I’ve heard the Club of Rome’s groundbreaking piece of research described as ‘debunked’ more times than I’ve heard it praised, but I thought I’d go back and read it anyway. There are 20 year and 30 year revisions, but I ordered a second hand copy of the 1972 edition and looked at the original claims. I’m glad I did. It’s far more relevant than its reputation would suggest, and most of the criticism it attracts is so unfounded I’ve written a separate post to address the most common complaints.
The Limits to Growth was an attempt to model human development across two centuries. Using a computer model called World3, a multinational team working out of MIT ran projections for population, industrialization, food availability, resource depletion and pollution. What they found is that whatever you do with the input data, no matter how generous you are with resource stocks and technology improvements, there is only one outcome. Industrialisation can only go so far – sooner or later, it overshoots the earth capacity. There are limits to growth, and it is a matter of if, not when, we reach them.
This is a conclusion that nobody wanted to hear, and the criticism flew thick and fast. Nevertheless, the book became an international bestseller. It was translated into multiple languages and its influence is felt to this day.
So what does it actually say? Well, surprisingly little actually. There are just three simple conclusions:
- “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probably result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”
- “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.”
- “If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.”
In short, “the earth is finite”. Those conclusions are presented in the introduction, and the rest of the book explains how they were arrived at. There’s an explanation of exponential mathematics, and they explain their computer model and its many variables. There are page after page of graphs, as the computer model runs different scenarios – what does the future look like if nuclear energy takes off? What if we find double the amount of oil or metals than we expect to? Whatever you do, you end up with steep growth peaking and dropping away some point before 2100 – unfettered growth always ends in overshoot and collapse. So far, these models have stood up pretty well, as this 2008 study shows. (pdf)
The discussion of what to do about this occupies the later chapters. There is, the authors observe, a culture of “fighting against limits rather than learning to live with them”. For centuries human culture has hoped for technological advances to keep ahead of the limits as they come up. Since we’ve been pretty good at that option, we’ve forgotten the other way – regulating our consumption.
In this the report seems to be well ahead of their time. “Technological optimism is the more common and most dangerous reaction to our findings”, and this faith in technology stops us from taking action to prevent ecological overshoot. This faith is as strong as ever. It’s tragic to see just how much there is about climate change here too, and to realise that we’ve acheived so little in almost 40 years.
In fact, we’ve barely moved on the whole growth debate. Growth still goes unquestioned, and we can’t bring ourselves to even ask if it should be limited. “Such a solution has almost never been acknowledged as legitimate by any modern society.” Tim Jackson says that politicians still ‘physically recoil’ at the title of his book, Prosperity Without Growth.
Still, the offer that The Limits to Growth first made still stands: we can either hit the wall, or we can slow down in ways of our own choosing. We can reduce our consumption, cap our oil use, lower CO2 emissions, slow population growth, and create sustainable economies. But “of the thress alternatives – unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth – only the last two are possible.”