“Limits to Growth” – Here’s What You Never Hear About It – And The Truth.

Thought I should do a quick post about that much-cited 1970s study, The Limits to Growth. My primary reason for wanting to post this now is that I have reached the end of my tether with seeing radical environmentalists and warmists abusing and misquoting a study they clearly are not familiar with themselves.

Almost forty years after it was published, The Limits to Growth remains a favourite with the “heading for a catastrophe” crowd. Those of an optimistic nature, who believe in humanity’s ingenuity to adapt and survive, are mocked and derided by the catastrophists who point to this study as “proof” that the modern world is heading for collapse. Take The Guardian of May 2011 -

Where a decade ago there was still optimism that things could be turned around on issues like climate change, deforestation and over-fishing, people are now openly saying that it is too late. Humankind will have to experience a profound crisis before it understands that the “doom and gloom” and “limits to growth” fraternity were right after all.

Limits to Growth, according to these people, proves that humanity is heading for a crisis. The computer models prove it. It may not have happened yet, but it will happen.

Except Limits to Growth was never even intended to prove anything of the sort. For the truth about the study, let’s turn to the co-founder and president of the Club of Rome that commissioned it, Alexander King.

In his memoirs, Let the Cat Turn Around: One Man’s Traverse of the Twentieth Century (London: CPTM, 2006), King discusses the genesis, reception, and history of the Limits to Growth study. He observes that – as we are always told by radicals who refer to it – that under various “runs” of the computer models there is always an overshoot and collapse, at latest by the middle of this century. But, in this book which was never destined to be read by many outside the academic community, King points out something crucial regarding this gloomy prognosis:

It has to be remembered however that this is a ‘passive’ model  in that it assumes no important economic, social, technological, or political changes will have taken place during the target years to sufficiently alter the interactions. Important changes that cannot be foreseen will, of course, take place (p. 335).

In other words, it merely extrapolated the current conditions and assumed only growth without adaptation, change, or advancement of any kind. As King says, “it is in no way a prophesy of coming doom” but a warning of what might happen if there were absolutely no changes whatsoever (p. 336).

His recollections then get particularly interesting. King recalls that environmental groups were already pushing the “limits to growth” line in newspapers, television series, and magazine articles six months before the report was published and before the research had even been completed! (A tactic now only too familiar.)

King notes that Sicco Mansholt, a socialist politician, soon to become President of the EEC, sent an open letter to the then President focusing on the “Malthusian population-food relation” and demanding new Europe-wide policies that aimed for zero growth and centralised economic planning (p. 336). All perfectly in accord with the conclusions of the study, right? Wrong:

One thing we agreed was that the Club of Rome must not be linked with zero growth, but it was difficult to dismiss the publicity that was putting the club on the map. In April 1972 Aurelio [the first president and co-founder] and I sent a letter to the EC, distancing ourselves from the Mansholt letter. We argued that the limits to growth as now being discussed would never be reached (p. 336).

It doesn’t get much clearer than that really, does it? But wait, there’s even more!

King stresses that the study was not by the Club of Rome, but for the Club of Rome who commissioned it. And what did they think of their own study?

When the Club had the opportunity to discuss Limits it was clear that many of the members were unconvinced by its conclusions on matters that they had never before discussed. Indeed, I felt that a majority did not accept it. Limits had a distinctly neo-Malthusian flavour clearly unpalatable to those amongst us who were technological optimists and we all regretted that the work had paid insufficient attention to the great human and social issues (p. 338).

That’s right – even the Club that commissioned the study did not accept its findings, in particular its gloomy, Malthusian tone. King happily agrees that “criticism concerning lack of appreciation of technological change, the power of the market and the degree of aggregation were, of course, valid” (p.339).

But don’t expect to hear the truth about Limits to Growth anytime soon. The fictional version of it is so much simpler and more useful than the reality behind it.

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14 responses to ““Limits to Growth” – Here’s What You Never Hear About It – And The Truth.

  1. Nice to see you back! Storyteller Adam Curtis has footage of King at the Club of Rome Press conference (31:15)

  2. Nice to see you on deck again!
    Excellent post,too.

  3. Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

    Thanks for this post. Although I (perhaps like you) am not on the Malthusian/catastrophic camp, I do think that the LTG study (correctly commissioned by the Club of Rome to MIT researchers Meadows et al 1972) has a lot of merit in SERIOUSLY and THOROUGHLY looking at sustainability as an issue (not just talking about it without “crunching the numbers”, which appears to be what a lot of its detractors actually do. More importantly, the Meadows et al study does NOT conclude that ONLY catastrophic outcomes are possible; that is unfortunately what a lot of people have been clinging to over the years as a basis for criticism.

    There is a really good book out there now (U. Bardi, “The Limits to Growth Revisited”, Springer 2011) that does an outstanding and balanced job of looking at the significance of LTG and offers an outlook of what lies ahead.

    You can also look at my post at the Inter-American Development Bank blog here, along the same lines: http://blogs.iadb.org/cambioclimatico_en/2011/06/20/population-and-climate-change-did-malthus-and-the-club-of-rome-get-it-right/

  4. Yet again, what was actually written is not how it is portrayed. And the inevitable question concerns the motives behind the distortion, and it would be interesting to know the answer descending to the level of conspiracy theories.


  5. Back in the days when New Scientist didn’t place absolute belief in the results of a computer model, they reported on a detailed trashing of Limits to Growth in a book from academics at Sussex University under the title “Models of Doom”. (this book, I think. Apparently there were all sorts of odddities about the model: IIRC, one number in a series meant to represent resource usage was, for no apparent reason ten times larger than the rest of the series–if that one number was adjusted to match the rest of the series, model runs came out entirely differently, without disaster. And if you started the model 50 years earlier, it came out looking nothing like the current (1970s) world (and how is it now, nearly 40 years into the future of the 1970s?

    Some years later, I found a copy of the Limits to Growth in a university library: I note that the ENTIRE model listing was printed in the book. You could probably run that on a spreadsheet these days, but why bother? Garbage in, garbage out.

    The Limits to Growth is the reason I don’t believe any environmental doom forecast if a computer simulation is involved…

  6. jorgekafkazar

    Wonderful to see you back! You’ve been missed.

  7. Sooooo If all Those Tree Hug’s stop having Babies at least part of our Population problems would be solved with about 100 Trillion dollar other ones as well .
    Just Think a World without Al Gores ,Michael Mann , Tree Hug’s , The EPA and Obama ?
    Then I would increase my Sunday tides from 10 % to 20 % .
    Because the price of all things that use Energy would drop like a rock .

  8. Welcome home. I was gutted when you disappeared.
    Great article, looking forward to more of the same.

  9. It’s a pity none of them have read Julian Simon.

  10. Usually, normally, almost always, 20% of the people on this rock hear, read, see, feel, sniff, and taste exactly what they want to and no one is going to convince them they don’t. Beware of kooks playing with matches, they’ll burn you every time you let them get close enough.

    Why 20% and not the ‘traditional’ 10% we think are wierd-o? Remember, on every Bell Curve there’s 10% at each end of the graph who are certifiable nut cases. There’s the 10% who are your sworn enemy, and the 10% who want to stand right next to you.

  11. Welcome back! You’re one of the best bloggers around….

  12. Very interesting. Al Gore is a CoR member, and a lot of European socialist bureaucrat-politicians, so maybe we can assume that these days they are not Malthusians but cynicists who propagate Malthusianism, energy rationing and societal transformation for the masses so there’s more left for them to consume / run their pump-and-dump schemes.

  13. Before you get further bogged down about who did what and where perhaps reminding your readers where much of this started might be a good idea. Have a look for Margaret Thatcher 1979.

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