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…..:



19 responses

17 11 2012
Eclipse Now

I’m interested in whether the LTG3 model analysed the benefits of sustainable, clean, green GenIV nukes that could run the world for 500 years on the nuclear waste we have stored in cooling ponds today?
Let alone the ‘renewable’ supply of uranium we get if we extract uranium from seawater, which is constantly topped up by continental drift and erosion carrying fresh uranium particles down into the ocean. Once you have abundant, cheap enough, clean energy that is sustainable for hundreds of millions of years: many many other limits fall into place around a world wide demographic transition.

17 11 2012

Contrary to conventional wisdom among civilized humans, we don’t need an industrial economy to survive. In fact, all evidence indicates the opposite is true, yet we keep cheering for this culture of death, cheering for continued destruction of all we need for our survival. Insanity has won, proving Ralph Waldo Emerson correct: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

17 11 2012

We’re headed for extinction via nuclear meltdown

Safely shuttering a nuclear power plant requires a decade or two of careful planning. Far sooner, we’ll complete the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. This is a source of my nuclear nightmares.

When the world’s 443 nuclear power plants melt down catastrophically, we’ve entered an extinction event. Think clusterfukushima, times 400 or so. Ionizing radiation could, and probably will, destroy every terrestrial organism and, therefore, every marine and freshwater organism. That, by the way, includes the most unique, special, intelligent animal on Earth.

5 12 2012

Electricity is only one form of energy that we use and is not a very mobile form. Oil is the energy that drives our civilization and while we use a lot of coal we use oil to mine and ship the coal. The oil will run out and that time not far away even though the oil companies trumpet the shale oil “bonanza”.

However to concentrate on electrical energy alone is to look at one small part of civilizations problems. They are many but here is one, for instance. How can an exponentially expanding population be fed with a rapidly diminishing supply of accessible phosphorous. The limits to growth looked at the whole picture, not just one aspect, something that many of us, you included (eclipse now) seem to find difficult.

It maybe that we will solve the problem of electricity storage, (batteries) at some time in the future. But, to depend on technology solving all the problems is akin to jumping off a cliff confident that one can come up with the ability to fly before the ground meets you. It may be exhilarating for a while but in the end it’s fatal.

10 10 2013
Allan Rodger

In the “Limits to Growth” scenario time serves as the horizontal axis. Limits and the Club of Rome failed to articulate that:
“In a dynamical system time is the ultimate non-renewable resource.”
While we have been talking about resources we have been using up time; it is now running out. In retrospect we may come to realise that ‘peak-time’ may have been away back in the 70’s when Limits was first published.

13 12 2013

I attended the Limits to Growth – Beyond the Point of Inflexion symposium at the UNSW last Wed 11/12/13, and it was very illuminating. Jorgen Randers, one of the original LtG authors presented, but I met Dr Graham Turner there as well.
Graham put me on to his 40 year update, as I had read his 30 year one, and he mentioned that the current status had a levelling out of services and that it seemed to be due to Peak Oil. I will need to read his full report to check out exactly what he meant.
Ross Gittins stole the show with his cap and trade idea for scarce resources, which would price in the externality costs such as environmental degradation etc. This would need limits (global and local) to be determined for top scarce resources (cropland, soil, freshwater, ti, antimony, lead, silver, gold, copper…), which Ross admitted would be complex to setup. He also mentioned that trade-exposed businesses could be protected by using a GST-like system of credits on scarce inputs that would be needed for exported goods until I imagine that he assumed a global system would be in place.

4 06 2014
John Doyle

The charts are illegible. Can that be remedied?

4 06 2014

Sorry, I haven’t found better resolution ones yet….. when I do I will replace them.

4 06 2014
John Doyle

good, when enlarged the lettering lost all coherence.

4 06 2014

Actually, you’ve prompted me to look again, and I have now fixed the problem…… thanks for making me make the effort!

4 06 2014
John Doyle

It’s better now thanks.
It’s scary how well the standard graph is matched by the 40 year results.
Certainly gives credibility to the LtG forcasts

4 06 2014
John Doyle

One other thing. The debt bubble is not included in the original report. It’s now so huge that it alone could make the necessary trigger for collapse.

4 06 2014

When you read Graham Turner’s Cusp report carefully, he shows that we are on track for the early collapse scenario, but predicts collapse around now not in 2050. This in effect predicted the GFC.

14 10 2014

I read your paper and saw the Ted talk of Harald Sverdrup. We are right on the track. How come that gold and oil prices are weakening?

14 10 2014

I believe it’s due to the US Dollar manipulation… it’s going up, so everything else goes down in relation to it.

Long and comprehensive look at Japan and Eurozone
and how bad things are, and going to get worse.

The US Dollar Is About To Inflict Carnage All Around The Planet
Raúl Ilargi Meijer
October 3, 2014

As I watch the euro losing another 1.3% against the dollar today, it’s now at $1.25, and down from close to $1.40 recently, it’s getting clearer all the time: the greenback is busy eating currencies and economies alive.

3 12 2014

We are staring down the barrel of so very many problems that are civilization and perhaps even humanity ending, that it is hard to tell what will actually get us.

The economy is in La La land, the bull is far bigger than the real economy, we believe workers earning a few dollars an hour are going to be buying new SUV’s, houses and coffee at Starbucks. We believe that a government starved of funds can still maintain all the necessary infrastructure. We believe that industries that are dependent upon the trust of consumers can survive without any regulation.

The biosphere is in deep trouble all around, without counting the effects of global warming. Global warming is exacerbating an already very serious problem. Nature had redundancy after redundancy, slowly we have destroyed all that. Someday soon we are going to wipe out some seemingly unimportant species with absolutely catastrophic consequences.

We are running out of accessible energy, but should not use what we have got.

We have abused antibiotics to the point where they are now often ineffective.

We have drunk the hemlock, driven off the cliff, put a gun to our heads and slashed our wrists. Our civilization is committing collective suicide, but in a way that will take the Earth tens of millions of years to recover from.

2 01 2015

… and the manner in which we’ve done it strongly suggests that we do not deserve any better than the future into which we’re headed.

Gaia, swirling heaven.
Mankind blossoms, then explodes;
The End: Just deserts?

8 11 2019

We are now in nov 2019, soon 2020. I know it’s just trends and a peticular year is not meaningfull.. but how does the data adds up to the existing chart?

8 11 2019

A Synopsis: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
The signs are everywhere around us:

Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.
In 1998 more than 45 percent of the globe’s people had to live on incomes averaging $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the richest one- fifth of the world’s population has 85 percent of the global GNP. And the gap between rich and poor is widening.
In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.
The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.
Fifty-four nations experienced declines in per capita GDP for more than a decade during the period 1990–2001.
These are symptoms of a world in overshoot, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. They are leading us toward global environ- mental and economic collapse—but there may still be time to address these problems and soften their impact.

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