Limits to Growth

cartoon never run out of anything argument

Below are links or excerpts of articles about limits to growth

James Howard Kunstler. June 1, 2015. Twenty-Three Geniuses. Scientists vindicate ‘Limits to Growth’ – urge investment in ‘circular economy’

Early warning of civilizational collapse by early to mid 21st century startlingly prescient.

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

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.

As the MIT researchers explained in 1972, growing population and demands for material wealth would lead to more industrial output and pollution. Resources are being used up at a rapid rate, pollution is rising, industrial output and food per capita is rising. The population is rising quickly.  So far, Limits to Growth checks out with reality. So what happens next?  According to the book, to feed the continued growth in industrial output there must be ever-increasing use of resources. But resources become more expensive to obtain as they are used up. As more and more capital goes towards resource extraction, industrial output per capita starts to fall – in the book, from about 2015. As pollution mounts and industrial input into agriculture falls, food production per capita falls. Health and education services are cut back, and that combines to bring about a rise in the death rate from about 2020. Global population begins to fall from about 2030, by about half a billion people per decade. Living conditions fall to levels similar to the early 1900s.  It’s essentially resource constraints that bring about global collapse in the book. However, Limits to Growth does factor in the fallout from increasing pollution, including climate change.

The issue of peak oil is critical. Many independent researchers conclude that “easy” conventional oil production has already peaked. Even the conservative International Energy Agency has warned about peak oil. Peak oil could be the catalyst for global collapse. Some see new fossil fuel sources like shale oil, tar sands and coal seam gas as saviors, but the issue is how fast these resources can be extracted, for how long, and at what cost. If they soak up too much capital to extract the fallout would be widespread.

Exhaustion of cheap mineral resources is terraforming Earth – scientific report.

Soaring costs of resource extraction require transition to post-industrial ‘circular economy’ to avoid collapse. 

June 4, 2014. Nafeez Ahmed. The Guardian.

A new landmark scientific report drawing on the work of the world’s leading mineral experts forecasts that industrial civilisation’s extraction of critical minerals and fossil fuel resources is reaching the limits of economic feasibility, and could lead to a collapse of key infrastructures unless new ways to manage resources are implemented.

The peer-reviewed study – the 33rd Report to the Club of Rome – is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, where he teaches physical chemistry. It includes specialist contributions from fifteen senior scientists and experts across the fields of geology, agriculture, energy, physics, economics, geography, transport, ecology, industrial ecology, and biology, among others.

The Club of Rome is a Swiss-based global think tank founded in 1968 consisting of current and former heads of state, UN bureaucrats, government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders.

Limits to Growth–At our doorstep, but not recognized

February 6, 2014. Gail Tverberg

How long can economic growth continue in a finite world? This is the question the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows sought to answer. The computer models that the team of researchers produced strongly suggested that the world economy would collapse sometime in the first half of the 21st century.

I have been researching what the real situation is with respect to resource limits since 2005. The conclusion I am reaching is that the team of 1972 researchers were indeed correct. In fact, the promised collapse is practically right around the corner, beginning in the next year or two. In fact, many aspects of the collapse appear already to be taking place, such as the 2008-2009 Great Recession and the collapse of the economies of smaller countries such as Greece and Spain. How could collapse be so close, with virtually no warning to the population?

Reaching Limits to Growth: What Should our Response Be?

February 17, 2014 Gail Tverberg

Oil limits seem to be pushing us toward a permanent downturn, including a crash in credit availability, loss of jobs, and even possible government collapse. In this process, we are likely to lose access to both fossil fuels and grid electricity. Supply chains will likely need to be very short, because of the lack of credit. This will lead to a need for the use of local materials.

Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever

April 29, 2011.  Jeremy Grantham, the Chief Investment Officer of GMO Capital (with over $106 billion in assets under management). Mr. Grantham began his investment career as an economist with Royal Dutch Shell and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Sheffield (U.K.) and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. His essay, reformatted for TOD, is below the fold. (Original, on GMO Website, here)

Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil

In the 1970s a rising world population and the finite resources available to support it were hot topics. Interest faded—but it’s time to take another look

Charles A. S. Hall and John W. Day, Jr. May-June 2009. American Scientist, Volume 97, pp 230-37.

Some excerpts from this excellent paper:

“Despite our inattention, resource depletion and population growth have been continuing relentlessly. Our general feeling is that few people think about these issues today, but even most of those who do so believe that technology and market economics have resolved the problems. The warning in The Limits to Growth —and even the more general notion of limits to growth—are seen as invalid. Even ecologists have largely shifted their attention away from resources to focus, certainly not inappropriately, on various threats to the biosphere and biodiversity. They rarely mention the basic resource/human numbers equation that was the focal point for earlier ecologists.

Although many continue to dismiss what those researchers in the 1970s wrote, there is growing evidence that the original “Cassandras” were right on the mark in their general assessments.

There is a common perception, even among knowledgeable environmental scientists, that the limits-to-growth model was a colossal failure, since obviously its predictions of extreme pollution and population decline have not come true. But what is not well known is that the original output, based on the computer technology of the time, had a very misleading feature: There were no dates on the graph between the years 1900 and 2100. If one draws a timeline along the bottom of the graph for the halfway point of 2000, then the model results are almost exactly on course some 35 years later in 2008 (with a few appropriate assumptions). Of course, how well it will perform in the future when the model behavior gets more dynamic is not yet known. Although we do not necessarily advocate that the existing structure of the limits-to-growth model is adequate for the task to which it is put, it is important to recognize that its predictions have not been invalidated and in fact seem quite on target. We are not aware of any model made by economists that is as accurate over such a long time span.

technology does not work for free. As originally pointed out in the early 1970s by Odum and Pimentel, increased agricultural yield is achieved principally through the greater use of fossil fuel for cultivation, fertilizers, pesticides, drying and so on, so that it takes some 10 calories of petroleum to generate each calorie of food that we eat. The fuel used is divided nearly equally between the farm, transport and processing, and preparation. The net effect is that roughly 19 percent of all of the energy used in the United States goes to our food system. Malthus could not have foreseen this enormous increase in food production through petroleum.

Together oil and natural gas supply nearly two-thirds of the energy used in the world, and coal another 20 percent. We do not live in an information age, or a post-industrial age, or (yet) a solar age, but a petroleum age.

Most environmental science textbooks focus far more on the adverse impacts of fossil fuels than on the implications of our overwhelming economic and even nutritional dependence on them. The failure today to bring the potential reality and implications of peak oil, indeed of peak everything, into scientific discourse and teaching is a grave threat to industrial society.

The concept of the possibility of a huge, multifaceted failure of some substantial part of industrial civilization is so completely outside the understanding of our leaders that we are almost totally unprepared for it.

There are virtually no extant forms of transportation, beyond shoe leather and bicycles, that are not based on oil, and even our shoes are now often made of oil. Food production is very energy intensive, clothes and furniture and most pharmaceuticals are made from and with petroleum, and most jobs would cease to exist without petroleum. But on our university campuses one would be hard pressed to have any sense of that beyond complaints about the increasing price of gasoline, even though a situation similar to the 1970s gas shortages seemed to be unfolding in the summer and fall of 2008 in response to three years of flat oil production, assuaged only when the financial collapse decreased demand for oil.

No substitutes for oil have been developed on anything like the scale required, and most are very poor net energy performers. Despite considerable potential, renewable sources (other than hydropower or traditional wood currently provide less than 1 percent of the energy used in both the U.S. and the world, and the annual increase in the use of most fossil fuels is generally much greater than the total production (let alone increase) in electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaics. Our new sources of “green” energy are simply increasing along with (rather than displacing) all of the traditional ones.”

Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?

October 2000. Matthew R. Simmons

In the early 1970’s, a book was published entitled, The Limits To Growth, a report of the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. Its conclusions were stunning. It was ultimately published in 30 languages and sold over 30 million copies. According to a sophisticated MIT computer model, the world would ultimately run out of many key resources. These limits would become the “ultimate” predicament to mankind.

Over the past few years, I have heard various energy economists lambast this “erroneous” work done. Often the book has been portrayed as the literal “poster child” of misinformed “Malthusian” type thinking that misled so many people into believing the world faced a short mania 30 years ago. Obviously, there were no “The Limits To Growth”. The worry that shortages would rule the day as we neared the end of the 20th Century became a bad joke. Instead of shortages, the last two decades of the 20th Century were marked by glut. The world ended up enjoying significant declines in almost all commodity prices. Technology and efficiency won. The Club of Rome and its “nay-saying” disciples clearly lost!

The critics of this flawed work still relish in pointing out how wrong this theory turned out to be. A Foreign Affairs story published this past January, entitled Cheap Oil, forecast two decades of a pending oil glut. In this article, the Club of Rome’s work was scorned as being the source document which led an entire generation of wrong-thinking people to believe that energy supplies would run short. In this Foreign Affairs report, the authors stated, “….the “sky-is-falling school of oil forecasters has been systematically wrong for more than a generation.

What the Limits to Growth Actually Said

After reading The Limits to Growth, I was amazed. Nowhere in the book was there any mention about running out of anything by 2000. Instead, the book’s concern was entirely focused on what the world might look like 100 years later. There was not one sentence or even a single word written about an oil shortage, or limit to any specific resource, by the year 2000.

The group all shared a common concern that mankind faced a future predicament of grave complexity, caused by a series of interrelated problems that traditional institutions and policy would not be able to cope with the issues, let alone come to grips with their full context. A core thesis of their work was that long term exponential growth was easy to overlook. Human nature leads people to innocently presume growth rates are linear. The book then postulated that if a continuation of the exponential growth of the seventies began in the world’s population, its industrial output, agricultural and natural resource consumption and the pollution produced by all of the above, would result in severe constraints on all known global resources by 2050 to 2070.

The first conclusion was a view that if present growth trends continued unchanged, a limit to the growth that our planet has enjoyed would be reached sometime within the next 100 years. This would then result in a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The second key conclusion was that these growth trends could be altered. Moreover, if proper alterations were made, the world could establish a condition of “ecological stability” that would be sustainable far into the future.

The third conclusion was a view that the world could embark on this second path, but the sooner this effort started, the greater the chance would be of achieving this “ecologically stable” success.


Brown, J., et al. January 2011. Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. Bioscience Vol 61 no. 1

In just a few thousand years the human population has colonized the entire world and grown to almost 7 billion. Humans now appropriate 20% to 40% of terrestrial annual net primary production, and have transformed the atmo- sphere, water, land, and biodiversity of the planet (Vitousek et al. 1997, Haberl et al. 2007). For centuries some have questioned how long a finite planet can continue to sup- port near-exponential population and economic growth (e.g., Malthus 1798, Ehrlich 1968, Meadows et al. 1972). Recent issues such as climate change, the global decline in population growth rate, the depletion of petroleum reserves and resulting increase in oil prices, and the recent eco- nomic downturn have prompted renewed concerns about whether longstanding trajectories of population and eco- nomic growth can continue (e.g., Arrow et al. 2004).

Economic growth and development require that energy and other resources be extracted from the environment to manufacture goods, provide services, and create capital. The central role of energy is substantiated by both theory and data. Key theoretical underpinnings come from the laws of thermodynamics: first, that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, and second, that some capacity to perform useful work is lost as heat when energy is converted from one form to another. Complex, highly organized systems, including human economies, are maintained in states far from thermodynamic equilibrium by the continual intake and transformation of energy (Soddy 1926, Odum 1971, Georgescu-Roegen 1977, Ruth 1993, Schneider and Kay 1995, Hall et al. 2001, Chen 2005, Smil 2008). Empirically, the central role of energy in modern human economies is demonstrated by the positive relationship between energy use and economic growth (Shafiee and Topal 2008, Smil 2008, Payne 2010).

Increased energy supply. The sources of energy that may be used to support future economic growth include finite stocks of fossil fuels as well as nuclear, renewable, and other proposed but unproven technologies. Fossil fuels currently provide 85% of humankind’s energy needs (figure 5), but they are effectively fixed stores that are being depleted rapidly (Heinberg 2003, IEA 2008, Hall and Day 2009). Conventional nuclear energy currently supplies only about 6% of global energy; fuel supplies are also finite, and future developments are plagued by concerns about safety, waste storage, and disposal (Nel and Cooper 2009). A breakthrough in nuclear fusion, which has remained elusive for the last 50 years, could potentially generate enormous quantities of energy, but would likely produce large and unpredictable socioeconomic and environmental consequences. Solar, hydro, wind, and tidal renewable energy sources are abundant, but environmental impacts and the time, resources, and expenses required to capture their energy limit their potential (Hall and Day 2009). Biofuels may be renewable, but ecological constraints and environmental impacts constrain their contribution (Fargione et al. 2008). More generally, most efforts to develop new sources of energy face economic problems of diminishing returns on energy and monetary investment (Hall et al. 1986, Tainter 1988, Allen et al. 2001, Tainter et al. 2003).

The nonlinear, complex nature of the global economy raises the possibility that energy shortages might trigger massive socioeconomic disruption. Again, consider the analogy to biological metabolism: Gradually reducing an individual’s food supply leads initially to physiological adjustments, but then to death from starvation, well before all food supplies have been exhausted. M ainstream economists historically have dismissed warnings that resource shortages might permanently limit economic growth. Many believe that the capacity for technological innovation to meet the demand for resources is as much a law of human nature as the Malthusian- Darwinian dynamic that creates the demand (Barro and Sala-i-Martin 2003, Durlauf et al. 2005, Mankiw 2006). However, there is no scientific support for this proposition; it is either an article of faith or based on statistically flawed extrapolations of historical trends. The ruins of Mohenjo Daro, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, the Maya, Angkor, Easter Island, and many other complex civilizations provide incontrovertible evidence that innovation does not always prevent socioeconomic collapse (Tainter 1988, Diamond 2004).


We are by no means the first to write about the limits to economic growth and the fundamental energetic constraints that stem directly from the laws of thermodynamics and the principles of ecology. Beginning with Malthus (1798), both ecologists and economists have called attention to the essential dependence of economies on natural resources and have pointed out that near-exponential growth of the human population and economy cannot be sustained indefinitely in a world of finite resources (e.g., Soddy 1922, Odum 1971, Daly 1977, Georgescu-Roegen 1977, Cleveland et al. 1984, Costanza and Daly 1992, Hall et al. 2001, Arrow et al. 2004, Stern 2004, Nel and van Zyl 2010. Some ecological economists and systems ecologists have made similar theoretical arguments for energetic constraints on economic systems (e.g., Odum 1971, Hall et al. 1986). However, these perspectives have not been incorporated into mainstream economic theory, practice, or pedagogy (e.g., Barro and Sala-i-Martin 2003, Mankiw 2006), and they have been downplayed in consensus statements by influential ecologists (e.g., Lubchenco et al. 1991, Palmer et al. 2004, ESA 2009) and sustainability scientists (e.g., NRC 1999, Kates et al. 2001, ICS 2002, Kates and Parris 2003, Parris and Kates 2003, Clark 2007).

Excerpts from: Carolyn Lochhead. 4 Jan 2014. Critics question desirability of relentless economic growth. San Francisco Chronicle.

“We are approaching the planet’s limitations. So when I see the media barrage about buying more stuff, it’s almost like a science fiction movie where .. we are undermining the very ecological systems which allow life to continue, but no one’s allowed to talk about it.”  Annie Leonard, founder of the Story of Stuff project, a Berkeley-based effort to curb mass consumption.

Ecologists warn that economic growth is strangling the natural systems on which life depends, creating not just wealth, but filth on a planetary scale. Carbon pollution is changing the climate. Water shortages, deforestation, tens of millions of acres of land too polluted to plant, and other global environmental ills are increasingly viewed as strategic risks by governments and corporations around the world.

Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily

As the world economy grows relentlessly, ecologists warn that nature’s ability to absorb wastes and regenerate natural resources is being exhausted. “We’re driving natural capital to its lowest levels ever in human history,” Daily said.

The physical pressure that human activities put on the environment can’t possibly be sustained,” said Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily, who is at the forefront of efforts across the world to incorporate “natural capital,” the value of such things as water, topsoil and genetic diversity that nature provides, into economic decision-making.

For example, scientists estimate that commercial fishing, if it continues at the present rate, will exhaust fisheries within the lifetime of today’s children. The global “by-catch” of discarded birds, turtles, and other marine animals alone has reached at least 20 million tons a year.

Mainstream economists universally reject the concept of limiting growth.

As Larry Summers, a former adviser to President Obama, once put it, “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.”

Since World War II, the overarching goal of U.S. policy under both parties has been to keep the economy growing as fast as possible. Growth is seen as the base cure for every social ill, from poverty and unemployment to a shrinking middle class.  Last month, Obama offered a remedy to widening income inequality: “We’ve got to grow the economy even faster.”

U. C. Berkeley’s Energy & Resources Richard Norgaard: We don’t have to have a free-market economy

Economies are not fixed and unchangeable.  The United States had a centrally planned economy in World War II, then a mixed Cold War economy that built the Interstate Highway System and established social welfare programs like Medicare. Today’s more free-market economy took root in the 1980s.

“Economies aren’t natural,” Norgaard said. “We build them to do what we need to do, and we built the economy we have.”


Cassandra’s curse: how “The Limits to Growth” was demonized

March 9, 2008, Ugo Bardi

In 1972, the LTG study arrived in a world that had known more than two decades of unabated growth after the end of the Second World War. It was a time of optimism and faith in technological progress that, perhaps, had never been so strong in the history of humankind. With nuclear power on the rise, with no hint that mineral resources were scarce, with population growing fast, it seemed that the limits to growth, if such a thing existed, were so far away in the future that there was no reason to worry. In any case, even if these limits were closer than generally believed, didn’t we have technology to save us? With nuclear energy on the rise, a car in every garage, the Moon just conquered in 1968, the world seemed to be all set for a shiny future. Against that general feeling, the results of LTG were a shock.
The LTG study had everything that was needed to become a major advance in science. It came from a prestigious institution, the MIT; it was sponsored by a group of brilliant and influential intellectuals, the Club of Rome; it used the most modern and advanced computation techniques and, finally, the events that were taking place a few years after publication, the great oil crisis of the 1970s, seemed to confirm the vision of the authors. Yet, the study failed in generating a robust current of academic research and, a couple of decades after the publication, the general opinion about it had completely changed. Far from being considered the scientific revolution of the century, in the 1990s LTG had become everyone’s laughing stock. Little more than the rumination of a group of eccentric (and probably slightly feebleminded) professors who had really thought that the end of the world was near. In short, Chicken Little with a computer.
With time, the debate veered more and more on the political side. In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia, noted that the reaction against the LTG study had arrived from at least four different fronts. One was from those who saw the book as a threat to the growth of their businesses and industries. A second set was that of professional economists, who saw LTG as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters. The Catholic world provided further ammunition for the critics, being piqued at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of the major causes of the problems. Then, the political left in the Western World saw the LTG study as a scam of the ruling class, designed to trick workers into believing that the proletarian paradise was not a practical goal. And this by Nebbia is a clearly incomplete list; forgetting religious fundamentalists, the political right, the believers in infinite growth, politicians seeking for easy solutions to all problems and many others. – See more at:
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