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Computation and the Human Predicament

The Limits to Growth and the limits to computer modeling

Brian Hayes

World3 War

The Limits to Growth appeared at a moment of acute environmental foreboding. The previous decade had seen the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay, Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle. This was the era when we began to refer to our planet as Spaceship Earth, and when Walt Kelly’s Pogo declared “We have met the enemy and he is us.” There was a receptive audience awaiting The Limits to Growth. The book has sold 10 million copies.

But if Limits has had a broad and sympathetic readership, it has also had vociferous critics. The most carefully argued rebuttal came from a group at the University of Sussex in England; their critique, Models of Doom, is longer than the book it evaluates. The economist William D. Nordhaus wrote a blistering review; the mathematician David Berlinski was snide and mocking. Vaclav Smil later dismissed the whole enterprise as “an exercise in misinformation and obfuscation.”

One complaint lodged against the World3 model is superfluous complication. If the intent is merely to show that exponential growth cannot continue forever, there’s no need for elaborate computing machinery. The model also stands accused of the opposite sin—oversimplification—in its wholesale aggregation of variables. In the resource sector, for example, the model lumps together all the raw materials of industrial civilization—coal and oil, iron and aluminum, diamonds and building stone—to form one generic substance measured in abstract “resource units.” Pollution is handled the same way, with a single variable encompassing everything from pesticides to nuclear reactor wastes. Quantities such as food per capita are global averages, with no way of expressing disparities of distribution. (A later Club of Rome model, written by Mihajlo Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel, did allow for regional differences.)

Still another line of criticism focuses on the inputs to the model—the initial conditions (such as the total stock of nonrenewable resources) and the numerical constants that determine the strength of interactions (for instance, the effect of pollution on agriculture). The Limits team made an effort to pin down these numbers, but huge uncertainties remain. There is no statistical analysis of these errors.

Both Forrester and the Limits group have responded to these objections, matching the vehemence—and occasionally the condescending scorn—of their critics. They stand by their models. When updated versions of the Limits book were published in 1992 and 2004, the authors reiterated their original conclusions and made only subtle changes to the model.

World3 now seems to be undergoing a revival. In 2009 Charles A. S. Hall and John W. Day, Jr., writing in American Scientist, defended the soundness of the model, particularly as it applies to energy resources. Graham Turner has compared predictions with data for 1970–2000 and reports a close match. Ugo Bardi, an Italian chemist, has recently issued a manifesto calling for the rehabilitation of The Limits to Growth.

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