Limits, Uncertainties, and Policies

What are the realities about limits and the impact of current policies on them? Meadows, Meadows, and Randers ultimately want realities about limits to entail serious discussions about “… the general problem of overshoot … pressure for the technical changes urgently necessary to make throughputs more efficient, and … willingness to deal with the driving forces of population and capital growth” (123). More succinctly, the authors draw our attention to:

  • Overshoot
  • Throughputs
  • Population
  • Capital growth

In my attempt to flesh-out the “how” of the authors’ priorities concerning growth and limits, especially as it concerns the points above, I want to focus attention on the concept of uncertainty, as it is the conditions under which I understand the functions of science. For me, and for (some) other rhetoricians of science, science is the management of uncertainty.


Ultimately, the realities about limits are that we are uncertain about what, exactly, they are. Secondly, concerning the impact of current policies regarding limits, the authors suggest that limits are largely misunderstood, primarily because of the lack of specificity and accuracy of how science is interpreted by policy; essentially, because policymakers often (understandably) don’t also have the depth of scientific expertise , and as a result, scientists often attempt to simply science so that it can be understood by non-scientists/policymakers, meaning that significant details, etc. aren’t communicated fully/at all. The authors explain this scenario in terms of its effect on environmental rhetoric, suggesting that because scientific terminology/environmental rhetoric like “resource” and “reserve” are often misunderstood and misinterpreted in policy, that we have effectually been “… paying attention to the wrong signal” and, as a result, have become tremendously confused about how to feasibly define terms like “resource” and “reserve” and “sustainability” (89). Understandably, this confusion leads to ineffective policies and, unfortunately, perpetuates the general problem of overshoot and enables the ignorance of concepts like throughputs and detracts serious attention to the exponential growth of populations and capital.

Regarding uncertainty, especially how uncertainty pertains specifically to climate change, the authors are careful to explain that, for instance, climate change has human causes. No proof exists. But, the authors write, absence of “proof” isn’t an excuse for ignorance of change. Despite proof of the exact extent of human causes – or the degree to which climate change will affect future human activity or ecosystem health – climate change is a real environmental situation. Because of the messiness and confusion inherent in addressing an issue that is uncertain at its core (uncertain causes; uncertain effects) “… some have exploited that uncertainty in an effort to create a state of [greater] confusion, and thus it is important to state clearly what we do know” (116). Below is a condensed list of the six certainties the authors identify (derived from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia; This is what we know – what we’re certain of – regarding climate change:

  • Human activities contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas concentration
  • Carbon dioxide is increasing exponentially
  • Greenhouse gases trap heat that otherwise would escape from the Earth into space
  • Trapped heat will increase the temperature of the Earth
  • The warming will be unequally distributed (more near the poles than the equator)
  • Sea levels will rise; polar ice will melt

There are significant uncertainties too, three that are particularly significant to Limits to Growth. Below is a condensed list:

  • What would global temperature have been without human interference?
  • What, exactly, does a warming planet mean for temperatures, winds, currents, precipitation, ecosystems, and the human economy in each specific place on Earth?
  • What are the possible positive and negative feedback responses to the rise in greenhouse gases? How will these feedback responses interact and will the positive or negative dominate? (118)

Concerning the implications of these three large uncertainties, how should policymakers appropriately respond to such questions? Is a response to such ambiguous uncertainties even possible? What would the implications be? What is at risk? The current system doesn’t necessarily allow for ambiguous/experimental/research-driven policy; the policy framework isn’t flexible to degrees or rates of change, but instead aims to react to what’s proven; what’s “factual”; often, quantitative data. Is this the only condition under which we are willing to act? What “facts” will be proof enough? What I’m suggesting is that even if policymakers intended to propose environmental policy in accordance with measures to reduce climate change, would those propositions move beyond intention into action? The authors cite an interesting illustration of these questions/suggestions in their explanation of overshoot, and the reasons for avoiding the issue of overshoot. (** I’m looking forward to applying Latour to these types of propositions later on this summer …) They write, “The reasons for avoiding the issue of overshoot are understandable and political. Any talk of reducing growth feeds into a bitter argument about distribution – of available resources and of responsibility for the current state of affairs …if the world as a whole is exceeding its limits, who should do something about it: the wasteful rich or the multiplying poor or inefficient ex-socialists?” (124). The answer, they write, is “all of the above.”

The questions above pertain to how I’ve defined science: as the management of uncertainty. When the science is uncertain, and if science – like climate change science – entails the management of uncertainty, then it is rhetorically implied that the management of climate change enacts the responsibilities of science, if we define science in even its broadest and simplest terms. Science is the management of uncertainty. Climate change is rife with uncertainties. Science must still be practiced; the science of climate change must still be managed, even in conditions of significant uncertainty. How ought we to act in the face of such uncertainty? Note the nuance of the question – not should we act in the face of uncertainty, but how ought we to act … as the authors write, “The question is not whether climate change will change further in the future in response to human activities, but rather by how much, where, and when …” (Watson cited in Meadows, Meadows, and Randers 118). The question is not whether we are certain of the causes or effects of climate change – see the six certainties above – but rather, it is a question of how we ought to negotiate – manage – such a reality despite the significant uncertainties pertaining to human causes, future effects, and the potential direction of feedback responses.


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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