Limits to Growth

The Limits To Growth

“The future is no longer what it might have been if humans had known how to use their brains and their opportunities more effectively. But the future can still become what we reasonably and realistically want.”

Aurelio Peccei,
Founder and 1st President of the Club of Rome, 1981


Growth in a finite world has limits.

We live in a finite world as do all living species. Most if not all species have an innate tendency to expand their populations in accordance with the available resources essential to support their existence. Whenever a population grows too large and overshoots its essential resource supply, that population collapses. It may recover and continue a cycle of growth and collapse, it may become extinct or it may adapt and evolve to fit a new resource environment. Humans have followed a path of growth and since the dawn of civilization, 10,000 years ago, that growth has been exponential, supported by innovation, fossil fuels and a genius for adaptation. As human population, consumption, pollution and extraction of non-renewable resources continue to grow it is inevitable that growth will at some point be constrained by limited availability of space, capacity and resources and feedback from the pollution overload of the natural systems we depend on. There are limits to growth. The question is: what are these limits in real terms, how far can humans mitigate or extend these limits and what is the consequence for humanity if limits are reached or indeed surpassed?

Limits to growth are encountered when consumption or utilization of a resource (Demand) reaches the available capacity of that resource (Supply). Simply put, when demand overshoots supply, limits are experienced. When finite resources – those we extract such as minerals and fuels, those that support us such as natural ecosystems and those that absorb and recycle our waste such as the atmosphere and the oceans – are exhausted, there will be consequences. Some resources are renewable but even then, most have some limiting factors such as growth rates, resilience, cost and collateral impacts.

In 1972 a small book was published called The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and her team of scientists. This book presented the results of a study designed to identify the inter-relationships between macro scale human activities as they grew over time. These macro scale activities included: population, industrial output, pollution, agricultural output and non-renewal resource utilization.

The behaviour of these activities under different assumptions of technological advances, new resource discoveries and mitigation efforts, such as self-administered population control, were considered. Analyses were made using the best computer simulation model available at the time. Taking into account the historical trends and future projections of these trends, the mathematical model was used to simulate future world situations for a variety of assumptions. Limits emphasized that the computer runs were not predictions of exactly when the effects of reaching some limit might occur but rather a look at the behaviour of the five macro-activities and their changes over time under different scenarios.

The authors concluded that unless the world stabilized the level of all human activity soon, preferably by 1975, there would be an eventual collapse of virtually all systems that constitute the current definition of civilization. The basic concept is simple. Human activity was and is following an exponential growth trajectory. Mathematics teaches us that unrestricted exponential increases in any real activity will always lead to collapse. Interestingly, even when unrealistic assumptions such as discovery of unlimited sources of fossil fuel or extraordinarily efficient new technologies were factored into the model there was only a short delay of system collapse. The book was a warning to humanity.

Subsequent books by the same authors entitled Beyond the Limits in 1992 and Limits to Growth, The 30 Year Update in 2004, expanded on the original work with up-to-date statistics and improved computer technology. These books not only confirmed the original projections but concluded that many of the worlds systems were already in a state of overshoot and without quick action, collapse was foreseeable in the next few decades.

Although this work by a group of scientists and system dynamics professionals was presented as an objective analysis of known systems using a known history and the best computational and systems analysis tools available, its implications were “earth shaking”. The political, economic and social implications for the established order of civilization were enormous and to many a major threat. Many people, most notably, economists and business people refused to accept the study’s basic message. Some went so far as to claim that there were no limits to growth whatsoever. Vested interests felt threatened and an orchestrated campaign was established to refute the study and its motives. Their campaign was successful.

And so here we are now forty years beyond the original publication and very little real progress has been made to deal with the warning that was sounded in 1972. Not surprisingly, current real trends in the five activities the Limits team studied suggest they are behaving much as the Limits to Growth book said they would. As they concluded, without changes in our behaviour, “ the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years (before 2075). The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”. Current studies and publications,for example Graham Turner’s “On the Cusp of Global Collapse and Chris Clugston’s many articles, all point to the inevitable collapse of civilization as we know it.


The Problem:

“All the evidence suggests that we have consistently exaggerated the contributions of technological genius and underestimated the contributions of natural resources. We need something we lost in our haste to remake the world: a sense of limits, an awareness of the importance of earth’s resources.”

—Stewart Udall,
Former US Secretary of the Interior, 1980

Humanity is hooked on growth! That’s the problem. The simple fact is that humanity and human civilization has been habituated to growth in various forms for a long time. Some cultures seem to place high value on family size and population growth. This is often spurred by a religious imperative. Others are more focused on economic growth. But, across the world, the growth mantra is pervasive. Businesses invariably plan for growth of the business and its profits. Their focus is to increase consumption of the goods and services they provide. Vast sums of money are spent on marketing and advertising which aim to create more demand and more consumption of goods and services regardless of whether there is a real benefit or real need to be served. Political discourse is dominated by economic growth. GDP, employment, housing starts, market prices, car sales, consumer confidence ad infinitem are all measured, studied, analyzed and projected in terms of growth. Growth is good, recession is bad. That is the current economic, political and cultural paradigm and it dominates on a global scale. Furthermore, growth is defined primarily in physical terms; population, production, economic activity, consumption and wealth. But in a physically confined world, physical growth will, (and in some areas already has), encounter limits. As illustrated in Limits the projections of unconstrained growth will be widespread systems collapse and the consequences of systems collapse are dire. According to Limits economic collapse will be brought on primarily by the need to divert an ever increasing share of industrial effort to the extraction of depleting resources and to the safe disposal of waste. (Two excellent books add to the conclusion of Limits, The race for What’s Left by Michael T. Klare and Scarcity – Humanity’s Final Chapter by Chris Clugston. ) The consequent reduction in the share of capital investment in social infrastructure (e.g., roads, public transport) and basic human needs for food, shelter and health care impoverishes much of the world’s growing population. Economic collapse is further exacerbated by the global debt-based monetary system which concentrates financial power in fewer hands while inflating the cost of basic goods and services.1

Bad as economic collapse might be, environmental collapse is projected to be worse. The physical degradation of our planet by overuse and pollution has consequences that threaten to make the world less able to sustain many species. Habitat loss from land use for growing populations and demand for resources is already causing biodiversity loss and extinction of many species. This in turn leads to a loss of essential ecosystem services, the life support services of the planet, on which we all depend. Climate change and the attendant ocean acidification forced by atmospheric and oceanic CO2 overload may lead the way in biodiversity loss. Many species will not be able to adapt to the new warmer earth and will become extinct. Such happenings if they continue, will eventually lead to a collapse of human population.2

In summary, our problem is that the growth of human presence has overpowered and degraded the capacity of our planet to sustain us and the biosphere on which we depend. Yet humanity continues to push for more growth while ignoring or even denying the obvious consequences. The irony is that the smartest animal that has ever walked the Earth may very well become extinct – unless we change our ways – by knowingly doing some dumb things, not the least of which is maintaining our infatuation with infinite economic growth.


The Solution

Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: The Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation, guided by the best foresight that science can provide. If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on earth.

—William D. Ruckleshouse,
1st head of the Environmental Protection Agency, USA. 1989

The solution is to end our addiction to material growth. In particular, we must end economic growth and reduce our consumption to sustainable levels as well as adapt to to the damage we’ve already done. Easily said; hard to do.

The structure of the prevailing human socioeconomic system is the fundamental reason the world as we know it is headed for collapse. This collapse will include our life supporting natural systems as pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss and resource depletion take their toll on our physical world. Human based systems such as economics, politics and governance will also collapse. But this doesn’t have to be. The solution, simply put, is to transform the way our civilization operates from the current growth/consumption paradigm to a sustainable, steady-state model.

The detailed specifics of what must change and some possible models of the resulting new order have been postulated by others – Limits to Growth – The 30-Year update – and will not be dealt with here. Suffice it to say; population stabilization or reduction, resource management and conservation, monetary system reform, energy use and production, food production and distribution as well as politics and governance will all have to change.

Current political and public discourse is heavily weighted toward economic growth as the solution to all socioeconomic problems. Growth and new technology are being counted on to save humanity from collapse. Unfortunately this so called “cure” is in fact the underlying cause of our problem.

Many people think that the answers to growth limits will be found in new technologies. It is true that without technical innovation civilization would have collapsed long before now. It is technology that permitted humanity to push beyond the physical limits to growth that existed over time. Technology has led the way for us to extract ever harder-to-get resources, to increase food production yields, to safely dispose of our waste and to protect us from much of nature’s wrath. Technology and human ingenuity have provided the means for civilization to grow and flourish for millenia. Technology has allowed humanity to grow its small presence in a large world. But now humanity is a large presence in a small world and the world is changing in response to our presence. As Limits pointed out, technology may provide some further short term postponement of collapse but time is short, the challenge is enormous and the signs are clear that too little is being done.3

It is likely that change of the order necessary to avoid collapse will have to be mandated at the political level and carried out by governments (the people; you and me). We now know that spontaneous adaptation and market forces alone cannot be counted on to generate change at the pace and of the magnitude required to avoid disastrous collapse. Political shifts usually follow rather than lead public perceptions. So the challenge to humanity is to become aware of the dangers we face and to demand political action.

Public attitudes towards the issues of the limits to growth would appear to range over a full spectrum of with the current distribution towards the wrong side of the range (Figure 1).

Public attitudes

Figure 1. Public attitudes towards the issues of the limits to growth is currently distributed towards the wrong side of the range.

For collapse to be averted and sufficient mitigating action to be deployed the distribution of public attitudes must shift substantially to the right of this spectrum.

But how does humanity shift its attitudes in the face of myriad, day-to-day problems facing people worldwide? The first action we need to address is our lack of understanding of the implications of demanding continuous growth on a planet with finite resources. Only then, when each of us understands the severity of our current situation, can we begin to seriously address the problem.

Will we act proactively, in a timely manner that gives us a chance at survival? Or will nature and uncontrollable events act with brute force to bring us in line with the limits of the Earth and with its accompanying potential of destroying civilization as we know it?

What we do know for certain is that growth will end. Again, the question is, will we choose to have some control over the process or will nature make the choice for us?

Growth will end . . . . That is certain
1 Stiglitz, J.E. 2012 The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. J.E., W.W. Norton & Company
2 Biodiversity Loss Is Worse than Climate Change.
3 Discovering limits to growth.


Climate change is linked primarily to economic growth and secondarily to population growth.

Do the Math – a physicist discovers Limits to Growth.

This issue of GAiA has a special focus on The Limits to Growth. Of particular interest is the paper by Turner, Graham M. (2012). On the Cusp of Global Collapse? An Updated Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Historical Data. Also recommended reading is the paper by Randers, Jorgen, The Real Message of the Limits to Growth – A Plea for Forward-Looking Global Policy

Bill McKibben, a prominent American environmentalist, writes that “the only world humans have known is suddenly reeling.” His solution: end economic growth. “On our planet, growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.”

Chris Hedges writes that we are getting worse off because of growth.

Gail Tverberg answers the question: Can we expect the economy to keep growing?

More from Gail Tverberg on why we are reaching limits to growth.

Biodiversity crisis is worse than climate change.

The Peak Oil Crisis: The International Energy Agency issues dire warnings. Says we must stop investing in carbon-dioxide emitting infrastructure.

A collection of research papers and articles explaining much of the practical realities of growth.

Population, Resources, and Energy in the Global Economy: A Vindication of Herman Daly’s Vision – market forces alone cannot solve the problems we face as a result of growth.


The Limits to Growth — Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III. The little book that was ignored at great peril.

Limits To Growth: The 30 Year Update — Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows. Limits are reviewed and confirmed with new input and observations.

The Limits to Growth Revisited — Ugo Bardi. Limits to Growth is validated by current situation.

The Fall: The Insanity of The Ego in Human History and The Dawning of A New Era — Steve Taylor. A different look at why civilization is in such a mess.

The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble For The World’s Last Resources — Michael T. Klare. Well researched review of the extremes of cost and technology that are being pursued to get the last remaining resources.

The End Of Growth: but is that all bad? — Jeff Rubin. Growth will end because it will no longer be affordable.

The End Of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality — Richard Heinberg. Civilization must face new realities and adapt to sustainability or else.

Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Decline – Richard Heinberg. It’s not just oil that’s peaking.

Scarcity: Humanity’s Final Chapter — Christopher O. Clugston. An account of the status of most non-renewable resources. Most are already scarce, that is, uneconomic to get.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference — Malcolm Gladwell. Small numbers doing the right thing at the right time may give humanity a chance.


What we need to know to meet the Sustainability Challenges of the Next Half Century

Warning to the People of Earth, Part 1 – Bill Rees

Warning to the People of Earth, Part 2 – Bill Rees

The true cost of oil

One Response to Limits to Growth

  1. James Russell Sterritt says:

    The counter to the trend is to end the concept of public property rights and replace it with the concept that all property is rightfully owned privately. Then it becomes obvious that increases in population reduce prosperity.

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