Tue | Jun 15, 2021

Limits to growth - Is Seaga right about energy alternatives?

Published:Sunday | June 24, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Lawrence Powell

Lawrence Powell, World Watch

There are quite a few topics on which I respectfully disagree with Edward Seaga. That is to be expected. We come to politics from different premises. But one on which I greatly admire his wisdom and foresight is on the matter of the consequences of global oil depletion.

In a recent Gleaner article ('The end of oil?', May 27), he perceptively observes that:

"Journals, studies, reports and eminent authorities speak not of if, but when, reserves of oil will reach the point of diminishing production ... raising the spectre of exorbitant and unaffordable pricing. This would be a threat to the viability of economies, with the possible outcome of dire economic adjustments which could precipitate another global financial meltdown. We must be seized by the recognition that civilisation, as we know it, would die if electricity supply should cease."

He then points us to a viable energy alternative, which requires that we fundamentally rethink our current lifestyle:

"It must be within man's genius that he who has explored the cosmos, walked the moon and sent probes to the limits of our solar system should also have the capacity to place within a neighbourhood home, the technology to cook food, heat water, provide cool air, refrigerate perishables, light the darkness and provide entertainment, using our source of atomic energy, the sun."

Global wake-up call

What is interesting here is that more and more of the world's best minds, across the political spectrum from Left to Right, are beginning to wake up and see the necessity of taking this dilemma seriously, rather than conveniently sweeping it under the rug or kicking the policy can down the road.

The larger question, to which issues of oil depletion and energy alternatives are inevitably attached, is the meta-issue of finite limits to growth - of whether our present lifestyle on this planet is ecologically sustainable. Realistically, it simply does not appear possible to sustain our current patterns of massive materialistic production and consumption (in either capitalist or socialist economies) for very much longer without generating worse and worse consequences for ourselves, and running out of critical resources.

Actually this is not a 'new' realisation at all. In fact, by chance this year happens to be the 40th anniversary of an insightful, but little-heeded, landmark scientific study called The Limits to Growth: A Report of the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. The study was based on groundbreaking empirical research, conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by a team of the world's most talented scientists from 10 different countries - but with a very unpleasant prognosis for the future, that few wanted to hear, what today we would call an 'inconvenient truth'.

So its implications have been quietly ignored by four decades of economists and politicians, who preferred to keep promising their investors and their citizens an 'unlimited growth' pie in the sky. Being scientifically honest about the hard realities of accelerating resource depletion, overpopulation, ecosystem pollution, and finite limits to growth neither boosts stocks nor wins elections.

What politicians dared not say

What this MIT study discovered was that we are in deep trouble unless we change how we live together on this planet. The study was unique because it was the first time anyone had applied modern computers and statistical techniques to the task of simultaneously charting the combined, interactive effects of many variables in the world 'system' all at once - and then exploring in detail what would happen if present trends continue into the next century.

This multitalented team of scientists developed a sophisticated computer model of the world as an interdependent global system, 'World3'. They took the best available statistics on what was known about changes in the global population, economic trends, and oil and other energy resources over time from 1900 through 1972 and used them to develop a precise set of equations describing how these parameters were affecting each other, and how they would interact to create future patterns of change in the global ecosystem.

The five key 'subsystems' they looked at were world population, food production, consumption of non-renewable natural resources, industrial production, and pollution. This computer model was, therefore, able to project the broad outlines of what would happen to our world 'system' over the next 100 years (starting from 1972), under a variety of different possible scenarios, such as, for example, the amount of non-renewable resources like oil.

Their findings were deeply disturbing, hence the tendency to denial. The model predicted that if human civilisation were to continue at accustomed levels of growth and consumption, the global economy would collapse sometime between 2030 and 2070, population losses would ensue, and there would be an "irretrievable breakdown of the world system" as we know it.

Their global simulation showed that one of the central factors driving everything else was rapid population growth. In 1800, there were one billion humans on earth. By 1930, this had doubled to two billion. Thirty years later, in 1960, it was up to three billion. Fifteen years later, in 1975, it was up to four billion. Today, in 2012, there are approximately seven billion human beings competing for the limited resources on this planet. According to United Nations population estimates, by 2050 world population could reach 10 billion.

When the MIT 'World3' model was run using global data for all five subsystems, and how the five would interact in the future, several dire "overshoot and collapse" scenarios emerged.

1 The model predicted that previous rates of economic growth and consumption could not be sustained for much longer, because of limited availability of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels.

2 If the world population continued to grow at previous rates, society would run out of renewable resources sometime into the 21st century, resulting in a "precipitous population decline" (mass die-off).

3 If the economy continued to grow at previous rates, this would lead to resource limits being exceeded sometime in the 21st century, resulting in a "global economic collapse".

4 Even if the supply of available resources could somehow be doubled, the model showed that a collapse would nevertheless occur sometime into the 21st century as a result of accumulated ecosystem destruction.

5 Competition by a rapidly growing population over diminishing resources would ignite regional conflicts and resource wars between states - e.g., over arable land, or remaining oil reserves. (Some argue that US neocolonial interventions in oil-rich Iraq and Libya are already early examples of such resource wars.)

This 'world system simulation' has been rerun repeatedly in the four decades since the original publication, using updated software, refined models, and updated input data. The results have been essentially the same each time it has been run. This April, renowned Australian physicist Graham Turner told the Smithsonian Magazine that his own computer scenarios have turned out nearly identical to those predicted in similar scenarios used as the basis for 'The Limits to Growth'. "There is a very clear warning bell being rung here," he said. "We are not on a sustainable trajectory."

Similarly, in an article in American Scientist, Charles Hall and John Day note that the MIT group's 1972 predictions were "right on the mark in their general assessment, if not always in the details or exact timing, about the dangers of the continued growth of human population and their increasing levels of consumption in a world increasingly approaching very real material constraints."

The authors importantly add that, as predicted back in 1972, we now find ourselves trapped in the limits of an outmoded "petroleum age", yet needing to make swift transition to a post-industrial "solar age" because, "together, oil and natural gas supply nearly two-thirds of the energy used in the world, and coal another 20 per cent ... . Unfortunately, that will soon end."

Beyond the golden calf of growth

What all of this implies is that unchecked growth, based on insatiable consumerism and reckless exploitation of limited fossil fuels and other natural resources, cannot provide a realistic basis for a sustainable human civilisation. In the long run, growth is not the answer to our economic woes; ecological balance is. Some of the world's finest scientists were already urgently warning us, fully 40 years ago, to quickly wind down our fossil fuel dependence and explore more cost-effective and sustainable energy alternatives like solar - and a former prime minister is warning us now. We need to listen, for our children's sake, if not for our own.

Beyond just thinking in terms of short-term financial gain, and political advantage, there is the longer-term need for responsible private- and public-sector leaders to recognise that the very practices that bring us these goods and services we crave are destroying our habitat as a species. Our land, our air and our oceans are being transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories of waste. We are losing our topsoil, forests, fisheries, coral reefs, climate stability and biodiversity.

If we continue to ignore these things, as the old Cree Indian prophecy admonishes, "Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten."

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and lapowell.auckland@ymail.com.