Friday, 7 December 2012

Germany's Der Spiegel interviews "the intellectual father of the environmental movement"

A Der Spiegel journalist has interviewed "the intellectual father of the environmental movement", former MIT professor Dennis Meadows, who co-authored the Club of Rome's "The Limits to Growth" report forty years ago. 

It comes as no surprise that the "environmental guru" completely agrees with the fawning Der Spiegel reporter, who in this uncritical interview pretends that the "the message of the book remains valid today" and "several forecasts you made in the book have come true, the exponential growth of the world's population, for example, and widespread environmental destruction."

The interviewer Markus Becker's last question gives Meadows an opportunity to repaint the future awaiting humanity in dark colors: 

PIEGEL ONLINE: Let's assume that you are right and that the collapse will arrive in this century. What will it look like?
Meadows: It will look different in different places. Some countries are already collapsing, and some people won't even notice. There are almost a billion people who are starving to death these days, and people here basically aren't noticing. And there is the issue of speed: The difference between a decline and a collapse is speed. The rich can buy their way out of a lot of things. The end of fossil energy, for example, will be gradual. But climate change will come to the industrial countries no matter what. And the geological record clearly shows that the global temperature doesn't increase in a linear way. It jumps. If that happens, a collapse will occur. But it would be nothing new, of course. Societies rise and fall. They have been doing so for 300,000 years.

Dennis Meadows probably will go on believing that he was right for the rest of his life, but one wonders why an established magazine like Der Spiegel has chosen to be a megaphone for these claims that have so clearly been refuted by what actually has happened during the forty years since the Club of Rome's fantasies were published. 

For a less uncritical update of Meadows's "magnum opus",'s science correspondent Robert Bailey's article makes great reading:

Forty years ago, The Limits to Growth, a report to the Club of Rome, was released with great fanfare at a conference at the Smithsonian Institution. The study was based on a computer model developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and designed “to investigate five major trends of global concern—accelerating industrial development, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment.” The goal was to use the model to explore the increasingly dire "predicament of mankind." The researchers modestly acknowledged that their model was “like every other model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished.” 

Yet even with this caveat, the MIT researchers concluded, “If 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.” With considerable understatement, they added, “The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” In other words: a massive population crash in a starving, polluted, depleted world. 

Industrial development: World GDP stood in real 2010 dollars at about $19 trillion in 1972 and has tripled to $57 trillion today. Average per capita incomes rose in real dollars from $5,000 to $8,100 today. Just to explore how incomes might evolve between 1972 and 2000, the researchers simply extrapolated the current growth, investment, and population growth rates to calculate GDP per capita for 10 large countries. They stressed these were not "predictions" but added that if one disagreed then one was obligated to specify which factors changed, when and why. A comparison of their extrapolations with actual GDP per capita (in 2010 dollars) finds U.S. GDP per capita $56,000 versus actual $44,000; Japan's per capita GDP was projected to be $120,000 versus actual $46,000; the now defunct USSR would be $33,000 versus Russia's $2,200; and China's per capita income was supposed to grow to $500, but was instead $1,200. 

Population: The Limits researchers noted, “Unless there is a sharp rise in mortality, which mankind will strive mightily to avoid, we can look forward to a world population of around 7 billion persons in 30 more years.” In addition, they suggested that in 60 years there would be “four people in the world for everyone living today.” In fact, average global life expectancy rose from 60 to nearly 70 years. On the other hand, the global fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime) fell from about 6 per woman in 1970 to 2.8 today and continues to fall.
World population stood at 3.8 billion in 1972, which means that a four-fold increase in 60 years would have yielded a total world population of 15 billion by 2030. Even the latest U.N. high fertility population projection foresees about 9 billion by 2030. The U.N.’s low fertility variant yields a maximum world population of about 8 billion around 2050, falling back to 6 billion by the end of the 21st century. It turns out that the invisible hand of population control correlates very nicely with economic freedom.
Food supplies: According to the data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, global food production has more than tripled since 1961, while world population has increased from 3 billion to 7 billion. This means that per capita food has increased by more than a third. Thelatest figures [PDF] from the United Nations show that as world population increased by a bit over 10 percent between 2000 and 2009, global food production rose by 21 percent.
Read the entire article here

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