The century of limits

August 9, 2021


We know much better some slogans that sell us that everything is possible, than the laws of thermodynamics, which govern our own nature and the limits that bound it. And so it goes. This is our frame of thought and from it derives some of our worst contradictions.

There is a story that is very interesting to share in order to talk about all this and that hides many clues about where we are now. In 1972, shortly before the first oil crisis and while computers were living their own prehistory, the Club of Rome -a recently founded scientific and cultural avant-garde organisation, which later has been key in the advancement of science and political ecology- commissioned a report from MIT in Massachusetts on the state of resources and the key variables to sustain our civilisation. System dynamics methodology had just begun to take its first steps, and its founder, Jay Forrester, developed several models to analyse the environment, resources, economy and population.

Almost five decades later, the incredible accuracy of the forecasts of the World3 model – a computer simulation programme – are an unparalleled milestone in terms of scientific anticipation.

It must be kept in mind that in reality there are an infinite number of interrelated variables that are impossible to take into account – such as the cultural/anthropological variables of a civilisation – and a complexity that no model can calibrate. However, in one of the many reviews that have been made of the MIT work, such as Graham Turner’s review in 2014, it was confirmed that this is probably one of the most impressive scientific works in the history of mankind. A few months ago, another review has reaffirmed its predictions.

Surely if the report was so visionary it must also have been acclaimed in its time, perhaps some people, who do not know what really happened, will think. Unfortunately, we know from previous experience that great minds that are somewhat ahead of their time often come under attack from those who are unable to understand them. The amount of criticism of both the report and its authors, led by biophysicist Donella Meadows, is so long and so ridiculous… that over the years it is better to draw a veil over it and forget it because it reveals nothing good about our species. We tend to deny the truth if it forces us to do something we don’t want to do. As the writer Upton Sinclair said:

it is very difficult for a person to understand something if his/her salary depends on his/her not understanding it.

You can imagine who launched the most virulent attacks on those scientists who said that the free market economy had to be limited, and soon, to avoid collapse, considering that they put forward these conclusions in the middle of the Cold War.  In fact the conclusion of the report was: if the current increase in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and exploitation of natural resources continues unabated, it will reach the absolute limits of growth on earth within the next hundred years. They were called all sorts of things by the mainstream media, which are usually subservient to the interests of the elite.

Right now our societies are slowly going through the well-known 5 stages of grief according to the model of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Most countries in the rich world – and the people in them – are in between the stages of denial and negotiation. The first and the third. The second is anger and there are many people who are also angry because they either don’t understand and blame a group of people for what is happening, or they don’t want to understand.

Denial because in the end very little is being done, much less than what is necessary. Negotiation because at least the energy transition plans (and the supposed Green New Deals) that run from Los Angeles to Beijing via Europe are a step. Slow, too slow and favouring the usual, but at least it is now clear that the problem is there and no one will dare again to, for example, impose a tax on the sun (as happened in Spain).

Now it is clear that it is the other way around.

What we should do is to finance these processes as if it were a war economy, because in the end it is. It is a war against ourselves and our capacity for self-destruction. Against our biological, evolutionary, always more, infinite expansion desire. And it is perfectly explainable if we think about our evolutionary development: we have become accustomed during thousands of years of evolution as hunter-gatherers to go from one place to another without worrying too much, only about the search for instant profit, which logically, after thousands of years of acting in this way, leaves its mark.

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Sometimes we exhausted our resources and went for the next bend in the vast land that hosted us. This process explains why later, when we became sedentary, in the overwhelming majority of cases of clashes of civilisations, we created conflicts with neighbouring peoples and later between states. It is in our DNA, we tend to reproduce ourselves and increasingly occupy and demand more space and resources. But there is an obvious paradox in this, our history…

Let’s say that in a finite terrain there are 10 civilisations, and 9 adapt to the limits, but there is one that does not and expands endlessly. In the long run, which one survives?

None of them.

The 9 that have adapted will be conquered, swept away by the one that cannot stop expanding and will therefore have a numerical and resource advantage, and therefore “of necessity”, will be the most brutal. Once it has conquered the rest, in the process it will have created the conditions necessary for its own doom. Because it will not know how to limit itself. Its individuals will be accustomed to continuing to speed up when it is time to slow down, unable by their “evolution” to constrain themselves to the limits that undoubtedly exist on a finite planet.

We could learn so much from this story: it is inevitable that we cooperate – create a species mentality – to reach agreements that are much more powerful than the Paris Agreements.

We need to tolerate and even love diversity, because it exists, it enriches us, and in any case, no one can dominate it. And we have little time left to resolve certain evolutionary disorders which, if we do not face up to them, will condemn us to very complex periods as a civilisation that could end in an abrupt collapse, as has already happened to so many civilisations (minimum 26). 

So what do we do? Well, if you remember, there are two stages of grief to go through: depression and acceptance. Depression sounds like an ugly word that nobody wants to talk about, but that is another of the disorders: as we are so used to competing for everything, we prevent ourselves from showing our weaknesses, from accepting our vulnerability, and by not doing so, paradoxically, we are much more vulnerable.

We have to assume that we have reached the century of limits, and the current model is no good for us. We have to plan and try to redistribute while reducing our impact.

We must also assume that – following the revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis – we must cooperate to prosper in a system in which we do not depend on growth that is already unsustainable.  It is possible. If it is at least talked about, there is hope.  


Teaser photo credit: Roman Forum ruins in Rome, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Juan Bordera Romá

Juan Bordera Romá is a screenwriter and journalist. He has worked on documentary, series, theater, radio and television projects. Has written for the main Spanish media such as CTXT, ElDiario, ElSalto or Público. Degrowth activist in Extinction Rebellion and the Transition Network.

Tags: building resilient economies, limits to growth, neoliberalism