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Scientists vindicate 'Limits to Growth' – urge investment in 'circular economy'

The Earth has finite mineral resources, but humans are using them up faster than they can regenerate, with rising economic and environmental costs.

According to a new peer-reviewed scientific report, industrial civilisation is likely to deplete its low-cost mineral resources within the next century, with debilitating impacts for the global economy and key infrastructures within the coming decade.

The study, the 33rd report to the Club of Rome, is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence's Earth Sciences Department, and includes contributions from a wide range of senior scientists across relevant disciplines.

The Club of Rome is a Swiss-based global think tank consisting of current and former heads of state, UN bureaucrats, government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders.

Its first report in 1972, The Limits to Growth, was conducted by a scientific team at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), and warned that limited availability of natural resources relative to rising costs would undermine continued economic growth by around the second decade of the 21st century.

Although widely ridiculed, recent scientific reviews confirm that the original report's projections in its 'base scenario' remain robust. In 2008, Australia's federal government scientific research agency CSIRO concluded that The Limits to Growth forecast of potential "global ecological and economic collapse coming up in the middle of the 21st Century" due to convergence of "peak oil, climate change, and food and water security", is "on-track." Actual current trends in these areas "resonate strongly with the overshoot and collapse displayed in the book's 'business-as-usual scenario.'"

In 2009, American Scientist published similar findings by other scientists. That review, by leading systems ecologists Prof Charles Hall of State University of New York and Prof John W Day of Louisiana State University, concluded that while the limits-to-growth model's "predictions of extreme pollution and population decline have not come true", the model results are:

"... almost exactly on course some 35 years later in 2008 (with a few appropriate assumptions)... it is important to recognise that its predictions have not been invalidated and in fact seem quite on target. We are not aware of any model made by economists that is as accurate over such a long time span."

The new Club of Rome report says that:

"The phase of mining by humans is a spectacular but very brief episode in the geological history of the planet… The limits to mineral extraction are not limits of quantity; they are limits of energy. Extracting minerals takes energy, and the more dispersed the minerals are, the more energy is needed… Only conventional ores can be profitably mined with the amounts of energy we can produce today."

The combination of mineral depletion, associated radioactive and heavy metal pollution, and the accumulation of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel exploitation is leaving our descendants the "heavy legacy" of a virtually terraformed world:

"The Earth will never be the same; it is being transformed into a new and different planet."

Drawing on the work of leading climate scientists including James Hansen, the former head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the report warns that a continuation of 'business as usual' exploitation of the world's fossil fuels could potentially trigger runaway global warming that, in several centuries or thousands of years, permanently destroy the planet's capacity to host life. Despite this verdict, the report argues that neither a "collapse" of the current structure of civilisation, nor the "extinction" of the human species are unavoidable.

A fundamental reorganisation of the way societies produce, manage and consume resources could support a new high-technology civilisation, but this would entail a new "circular economy" premised on wide-scale practices of recycling across production and consumption chains, a wholesale shift to renewable energy, application of agro-ecological methods to food production, and with all that, very different types of social structures.

In the absence of a major technological breakthrough in clean energy production such as nuclear fusion – which so far seems improbable - recycling, conservation and efficiency in the management of the planet's remaining accessible mineral resources will need to be undertaken carefully and cooperatively, with the assistance of cutting-edge science.

Limits to economic growth, or even "degrowth", the report says, do not need to imply an end to prosperity, but rather require a conscious decision by societies to lower their environmental impacts, reduce wasteful consumption, and increase efficiency – changes which could in fact increase quality of life while lowering inequality.

These findings of the new Club of Rome report have been confirmed by other major research projects. In January last year, a detailed scientific study by Anglia Ruskin University's Global Sustainability Institute commissioned by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, found "overwhelming" evidence for resource constraints:

"... across a range of resources over the short (years) and medium (decades) term… Resource constraints will, at best, increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worse, trigger a long term decline in the global economy and civil unrest."

The good news, though is that "If governments and economic agents anticipate resource constraints and act in a constructive manner, many of the worst affects can be avoided."

According to Dr Aled Jones, lead author of the study and head of the Global Sustainability Institute:

"Resource constraints will, at best, steadily increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worst, could represent financial disaster, with the assets of pension schemes effectively wiped out and pensions reduced to negligible levels."

It is imperative to recognise that "dwindling resources raise the possibility of a limit to economic growth in the medium term."

In his 2014 report to the Club of Rome, Prof Bardi takes a long-term view of the prospects for humanity, noting that the many technological achievements of industrial societies mean there is still a chance now to ensure the survival and prosperity of a future post-industrial civilization:

"It is not easy to imagine the details of the society that will emerge on an Earth stripped of its mineral ores but still maintaining a high technological level. We can say, however, that most of the crucial technologies for our society can function without rare minerals or with very small amounts of them, although with modifications and at lower efficiency."

Although expensive and environmentally intrusive industrial structures "like highways and plane travel" would become obsolete, technologies like "the Internet, computers, robotics, long-range communications, public transportation, comfortable homes, food security, and more" could remain attainable with the right approach - even if societies undergo disastrous crises in the short-run.

Bardi is surprisingly matter-of-fact about the import of his study. "I am not a doomster," he told me. "Unfortunately, depletion is a fact of life, not unlike death and taxes. We cannot ignore depletion - just like it is not a good idea to ignore death and taxes…

"If we insist in investing most of what remains for fossil fuels; then we are truly doomed. Yet I think that we still have time to manage the transition. To counter depletion, we must invest a substantial amount of the remaining resources in renewable energy and efficient recycling technologies - things which are not subjected to depletion. And we need to do that before is too late, that is before the energy return on investment of fossil fuels has declined so much that we have nothing left to invest."

Part 1 of this story is available here

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