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The Limits to Growth, Global 2000, and Their Relatives[i]

 

Julian L. Simon

 

The Limits to Growth simulation of 1972, in which we breed to the exhaustion of natural resources, is so devoid of meaning that it is not worth detailed discussion or criticism. Yet it is taken seriously by many people to this day, and it is therefore a fascinating example of how scientific work can be outrageously bad and yet be very influential.

The Limits to Growth was immediately blasted as foolishness or fraud by almost every economist who read it closely and reviewed it in print, for its silly methods as well as for disclosing so little of what the authors did, which makes close inspection impossible. To use the book authors' sort of language, the whole Limits to Growth caper was public-relations hype, kicked off with a press conference organized by Charles Kytle Associates (a public-relations firm) and financed by the Xerox Corporation; this entire story, along with devastating commentary, was told in detail in Science the week following the book's appearance in 1972. (The public-relations campaign may not be a bad thing in itself, but it certainly shows the manner the authors and the sponsoring Club of Rome intended to have their material make its way in the world of ideas.)

One strong reason not to put stock in the Limits to Growth predictions is that the model was quickly shown to produce rosy forecasts with only minor and realistic changes in the assumptions.[ii] The most compelling criticism of the Limits to Growth simulation, however, was made by the sponsoring Club of Rome itself. Just four years after the foofaraw created by the book's publication and huge circulation—an incredible 4 million copies were sold—the Club of Rome "reversed its position" and "came out for more growth." But this about-face has gotten relatively little attention, even though it was written up in such places as Time and the New York Times.[iii] And so the original message is the one that remains with many people.

The explanation of this reversal, as reported in Time, is a masterpiece of face-saving double talk.

The Club's founder, Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, says that Limits was intended to jolt people from the comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue indefinitely. That done, he says, the Club could then seek ways to close the widening gap between rich and poor nations—inequities that, if they continue, could all too easily lead to famine, pollution and war. The Club's startling shift, Peccei says, is thus not so much a turnabout as part of an evolving strategy.[iv]

In other words, the Club of Rome sponsored and disseminated untruths in an attempt to scare us. Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth. (I have been waiting in vain since the first edition for them to sue me for libel in that previous sentence.)

But it is possible that the Club of Rome did not really practice the deceitful strategy that it now says it did. Maybe the members simply realized that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was scientifically worthless. If so, the Club of Rome then lied about what it originally did, in order to save face. From the outside, we have no way of knowing which of these ugly possibilities is the "truth."

Is my summary of the reported facts not fair? Perhaps I should use quieter language, because I know that some will find the use of words like "lie" sufficient reason to reject what I am saying. But I have no public-relations firm to magnify my message a million-fold in the media, nor do I have a message that people are waiting breathlessly to hear. So I must use strong language to get this point across. And—is there really anything wrong with calling a documented and self-confessed lie a lie?

Surely this is one of the more curious scientific episodes of recent years. The Limits to Growth authors have not recanted, to my knowledge, even though their sponsors have. But neither did the authors confront and contradict their sponsors when the sponsors recanted. The whole matter seems to have passed with little notice, and The Limits to Growth continues to be cited in the popular press as authoritative. If the shoe were on the other foot, I would surely hear plenty from such organizations as Zero Population Growth and the Environmental Fund.

The Global 2000 Report to the President of 1980, done for President Jimmy Carter in conjunction with the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of State, was a later incarnation of material similar to The Limits to Growth, done by many of the same people. It differs in that it was an "official" document with all the influence that such status automatically confers. Like Limits to Growth, the conclusions of Global 2000 are almost wholly without merit largely because of the absence of the long-run trend data that show that resources are becoming more rather than less available, and that our air and water have been getting cleaner rather than dirtier. Even the authors of the Global 2000 Report agree that such trends are the proper basis for such a study, but they nevertheless relied upon the same old discredited Malthusian theorizing that has led one after another of these studies to make forecasts that were soon falsified by events - as was the case with Limits to Growth and Global 2000. Yet this study, too, was heavily ballyhooed, and became the basis for many policy decisions. The Resourceful Earth, which Herman Kahn and I edited in 1984, presents solid scholarly material on most of the questions addressed by Global 2000, having much in common with the material in this book.

In 1992 there appeared a sequel, Beyond the Limits, by the group that produced Limits to Growth. The main message was still very dour, but this time the authors built themselves an intellectual escape hatch. They say they may seem to have been wrong, but their ideas were really correct. They simply erred on the date for disaster. (Imagine your reaction if a weather forecaster asked not to be marked wrong because the snowstorm that s/he forecast for tomorrow was simply misdated by four months.) This is in the tradition of Malthus, who changed almost everything in his second edition except the conclusions that made him famous. The Limits authors now suggest we have a choice. If we change our ways, we can avoid collapse. But "if present trends remain unchanged, we face the virtually certain prospect of global economic collapse in the next century."

A pdf version of this description is available here.

 
References

 

Barney, Gerald O. 1980a. The Global 2000 Report To The President: Entering The Twenty-First Century, Volume 1, Summary Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

Barney, Gerald O. 1980b. The Global 2000 Report To The President: Entering The Twenty-First Century, Volume 2, Summary Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Barney, Gerald O. 1980c. The Global 2000 Report To The President: Entering The Twenty-First Century, Volume 3, The Government's Global Model. Washington, Dc: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Boyd, Robert. 1972. “World Dynamics: A Note.” Science 177:516-19.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report to The Club of Rome. New York: Potomac Associates.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, and Jorgen Randers. 1992. Beyond the Limits. Post Mills, Vt.: Chelsea Green.

Simon, Julian L. 1996. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Simon, Julian L., and Kahn, Herman, eds. 1984. The Resourceful Earth. New York: Basil Blackwell.

 


[i] From The Ultimate Resource 2, pp 508-510. This extract has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Simon Family.

[ii] Boyd 1972

[iii] New York Times, April 14, 1976; Global 2000 II, p. 613.

[iv] Time, April 26, 1976, p. 56.