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Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil


This is a great article that calls attention to the fact that climate change is not the disaster caused by excessive population and economic growth. It should be circulated widely to environmental groups, elected, appointed, and career government officials, and also leaders of industry. You should add the Global Footprint Network to the list of Internet links. Their methodology, based on accounting principles, is less shaky than the system dyamics methodology used by Dennis Meadows, & al., which has all the problems of nonlinear dynamics.
Why do you not avoid 0, O, Q, I and 1 in the garbled verification text?
posted by Foster Morrison
April 25, 2009 @ 12:20 PM

Charles Hall and John Day Jr. argue that the Club of Rome was right all along about the dire consequences of resource scarcity. Limits to Growth (1972) only failed to specify when the dramatic failure would occur.

Paul Ehrlich's bet with Julian Brands shows that the Club believed disaster was imminent, not just a distant danger; but resource scarcity did not cause global economic catastrophe after 1972. Instead, real annual incomes increased dramatically, especially in developing countries where 300-500 hundred million escaped poverty. Improvements in measures of the physical quality of life have been even more dramatic. Life expectancy increased in developing countries from 43 years in 1960 to 64 in 2000. The child mortality rate among families with servants in York, England in 1900 was ten times that in less developed countries in 2000. Mindful of how far there is yet to go to reduce global poverty, the United Nations, nevertheless, concluded in 1996 that developing countries had achieved in thirty years what took industrial countries more than a hundred.

Hall and Day say that the day of reckoning is coming, however, due to the peaking of petroleum production. There were undoubtedly those in the nineteenth century who predicted, correctly, that travel by horse would become unsustainable as humans and animals competed for food. By 2050, it will be apparent, the authors claim, that the Club of Rome was right after all.

Stock brokers are advised never to put a price and a date in the same sentence. Hall and Day ignore this caution, but safely: we won't know if they are right for forty years.
posted by John Oneal
November 20, 2009 @ 1:13 PM

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 @ 1:53 PM

I apologize for any righteous indignation and for incorrectly identifying Julian Simon.

Of course, we should consider the danger of a petroleum shortage. Warnings such as yours are part of the process of avoiding adverse outcomes; but we should not underestimate the potential of the global economy for innovation and adaptation.

As I remember, a gallon of gas was 35 cents in 1964. Accounting for inflation, that's a little less than $2 today. Gas is about $2.50 in Tuscaloosa today, so it has become more expensive in real terms. But the average American's income, inflation adjusted, more than doubled over those years. So, as a percentage of income (or wealth), the price of gas has dropped over the last 45 years, by almost 50%. I know this considers only one energy commodity and the average American is hardly representative of the world, but I previously commented on the poorest.

How will we survive the end of the petroleum era? Exxon tells me it's spending billions on producing fuel from algae. I don't know, but markets are the means of reconciling supply and demand. They've worked remarkably well in the post-WWII period, even in the 1970s if average world income is the gauge, and especially after the 1980s with the reforms in China, India, and elsewhere. It's also cause for optimism that more than half of the world's population now lives in democratic countries.

I believe I have expressed the "dominant worldview" in economics. How ironic that you received 100 congratulatory messages from readers of American Scientist and mine was the only critique.
posted by John Oneal
November 20, 2009 @ 1:56 PM

We all need a little humility and I accept that which you supplied. I hope I can respond similarly.

Markets have worked well as petroleum has expanded, they might work well as it contracts but it will be a very different kind of economy I believe. Yes oil is barely more expensive today while most geologists (but not economists) have predicted severe shortages in coming decades. Is the market sending the proper signals? I would think not. I have been working on energy and the alternatives to oil for 50 years and have published hundreds of papers on the subject. I cannot think of a viable substitute for oil at the scale and EROI we need (see balloon graph on my web page This does not mean that market incentives will not come up with a viable alternative, but I do not know what it would be. I would not bet on algae, although that is what most oil was once (but the Earth spent huge energies processing it!).

Yes it is ironic, I suppose, but maybe more natural scientists read American Scientist than economists. I am well familiar with economists not liking what we say. It is a very different world view. That is why we are working hard to develop a different approach to economics: (Error: US Peak was 1970, EROI values are for global, not US, which are lower.)

But I am enough of an empirical scientist to agree with you that the signs for any real impact are not large, unless you are poor anyway, and that the vast majority of economists would not agree with our assessment. The next decades should be interesting. I think we can both hope that we will have good analyses (both scientifically and economically) of whatever occurs and that neither you nor I nor others with stronger ideologies be too blind to understand what is happening as the world inevitably changes, probably in ways neither of us can predict.
posted by Charles Hall
November 20, 2009 @ 1:59 PM


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