A ‘doomsday’ book that launched a movement

There is a consensus that most of the fundamentals discussed in ‘The Limits to Growth’ have come true

There is a consensus that most of the fundamentals discussed in ‘The Limits to Growth’ have come true

Fifty years ago a book was published with the title The limits to growth, written by a group of economic modellers, was published as part of a project on humanity’s predicament. The project was sponsored by the Club of Rome, an organization founded in 1968 mainly by an Italian industrialist, Aurelio Peccei, and composed of leaders from different fields of human activity. The Club grew out of the concept of problematique, namely that the growing global problems of, among others, environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, pollution, overpopulation, inequality, ill health, crime, war and religious beliefs, which harm the human well-being are interconnected and require a systems approach. This data-driven study was developed by the System Dynamics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Donella H. Meadows. It used a first-generation computer and codes and was ahead of its time in its methodological approach. But what stunned people back then was the astonishing conclusion that the world system could collapse by 2070, given human-induced environmental changes combined with traditional economic growth models. The report, which recommended adjusting the growth model rooted in the overexploitation of finite natural resources, was also a wake-up call for action, as we don’t have much time to lose.

Predictions

This book quickly became a subject of fierce criticism for its “doomsday” prediction. The dissertation’s lead author denied the allegations, saying it was not written to “predict doom, but to challenge people to find ways of life that conform to the laws of the planet.” About the conclusions of this book, the magazine Nature, in its lead article of March 10, 1972, reflecting the cynicism that prevails among academic circles towards the book, called it “Another Whiff of Doomsday.” The earlier “window of judgment” referred to another book, World Dynamics, by JW Forrester of MIT, which first developed the computer code for systems analysis and was a precursor to The limits of growth. The critics in those early days, when computer knowledge was minimal, said the book’s conclusions were inconclusive and that the authors ignored what they believed to be the self-correcting abilities of Earth’s systems.

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But they were unaware of the tipping points in a complex system — the thresholds where a small change can push a system into an entirely new state. This is because the scientific validity of tipping points came much later. The stable environmental conditions of the past 10,000 years, called the Holocene, helped humanity thrive, but with the exponential increase in the rate of change, we would soon reach the tipping point. Human activities, unprecedented in the geological past, soon dominated the natural forces in shaping the environment.

50 year trend

We are almost halfway through the 100 years predicted in The limits to growth, and there is a consensus that most of the fundamentals discussed in the book have materialized. Given the exponential population growth in parts of the world, the pressure on precious natural resources has become acute, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. The trendline presented in The limits to growth indicated that the world population could exceed seven billion by the turn of the century. The formally available number for the year 2000 was 6.11 billion, not counting the errors of underestimating the population in many poor countries. The formal number is now 7.9 billion. The population of impoverished regions of the world has increased.

Technology has indeed made incredible strides over the past half century. The report showed that the process of economic growth, structurally based on the Gross National Product (GDP) as a sign of growth, is inexorably widening the absolute gap between rich and poor along with the number of undernourished people. Not a single trend projected in the book has gone off the rails in nearly 50 years. This realization is reflected in Nature‘s editorial of March 16, 2022, commemorating the book’s 50th anniversary, and calls for discussions at the global level about GDP-based measures of economic performance.

When The limits to growth was first published, environmental awareness was minimal and there were huge knowledge gaps about the problems associated with pollution. This book was the first to address the issue of pollution, including the rising level of carbon dioxide emissions from the use of conventional energy sources. The natural sciences later proved that the computer models of the relationship between environmental degradation and quality of life introduced in The limits of growth, were fundamentally correct. For example, almost coinciding with the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Johan Rockström and others, in a September 24, 2009 editorial, in Nature, warned that we do not have the luxury of treating each of the planetary boundaries separately as they are linked. This means that if Amazon forests are drastically reduced, it could affect the stability of mountain glaciers in distant Tibet. Scientific research has shown how humanity has already transgressed three processes of the Earth’s system – climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle – and is rapidly approaching the limits for global freshwater use, land use change and ocean acidification.

Opposing concepts

The limits to growth human perception of important existential issues in the second half of the 20th century. This seeps through to the present time. Ultimately, the book advanced the “concept of a society in a stable state of economic and environmental equilibrium” and recognized that it requires a “Copernican revolution of mind” to achieve those goals. More importantly, it implicitly helped to cast doubt on current economic models, which are purely GDP-based, which encourage debauchery, depletion of non-renewable resources and rising emissions. Conflicting concepts like “de-growth” and “post-growth” are gaining traction among economic thinkers to address biophysical processes such as climate change. But political thinkers believe that monumental challenges exist, as de-growth societies are organized around fundamentally different cultural, social, economic, political and technological concepts compared to those organized around the ideology of growth, both from the capitalist as well as the marxist point of view of the vision. Even parts of Gandhian principles, including the concept of human cooperatives, become important in the context of de-growth options. Such as The limits to growth emphasizes, the question is not just “whether the human species will survive, but whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence”.

CP Rajendran is adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and author of the book ‘Earthquakes of the Indian Subcontinent”

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