Limits to Growth

The base case projected outcome of 1972 systems analysis modelling of global industrial society (Source: Meadows et al. 1972).


In 1972 the book Limits to Growth was published and generally panned by the experts. There was a strong negative reaction to the LTG study from at least four sources: those who saw the book as a threat to their business or industry; professional economists, who saw LTG as an uncredentialed encroachment on their professional perquisites; the Catholic church, which bridled at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of mankind’s major problems; finally, the political left, which saw the LTG study as a scam by the elites designed to trick workers into believing that a proletarian paradise was a pipe dream.

In 2016, a report published by the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth concluded that “there is unsettling evidence that society is still following the ‘standard run’ of the original study – in which overshoot leads to an eventual collapse of production and living standards”

Over the past couple of years there have been several reports published expressing concern about whether there are enough supplies of rare minerals to enable the world to give up fossil fuels and transition to a clean green Utopian future.

The reports are by respectable organisations: The British Museum, The Finnish Government, the International Energy Agency and the European Commission. Some are listed below. Some of them, especially the IEA and the Finnish reports, are very long documents (hundreds of pages) -they are listed so that one can check to see that they are indeed serious systematic analyses.

The best way to get a good overview of this topic is in the Youtube presentation by Dr Simon Michaux (an Australian geologist and mining engineer who wrote the Finnish Geological Survey report). The youtube is 60 minutes in length and consists mainly of charts and diagrams from the Finnish report  plus explanations and commentary by Michaux .

Simon Michaux: YouTube of  his Finnish Geological Survey Report


Currently, our industrial ecosystem is highly dependent on finite non-renewable natural resources (oil, gas and coal). That reserves will eventually deplete and production peak and decline is accepted. The question is when. This report shows that that peak date is either imminent or in our recent past
(possibly 2015). It is no longer a case of mitigation or avocation for a change in society practice.

It has been shown with updated data that the Limits to Growth model first proposed in 1972 was conceptually correct (Figure 296). In this model, the global economic and industrial ecosystem will
undergo a series of structural changes in the next 5 to 10 years, where a number of fundamental metrics will peak and decline. The first of these metrics is industrial output per capita. It can be argued that the global industrial ecosystem has already passed this point in 2008.

Once the industrial ecosystem transitions into a contracting energy environment (possibly already has done so), a very different paradigm will be required for industrial operation. The current paradigm is one of expansion (desired rate approximately 2%) and increase in technological complexity. Currently, this is supported with the application of quantitative easing. In a contracting energy supply market, the reverse of this will happen as a matter of reality based practicality, where the system will contract in scope and complexity.

The system will evolve from “make it bigger, better and faster, and do it now” to “how do we make do with less CRM production with supply interruptions as long as 6 months”. One of the outcomes would be the difficulty of maintaining trade routes with long supply chains. The sourcing of useful goods and services will be forced to become localized, including the use of raw materials. This means that mineral resources of all kinds will become much more valuable than they are now and would have to be managed much more carefully.

(CRM = Critical Raw Materials)

Some Links

Meadows, Donella H; Meadows, Dennis L; Randers, Jørgen; Behrens III, William W (1972). The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books. ISBN 0876631650. Retrieved 26 November 2017.

Geological Survey of Finland: Excellent, comprehensive survey of world oil resources, rare earths, depletion rates etc,  report December 2019

Press release–

Executive Summary

Full Report (283 pages)

The European Commission:

The British Museum (press release—quite short):

6 Replies to “Limits to Growth”

  1. See also:
    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.

  2. Another reason that LTG was not taken seriously is that people confused it, wrongly, with the ravings of Paul Erlich whose ridiculous predictions of imminent doom dominated the popular media in the 1970s and discredited in most people’s eyes any predictions about the future.

  3. In the mid 70’s, a timely coincidence with the date of this book, I studied population growth as part of an MBBS at UTas. I remember there were about a half dozen factors that limited population size. They were the things in this article for the most part: disease, war, accidents, catastrophe, resources, maybe a couple others I forget now, but that was about it. I remember thinking at the time there were not a lot of controlling factors. Resources mentioned about food and starvation, not fossil fuels, despite it being the time of the oil crisis. Natural catastrophe was an interesting one. Tsunamis happen all the time, but it is only when there are huge populations along a coast, like in Indonesia, that the loss of life is massive, and therefore affecting population growth. It also did not matter if growth was exponential or linear, any growth eventually led to these factors having a limiting effect. The resulting thing though was that eventually things reached an equilibrium. It may have been a nice flat equilibrium, or an oscillating one, but it stabilised. Most examples we looked at were of natural populations that had been stable for eons. Our interest was that the human population was approaching its first critical point ever, so there was speculation of when and how the equilibrium might manifest itself. It was the first time I heard the expression nine tenths of everyone who has ever lived is alive today. The course was basic, so no examination of how technology, like food production or medicines or killing machines, moderated the curves. A half century later I still cannot see the when or how of the human population reaching this equilibrium. But there is no doubt that it is near. All the factors are at play and no longer hypothetical. I’d loved to have had access to this material back then. I might have finished my degree!

  4. Allan – you raise some interesting ideas.

    “… natural population that had been stable for eons …”. Such as? Humans may be different but the population of a given species might be expected to have a red noise spectrum – boom and bust – like the stock market. I am deeply suspicious of “natural balance” interpretations.

    Penguins have a stable population which is limited by available breeding space on land. Are Australian mouse plagues the outcome of a grain producing mono-culture?

  5. Thanks John,
    I suspect that the mouse population fluctuates according to the season variability of food, then the reproductive mechanisms run away if the normal constraints can’t prevail. Monoculture maybe a permitting factor but I doubt it is an absolute prerequisite. . Similarly, perhaps, the human conditions oscillate between a successful collective “civilisation “ and a “fight for life”anarchy of varying degrees . This could be a discussion for many hours , no doubt.

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