Sunday, March 9, 2008

Cassandra's curse: how "The Limits to Growth" was demonized

The Oil Drum has been running occasional articles about the Limits to Growth studies (or LTG) published in 1972. The latest one by Ugo Bardi is long but well worth a read: ... The LTG study had everything that was needed to become a major advance in science. It came from a prestigious institution, the MIT; it was sponsored by a group of brilliant and influential intellectuals, the Club of Rome; it used the most modern and advanced computation techniques and, finally, the events that were taking place a few years after publication, the great oil crisis of the 1970s, seemed to confirm the vision of the authors. Yet, the study failed in generating a robust current of academic research and, a couple of decades after the publication, the general opinion about it had completely changed. Far from being considered the scientific revolution of the century, in the 1990s LTG had become everyone's laughing stock. Little more than the rumination of a group of eccentric (and probably slightly feebleminded) professors who had really thought that the end of the world was near. In short, Chicken Little with a computer.

The reversal of fortunes of LTG was gradual and involved a debate that lasted for decades. At first, critics reacted with little more than a series of statements of disbelief which carried little weight. There were a few early papers carrying more in-depth criticism, notably by William Nordhaus (1973) and by a group of researchers of the university of Sussex that went under the name of the "Sussex Group" (Cole 1973). Both studies raised a number of interesting points but failed in their attempt of demonstrating that the LTG study was flawed in its basic assumptions...

Cassandra (center) drawing lots with her right hand predicts the downfall of Troy in front of Priam (seated, on the left), Paris (holding the apple of discord) and a warrior leaning on a spear, presumably Hector. Fresco on plaster, 20–30 CE. From the House of the Metal Grill (I, 2, 28) in Pompeii. Stored in the Museo Nazionale Archaeologico of Naples. Photo by Jastrow, Wikimedia Commons

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