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National Climate Assessment: Remember MIT’s ‘Club of Rome’ Report (1972 … 2018)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- November 29, 2018

“If all the policies instituted in 1975 in the previous figure are delayed until the year 2000, the equilibrium state is no longer sustainable. Population and industrial capital reach levels high enough to create food and resource shortages before the year 2000.”

– Donella Meadows et al. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972, p. 169.

The New York Times headline screamed: “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report.” Reporter Coral Davenport began her piece:

The Trump White House, which has defined itself by a willingness to dismiss scientific findings and propose its own facts, on Friday issued a scientific report that directly contradicts its own climate-change policies.

That sets the stage for a remarkable split-screen political reality in coming years. The administration is widely expected to discount or ignore the report’s detailed findings of the economic strain caused by climate change, even as it continues to cut environmental regulations, while opponents use it to mount legal attacks against the very administration that issued the report.

Davenport is referring to the just-released Fourth National Climate Assessment: Volume II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States, an alarmist Obama-designed study of the impacts of man-made climate change on the domestic economy. Her article was on the heels of another Times piece she authored (with Kendra Pierre-Louis), U.S. Climate Report Warns of Damaged Environment and Shrinking Economy (replete with a picture of the California’s Camp Fire). 

President Trump bluntly said he does not believe the findings of the report. He should not. It is a garbage-in/garbage -out (Malthus-in, Malthus-out) exercise that has been aptly critized elsewhere

What is relevant is that today’s controversial study is just the latest of dozens of similarly hyped academic exercises.  To this end, I reproduce below a description of the 1972 Club of Rome study that was front-page news in its day, taken from my Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (2008: pp. 234–36).


The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome)

Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was just a warm-up for an international best-seller by a group of authors who claimed the prestige of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the novelty of a computer model of world production and consumption. The Limits to Growth: A Report for THE CLUB OF ROME’S Project on the Predicament of Mankind (1972), destined to sell 9 million copies in 29 languages, calculated the exhaustion of a variety of natural resources, including oil and gas, by century’s end. The collision between “exponential growth” in resource demand and “a finite world” led to a confident, dark conclusion:

Although we have many reservations about the approximations and simplifications in the present world model, it has led us to one conclusion that appears to be justified under all the assumptions we have tested so far. The basic behavior mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse.

The prescribed policy to avoid catastrophe was global equilibrium, a state of nongrowth. The book longed for “a totally new form of human society—one that would be built to last for generations.” What was needed was “a realistic, long-term goal [to] … guide mankind to the equilibrium society”—and the powers of government and personal transformation to get there.

Limits to Growth, critics noted, was “Malthus with a computer.” The sponsoring group, an “invisible college” of “intellectual technologists,” reflected the predilections of its founder, Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, who saw a “fundamental imperative” to “transform society” via renewable energy and energy conservation. The “astonishingly young (the oldest was 30), touchingly idealistic, very eager, naive, and bright” authors were true believers. Dennis and Donella Meadows retreated to a New Hampshire farm after completing the book “to learn about homesteading and wait for the coming collapse.” “We definitely felt like Cassandras,” Donella Meadows added, “especially as we watched the world react to our work.”

The study was unveiled to 250 opinion makers, government officials, and environmentalists at the Smithsonian Institution in downtown Washington in March 1972. “We dearly hope that the debate which starts here today will have wide repercussions, opening a new phase of awareness, inquiry, and finally, political action,” stated Peccei. Dennis Meadows, “the soft-spoken 29-year-old director of the project,” as the New York Times described him, pointed to computer-generated graphs hanging from the walls and claimed that even the most optimistic projections about future energy supply could not avert collapse.

One of the chief exhibits was a table showing the remaining years for the “known global reserves” of 19 minerals. Three estimates in consumption years were provided: reserves divided by current demand (“static years”), reserves divided by exponentially growing demand (“exponential years”), and reserves multiplied by five divided by exponential demand (“exponential index”).

Mineral             Static Years               Exponential Years    Exp. Index Years

Aluminum             100                              31                                55

Chromium              420                              95                              154

Coal                       2,300                            111                             150

Cobalt                        110                              60                              148

Copper                        36                              21                                48

Gold                             11                                9                                29

Iron                          240                              93                               173

Lead                           26                              21                                64

Manganese                 97                              46                                94

Mercury                      13                              13                                41

Molybdenum             79                              34                                65

Natural Gas                38                              22                                49

Nickel                         150                              53                                96

Petroleum                    31                              20                                50

Platinum Group        130                              47                                85

Silver                              16                              13                                42

Tin                                  17                              15                                61

Tungsten                       40                              28                                72

Zinc                                23                              18                                50

Limits to Growth was not derailed by problems that would have discredited less fashionable efforts. Science magazine dissected the unusual Xerox-financed public relations strategy behind the project. The project did not seek or receive any input from the top social scientists at MIT who could have sharpened the analysis—and likely reversed the findings.

One of the excluded, Robert Solow, an economist who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for his work in growth theory, ridiculed the computer model created by Jay Forrester, an engineer, inventor, and professor of system dynamics at MIT’s business school who scarcely understood economics. “‘Doomsday Models’ are worthless as science and as guides to public policy,” Solow argued.

Garbage-in, garbage-out—rephrased as “Malthus in, Malthus out” by one critic—plagued the computer runs behind the dire prognosis of Limits to Growth. Indeed, tweaked model algorithms generated contrary results. A book review in the Washington Post by two scholars at Resources for the Future (RFF) expressed “serious doubts” about an effort jerry-built on questionable assumptions and repeatedly referencing unpublished papers “housed somewhere at MIT.”

A follow-up study by the Club of Rome two years later, funded by Volkswagen, allowed for a modicum of economic growth, a “startling shift” that Peccei explained as an “evolving strategy.” Still, Mankind at the Turning Point (1974), alarmist and shrill, could not duplicate the splash of Limits to Growth. Malthusian studies had become old hat, and the Club’s message had become obtuse. A warning came from a 1976 Club of Rome event, for example, that unsustainable global trends would necessitate “a technocratic version of oriental despotism, of which Stalinism and Nazism have already given us an anticipated view.”

A retrospective on the limits-to-growth debate by Resources for the Future called for a clean break from the Club of Rome’s “fictitious data and dubious methodology,” harsh words indeed. Still, RFF, ever mindful of the middle ground, warned against the “didactic arrogance of the would-be prophets—whether of doom or utopia,” the latter characterized as having an “almost undiluted technological optimism.”

The authors of the original Club of Rome study would be heard from once more in full alarmist cry. The story of the Carter Administration’s swan song, Global 2000, is told in the next chapter [chapter 10: The Dark Decade].


  1. John W. Garrett  

    I’ll never forget The Limits To Growth. My college thesis was a rebuttal.


  2. Mark Krebs  

    I’ll never forget “The Population Bomb.” I was forced to read it while attending Santa Rosa JC.


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