Limits and Beyond: The Yawning Gap
Chapter 1: The Story of an Idea
The book Limits and Beyond, edited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alwarez Pereira, provides a 50th anniversary review of the seminal report Limits to Growth (LtG). The following is from the back cover of the book.
50 years ago the Club of Rome commissioned a report: Limits to Growth. They told us that, on our current path, we are heading for collapse in the first half of the 21st century. This book, published in the year 2022, reviews what has happened in the intervening time period. It asks three basic questions:
Were their models right?
Why was there such a backlash?
What did the world do about it?
The book consists of 19 chapters, each written by a different author, two of whom — Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers — were part of the team that wrote the report.
In this post, we review the first chapter, written by Ugo Bardi. He says of the chapter,
The present section . . . tells the story of how the idea of civilization growth and collapse fared in history and how it was interpreted by the LtG study.
This first chapter provides an excellent overview of the work of various scientists and authors that has led to our current understanding of physical limits and constraints. It shows how societies rise and fall, and how our current level of stable prosperity is so unusual. Starting with the 18th century authors Edward Gibbon and Thomas Malthus, Bardi describes the work of many analysts, including William Stanley Jevons, Rachel Carson, Aurelio Peccei, Jay Wright Forrester, M. King Hubbert and Joseph Tainter.
He describes how the LtG report was received, and discusses possible reasons for the largely negative response at the time of publication. However, the report’s insights seem to be increasingly relevant to today’s world. Hence, the final sections of the chapter are entitled, ‘The reappraisal’ and ‘The future’.
The Yawning Gap
The overall takeaway from this chapter is that there is a huge communications gap — something on the following lines.
Scientists tell us that they have created a model that plausibly forecasts the rapid decline of our civilization, even its collapse, within the lifetime of many of the people reading their report.
Subsequent research and modeling have confirmed the overall conclusions of the 1972 study.
There has been very little public reaction to the report, both then and now. A few scientists and intellectuals, seeking to score academic points, fiercely criticized the report. The public neither knows nor cares about these academic squabbles.
Over the years, only a small number of people (maybe no more than a few thousand) have tried to act based on the report’s findings.
The report has had no impact on government policy.
The intent of LtG was not to forecast the future but to provide a framework for action. In this regard, it has mostly failed. There is a yawning gap between the message and its audience.
LtG was published before scientists became aware of the seriousness of climate change. (Global warming is treated as being a part of overall pollution.) Yet there are similarities between the two topics. Just like LtG, the climate models tell us that we are heading into serious trouble in just a few years. Yet, unlike LtG, climate change receives considerable publicity in the mass media. For example, this week’s edition of Time magazine features the following cover.
Yet, in spite of the publicity, as we discuss in The Coffee Shop most people continue to treat climate change as just another problem — not as something that could threaten their very way of living. By and large, the publicity has increased awareness, but that’s all.
Limits to Growth is not the only document that talks about radical change. Some evangelical Christians, particularly in the United States, believe in ‘The Rapture’. Their faith tells them that end times are upon us, and that believers will be snatched up into heaven. (The fate of everyone else is less appealing.)
It would be interesting to find data as to how many people have been willing to change their lifestyle in response to their belief in the Rapture. It is probably considerably more than those who have reacted in that way to Limits to Growth. In spite of the topic’s lack of scientific credibility, communication to do with The Rapture seems to have been far more effective than for LtG.
Persuade — Don’t Threaten
One reason for the limited impact of Limits to Growth may be that it describes systems, of which climate change is just one part. Systems are difficult to understand. Another reason may be to do with the manner in which its findings are discussed.
Sales people are trained to “sell the positive”. They do not say to a potential customer, “If you don’t buy my product or service something bad will happen to you”. Instead, they say, “Buy my product or service and something good will happen to you”. These messages are frequently two sides of the same coin, but the difference in approach is critical.
(I recall showing one of the LtG charts to a person who is very knowledgeable about climate change and its implications. That person responded by saying, in effect, “Don’t show me that information”. They found the LtG chart to be so upsetting that they blocked it out of their mind.)
Those who talk about limits to growth, climate change and the many other ills that beset us tend to use negative language (unlike the Rapture proselytizers). They correctly point out that continuing on our current trajectory could lead to catastrophe. They then go on to say that if ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ may be) fail to act then the future looks bleak.
An alternative approach would be to say that our current trajectory needs to change, thus opening up opportunities for companies, individuals and communities to live a better life. Further thoughts on this approach are provided in the post Marketing Net Zero.
This review is of just the first chapter of Limits and Beyond. Maybe later chapters will speak to this communication and persuasion problem. In the meantime we have a profound and seemingly insoluble dilemma.