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The Return of The Limits to Growth

40 years after, "The Limits to Growth" is back in the news. Sooner or later, someone had to notice that the economic crisis that we are seeing all around us is something that eerily reminds the "base case" scenario of the old Limits study of 1972. Someone did, eventually. Here is a comment of mine on the event.
- Ugo Bardi

Recently, the web has been abuzz over an MIT study predicting 'global economic collapse' by 2030. Ugo Bardi, who recently published the book The Limits to Growth Revisited, shares his views on this study and its implications.
- Financial Sense editor

limits to growthThis year, we have reached the 40th anniversary of the controversial study, "The Limits to Growth," originally conducted in 1972. It was sponsored by the think-tank called the "Club of Rome" and performed by a group of researchers at MIT, led by Dennis Meadows, using the most powerful computers of the time. Using data going back hundreds of years they created a long term model of major global trends taking into account resource depletion, birth and death rates, population growth, pollution, and food per capita (see image).

It was a bold attempt using innovative methods that showed the economic growth experienced up to that time would be impossible to maintain beyond the first few decades of the 20th century. It was not a prophecy of doom, but a warning that included ways and methods to avoid the decline indicated by the calculations. But it was not understood. After a moment of intense interest that lasted a few years and led the study to become well known with the general public, there came a strong negative reaction. In the 1980s and 1990s, the study was attacked, demonized, and ridiculed in all possible ways. With the apparent end of the oil crisis, in the late 1980s, the ensuing general wave of optimism consigned the Limits study to the dustbin of "wrong" scientific ideas; together with the dinosaurs of Venus and the evolution of the giraffes' necks according to Lamarck. Urban legends on the "mistakes" of the Limits study are still common today, despite being just that: legends.

But, with the turn of the century, the general attitude seems to be changing. In 2004, some of the authors of the original "Limits" published "Limits to Growth; The 30-Year Update", confirming the result of the earlier, 1972 study. In 2011, Ugo Bardi published "The Limits to Growth Revisited" (Springer ed.) which reviewed the whole story of the study, from its inception, the demonization and the new trend of reappraisal. In 2008, the Australian physicist Graham Turner1 had compared real world data to the "base case" scenario of the orginal 1972 study, finding a good agreement; an impressive result taking into account that the scenario spanned more than three decades! These are just examples of a return of interest in the old Limits which is now perceived as more and more relevant to us, especially in view of the ongoing economic crisis.

Today, with the 40th anniversary of the first book, the return of interest in the Limits seems to be literally exploding. On March 16, 2012, the Smithsonian magazine published a comment, citing Turner's work.2 The Smithsonian piece has been taken up on April 4 by Eric Pfeiffer on Yahoo news3, which seems to be the first appearance of the study in mainstream news in the 21st century (by April 5, it had more than 13,000 comments!). Unfortunately, Pfeiffer's piece is full of imprecisions and mistakes. Among these, Pfeiffer states that "This post has been edited to reflect that MIT has not updated its research from the original 1972 study," which is not true: the study was updated two times, in 1992 and in 2004. Then Pfeiffer  says that "the study said 'unlimited economic growth' is still possible if world governments enact policies and invest in green technologies that help limit the expansion of our ecological footprint," while the study said exactly the opposite: that unlimited economic growth is impossible, but that green technologies and other forms of policy could at most avoid the collapse.

Pfeiffer's text shows how difficult it is, still today, to understood the Limits study. Nevertheless, it is an important milestone of the public's realization that certain trends taking place are unsustainable. The renewed diffusion of the study might lead to reconsider the ideas proposed as ways to avoid collapse in the 1972 study (and reiterated in the later editions). We lost 40 years that could have been used to prepare for what we are seeing happening today in the world's economy but, perhaps, it is not too late to do something to reduce the impact of the crisis. The future can never be exactly predicted, but we can be prepared for it and the old Limits study, and its later versions, can greatly help us at that.


1 Graham Turner (2008). "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality". Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

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