Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Inconvenient Models of our Likely Future

by Gary Berg-Cross

 At a recent WASH MDC meeting on Peace Issues main panelist Edd Doerr
noted how the hope of advancing the world peace agenda will be challenged by a number of destabilizing forces as detailed in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
. As Edd noted Diamond discussed collapses of once-powerful societies including the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years. He also features the iconic Easter Island collapse as inhabitants destroyed their environment 

“where a society that could build 80-ton statues 33 feet high and drag them 12 miles, and who could navigate the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, could also cut down their rich rain forest and doom themselves utterly. With no trees left for fishing canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The appropriate insult to madden a member of a rival clan was, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth!” The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered in the 300 years since.”  From the Long Now Foundation

All of current society might face similar collapse.

Along with climate change and environmental degradation there is the pressure of population growth.
These were time observations and Edd and Jared are not alone in their concern. Recently the Guardian newspaper had an article by researchers Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander which looked back at earlier predictions about what the earth of 2100 might be like.  Their focus was a study commissioned by a think tank called the Club of Rome in the 1970s. I've blogged on this before.  The club’s research developed a model using of key factors including population but also - industrialization, food, use of resources, and environmental pollution. Their data base was modest by today’s standards but they had 20th century data up to 1970.  To look forward they developed a range of scenarios (optimistic, pessimistic, likely etc.) out to 2100. An optimistic view was that human societies and institutions would take the problem seriously and take substantial action on environmental and resource issues. Well we know that these along with carbon abatement didn’t happen. The club’s central warning that “the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods etc. would eventually lead to a crash was, much criticized and shouted down by the establishment and its operatives such as the Club for Growth. After all business as usual and its growth was threatened as it is by a serious response to climate change. Indeed even in the “business-as-usual” scenario rather than the pessimistic view the club’s model predicted “overshoot and collapse” within the economy (yes Club for Growth think of 2007-8), environment and population before 2070.  As the population grows resources are used up and get more expensive, we metaphorically cut down our trees like the Easter islanders and impoverish our environment.

So where are we now as we are half way from the 1970s to 2070?  Right on schedule for overshoot and collapse it seems as the Guardian reports the models are on track.

“The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.
These graphs show real-world data (first from the MIT work, then from our research), plotted in a solid line. The dotted line shows the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario out to 2100. Up to 2010, the data is strikingly similar to the book’s forecasts.”

To be clear the Club’s models developed by MIT are not as good as we have now but their crustal ball has been better than the business as usual folks. As Turner and Alexander say their research like the earlier work is not a definitive prediction of worldwide economic, environmental and population collapse. They aren’t here to say the future will unfold exactly in the pattern described in the “Limits to Growth” scenarios. We don’t know enough to predict things like resources wars or large panic migrations or as they say the emergence of “genuine environmental leadership” that could dramatically affect what happens.

Turner and Alexander end their article by quoting a paragraph from the conclusion of “Limits to Growth” which still seems like good advice even if we are 40 years closer to 2100:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity. (from Current Trends Follow Book Predicting Global Collapse)

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