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Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil


Professor Oneal's letter, full of righteous indignation, is in fact full of errors and misrepresentations of what we (and others) said. Specifically:

1) Oneal says "Limits to Growth (1972) only failed to specify when the dramatic failure would occur". Neither we nor the original authors to Limits to Growth (ALTG) failed to specify when events would occur but rather said "the original output, based on the technology of the time, had a very misleading feature: there were no dates on the graph between the years 1900 and 2100 ... (p. 235)" The ALTG did specify when serious fluctuations would occur graphically (roughly 2020) but (as we pointed out) it was misinterpreted by many others as occurring much earlier because of the lack of clear numbers on the x axis, a problem with the axis labeling technology of their time. To date, as we and independently Turner (in refs) found, the LTG predictions are remarkably accurate. We said nothing about their future accuracy except that "Of course, how well it will perform in the future when the model behavior gets more dynamic is not yet known". Our point was that the model's accuracy, dismissed by many, cannot yet be dismissed based on the behavior through 2008. We believe that is something to think about, as are their predictions for the future.

2) I believe Paul Ehrlich's bet was with Julian Simon, not Julian Brands. I see no way that Ehrlich was saying that this bet had anything to do explicitly with the LTG model. In fact contrary to what Oneal says the world experienced tremendous economic problems after 1972 as the United States reached and passed peak oil. It took more than a decade to recover, and, debatably, we may be seeing a return to similar economic problems following, once again, higher oil prices in the past 18 months.
3) Oneal says "By 2050, it will be apparent, the authors claim, that the Club of Rome was right after all." Did we say that? Can you give us the quote? In fact we did not say that. The closest that we can find in our article is "The concept of the possibility of a huge multifaceted failure of some substantial part of industrial civilization is so completely outside the understanding of our leaders that we are almost totally unprepared for it" and go on to give New Orleans and Katrina as an example and to discuss the need for education on other possible large scale failures. Yes these could include such things as predicted by LTG, but we did not say so explicitly.
4) Oneal says "Hall and Day say that the day of reckoning is coming, however, due to the peaking of petroleum production." We did not say "day of reckoning is coming", or any words to that effect, although if he used the word "imply" we could live with it. We did say that there are enormous problems and that the world (including, apparently, Professor Oneal) does not really understand our dependence upon petroleum or our vulnerability to petroleum shortfalls. We carefully avoided the words he accuses us of using.

We do not have the capacity to predict whether the patterns predicted by ALTG will indeed be the future, but we felt that it was wrong to dismiss that possibility based on fallacious arguments. Few understand the role of cheap oil as a principal aid in allowing the good things he lists to occur. We went from personal energy to slaves to animal power to windmills to coal to oil (and gas) to ... Hmmm, what? Does he have any ideas at the scale of oil and gas? After nearly 50 years as energy scientists with many hundreds of energy-related peer reviewed publications we do not. Professor O'Neil states that there was a dramatic "improvement" in many aspects of society in the 20th century including a decrease in poverty and a general increase in standard of living. This is true in general even though there are more people living in poverty now in terms of absolute numbers than ever before. But these improvements came during a time when fossil fuels, and especially oil, became very cheap and widely available. The era of cheap oil is coming to an end. One of the main points of our paper is that with the end of cheap energy, especially cheap oil, maintaining the improvements that O'Neil speaks are likely to become extremely difficult or impossible.

We are concerned that Oneal bases his arguments on things that we did not say, for we chose our words very carefully. Unfortunately his letter reconfirms in our heads how too many debates go on about resource scarcity – if the science (and there is a great deal of science behind the analysis of contemporary resource limitations) is unpleasant or interferes with the dominant worldview it must be wrong.

I guess we need to balance this letter off against 100 or so very positive letters we got about our paper.

posted by Charles Hall
November 20, 2009


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