The Limits to Growth

Club of Rome | 1972

In March 1972, a report by a group of young scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) commissioned by Aurelio Peccei, founder of The Club of Rome, shook the world. The report excels in system thinking and modelling and in that it is more actual than ever.

Today, 50 years after its publication, “The Limits to Growth” is considered one of the most important and controversial environmental books of all time and it continues to influence conversations around sustainability and our continued existence on this finite planet. Below is the story behind this ground-breaking publication.

Published 1972 – The message of this book still holds today: The earth’s interlocking resources – the global system of nature in which we all live – probably cannot support present economic and population growth rates much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology. In the summer of 1970, an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a study of the implications of continued worldwide growth.

They examined the five basic factors that determine and, in their interactions, ultimately limit growth on this planet-population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. The MIT team fed data on these five factors into a global computer model. Then it tested the model’s behaviour under several sets of assumptions to determine alternative patterns for mankind’s future. The Limits to Growth is the nontechnical report of their findings.

The book also contains a message of hope: Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance. Download the book in pdf here.


The Limits to Growth, 1972 – key messages:

  • With existing policies, the physical limits to growth would likely be exceeded within one generation.
  • The most likely outcome of reaching these limits would be overshooting them, followed by systems decline.
  • The findings, however, also suggested a viable alternative to these outcomes – one in which population growth and material production could be brought into balance with planetary limits.
  • The fourth conclusion was that it would realistically take 50 to 100 years, or even more, to make this alternative outcome a reality.
  • Finally, the team found that every year action is delayed toward reaching the alternative outcome, decreasing the number of options available to avoid overshoot and collapse.

Bibliography

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J. & Behrens, W. W. (1972). The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Limits to Growth (digital scan version, source: https://donellameadows.org)

Short History

This publication is part of Ecosystem City: Lessons from the Forest