Global modeling & C-ROADS

At the 2013 ISDC, John Sterman, Drew Jones and I presented a plenary talk on Global Models from Malthus to C-ROADS and Beyond. Our slides are in SDS 2013 Global Models Sterman Fid Jones.pdf and my middle section, annotated, is in SDS 2013 Global+ v12 TF excerpt.pdf.

There wasn’t actually much time to get into Malthus, but one thing struck me as I was reading his Essay on the Principle of Population. He identified the debate over limits as a paradigm conflict:

It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal.

Yet, anxiously as every friend of mankind must look forwards to the termination of this painful suspense, and eagerly as the inquiring mind would hail every ray of light that might assist its view into futurity, it is much to be lamented that the writers on each side of this momentous question still keep far aloof from each other. Their mutual arguments do not meet with a candid examination. The question is not brought to rest on fewer points, and even in theory scarcely seems to be approaching to a decision.

The advocate for the present order of things is apt to treat the sect of speculative philosophers either as a set of artful and designing knaves who preach up ardent benevolence and draw captivating pictures of a happier state of society only the better to enable them to destroy the present establishments and to forward their own deep-laid schemes of ambition, or as wild and mad-headed enthusiasts whose silly speculations and absurd paradoxes are not worthy the attention of any reasonable man.

The advocate for the perfectibility of man, and of society, retorts on the defender of establishments a more than equal contempt. He brands him as the slave of the most miserable and narrow prejudices; or as the defender of the abuses of civil society only because he profits by them. He paints him either as a character who prostitutes his understanding to his interest, or as one whose powers of mind are not of a size to grasp any thing great and noble, who cannot see above five yards before him, and who must therefore be utterly unable to take in the views of the enlightened benefactor of mankind.

In this unamicable contest the cause of truth cannot but suffer. The really good arguments on each side of the question are not allowed to have their proper weight. Each pursues his own theory, little solicitous to correct or improve it by an attention to what is advanced by his opponents.

Not much has changed in 200 years.

While much of the criticism of Limits to Growth remains completely spurious, and even its serious critics mostly failed to recognize that Limits discussed growth in material rather than economic/technological terms, I think the SD field missed some opportunities for learning and constructive dialog amid all the furor.

For example, one of the bitterest critics of Limits, William Nordhaus, wrote in 1974,

Economists have for the most part ridiculed the new view of growth, arguing that it is merely Chicken Little Run Wild. I think that the new view of growth must be taken seriously and analyzed carefully.

And he has, at least from the lens of the economic paradigm.

There are also legitimate technical critiques of the World3 model, as in Wil Thissen’s thesis, later published in IEEE Transactions, that have never been properly integrated into global modeling.

Through this failure to communicate, we find ourselves forty years down the road, without a sufficiently improved global model that permits exploration of both sides of the debate. Do exponential growth, finite limits, delays, and erosion of carrying capacity yield persistent overshoot and collapse, or will technology take care of the problem by itself?

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