Is global collapse imminent ? (repost from 2014)

Update I thought I’d repost this a year on, and reopen the discussion 10 September 2015

Reader ZM points me to a paper with this title, by Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne. Not only does Turner answer “Yes”, he gives a date: 2015. That’s a pretty big call to be making, given that 2015 is less than four months away.

The abstract reads:

The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.

A central part of the argument, citing Simmons is that critics of LtG wrongly interpeted the original model as projecting a collapse beginning in 2000, whereas the correct date is 2015.

I’ve been over this issue in all sorts of ways (see here and here for example, or search on Peak Oil). So readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t buy this story. I won’t bother to argue further: unless the collapse is even more rapid than Turner projects, I’ll be around to eat humble pie in 2016 when the downturn in output (and the corresponding upsurge in oil prices) should be well under way.

Given that I’m a Pollyanna compared to lots of commenters here, I’d be interested to see if anyone is willing to back Turner on this, say by projecting a decline of 5 per cent or more in world industrial output per capita in (or about) 2015, continuing with a sharply declining trend thereafter. [minor clarifications added, 5/9]

439 thoughts on “Is global collapse imminent ? (repost from 2014)

  1. @MH

    So, just to be absolutely clear, what you mean by ‘Agree’ is not ‘Agree with John Quiggin’, but rather ‘Agree with those claims, the ones that John Quiggin is disagreeing with, and so disagree with John Quiggin’.

  2. @jrkrideau

    To paraphrase you say that the Roman Catholic church had no problem with a heliocentric universe.

    I don’t buy it. Surely the church, with man as God’s prime creation, wanted the heavens to revolve around Earth? The idea that we were just one planet orbiting the sun took away our specialness, and hence reduced the power of the church.

    I’m sure the church was in favour of science, as the study of God’s work, but with the proviso that you did not discover anything that reduced the power of the church.

  3. @James Wimberley

    Warning: do not read with a mouthful of soda, or, like the narrator, a lime margarita.

    But by all means have a lime margarita, if the mood strikes you. The Stross piece is a cracking yarn. It may even be partially true. 🙂

  4. @MH

    Agree, decarbonising the economy is not feasible as there is not an adequate, abundant or useable substitute for oil or coal. There is only less to go around and how that less is to be distributed.

    You forgot to say “amen”.

  5. In an instance of good timing, Samuel Alexander and Simon Ussher’s The Simplicity Institute has just sent an email linking to their YouTube video interview with Graeme Turner on the LtG and his work comparing the LtG scenarios to historical data, which is going to be in their forthcoming simple living documentary A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity

  6. @MH

    OK, so you agree with the claims made by Turner as regards renewables, and that this means “less for everybody”. Are you willing like Turner, to put a date (2015) on when we the global economy starts contracting, or is this one of those claims like the Apocalypse, that can be deferred indefinitely

  7. @John Quiggin

    While you’re here…

    Tim and I were unsuccessfully trying to argue the issue up-thread. It seems we agree at least that we don’t know what we’re supposed to be measuring and where we can find the various reliable sources of data on:

    world industrial output per capita

    What is the measure and the source you would be looking at to check the current and historical level of that?

  8. John Quiggin :

    Is this a revisit of LTG and Turner for a reason?

    As I said, the reason is that this kind of argument is almost invariably associated with claims that decarbonizing the economy through a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency is not feasible. So, it’s important to make it clear that LTG-style predictions don’t stand up to scrutiny.

    climate change, species extinctions, ecological disruption and loss of eco-services are going to be our real limiters.

    Spot on!

    John, Thanks for running this thread and providing indirectly the link to Graham Turner above. After looking at your comments such as the quotes above my impression is 2015 is a bit of furphy a bit like predicting global bubble and collapse around 2000s when the details of the process werent in though people were seeing the drivers emerging as part of earlier crises.

    Also this looke more a in the way of uncertainties rather than disagreements and maybe you might revisit this issue later in a way that explores the uncertainties. In particular it would be good to see what you think economists have got right and wrong about LTG and differentiate between the short and the long term which seem very different worlds.

    Parting comments:
    – Graham Turner in the video is quite circumspect about making predictions so 2015 seems more his guess about a change which is still too hard to detect rather than entrail reading.
    – Unlike economic breaks which we cant predict either we have very little coherent data on what happens during resource linked economic collapse except the metaphors of famine, storm damage as per Hurricane Katrina and war. Maybe you know of something. But without this we really are in the dark except that by the time we see such crises coming it is too late.
    – Turner is I understand tackling the personal question of how far to plan/prepare. This is getting into the field of survivalism which is a dead end and does things to ones head. So he needs to be forgiven for what may seem a little loopy in some ways. He is just following the logic

    Maybe the issue for you to explore at a later date is the idea of runaway collapse. e.g. when we saw 2007 coming what might we have done and when precisely did we detect it? In this regard to this other possible metaphors to explore are:

    1. Runaway Greenhouse which we will never see but will happen eventually on earth possibly induced by CO2 emissions and all the secondary if we are extremely stupid. The point about this is not that it is imminent in economic terms but how do we respond to the risk… is one illustration of people who are taking this really seriously I think.

    2. The collapse of the Roman Empire….which was a slow motion collapse over several centuries. But when were the key decisions taken? One expert on this Tainter ascribes it to the gradual debasement of the currency. Given this was a factor it is unlikely when debasement started its proposers understood the long term economic ramifications of the tipping point which could only be seen in hindsight. Perhaps there is something in the hyperinflation literature which also seems a good metaphor for rapid out of control change which you would be very familiar with.

  9. @ZM

    The CSIRO paper seems to show that the LTG growth was pretty accurate – looking at figures 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 and comparing the green plot (standard run) and observed data.

  10. In the past, I have always beaten both the LTG drum and the Collapse drum. It’s worth noting that those are two very different drums. I no longer beat the drum of “inevitable collapse” drum. Ultimately, LTG must still apply, at least in terms of peak population, peak physical infrastructure and peak disruption to ecological systems. On the other hand, collapse is not inevitable: although civilization might well face a couple of tough centuries ahead. I think we have baked in quite a bit of trouble for ourselves but technology if wisely applied might save us. The advances in solar and wind power (to solve the entire energy problem essentially) are very heartening.

    The graphs of the CSIRO paper linked to by ZM are well open to the interpretation that collapse is NOT inevitable. What I mean to say is that they are still well open to a scenario of stabilisation (of population and physical infrastructure) rather than collapse.

    I still expect a long period (20 to 200 years) of “salutary crisis” as I would term it and bad things will happen in many regions and countries. The climate and ocean crises will still be very severe. But once we realise we need to be on a total dirigist-mobilized footing to save our planet (the “salutary crisis” will indeed be that serious), I believe we could still save civilization. I just don’t know what the odds are. Rough guess is 50:50.

  11. Ikonoclast,

    “I still expect a long period (20 to 200 years) of “salutary crisis” as I would term it and bad things will happen in many regions and countries. The climate and ocean crises will still be very severe. But once we realise we need to be on a total dirigist-mobilized footing to save our planet (the “salutary crisis” will indeed be that serious), I believe we could still save civilization. I just don’t know what the odds are. Rough guess is 50:50.”

    The literature I’ve read looking to return the atmospheric levels of greenhouse as emissions to 350ppm posits a time frame from about 2015/2018 to 2100. This is staged, with sharp easy cuts in the first 5-10 years, more difficult cuts to 2040/2050 , then drawing down emissions to 2100.

    This would need a lot of effort as it would take a great deal of coordination and diligence, only comparable to times of war and recovery in Western countries which go for shorter periods. However the plus is there is no fighting and killing despite the longer duration, and it would be interesting to be part of such historic changes.

    I don’t think you need a crisis. You just go to court and sue the government for the court to order it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the necessary magnitude to maintain a safe climate.

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