The Guardian: Limits to Growth was right. New research says we’re nearing collapse

Four decades after the book was published, Limit to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon
Piles of crushed cars at a metal recycling site in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Piles of crushed cars at a metal recycling site in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Alamy

The 1972 book Limits to Growth, which predicted our civilisation would probably collapse some time this century, has been criticised as doomsday fantasy since it was published. Back in 2002, self-styled environmental expert Bjorn Lomborg consigned it to the “dustbin of history”.

It doesn’t belong there. Research from the University of Melbourne has found the book’s forecasts are accurate, 40 years on. If we continue to track in line with the book’s scenario, expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.

Limits to Growth was commissioned by a think tank called the Club of Rome. Researchers working out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including husband-and-wife team Donella and Dennis Meadows, built a computer model to track the world’s economy and environment. Called World3, this computer model was cutting edge.

The task was very ambitious. The team tracked industrialisation, population, food, use of resources, and pollution. They modelled data up to 1970, then developed a range of scenarios out to 2100, depending on whether humanity took serious action on environmental and resource issues. If that didn’t happen, the model predicted “overshoot and collapse” – in the economy, environment and population – before 2070. This was called the “business-as-usual” scenario.

The book’s central point, much criticised since, is that “the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods etc would eventually lead to a crash.

So were they right? We decided to check in with those scenarios after 40 years. Dr Graham Turner gathered data from the UN (its department of economic and social affairs, Unesco, the food and agriculture organisation, and the UN statistics yearbook). He also checked in with the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration, the BP statistical review, and elsewhere. That data was plotted alongside the Limits to Growth scenarios.

The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.

These graphs show real-world data (first from the MIT work, then from our research), plotted in a solid line. The dotted line shows the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario out to 2100. Up to 2010, the data is strikingly similar to the book’s forecasts.

limits to growth

Solid line: MIT, with new research in bold. Dotted line: Limits to Growth ‘business-as-usual’ scenario.

limits to growth

Solid line: MIT, with new research in bold. Dotted line: Limits to Growth ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. Photograph: Supplied

limits to growth

Solid line: MIT, and research in bold. Dotted line: Limits to Growth ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. Photograph: Supplied

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The problem, once again, is capitalism and stratification. We have enough food to feed everyone right now. We have enough water. No, it’s not necessarily going to be upper-middle-class comfortable, but it’s definitely doable to sustain the population we have right now without the sheer amount of suffering and misery so many people currently have to endure. The problem is that evening out the standards of living for everyone (lowering it for some, raising it for many), doing away with industrial farming, agriculture, fishing, logging, mining, etc., isn’t profitable. Leaving traditional and subsistence communities to their ways of life, letting them eat their traditional foods, instead of forcing them into what is essentially sharecropping, isn’t profitable. Providing a living wage for every worker on the planet isn’t profitable. Ceasing to brainwash the developed nations into mindless consumerism, ceasing to implement planned obsolescence, isn’t profitable.

Population growth isn’t the problem; poverty is. Poverty is the #1 cause of high birth rates. And no, poverty doesn’t beget poverty– wealth begets poverty.

As they say, yannow…

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