‘Limits to Growth’ vindicated: World headed towards economic, environmental collapse

Reuters / Fabian Bimmer
Australian researchers have shown that a book written ‒ and written off ‒ four decades ago accurately predicted where the world would be in terms of resource allocation and the environment. And that does not bode well for the future of humanity.

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Researchers from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) at the University of Melbourne used data from the last 40 years to compare to predictions made by the authors of the 1972 book Limits to Growth.” They focused on what the original authors termed the “business-as-usual” (BAU) or “standard run” scenario, collating it to what has actually happened since the publication.

Just two years after the globe celebrated its first Earth Day in 1970, Italian think tank Club of Rome commissioned researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by husband-and-wife team Donella and Dennis Meadows, to build a computer model to track the world’s economy and environment. They looked at industrialization, population, food, use of resources and pollution through 1970.

“The task was very ambitious,” Graham Turner, the MSSI paper’s lead author, and Cathy Alexander, a research fellow at the institute, wrote in The Guardian. “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… the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario.”

Turner and his associates sought to update the BAU scenario with information covering 1970 to 2010, gathered from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2014; and elsewhere. They plotted the data alongside the ‘Limits to Growth’ scenarios.

“These graphs show real-world data (first from the MIT work, then from our research), plotted in a solid line,” Turner and Alexander wrote. “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.”

The results were almost exactly as the MIT researchers had predicted.

Source: Graham Turner, ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute

“The message of [Limits of Growth] is urgent and sobering,” the Amazon book description said. “The earth's interlocking resources -- the global systems of nature in which we all live -- probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology.”

“It contains a message of hope, as well: Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and has production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance,” the summary added.

The MSSI paper, called ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, outlined how the BAU scenario would play out:

The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.

“The issue of peak oil is critical,” the two researchers noted in The Guardian. They also said that the global recession of 2007 to 2008 ‒ and the “ongoing economic malaise” since ‒ could indicate the first stages of decline.

Yet Turner and Alexander said they believe there is the potential for mankind to change its current path, for better or for worse.

“Our research does not indicate that collapse of the world economy, environment and population is a certainty. Nor do we claim the future will unfold exactly as the MIT researchers predicted back in 1972,” they wrote. “Wars could break out; so could genuine global environmental leadership. Either could dramatically affect the trajectory.”

“But our findings should sound an alarm bell. It seems unlikely that the quest for ever-increasing growth can continue unchecked to 2100 without causing serious negative effects – and those effects might come sooner than we think,” the researchers cautioned.