Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Club of Rome Faces the Yellow Reril

The Limits To Growth was just the first of many Club or Rome Reports, but on other CoR created the sensation that LtG did. In away the success of the LtG made the Club of Rome Famous, but it also tied the Club to the Neo-malthuesian vision of Jay Forrester, and that vision created both problems and opportunities for the club. We have seen that Forrester's model was seriously flawed, both in ints design and in its execution. Fundamental assumptions of the the original Forrester model became the conclusions of the LtG. Forrester reached the hasty conclusion that all resources were being consumed at an unsustainable rate by industrial civilization, without sufficient evidence. In fact, the resource situation is far more complex than Forrester assumed and some earth resources are sufficiently abundant to be sustainable over a very long period of time. Uranium and thorium are sustainable with positive energy return on energy invested even at average crustal concentrations. If uranium and/or thorium were to be mined from "low grade concentrations"sources such as shale or granite, valuable minerals like phosphate could be recovered at little extra cost. Hence a uranium or thorium based economy would offer a sustainable source of the very resources that Forrester and the LtG assumed were about to exhausted.

The potentials of a uranium and thorium based economy were not unknown at the time of the publication of the LtG, so why was the resource potential of uranium or thorium acknowledged by the LtG and the Club of Rome? I have no definitive answer, but I would like to point to the anti-nuclear moral panic which gripped Western Civilization beginning in the late 1960's. There is little reason to doubt that the anti-nuclear moral panic influenced the Club of Rome's judgement about the desirability of a nuclear future. We have some evidence for this from the Source Watch entry on Carl Johan Friedrich Böttche, a Club of Rome co-founder.
Frits Böttcher is in his country a well known skeptic about the greenhouse effect. Böttcher stated during a discussion on televion about the greenhouse effect that there was no carbon dioxide problem. Another member of that discussion asked him after the broadcast was over, "You do know that's incorrect, don't you?" to which Böttcher replied "Yes, but I am against nuclear power energy."
The LtG became poplar because it neatly packaged several moral panics. Population and pollution were already the subject of major moral panics by the time thew LtG was published. Moral panics all follow a simple formula, X is a worsening problem that is “getting out of hand” and threatens public wellbeing. We need to do something about X now. Moral panics are ideological and political tools. And indeed we often see the public being manipulated by competing moral panics in the media. For example, there is a moral panic about Anthropogenic Global Warming, and a conflicting moral panic that insists that AGW is a hoax.

Some moral panics are derived from valid concerns, while some are baseless. Thus, as formulated in the late 1960's and early 1970's the moral panic about pollution was greatly overstated. Pollution problems were being addressed al over the Industrial world as a result of the killer London Smog of 1952. Pollution is in 2010 still a problem, but far less of a problem than it was in 1970. Forrester's model wrongly predicted increasing "pollution" would increase between 1970 and 2010. But what about CO2, hasn't CO2 atmospheric concentrations increased since 1970? Yes it has, but CO2 was not what Forrester or the Club of Rome understood by pollution in 1960's and 1970.

A second Moral Panic that effucted Forrester and the LtG was the overpopulation panic which was triggered by the 1968 publication of the Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich. Indeed, Forrester's World Dynamics appears to have a most unfortunate affinity for Ehrlich population theories. Now there is little doubt that Ehrlich's theory was absurdly mistake. Ehrlich had predicted,
“In the 1970’s, the world will undergo famines hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death … At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate …”
Of course the huge wave of famine with hundreds of millions of deaths never happened. But facts are such little trivial things, At least Jay Forrester had the good sense die before his great famine had been forecasted by the computer. Perhaps the reason Ehrlich was in such a hurry was that he was being spurred on by David Brower.

Ehrlich introduced the concept that
I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology)
This formula lacks empirical foundation and there is ample evidence that a relatively small number of nomadic sheep and goat herders,can cause enormous environmental damage. The controversial theory that Mayan Civilization collapsed for ecological reasons, actually entails a collapse with what amounted to stone age technology, since the Mayans lacked metal tools and had draft animals wheeled transportation, or simple mechanical devices like pulleys. Thus if the collapse of Mayan civilization can be attributed to an environmental collapse due to exceeding the carrying capacity of the land, advance technology would not have played a big role in that disaster. Finally, demographers have demonstrated that affluence appears to bring, if anything, population stabilization, and even long term population declines, not from starvation, disease and war, but from decreased reproduction. Despite a population growth rate that has tripled the number of people in India since 1960's Ehrlich's projected famines and population collapse shows no sign of appearing. Thus it would appear that Ehrlich has greatly underestimated the carrying capacity of India soil.

Indian economist Amartya Sen noted something that Ehrlich ignored, namely
90 percent of which is taking place in the developing countries.
Yet the moral panic about population growth occurred in
the richer countries of the world and has much to do with the current anxiety in the West about the "world population problem."
What is the black box called "the population explosion hiding? According to Sen, it is
belief that destitution caused by fast population growth in the third world is responsible for the severe pressure to emigrate to the developed countries of Europe and North America. In this view, people impoverished by overpopulation in the "South" flee to the "North." Some have claimed to find empirical support for this thesis in the fact that pressure to emigrate from the South has accelerated in recent decades, along with a rapid increase in the population there.
Sen points to the source of the Western anxiety,
Fears of Being Ungulfed
A closely related issue concerns what is perceived as a growing "imbalance" in the division of the world population, with a rapidly rising share belonging to the third world. That fear translates into worries of various kinds in the North, especially the sense of being overrun by the South. Many Northerners fear being engulfed by people from Asia and Africa, whose share of the world population increased from 63.7 percent in 1950 to 71.2 percent by 1990, and is expected, according to the estimates of the United Nations, to rise to 78.5 percent by 2050 AD.

It is easy to understand the fears of relatively well-off people at the thought of being surrounded by a fast growing and increasingly impoverished Southern population. As I shall argue, the thesis of growing impoverishment does not stand up to much scrutiny; but it is important to address first the psychologically tense issue of racial balance in the world (even though racial composition as a consideration has only as much importance as we choose to give it). Here it is worth recollecting that the third world is right now going through the same kind of demo-graphic shift—a rapid expansion of population for a temporary but long stretch—that Europe and North America experienced during their industrial revolution. In 1650 the share of Asia and Africa in the world population is estimated to have been 78.4 percent, and it stayed around there even in 1750.7 With the industrial revolution, the share of Asia and Africa diminished because of the rapid rise of population in Europe and North America; for example, during the nineteenth century while the inhabitants of Asia and Africa grew by about 4 percent per decade or less, the population of "the area of European settlement" grew by around 10 percent every decade.

Even now the combined share of Asia and Africa (71.2 percent) is considerably below what its share was in 1650 or 1750. If the United Nations' prediction that this share will rise to 78.5 percent by 2050 comes true, then the Asians and the Africans would return to being proportionately almost exactly as numerous as they were before the European industrial revolution. There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about the distributions of population in the past; but the sense of a growing "imbalance" in the world, based only on recent trends, ignores history and implicitly presumes that the expansion of Europeans earlier on was natural, whereas the same process happening now to other populations unnaturally disturbs the "balance."
Thus behind Ehrlich's Population Bomb, behind Forrester's World Dynamic Model, and behind the Club of Rome's fear of uncontrolled global economic development is the Western fear of loss of control to the Asian other, fear of the Yellow Peril.


Yogi said...

I am really enjoying this series of posts, Charles. I think you’ve really “hit the nail on the head” with this latest one. It explains a lot about the ideological motives behind some of these Neo-Malthusians.

I also notice that many of them have a strong anti-technology bias, perhaps originating in a romanticized ideal of a pre-industrial past, but perhaps also because they genuinely want to see a collapse in the population of the world and don’t want any “techno-fixes” to prevent this from happening.

I think anyone who genuinely wants to see a stable population should also want to see industrialization and urbanization increase throughout the world, as these are associated with lower fertility rates as well a higher standard of living.

Finrod said...

Great article Charles, but I reckon you might want to go over it with a bit of proofreading.

Soylent said...

"I = P*A*T."

That's a particularly pathetic example of how simple minded these people are.

There is an unspoken assumption that 'I' should be minimized. Parks, roads, managed forests, farms, water treatment plants, hospitals, granaries and houses among many others are treated as if their mere existance was detrimental. The club of Rome's goal for mankind would appear to be to cover the planet with old-growth forests for some inexplicable reason.

Technology is likewise treated as if its mere existance was inherently bad or somehow degrading to human dignity. Again, the goal of the club of Rome would appear to make mankind, poor, weak and incapable to do anything about it.

The choice of multiplication to combine these factors into 'environmental impact' is a particularly unintelligent one. If affluence and technology go towards zero but you keep all the pollution the environmental impact is drastically reduced? That's absurd.

Like I commented earlier, these are those great big arbitrary aggregates I find so preposterous.

If you take mercury pollution, CO2, SoX, NoX, VOC, ground level ozone, hexavalent chrome, particulates, CFCs and superfund sites and combine them in some manner you can produce a great big arbitrary number. But what does this number even mean? How do you integrate all these parts that don't add in any kind of linear way and have effects that differ vastly in character?

Affluence is in itself a fairly crude aggregate. It is a little more forgivable since there is a widely promulgated way to measure the affluence of a region; the GDP. It is about as accurate as the G(general intelligence) an IQ test is supposed to measure.

Technology is not even well-defined at the best of times; even less so when you try to aggregate everything that has to do with technology into a single number. Do you have more technology or more affluence if you have 100 atomic force microscopes in the world rather than 10? Is genetic engineering a higher form of technology than litography? What's the qualitative difference between "natural" technology(e.g.a bacterial flagellum) and man-made technology that makes one good and the other bad?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Charles, for your stimulating series on population growth. Dennis Meadows was recently featured on the Oil Drum. It would provide some needed balance if your position could also be featured on the Oil Drum. The audience on the Oil Drum would be hostile to your take on industrialization and affluence as factors that result in lower birth rates. They seem to prefer that industrialized countries curtail their energy production so as to lower their living standards to match that of developing countries.
The suggestion that we assist developing countries with getting nuclear power to enlarge their industrial base so as to improve their standard of living appears to be heresy. Genetically engineered crops is also a taboo.

Thanks again for your insights, I now understand a bit of the origin of the philosophy of those who attack my posts to papers presented on the Oil Drum.

John Tjostem

Anonymous said...

To Finrod: the problem Charles has is increasing eyesight problems - he needs an Amanuensis.

donb said...

Soylent wrote:
"I = P*A*T."
That's a particularly pathetic example of how simple minded these people are.
Technology is likewise treated as if its mere existance was inherently bad or somehow degrading to human dignity.

A good case can be made that if we are going to use the equation, that it should be "I = P*A/T".

Technology is what gives us nuclear energy. Using that technology, we reduce the impact on the environment compared to conventional sources.

Similarly, the orders-of-magnitude miniaturization of computational and memory elements has allowed us to put more and more information into less and less material. Technology reduces the amount of energy consumed by our cars, our house and our appliances. Affluence is increased while the environmental impact is decreased. As Richard Feynman stated, "There's plenty of room at the bottom." It is technology that allows us to exploit that room.

M. Simon said...

I wonder if the Mayans failed due to a cooling climate which lowered agricultural productivity.


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