Book review: Limits to Growth

Who could have predicted the climate crisis?

Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, 31.12.2022

This is a review of a deeply unfashionable book. It was published a little over half a century ago, which is certainly inconvenient for those who, like M. Macron, would like to suggest that these issues are a recent development. Its conclusions have moreover been confirmed repeatedly by subsequent studies. It represents, indeed, an inconvenient set of truths.

Limits to Growth was the result of a research project originally sponsored by an organisation called the Club of Rome. I should make it clear that I hold no brief for the Club of Rome; as far as I can see, it belongs to the large category of bodies whose shtick is, essentially, “Here is an existential crisis! Just give us absolute power and we will sort it out!” I am not suggesting for a moment that giving absolute power to the Club of Rome will sort this out – and the same goes for the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But Limits to Growth is a genuine achievement. It came from a marriage between the first stirrings of systems theory and computer modelling (courtesy of MIT). Systems theory is another unfashionable thing these days, because it suggests amongst other things that we might not actually be able to achieve the kind of total mastery of complex systems that we would like – including systems like the global climate, the global ecosystem, and other things which we seem to need in order to live, inconveniently enough.

Limits to Growth does not actually contain any predictions. What it contains is scenarios. If you do X, you will get Y. This would be comforting, were it not for the fact that follow-up studies have shown that having done X, we are indeed getting Y. This is pretty impressive, given what computer modelling was able to do fifty-odd years ago.

Of course it necessarily paints with a pretty broad brush-stroke. You won’t find here specific figures about tractor production in Yakutsk or the electrification of the Donets basin. But you will see here prefigured the general shape of the last fifty years.

Interestingly, the climate crisis which has come as such a shock to M. Macron (despite the 1896 paper by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius and numerous subsequent studies) does not even figure in the Limits to Growth outside of the broad rubric of “pollution” – that is, stuff that industrial civilisation puts into the environment which is inimical to life. It turns out, to the astonishment of absolutely nobody – except M. Macron, and perhaps a few other “leaders of the free world” – that shitting on your own doorstop is not the brightest idea.

Of course, Limits to Growth was published more than ten minutes ago and doesn’t have its own TikTok channel, so we can all safely ignore it. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: