What are the Real Limits to Growth?
Limits to Growth was published in 1972, and its assorted charts and graphs made remarkably real that, as the authors of that book put it at the time, “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”
The scenarios, which are called World3, showed how population growth and natural resource use interacted to impose limits to industrial growth, a novel and even controversial idea at the time.
Though Limits to Growth was the biggest-selling environmental book of all time, with 30 million copies sold — it wasn’t enough to divert our trajectory. People convinced themselves the limits to growth were far enough away they’d be someone else’s problem.
In 1992, this was no longer true. On the 20th anniversary of the publication of Limits to Growth, the team updated its book called Beyond the Limits. Already in the 1990s there was compelling evidence that humanity was moving deeper into unsustainable territory. Beyond the Limit argued that in many areas we had “overshot” our limits, or expanded our demands on the planet’s resources and sinks beyond what could be sustained over time.
The new book proved to be accurate on many of the basic trend extrapolations: the gap between rich and poor has only grown wider in the past three decades. Thirty years ago, it seemed unimaginable that humanity could expand its numbers and economy so soon to alter the Earth’s natural systems.
The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimates the power of technology. But even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that seems possible, this model generated scenarios of collapse because of a shortage of resources:
- The most obvious limit on food production is land. Millions of acres of cultivated land are being degraded by processes such as soil erosion and salinization, while the cultivated area remains roughly constant.
- Only one-fifth of the planet’s original forest cover remains in large tracts of undisturbed natural forests. Although forest cover in temperate areas is stable, tropical forest area is plummeting
- Another limit to food production is water. Per capita water withdrawals are going down because of environmental problems, rising costs, or scarcity.
- Another limit to growth is today’s world population of 7.2 billion. Can you believe 9 billion people predicted in 2050 , when it was only 4 billion people in 1974, the year of the first Skylab? How coincidental is the hockey stick graph of both population and carbon emissions.
- More than 80 percent of year 2000 commercial energy use comes from non- renewable fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, and coal. The underground stocks of fossil fuels are going continuously and inexorably down. The stock of reserves is finite and non-renewable; the peak for oil production will occur within the next decade.
- If an eventual nine billion people on earth all consumed materials at the rate of the average American, world steel production would need to rise by a factor of five, copper by a factor of eight, and aluminum by a factor of nine.
From source to sink, the processing, fabricating, handling, and use of materials leaves a trail of pollution. Look at the prediction for pollution on the graph above: it is right off the chart beginning right now. Imagine the cost to bring this back to normal.
So it is predicted that industrial output begins to decline around 2040 because the rising expense of protecting the population from starvation, pollution, erosion, and resource shortage cuts into the capital available for growth.
The fundamental problem arises because society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term. As a result, society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it. Continue reading Real Limits to Growth 2