Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The time machine of the 1960s




Last year, I gave a talk in a meeting in Parma, Italy. I had prepared a presentation on crude oil but, when I arrived there, I saw that my audience was mainly composed of young students, probably not very interested in statistics about oil. So, I had to change subject and tone and the idea of speaking about a "Time Machine" came to my mind. Here is the result; it is not a transcription but a version written from memory where I try to maintain the style of an oral presentation.



Ladies and gentlemen, thanks to all of you for being here. From what I can see, many of you are university students and some of you look so young that you have to be in high school. It is nice for me to have such an audience, sure, but you are also a problem. You see, I had come here with my presentation on crude oil. I had data on reserves, production trends, that kind of things. But, now that I see you, I think you won't be interested so much in that, especially in a meeting which has to do with people's right to food. You are interested in the future; that's the reason why you came here. And in my opinion, crude oil belongs to the past.

One thing that I should tell you, anyway, is that we still have oil to extract and burn. Oil is not going to run out tomorrow and not even in a year or ten years. But things are changing fast and oil is not any more so abundant as it used to be. We are moving towards a world where there will be less and less oil to burn - and that is the future you'll see; the future in which you'll live.

So, I had with me this presentation nicely prepared in Power Point, but I won't show it to you. I think that Power Point is an evil thing; made by Sauron or by someone like him - once you have spent a lot of time preparing your presentation, then it is hard to change it - to change tone and subject. But I know that my presentation won't be so interesting for you and so I'll leave my slides where they are and I will talk to you about a completely different subject. I'll tell you about time travel; actually how time travel was invented in the 1960s. Well, not exactly "time travel," but something like it. But let me explain.

First of all, let me ask you to imagine a future not too remote from now. Think of the time when you'll start "shopping," so to say, for a good subject to do your PhD work on. For many of you it will be in a few years from now; perhaps some of you are doing that right now. So, let's imagine that you go to see professor Deriu, our host today, the organizer of this conference, and he tells you, "well, you know, we have just developed a time machine here in our lab at the University of Parma. It can take you to the future of a hundred years from now. Would you like to do your PhD work on this?"

How about that? You are young and you are all interested in the future. And, a time machine that takes you to the future, wow! that would be something!

Of course, no matter how good a researcher is professor Deriu, I think he hasn't arrived yet to developing a time machine; one that takes you to the future and back. But maybe it could be built. I don't know if there are physical reasons preventing it to exist; but I know that - if it were ever built - it could only take you to "a" future, not to "the" future. The future, after all, is in our hands; it depends on what we do. So, if a time machine takes you to the year 2110, then you come back and you do something based on what you learned in your trip; then the future must change. So, when you go back to 2110, what you see is completely different. That is, after all, the theme of the movies of the series "Back to the Future," but not just of that movie. Plenty of science fiction has been written on this theme: you go to the future, see how it is, then you come back and you do something to change it. The future can never be exactly predicted, it is not fixed.

Now, as I said, a time machine doesn't exist today; maybe it will never exist. But something like the story I have been asking you to imagine took place in the late 1960s - many of you weren't even born at that time. It happened at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, the MIT, in Boston, where someone named Jay Forrester was working.

I think you'll like to hear a little about Jay Forrester. He was born - if I remember correctly - in 1918. He has traveled quite a stretch in time! And, last time I wrote to him, he answered to me via email - though he is in his 90s, his mind is still sharp. We are all time travelers, after all, and if you are lucky you travel in comfort - not forever though, but that's another problem. Anyway, Jay Forrester has been a pioneer of computer science: he led a team who developed a new computer memory that became the standard for computers in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time there was no such thing as a "personal computer." There were those big computers; you know, big cabinets occupying several rooms and with technicians in white coats running around. And these big computers were much less powerful than your laptop, today. Things change as you travel in time.

Anyway, Forrester was interested in many things; one was the future. Of course, he didn't have a real time machine. But he had this idea that he could use the computers he had built as something that could "see" the future, although not really predicting it - that, as I said, is not possible. His idea was to study the future. It is something different. In science, when you study something, you do it as a function of the parameters of the system. Say, when you study a chemical reaction, you do such things as changing concentrations, type of reagents, that kind of changes. And then you see what happens. So, when you study the future, you change some of the parameters and you see what happens. You play the game "what would happen if..." And that is what Forrester had developed: a model of the world that could be run in the memory of a computer and generate different futures depending on the parameters in input. Each one is what you call a "scenario." In a way, it is a time machine, although it is a virtual one. But it can describe a possible future, a destination you could find yourselves traveling to .

So, imagine you were a PhD student working in Forrester's lab in the 1960s. I guess the atmosphere must have been very exciting. They had these new computers, very powerful for the time, and they were using them to study the future. It would have been great to be there and to work on these models.

The story, at this point, has to do with someone named Aurelio Peccei - you probably never heard of him as well. He was Italian and he was at the head of a group of people who referred to themselves as the "Club of Rome." They had started with the idea that they wanted to do something to help the poor in the world. But they soon discovered that it was not an easy task - of course we all know it is not. One basic question was, "do we have enough resources for everybody on this planetr?" In other words, what are the limits to the resources on earth? Obviously, that was a difficult question to answer. So, what happened was that Peccei met Forrester in Italy, at a meeting on the shores of Lake Como. That was in the late 1960s. Peccei was impressed by Forrester and probably Forrester was impressed by Peccei. They met again in Switzerland, later on, and in the end they decided that the model that Forrester was developing was just what was needed to solve the question that the Club of Rome was asking.

So, one of Forrester's students took up the task of making a big model of the whole world for the Club of Rome. His name was Dennis Meadows. At that time he wasn't a student any more, he was 28 years old, but he was young anyway. And so the research called "The Limits to Growth" was started. Dennis Meadows collected a group of young people and they started modeling the whole world for a future that spanned more than 100 years, up to the end of the 21st century. I am sure that they were absolutely thrilled by the challenge. I am sure that all of you would be thrilled. It was an incredible chance: use the computer as if it were a time machine and explore the future of the world! In the past few years, I have had the chance of meeting some of the people who worked on that project in person. Now, of course, they are in their 60s or 70s; but they maintain a lot of enthusiasm for these studies. The had the chance to see how their scenarios have fared over almost 40 years of comparison with the real world. As I said, we are all time travelers.

So, what did they find with their virtual time machine? The results are described in a book titled "The Limits of Growth" which was published in 1972, almost 40 years ago. Today, if you heard about that study, you probably heard that it was all wrong. That it was a flawed study based on wrong data and that it had predicted that the world should have ended - maybe - in the 1990s and that, of course, didn't happen. Or, if you never heard about it, you may wonder why - if it was so new and important.

Here, you have to be careful. You probably know the old say about computers: "garbage in, garbage out". It is true and it is a good warning. As I said before, if you are using the computer as a time machine, you must be aware of the limitations of a time machine. If you expect the computer to be able to predict the future, you'll be sorely disappointed. The future depends on what we do and if we decide to do one thing rather than another, then the future will change. That's the basic idea of what people call "scenario planning". You don't try to predict what the future will be. You try to figure out what it may be and act in consequence.

That, believe me, is a lot. You read newspapers and the feeling is that nothing of what happens could be imagined just the previous day - let alone predicted years before. You get the impression that we live in a world where politicians surge every day to meet some challenge that was utterly unexpected, and they gain much press coverage in the process. But it is not like this. Computers give you a tremendously powerful tool to manage the future. Not tomorrow's future, of course. If I could predict what will happen tomorrow, and I could predict it exactly, well, I would be somewhere else, of course. But in the past 10 years or so I have been working with this kind of models and I am impressed at the insight that they can give to you. In the past few years, nothing of what happened has really surprised me - it is almost scary. Of course, I can't predict the exact year when something will happen, or details of what is going to happen, but I can have a general idea of what is in store for us.

As I said, it is a little scary to have tools that can give you some idea of the future. That is because the future is not always bright - of course. And that brings us back to "The Limits to Growth," the study made in 1972. The study was not "wrong" as some people said later on - the problem was that the future it saw for humankind was not bright at all. And people didn't like that. So, rather than thinking "how can I make the future brighter?" they decided that the study was wrong. It happens all the time - it is a tough life for those who chose this job: exploring the future.

Anyway, the authors of "The Limits to Growth" did a good job in exploring many possibilities for the world's future. But most of their scenarios had a "robust" feature, something that didn't change much as a function in changes of the parameters in input or of the model itself. That was collapse of the world economy. And if the economy collapses, a lot of things must collapse with it, including the human population. There was a scenario in the study that was called "base case", or "standard run" - the one which had as parameters data which were the best available and that assumed that the world - meaning the way people behave - wouldn't change too much over time. Well, this scenario produced the start of the collapse of the economy for around 2010 -2020.

Now, I think you start understanding where I am heading to. In practice, I am arriving to the same concepts that I could have shown to you from my power point presentation on crude oil. You see, collapse is the result of a number of things happening right now; in front of your eyes. Less and less crude oil; and that forces people to pay more for it. And, eventually, we'll arrive to a point where we can't afford it any more. And that is not just a problem with crude oil - it happens with all mineral resources. If minerals are what keeps the world's economy running, then you'll see it collapse. And there is another resource which is gradually running out; it is the capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of combustion of oil and of fossil fuels. As you know, the consequence is we are gradually heating the whole planet - that's no good for the economy, either. And for us all; too. 

So, this is what we are seeing around us. Things are starting to collapse - maybe not exactly collapsing - but surely there are all those ominous creaks that you hear when a structure is near collapse. The economy, the prices, all those things that happen. I could give you more data; but I think the general picture should be clear to you. We have been growing at the expense of the natural capital of our planet and now we are being asked to repay it, with the interests. All that was known from a long time ago, with that 1972 study "The Limits to Growth".

Now, there is one thing I have to tell you. It is that the people of my generation - those who are in their 50s or older - they are those who are now managing things in the world and they have used up a lot of what there was of oil and of all the rest. And they are planning to use up everything that is left. That means that when you'll be my age there won't be much left for you to use.

Maybe I should apologize to you for what my generation has been doing. But the previous generations did the same and yours will try to do the same - with what little there will be left. So, let's take that as a fact of life. People just don't know how manage resources on this planet and they tend to shift the burden of their mistakes on the future generations. It is the game they call the musical chairs and - in your case - I am afraid that you may be the ones left standing at the end.

So, you'll probably have a rough trip to the future; as I guess you already knew. What I can tell you is that you all have a good time machine inside you head - as long as you use it. You have to use it because plenty of people, out there, are trying to cheat on you; telling you that there is nothing to worry about. But you don't really need complicated computer models to understand what's happening and in which direction we are going. Just use your brain.  It will be a difficult road, but if you know where you are going, you can make it. I wish you a nice trip! 



I wish to thank prof. Marco Deriu of the University of Parma for having given to me a chance to speak at the meeting "Il Clima della Democrazia" in October 2010

4 comments:

  1. Hello Ugo!

    Congrats on launching your new blog - I've read quite a bit of your stuff at Energy Bulletin, and quite liked it.

    I have also launched a new blog - Systems and Limits, at www.systemsandlimits.blogspot.com, as a place to write about a few ideas that I've developed over the past little while. Quite a few of my ideas are closely related to those in Limits to Growth, or developments from that text, so I think that we might have a bit in common.

    Good luck with your blog!

    Cheers

    Andrew

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  2. Thanks, Andrew; and congratulations for being the first commenter on this blog! Very interesting blog, yours, close to what I have in mind to do with "Cassandra" - I added a link to my blogroll. We'll keep in touch

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  3. Really nice presentation addressed to the young generation. I like that you don't end on "here is how we fix this". Most articles that end like that feel hollow - changing lightbulbs won't save the civilization. So thanks for presenting the reality, for me that is less depressing than hanging on to impossible solutions.

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  4. Who would have guessed...as we can build" time machines going both ways, present-day "collapse of civilization" fear can be traced back to 1885.

    The only thing nobody should really worry about, is the inexhaustible supply of people telling the rest of the world that things are going in the wrong direction.

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