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Last October, at a conference in Ottawa, systems-management guru Dennis Meadows declared from the podium that it was already “too late for sustainable development.” This would surely be dispiriting news for those who will gather next week at Rio+20 to discuss the nebulous topic. After all, Mr. Meadows is a scientific authority, the lead author of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, one of the most influential works of modern times.

Limits had been commissioned by a group of self-appointed global guardians called The Club of Rome to study the world “problematique.” According to its blurb, the authors’ “inescapable conclusions are beyond anyone’s grimmest fears.” They had studied the future “with the aid of a giant computer” and it was a place of resource exhaustion, ecological “overshoot” and civilizational collapse. The authors admitted that their model might not be perfect, but asserted that their conclusions wouldn’t change. They thus confirmed that theirs wasn’t a scientific hypothesis to be tested; it was an unshakeable moral conviction to be confirmed. It rejected economics and was impervious to contrary evidence. It was pure junk science.

In Ottawa, Mr. Meadows regurgitated his message of doom, although now with the climate element cranked up. He noted that some sort of salvation might be possible if everybody could just “modify” their behaviour. It would just be like crossing your arms in the opposite way you normally do (He asked the audience to join him in this exercise); difficult at first, but you’d get used to it.

He invited questions. One audience member noted that Mr. Meadows had said that Canadian natural gas production had peaked in 2001. Now, enormous new supplies meant that there was glut. Mr. Meadows shot back: “If you have a glut of gas, why is your production going down?” Because, responded the questioner, there was also a glut in the United States (Canada’s major export market). Mr. Meadows then positively writhed to avoid the “inescapable” implication of the question: yet again, predictions of depletion and doom had been exploded by unforeseeable advances in technology.

The junk modelling of The Limits to Growth — which called for a “totally new form of human society” — was based on the primitive zero-sum assumption that what was needed for the present poor and future generations to thrive was for the rich to abandon materialist lifestyles. There was only so much to go round, and it was disappearing fast. This approach was dubbed “neo-Malthusian.” Like the “gloomy parson” Thomas Malthus, who assumed at the end of the 18th century that the bulk of mankind was doomed to live at subsistence because people bred geometrically but farmland was added only arithmetically, the “new” theorists claimed that “exponential” growth in a finite world could lead only to disaster.

One of their greatest critics was economist Julian Simon, who pointed out that their fundamental error was to exclude the “ultimate resource” from their model: human ingenuity mediated through free markets. Such ingenuity had proved Malthus wrong and would prove them wrong too.

However, neo-Malthusians can’t be rationally argued out of their stance because they were never rationally argued into it. It is based not only on rejection of economics but on an unshakeable moralism that is capable of doctoring or ignoring any data, or rewriting any computer program, to fit the political “Agenda.”

According to The Limits to Growth, what was needed was the imposition of a “sustainable … global equilibrium” that inevitably involved the sacrifice of “certain human freedoms” for “other freedoms such as relief from pollution and crowding and the threat of collapse of the world system.” Population and investment had to be rigidly controlled. In short, this was a pseudo-science-based call for global eco dictatorship, a monstrous extension of Plato’s vision of an “arrested state” presided over by incorruptible guardians.

Confirmation of the intellectual Bourbonism — and ideological authoritarianism — of Limitthink has been recently confirmed with the release of a new book, 2052, by one of Limits’ original authors, Jorgen Randers. Its subtitle is A Global Forecast for the next Forty Years.

Limits wasn’t wrong, suggests Mr. Randers, it’s just that the specifics of doom have to be updated a little. The book was launched last month at the annual meeting of the WWF in the Netherlands. There, Mr. Randers, a Norwegian, said that he wrote it for personal reasons, to see what kind of conditions he faced for the rest of his life. “Now I know,” he said.

The root cause of all our present and future woes, according to Mr. Randers, is the “short-termism” of capitalism and democracy, against which he sets the benign ruling potential of “supranational bodies.” Unfortunately, the “sane solution” of handing over authority to the UN is, he writes, likely to be rejected because of irrational concerns about big, global government.

Mr. Randers admits that some may even survive quite nicely in a world that seems to be based on Blade Runner, and that there will even be success stories, notably China, although only if it can avoid “counterrevolution” against its “harmonious” authoritarian approach.

Mr. Randers’ praise for the Chinese model is in distinct contrast to his condemnation of the U.S., for which he harbours hopes of revolution. “I believe such revolution in the United States would have exactly the opposite effect of counterrevolution in China,” he writes. “It would accelerate GDP growth and increase the effort to make the country more climate-friendly.… If the revolution were associated with the election of a strong government, one would get the additional advantage of an increase in the planned investments necessary to boost well-being and postpone climate change.”

He reluctantly acknowledges that water, food and fossil fuels will be available in 2052, but only “for those who can pay.” This, presumably, in contrast to a system under which distribution of such commodities is dictated by the state.

Of the private sector, Mr. Randers projects that “[I]t will become increasingly dangerous for high-profile corporations to deviate from acceptable behaviour — as defined by civil society.” That is, by activist NGO thugs. However, he also looks to “progressive heads of multinational corporations” to join the coalition against growth that will feature stellar institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, the United Nations Environment Program, UNEP and the WWF.

In the real capitalist world, the main guardian of the future is human ingenuity, the free-market system, goodwill and our love for our children. However, at the WWF-sponsored book launch, Mr. Randers declared that his own daughter was “dangerous” for having an ecological footprint 10 times that of an Indian girl.

Amazingly, Mr. Randers admits in the book that interest in Limits thinking was resurrected by the peak oil theories of the late Matt Simmons. He makes the jaw-dropping claim that Mr. Simmons was “proven right four years later when gas prices in the United States exploded.” He makes no mention of the technological revolutions that have since enormously boosted both oil and natural gas reserves, yet again suggesting the limits of Limits thinking. However, at the WWF launch, unlike at Mr. Meadows’ Ottawa conference, nobody was going to ask any difficult questions.

Perhaps Mr. Randers’ book should have projected 72 years into the future. Then it could have borne the more appropriate title 2084.

Financial Post, 13 June 2012