: New: Book Report: Limits to Growth

Some folks wrote World3, a world economic simulator to answer questions along the lines of "if humans keep trying to use nonrenewable energy at their current rate, what will be the warning signs that we've hit 'peak whatever' and are heading towards the end of civilization?" Well, that's a gross oversimplification. But there's something to be said for gross oversimplification. This book is their notes about how they set up a big computer program something like a big spreadsheet that says "if N resources were harvested last year, then 90% of N are available this year…" I ended up skimming huge swaths of this book. It's dense. Here's a paragraph about forests:

Compounding the problem of forest decline, demand for forest products is growing. Between 1950 and 1996 world paper consumption grew by a factor of six. FAO expects it to rise from 280 to 400 million tons by 2010. In the United States the average person uses 330 kilograms of paper per year. In the other industrial nations the average person uses 160 kilograms; in the developing world, just 17. Though paper recycling is increasing, the consumption of virgin wood for pulp continues to go up by 1 to 2 percent per year.

Now imagine reading that sort of thing but about other economic resources, lots of 'em. After a while, you start thinking "oh gee, maybe instead of writing a book about this, they should have written a simulator program and plugged in the relations between these things." And that's what they did of course, but then they had to write this book to explain what they'd done. The book's more detailed than the simulator, though; rather than try to simulate forests and fish and this and that and the other thing, there are broad categories of renewable and non-renewable resources. Some of this simplification was so that they could understand the simulation; some of this was just because the first version of this simulator was written back in the 70s, when you needed <exaggeration level="slight">a computer the size of a room to store the number 12</exaggeration>.

I didn't get much from reading this book, for reasons that I found Casablanca to be a cliched movie; the important parts have become part of our culture. I read partway through. I realized I wasn't retaining much of what I read. (Pop quiz: to an order of magnitude, what was world paper consumption in 2010?. Yeah, I already forgot, too.) Back in the 70s, this book was breaking the news of how overconsumption leads to scarcity, what that looks like if you're observing economic charts. Nowadays, we don't need simulations for so much of that.

Tags: book brutal truth

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