06 December 2004

Limits? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Limits

I’ve been reading the 30-year Update of the groundbreaking and much maligned book The Limits to Growth. It was originally published in 1972 to polarized reaction. The strongest voices summarily dismissed it as a work of cranks and crackpots who wanted to end progress as we knew it then and have virtually continued to know it since. There’s a case that the Limits and its progenitors were widely misunderstood – a fact that the authors should have seen coming if they ran the scenarios. The authors may have done themselves a disservice by not clearly explaining that they weren't claiming the sky was falling, but simply wanted to offer readers a few computer generated scenarios for what might be if we kept the course of exponential growth. In other words, a cautionary tale.

Of course intentions and impacts don’t often match up. As a colleague said to me just last week, "The Club of Rome was wrong, weren’t they?" Well, yes and no, is the unequivocal answer. If you believe the authors, the media grabbed onto what they interpreted as a call for the end of our civilization and ran with it. The message was, like some of John Kerry’s gymnastic explanations, not uncomplicated and, in its lack of simplicity, the original Limits may have overshot its mark.

Still, there is much in the current book that proves one point: human beings are an ingenious sort. We are great tinkerers and adaptors and will usually find a way to throw technological fixes and other solutions at problems we face. Some of these fixes the authors of Limits may have “predicted” if they were true soothsayers. But the doom-saying interpretation of the original message may have been too strong to warrant a wholesale embrace of its platform by even the most ardent environmentalists; well, all except the Earth First!-ers.

The world population didn’t spin out of complete control; in fact, there are indications it has started to level off at the six billion level. We haven’t (yet) run out of fossil fuels; and food production is at an all time high, right? So why look back on this work and pursue its scenarios further? Well, it turns out hindsight is 20/20, but computer modeling is a limited science in and of itself. You are beholden to the parameters of the system upon which scenarios are run and the amount of information it can crunch. Admittedly, the technology has vastly improved; they now run scenarios seemingly faster than I can type. Yet still, there is nothing like the human intellect and heart to interpret nuances -- and computers have not figured out a way to completely replicate the human animal’s best attributes.

The single, greatest message of Limits is, in my view, that we may be on a course towards collapse and that we shouldn’t risk it. Perhaps we need not completely abandon our ways, but rather seek to stem those that are most questionable and disruptive, while embracing those that give us a sporting chance. Why risk it? Better to develop new methods of living on the earth than to sit by and let the collapse come while we deny, deny deny. We’re naïve if we think our world or our ingenuity has no limits whatsoever; we’re equally naïve if we think we don’t have brains and gifts enough to make a concerted effort to change things before it’s too late.

I’ll write more on this subject in the coming days as I think this through. These are my first impressions upon finishing the 30-Year Update. For now, suffice it to say that I applaud the authors for bringing this subject up again – somebody has to be a voice in the wilderness. I also caution readers not to take everything they write as some sort of death knell for prosperity. We can be more crafty and imaginative than that implies.

No comments: