Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse

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

Piles of crushed cars at a metal recycling site in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Piles of crushed cars at a metal recycling site in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Alamy

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.


It is frightening in a way, and this is a rather urgent problem.  Generally we have a media system that does little to present this sort of problem to the public.  The entire socio-economic and political basis of this nation is set up to avoid confronting these problems.
What appears to have covered our tails so far is the hydraulic fracturing and other techniques that get hydrocarbons from previously stranded sources.  We would be 5 years onto sliding down our backsides on the leeward side of the Hubbert curve without that.  The one problem is that the cost per unit of resource captured has increased.  Meadows, Meadows and Randal indicated this, but their analysis was somewhat simple.  What is starting to happen is a type of chaotic dynamics of a strange attractor system.  The system is driven forwards by the ability to produce more energy, but has more attenuation as well due to the added costs and the fluctuations in production that result. 
I think that as a result we are entering some sort of plateau to these curves with unpredictable fluctuations that ride around over some average value.  This may persist for a few decades, maybe a half century, before the actual collapse.  This will not be an entirely enjoyable situation to be in for most people.  It may not be the sort of die-off scenario of the actual collapse, but it will be a condition marked by rapid changes in markets, employment availability, prices and resources and services people can access.  
I am not sure how far we can push our situation out.  We face a growing series of difficulties of this sort.  Global warming will probably severely crimp agricultural production.  We may get around that problem by using the next “superfood,” which I think could be insects.  We could end up using pheromone traps and sacrificial crops to capture insects that are processed into food.  This might help for a time, but in the end we are climbing up an energy cliff and the attenuation is also greater.  We are traveling up a sort of chaos ladder of greater energy and greater difficulty, complexity and cost.  How long we can keep trekking up this exponential ramp is anyone’s guess.  Once you have a tiger by the tail you can’t let go, but holding on is problematic.
It will be led by water shortages and the impact on agriculture.  This will be exacerbated by extreme weather.

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.

Christine Hansen

I think the source of our potential or impending collapse will be “all of the above.”  Go to the periodic table of elements and point to the lighter elements, the S and p shell atoms etc, and we have seriously perturbed the natural cycles concerning the majority off them, or elementary molecules of them.  Of course we have the carbon problem with CO_2 in the air, and what is not so often mentioned is that we are depleting carbon in the organic form.  We have seriously perturbed the nitrogen cycle on the planet.  The sulfur cycle now appears fouled up as well since hydrogen sulfide bacteria is starting to proliferate.  H_2S bacteria seems to have been prevalent with the Permian extinction period.  The phosphorous cycle is messed up and we are depleting that; remember that phosphorous is important with nucleotides.  The fresh water problem indicates we have fouled up the hydrological cycle on the planet.  The pH of the oceans is decreasing to the acidic side and with some heavier atomic elements we have created problems with mercury and lead and so forth.  With resources we are at “peak copper,” hematite we get iron from the best ores in Minnesota and Australia used to be 45% iron, and that is now down to less than 25%.  Depletion of available iron is a looming problem.  
I could go on considerably with this of course.  I think in the end we humans are not that collectively more intelligent than bacteria or molds.  Of course we are a lot more complex, and we are performing a far more complex version of the mold on the agar plate experiment.  In a coarse grained sense we are doing the same thing bacteria do; we are blindly heading to depletion and die-off.  Of course there are some human beings who see the problem and absolutely no bacteria see the problem from a global perspective.  Yet in the end we have government run by what Eddy Bernays saw
If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.
which is in the end an oligarchy.  It matters little whether a few wider minded people see the problem.  This is pretty much how things have always been run, and in the dark age after this collapse it will be no different.  

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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