The Limits to Growth

The Limits to Growth was the publication of an important research project that tried to quantify different global development possibilities using computer models and simulations based on the concept of System Dynamics. Its intention was to show the result


of individuals’ behaviour on a global level and to discuss mankind’s ability to understand, and deal with, the results of their actions. The study was commissioned by the Club of Rome.5 The publication in 1972 has been widely disputed. It reports the results of simulations of economic and population growth under the constraint of limited resources. The underlying problem to be remedied was described by the authors as follows: “It is the predicament of mankind that man can perceive the problematique, yet, despite his considerable knowledge and skills, he does not understand the origins, significance, and interrelationships of its many components and thus is unable to devise effective responses. This failure occurs in large part because we continue to examine single items in the problematique without understanding that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that change in one element means change in others” (MEADOWS ET al. 1972, p. 11).

There have been many different interpretations of the study, ranging from claiming that the authors intended the prediction of the end of the world to seeing it as proving that economic growth cannot continue endlessly on a finite planet. It has been laughed about as a collection of predictions by alarmists and a work of Malthusians trying to repress economic growth. According to the studies’ authors, “the intent of the project is to examine the complex of problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejection of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions” (MEADOWS ET AL. 1972, p. 10). After the analysis of twelve different scenarios predicting possible outcomes of our world within the next century, based on a number of assumptions (Randers 2010), the authors came to the following conclusions:

1. “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to [1]

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.

  • 2. 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. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
  • 3. 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.” (Meadows et al. 1972)

The study’s novel approach and its results were widely discussed. One of its most renowned critics stated that “[t]he emergence of the anti-growth school was the latest peak in a long intellectual cycle of pessimism about economic growth that originated with Reverend T.R. Malthus in the early 1800s” (Nordhaus 1992, p. 1). “The ultimate message was that so many constraints operate on the global economy that there is no way to wriggle out of the straitjacket of resource limitations” (Nordhaus 1992, p. 3). Nordhaus’ critique is supported by Stavins (1992), who in a discussion of Nordhaus’ paper Lethal Model 2, backs his critical point that exploration, discovery, technological progress and substitution are not or only indirectly included in the model.

This argumentation is also supported by Gunnar Myrdal, a specialist on developing countries, who criticizes the data that is behind the simulation of the Limits to Growth. He points out that especially for developing countries the data is very weak. He also doubts that a global model is helpful in solving regional problems and adds that he considers the most pressing problems to be regional (Myrdal, 1973 pp. 204-205; Oltmans, Chomsky 1976, pp. 33-39). The critical points are extended to the 1992 update of the Limits to Growth (“Beyond the Limits”), which Nordhaus (1992, p. 5) judges to be nothing but ““Lethal Model 2” with the same cast, plot, lines, and computerized scenery” instead of incorporating the critics notes and statements.

There are also defenders of the study, at least for its general idea, approach and its contribution to raising the public awareness for environmental problems.[2] Newer publica?tions checking the predictions of Limits to Growth against reality showed that the results were not very far off the mark.[3] The works’ defenders also stress that the limits to growth described in the book are not, as is often assumed in discussions, limits of economic growth; instead the term refers to the limited growth of what is now called the human ecological footprint, a theory that many contemporary scientists, especially those concerned with sustainable development, support (Randers 2010). While the conclusions and statements of the Club of Rome’s report were never completely removed from public, political and scientific awareness in the years after its publication, it has been cited and discussed with new force with the growing popularity of the sustainability concept.

  • [1] The CLUB OF Rome describes itself as “an informal association of independent leading personal ities from politics, business and science, men and women who are long-term thinkers interestedin contributing in a systemic interdisciplinary and holistic manner to a better world. The CLUBOF Rome members share a common concern for the future of humanity and the planet” (CLUBOF Rome 2013). The aims of the Club are defined as follows: “to identify the most crucial problems which will determine the future of humanity through integrated and forward-looking analysis; to evaluate alternative scenarios for the future and to assess risks, choices and opportunities;to develop and propose practical solutions to the challenges identified; to communicate the newinsights and knowledge derived from this analysis to decision-makers in the public and privatesectors and also to the general public and to stimulate public debate and effective action to improve the prospects for the future” (CLUB OF Rome 2013).
  • [2] A collection of published reactions and statements about the Limits to Growth by OLTMANS andChomsky cites for example Jan TINBERGEN, who stresses the study’s importance in communicating the phenomena it discusses; a point of view supported by Paul A. Samuelson, amongothers; even if both criticize the preciseness and assumptions of the model (OLTMANS, Chomsky 1976).
  • [3] Turner, for example, shows that Limits to Growths “standard run”, which is not one of the extreme scenarios but rather one of the “middle” options, closely matches the actual data (Turner2008, pp. 402-410), while SIMMONS (2000) finds that while some predictions of the study wererather correct, others were even overrun.
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