Limits to Growth: Inconvenient Truth of Our Times

Yves here. I am old enough to remember The Club of Rome’s book, The Limits to Growth, when it first came out, and the controversy surrounding it. The project was sadly discredited, even though it was clearly directionally correct, when the authors had to rework their model. The result was still that outcomes would be very bad, but would not show up as quickly as originally forecast. That allowed status quo defenders to screech that the model was already found to have problems, why should it be trusted, and even if so, we had plenty of time for magic technology and efficiency gains to save our collective hide.

By Adnan A Hezri, an environmental policy analyst, Fellow of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia, and  author of The Sustainability Shift: Reshaping Malaysia’s Future and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN Assistant Secretary General for Economic Development. Originally published at Jomo’s website

Ahead of the first United Nations environmental summit in Stockholm in 1972, a group of scientists prepared The Limits to Growth report for the Club of Rome. It showed planet Earth’s finite natural resources cannot support ever-growing human consumption.

Limits used integrated computer modelling to investigate twelve planetary scenarios of economic growth and their long-term consequences for the environment and natural resources.

Emphasizing material limits to growth, it triggered a major debate. Authored by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, Limits is arguably even more influential today.

Within Limits

Limits considered population, food production, industrialization, pollution and non-renewable resource use trends from 1900 to 2100.

It conceded, “Any human activity that does not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or produce severe environmental degradation might continue to grow indefinitely”.

Most projected scenarios saw growth ending this century. Ominously, Limits warned of likely ecological and societal collapses if anthropocene challenges are not adequately addressed soon enough.

Failure would mean less food and energy supplies, more pollution, and lower living standards, even triggering population collapses.

But Limits was never meant to be a definitive forecast, and should not be judged as such. Instead, it sought to highlight major resource threats due to growing human consumption.


Gaya Herrington showed three of Limits’ four major scenarios anticipated subsequent trends. Two lead to major collapses by mid-century. She concluded, “humanity is on a path to having limits to growth imposed on itself rather than consciously choosing its own.”

Limits stressed the urgent need for radical transformation to achieve ‘sustainable development’. The ‘international community’ embraced this, in principle, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, two decades after Stockholm.

With accelerating resource depletion – as current demographic, industrial, pollution and food trends continue – the planet’s growth limits will be reached within the next half-century. The Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ is unavoidably shrinking.

For Limits, only a “transition from growth to…a desirable, sustainable state of global equilibrium” can save the environment and humanity.

The report maintained it was still possible to create conditions for a much more sustainable future while meeting everyone’s basic material needs. As Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

No other environmental work then, or since, has so directly challenged mainstream growth beliefs. Unsurprisingly, it attracted strong opposition.

The 1972 study was long dismissed by many as neo-Malthusian prophecy of doom, underestimating the potential for human adaptation through technological progress.

Many other criticisms have been made. Limits was faulted for focusing too much on resource limits, but not enough on environmental damage. Economists have criticized it for not explicitly incorporating either prices or socioeconomic dynamics.

Beyond Limits

In Beyond the Limits (1993), the two Meadows and Randers argued that resource use had exceeded the world environment’s carrying capacity.

Using climate change data, they highlighted the likelihood of collapse, going well beyond the earlier focus on the rapid carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere.

In another sequel, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004), they elaborated their original argument with new data, calling for stronger actions to avoid unsustainable excess.

Dennis Meadows stresses other studies confirm and elaborate Limits’ concerns. Various growth trends peak around 2020, suggesting likely slowdowns thereafter, culminating in environmental and economic collapse by mid-century.

Limits’ early 1970s’ computer modelling has been overtaken by enhanced simulation capabilities. Many earlier recommendations need revision, but the main fears have been reaffirmed.


Two key Limits’ arguments deserve reiteration. First, its critique of technological hubris, which has deterred more serious concern about the threats, thus undermining environmental, economic and other mitigation efforts.

As Limits argued, environmental crisis and collapse are due to socioeconomic, technological and environmental transformations for wealth accumulation, now threatening Earth’s resources and ecology.

Conventional profit-prioritizing systems and technologies have changed, e.g., with resource efficiency innovation. Such efforts help postpone the inevitable, but cannot extend the planet’s natural limits.

Of course, innovative new technologies are needed to address old and new problems. But these have to be deployed to enhance sustainability, rather than profit.

The Limits’ critique is ultimately of ‘growth’ in contemporary society. It goes much further than recent debates over measuring growth, recognizing greater output typically involves more resource use.

While not necessarily increasing exponentially, growth cannot be unlimited, due to its inherent resource and ecological requirements, even with materials-saving innovations.

This Earth for All

Thankfully, Limits’ fourth scenario – involving significant, but realistic transformations – allows widespread increases in human wellbeing within the planet’s resource boundaries.

This scenario has inspired Earth for All – the Club of Rome’s Transformational Economics Commission’s 2022 report – which more than updates Limits after half a century. Its subtitle – A Survival Guide for Humanity – emphasizes the threat’s urgency, scale and scope.

It argues that ensuring the wellbeing of all is still possible, but requires urgent fundamental changes. Major efforts are needed to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, empower women, and transform food and energy systems.

The comprehensive report proposes specific strategies. All five need significant investments, including much public spending. This requires more progressive taxation, especially of wealth. Curbing wasteful consumption is also necessary.

More liquidity – e.g., via ‘monetary financing’ and International Monetary Fund issue of more special drawing rights – and addressing government debt burdens can ensure more policy and fiscal space for developing country governments.

Many food systems are broken. They currently involve unhealthy and unsustainable production and consumption, generating much waste. All this must be reformed accordingly.

Market regulation for the public good is crucial. Better regulation – of markets for goods (especially food) and services, even technology, finance, labour and land – is necessary to better conserve the environment.

Limited Choice

The report includes a modeling exercise for two scenarios. ‘Too Little Too Late’ is the current trajectory, offering too few needed changes.

With growing inequalities, social trust erodes, as people and countries compete more intensely for resources. Without sufficient ‘collective action’, planetary boundaries will be crossed. For the most vulnerable, prospects are grim.

In the second ‘Giant Leap’ scenario, the five needed shifts are achieved, improving wellbeing all around. Everybody can live with dignity, health and security. Ecological deterioration is sufficiently reversed, as institutions serve the common good and ensure justice for all.

Broad-based sustainable gains in wellbeing need pro-active governance reshaping societies and markets. This needs sufficient political will and popular pressure for needed reforms.

But as the world moves ever closer to many limits, the scenario looming is terrifying: ecosystem destruction, gross inequalities and vulnerabilities, social and political tensions.

While regimes tend to bend to public pressure, if only to survive, existing discourses and mobilization are not conducive to generating the popular political demands needed for the changes.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Col 'Sandy' Volestrangler (ret)

    I was hoping to see what other people said before saying anything beause people following here are really into this issue.
    The phenomenon of ladder pulling is very definitely behind the WEF Great Reset- which combines devious Fabian ‘planning’ with the business cynicism of Bill Gates and Peter Thiel. Then added to that, you have the neocon clique. All these suppose themselves to be The Elect. Anyone not in the group is The Damned and will eat insects and recycled fecal matter and live grim lives until cycles of bio-engineered diseases cull the herd.
    The Elect will live in a paradisical realm where selected servile class can cater to them and maintain their weapons and control systems.
    Well that’s the fanatasy of Davos, anyway. The reality is what we see: a big train wreck at about every level.

  2. russell1200

    There is so many moving pieces. I get a sense of impending doom, put nothing particularly concrete.

    For example, is our current water situation in the US Southwest going to be a major driver, or is this just a sideshow in a very large economy that will end badly, but not necessarily be terminal.

    You also have the potential collapse of the Atlantic Conveyor/Gulf Stream Current. Does that mean we will freeze instead of boil. Or only Europe will freeze? And what does this do for rain patterns.

    And you have the financial reaction of the Fed to 2008-10 collapse that drives a fracking boom. Does this mean the US is (long term – not short term Biden election terms) in better shape visa vi peak oil than we thought?

    And where are we going to get all that Lithium for batteries again?

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      Human population growth drives many of the problems facing the world, as each nation competes for limited resources. Without a combination of declining populations along with per capita consumption there will be no viable solutions to these vexing problems. Technology, at best, can delay the day of reckoning, but it will never avoid it permanently. In fact, technology encourages false confidence and wishful thinking, making matters even worse.

      1. anon in so cal

        Have not yet read the 2022 “Earth for All” COR piece.

        But, IIRC, in the original Club of Rome “limits” versus “cornucopia” debate, both sides left out the crucial issue of biodiversity. Humans may find a way to survive, but without drastic curtailment of, especially, demographic growth, as well as drastically reduced industrial development and consumption, all other living species face extinction.

        The 2022 U.S. “State of the Birds” report, for example, shows plummeting bird populations across almost all habitats. This is primarily due to human behavior: habitat destruction, pesticide use, etc. The worst imperialism is humans’ implicit belief in a right to limitless population growth and “improved” living standards at the expense of other species.

        Somewhat relatedly, this is my criticism of China’s BRI and the “peace through development” camp.
        It was encouraging to see Putin at least mention biodiversity in his Valdai speech.

  3. Sub-Boreal

    A detailed review of LtG more than 40 years after its publication: “Is Global Collapse Imminent?”

    The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years
    ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in
    collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than
    they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing
    population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death
    rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first
    appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent
    timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global
    financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU
    scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return
    on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the

    1. Alice X

      I’ve pulled out the carriage returns (it was a pdf format) to make it more readable.

      The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.

  4. Mikel

    Can’t help but think many governments and businesses no longer have to be convinced that there are limits to growth.
    It’s more and more becoming thinly veiled power plays about who will control the most, for as long as possible, and reap the quickest profits for as long as they can.

    Is it about saving an ideology and standard of living or “saving the planet?” Once it’s accepted that Earth has survived through more than is being thrown at it now, real discussion about the distribution of resources do indeed come to the forefront.

    Remember this from earlier in the week:

    “…Mohamed Adow, a prominent activist and director of the energy and climate think tank Power Shift Africa, accused the EU of using the continent as a “gas station” as it seeks to end its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. EU leaders are set to speak at the COP27 conference on Monday.

    Singling out German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in particular, Adow said that Europe’s dash for gas was threatening to lock Africa into polluting fossil fuels, rather than pursuing greener alternatives such as renewables. Germany and the EU have been trying to seek new gas supplies from countries like Algeria and Senegal, while Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson has encouraged the North African nation to conduct more gas exploration.

    “Our continent is at a crossroads,” Adow said at a press conference alongside the Climate Action Network. “The message we want to send to Scholz as he comes here is that the days of colonialism are over. We won’t accept energy colonialism.”

    I guess the question for Adow is how would “green colonialism” be prevented?

    1. johnherbiehancock

      It’s more and more becoming thinly veiled power plays about who will control the most, for as long as possible, and reap the quickest profits for as long as they can.

      Right. Those with political power are not going to give it up or use it to prevent widespread collapse, they’ll use it for their own means and to preserve their own status vis-a-vis the rest of society. They’ll fight over scraps and in the end the meanest and least scrupulous will survive.

      But by their very nature, they won’t think the outcome through, or find a sustainable alternative. They’ll eventually meet their own end the same way.

      I remember the line in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” about in the end, the only privilege the rich have left is the privilege to be that last to starve to death.

      1. hunkerdown

        I wouldn’t draw arcs on the Owners just yet. Owners might well do differently this time with the PMC, and their scientific management movement for a “rational, reproducible social order”, among their strategic partners.

  5. KD

    I have to confess to long-term optimism unless the Neo-Con plan to end global warming via *nuclear winter* gets implemented. Nuclear power can produce carbon-free power for generations, and most waste can either be reprocessed or burnt as fuel. Food will be grown in urban warehouses in hydroponic stacks, which will free up rural land for other uses. They will develop methods for climate engineering to minimize global warming. I’m sure people will figure out a means of harvesting asteroids for rare metals and elements, and someone will implement some means of colonizing Venus (in floating environments in the atmosphere) and Mars. Things will be crowded, but there is still Antarctica and under the sea. The only truly scarce resources today are ingenuity and courage, and if there is a collapse, it will due to the lack of both qualities. Yes, eventually there will be a Malthusian reckoning, but its centuries off.

    Trying to remember the economist who bet with one of the Limits of Growth economists on a basket of commodities as to whether their price would go up or down, and won the bet. The West is in decay, but not the world, and the West can manage to pull its head out of its anatomy if it wants to. [Rather than have a temper tantrum and wreck the preschool because China is bigger and has better toys.]

    1. GramSci

      “Yes, eventually there will be a Malthusian reckoning for white people, but its centuries off.”

      Fixed it for ya. Anybody who cares to can see the Malthusian Reckoning is happening today in places like Somalia and Afghanistan and Syria.

      1. KD

        That’s not Malthusian limits to growth, its Yankee empire and/or lack of political order. Or not production, distribution.

        1. Reishi


          Those espousing Malthusianism are either unaware of or unbothered by what actual population control efforts have looked like. See forced sterilisation in the 80s in India, for example.

          LtG is useful and continued computer simulations and systems dynamics hold importance in understanding future trajectories. But it is dangerous to advocate for population control at this point while reducing consumption is also essential and no serious efforts have been made towards the latter.

    2. hunkerdown

      “Someone else will do it” is peak middle class thought. What if the working class would rather not obey those who believe that opinions are equivalent to food, and eat them instead?

      The West could change its religion, if it wanted to, but it seems like it would rather Thelma and Louise it over the cliff. Capitalism provides too many rationales for sadistic pleasure and abuse of the help to just throw away so easily.

        1. podcastkid

          Somewhat of a Zuboff fan here.

          I think Hunker was right about one thing, sadism. I see René Girard’s “internal mediation” [not the divorce kind] as happening right now a little differently than it’s usually explained. One common example sort of works though. A young prof admires an older prof, but ends up actually wanting to be her/him. Then there comes intense rivalry. Sorry, but I’ll go from profs to celebrities…

          “The celebrity does not inhabit the same world as the worshiper, not by a long shot. But s/he has, as Di was adored for having, the ‘common touch.’ In other words, the anonymous celebrity-worshiper can ‘identify’ with the celebrity because he is able to understand the latter’s good fortune, whether or not due to inborn talent, as attributable to chance of birth or circumstance.’There,’ he says, ‘but for the grace of God go I.'”

          Aright…good fortune. I keep thinking it over and over: today’s admiration/imitation admires not so much riches in all cases, but felicitous expression of the correct “frame.” In the internet age Girard’s concept pertains to figures with mental possessions as it were? They have to be skilled in terms of Newspeak usage? Actual riches do figure some, though, because many have the same “best” phone (frustration right there because no one can excel in that dept). But the main thing is that one have more pat, glib, humorous retorts (that defend the correct frame). People don’t know geopolitics, but they do know how to defend snarkily the “correct” frame (in the context of their small-or-large faction). Anyway, the rivalry gets vicious [sadistic, though on the job in general it’s not quite so abstract and cognitive a thing]. The rivalry gets vicious, and the retorts get honed. I wouldn’t have put this view of mine here at all maybe if I wasn’t thinking about its current possible flesh-out in terms of Twitter.

          If the Babylonian kings faced no revolt from the bottom, they nevertheless realized [before doing a year of jubilee] the elite debt extractors were gumming up the works vis a vis their rivalry with one another?

          1. podcastkid

            Apologies, boy that sure was an errant example of “internal mediation” above. With imitating celebrities…it’s “external mediation”! (unless it’s a matter of two celebrities in competition with one another)

            In a way, though, with resentment building it would seem people are almost involved in internal mediation with all the more happy and more well off characters in phone ads. They’re removed, and yet they’re quite present. They’re imitated, and yet they’re resented.

            See whole outline (on my screen for this specific place you have to scroll up one line to get the heading)

    3. Soredemos

      So much willful delusion packed into one comment. The part about space colonization is especially hilarious.

    4. Michael McK

      I assume you mean “Thorium reactors” when you reference nuke waste burnt as fuel. Yes, you can burn some “waste” (Thorium and depleted Uranium) but the waste from that process is far worse than what you started with. So bad in fact that stans tout the proliferation proof nature of the waste since it would soon fry any electronics in a bomb it was reprocessed for (not a problem if used asap or for a “dirty” bomb). The technology has been in labs for 60+ years but is always just a Materials Science invention (among many other things) away…

      1. Mike

        Yes, not only has in been studied in labs for 60 years but there has been 100 billion dollars of research money thrown at Thorium/Breeder reactors and no one has done it successfully. At that point it’s probably an insurmountable problem.

  6. Felix_47

    Nuclear power. Here in Germany they have shut half of them down and the last one will go off line in April. They have been inspected and are safe and could function for decades to come. The Green party has a lot of support for both abandoning nuclear and crushing Russia militarily. And millions from the global south are struggling to come to Germany as their surging population outstrips the capacity of their drought striken lands. And we are going to solve this with lithium batteries charged by fossil fuel plants?

  7. Alice X

    This Nate Hagens discussion with Steve Keen from Aug 3,2022 is quite informative. There is also a pdf. I do part company when Keen boosts Elon Musk’s Mars escapade. But otherwise it is quite good.

    Central to the discussion is the essentially 1 to 1 relationship of the use of energy to gdp. And that presently humanity is using 1.7 times the Earth’s capacity.

    Steve Keen: “Mythonomics”

  8. Bazarov

    Below is a link to an interesting Nature Physics commentary by Thomas W. Murphy Jr. on the Limits to Growth. It was published in August 2022. A paragraph that made me laugh:

    “Selecting a mathematically convenient growth rate of a factor of ten each century (corresponding to 2.3% per year; roughly commensurate with the human enterprise in recent times shown in Fig. 1), our present-day expenditure at the level of 18 TW (18 X 10¹² W) extrapolates to about 100 TW in 2100, 1000 TW in 2200, and so on. In continued progression, we would exceed the total solar power incident on Earth in just over 400 years, the entire output of the Sun in all directions 1300 years from now, and that of all 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy 1100 years after that. This last jump is made impossible by the fact that even light cannot cross the galaxy in fewer than 100,000 years. Thus, physics puts a hard limit on how long our energy growth enterprise could possibly continue.”

    An addendum to the above paragraph–if 1300 years from now we really did produce the output of the “sun in all directions”, the Earth would therefore (if I’m understanding the consequences of thermodynamics) be at least as hot as the sun.

    1. A Freeman

      …,”empowerment of women,…” Surprisingly, back to a thought provoking Sisyphean task far, far more than the current, simplistic trumpeting of abortion rights.

      1. Kouros

        As the father of a girl, I couldn’t agree more. However, one must remember that women are also humans…

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Most demographers think the drop is even steeper than current projections indicate. There is always a lag time between such transitions occurring and becoming definitive. The drop in China is particularly spectacular – interestingly, it became even steeper after ending the one child family policy. In reality, the population is only growing rapidly in north Africa and the Middle East, and has probably gone past its peak there too.

      But I would disagree with the notion that it has much to do with womens empowerment – this is one the ideas most beloved of NGO’s, but when you compare those countries with higher levels of empowerment (at least as defined by westerners), many of those countries have maintained higher than average birthrates compared to other countries at the same point of the economic cycle (e.g. Scandanavia, Canada). Much of this is probably due to those countries having stronger legal protection for women in the workplace and better welfare.

      The biggest drop is in those countries that define women’s freedom to mean women have to work the same soul crushing hours as men, and couples both have to work just to get a basic roof over their head. If you combine this with poor labour protection, poor pensions, and highly competitive school systems, you end up with many people choosing to have at most one child. This combination can be most seen in much of Asia and southern and eastern Europe.

  9. Joe Renter

    If the planet is to survive and humanity with it, we defiantly need a new model of economics not based on the 100% capitalist system. It’s so obvious that those that have, need to share and not continue with the greed factor tuned up to 11. So many problems have multiplied in the last 30 years that have not been addressed due to the status quo. Okay, I admit I have been consuming more than I should (sports equipment and a mid-life crisis import vehicle). Now that I am hitting the sunset years, all I desire is a roof over my head and a couple meals a day (internet is a luxury). Health care would be nice, but I live in the USA and we know that is a stretch.
    I do think there will be a reset and we live in a world of cause and effect. Suffering will be required.
    Be kind and be aware.

  10. John

    Biological overshoot, which happens in every bottle of wine ever produced or in the ocean’s dead zones, is where humans are at the present. Consume too much energy and the waste kills you. Simple as that.
    William R. Catton’s book, Overshoot, explains this in detail.
    Extreme conservation could slow it a bit, but we are in total Thelma and Louise mode now and the cliff is waiting.

  11. Molon labe

    We have known about this for decades. The only solution is population control. As we have declined to comply, the Earth will force us to do so.

    1. ThirtyOne

      Once there was The People–Terror gave it birth;
      Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth
      Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, 0 ye slain!
      Once there was The People–it shall never be again!

      Macdonough’s Song by Rudyard Kipling

  12. Wukchumni

    A somewhat wise fellow who came up with an app for apples reckoned the world would end no earlier than 2060.

    Not a bad estimate from 1704, good job Isaac!

    Our real problem is it is the end of the world for 200,000 of us each and every day, who are replaced by 350,000 new arrivals daily.

    Now that there is 8 billion of us on the planet, lets play reindeer games…

    In 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to the island by the United States Coast Guard to provide an emergency food source. The Coast Guard abandoned the island a few years later, leaving the reindeer. Subsequently, the reindeer population rose to about 6,000 by 1963 and then died off in the next two years to 42 animals. A scientific study attributed the population crash to the limited food supply in interaction with climatic factors (the winter of 1963–64 was exceptionally severe in the region). By the 1980s, the reindeer population had completely died out.

Comments are closed.