To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the landmark ‘Limits to Growth’ book, I contributed the below article to the Business Post. We are now precisely half way through the century modelled by the Club of Rome, and the conditions pointing towards the “sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial civilisation they projected to occur in the early to mid-21st century appear to be coalescing right on schedule. How could we have ignored such clear warnings? The answer may lie in the fantasy of infinite economic growth peddled by leading economists that has been accepted as not just rational, but inevitable, by governments around the world.
FIFTY YEARS ago this month, a book was published that caused a global firestorm of controversy. Titled ‘Limits to Growth’ (LtG) it warned that the century from 1972 would, on current growth trends, see the world reach and then breach key boundaries. These included food production, natural resources, pollution and population.
“The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”, the authors warned in a phrase that was a masterpiece of understatement. What they were in fact setting out was the probable collapse of global civilisation “sometime within the next 100 years”.
We are now at the half-way point in the century described by the authors in a book that was to sell over 30 million copies and help usher in the modern era of global environmental awareness. Is it now possible to ascertain if its gloomier prognostications have been debunked or borne out?
Commissioned by an academic think tank known as the Club of Rome, LtG developed novel computer models to simulate future growth pathways and the complex interactions between human and earth systems, using a program known as World3.
From the dawn of the consumer age in the early 1950s, it has long been an article of faith among mainstream economics that infinite growth was not merely possible, but inevitable and essential. After all, the accepted definition of a recession is where a given economy fails to grow during two consecutive quarters.
Since 1950, global economic output has grown eight-fold, an astonishing achievement, but one delivered at a fearsome ecological cost. Research recently published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre pinpointed four main areas in which human impacts have already breached Earth’s “safe operating space”. These are climate change, land-use change, loss of biosphere integrity and overload of chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
Endless growth may be seen as both desirable and inevitable, but the question LtG sought to answer is whether this, in a closed system is even possible. Noted 20th century US economist Kenneth Boulding once wryly quipped: “anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.
One of the reasons LtG, despite the huge attention it received on publication, failed to make a dent in the prevailing growth-led ideology is that it was roundly denigrated by influential economists such as William Nordhaus of Yale university.
Their main argument is that technological progress, combined with human ingenuity and resourcefulness are ultimately more important. If for instance, we run out of one resource, we can just switch to another, or invent an alternative. This “magic porridge pot” view of the Earth’s natural resources may seem far-fetched, but it is an article of faith among many neoclassical economists.
Research carried out by the University of Melbourne in 2012, to mark the 40th anniversary of LtG found the world tracking closely with the “business-as-usual” pathway in the 1972 book. While it did not at that time find evidence that collapse is underway, the researchers noted that LtG only projected this to begin to occur during the period 2015-2030, in other words, right about now.
“Our findings should sound an alarm bell. It seems unlikely that the quest for ever-increasing growth can continue unchecked to 2100 without causing serious negative effects – and those effects might come sooner than we think”, the Melbourne researchers noted. “If we continue to track in line with the book’s scenario, expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon”.
Last July, a Dutch researcher published an updated report on the projections in LtG, and it projected a global collapse by around 2040, assuming current trends continue. Gaya Herrington, an analyst with KPMG, noted that the MIT scientists involved in the original research did so in order to give time for societies to transition smoothly to a safer, sustainable future.
“That didn’t happen, so we’re now seeing the impact of climate change”, Herrington said. Her paper, titled ‘Beyond Growth’, argued that in the midst of a global slowdown and looming threats to future growth “from climate change, social unrest and geopolitical instability, to name a few, responsible leaders face the possibility that growth will be limited in the future. And only a fool keeps chasing an impossibility”.
While the main focus of the original LtG research was on resource depletion, the authors were also worried about pollution and its ability to destabilise the global climate. Their concerns on this front were entirely warranted.
As this week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has underlined, Earth systems are “perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible impacts”, in the words of UN secretary general, António Guterres.
While climate scientists warn that once global temperatures exceed the 1.5C and 2C thresholds, we will have likely passed the point of no return, the message still hasn’t truly resonated at a political and policy level, despite impressive rhetoric on climate action.
It seems inconceivable that such unambiguous red alerts from the global scientific community on matters affecting the lives and well-being of billions would go largely unheeded. The key to this puzzle may lie in the grip senior economists still exert on policymakers.
In accepting his 2018 Nobel prize in economics, LtG critic William Nordhaus stated that a global 4C temperature rise would be “optimal”, which he defined as the point at which the costs and benefits of mitigating climate change would be in balance. Unfortunately, science confirms that such a rise would also trigger the likely extinction of our species, along with millions of others, in a horrific mass global die-off event.
The stubborn inability of the politically influential social science of economics to grasp the immutable laws of physics is no mere academic peccadillo, it is now arguably a manifest threat to life on Earth.
As Californian environmentalist and author, Paul Hawken memorably described the chase for perpetual growth: “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present and calling it GDP”.