Kevin Baker

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Northwestern University

2017 to 2018
Dissertation Fellow

World Processors: Computer Modeling, Global Environmentalism, and the Birth of Sustainable Development

The field of global computer modeling emerged in the 1970s in response to growing fears about the environmental and human consequences of unchecked population and economic growth. The first major computer simulation to contend with these issues was the “World 3” model, which provided the methodological underpinning for the famous 1972 Limits to Growth report. Limits sparked the development of a panoply of other economic-ecological simulation models in the 1970s and its harrowing predictions about the consequences of economic growth provoked a debate that dominated international politics in the 1970s and remains with us today. My dissertation investigates the international controversy provoked by Limits and the new discipline of global computer modeling it inaugurated. Before the era of carbon accounting and climate modeling, hybrid economic-ecological models like World 3 introduced notions of environmental sustainability into the world’s consciousness and profoundly shaped the subsequent history of global environmental politics. My work offers the first full account of this field’s history, exploring the first decade of the global modeling profession in Western Europe, Latin America, the United States, and Japan. In doing so, I examine the new methodological tools and presentation strategies that researchers in this discipline developed to produce credibility and trust in their models. Using reconstructions of historical computer models, early digital records, and traditional archival sources, I show that these scientists’ methodological innovations were inseparable from their efforts to gain legitimacy in a contentious international political arena, a story that prefigures the successes and challenges of climate scientists today.