Beyond metaphor: Global models

March 19, 2010

So, one way to think about limits to growth writ large is to use the example of given societies and argue that the same holds more generally. The MIT System Dynamics Group followed a different approach in the early 70s when it undertook a study of the “global problematique” at the request of a group of industrialists and thinkers called the Club of Rome. The MIT researchers built a simple model of the world (the World 3 version of the model was most fully documented in 1974’s Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World). I won’t go over more details here, but you can find materials on line and most of you will already have (and I hope already explored) the World model that comes with Vensim. If you haven’t taken a look at the model, please do.

In 1993 a 20-year update was published, called Beyond the Limits, and 2004 saw the 30-year update ( )

There have been other global models—here, too, you can find much information online (see, for instance, ), with interest in simulating the “global problematique” seeming to go through varied phases over the decades. Recently, of course, climate modeling is a hugely important aspect of global modeling.

It’s easy to critique simple global models like the World models, but the question that the field keeps coming back to is: does it represent core dynamic processes that drive large-scale change? And can we glean useful insight from them? To consider this last question, I want to lay out some ideas about the forces that shape global limits to growth.

What are the global limits to growth?

Let me share some resources to get you thinking. First, One report to read in this area is Graham Turner’s “A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality,” Global Environmental Change, Volume 18, Issue 3, August, Pages 397-411. (a version available at ). In another recent assessment, Hall and Day revisit the limits to growth after peak oil in a 2009 American Scientist piece ( )

I mentioned in class a Wall Street Journal piece that takes on the topic: as well as some useful resources from the New Scientist ) As with much of my material in this area, thanks to Tom Fiddaman and his metasd blog for great resources.

Dennis Meadows reflected last year on the proximity of global limits to growth His colleague Jorgen Randers also reviews evidence in a 2008 paper in Futures entitled Global Collapse—Fact or Fiction? (found online here:

And an excellent big-picture view is presented in Herman Daly’s 2005 Scientific American paper, Economics in a Full World Daly, Herman E. “Economics in a Full World.” 293, no. 3 (September 2005): 100-107. Daly argues that

the global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem. Developing an economy that can be sustained within the finite biosphere requires new ways of thinking.

If all this leaves you in need of cheering up, check out the Happy Planet Index.

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