multi-million tonnages of industrial P & K fertilizers and other trace minerals, or move twenty times that amount of bulky, but mulchy organic fertilizers with the embedded trace minerals.

Recall that before the rise of I-NPK: slash, burn, farm, then move on to the next plot, then the next breakthrough of crop rotation and manures was nearly sufficient for providing N above a Liebig Minimum, and trans-oceanic guanos, Chilean nitrates, potash from burned trees, bio-char, and human/animal bone harvesting made up the NPK difference.

Without lots of energy slaves: it will be difficult to extract a Saskatchewan potash boulder from 3300 ft underground to then move it far inland to farms in Argentina, Australia, Asia, or Africa. It is not the size of the reserves, but the postPeak supply chain transport quantity.

Another example: Recall my recent postings on sulphur. Mountainous piles in someplaces while there is panic buying in China as they need to import 90% of their needs, and NZ sulfur going from $50 to $900/ton.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

One Cataclysm at a time, Toto. :)

But, seriously, although your point is valid we're working on the answers to those things, too. For instance, a combination of biochar, and distillers grains distributed on the fields would be a pretty powerful mixture. The Organic distillers grains to add the nutrients, and the biochar to hold them in place for a long period of time.

I'm NOT saying this is going to be THE answer, just that something along these lines could be AN answer.

This is "Exponential."

No it is NOT exponential. "Exponential" is a technical term in Mathematics. You are NOT at liberty to redefine it. If you wish to invent a new episteme in which exponential has a new definition, do us the curtesy of revealing it to us. Not just the new definition, but a sketch, at least, of the new episteme.

Of course they accounted for gene splicing and any other technology you care to insert. You clearly missed the bit about "growth" and "finite planet/resources"

You're not a troll just the ideas you hold dear are going down in a big ball of flames. You backed the wrong horse and like Eisenhowers paralyzed leg you inisit you can go hiking :)


but the Race isn't over yet; and, it looks to me like My Horse is still running pretty strong. I foresee a little problem with the next couple of jumps, but Ol' Bobtail is a pretty strong "Closer;" so I'll just wait a bit before I shred my ticket if you don't mind.

Dr. Albert Bartlett famously stated "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

The problem is growth. The Limits To Growth book (I highly recommend reading the 2004 update to LTG) and their models illustrate this very well.

Comments above have covered all this... but at risk of repetition let me add my small voice here in their support:

LTG has many scenarios. The starting default scenario (pictured above) has population and industrial production and food rising to peak and then declining rather sharply. This is the "die-off" that we would like to avoid.

LTG then goes on to grant us many magic wishes: double the non-renewable resources; make our industry much more efficient (= conservation); make our farming much more productive; etc. The effect is to only delay the peak by 10 to 20 years; additionally we rise to a higher peak and crash harder.

LTG then goes further and grants us even more magic wishes on top of those: suppose we do everything right: we scale back growth of industry; we develop pollution control technologies; we take care of the land to not exhaust it; there were a host of others I forget (most of which seem extremely unlikely to be applied on a large scale, but still).

In that rosy scenario, then yes, we achieve stability. The levels of population, industry, food, etc., flatten out.

The key point is: it's not just one problem. It's a system interconnected in many ways. Population levels and industrial production and food production and land usage and pollution and resource depletion are all interrelated. LTG makes a simplistic, but arguably realistic model of how these things affect each other.

Even if we found some perfect non-polluting energy source today (eg. fusion) we would still hit limits to growth and behave like yeast, growing to a peak and then declining rapidly. The other limits beside energy involve things like pollution, land usage, and other non-renewable resources.

As it is, looks like we are going to hit the energy limit first. Though the pollution limit (mainly via global warming) is running a strong second place. And we clearly are seeing the interrelations: global warming is causing more drought, which is affecting food production; our industrial agriculture is based on access to cheap energy and fertilizers.

None of this is news to readers of The Oil Drum. The power of the arguments in LTG is how they show the interrelatedness of all these factors.

The problem is growth. IMHO, we need to move to a non-growth economic paradigm. This is blasphemy in politics and economics today. Everyone is supposed to get richer and better-off over time. "Endless improvement" is the especially strong meme in the USA.

I think we can find ways to live happy lives in a non-growth society. In fact, I think we can be much happier. US society has a lot of problems. We imprison fully 1% of our population, with another 2% on parole, far more than any other nation even China. We are by and large a nation of strangers, moving from city to city, with most of us having unfulfilling work.

There are better ways to live. Those "better ways" may look like regression to Americans who dream of big houses, unlimited auto travel, more money and more possessions.

And kdolliso, I don't regard you as a troll. Your views represent the majority opinion. Those of us with a different view need to find ways to communicate effectively with you. You may not agree right away, but I hope you will take time to understand the reasoning so clearly presented in Limits To Growth, The 30-Year Update.


growing pollution (this last element we would see today as related to global warming)

I'm uncomfortable with such a simple conflation of growing pollution and global warming. The general spread of toxics throughout the environment isn't really the same thing as climate change/global warming. Both can exist independently. We're at the point where morticians note that our bodies don't rot quickly enough any more because of the preservatives we eat. Where our bodies are toxic waste because of their chemical storehouse. That's not climate change.

And we could just as well have climate change with a hyperactive but clean, energy-intensive economy.

Nor would it be meaningful to lump climate change as simply another form of pollution. Some people will see this objection as a quibble, but my experience suggests that the toxicity of our environment is grossly underestimated.

cfm in Gray, ME

LTG has a single pollution variable. So while it may be true that mercury in fish and global warming are kind of different, they get modeled the same in World3.

I don't take LTG as literally as a lot of the discussion here. It is merely a modern reminder of a fact that was pointed out by Malthus in 1798. Malthus emphasized population as the quantity that could not grow exponentially, or, as he said 'geometrically'. But it is really obviously true, once you take the time to understand the ideas of conservation of matter and of energy. To me, LTG is a simple toy solution, that justifies spending money to higher people to address the problem with some serious thought. Ugo's point was that serious thought was never forthcoming.

To me it's quite a bit more than that ... but less than a gospel. If we only had a single trajectory available, as Malthus did, LTG could serve only as a codified version of a simple truism: in a world of finite resources (matter as well as energy), exponential growth can never go on indefinitely.

Yet, thanks to our modern computational resources, we can do better than that. We can modify our model, rewrite it from scratch using different state variables, perform a formal sensitivity analysis on it, and do many other things to it that help us gain confidence in what we see. Not only do we have a problem -- the problem is in fact imminent, and unless we do something about it (if that is even possible), our own children or grandchildren (depending on our age) will experience the effects of the LTG first hand.

When Limits to Growth hit the press the main response I remember was "Oh, straight people get it too". Aside from the groovy computer modelling and an air of respectability given to certain arguments there was nothing new to anyone participating in the zeitgeist. In no particular order everyone not a cop in 1972 was reading, had read, Rachel Carson, Bucky Fuller, Gary Snyder, Doris Lessing, Murray Bookchin.....a quick Google says my memory is wrong and Tower of Power released Only So Much Oil In the Ground in '74, but my drug-addled memory bank says they performed it live even before the '73 oil crunch. When they sang that pop song everyone in the audience knew what it was about, a scholarly gloss was not necessary. Pop lyrics are a repository of the mundane. Everyone knew.
Of course under the current regime historical amnesia is mandatory and we live in a perpetual present.

Hi, oldhippie.

and we live in a perpetual present.

Were more profound words ever spoken? Of course "the past" and "the future" are just more conversations in the network of conversations and neither exist except in language. There has been and will always only ever be the Present.


Well, thank you for reading, but you have misunderstood me. Living only in the present, having no historical memory, we are at the mercy of our masters; and even they cannot govern their actions. And we cannot help them, much less help ourselves.

Hi, oldhippie.

Actually I did understand you correctly. I was pulling that piece of your writing out because it seems to me the past may just be "the problem."

In my view, humans experience the past through discourses. That's because the past does not exist any more. It is conversations created in the past that are still being sustained and propagated that are causing much of the current mischief.

Said another way, it would go a long way if we could stop speaking some conversations initiated in the past and introduce some new, more appropriate conversations. It would also go a long way if people could see that the past doesn't exist.


If the past does not exist this chair I'm sitting on was never built, the floor under the chair was never there and I'm falling.

Or not.

Hmmmn. Still here. And why does the earlier post still exist?

Sorry. I like the French fine but....

Hi, oldhippie.

At every moment you were noticing and writing about the chair, where you in the past, present or future?

How about now?

And now?

We exist only in the present and you are confusing what happened in previous presents with a conversation or discourse called "the past."

If the past exists other than as a conversation, please send a cupful via FedEx to me and I will gladly pay you 25 dollars or euros.


The skeleton I hold is the present manifestation of a past fleshy being. Thus, the past has physical form, not just linguistic. The past can also live again through the repetition of an experiment, for example, whereby the past results live again.

A famous adage: Those with no knowledge of the past are bound/fated to relive it.

Dialectical reasoning also lives in both past and present.

The present cannot exist without the past and infact embodies the sum of the past up to the singular-fleeting moment that is the present, which is now the past. Thus the past and present exist in each other at all times.

Please donate the 25 Euros to an Iraqi refugee fund.

Hi, Karlof1. Pleased to meet you.

Not so fast. I'm asserting the that past is a construct of language, just as the future is. Neither exists right now except as a conversation amongst humans. What has existed are a series of presents that are now no longer in existence. The experience you and I are having of the present at this moment is certainly the result of many, many of these formerly-existing presents. But the linguistic construct "the past" has never existed as a physical thing. When what you call "the past" was in existence, it was actually the present.

If you disagree, I will gladly donate the 25 euros to the Iraqi refugee fund the moment I receive either a cup of past or a kilo of past, either one will do.

In fact, since it's such a worthy donation, I will even send 50 euros...but first I must receive the past I requested.


" ... never existed as a physical thing."

And the now of present time and the nows of all previous time never existed as physical things, just as the north pole and the prime meridian don't exist as physical things, and never did exist as physical things. These strings of words exist as physical things on paper or computer screen but the things to which they refer, none of them have any physical existence. It is all philosophical word games whose only utility, IMO, is to win an argument by obfuscation.

Hi, geek7.

That is not my aim. My aim is to demonstrate that the past is just another discourse.

Oil is a thing we unearth from "the past" --past sunlight that has been temporarily captured as chemical energy.

Hello Andre. It is a pleasure as I don't often get a chance to enjoy this sort of discourse. Yes, I do appreciate your assertion that the "past is a construct of language;" but as with my example, the past also manifests itself physically. Indeed, we are constantly surrounded by the past--the air we breathe--and we trod upon it and construct things from it. Clearly we are discussing the age old problem of Being and Becoming, which has yet to be solved by greater minds than ours.

I think it wise to apply Being/Becoming to the problem posed by KiltedGreen at Essentially, our present Being is MORE that must Become LESS in the future present and how do we Become future-present LESS when our current present Being is predicated on MORE? IMO, we must convince folks that LESS is MORE if we are to peacefully transition to our future-present from our present-past. Given our (in the West, generally; in the USA, certainly) present narcissistic individualism, this looks to be a very difficult task. Another way to put it would be, How do we get folks to take their medicine and keep them happy?

We certainly don't want our present-past to become the future-present. On that I think we can both agree.

I'm amazed it has lasted this long. BooKchin had pretty much summed up the current situation by the late 60's (with much marxist opposition).
It has been a mass re writing of history, and denial of the analysis of the time.
I had a Future of Man class at UCSB with Fuller, Skinner, and Frank Herbert as guest professors-
Herbert had formulated this future, and Fuller was becoming more disillusioned as the days passed.

Must have been some class. WOW, man! Did you play Bucky's World Game? I thought it had more fluid outcomes than the LTG models, and more thought-provoking.
Upthread, there's some Foucault. Who never does actors or agency, things just happen. Another French philosopher, who kept it short 'cause he had to get back to his bottle:

"When ideology, having become absolute through the possession of absolute power, changes from partial knowledge into totalitarian falsehood, the thought of history is so perfectly annihilated that history itself, even at the level of the most empirical knowledge, can no longer exist. The totalitarian bureaucratic society lives in a perpetual present where everything that happened exists for it only as a place accessible to its police. The project already formulated by Napoleon of " the ruler directing the energy of memory" has found its total concretization in a permanent manipulation of the past, not only of meanings but of facts as well. But the price paid for this emancipation from all historical reality is the loss of the rational reference...."

The passage actually descibes the old Soviet Union, circa 1967, but certainly the ideology of free markets and warmongering has a more absolute and broader grip on current thought than formal Communism ever did in the FSU. Observance of correct forms was a limiting factor for the Soviets, now, most believe current practice, just as it is, is the whole Universe. And so rationality, with History, is abandoned.

Yes, I too am amazed it has lasted this long. But then, I did not think there would be a collapse into the doomeristic abyss we now face. In 1972 I thought that no matter how bad things got, rational types like the Club of Rome would prevail before the whole house of cards was pulled down around us.

Instead we followed an ideology discredited and useless for a century or more to its conclusion.

It was a good time to be at the UC--
Post Modernist relativism of Foucault (or Empire'' by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is the ultimate mental masturbation) is a sign of the time.

As long as we are talking about the history of limits to growth writing we should mention John Ruskin, who, nearly a century and a half ago, was writing eloquently about how continued application of the economic principles of buying cheap, selling dear, and attempting to accumulate wealth without limit would sooner or later lead to terrible destructive consequences. It is really not that hard to figure out. Unfortunately human beings are not largely moved by rationality. We have a rational faculty which we can use to solve specific concrete problems, but with respect to our larger life aims we are largely mindless automata moved by cultural programming impressed upon us in our youth. It is surprising how small is the number of people who are capable of breaking through that programming even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the stupidity of its continued application.

If the Meadows et al, are to be appreciated today as the "Cassandras" of the 20th and 21st century, then it is clear that the messengers have been made to suffer for the message they brought.

The denial runs deep, as you point out, and why not? This is the kind of mortal threat that undermines an entire culture (will its military be called in to defend it?).

It is sad but true that as the mortgage crisis spreads, countries around the world will suffer first for the speculative investments made on Wall Street in the interest of uncontrolled greed.

In the coming years I fear the military will be used more and more to defend and support America's "lifestyle". Though there are limits to natural resources, there is not, unfortunately, limits to suffering, foolishness and regret.

Chicago Peak Oil

Repeating myself a bit here, a recent book that IMO explains some of the reasons for the attacks on the ideas in the LTG and, more importantly, the approach that is needed to reduce them is:

Saving Energy Growing Jobs: How Environmental Protection Promotes Economic Growth, Profitability, Innovation, and Competition.
David B. Goldstein bio, Bay Tree Publishing, 2007. (UC Berkeley PhD in Physics, 2002 MacArthur "genius" Fellowship)

A "green" blog post with a synopsis of the book: The Case for a Business-Environmental Alliance, Hint: It’s Very “Efficient”

Many thanks for this excellent post. I read LTG when it came out, and saw it as hopeful that it was "out there" in a respectable way. Since then I've grown more cynical and doomerish about our collective delusory nature.

I think this string of comments would be incomplete without also mentioning Malthus, who has been similarly reviled but wasn't actually wrong. Here's one quote from circa 1800:

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."

We have a lot more tools and concepts now, but bottom line, humans believe what is entertaining and soothing to believe, which in large part counteracts any long-term utility of abstract thought for the species....

They found that, unless specific measures were taken, the world's economy tended to collapse at some time in 21st century.

What are the specific measures? Or do I have to buy the book...

Also, it is obviously unfair to say that the LTG has failed, since we are barely at the start of the time period. Equally, it is too early to say the LTG is correct.

Dear Ugo,

Thanks for your post about LTG. As a teenager I remember seeing Meadows on the television discussing the book and he was faced with a number of questions relating to the Cassandra like 'predictions' in LTG. He stated over and over again that LTG wasn't a prediction at all, but rather a presentation of +possible+ and various scenarios that might occur at some time in the future if we continued down several alternative paths. Even as a kid I understood this and went out to buy the first edition in paperback, which I still have. Intrigued by Meadows I then read the book very carefully and thought about what I had read.

I remember seeing Meadows on another interview and he underlined the fundamental challanges we faced if we continued to recklessly pursue economic growth at all costs on a planet that was blessed with finite resources. He also mentioned the problem of exponential growth on a finite planet, and how most people didn't take the consequences of exponential growth in consumption seriously enough.

Reading Meadows, and similar work by others, had profound consequences for me personally as I found that I thrown into direct conflict with many of my teachers at school and then subsequently at university where I was studying economics among other things. I was young and stupid enough to believe that thinking about ideas was important and not particularly threatening to anyone. After all they were only interesting ideas and theories, and we didn't live in the time of Galileo! Perhaps I would have been better off keeping my mouth shut as my father had continually warned me to do. Unfortunately I wanted to turn the world unside down rather than bow to outdated dogma. I thought universtity was about learning, not praying!

Anyway, I never became the world famous economist I dreamt about. I ended up going into 'exile' and turned to novel writing instead.

The LTG was perceived as a threat by many very powerful interests, because it was a warning about the very really problems associated with our current economic paradigm. Very simply, that growth has limits on a finite planet. This is of course a very profound and disturbing concept for a society and economy based on the assumption that there are no limits to growth or consumption, and that if something runs out we'll just find a substitute or invent something new and wonderful to replace it.

I believe one can argue that the last thirty years of Western politics has been about disproving Meadows' work and crushing the environmental movement as a serious threat/challange.

The main attack on Meadows and LTG was primarily political in nature, but took many different forms, forms disguised as something else entirely. However, as LTG was not conceived a political tract or a manifesto, it was difficult for Meadows to defend himself in the political arena using political methods.

Also leading Western politicians, the economic elite and their paid servants in the media mounted a counter-attack designed to show that far from a dead-end the market-system was getting ready for yet another great leap forward, with more choice, more freedom and more wealth and prosperity for everyone. And this wasn't just a temporary boom powered by a massive redistribution of wealth, it was actually real and sustainable in the long term. The sun wasn't setting on market capitalism and rampant consumerism, we were entering a new dawn and a new horizon.

But looking back over the last quarter of a century, it's possible to see this period as a kind of mirage or a comforting illusion. The emperor's new clothes.

I still don't get the distinction between prediction and "scenario that might occur". To me, a scenario that might occur is a prediction. The degree of certainty might differ, but since all statements about the future are uncertain, this is not a significant distinction.

I don't see what is so bad about making predictions either, scientific theories make predictions, which are then tested by experiment. There is nothing wrong with making predictions.

I just get the impression that when people use the word scenario, they are hedging, so that that they can claim credit if the scenario pans out, but avoid criticism if the scenario doesn't turn out. Or perhaps it is an attempt to avoid critics making unfair assumptions, but critics will make assumptions anyway.

Generally, scenarios have the form of a statement like "If X and Y continue to be true, *then* Z will occur". It's fairly common bad behavior, after X and Y have *not* continued to be true, for someone to then say "Look, that guy said Z will occur and it didn't so he's an idiot". Stressing that this is a scenario, not a forecast, is an attempt to innoculate oneself from this. And I agree the degree of credit for one's scenario happening to occur should be less than an unconditional prediction coming true.

The difference between a prediction and a scenario is this. A prediction says, "this will happen." A scenario says, "assuming X and Y, we find that Z would probably happen."

So a prediction implies certainty, a scenario just explores some ideas. Faced with a prediction, you can't say much, faced with a scenario, you can say, "ah, you included X and Y, but what if we include A and B?"

Prediction: "I'll go out for a drive today, and crash my car and die."
Scenario: "Imagine that I get drunk, get into my car and never drop below the speed limit; it seems likely that I'll crash and die."

Nothing is bad about making predictions, it's just that since in fact none of us are prophets speaking inspired by an all-knowing God, our predictions will almost certainly be wrong, and are therefore not useful.

Whereas scenarios are useful, because you can discuss the starting conditions, consider how different starting conditions and assumptions will give different results, and this then gives you a map of possible futures, "if we go down this road, what are we likely to see?"

That's why LTG put out several different scenarios. They didn't predict anything. They just offered some different scenarios. "If we do this, then we're likely to see that; if we do this other thing, then we're likely to see this other thing instead", and so on.

The reason for science to offer scenarios about the whole world rather than predictions is that as you say, prediction can be tested by experiment; but when we're talking about the fate of the whole world, the only experiment is experience, and then it's too late.

AFAIK, there is no hard definitions for these terms, so you can define them how you like.

But I don't see the terms used the same way you define them.

Predictions are not necessarily 100%; (those are prophecies). Predictions are considered most likely or highly likely outcomde. Obviously they also contain assumptions, though frequently not stated. I predict I will go to work tomorrow. That is a perfect reasonable prediction. No one will take that as inevitable outcome. I don't need to say, "assuming I stay healthy, or the office is not closed due to subsidence.

I could equally outline various scenarios, e.g. go to work, get sick, office hit by large meteorite, win lottery and marry Julia Roberts, abducted by aliens,etc. Clearly the vast majority of possible scenarios are unlikely. Making scenarios is a waste of time, unless I assign probabilities. The most likely event is that I go to work. So how is that different to my earlier prediction? It isn't.

So prediction, forecast, scenario, projection, guesstimate, SWAG, these are all the same animal. Differences are purely down to quantitative distinctions, not qualitative one.

They found that, unless specific measures were taken, the world's economy tended to collapse at some time in 21st century.

That is certainly a prediction, and a whopping big one! If you say, "it's just a scenario, and not necessarily likely to happen", then why the hell should I care? Why should I not be more worried about the asteroid strike in 2036?

If you say "there is a strong proability of it occurring", which is in fact what the LTG finds, since none of the scenarios where it doesn't happen are given any credence, then effectively it is a prediction. You may say "it depends on its assumptions, which are clearly stated", then you just transfer prediction to the prediction that the assumptions will continue to hold - which the LTG also does.

Anyway, all this quibbling over semantics is pretty irrelevant. People who don't like the conclusion will find ways to attack it, whether you call them scenarios, predictions or as scientifically proven. It also doesn't change the probability of the underlying assumptions in the model, which personally I find too simplistic.

It's also funny that when Stuart produces a statistical model everyone goes "it's not that simple, you can't reduce these things to numbers". But when a computer model that generates a more favourable conclsion is presented, everyone goes "Yeah, that's the way it is!". Classic example of selection bias.

Forrester succumbed to the temptation of making predictions to some extent. He found a scenario that envisaged population growth to continue throughout the entire 21st century, printed it on a double page and ended his book on that note. Of course, if you bothered to continue his simulation beyond the year 2100, you discovered quickly that in this scenario, the world population starts declining again shortly after the year 2100, and the so-called "good" scenario turns out to be almost identical to the original one, except that everything happens 80 years later. Forrester was criticized for the interpretations of his simulation results and rightly so.

Meadows was much more cautious in his interpretations. He ran different scenarios without ever telling us that this is what will happen. He leaves the interpretations of the simulation results to the reader.

In a prediction, you claim that you know what the future will bring. You may either display a single trajectory, or if you are a bit more prudent, you may perform a sensitivity analysis and add confidence bounds around your trajectory, claiming that an outcome within those bounds is to be expected.

Meadows didn't do any of that. First, he ran a simulation. In that original scenario, the world population increases up to roughly the year 2030, then starts declining again. Interestingly enough, although Forrester's and Meadows' models use a different set of state variables and different interactions among them, the results of their simulations are almost indistinguishable. This in and by itself is already bad news, as it means that the model isn't highly sensitive to the internal assumptions that it is being based upon.

Both Forrester and Meadows discovered that, in their respective models, resource depletion is responsible for the population decline. Both then relieve that restriction by assuming that there were initially more resources available than originally thought. This assumption is not unreasonable. It turns out that this modified assumption makes the situation much worse in both models. The world population grows for a few more years, before it declines again. This time around, it is the pollution factor that leads to the subsequent decline, and contrary to the original scenario, the modified scenario leads to massive die-off.

Both Forrester and Meadows then introduced measures to curb pollution generation. Now it is food scarcity that leads to the decline in world population.

What Meadows shows is that, in a finite world, exponential growth must eventually end. He also shows that, if we already live beyond our means, i.e., consume the resources of this planet faster than the planet can regrow them for us, relieving some constraints that allow exponential growth to continue for a little while longer is not helpful. If we are already living in an unsustainable fashion, and all indicators point to the conclusion that we do, then continuing in a mode of exponential growth makes things only worse in the long run.

Meadows shows that, living in a finite world as we do beyond our means is not sustainable. We must reduce our consumption down to sustainable levels, and if we don't do so deliberately, the planet will do it for us.

Meadows did add a few additional state variables to the later editions of his model. In particular, he added capital investment in resource management and capital investment in pollution management as two additional state variables. However, these are minor additions. The primary difference between the three editions is the year when the interventions begin. In his 1972 edition, the interventions begin in 1972. In his 2004 edition, they begin in 2002 (which is, when the simulations were run). It makes no sense to cry over spilt milk. Meadows finds that as time progresses, the window of opportunity for influencing the outcome in any way is closing fast.

In his 2004 edition, Meadows still discovers two scenarios that look somewhat sustainable. These are scenarios #6 and #9. I simulated both of those scenarios beyond the year 2100 all the way to the year 2500.

Scenario #6 is indeed sustainable. The world population hovers around 10 billion people and stays there permanently. Yet, the price for this sustainability is dire. The world has essentially returned to a pre-industrial age. Life expectancy is back down at 27 years due to high infant mortality, and the capital investment in both the industrial and service sectors is essentially back down at zero. Humanity lives once again in a subsistence economy.

Scenario #9 is more promising, but not truly sustainable. Strict population control keeps our numbers down; we have learnt to manage our pollution in such a way that we no longer emit pollutants faster than the planet can absorb them; and we have learnt to recycle our remaining resources to almost perfection. A golden age results that lasts for roughly 400 years. However, in spite of all our efforts, we still consume some of our remaining resources, and those are the drivers of our fortune. Eventually after the year 2400, the resources are once again used up, life expectancy plummets, and the world returns to a subsistence economy just as in scenario #6.

Hopefully by the year 2400, we shall have learnt to import more resources from other parts of the solar system, thereby being able to continue the golden age beyond the limits of that scenario.

Are these predictions, or are we simply talking about the predicament of mankind? Meadows is careful not to tell us what will happen or even what we must do. He only points out the natural limits to exponential growth, and he shows which measures might be helpful in the longer run, and which other measures are not.

Scenario 6 doesn't imply sustainability. The simulation only goes up to 2100, at which point we would have had a few decades of a stable population level (not necessarily "permanent"). But industrial output is declining and food appears to be heading down at that point. A number of other measures are also heading downward.

However, it is one of the better scenarios though unlikely to occur as it would require many coincident policies that are unlikely in current societies.

I did not read the book but if I understand you correctly, in one scenario, population is constrained by resource depletion and in another it is constrained by pollution. By constrained I mean capped and ultimately forced to decline.

Is there any mention in LTG of benign demographic transition? Or, according to Deffeyes in Beyond Oil "if you teach girls calculus, they have fewer babies." In this scenario, population levels off, and perhaps even declines, even in the absence of constraints due to resource depletion or pollution.

World population is no longer growing exponentially, or even linearly. I suppose that it is impossible to determine why this is so. But the theory of benign demographic transition does have some supporting evidence, to wit, population is leveling off and/or declining in some of the most advanced industrial economies. The U.S. is actually an exception in this regard, primarily due to the direct and indirect effects of immigration.

Yes! Scenario #1 is the original "do nothing" scenario.

Scenarios #2 until #6 are scenarios that try to improve the outlook by means other than population control. Each subsequent scenario contains all of the measures of the previous scenarios, adding one or two additional ones. They culminate in scenario #6, which in my view, is rather depressing.

Scenarios #7 until #9 add population control. These scenarios don't assume all of the previous interventions, except for scenario #9, which is a combination of everything tried before, and which is the only scenario that offers a positive outlook, i.e., population control alone won't cut it either, but population control and recycling and optimizing energy efficiency and pollution control and water and air purification and carbon capture together might still be able to accomplish a miracle ... barely.

I don't have the book at hand, but I recall that all of the scenarios include the "demographic transition" of population that you mention -- that as people become more economically well off they have fewer children. I think it is built into the model.

First, please excuse the Political Correctness, but Limits To Growth had 3 authors (Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows) one of whom was a woman. It would be more appropriate to cite the authors as "Meadows et al". (Donella passed away shortly before the 2004 edition was published, but she is credited as an author).

I bring this up partly because I welcome the participation of more women on such important topics. My impression is that The Oil Drum audience is largely male, with notable exceptions such as Gail The Actuary. (This could be my own bias, but I base this partly on the few people who do post their first names).

Second, in response to

Scenario #6 is indeed sustainable. The world population hovers around 10 billion people and stays there permanently. Yet, the price for this sustainability is dire. The world has essentially returned to a pre-industrial age. Life expectancy is back down at 27 years due to high infant mortality, and the capital investment in both the industrial and service sectors is essentially back down at zero. Humanity lives once again in a subsistence economy.

I want to question how undesirable this scenario really is. Granted, a 27 year life span due to high infant mortality would be dreadful in many ways. This does however mean that those who reach adulthood would have "normal" lifespans in the 50+ year range.

Put aside the lifespan issue for a moment. Is it really so bad to go back to a subsistence economy? Is life not worth living unless we maintain our industrial culture?

As Kunstler says, "we must make other arrangements". I would put forward ideas such as are found in the Permaculture movement, see for example Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren. There are ways to make subsistence agriculture a rich and fulfilling lifestyle, rather than the drudgery we currently associate with rural farm life. Permaculture emphasizes working with nature, rather than against it as in modern industrial agriculture. For example, perennial plants and trees can provide crops year after year with little work, if the agricultural system is set up to be in harmony with the place.

My hope is that systems like permaculture can allow civilization to continue and evolve indefinitely, but with a philosophy that sees us as part of nature, as caretakers rather than exploiters.

I also hope that math, physics, art, literature, music and maybe even computers and the internet can survive past the coming disruptions. The pursuit of these things does not necessarily require the profligate waste of resources that we see today. Much of math, science, art, music, literature was created in the era before our explosive use of energy in the 20th century.

P.S. If Permaculture is too New-Agey for you (it seems to attract that sort though it started in a university academic setting) there are others who are arriving at similar conclusions. One example is given in a book by a regular American farmer named Joel Salatin called You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise.

P.P.S. Maybe some of the best of modern medicine can survive as well, and we won't have the horrible infant mortality rate of Scenario 6.

First, please excuse the Political Correctness, but Limits To Growth had 3 authors (Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows) one of whom was a woman. It would be more appropriate to cite the authors as "Meadows et al". (Donella passed away shortly before the 2004 edition was published, but she is credited as an author).

Point well taken. Actually, Dana was immensely influential in shaping the LTG books, precisely because she was much more optimistic than her two male colleagues, who could be a bit cynical at times. As the books were written under the constraint that all authors should agree with the text, Dana had a strong influence on the eventual outcome.

Maybe, we need to re-phrase all of our Oil Drum articles in legalistic terms, such as: "'Meadows at al' to be called 'Meadows' in the remainder of this document"?

I bring this up partly because I welcome the participation of more women on such important topics. My impression is that The Oil Drum audience is largely male, with notable exceptions such as Gail The Actuary. (This could be my own bias, but I base this partly on the few people who do post their first names).

Nope. The Drum Beat is run by a woman, for example. There are a few others as well ... although you are right: science and engineering are still largely in male hands, at least in the U.S. and in Europe. In China, there are by now almost equally many engineers of both sexes. Hurray to China.

W.r.t. scenario #6: we may not truly have a choice, but if given a choice, I prefer a smaller birth rate coupled to a larger life span over a large birth rate coupled to high infant mortality.

LTG came out in the early 1970s, which were essentially the late-late 1960s. The inflation and commodity price rises of the 1970s hadn't really happened yet, or had just begun.

In the 1960s, the nascent environmental movement was just beginning, and people were thinking about where the amazing industrialization of those decades would lead. Would we end up flying our spaceships for Spring Break on Mars, a sort of sci-fi fantasy that had been popular since the first development of rocketry in the 1930s? Or would we overpopulate and pollute ourselves to death, also trends that seem to have established themselves at the time?

The 1970s were a time of inflation, which was basically just currency depreciation. There really wasn't any industrial/commodities component to it. However, the rising prices were interpreted to be evidence that the shortages predicted in books like LTG weren't going to happen in 2050, but right away! This had a political element. The environmentalist types were eager (as they are today) to jump on just about any justification that would change behavior. I interpret a lot of the support for the "global warming" hypothesis to be really dissatisfaction with the automobile/suburb arrangement today, just as dissatisfaction with the auto/suburb arrangement (broadly speaking) in the 1960s motivated environmentalists of the time. This formed a consensus, also somewhat like Global Warming today, so even the scientist types were dragged in. Look at M. King Hubbert's speeches of the late 1970s. He was convinced that "peak oil" was starting to happen then, in the late 1970s, although of course his own research predicted more of a late-1990s/early 2000s timeframe.

Other economist types of the time recognized the commodity price increases, and general economic malaise, to be caused by currency devaluation, not anything physical. Some of the shortages were caused by things like price fixing, for example, which caused commodity producers to cease production and thus created real shortages. In the 1980s, the currency devaluation was halted, and indeed it was shown that there really wasn't any commodity shortage at the time. Actually, the period of inflation led to overinvestment in the commodity industry in the 1970s, resulting in a glut of productive capacity in the 1980s and 1990s.

That is some background on why the LTG theories are generally thought to have been proven wrong, and why the so-called "cornucopians" were actually right that time around.

econguy, your analysis makes sense to me (I was in college in the mid 70's). How do you evaluate the current situation? Are global warming and peak oil overblown? Will we muddle through for 30 to 40 years or longer? The market adjusting things so that the various shortages aren't too painful? For example, alternative energy becoming widely adopted just because the price of standard energy goes up. This seems to be the viewpoint of another economics guy, Peter Tertzakian, as put forth in his book A Thousand Barrels a Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World

Another great resource on The Limits to Growth story is:

AtKisson, Alan, 1999, "Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World"

While I find Al overly optimistic, he documents the "Limits of Growth" story well, covering before the release of the report up through the Beyond Limits to Growth book and interweaving the limits to growth theme through twenty years of travelogues.

A good article. I think the problem people have with the idea of there being limits to growth is that it undermines the capitalist system.

The beauty of capitalism as a system of control is that it offers everyone hope. "Okay I'm in the shit now, but I could be rich one day, really!" The epitome of this is the lottery; some family living in a trailer park gets to move to a mansion.

Other systems offer people less hope. Commoners rarely marry nobles in feudal society, communist peasants don't become commissars, and so on. Capitalism offers everyone the chance of rising to the top.

But there's only so much room at the top, if one rises someone else must fall - unless infinite growth is possible. If infinite growth is possible then eventually we can all live like Bill Gates - except presumably with robots instead of human servants, since the human servants are living like Bill Gates, too, and don't want to fetch our slippers.

Saying that there are limits to growth threatens the central pillar of stability in the capitalist society, the chance of becoming rich. Knock away that central pillar, and the modern system just can't stand. Where you are now is where you'll always be, this is as good as it gets.

It's incredibly subversive.

Kiashu, if Monsanto invents a better seed which allows farmers to get 5% better yield, and, thus, makes my food cheaper, how did someone else have to give something up? Why couldn't that benefit us all? If GM invents a new engine that gets 50% better fuel economy, who had to give up transportation? If Pfizer invents a new statin drug which prevents me from dying young from a heart attack, who had to die? I don't get it.


You have to look at the bigger picture. A finite world is characterized by the fact that it is finite. You can relieve one limitation after another, but the world remains finite. Exponential growth means, everything keeps growing, and how much ever you raise the final limit, eventually, you'll reach it again, and because of the laws of exponential growth, each time you'll reach it faster than the time before. Eventually, you'll run out of means to escape the inescapable.

Well, yeah, Francois, there's probably a limit somewhere, but, why would we stop before we've reached it? Why would we NOT invent the next seed, or medicine, or source of energy?

Maybe, I'm confusing growth with advancement; but, maybe the doomers are confusing advancement with growth. Yeah, maybe THAT'S it.

The 5% growth doesn't come from nowhere. The physical material of the grain requires physical material from somewhere else.

If you double the size of your crop, you also double the amount of the nutrients it takes from the soil. Now, if those nutrients are things you don't mind losing (like cheap fertiliser made from natural gas), that's alright; but the finiteness of the Earth means that eventually something will become scarce.

Sometimes people wonder whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, and this is supposed to tell us whether the person is a pessimist or optimist. My woman says, "it depends on whether you're drinking from it or filling it up."

The Earth as a system, we're drinking from the glass. So it's half-empty. If some grain is invented that is 5% or even 100% better yield, we're just drinking from the glass faster.

Inventing a better-yielding grain is like inventing a more efficient car. The car still burns a finite resource, whether it's burning it at the rate of a gallon every 10 miles or 100 miles doesn't matter much when you expand it out to 1,000 million people driving 10,000 miles each over 50 or 100 years. Eventually the stuff runs out.

People react to increased efficiency by increased use. If their car goes from 20 to 25 mpg, they don't still drive 25 miles and enjoy the 1/5 gallon saved daily, they just drive 5 miles more. If we had a grain that was 5% better yielding, we'd just give the 5% extra to biofuels, or to livestock so we could eat more meat, and so on.

We're drinking from the glass more than we're filling it up. We're taking out more than we put in. One of the first things I learned when gardening was the Law of Return: that which came from the Earth should be returned to the Earth. Only in this way is the soil kept alive; if you take out more than you put in it eventually dies.

BUT, it's NOT a closed system. We import an enormous amount of energy from the Sun every day, use only a small part, and export out the rest. I'm proposing we use just a little bit more since the glass is, obviously, not half-empty, or half-full, but "overflowing."

You're confusing energy input with materials input. Those are different things.

Energy is essentially unlimited, materials are relatively limited. The materials limit puts a limit on our energy, since we need materials to gather that energy.

If sunshine were all that was needed, the Sahara would be the most fertile and prosperous place on the planet.

If the glass is overflowing, what's flowing over the edge doesn't help us - it's gone. Our cup runneth over, since our cup is so fucking small; that is, we have very little in the way of renewable energy generation. Of course we could have more, but that takes materials, so again we run into those limits to growth.

Yep, there's GOT to be a limit; BUT, what if we better utilize that free energy, and some advanced science, and increase the material (fertile cropland) that we have?

What say we take advanced "drought tolerant" seeds, combine them with solar energy, and advanced nano-derived membranes, and pump a little desalinated seawater on that desert? We could raise some corn, put the distillers grains, along with the biochar, back into the ground, and MAKE some material.

Sure, there's a limit; but, it MIGHT be a long way away from where we are now. And, I got news for you; it doesn't matter what you, or I, think. Man's gonna do it. Cause, that's just the way he Rolls.

Later, Dude. Got a few beers to drink. :)

Enjoyed it.

Again, you don't seem to realise that grains don't appear from nothing; they require material inputs. They require either natural or artificial manure.

If natural manure, then you're limited by the growth of that manure. Many organic farms, for example, lack animals, and so must import organic matter - manure - from outside the farm. They're taking resources from somewhere else to turn into their own resources.

If artificial manure, well that's where we are today, and again that's limited.

No energy is "free" since we have to collect it, which requires us building machinery of varying degrees of technical complexity.

I've no idea what you're talking about with "nano-derived membranes." I think perhaps you've had your beers already before writing this post, or else have been watching too much Star Trek.

The Technology Messiah is not going to descend from the heavens and save us all from the law of conservation of matter. Sorry.

I love your persistent optimism and maybe that is the best story to maintain. We are psychological beings as well. We look out our windows, the sun is shining, there's a cold beer waiting somewhere, it all looks normal and ok. That is what it's like out my window.
But in the past four months, I have traveled in both China and India with their 2.5 billion souls wanting the Mericano lifestyle and going for it.
Full tilt boogie, baby, and it ain't pretty.
Exponential demand growth is a bitch that ain't gonna let up, so I do hope you are praying regularly for that exponential salvation.
Myself, I expect we have as much chance getting off planet tech from Ashtar from the 18th dimension out near Sirius that will save our asses...but then stranger things have happened.

The materials are not used up though, so they may be reused.

A major flaw in the argument is that the amount of materials/energy used per capita is how much we need. In fact there is a huge amount of waste, we could easily survive on less. I view things the other way round, rather than resources being the direct cause of population and wealth, we use resources because they are there. More wealth and more people use more resources.

The implication of this is that we will continue to have more people, and continue to use whatever resources are there.

Thank you, Ugo, for your excellent historical perspective on LTG. As a 51-year-old I can remember the tremendous impacts the combination of the '70's oil shocks plus LTG had when I was in college. There were numerous environmentalists - including some of my professors - who confidently told everyone who would listen or read that most of Earth's oil would be gone by about 2000, at which time her nations would be locked in bloody wars for the remaining dregs. I took them rather seriously then, so the plunge in oil prices and flood of additional supply in the 1980's and 1990's surprised me more than a little.

In retrospect it is clear to me that for political reasons many of these people WANTED a crash in growth capitalism, and for them the oil shocks and LTG were handy bits of evidence that the day of reckoning was near at hand. (By the way, I don't believe this was the case for the LTG authors.) But the effect of their excessive confidence on the general public was all too predictable: deep skepticism about natural limits. The cornucopians were given plenty of free ammunition by people who knew - or should have known - better!

As Morning in America broke over the horizon, as Happy Motoring sifted back into high gear, and as shoppers flocked from supersized McMansions to supersized WalMarts and Targets overflowing with cheap imported goods, it became easier and easier to believe in magic - and more and difficult for nominally intelligent Americans to remember basic physical and thermodynamic realities. The fervent 1970's environmentalist came to love the comfort of his Lexus as he listened to retirement planning advise on world-class surround sound. Yes, thinking souls still knew that real limits were still lurking out there, but we were having far too much fun with materialism to trouble ourselves overmuch.

This is why it is so critical this time 'round to avoid overblown claims and cries of "Wolf!" Earth's natural limits may not whack us over the head with a 2x4 this year, perhaps not even this decade, but the chances that the blow will not fall this century are vanishingly small. Humanity cannot afford another generation of temporarily-justified skeptics.

Hans Noeldner

Humanity cannot afford another generation of temporarily-justified skeptics.

Good point.
They laugh even still at Malthus.

However, my friend, you misunderstand the problem.

You cannot talk "logic and reason" to them. You are wasting your time talking science to them (i.e., "it became easier and easier to believe in magic - and more and difficult for nominally intelligent Americans to remember basic physical and thermodynamic realities.")

Instead we must figure out ways to talk to them in sound bites. (This is not as easy as it sounds.)

Note how many anti-Peakists are still out there. Example: Oil Aplenty: Debunking the Peakniks
p.s. It's a hobby of mine to read what the other side says and try to analyze how their minds work. A simple technique is to Google the blogosphere for "peak oil" + cults

I had reason to look at LTG, the 30 Year Update recently and found a serious error, which gives a false impression. I would have thought that the error would have been spotted but could find no reference to the error, on the Web.

The error is in Table 1-1, which shows growth in selected human activities from 1950 to 2000, in quarter century increments. It wrongly calculates the growth in human population as 160% and 150% in the two 25 year periods. This gives the impression that growth, for 1975-2000, in some other activities has barely kept pace with population growth. The true growth figures should be 60% and 50%.

I'm not sure how this mistake might be misused, once found by the cornucopians. What do others think?

It is interesting to note that a quite scientific proofs are available today showing that LTG was right. From my personal experience of a practical engineer I have never had a slightest doubt that LTG was right because anyone who had to go through the courses of thermodynamics could see straight through things. LTG was in fact a course of 'applied thermodynamics for laymen'. Laymen, however, decided to go shopping...
The link below is an article that supports the theory of civilizational crash although it is called there a very scientific name: 'Finite-time singularity....'

In my opinion the elite in almost all human societies do not tolerate anything that predict a disaster, collapse, limit etc because:

(a) It show their inability to know about it before they were told by intellectuals hence making them less capable of ruling others than the intellectuals.

(b) They fear it will result in a mutiny/uprise from the poor who seeing the limit/disaster/collapse would stop tolerating and waiting for better future and prefer to take whatever is available now when its plenty rather than wait for tommorrow when its scarce.

I think you are quite right.

In fact, the role of the priests/mullahs has traditionally been to ensure that the poor and landless believe that they will be rewarded in the afterlife. Otherwise, they may try to grab it in their present existence.

For example, I live in a huge old house in England that is now split up into 7 good-sized apartments. The house was originally built 100 years ago for one vicar. He was the personal spiritual guide of the local landowner/lord. Adjacent to us is the, smaller, house that was dedicated to the estate manager - an important person but obviously not as important as the vicar/priest.

I think that the novels by Jane Austen capture what it was like much better than anything I can write. Her own father was ... a vicar.

Mullahs can't be counted in that category because they teach that every individual has to pay for his/her sins no matter he/she is rich or poor. However, bishops and rabbies can be counted in this category especially bishops who teach the believe that since somebody else has died for our sins we not have to pay for it therefore can get excellent life in eternity and that rich can't go to paradise only poor can, that is what socialism call opium for the poor.

Mullahs throughout history till and including present live in extreme poverty in little houses with no regular income. That is exact opposite of bishops who throughout history tax the poor a tenth of their crops (tilth) even when the poor has still to pay very heavy taxes to govt and has to handle bad crops as well.

I would add to your observations that the reason why Jesus is the adopted guru of so many megalomaniacs is that they absolve themselves of any guilt because Jesus already died for THEIR sins; so, they can sin all they want. If Christ already died for MY sins, what do I have to worry about? Thus the Ten Commandments NEVER apply, and I'm free to behave in any manner I desire. This attitude is/was clearly present in Bush, Hitler and Stalin's behavior.

I don't believe that this old response from the late Donella Meadows has been posted.

WOW! I truly hope every Oil Drum reader takes time to read that article (perhaps the Staff could put this up as a featured article?). Donella was the optimist of the trio of LTG authors. This article shows that her optimism was of the hard-headed and visionary variety.

The surest way to disaster is to declare it inevitable, do nothing to prevent it, and mock and demoralize anyone who tries.

What a huge difference it makes... if we think of the future as something not to be predicted, but to be chosen! If we throw off that ancient remorseless myth that we will always choose foolishly!

There are real wolves out there. I happen to believe my computer model when it says that the End-Of-The-World-As-We-Know-It is not only a possibility, but a high probability. As the Chinese proverb says, "If you don't change direction, you will end up where you are headed." I think we are headed for disaster. But that thought does not thrill me. And it does not panic me into trying to fashion a world so controlled that it is actually predictable. Rather it energizes me to work toward a vision of a World-That-Works-For-Everyone, including all the nonhuman Everyones, a world in which eight billion people (or preferably fewer) maintain a European standard of living in a way that does not undermine the resource base, a world that evolves and learns and dances and operates from generosity and joy.

Donella was a beautiful writer. Here is one of my all time favorite essays - from her regular column.