Public Awakens to Limits of Growth

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Wed Apr 11 08:15:28 BST 2012

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Public Awakens to Limits of Growth

Ugo Bardi, financial Sense, 5th April 2012

Recently, the web has been abuzz over an MIT study predicting 'global 
economic collapse' by 2030. Ugo Bardi, who recently published the book The 
Limits to Growth Revisited, shares his views on this study and its 

This year, we have reached the 40th anniversary of the controversial study, 
"The Limits to Growth," originally conducted in 1972. It was sponsored by 
the think-tank called the "Club of Rome" and performed by a group of 
researchers at MIT, led by Dennis Meadows, using the most powerful 
computers of the time. Using data going back hundreds of years they created 
a long term model of major global trends taking into account resource 
depletion, birth and death rates, population growth, pollution, and food 
per capita (see image).

It was a bold attempt using innovative methods that showed the economic 
growth experienced up to that time would be impossible to maintain beyond 
the first few decades of the 20th century. It was not a prophecy of doom, 
but a warning that included ways and methods to avoid the decline indicated 
by the calculations. But it was not understood. After a moment of intense 
interest that lasted a few years and led the study to become well known 
with the general public, there came a strong negative reaction. In the 
1980s and 1990s, the study was attacked, demonized, and ridiculed in all 
possible ways. With the apparent end of the oil crisis, in the late 1980s, 
the ensuing general wave of optimism consigned the Limits study to the 
dustbin of "wrong" scientific ideas; together with the dinosaurs of Venus 
and the evolution of the giraffes' necks according to Lamarck. Urban legends 
on the "mistakes" of the Limits study are still common today, despite being 
just that: legends.

But, with the turn of the century, the general attitude seems to be 
changing. In 2004, some of the authors of the original "Limits" published 
"Limits to Growth; The 30-Year Update", confirming the result of the 
earlier, 1972 study. In 2011, Ugo Bardi published "The Limits to Growth 
Revisited" (Springer ed.) which reviewed the whole story of the study, from 
its inception, the demonization and the new trend of reappraisal. In 2008, 
the Australian physicist Graham Turner1 had compared real world data to the 
"base case" scenario of the orginal 1972 study, finding a good agreement; an 
impressive result taking into account that the scenario spanned more than 
three decades! These are just examples of a return of interest in the old 
Limits which is now perceived as more and more relevant to us, especially 
in view of the ongoing economic crisis.

Today, with the 40th anniversary of the first book, the return of interest 
in the Limits seems to be literally exploding. On March 16, 2012, the 
Smithsonian magazine published a comment, citing Turner's work.2 The 
Smithsonian piece has been taken up on April 4 by Eric Pfeiffer on Yahoo 
news3, which seems to be the first appearance of the study in mainstream 
news in the 21st century (by April 5, it had more than 13,000 comments!). 
Unfortunately, Pfeiffer's piece is full of imprecisions and mistakes. Among 
these, Pfeiffer states that "This post has been edited to reflect that MIT 
has not updated its research from the original 1972 study," which is not 
true: the study was updated two times, in 1992 and in 2004. Then Pfeiffer  
says that "the study said 'unlimited economic growth' is still possible if 
world governments enact policies and invest in green technologies that help 
limit the expansion of our ecological footprint," while the study said 
exactly the opposite: that unlimited economic growth is impossible, but 
that green technologies and other forms of policy could at most avoid the 

Pfeiffer's text shows how difficult it is, still today, to understood the 
Limits study. Nevertheless, it is an important milestone of the public's 
realization that certain trends taking place are unsustainable. The renewed 
diffusion of the study might lead to reconsider the ideas proposed as ways 
to avoid collapse in the 1972 study (and reiterated in the later editions). 
We lost 40 years that could have been used to prepare for what we are 
seeing happening today in the world's economy but, perhaps, it is not too 
late to do something to reduce the impact of the crisis. The future can 
never be exactly predicted, but we can be prepared for it and the old 
Limits study, and its later versions, can greatly help us at that.

1 Graham Turner (2008). "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty 
Years of Reality". Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research 
Organisation (CSIRO).

- -- 


"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burrough, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')

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