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25th Anniversary series: 2014 – 40 Years on from Limits to Growth

May 28, 2015

Limits to Growth was a study about the future of our planet, first published in 1972. On behalf of the Club of Rome, Donnella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and their team worked on systems analysis at Jay W. Forrester’s institute at MIT. They created a computing model which took into account the relations between various global developments and produced computer simulations for alternative scenarios. Part of the modelling was different amounts of possibly available resources, different levels of agricultural productivity, birth control or environmental protection.

Most scenarios resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy until to a turning point around 2030. Only drastic measures for environmental protection proved to be suitable to change this systems behaviour, and only under these circumstances, scenarios could be calculated in which both world population and wealth could remain at a constant level.

12 million copies of the report were distributed in 37 languages, and since then there have been updates every decade and the availability of International Futures – a modeling system International Futures (IFs) is a large-scale, long-term, integrated global modeling system. It represents demographic, economic, energy, agricultural, socio-political, and environmental subsystems for 183 countries interacting in the global system[i].

On May 9, 2012, the Club of Rome launched a new Report to the Club of Rome, entitled “2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” In it, author Jorgen Randers (one of the co-authors of the original “Limits to Growth”) tries to answer the question, what our world will look like in forty years time[ii].

The power of this stream of work is the ability to connect assumptions on global trends and test their limits against known global constraints. It allows for exploring driving factors producing global change, planetary limits, and adaptation processes.

Researchers from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI)[iii] used data from the last 40 years to compare to predictions made by the authors of the 1972 book in the “business-as-usual” (BAU) or “standard run” scenario, collating it to what has actually happened since the publication. on the three key indicators – environment, economy and population – the track is uncannily close to that of the model.

As the MSSI team point out, the BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and scenario 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.

The jury is out on whether the assumptions on planetary constraints can be over-turned through adaptation before about 2030.

Written by SAMI Director, Gill Ringland.

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