Limits to Growth: Where We Stand Today

Super-freighter on the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Sometime in the 1960’s a group of prominent businessmen in Europe decided it was time to face up to the contra di ction that l ies at the heart of mode rn capitalism: it is a system based on infinite growth in a world with finite limits to growth: in input (resources, including food), throughput (population), output (pollution), and a likely collapse if any one of these limits is exceeded. In 1968 t hey created an organization called the Club of Rom e , the task of which w as to examine what the prime leader of the group, veteran Italian businessman Aurelio Peccei, described quaintly in his 1970 book, The Predicament of Mankind: Quest for Structured Response to Growing Worldwide Complexities and Uncertainties.

Fifty years ago this spring the Club published a book called The Limits to Growth, based on a study using complex computer models by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led by Donnella Meadows and her husband Dennis, with a couple of MIT graduate students. It used advanced computers to chart out different scenarios, including one in which nothing is done and we continue heedless growth. Its conclusion was stark and simple:

If the 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 in the next one hundred years.  The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity,” causing “overshoot and collapse” with a tipping point around 2020-30.

The book was a worldwide best-seller, but its conclusions were widely challenged and, in centers of political and economic power, mostly ignored.  Growth is, after all, the lifeblood and raison d’etre of capitalism and the idea that there should be limits to it was so repugnant as to be essentially incomprehensible. A lot of people are making a lot of money, and a very few a very lot, so what would be the point in imagining that there would ever be an end to it?

And so the whole point of the Club of Rome’s efforts was shunted aside.  It had wanted people to star rethinking the assumptions of capitalism, questioning where untrammeled growth was taking us, and reflect upon the new kind of world that computer technology with its immense (and basically uncontrolled) power was leading us to.  And so capitalism became global capitalism, and then added computer capitalism and internet capitalism, and it continued to grow exponentially with no thoughts whatsoever to limits. It seemed as if there were something inherent in the computerized culture that demanded the growth-lovers would win out over the limits-warners.

A second study in 2000 confirmed that the original analysis found that nothing in the original thirty years earlier could be invalidated. “To the contrary,” said international banker Matthew Simmons, “the chilling warnings of how powerful exponential growth can be are right on track.” Only four years later the Meadows themselves came out with “The 30-Year Update,” holding that the original may have overemphasized resource depletion (fearing a coming “peak oil”) but underplayed pollution and the impact of greenhouse gasses, and nothing had been done on our path to overshoot. The growthists still ignored it and added cellphone capitalism and central bank appeasement into the mix in such a way that democratic control or restraint proved impossible.

A fourth study came in 2014 at the end of the Great Recession from University of Melbourne scholar Graham Turner who came to the conclusion that resource depletion, overpopulation, economic decline, industrial slowdown, and environmental collapse were following almost exactly the lines of the 1972 forecast—and leading straight to “overshoot and collapse” in 2020-30.

The most recent reassessment was in 2021 in the Journal of Industrial Ecology by Yale scholar Gaya Harrington, who found that the original Limits to Growth scenarios, including the dangerous business-as-usual one, “aligned closely with observed global data,” and “this suggests that it’s almost, but not yet, too late for society to change its course.”  As for business-as-usual, “Pursuing continuous growth is not possible.”  She failed to add “without overshoot and collapse.”

And just a month ago Dennis Meadows, asked how he felt about his original work, said calmly that all analyses “have generally concluded that “the world is moving along what we termed the standard  scenario” of growth.  He was not sanguine about society doing anything about changing that and averting global tragedy.  The human species, he said,  puts a “high survival value in focusing on the short term nearby and not worrying about the long-term far away.” A few weeks after that the latest comprehensive UN climate change panel confirmed that, concluding that severe  overheating of the world caused by greenhouse gasses has already caused “widespread, pervasive impacts to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure.”

So all of the proposed reforms and remedies offered up in “green new deals” and renewable energy panaceas anywhere to date are completely useless because they are not aimed at capitalism’s fatal commitment to growth that the Club of Rome had wanted the world to reconsider.   And there is no sign anywhere that the nations of the world are willing to confront this fact and head toward any policy or proposal that would acknowledge that, much less doing anything to reverse it.

The inevitable result: “overshoot and collapse,” and not far off, either.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of twelve books over fifty years and lives in Ithaca, New York.