Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Limits to scenarios

Scenario planning is woven into most considerations of our energy future. A fascinating post from the Oil Drum (a blog well worth reading) discusses the history and misuse of one of the most notorious scenario planning exercises --the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth. Even when the study from the 1970s isn't mentioned by name, its influence is felt, particularly in the alternative energy business.

The author, "Big Gav," says: 1. Doomers and cornucopians alike claim the book makes a prediction that industrial civilisation will collapse, as we overwhelm our resource base and the environment (the doomers view this as a correct prediction, the cornucopians as a prediction that has been proved wrong - see this article at The Economist for a classic example).

2. Conspiracy theorists claim the book advocates world government and forced population reduction in order to avoid the collapse that it predicts.

Both of these views are completely false, yet I have never come across a rational discussion of what the book actually describes - which is a number of scenarios involving population, economic growth and resource consumption that have been generated using a computer model (known as World3) operating under various sets of assumptions and looking at a timeframe spanning the next 100 years.

The book doesn't actually "predict" anything. The authors explicitly note that it is not a forecast, and that they do not believe the available data and theories would enable an accurate prediction of what will happen to the world over the next century. The scenarios are simply a range of different examples of how the world might evolve...

Image from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Achillu.

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