Ahead of the first United Nations environmental summit in Stockholm in 1972, a group of scientists prepared The Limits to Growth report for the Club of Rome. It showed planet Earth’s finite natural resources cannot support ever-growing human consumption.
Limits used integrated computer modeling to investigate twelve planetary scenarios of economic growth and their long-term consequences for the environment and natural resources.
Emphasizing material limits to growth, it triggered a major debate. Authored by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, Limits is arguably even more influential today.
Limits considered population, food production, industrialization, pollution and non-renewable resource use trends from 1900 to 2100.
It conceded, “Any human activity that does not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or produce severe environmental degradation might continue to grow indefinitely”.
Most projected scenarios saw growth ending this century. Ominously, Limits warned of likely ecological and societal collapses if anthropocene challenges are not adequately addressed soon enough.
Failure would mean less food and energy supplies, more pollution, and lower living standards, even triggering population collapses.
But Limits was never meant to be a definitive forecast, and should not be judged as such. Instead, it sought to highlight major resource threats due to growing human consumption.
Gaya Herrington showed three of Limits’ four major scenarios anticipated subsequent trends. Two lead to major collapses by mid-century. She concluded, “humanity is on a path to having limits to growth imposed on itself rather than consciously choosing its own.”
Limits stressed the urgent need for radical transformation to achieve ‘sustainable development’. The ‘international community’ embraced this, in principle, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, two decades after Stockholm.
With accelerating resource depletion – as current demographic, industrial, pollution and food trends continue – the planet’s growth limits will be reached within the next half-century. The Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ is unavoidably shrinking.
For Limits, only a “transition from growth to…a desirable, sustainable state of global equilibrium” can save the environment and humanity.
The report maintained it was still possible to create conditions for a much more sustainable future while meeting everyone’s basic material needs. As Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
No other environmental work then, or since, has so directly challenged mainstream growth beliefs. Unsurprisingly, it attracted strong opposition.
The 1972 study was long dismissed by many as neo-Malthusian prophecy of doom, underestimating the potential for human adaptation through technological progress.
Many other criticisms have been made. Limits was faulted for focusing too much on resource limits, but not enough on environmental damage. Economists have criticized it for not explicitly incorporating either prices or socioeconomic dynamics.
In Beyond the Limits (1993), the two Meadows and Randers argued that resource use had exceeded the world environment’s carrying capacity.
Using climate change data, they highlighted the likelihood of collapse, going well beyond the earlier focus on the rapid carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere.
In another sequel, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004), they elaborated their original argument with new data, calling for stronger actions to avoid unsustainable excess.
Dennis Meadows stresses other studies confirm and elaborate Limits’ concerns. Various growth trends peak around 2020, suggesting likely slowdowns thereafter, culminating in environmental and economic collapse by mid-century.
Limits’ early 1970s’ computer modeling has been overtaken by enhanced simulation capabilities. Many earlier recommendations need revision, but the main fears have been reaffirmed.
Two key Limits’ arguments deserve reiteration. First, its critique of technological hubris, which has deterred more serious concern about the threats, thus undermining environmental, economic and other mitigation efforts.
As Limits argued, environmental crisis and collapse are due to socioeconomic, technological and environmental transformations for wealth accumulation, now threatening Earth’s resources and ecology.
Conventional profit-prioritizing systems and technologies have changed, e.g., with resource efficiency innovation. Such efforts help postpone the inevitable, but cannot extend the planet’s natural limits.
Of course, innovative new technologies are needed to address old and new problems. But these have to be deployed to enhance sustainability, rather than profit.
The Limits’ critique is ultimately of ‘growth’ in contemporary society. It goes much further than recent debates over measuring growth, recognizing greater output typically involves more resource use.
While not necessarily increasing exponentially, growth cannot be unlimited, due to its inherent resource and ecological requirements, even with materials-saving innovations.
This Earth for all
Thankfully, Limits’ fourth scenario – involving significant, but realistic transformations – allows widespread increases in human well-being within the planet’s resource boundaries.
This scenario has inspired Earth for All – the Club of Rome’s Transformational Economics Commission’s 2022 report – which more than updates Limits after half a century. Its subtitle – A Survival Guide for Humanity – emphasizes the threat’s urgency, scale and scope.
It argues that ensuring the well-being of all is still possible, but requires urgent fundamental changes. Major efforts are needed to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, empower women, and transform food and energy systems.
The comprehensive report proposes specific strategies. All five need significant investments, including much public spending. This requires more progressive taxation, especially of wealth. Curbing wasteful consumption is also necessary.
More liquidity – e.g., via ‘monetary financing’ and International Monetary Fund issue of more special drawing rights – and addressing government debt burdens can ensure more policy and fiscal space for developing country governments.
Many food systems are broken. They currently involve unhealthy and unsustainable production and consumption, generating much waste. All this must be reformed accordingly.
Market regulation for the public good is crucial. Better regulation – of markets for goods (especially food) and services, even technology, finance, labor and land – is necessary to better conserve the environment.
The report includes a modeling exercise for two scenarios. ‘Too Little Too Late’ is the current trajectory, offering too few needed changes.
With growing inequalities, social trust erodes, as people and countries compete more intensely for resources. Without sufficient ‘collective action’, planetary boundaries will be crossed. For the most vulnerable, prospects are grim.
In the second ‘Giant Leap’ scenario, the five needed shifts are achieved, improving well-being all around. Everybody can live with dignity, health and security. Ecological deterioration is sufficiently reversed, as institutions serve the common good and ensure justice for all.
Broad-based sustainable gains in well-being need proactive governance reshaping societies and markets. This needs sufficient political will and popular pressure for needed reforms.
But as the world moves ever closer to many limits, the scenario looming is terrifying: ecosystem destruction, gross inequalities and vulnerabilities, social and political tensions.
While regimes tend to bend to public pressure, if only to survive, existing discourses and mobilization are not conducive to generating the popular political demands needed for the changes.
Related IPS articles:
- Finance Global Green New Deal for Sustainable Development
- More Public Spending, Not Tax Cuts, for Sustainable, Inclusive Growth
- Finance Global Green New Deal for Sustainable Development
- Ensuring Shared Progress for Sustainable Development and Peace
- Is Sustainable Development Hindering Economic Recovery?
- Addressing Climate Change Through Sustainable Development
- A Global Green New Deal for Sustainable Development
This article was originally published on KSJomo.org.
(Hezri A Adnan is an environmental policy analyst and Fellow of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia. He is author of The Sustainability Shift: Reshaping Malaysia’s Future. Jomo Kwame Sundaram was an economics professor and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development.)