Limited resource world

Posted on February 13, 2012

by Mark Preston, former research worker for the “Limits to Growth.”

Limits to GrowthNot to sound like an old Beatles song, but it was forty years ago this year when the band of people who thought we could not simply keep using up the resources of the world first began to play. While I would, of course, love to grab as much credit as possible for what I still believe to have been one of the most exciting, forward-thinking and superbly crafted pieces of environmental reseach ever done, the truth is that I was no more than a schoolboy who got involved because I thought it might look good when I applied to university.

When I began working with the group in 1970, few people appreciated that we could not simply go on using up the natural resources of the world as if there were no end to them. The objective of the project was always quite simple – to model what would happen if we carried on doing just that. At the time, it would be more than fair to say that our ideas that there had to be limits to what we could use were little more than a handful of speculations and some hippy ideologies. Now, of course, it is more or less accepted by all that there are limits to the planetary resources although there are still a few who believe we can simply go on consuming forever.

English: Causal loop diagram - system archetyp...

My own role in the project was naturally only a very small one – I was, after all, only a hopeful teenager who wanted to look good for university applications. Luckily, I had the task of compiling details of tungsten requirements and use so that it could just be slotted into a simulation we ran to estimate the consequences. The actual science I had to do was very small and the most complex part of my work was coding the figures I found from existing documents into simple numbers ready to be run through our computer. The results from our computer then got sent off to the main project to be added to the simulation.

Cover of "The Limits to growth: A report ...

Today, everything I did could be handled from your own front room by simply looking details up on the web and running them through a simple programme on your own laptop. Back then though computers were much larger – the one we used in Manchester filled the upstairs room of a house and was cooled by something the size of a modern fridge. Yet it was no more, and probably less, powerful than the phone in your pocket. Much the same could probably be said for the main simulation computer that ran our simulation, which we called “World 3” for reasons I have long since forgotten.

Two years later, in 1972, our results were published in s slim paperback volume called “The Limits to Growth” which for some reason became a best-seller even though it was nt peer-reviewed by the science community. For myself, I moved on to university and hardly read my own copy until I came to write this article. But just how well have our predictions held up forty years after they were published?

Limits of growth

Readers of a certain age may remember that the book provoked a storm of criticism at the time and was almost universally condemned, especially by the press. What few will know is that the work actually said what could happen over the coming century – rather than the immediate future as was widely claimed by the critics. Even fewer will realise that the work has so far been proven accurate and that our relatively simple simulation has still not been bettered! The actual results published said simply that we could not go on as if we had infinite resources and that if we tried there would be a disastrous crash in them all – and in human population as a consequence.

It is what is now known as “overshoot” and is accepted by ecologists and even economists the world over. There were – and still are – very few possible scenarios that would allow a stabilised position that would give us a relatively comfortable and modernway of life into the future. Misunderstanding at the time and especially the massive contrary publicity has left the impression that the work was seriously flawed – but it was not and today is accepted as real. Even so, the credit for this new view of the world and the ecological awareness that has grown as a result of it is rarely if ever, recognised as truly belonging to that far-seeing work of forty years ago.

It was a surprise to us then, and still would surprise many today, but our work was accurate and our predictions were real. Even after forty years, it is often forgotten that we were – all those years ago – quite right in our results. There is little or no chance of the credit for the work being granted to those whose foresight started the project all those years ago or who published the results forty years ago this year – but the world we live in has much to thank them for.