Limits to Growth

Limits to Growth

The 30-year Update

Book - 2004
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[This book] brings data on overshoot and global ecological collapse to the present moment. It provides a short course in the World3 computer model, types of growth, and the various kinds of over-shoot likely to occur in the current century. While it remains to be seen whether public policy will respond effectively and in time to problems such as climate change, this book makes compellingly clear the vital need for a sustainability revolution.-Dust jacket.
Publisher: White River Junction, Vt : Chelsea Green Pub., [2004]
Copyright Date: ©2004
ISBN: 9781931498517
Branch Call Number: 330.9 M4619L 2004
Characteristics: xxii, 338 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Additional Contributors: Randers, Jr̜gen
Meadows, Dennis L.


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Jul 27, 2018

Lack of integrity. This book follows up 30 years later on the authors scenario planning in the original “The Limits to Growth” published in 1973. This earlier book disclosed 13 different scenarios. 12 of those depicted an Apocalyptic Malthusian trap, where we would soon run out of non-renewable resources, food, and industrial production and population would crash. One single scenario was not so dire. It suggested a somewhat sustainable future. However, it entailed highly unrealistic assumptions such as zero population growth beyond 1975, zero industrial production growth beyond 1985. In summary, back in 1973 none of the 13 scenarios contemplated by the authors came anywhere near resembling our actual civilization as of 2018.

However, none of the above deterred the author to follow up with a later book. Instead of being embarrassed by their early failure, they instead claim a roaring success. On page XVIII of the introduction, they stated…

“For those who respect numbers, we can report that the highly aggregated scenarios of World3 still appear, after 30 years to be surprisingly accurate. The world in the year 2000 had the same number of people (about 6 billion-up from 3.9 billion in 1972) that we projected in the 1972 standard run of World3. Furthermore, that scenario showed a growth in global food production (from 1.8 billion tons of grain equivalent per year in 1972 to 3 billion in 2000) that matches history quite well.”

Now, if you go back to their Limits to Growth-1973 book (pg. 124), in the standard run scenario mentioned above, you will see no date besides 1900 and 2100. You will see a bunch of curves on that same graph with no figures. One of those curves depict population and another one shows food per capita. And, there is no way to provide any support to their two “surprisingly accurate” forecasts. Their related analysis of this specific scenario (pg. 124-127), no forecast numbers are mentioned. The book does disclose a population forecast of 6 billion by the year 2000 which was made 15 years before the authors. But, they will claim this accurate forecast as their own.

Within the remainder of their Limits to Growth-30 year update, they generate and update 10 scenarios that look like they just pushed all their curves 30 years out vs, their original scenarios. And, again the pattern of all but one scenarios appear for the most part catastrophic in the near future by the year 2050 or even earlier. These scenarios most often disclose reduction of 30% or more in life expectancy, industrial production, and population between 2000 and 2050. Meanwhile, all those indicators have steadily risen to the present.

The only scenario that is not associated with a reasonably imminent bad ending is Scenario 10 (pg. 248-249) that entailed unrealistically stable population and stable industrial output per person frozen at 1982 levels with huge improvements in pollution controls, energy efficiency, and agricultural enhancements. Given those unrealistic assumptions that we missed out anyway several decades ago, we would be in good shape. In other words, we are toast.

You would have hoped that in this book reviewing honestly their results published 30 years earlier they would have recognized they missed the mark by a wide margin and made efforts to improve their model. Instead, they claimed forecasting victory by ignoring their errors and claiming the forecast accuracy of others.

May 18, 2014

Limits To Growth was written by 3 MIT Systems Analysts and first published in 1972. A revised edition, Beyond The Limits, was published in 1992. This 30-year update presents the essential parts of the original analysis and summarizes some of the relevant data and insights acquired over the past 3 decades. The primary thesis is that we cannot continue to grow our economy infinitely on a finite planet; we are approaching Earth’s limits.

The authors do an excellent job of showing how different aspects of the human economy and Earth’s ecology inter-relate in a symbiotic relationship. Population, resources, industry, consumption, capital, agriculture, technology and pollution all affect each other in determining man’s ecological footprint. Delays in recognizing or responding to problems affect the outcomes of changes. The alarming effects of exponential growth, especially of population, are described. This is all viewed with a systems approach – clearly the only intelligent way to view these issues. A computer model, World3, is used to analyse the effects of 10 different scenarios. There are lots of graphs showing the effects of various actions. The first 8 scenarios all lead to “overshoot and collapse” before 2100. Scenario 9 presents a feasible approach to our problems that would have the world reach equilibrium by 2100. Scenario 10 shows what a huge difference it would have made if Scenario 9 had been adopted 20 years earlier in 1982 instead of 2002.

Of course, this book was written more than 10 years ago and the human race still has not made a significant whole-world effort to address our growing ecological footprint. We will very soon run out of time to address these issues with any hope of reducing our footprint or reversing the damage we have done to the Earth and the climate.

The authors look not only at technical and economic issues but also place suitable emphasis on human, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual considerations. The last chapter, “Tools for the Transition to Sustainability” compares the coming necessary Sustainability Revolution to the 2 previous revolutions of similar magnitude – the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The book concludes with a list of 5 “soft” tools that will be just as essential as the data and systems analysis and computer modeling – Visioning, Networking, Truth-Telling, Learning and Loving.

The writing in the book is clear and understandable but prosaic and a bit “flabby”; the prose would benefit from being tightened up.

One is left with the feeling that there is just barely time to rebalance our relationship with the Earth’s ecosystems but it will require huge human and political will and a huge effort by everyone everywhere - soon. The question is “are we capable of doing that in time?”.


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