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Attacking Margaret Atwood: Are Limits to Growth Real?

She's been flayed in the Ottawa Citizen for her ideas about scarcity. But who's the 'slack, lazy' one?

By Rex Weyler 25 Nov 2008 |

Rex Weyler is the author of Greenpeace: the Inside Story. His most recent book is The Jesus Sayings (Anansi Press, 2008); see

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Atwood: Cited 'Club of Rome' study.

On Oct. 24, in the Ottawa Citizen, columnist Dan Gardner attacked Margaret Atwood for "slack, lazy writing" and mocked Maclean's editor Ken Whyte for not grilling her more thoroughly or "fact checking" her environmental opinions.

Gardner refers to his target as "Margaret F***ing Atwood," whose status as a "celebrity intellectual" protects her from the sort of tough editing that he endures whenever he submits a column. Canwest widely reprinted the attack, published a week later in the Vancouver Sun.

What did Atwood say that so riled Mr. Gardner? First of all, she suggested in reference to the economic crisis that we need "fair regulations" and that there were important things in life "unconnected to money." Worse, in the Maclean's interview, she referred to the 1972 Limits to Growth report written by Harvard biophysicist Donella Meadows and her colleagues, the Club of Rome.

Gardner says, "If this were a writer of lesser stature, Mr. Whyte would have followed up with, 'the 1972 report of the Club of Rome? You mean the one that said world supplies of zinc, gold, tin, copper, oil and natural gas would be completely gone by 1992? You mean that report?'"

The glitch regarding Gardner's rigorously edited column is that the Club of Rome book says no such thing.

'Irresponsible nonsense'

Conventional growth economists and conservative pundits routinely ridicule The Limits to Growth, although few provide precise critique of the content. Within a week of its publication, in Newsweek magazine, Yale economist Henry C. Wallich dismissed the book as "a piece of irresponsible nonsense."

"There are no great Limits to Growth," U.S. president Ronald Reagan declared in 1985, "when men and women are free to follow their dreams." He added later, "because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder."

This inspiring Reaganism serves as the official neo-con rebuff to any talk of environmental limits, paraphrased by Margaret Thatcher, two U.S. Bush administrations, and by the Harper government in Canada. Danish anti-environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg simplifies it: "Smartness will outweigh the extra resource use." Dreams. Ideas. Smartness. These powers of human imagination will obliterate physics and biology.

Cassandra revisited

Last spring, as the world economy soared, The Wall Street Journal reported nagging commodity shortages in "New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears," an essay referring to 19th century economist Thomas Malthus. Although the business journal documented the social impact of scarce energy, water, arable land and critical resources worldwide, they hedged: "Now and then across the centuries, powerful voices have warned that human activity would overwhelm the earth's resources. The Cassandras always proved wrong. Each time, there were new resources to discover, new technologies to propel growth."

We might note, first, that the authors misread the Cassandra myth. In the Greek story, Apollo lusts after Cassandra, beautiful daughter of Trojan King Priam, and bestows upon her the gift of prophecy. However, she spurns the deity's advances, so Apollo takes revenge with a curse that no one will believe her. This is not a tale of erroneous predictions, but rather blundering humanity ignoring the truth.

In addition to sleeping through the classics, certain economists may also have skipped calculus and natural science classes. High school biology students know that bacteria in a petri dish or fruit flies in a jar will grow until they exhaust available nutrients, and then perish. The same thing happened to humans on Easter Island. There are zero cases in nature of endless growth. None.

In real ecosystems, growth has only two futures: stability or collapse. "All growth after maturity," explains Dr. Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at Colorado University, "is either obesity or cancer." We live on a vast planet, whose bounty appears at times almost infinite, but human enterprise has reached the scale of the earth itself, and we now witness a big difference between dreams and physical stuff such as oil, trees and fish.

In 1900, the grand banks around Newfoundland provided habitat and nutrients to support 10-15 tons of commercial fish per square-kilometre. Now that figure has dropped to less than 1.5 tons, a 90 per cent reduction in ocean productivity, obliterating the cod fishery and triggering economic disaster in Canadian and U.S. coastal communities.

In a blockbuster announcement this month, after decades of denial that oil production would peak, The International Energy Agency announced that the world's 800 largest oil fields are in "accelerating decline [and] current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable." This announcement arrives now that the data prove irrefutable, but geologists warned in the 1950s that we should plan ahead for the oil decline. Malthus alerted humanity of such things two centuries ago, and The Limits to Growth made similar calculations three decades ago.

What 'Limits' really said

In his attack on Atwood, Gardner apparently borrows a critique of Limits from Ronald Bailey's Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, a diatribe full of similar errors and omissions.

Bailey says, "In 1972, The Limits to Growth predicted that at exponential growth rates, the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993."

Many skeptics have repeated Bailey's rendering as if this is true, but Limits to Growth makes no such prediction. Rather, the authors provide a table (p. 56 in my edition) in which they display three columns of numbers to explain potential depletion rates of known or presumed commodity reserves:

Bailey and Gardner cherry-pick the middle column, the fastest possible depletion, and then misrepresents this as a "prediction" which it clearly is not. I wrote to Mr. Gardner, asking him to explain his conclusion, and he confirms, yes, he used this table and believes he is being "reasonable."

It is hard to imagine how selecting the extreme scenario among several, presented as data, and calling this scenario a "prediction" is reasonable. Such a conclusion remains particularly puzzling since the Limits authors carefully explain that the data are not predictions and "resource availability... will be determined by factors much more complicated than can be expressed by either the simple static reserve index or the exponential reserve index... [to] account for the many interrelationships among such factors as varying grades of ore, production costs, new mining technology, the elasticity of consumer demand, and substitution of other resources."

Slack and lazy

Jean-Marc Jancovici, environmental consultant to the French global warming study, Mission Interministérielle de l'Effet de Serre, refers to Limits to Growth and the IPCC report on climate change as "documents that 99% of the people that quote them never read... It is frequent to hear that the Club of Rome had 'predicted' the end of oil for 2000... hence that it is urgent not to pay any attention whatsoever to this prospective work, that can only derive from the fantasies of some individuals terrorized by the future. But there is no such prediction of an oil shortage for 2000 in the Meadows report!"

Furthermore, resource depletion does not imply that we will "run out" of anything, but rather that we tend to deplete finite reserves, requiring us to mine lower quality, dirtier, more expensive reserves, exactly what we are now doing in the tar sands.

For his column, Gardner uses the phrase "slack and lazy" five times to describe Ms. Atwood's journalism. Finally, he ridicules her for suggesting that some day "Things unconnected with money will be valued more -- friends, family, a walk in the woods." This notion echoes a principle articulated in 1979 by Norwegian ecologist Arne Naess as, "Richer ends, simpler means." Authentic qualities of life -- reading to your child, walking in the woods -- have little to do with money and economic growth. Ms. Atwood makes a valid and important point: We might indeed achieve happy lives with less stuff.

Cassandra, remember, really did see the future. The fools around her brought down Troy.

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