How to Read This Blog


To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.

Friday, July 22, 2016

WPS 6: Projection of Future Conditions- The Limits to Growth, Climate, and Timeline

Bringing It All Together:  The Limits to Growth

The work and ideas of the many experts cited in the previous post do not stand in isolation.  Ideas are shared and build on one another, and in this analysis we will examine one more highly influential piece of work that attempts to pull all of these complex macro factors together into a single planning-level analysis and projection.  Interestingly, this is not a new study- this work has been available to the public for more than 40 years!

In 1972 an organization called the Club of Rome commissioned a study to look at world conditions and project possible outcomes.  The study authors were Donella Meadows, PhD, Dennis Meadows, PhD, Jorgen Randers, PhD, and William Behrens III, PhD.  They called their work The Limits to Growth.

This study is probably one of the better known pieces of work in the planning community, even if it isn't commonly referred to for decision making.  My own perception is that it is generally viewed as a cautionary tale, but then dismissed in favor of more fashionable and optimistic outlooks.  Basically techno-utopianism.

In the original 1972 study, a variety of factors were modeled according to system dynamics theory using a computer program called World3.  A dozen scenarios were assembled and tested, resulting in a various results from sustainability to overshoot and collapse.  While the Business as Usual (BAU) projection resulted in collapse, it appeared at that time that there were options available that would avoid this outcome.

By 1992, in the 20-year update to the study, conditions had changed considerably.  Trends had continued to follow the BAU scenario and there were many areas where overshoot was already apparent.

In 2002, the team once again updated the study (30 years later) and found more of the same.  The nature of collapse explored in that study looks like this, with actual data to the year 2000 included:

The 30-year update to Limits to Growth modeled 9 new scenarios looking forward into the 21st century, and one "imaginary" scenario where the recommendations of the first study were modeled as if they had been implemented in 1982.  Of the 9 forward-looking scenarios, all resulted in overshoot and collapse except for one.  A few were successful in delaying collapse for a few decades, to the middle of the 21st century.  The imaginary scenario showed that the 1972 recommendations would have saved the world.  If only we had listened...

The one scenario that resulted in a sustainable future imposed a number of strict conditions on the variables.  The conditions that avoided collapse were:  world commitment to a 2 child limit, limits to material production, increased resource efficiency, decreased pollution per unit of industrial output, reversal of land erosion, and deployment of technology to abate pollution and increase agricultural production.

To succeed, all of this had to begin in 2002.  Of course, it did not.

In 2012 there was not an official update to the study, but we can see that all of the trends continue to track the BAU projections through 2010.  Because the proposals put forward in 2002 were once again not implemented, the world continues its trajectory towards collapse.

The Limits to Growth shows us the variables that will define the future of humanity.  As the name implies, the limits of a finite planet will come into play in the near term, and these limits are not compatible with a civilization that requires constant growth.  However, there is one element of systemic entropy that requires further discussion because it has the potential to impact life on Earth more than any other factor.  That element is anthropogenic carbon dioxide and the resulting change in climate.

The Greatest Existential Threat:  Climate Change

Finally, in 2016, it seems that the importance of human-induced climate change has achieved general acceptance in the world at large.  Unfortunately, science seems to tell us that the COP21 commitment to keep warming to under 1.5 degrees C above baseline is a complete impossibility.  In our examination of existing conditions, we've seen how rapid increases in CO2 concentrations is driving rapid global warming, and that we've already traversed more than half the distance to the 1.5 degree target.

Even using estimates from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is by nature fairly conservative, the modeled rise in temperature for the high emissions scenario is 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 with a range of 2.4 C - 6.4 C.  Placing this on our long-term historical timeline, looking back to the stone age, we can see just how radical of an anomaly this will be.  If you think it's hot this summer, you haven't seen anything yet.

As catastrophic as the IPCC projections would be, they pale in comparison to the other possible outcomes that can result from unmodeled interactions with other factors.  Here is where we look to Guy McPherson, PhD, for extensive research and documentation on these other factors and how they will likely effect one another.  McPherson is an emeritus professor of natural resources, ecology, and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona.  With his background in biology, the perspective he brings to climate science is unique in that it considers the interplay of climate, habitat, and living things.  He has a fascinating life story that is indicative of what happens to people when they speak outside of the acceptable bounds of discussion, and I encourage the reader to explore his blog, books, and videos.  You can learn more at his website, Nature Bats Last: .

For the purposes of projecting future conditions, McPherson maintains an absolutely massive tome of information related to climate change from across many interrelated disciplines.  He begins with the "standard models" and projections endorsed by the IPCC, but casts a much wider net to include additional feedback loops not considered by these models.  The full text of McPherson's constantly updated essay on climate change is available here: .  Rather than reciting and repeating the many references to primary sources gathered by McPherson, this information is best explored directly through his essay.

McPherson's basic conclusion is that climate change is now exponential and is being accelerated by self-reinforcing feedback loops.  For example, ocean heating causes arctic ice to melt which darkens the ocean so that it absorbs more heat.  Melting tundra releases methane from the ground, which is itself a potent greenhouse gas.  Even shutting down the industrial activity that has caused all of this heating would have an adverse effect, as the global cooling caused by the release of aerosols into the air would end and result in even more warming.  

There are long lists of these feedback loops which could trigger significant rises in temperature- and even remaining within the COP21 range established in Paris does not protect us from them.  The graphic below (discussed in that radical environmental rag, the Washington Post: ) shows the range at which these tipping points may be reached, as well as the potential warming impact if they are.  (WAIS stands for West Antarctic Ice Sheet)

Schellnhuber et al., Nature Climate Change.

In addition to McPherson's work, the website Arctic News at  extensively explores many of these feedback loops, with a particular focus on events in the arctic involving methane release.  Projecting the impact of accelerated heating in the arctic and the triggering of feedback loops results in a picture of runaway global warming to unimaginable levels.  McPherson and Arctic News arrive at the same general conclusion: abrupt climate change has been triggered and will have a massive impact on ecosystems before 2030.

I will disclose the obvious fact that McPherson's work (as well as the information presented by Arctic News) can be a flashpoint for controversy- but not so much for the data he compiles and presents.  He receives great criticism for his conclusion that these changes will result in such great destruction to the global ecosystem that habitat will no longer exist for humans, resulting in "near term human extinction."  This triggers tangible emotional reactions in people- how can it not?  However, if his projections are even partially correct it's hard to argue with his logic.  It would seem that this outcome is certainly on the table.

Conclusions and Timeline

To draw the curtain on our projection of future conditions, we don't really need to resolve the question of whether we concur with McPherson's prediction of near term human extinction.  Stepping back for a moment and considering the nature of our planning process, what we really need to establish is the general trajectory of things.  In the planning world we often have to pull ourselves up out of the details and remember we're talking about the big picture.

Mainstream projections show an ongoing growth in all things:  population, energy, consumption, pollution, industrialization.  Everything.  What our analysis shows us is a much more likely trajectory in the opposite direction:  stagnation, collapse, regression, reduction in population, cessation of energy production.

Whether or not habitat for humans is completely decimated by 2030, or whether 6.4 billion or all 7.4 billion people perish by that time, is in the details.  The point is- the DIRECTION of things is down from here, not up.

The sequence of collapsing societies has been mapped by engineer and writer Dmitry Orlov based on his experience and research into the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Orlov maintains a blog at .  In his book The Five Stages of Collapse, he posits that a collapsing civilization will experience distinct phases.  He observes that the process begins with financial collapse, which appears to be underway now.  Following financial collapse comes commercial, then political, social, and finally cultural collapse.  At the point of cultural collapse things have degenerated to the point that all faith in the "goodness of humanity" is lost.

The big question remains: what is the timeline for the truly baked-in consequences?  Like the human extinction discussion, there is a lot of speculation and opinion about this as well.  Here is my best effort at describing what I perceive as the most likely scenario, give or take:


The Limits to Growth BAU forecast seems to correlate well with the more contemporary research of academicians and professionals like Ugo Bardi and Gail Tverberg.  If we use the Limits to Growth as a baseline, we can assume that we are currently in the initial stages of collapse leading to a decline in per capita industrial output between now and 2020.  During the next 5 years or so we should expect world economic and geopolitical conditions to continue to deteriorate, with large "gaps down" occurring as a result of monetary and fiscal crises.  These crises will likely be preceded by trigger events such as debt defaults, terrorist events, and political turmoil.  For example the recent "Brexit" vote (the UK referendum to leave the EU) is one potentially destabilizing event that will likely cascade into other trigger events.  Severe weather events will continue to exacerbate humanitarian crises, regional wars, and major emigration from the areas with the poorest conditions for human health.


By 2020-2025, all of the indicators for standard of living should reverse themselves, meaning in addition to declining industrial output per capita there will be declining services per capita and declining food per capita.  In other words, economic contraction becomes so extreme that there will be a widespread scarcity of food, services, and other goods expanding from the periphery of civilization into some of the more centrally-positioned countries.  Between 2020 and 2030 is where we encounter the Seneca Cliff slope of decline, where economies and governments collapse first at the fringes, then in more developed and industrial societies.  This is where the economic, environmental, and health stratification we reviewed earlier becomes increasingly important- those areas that are the most prone to drought, famine, poverty, and poor health outcomes will be the first to deteriorate into chaos.  Efforts to hold institutions together will result in wars, nationalization of resources, and attempts at a command economy to keep industry working.  During this time, the death rate begins to climb, achieving a final peak in human population before precipitous decline.


Once conditions have deteriorated to the point that production of fossil fuel energy ceases at scale, the last remnants of industrial civilization will collapse.  By 2030-2050 the death rate will have increased dramatically and population will be in rapid decline.  The most likely causes of death will be violence, starvation, dehydration, exposure, or illness.  Cities will be uninhabitable and the living will likely be unable to manage the remains of the dead.  With the end of industrial activity and the emission of aerosols, global dimming will cease and global warming will accelerate, leading to more catastrophic environmental consequences.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that massive amounts of radiation will be released into the environment from the melting down of nuclear reactors and the burning of spent fuel.  This will make life even more difficult for the surviving humans and other species.  If humanity does not go extinct entirely, its numbers will be decreased dramatically- probably well below the 1 billion people living at the time of the industrial revolution.  Those lucky survivors will likely live a nomadic life scavenging, raiding, hunting, and gathering for as long as the ecosystem continues to provide enough habitat to eke out a living.


Now you see why nobody in polite society talks about this stuff.  Could you imagine me giving a presentation on this topic at a planning conference?  Sheesh, what a downer...

Anyhow... now that we've established a baseline of future conditions, it's time for us to develop some alternative pathways that might influence how some of the details will unfold.  Some of our alternatives will look at whether we can actually influence the above timeline to any meaningful extent.  In the next post we will begin our alternatives development process.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. It's slow going, but hopefully over time all of the layers come together to form something useful and maybe unique.

    2. Well worth the wait - remember it takes 9 months to have the baby.
      As far as being useful - absolutely - a logical peeling of the onion rings that even I can understand. I am working bottom up - local community resilience with the focus on sustainable economic development.

  2. This book might be worth reading - The Gray Rhino. I got my copy from Booktopia. Lots of chatter so far in the book but it is covering denial etc as per the Grief Cycle, which I think is in the right direction. Keen to compare notes re mitigation - I think it is a matter of "all hands" if we are to stand a chance.

  3. Superb. Many thanks.

  4. Alright, let me see if I can wrap my head around what you are saying, because frankly it is pretty bold.

    "During the next 5 years or so we should expect world economic and geopolitical conditions to continue to deteriorate, with large "gaps down" occurring as a result of monetary and fiscal crises." So short term, monetary policy will start to fall apart. Got it, because that's been happening since 2008.

    "By 2020-2025, all of the indicators for standard of living should reverse themselves, meaning in addition to declining industrial output per capita there will be declining services per capita and declining food per capita. In other words, economic contraction becomes so extreme that there will be a widespread scarcity of food, services, and other goods expanding from the periphery of civilization into some of the more centrally-positioned countries." But in just 6 short years, you think that we won't have enough food or services which I guess means public services like water, hospitals, etc... That is a pretty darn big jump in less than 10 years. That seems awfully fast for America to go from a little trouble to Rio issues. I can see how it's *possible*, but likely? I suppose I don't want to believe it is likely. That is a natural reaction to seeing your world could become upside down.

    "Once conditions have deteriorated to the point that production of fossil fuel energy ceases at scale, the last remnants of industrial civilization will collapse. By 2030-2050 the death rate will have increased dramatically and population will be in rapid decline. The most likely causes of death will be violence, starvation, dehydration, exposure, or illness." Well if there's no food, no hospitals, and no clean water yeah. I still don't understand how we get from here to there...but I can see it headed that way. Flint Mich has water you can't drink. Hospitals are closing down thanks to Obamacare all over rural areas. Food prices are rising in many areas.

    How do we stop it? Short of letting a few nukes go to create a nuclear winter, or killing off half the planet?

    1. Welcome D, thank you for reading with an open mind and a critical eye.

      I hate to get too focused on "the date" of things; but of course it's necessary to lay out some guideposts so we know what it is we're planning towards. That's why I provide fairly broad ranges and focus on the fact that there are varying conditions around the globe that will result in varying timelines for collapse.

      I admit that this is pretty much the opposite of the mainstream view of the future, but following my reasoning through you'll see why I find mainstream sources unreliable. The people and sources I've cited, as well as the work they've built off and inspired, appears to be a much more comprehensive, rational, and thus more likely approach.

      I've tried to assemble this timeline in such a way that it agrees with the work of most of my sources. Some would be at the more pessimistic end of the ranges (ie, Guy McPherson) and some would be at the more optimistic end, and would probably hold out more hope that things can be salvaged (i.e., Ugo Bardi).

      I'm also not suggesting that the worst projections will happen immediately in Anytown, USA. As I've suggested in other posts, collapse will likely occur over time from the outside in. From the middle east, to Turkey/Greece, to eastern Europe, and finally to the heart of the European continent. Suffering, shortages, and decrease in population will begin at the periphery and work its way inward

      I wouldn't be at all surprised to find your local Albertsons fully stocked in 2020. I would be shocked if it's still fully stocked in 2030.

      As for "what can be done." You'll just have to keep reading! It's no secret that I don't think too much can/will be done at the global level, but that doesn't mean we can't be doing things locally and individually.

  5. Some commentary I posted at Our Finite World ( )

    "Not exactly what you’re wishing for- but this chart is useful when contemplating populations over time.

    Human populations in their original hunter/gatherer state numbered a couple of million individuals. Depending where you measure from (the emergence of the genus homo, or the species homo sapiens) those numbers fluctuated in that low range for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

    The agricultural revolution/civilization enabled growth up to the 600-900 million range (lets call it 750 million give or take). That’s a pretty phenomenal explosion.

    So non-fossil-fuel civilization allowed the addition of 750 million human souls to our planet, give or take, over the course of 10,000 years.

    Then fossil fuel civilization came along and added about 6.5 BILLION souls in just 250 years.

    I think this is where most of us begin to arrive at our less-than-optimistic conclusions. We only ever supported 10% of our current population with non-FF infrastructure. Everything above that 10%, which has occurred in just 250 years, is supported by industrial civilization. All of our learning, technological advances, plant gene variety, and all of that happened in a society reaping the benefits of fossil fuel energy.

    When fossil fuel civilization ends, it seems to me that a reversion to 750 million would be a most optimistic outcome. This assumes the transition is mostly peaceful and orderly, and addresses inconvenient things like spent fuel ponds and nuclear warheads…"

  6. Commentary from OFW, continued:

    I have to respectfully disagree. I think you’re underestimating the extent to which energy use, population, and agriculture are intertwined. Gail was addressing this issue as early as 2012:

    A thorough treatment of the direct link between energy, fuels, and population carrying capacity was published in Energy Bulletin in 2009:

    Regarding your counter-arguments:

    “This only makes sense if you assume:

    -We cannot increase manpower devoted to farming above 18th century levels”

    In the 18th century, the US labor force consisted of 90% farmers and today they make up 2%. So in the US, you’d need to transition about 280 million more people (out of 318 million) to agricultural production- leaving only about 38 million people to do everything else necessary to facilitate this radical transformation of society. Our new farmers would be people with no agricultural skills and no physical conditioning for manual labor. The obesity rate is 35%, so about 100 million of those 280 million people wouldn’t make it a week working the fields. I fail to understand how this transition is feasible.

    “-We cannot increase acreage devoted to farming above 18th century levels”

    By the mid 1800s total US farmland was about 300 million acres for a population of 25 million or so, or about 12 acres per person. Today there are less than 950 million acres of farmland for 300 million people, or just over 3 acres per person. To reach the 1800s rate for current population, we’d need to quadruple the agricultural acres in the US to about 3.8 billion acres. There are only 2.3 billion acres of land area in the US, and that includes Alaska. We appear to be about 1.5 billion acres short.

    “-We have not found any way to increase yield per acre or per person without using fossil fuels”

    Okay, so maybe amidst all of this turmoil we somehow manage to maintain order and structure to be able to apply superior techniques to agriculture at large scale. Right now the entire system- all of our efficiencies and techniques, are built on fossil fuel infrastructure. From irrigation, to fertilizer, to transportation. Is it reasonable to believe that our 280 million partly obese, mostly inept, entirely novice farm workforce will be able to apply some superior knowledge about farming to outproduce the farmers of 250 years ago? Can we imagine that under these conditions, we are even able to approach the yields seen by those hardy men and women who grew up their entire lives, for generations, learning the craft and trade of agriculture? Again, I just can’t see it.

    “-We cannot find any new techniques that increase yield per acre or per person without using fossil fuels”

    This is really just a rewording of the previous point.

    “-We have not developed new strains of plant that increase yield per acre or yield per person without fossil fuels”

    Perhaps our new genetically mutated crops do have some inherent increase in yield independent of fossil fuels: but the most productive adjustments by far have been to adapt the crops to better fit an industrial farming model. For example, we create a variety of corn that withstands roundup so that you can fly airplanes over the field and spray chemicals over it, eliminating competition with weeds. I imagine the increased yield purely from engineering superior crops, independent of industrial intervention, is probably minimal. I cannot imagine that human intervention in the genes of crops have created a product so superior that it can overcome the issues of inadequate skilled labor, technique, and land area to support the current population.

    All of this just to say what all of us on OFW understand: we’re not all going to make it. The math just doesn’t work. We’re in overshoot, and the only way this ends is with a massive reduction in human population.