Limits to growth vindicated as Earth faces overshoot and collapse

This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 28th September 2023.

On July 20th, 1969, Nasa’s Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon and, for the first time ever, human beings walked on a celestial body other than the Earth. Neil Armstrong’s words announcing a “giant leap for mankind” resonate today.

Before the Moon landing, it was the stuff of imagination. Afterwards, it was historical fact, and an accomplishment of science and human progress. The effect of seeing the Earth from space is so profound that many astronauts have experienced what is called the ‘overview effect’, a cognitive shift whereby they no longer identify with a specific nationality or culture, instead seeing themselves and all citizens on Earth as one people, living on one world.

They have described seeing the Earth like seeing “a tiny, fragile ball of life hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere” and as “a fragile oasis” for the only life that we know of in the entire universe.

By 1972 the United States had sent five further crewed landings to the moon, at enormous cost. But 1972 also saw the publication of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report which, for the first time, assessed the impact of growth on the home planet. The MIT researchers examined the five basic factors that determine and ultimately limit growth on the planet: population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output and pollution, including atmospheric CO2.

By feeding data on all these factors into a global computer model the MIT team was able to examine scenarios with different assumptions about technological progress. The report, and subsequent studies by the same team, found that if humanity kept pursuing economic growth without regard for environmental and social impacts, global society would experience a sharp decline in economic, social and environmental conditions within the 21st century.

The report looked at scenarios where constraints are introduced for any or some of the factors above (eg stable population, lower levels of pollution), but found that only where all of the major feedbacks are prevented from growing is overshoot and collapse averted.

Only by imposing limits on these factors and the production of material goods can a global state of equilibrium be reached with population and production kept in balance with each other. Global collapse could be avoided and living standards maintained, they claimed, if dramatic shifts in priorities and social values took place away from material goods and towards social progress.

It is common to react to this information with disbelief and dislike for the measures it entails. The Limits to Growth report unsurprisingly was attacked – by economists, business interests, the Catholic Church and by those on the political left and right who believed in infinite growth for different reasons.

The abundant oil resources from the North Sea and Saudi Arabia that flowed from the late 1970s helped to quell the fear that the oil crises of the 1970s were precursors to the scenarios predicted by the report. Just like Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring led to an industry-led PR campaign of denial and personal attacks, the authors of the Limits to Growth report were ridiculed and dismissed for more than three decades. Industry-sponsored smear campaigns (that are also implicated in climate change denial) have been highly effective in closing down both public and academic consideration of the main findings of the original report.

The report found that of the three alternatives – unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth or a nature-imposed limitation to growth – only the last two are actually possible. A more recent review by analyst Gaya Herrington in 2020, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, examined the extent to which recent empirical data aligned with the Limits to Growth scenarios (which were updated in 1992 and 2004).

She found that observed data indicates a halt in welfare, food and industrial production over the next decade or so, putting into question yet again the suitability of continuous economic growth as humanity’s goal.

According to Herrington, while there is a possibility that future declines will be relatively “soft landings”, it is not possible to innovate ourselves out of the Earth’s hard limits indefinitely. Instead of betting on endless technological progress, we should aim for a transformation of societal priorities that can put humanity on a sustainable and fair path where resources are managed for the future and shared equitably among all.

We don’t need astronauts to tell us that there is no such thing as infinite growth on a (tiny, fragile) finite planet. But somehow the critical lessons offered by the Limits to Growth reports have escaped our consciousness and we march on, lemming-like, towards overshoot and collapse.

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