A Book for anyone concerned about Economic Growth
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 24 July 2009
The Limits to Growth was first published in the UK in 1972. It reflected the findings of a report commissioned in 1968 by thirty individuals from ten countries, including scientists, economists, educators, humanists, industrialists together with national and international civil servants. Out of the meeting, instigated by the Italian scholar and industrialist the late Dr Aurelio Peccei. Out of the commission grew the Club of Rome.
The commission was given to an MIT Project Team under the direction of Professor Dennis Meadows with financial support from the Volkswagen Foundation. The team's brief was to examine five basic variables that the Club of Rome considered would influence the shape of growth for planet earth in the foreseeable future. The five variables of growth were population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution.
The MIT team ran these variables through a computer model (World 3)which attempted to trace the interactive systems. The book is essentially an explantion of their findings. It starts with an explanation of the nature of exponential growth and highlights how people are much more familiar with the characteristics of linear growth and fail to appreciate the realities of the characteristics and speed with which exponential growth can develop in its more advanced stages. To illustrate the point, the book tells the famous story regarding the Persian courtier who presented a beautiful chessboard to his king. The king in turn was asked to give him one grain of rice for the first square of the board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third and so on. The king readily agreed thinking that this was a small price to show his appreciation. However, by the time you reach the 64th and final square of the board you would find you need 2(to the power 63) grains of rice. This represents well in excess of current world production!
When faced with exponential growth of population levels (in 1950 world population was approximately 2.5 billion and reached 6 billion in 2000) the demand for resources driven by economic growth puts extreme pressure upon those resources; it creates rising levels of pollution yet may actually create falling levels of per capita food production. In 1968 when looking out towards the year 2100, the MIT team ran the variables on World 3. Their broad conclusions were that however you run the numbers, the inter-relationship between these key variables eventually break down the system.
The key thrust of the argument was based upon the behaviour or exponential growth. When you slow the growth rate of a key variable, it may delay the negative feedback loop, but the delay under exponential conditions is less than most imagine. In other words, it doesn't buy you that much time.
The report was strongly criticised by systems theorists and economists and others at the time. It was considered to be 'doom-mongering' and forecasting catastrophe. In particular, there are those who either criticise the systems analysis as unsound or suggest that the model is too naive about the potential innovation and power of technological fixes. Such comments have some validity, but other criticisms such as suggestions that the book forecasts global catastrophe as a given, often reflect the fact that the critic has not actually read the book or failed to remember its contents. The book acknowledges that technological progress might solve some of the problems, but it suggests that putting faith in technological fixes (which may not happen) is a risk too great to take for humankind.
The tone of the book is a warning. It does not forecast a global catastrophe is inevitable. Rather it points to the real possiblities that the global system will break down if continual pressure is put upon non-replaceable natural resources (whether they be energy sources such as oil or coal, etc. or mineral resources such as copper, aluminium, iron, etc.) all of which are essential to economic industrial growth. It highlights the risks of rising pollution levels and the dilemna of food production. However, it also emphasises that if humanity acts now (1970s) then it could be possible to avert a catastrophe.
Reading this book at the beginning of the second millenium, the sceptic might feel that the forecasts of the Club of Rome were seriously wrong, since the world economic system is still growing (setting aside the financial crisis of 2008-2010). However, such a view ignores the amazing number of things that the report got right. Population is around the forecast figure of 6 billion plus and heading towards 8-12 billion by 2100. Non-replaceable raw materials are facing rising costs as demand from the BRIC economies of (Brazil, Russia, India and China) together with the rest of the world push these resources towards their peak levels. Deforestation of tropical forests, desertification of arable lands, increasing water shortages and destruction of water tables are all happening.
The good news is that more people are aware of the limits to growth on our planet than in the 1970s. Many organisations have come into being or grown in significance since that time to combat some of the problems highlighted in the study. However, the growth lines for population, industrial output, pollution, food production, etc. are still following the old patterns.
The book is clearly dated. However, it represents an important beacon for its time and one whose message of warning is even more relevant today than ever before. Furthermore, updated rewritings of the book and a review of how things looked in light of the passage of time were published by some of the original authors in 1993 and 2004 as 20 and 30 year updates.
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