The Limits to Growth at forty: Is collapse now inevitable?

Mícheál O’Callaghan takes a look at the landmark study, The Limits to Growth, and how true its predictions were.

Mícheál O’Callaghan

Staff Writer

Forty years ago, a group of Scientists investigated what the world would look like if we continued on our path of exponential economic growth, with a continued growth in population, pollution and industry. The study resulted in the publishing of the eye opening book, The Limits to Growth, which would surely cause discomfort to even the most ardent of believers in the might of our growth dependent economic system.

The team of scientists inputted various sets of data, based on differing predictions relating to population, pollution and economic growth into the World 3 computer model, which made calculations about the future trajectory of economic growth, in relation to any potential limits to such growth and the consequences of surpassing these limits. In almost all models, where growth continued exponentially, population and industry went into sharp decline following peak.

The most revealing aspect of these models was that where growth continued, it eventually hit the natural and ecological limits to growth, where after it would undergo a steep rather than gentle and gradual decline, otherwise called a collapse.  Collapse resulted even in models where an account was made for a potentially greatly increased use of renewable and nuclear energies, aswell as higher farm yields or greater birth control. The underlying cause of this resultant collapse was the system of inter related feedbacks between the various aspects of the globalised system. For example, even when there was a great increase in renewable energies, collapse would eventually manifest itself due to increased population, soil erosion and general pollution.

A particularly realistic aspect of these models was that it factored in the delayed response of individuals to the signs of imminent limits, as it accounted for the probability that people would continue to consume and pollute past the sustainable limits of the particular model. Of course, in the real world, many people will continue to consume until it is no longer possible. Could the models have predicted the true extent of the inaction that we have witnessed in the face of the grave threats of climate change, peak oil and bio – diversity loss?

However, the study was not all doom and gloom. In a number of models, population and industrial growth were constrained, and as a result growth did in fact level out, rather than continue exponentially, resulting in a global collapse. The underlying message of the book was one of caution, as well as presenting a call of action to society. It showed the grave risks associated with continued, un – tapered, economic growth, but it presented a positive alternative where, if certain controls were put in place, people could live within the natural means of the planet and continue to benefit from the many advancements and developments of the industrial revolution, without the worry of impending collapse. According to the book, this collapse, if growth continued as it was then, could be expected within 100 years. Of course, forty years on, based on the book’s predictions, we can expect this collapse to manifest itself at some (uncertain) point in the next sixty years.

Has anything changed, and have we managed to divert from the path towards collapse in the intervening forty years? Pause and think about this for a second. It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to realise that little has changed since the first publication of The Limits to Growth. Our economic system is still entirely dependent on the need for long term economic growth to survive, our food, economic and social structures are less resilient than ever before, the effects of Climate Change are becoming more prevalent with increased natural disasters, and we are teetering on the brink of global peak production of oil, the very life blood of our globalised, growth dependent system. All the while, our political leaders continue dither to about fairly weak, verbal agreements to do something about this predicament. The recent talks in Durban were a clear example of this, with politicians stating that they will agree the terms of a new Climate Agreement by 2015 with it coming into effect by 2020. Effectively they are saying, “Yeah this is important, but let’s not deal with it right now.” This is in spite of the fact that the International Energy Authority, has recently stated that we have five years in which to act to avoid irreversible Climate Change. The new treaty, if they ever agree on one, won’t even have taken effect within five years!!

The team of Scientists behind The Limits to Growth have stated that they will not be engaging in a sequel to their study, as starting from current conditions, there is now no plausible assumptions other than over shoot. So, it doesn’t look particularly rosy in terms of avoiding collapse. However, there is still much that can be achieved to lessen the severity of our current predicament. While it may no longer be possible to attain a sustainable and manageable ‘tapering off’ of growth levels, there is still much that we can do to lessen the severity of the collapse.

On a personal level, the first step that a person needs to take is to be honest with themselves and realise that their future probably won’t pan out as they have been told, and continue to be told, by a society which is founded entirely on prolonged economic growth. There are many groups and individuals battling together to try to make their local communities more resilient in the face of this crisis. The Transition Network, founder by Rob Hopkins, is growing movement encouraging local towns and communities to come together to embrace the necessary transition to a low carbon, localised society, by providing opportunities and support for  the development of  the kind of low tech skills that will be necessary in these communities. GIY (Grow It Yourself), founded by Michael Kelly, is a fantastic organisation, with local groups around the country, which encourage and provide people with the support and information necessary to grow their own food. Countless other organisations around Ireland, and the Globe, are springing up, with the aim of embracing the end of economic growth, and making the transition to a low energy, localised lifestyle easier and more enjoyable for us all.

While the precise path of our future holds many uncertainties, we certainly know that it is not possible to continue on our current trajectory which aims towards perpetual economic growth. Unfortunately, however, our leaders seem locked in, perhaps trapped, by the complexities of the system. The change necessary for a smooth transition needs to come from within the individual and at a local, community level. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Best to start planning for an alternative future. We can’t say we weren’t warned!

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Good article. Yes, we can’t grow forever on a finite planet. Even if population stopped growing today, we have a major problem – growing consumption – as the developing nations move up the income and consumption curve.

    For those interested in more on population and overshoot, see:
    http://8020vision.com/2010/06/21/the-real-population-problem/

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childfreetown/ Alan

    We need to fund paid contraception starting in those towns where doing so is politically possible.

    Please read these petitions advocating municipal environmental
    contraception funding, which is increasingly politically realistic due
    to The Big Sort in more and more towns, and helps women’s right’s, quality of life, and school taxes as well as being at
    least 5 times more cost-effective than any other environmental effort.
    http://tinyurl.com/townBC2
    http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbyte/uswirestory.asp?id=12874
    http://tinyurl.com/towncontraception
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/condoms/condoms.shtml
    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000980387141
    http://action.biologicaldiversity.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=5999
    http://tinyurl.com/opcensor
    http://www.change.org/petitions/asheville-lgbt-rights-for-environment
    http://www.change.org/petitions/view/transfer_all_environmental_funds_to_contraception
    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/transfer-all-environmental-funds-to-contraception-especially-municipal/
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childfreetown/
    http://www.thebigsort.com/maps.php

    The prochoice and contraception movements are placing too high a priority on defensive actions in the red states when we should be going on the offensive, the side of “change”, in the blue states, and cities. The worst places
    will get even worse no matter what we do, but the unrealized political potential, the low hanging fruit, is in making the best places even better. This opportunity is being caused by The Big Sort. Mayors are not answerable to rural voters, unlike governors and presidents.
    http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?abbr=daily4_&page=NewsArticle&id=27823&security=1521&news_iv_ctrl=-1
    http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?abbr=daily4_&page=NewsArticle&id=27825&security=1521&news_iv_ctrl=-1
    http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbyte/uswirestory.asp?id=12891
    https://secure.ppaction.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=12828
    http://www.amplifyyourvoice.org/end_abonly
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5041388
    We americans love cars more than babies, Very soon we will have to choose, and we will choose cars..

    • bob

      And yet the Blue states and cities have chosen to become magnets for literally milions of illegal aliens. Best of luck in your own self destructive adventures.

  • http://www.postcarbon.org Tod Brilliant

    Mícheál -

    Congratulations on a well-stated overview of the conundrums we STILL face after 40 years of punching snooze on the alarm clock.

    If you’d like a copy of Richard Heinberg’s “End of Growth” (2011 New Society Publishers), contact me and I’ll send you one by post.

    Richard, along with Rob Hopkins and 26 others, are Fellows of the Post Carbon Institute, an organization dedicated to building local and global resilience. Worth checking out.

  • Rónán Burtenshaw

    Very good piece Mícheál.

  • i

    The short answer is yes. The timeframe is by 2100, give or take a decade. 7 billion+ people can’t continue to be supported if 160 exajoules of energy are removed from civilization in the form of energetically and economically profitable oil. The 1.4 trillion barrels of good oil we have left are gone in 40 years if current use trends continue. While, oil is only one third of the energy used by civilization, its impact is far greater, due to its concentrated use in transportation.

    In short No more cheap oil = no cheap transportation = no large scale affordable supply chains = systemic collapse.

    Cheers!

  • Mícheál Callaghan

    Thanks for the comments. Tod, I’ve been keeping up to date with the Post Carbon Institute and a number of other websites and organisations over the last couple of years. I’ve gone through a lot of the stages that go along with becoming aware of the dangers posed by peak oil etc. The toughest thing I find is answering the question “What can I do about it?” No matter how much I rack my brains and different people I talk to / different groups and websites I consult I always find myself confronted with the scary fact that, being a product of a civilisation and culture built on cheap oil, I’m completely maladapted for what lies ahead. However, I have become involved in groups such as the Transition Movement, and I’ve gradually been trying to teach myself some of the skills that will be necessary for the transition! I find Richard Heinberg’s work excellent – it would be great to read his book, “End of Growth”. Thanks.

  • Stilgar J. Kaperknoy

    Society has built itself on technological advancements to take advantage of energy dense fossil fuels. Like rabbits in the wild with ever increasing inputs, we have multiplied like rabbits, but also as humans we require so many resources. What an American consumes annually is directly comparable to that of a blue whale. 300 million blue whales of consumption. This is the oil age based on consumption of resources at a break neck speed, spurning growth without any thought or vision to where that growth was going. William Catton’s book is not much different than Richard Heinberg’s limits to growth. Catton’s was published 30 years ago, but the message is the same. We are running into limits to growth. But without any kind of acceptence of that idea, society simply barrels ahead to consume whatever resources are still available. We don’t take heed of a world oil production plateau in 05, because we found more natural gas in shale. In other words there is no consciousness of the real situation, just the continued pursuit of business as usual. When that is the state of mind then collapse is inevitable.