Original publication by Matt Simon for wired.com on 6 July 2022
The Limits to Growth argued that rampant pollution and resource extraction were pushing Earth to the brink. How does it hold up 50 years later?
THE COMPUTER MODELING made it plain: If people continued to overextract finite resources, pollute on a massive scale, and balloon the human population in an unsustainable way, civilization could collapse within a century. It sounds like that modeling could have been done last week, what with climate change, water shortages, and microplastics corrupting every corner of the Earth. But in fact it dropped in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome, an international organization of intellectuals founded in 1968.
The book sold millions of copies and was translated into at least 30 languages, attracting a storm of controversy. It was, after all, very early computer modeling—completed on a punch-card machine at MIT—and a highly simplified simulation of complex global systems. And it was making rather grand and consequential predictions. (As the old quip goes: All models are wrong, but some are useful.) That model spit out scenarios in which humanity either got more sustainable and equitable, and thus flourished, or continued letting capitalists plunder the planet and our civilization to death.
“What came from the simulations is that most of the cases—but not all, and it’s important to say not all—the evolution of a number of variables like population, production, pollution, was showing that around the mid-21st century, we would have a scenario of collapse of human civilization,” says Carlos Alvarez Pereira, vice president of the Club of Rome and co-editor of the new retrospective book Limits and Beyond: 50 Years on From The Limits to Growth, What Did We Learn and What’s Next? “The whole thing was framed into doomsday prophecy. We didn’t succeed in bringing the message that it was not about that. It was really about: We have the capacity to choose. We have, as humanity, the capacity to decide what kind of future we want.”
To mark the book’s 50 year anniversary, WIRED sat down with Alvarez Pereira to talk about how that future is shaping up, what’s changed in the half-century since Limits, and how humanity might correct course. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED: For folks who aren’t familiar with the original report, can you give a background?
Carlos Alvarez Pereira: It was an attempt to open the space of possibilities for the future of humanity. In the ’60s and early ’70s, the fundamental question was: Is it possible to expand the concept of human development we had at the time to the whole planet, without negative consequences?
Limits to Growth was, I think, a serious and rigorous attempt to use the best, not only knowledge, but also computer tools, which at the time were quite primitive, to simulate a number of scenarios for the future, to inquire on this big question. In some scenarios it was conceivable to find a balance between human well-being or human development, and the finiteness of resources on Earth.
WIRED: Let’s take two of the report’s extreme scenarios. What factors produce collapse, and which produce a more sustainable future where we avoid collapse? Is it bringing down pollution? Is it bringing down consumption?
CAP: The main variables are a set of five: population, food production, industrial production, natural resources, and pollution. What produces collapse in most of the scenarios is the combination—it’s not all only one thing. In the case of fossil fuels, it’s both the consumption of the reserves of fossil fuels and the pollution.
What could lead to a more sustainable scenario, or a scenario of balance? Fundamentally, it is about equity, managing the resources in an equitable way, knowing in advance that they’re limited. Realizing that it’s not higher and higher consumption which makes us live in a good way, have a healthy life and well-being. It’s the quality of our relationships with other humans, with nature, that makes possible the scenarios in which you can decouple well-being and the growth of consumption.
We have incredible capacities to develop new technologies, but the point is that we don’t use them under the assumption that they should reduce the ecological footprint. This is not a criteria of design. And let’s remember that ecological footprints are extremely unequal. Typically, the average footprint in the US is 20 to 40 times the average footprint in Africa.
WIRED: Right, there’s this notion that first and foremost the problem we have is population growth. But that ignores the fact that the United States alone is responsible for a quarter of historical emissions. It’s not so much the fact that we have more people, it’s that we have unsustainable lifestyles.
CAP: We already have an ecological footprint that is far too high compared to what the Earth can carry. It’s a matter, in my view, of considering that well-being comes with relationships, not necessarily a high degree of material consumption. It’s a matter of considering that we can dramatically reduce the ecological footprint of the so-called rich countries. I know that it sounds weird, because we are so used to associating well-being with material consumption. Saying this is like, “Oh, we are proposing going back to the Middle Ages.” No, not at all.
WIRED: I think you could safely characterize the reaction to Limits to Growth as an uproar. Did that come from scientists or capitalists or politicians? Or maybe all of the above? What were the main points of contention?
CAP: We have to be in a good balance with the planet where we live. And that part of the message was completely lost, very rapidly. Jimmy Carter, when he was president, was listening to this kind of approach. And then of course, the political mood changed a lot with the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Reagan himself has a discourse in which he says, literally, there are no limits to growth. So from a political point of view, there was a complete denial of what the book was saying.
What creates a little bit of frustration is that in the scientific domain, there was not enough controversy, because somehow the book was discarded by many. Not by everybody. By many, it was discarded as a doomsday prophecy. And for sure, we were not successful among economists at the time.
WIRED: Presumably economists weren’t too fond of it because growth is inherent to capitalism. And unchecked growth really, a kind of maniacal, ecologically-destructive growth at all costs that’s built into the system.
CAP: What the system has done, as a mechanism to continue with growth at all costs, is actually to burn the future. And the future is the least renewable resource. There is no way that we can reuse the time we had when we started this conversation. And by building up a system which is more debt-driven—where we keep consumption going, but by creating more and more debt—what we’re actually doing is burning or stealing the time of people in the future. Because their time will be devoted to repaying the debt.
WIRED: It seems obvious that we’ll eventually run out of finite resources. But there was even pushback against that idea when the report came out. Where does that insistence come from?
CAP: The paradox is that capitalism is also based on the notion of scarcity. Our system is organized around the idea that resources are scarce, then we have to pay for them, and people in the value chain will profit from this idea of scarcity. Conventional capitalism is saying that while these resources might be finite, we will find others: Don’t worry, technology will save us. So that we continue in the same way.
WIRED: 50 years on from the original report, are we on the right course as a species?
CAP: No, if you look at the reality. And no, in particular, if you look only at what governments and corporations do, if you look at what the decision makers decide, and the systems of governance we have, whether national or global. We’re not better in terms of pollution, because we have climate warming, an existential issue. We’re not better in terms of biodiversity. We are not in terms of inequality. So there are plenty of reasons to say no.
But there are also good reasons for optimism of the will. And those reasons are possibly less obvious, less evident, less in the headlines in the media and elsewhere. We definitely think there is an ongoing cultural change often hidden in plain sight. Many are experimenting, often at the community level, trying to find their own pathways towards that balance of well-being within a healthy biosphere. A change that brings hope to me is the change in the status of women, the increasing roles of women. And I would say that if you look at what’s happening with the younger generations, there is a big change as well.
So politically, at the level of corporations, at the official level, things are going pretty much in the wrong direction. Culturally, below the line, my bet is that a lot of things are happening in the good direction. The human revolution is already happening—it’s just that we don’t see it. And maybe it’s good that we don’t see it yet, until the very moment where it makes a lot of things shift.