Limits to Growth Revisited
Politicians rely on a growing economy to get re-elected. How often do we hear promises of fostering economic expansion that’s going to make us all wealthy and deliver gold-plated social services? Just a moment’s objective thought delivers the sobering news that the economy cannot continue to grow forever. It just cannot.
In 1972, the Club of Rome delivered a gloomy report on the future of the world in the age of industrialization. The Club of Rome was a think tank organized by an Italian businessman called Aurelio Peccei. He said its purpose was to “rebel against the suicidal ignorance of the human condition.”
With funding from the club, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers developed a computer model to forecast where the world would be in 2100 if trend lines for population, resource exploitation, pollution control, and other matters continued as they were. Without changes, sometimes radical ones, the future in the Limits to Growth report looked grim.
What the authors called the “business-as-usual” scenario they predicted “overshoot and collapse.” Their calculations were based on the undeniable fact that the resources of the planet Earth are finite; there is only so much fossil fuel, iron ore, potable water, and cropland to go around. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Central to the Limits thesis was the notion of exponential growth. This means that the more something grows, the faster its growth becomes. In numbers, linear growth is expressed as one, two, three, and so on. Exponential growth is one, two, four, eight, and soon very large numbers are involved.
The second factor is the feedback loop. So, once the planet starts to warm up the hotter temperatures have impacts that accelerate the heating. More polar ice melts so less of the Sun’s heat is reflected back into space. People crank up the air conditioning to mitigate the heat, which causes more fossil fuels to be burned to generate electricity. Permafrost starts to melt releasing methane gas that increases the global heating cycle.
The MIT scientists, under the direction of Dennis Meadows, ran a dozen different scenarios through their computer model. Seven ended in catastrophe with massive human die-offs. One predicted a partial collapse and the rest forecasted little change.
The overall conclusion was that “If present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”
Criticism of Limits Theory
Critics came in hot and heavy. Bjorn Lomborg, who styles himself “the skeptical environmentalist,” gave his view that the report should be consigned “to the dustbin of history.”
Economist Peter Passell said the computer model the MIT people used was flawed and amounted to “Garbage In—Garbage Out.” Newsweek said the report was “a piece of irresponsible nonsense.”
Others said the authors were far too bleak and that technology would pull us out of the glue. Business leaders were universally negative. They did not want some pointy-headed, liberal, university boffins telling them they had to stop dumping buckets of dimethyl goopy stuff into the creek behind the plant.
Boost to Environmentalism
The book gave oxygen to the developing environmental movement; it sold 12 million copies and was translated into 37 languages. It remains the top-selling environmental alert book of all time.
There was a growing sense of unease in some sectors of society that the business-as-usual model was causing major damage to the biosphere:
- In 1952, 12,000 people died in a smog that hit London, England;
- In the 1960s, people in Minamata, Japan were being afflicted by a neurological disease caused by mercury that was ingested by the fish they ate;
- In 1966, a coal mine waste tip in Wales collapsed on a school killing 116 children and 28 adults;
- In 1967, the supertanker Torrey Canyon hit a rock in the English Channel and spilled about 30 million gallons of oil into the sea; and,
- In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it burst into flames (below).
There were many other environmental incidents, big and small, that made huge numbers of people think “This can’t be right.” From this rising consciousness sprang the first Earth Day celebrations. About 20 million Americans demonstrated peacefully on April 22, 1970. The event has since gone global and involves billions of people.
Two years later, Limits to Growth highlighted the connection between human economic activity and changes to the environment. Christian Parenti in The Nation noted that “After Limits, environmentalists, scientists and policy-makers increasingly thought of ecological problems in planetary terms and as dynamically interconnected.”
Limits to Growth Revisited
Dr. Graham M. Turner is a Principal Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, Australia. Four decades after Limits to Growth he looked into population growth, industrial output, pollution, and food supply data and plotted them against the MIT study predictions.
He concluded that “As the MIT researchers explained in 1972, under the scenario, growing population and demands for material wealth would lead to more industrial output and pollution. The graphs show this is indeed happening. Resources are being used up at a rapid rate, pollution is rising ... The population is rising quickly …
“As pollution mounts and industrial input into agriculture falls, food production per capita falls. Health and education services are cut back, and that combines to bring about a rise in the death rate from about 2020. Global population begins to fall from about 2030, by about half a billion people per decade. Living conditions fall to levels similar to the early 1900s.”
We don’t want you to be hopeful, we want you to panic.”— Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg
- Ingrid Robeyns of Utrecht University in the Netherlands is a leading proponent of the concept of limitarianism that she says “entails the view that it is morally objectionable to be rich.” She argues that there should be an upper limit to the amount of wealth a person can accumulate, just as there is a poverty line below which, theoretically, no one should drop.
- In 2014, Dennis Meadows the lead on the Limits to Growth team said “You could have 10 billion people living on the planet at a subsistence level and be fine. Or 500,000 people on the planet living a first world lifestyle. It is not the absolute number of people, but the multiple of the high-consumption lifestyle.”
- The ultra-rich one percent of the population creates 175 times more carbon dioxide emissions than the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population. This extremely wealthy group is responsible for massively disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources.
In the early 1970s, it was possible to believe that maybe we could make the necessary changes. But now it is too late. We are entering a period of many decades of uncontrolled climatic disruption and extremely difficult decline.”— Dennis Meadows in 2014
- “ ‘The Limits to Growth’: A Book That Launched a Movement.” Christian Parenti, The Nation, December 5, 2012.
- “The Limits of the Limits to Growth.” Ronald Bailey, Reason.com, April 18, 2012.
- “Limits to Growth Was Right. New Research Shows We’re Nearing Collapse.” Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander, The Guardian, September 2, 2014.
- “Is Global Collapse Imminent?” Graham Turner, University of Melbourne, August 1, 2014.
Extreme Wealth Leads to Extreme Pollution
Does it make sense to have an upper limit for income as a measure to reduce the environmental impact of consumption?
© 2019 Rupert Taylor