Are we on the cusp of global collapse?

16 10 2012

Back in April, I wrote So much for debunking the Club of Rome in which I discussed a recent paper written by Dr Graham Turner of CSIRO, entitled “On the Cusp of Global Collapse?” It’s one of the most visited entry of this blog…… Anyone whose imagination was captured by the original “Limits to Growth” book from 1972, will find this is definitely an “Oh shit!” moment……. Since publishing the latest updated version of Dr Turner’s paper on line would breach copyright, I’ll try to write a suitable summary.  I will reproduce the four-paragraph conclusion though, and some graphs. Dr. Graham Turner, who is  senior research scientist at CSIRO, published his first 30-year comparison in 2008, using data from 1972 to 2002 to examine how the real situation compared to those infamous LtG projections of the 70’s.  In this update, another ten years of data are added on, for a more robust 40-year comparison. The data sources Dr Turner used for this analysis are dutifully referenced.  The data includes information from the United Nations for population, as well as food, industrial output and literacy data, and uses the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2011 for oil and electricity consumption figures, plus CO2 data from NOAA, ESRI and Scripps. To ensure apples are not compared with oranges, Dr Turner normalized all the data to the year 1900, and then compared it against three runs from Limits to Growth (1972):

  • The standard run assumes business as usual, using parameters found from the 1900-1970 data.
  • The comprehensive technology scenario models the attempt to reach sustainability through the application of a broad range of the usual (green dream) technological solutions.
  • The stabilised world scenario uses both technology and social policies to achieve equilibrium in key factors like population, food and consumption.

turnerstandardrunGenerally, the data follows the standard run scenario. Where diversions occur, it is in the direction of the comprehensive technology scenario, with very little evidence of social policies influencing the results. Only one factor follows the stabilised world scenario, and that is global death rates. These level off lower than the standard run, but higher than the comprehensive technology curve. Population, birth rates, and per capita food, services and industrial output all follow the standard run. As do global pollution (modelled as CO2 emissions) and the consumption of non-renewable resources (modelled as the fraction of remaining oil). The original LtG World3 model predicted that collapse in the standard run and comprehensive technology scenarios began with resource constraints. Not necessarily resource shortages per se, but rather the increased re allocation of a dwindling pool of capital into extracting harder to get at resources – the “peaking” effect as I like to call it.  Exactly the same conclusion is supported by this latest analysis. Anyone who’s read John Michael Greer’s concept of catabolic collapse will understand how this scenario works.  Dr Turner also acknowledges Joseph Tainter‘s theory of decreasing marginal return on complexity (something I mentioned recently) as a source of the problems shown by the comprehensive technology scenario as well as a being factor in the rising cost of resource extraction. As I have done many times here myself, Dr Turner explores the role of oil and food ‘price shocks’ as feedstock for more general economic crises, and the excessive complexity of the global financial system must be a factor here as well…….. Graham Turner’s conclusions are:

Our previous comparison of global data with the LtG modelled scenarios has been updated here to cover the 40-year period 1970 to 2010, i.e., from when the scenario simulations begin. The data has been compared with the outputs of theWorld3 model for three key LtG scenarios: standard run, comprehensive technology, and stabilized world. The data review continues to confirm that the standard run scenario represents real-world outcomes considerably well. This scenario results in collapse of the global economy and population in the near future. It begins in about 2015 with industrial output per capita falling precipitously, followed by food and services. Consequently, death rates increase from about 2020 and population falls from about 2030 – as death rates overtake birth rates. The collapse in the standard run is primarily caused by resource depletion and the model response of diverting capital away from other sectors in order to secure less accessible resources. Evidence for this mechanism operating in the real world is provided by comparison with data on the energy required to secure oil. Indeed, the EROI has decreased substantially in recent decades, and is quantitatively consistent with the relevant parameter in the World3 model. The confirmation of the key model mechanism underlying the dynamics of the standard run strengthens the veracity of the standard run scenario. The issue of peak oil has also affected food supply and evidently played a role in the current global financial crisis. While the GFC (global financial collapse) does not directly reflect collapse in the LtG standard run, it may well be indirectly related. The corroboration here of the LtG standard run implies that the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst important, is out of proportion with, and even deleteriously distracting from the issue of resource constraints, particularly oil. Indeed, if global collapse occurs as in this LtG scenario then pollution impacts will naturally be resolved, though not in any ideal sense. Another implication is the imminence of possible collapse. This contrasts with the general commentary on the LtG that describes collapse occurring sometime mid-century; and the LtG authors stressed not interpreting the time scale too precisely. However, the alignment of data trends with the model’s dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that planning for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.

Climate Change is accelerating so fast at the moment that it may well have more of a role in the coming collapse than Dr. Turner concedes, but in the end that’s just quibbling in the face of momentous changes that both the model and the data suggest are coming. 2015 just doesn’t seem that far away any more…….


It is now 2015.  And this is where we are today…..: