Looking back at the Club of Rome
A point discussed on the blog recently is whether Limits to Growth actually predicted rapid exhaustion of critical natural resources, or whether this was a misrepresentation by much later critics. The text itself isn’t definitive, since it contains some projections showing rapid exhaustion and others (in which discoveries boost stocks by a factor of five) in which exhaustion takes place over a century or so, and also because the projections were revised in later editions. However, my memory is that both supporters and critics focused on the more extreme projections.
I have a couple of pieces of evidence to support this claim. First, I’ve put over the fold a piece by Matthew Simmons defending the Club of Rome and saying
Nowhere in the book was there any mention about running out of anything by 2000. Instead the book’s concern was entirely focused on what the world might look like 100 years later.
But Simmons’ case is undermined by the dust jacket at the beginning of his article which sells the book as ‘The headline-making report on the imminent global disaster facing humanity’. I think most readers buying a book that was sold like this would focus on the worst-case scenarios.
To support this interpretation, here’s a para from a 1979 book, Economics, environmental policy and the quality of life, by Baumol and Oates who begin their Chapter 7 with a reference to Limits to Growth
Certain recent studies have raised the spectre of complete exhaustion of some of the worlds critical resources. they tell us that in the absence of drastic countermeasures, within a matter of decades mankind is likely to run out of petroleum, natural gas and other vital fuels, to deplete virtually all the sources of various minerals such as mercury, copper and silver and to have cultivated essentially all remaining and still usable land. In brief, the world economy will be brought to the brink of catastrophe by hte exhaustion of natural resources.
Baumol and Oates also present in Chapter 9 a “Standard Run” from the World Model showing catastrophic collapse a little over halfway between 1900 and 2100, that is, right about now. Baumol and Oates, like most economists, are critical of Limits to Growth, but they aren’t rightwing anti-environmentalists by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s fair to say that most readers at the time, whether they agreed with the Club of Rome or not, focused on predictions of imminent resource exhaustion, and not on what might happen in 2070
Of course, this doesn’t resolve the question of whether an analysis like that of Limits to Growth is going to be applicable in forthcoming decades. My view for which, I’ve given some of the reasons in the past (though I’ll obviously have to write more on this in the future.), is that exhaustion of mineral resources like oil is not going to be a serious problem. The real risk, exemplified by climate change, is that we will exhaust the assimilative capacity of the natural environment. This was a theme in Limits to Growth but not one that got a lot of attention at the time.