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Michael Jacobs & Xhulia Likaj explains why, on its 50th anniversary, the Club of Rome's landmark report is more relevant than ever

Public Policy / opinion
Michael Jacobs & Xhulia Likaj explains why, on its 50th anniversary, the Club of Rome's landmark report is more relevant than ever
Green cityscape

Fifty years ago this spring, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century was published. Written for the Club of Rome by Donella Meadows and colleagues at MIT, The Limits to Growth used new computer models to forecast an uncontrollable collapse in the global population and economy if prevailing patterns of environmental resource use and pollution continued. Exponential economic growth could not go on forever; at some point in the next 100 years, it would inevitably run up against Earth’s finite environmental limits.

A half-century later, with a climate and environmental crisis upon us, the debate triggered by The Limits to Growth has returned with a vengeance.

In 1972, the book came under immediate fire from economists who claimed that its authors failed to understand basic economics. If a resource becomes scarce, its price will rise, they pointed out. Other resources will then be substituted for it, and it will be used more efficiently. Technological innovation will lead to new, cleaner methods of production. Far from leading to social collapse, economic growth was thus self-correcting – not to mention the only way for countries to develop out of poverty.

So confident were mainstream economists that The Limits to Growth was wrong that one of them, Julian Simon, made a bet with the environmentalist Paul R. Ehrlich about the price of five metals over the following decade. Ehrlich bet that their prices would rise as they became scarcer, Simon predicted that they would become cheaper as other materials were substituted for them. Simon won the bet on all five.

But the scarcity of metals – or even fossil fuels – was never really what The Limits to Growth was about. As ecological economists Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly pointed out, the reason physical limits to growth exist is that the planet’s biosphere cannot grow exponentially. Cut down trees faster than they can grow, and deforestation will result. Take more land for agriculture, and species will disappear. Pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than it can be absorbed, and the planet will heat up.

Simon may have won his ten-year bet, but over the past half-century the predictions in The Limits to Growth have proven remarkably robust. More recent scientific research has shown that, for a range of core life-support systems – including the climate – we are fast approaching, or in some cases may now have exceeded, the “planetary boundaries” within which humanity can safely prosper.

Mainstream economists recognise this, of course. But they note that economic growth is measured in terms of national income and output (GDP), and there is not a simple relationship between these indicators and environmental degradation. Using renewable energy, recycling waste, and shifting consumption from goods to services can make economic growth much less environmentally damaging. We can therefore have “green growth”: higher living standards and a healthier environment, too. Over the past decade, green growth has become the official objective of all the major multilateral economic institutions, including the World Bank and the OECD.

Rich countries’ CO2 emissions have indeed fallen in recent years, even as their economies have grown. But much of this apparent decoupling of GDP growth from environmental damage has been achieved by transferring emissions to China and other emerging economies that now produce most manufactured goods. And in other areas – including deforestation, fish stocks, and soil depletion – there has been little or no absolute decoupling. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Environment Program have been warning with ever-growing urgency, the world is still headed for environmental disaster.

What must be done to avert it? To an increasingly prominent group of environmentalists, the answer is obvious: Developed economies need to stop growing and start contracting. Only “degrowth,” say authors such as Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, can enable the world to live within its environmental means and leave enough resources for the poorest countries to develop.

Moreover, the degrowthers argue, economic growth is not only environmentally unsustainable but also fails to make us better off. GDP growth in rich countries, they observe, is now correlated with multiple social problems, from rampant inequality to growing mental ill-health.

Unsurprisingly, the economic debate between advocates of green growth and degrowth is also a political argument between pro- and anti-capitalist ideologies. Partly for this reason, a third position – “post-growth” – has emerged in recent years.

Proponents of post-growth economics criticise both green growthers and degrowthers for focusing on GDP. Since GDP does not measure environmental degradation or social well-being, neither growth nor degrowth of it should be a primary economic goal. In a recent report for the OECD, a panel of leading economists argue that economic policy should focus instead on society’s paramount objectives – which in the richer countries today should be environmental sustainability, improved well-being, declining inequality, and greater economic resilience.

Because none of these objectives can any longer be guaranteed by economic growth, policymakers need to go “beyond growth” to target them directly. As Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, puts it, we should be “growth-agnostic.”

A key reason for the rise of post-growth ideas is that advanced economies have in recent years had trouble growing at all. Previously normal 2-3% annual increases in GDP have been largely out of reach, with even modest growth sustained only by ultra-low interest rates and huge injections of central bank money.

Economists puzzle over why this is, but recent economic sluggishness certainly makes it easier to contemplate low rates of growth brought on by environmental policy, if that is indeed what would happen. One does not have to be an environmentalist to recognise the overwhelming priority of curbing the economy’s destructive impact on Earth’s climate and environment.

The Limits to Growth was widely dismissed a half-century ago. Had that not happened, we wouldn’t need to be having the debate again today.


Michael Jacobs, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sheffield, England, is a co-author of Growth, Degrowth or Post-Growth? (Forum for a New Economy, 2022). Xhulia Likaj, an economist at Forum New Economy in Berlin, is a co-author of Growth, Degrowth or Post-Growth? (Forum for a New Economy, 2022). Copyright 2022 Project Syndicate, here with permission.

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53 Comments

It's always seemed a bit fishy that for the last few decades the key drivers of growth is in services or other intangible factors.

Almost like they made up the money to pay for the made up output.

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Oh dear , the " Club of Rome " ... 50 years of getting it wrong , and they're still at it ... their gloom ridden angst is only bested by the Malthusians , 222 years of being on the wrong side of human inventiveness  & ingenuity  ...

... little steps , baby steps , we're transitioning ...

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From my perspective the article has a better grip on reality.

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GBH,

 little steps , baby steps , we're transitioning ...   yes, but to what? Can we agree that the earth does not have an infinite supply of raw materials to be dug up, processed, transported and then put to some use?

 human inventiveness  & ingenuity  ... indeed and it can be very impressive, but it's surely not infinite. You seem to foresee a world which doesn't need to compromise with nature or any limits to growth and i beg to differ. I see a world which will, in time, exist very comfortably with less-fewer material objects.

Then of course, though you don't want to hear it, a rapidly changing climate will have a say-a big say-in how and where we live.

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Off planet hopefully.  

The alternative really is too awful to contemplate, degrowthers forecast the deaths of 7+billion people if we limit ourselves to Earth.  

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Hate to break it to you, but yeah, every single one of us is going to die. The difference will be in the numbers that aren't born, and that is already happening, led by people choosing fewer births, later births and for many none at all.

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I never quite understood the argument against limits to growth. It seems to rely on two core assumptions:

 - exponential growth is sustainable, and can be carried on in perpetuity. We don't yet know how, but some smart guy is bound to figure it out for us before it's too late. This evidenced by the fact that;

 - we haven't hit a limit yet, which is proof that we never will

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We live in an infinite universe. 

 

 

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The funny thing about your reckon is that reviews of the Limits to Growth projections in the early 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s confirm that we are on the business as usual track from the Limits to Growth projections.

But why let facts get in the way of your reckons?

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If they think that mental health issues are caused by growth anxiety, just wait and see what a shrinking economy does to mental health.

 

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If human mental wellbeing relies on consuming ever more mountains of crap as we destroy everything around us, then we don't deserve to survive as a species. 

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But what meaning is there to life if it's not buying more stuff?

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What Jason Hickel and others also note is that growth has been unequal. The wealthiest few per cent of the population in most developed countries now consume vastly more resources than everyone else - ever faster cars, bigger homes, multiple appliances, boats, numerous flights etc. We could dramatically improve the quality of life of most of the population, whilst reducing consumption and environment damage, by simply distributing the resources we have more fairly. 

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Almost all population growth is occuring in countries which aren't yet industrialised while in countries that are industrialised populations are falling. We just need to stop immigration between them to expedite the process.

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It is ambitious in the extreme to think that we can 'stop immigration' as the developing world gets unbearably hot and poor.

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We can still have growth even with finite fossil and environmental resources, we just need to reduce the human population. That's why every country should have a population policy.

Also there is abundant clean energy available through Uranium and Thorium.

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... the one thing that appears to moderate population growth most successfully is ( drum roll , tah da da da ) : Educate females !

Wherever women get equal rights , ability to study , jobs ... equality  , education ... they unshackle themselves from domesticity , and get career focused  ... 

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What happens to any countries or regions that disagree and do not cooperate with depopulation? Will this not end up in genocide in one form or another.

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... yes ... all those ghastly population control measures from the past have failed utterly ... from one child policies , forced sterilizations , genocide  , infanticide : horrid beyond belief ...

The simplist system works best :

FFF : Freedom For Females ! ... education , full equal rights for girls & gals ... 

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I think its funny how no one in this cult feels the need to prove causality. We have a model that is 50 years old and it predicted doom from one cause starting about now and leading to declines in next 20 years. It should be undeniable that we are reaching peak resource extraction without hope of recovery but only the cultist can see anything like that. For example, we have had a peak oil scare before why is there not one now?

I also disagree on the causality here: "even modest growth sustained only by ultra-low interest rates and huge injections of central bank money".

My other thought is it's always dumb and malevolent to harm people because of a computer models predictions that can't be otherwise rationalised (they are nearly always wrong). Anyone proposing we starve people because of a 50 year old widely discredited model should be removed from having any influence. Look how bad covid modelling and policy from it has been and that's relatively trivial.

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It's an interesting point, you always has to ask what would validate or nullify your hypothesis. What is meant by collapse, how will you measure it?

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The model used for LTG produced a plot predicting a collapse in resource extraction, food per capita other industrial production and then later massive population collapse. Some of the lines very loosely fit with our current situation but any sane person would attribute this to credit cycles, the pandemic or many other possibles. No one in the cult feels the need to demonstrate causality or rerun the model!! If you actually believe this stuff and are serious you should be updating the model and rerunning it you still have the old less accurate one to fall back on to prove you haven't made it up.

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They have updated (and improved) the model and there are more recent, but not as well known books. All say the same thing, the LTG models were surprisingly accurate

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Where's the "github" model? why does PDK not share those plots? (they could be in vectorised colour)

I understand you might want to monetise it but this is hiding it away so the cult knows it will never be read.

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"For example, we have had a peak oil scare before why is there not one now?" Probably should ask that question of people lining up at the world's petrol pumps?

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Where's the proof of causality. Its just over 50 rubles per liter in Russia. LTG is not geopolitical.

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You don't think growth in greenhouse emissions is heating the planet? You don't think growth in agriculture has destroyed whole ecosystems? You don't think industrial growth is releasing more toxins into the biosphere? Do you even understand the definition of causality? 

 Russia is not the planet. It's trying to hawk as much oil as it can, because its market has shrunk!  

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-31/russia-offers-oil-to-india-at-steep-discount-to-pre-war-price

Shutting down oil wells can seriously affect future performance. It's cheaper to keep them flowing and give the oil away!

https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/The-Major-Problem-With-Shutting-Down-Oil-Wells.html

 

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The model is: the limits to growth computer simulation that produced a few plots for different scenarios. When we get too far away from the plots this has nothing to do with the "cult". It's primarily about running out of resources we need to keep people alive. Without the model you they have nothing novel and no real intellectual authority. Do you understand that you are trying to defend the validity of a computer model and simulation?

PDK might be able to tell how much pollution factors into the model but none of the outputs are about the ecosystem and anything to do with geopolitics is outside the scope of the model. If we run out of resources so oil get expensive everywhere not just after sudden sanctions in certain places.

I have never seen anyone in the "cult" show any real understanding of the limitations of computer models especially one as ambitious as this.

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Geopolitics outside the scenarios? That's the whole point of having 12 different scenarios. To cover more bases. Can every base be covered? Obviously not, but that's not what's important. The BAU standard run model has a good fit with real world data 50 years on. Of course it's not meant to be a crystal ball. We may nuke ourselves tomorrow, making all the models redundant, as I don't recall any of them leading to extinction? Just like any organism, humans rely on extracting finite natural resources around them to live. There is nothing special about this. The only difference in humans is, our mythology that we are the chosen ones. Religion, economism, call it what you like, physics just doesn't care! 

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Of course all the bases cant be covered, yet the cult still produces time series values with dates that should be accurate. If you are producing multiple outputs so you can switch between them due to geopolitical factors that are not part of the model this is fraud but the cult has not tried to do this yet.

We are all humans who, I would think instinctually, worry about running out of resources all the time (such as beer for the weekend) but the model timeline aint credible enough to be on this list. Again why do you not think you need to show any causality here.

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If members of the growth cult can't understand that when finite resources are used, the stockpile grows smaller, regardless of "geopolitics", I would suggest this may indicate an intellectual issue with growthists?

 

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Cult cult cult cult cult cult

sounds like denial denial denial denial denial denial

Shoot-the-messenger 101

:)

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This is happening I just can't worry about it every day and when I do I trust serious competent people to stay alert for it and manage it. The cult offers nothing, even less than government bureaucracy. There was a lesson somewhere The Boy Who Cried Wolf that I am think could be relevant here.

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Indeed, it's safe to assume there'll always be plenty of cedars in Lebanon for us to all use as we wish.

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petrol was 25 pence/litre last time i was in Syria.  What's that got to do with peak oil?  Individual countries can still put a production surplus to poor use even while at a global level production is declining.

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by tim52 | 19th May 22, 4:37pm

Where's the "github" model? why does PDK not share those plots? (they could be in vectorised colour)

Here's is the model on github -> https://github.com/cvanwynsberghe/pyworld3

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If only the growth cult didn't externalise the degradation they have caused. Global heating, biodiversity collapse, ubiquitous forever chemicals, human fertility collapse, microplastics found everywhere, declines in ore grades/quality of hydrocarbon deposits, deforestation/soil loss....   "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know."

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The "LTG cult" are the people who believe in the ("sacred") model and "evangelize" it. Especially those who believe we should take any action directly based solely on the output.

Don't retreat back to the completely non-novel pollution is bad, we should look after our productive land or we are eventually going to run out of oil. I expect the vast majority accept this and look to serious people for answers.

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Bollocks Tim

You've had enough put in front of you, to have learned.

You chose not to. If I hazard a guess as to why? I'd say: fear.

I sympathise - but emotions do not trump physics.And your logic is flawed; You haven't died yet, but you will, and before you get to 120. I can predict that with certainty - you are saying that because you haven't died yet, you won't ever. 

It's illogical. See it?

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We have been though this before PDK. Without the model you are not "preaching" anything novel. The exponential math is completely theoretical without it (you can't put units on the axes).

What logic? That if causality can't be shown, we can be skeptical to the point of considering it absolute rubbish. Could you get anymore religious or cultish than telling me I am afraid of my own death? lol i am going to able to drop the double quotes

Can the model tell me when I am going to die? Why can't the source code be released? Why can modeling not even get covid right or suggest useful policy?

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The growth cult solutions are pretty much limited to........ more growth. 

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The only cult around here is the the one that denies the accuracy of the Club of Rome modelling.

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There are limits to population. We should do out best not to find out where they are.

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Yep to many sheep in the paddock and no gate . I think people expect an obvious change to occur when limits are reached but it is likely more subtle than that the line will be blurred and a collapse will only be realised to have started by looking in the rear view mirror. A multitude of causal factors will all play a part and overpopulation is one of the main ones , countries need to realize exporting surplus population is not an option or a plan .

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Highly recommend people read "The Collapse of Complex Societies" by Joseph Tainter. Great breakdown of the limits to growth applied to analysis of societal decay/decomplexification or catabolic collapse in the past.

 

The LTG analysis is not wrong, the main problem is the solution set pursued by green types is always decreased energy usage, rather than transitioning to higher energy output. The Transition from Biomass (wood) to Coal to Oil to Electrical energy has been one of the most important things to the standard of living/productivity of society. We desperately need to transition to intensive use of Nuclear Energy to replace fossil fuels given the diminishing returns on oil extraction and the barrel scrapping on some minerals.

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"Simon may have won his ten-year bet" - but we changed parameters of the bet 20 years later to bolster our already weak argument.

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Bollocks.

As per usual, from a paid spin-doctor. Or a wannabe one....

Always separate the inevitable, from the yet-to-happen time guess. If you're removing money from a finite amount ina bank account, you will eventually go broke. Trying to guess the timing of that, given your erratic withdrawal history and not being sure of the original sum, is liable to be 'out'. Stating that you are not depleting the account, is a lie. Using the former to insinuate the latter, is weasel-territory.

 

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The Club of Rome / Malthus lot got it completely wrong. When people become wealthier, they can afford to start taking care of the planet. They can afford technological advancements that make certain technologies obsolete, or use resources more and more efficiently, or enable us to deal with pollution cost-effectively. Excluding those affected by war, and only speaking in aggregate, every society on earth is better off now than it was 50 years ago, economically and envionmentally.

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It's surprising then that rich countries' use of resources and production of carbon are so high per capita.

In aggregate, the environment is certainly not better off that 50 years ago.

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eh? The wealthy are the ones who contribute most to environmental degradation and use more resources. 

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/energy-use-per-capita-vs-gdp-per-capita?time=latest

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Have you heard of climate change - almost exclusively a disease of the wealthy.

 

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