Four decades after the book was published, Limit to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon
The 1972 book Limits to Growth, which predicted our civilisation would probably collapse some time this century, has been criticised as doomsday fantasy since it was published. Back in 2002, self-styled environmental expert Bjorn Lomborg consigned it to the “dustbin of history”.
It doesn’t belong there. Research from the University of Melbourne has found the book’s forecasts are accurate, 40 years on. If we continue to track in line with the book’s scenario, expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.
Limits to Growth was commissioned by a think tank called the Club of Rome. Researchers working out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including husband-and-wife team Donella and Dennis Meadows, built a computer model to track the world’s economy and environment. Called World3, this computer model was cutting edge.
The task was very ambitious. The team tracked industrialisation, population, food, use of resources, and pollution. They modelled data up to 1970, then developed a range of scenarios out to 2100, depending on whether humanity took serious action on environmental and resource issues. If that didn’t happen, the model predicted “overshoot and collapse” – in the economy, environment and population – before 2070. This was called the “business-as-usual” scenario.
The book’s central point, much criticised since, is that “the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods etc would eventually lead to a crash.
So were they right? We decided to check in with those scenarios after 40 years. Dr Graham Turner gathered data from the UN (its department of economic and social affairs, Unesco, the food and agriculture organisation, and the UN statistics yearbook). He also checked in with the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration, the BP statistical review, and elsewhere. That data was plotted alongside the Limits to Growth scenarios.
The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.
These graphs show real-world data (first from the MIT work, then from our research), plotted in a solid line. The dotted line shows the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario out to 2100. Up to 2010, the data is strikingly similar to the book’s forecasts.
Peak oil is important, but aquifer depletion and drought are likely to be felt sooner. Expect to see huge political crises in states with water issues– maybe even attempts to divide the states politically, or certainly drought/depletion refugees.
Human beings cannot work together most of the time to solve long-term problems. Of course our priorities are completely misplaced, and Mother Nature has been a far bigger “terrorist threat” than Islam or Communism. These priorities have been artificially created for reasons of profit and power, and these shortcomings in human nature are the reasons why it’s almost impossible to engage in long-term political planning.
What we are headed for will shake us up. Our descendents– however many of them manage to survive– will do things differently. At least until they feel safe again.
Our problem is really one of corruption. Of course everyone knows about the emerging problems of peak oil, aquifer depletion, and extreme weather events, but due to corruption, we can’t solve the problems in time. What will emerge from all this will probably be a multi-generational ethic that we currently don’t have, but desperately need.