Limits to Growth

Limits to Growth

Ask a question about 'Limits to Growth'
Start a new discussion about 'Limits to Growth'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book modeling the consequences of a rapidly growing world population
World population
The world population is the total number of living humans on the planet Earth. As of today, it is estimated to be  billion by the United States Census Bureau...

 and finite resource supplies, commissioned by the Club of Rome
Club of Rome
The Club of Rome is a global think tank that deals with a variety of international political issues. Founded in 1968 at Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, Italy, the CoR describes itself as "a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity." It consists of current and...

. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows
Donella Meadows
Donella H. "Dana" Meadows was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher and writer. She is best known as lead author of the influential book The Limits to Growth, which made headlines around the world.- Life :Born in Elgin, Illinois, Meadows was educated in science, receiving a B.A...

, Dennis L. Meadows
Dennis Meadows
Dennis L. Meadows is an American scientist and Emeritus Professor of Systems Management, and former director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire...

, Jørgen Randers
Jørgen Randers
Jørgen Randers is a Norwegian academic and practitioner in the field of future studies.Randers is currently professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, where his work is concentrated on climate issues, scenario planning and system dynamics...

, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3
The World3 model was a computer simulation of interactions between population, industrial growth, food production and limits in the ecosystems of the Earth. It was originally produced and used by a Club of Rome study that produced the model and the book The Limits to Growth...

 model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems. The book echoes some of the concerns and predictions of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population
An Essay on the Principle of Population
The book An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published anonymously in 1798 through J. Johnson . The author was soon identified as The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. While it was not the first book on population, it has been acknowledged as the most influential work of its era...


Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion
Resource depletion
Resource depletion is an economic term referring to the exhaustion of raw materials within a region. Resources are commonly divided between renewable resources and non-renewable resources...

. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables.

The most recent updated version was published on June 1, 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company and Earthscan
Earthscan is an English language publisher of books and journals on climate change, sustainable development and environmental technology for academic, professional and general readers....

 under the name Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows
Dennis Meadows
Dennis L. Meadows is an American scientist and Emeritus Professor of Systems Management, and former director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire...

 have updated and expanded the original version. They had previously published Beyond the Limits
Beyond the Limits
Beyond the Limits is a 1992 book continuing the modeling of the consequences of a rapidly growing global population that was started in Limits to Growth. Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers are the authors and all were involved in the original Club of Rome study as well...

 in 1993 as a 20 year update on the original material.

In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is the national government body for scientific research in Australia...

 (CSIRO) in Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 published a paper called "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality". It examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of economic
Economic collapse
There is no precise definition of an economic collapse. While some might consider a a severe, prolonged depression with high bankruptcy rates and high unemployment an economic collapse, others would additionally look for a breakdown in normal commerce, such as hyperinfalation, or even a sharp...

 and societal collapse
Societal collapse
Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses , as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers...

 in the 21st century. In 2010, Peet, Nørgård, and Ragnarsdóttir called the book a "pioneering report", but said that, "unfortunately the report has been largely dismissed by critics as a doomsday prophecy that has not held up to scrutiny."


The purpose of The Limits to Growth was not to make specific predictions, but to explore how exponential growth interacts with finite resources. Because the size of resources is not known, only the general behavior can be explored. The authors state in a subsection titled The Purpose of the World Model:

In this first simple world model, we are interested only in the broad behavior modes of the population-capital system. By behavior modes we mean the tendencies of the variables in the system (population or pollution, for example) to change as time progresses. A variable may increase, decrease, remain constant, oscillate, or combine several of these characteristic modes. For example, a population growing in a limited environment can approach the ultimate carrying capacity of that environment in several possible ways. It can adjust smoothly to an equilibrium below the environmental limit by means of a gradual decrease in growth rate, as shown below. It can overshoot the limit and then die back again in either a smooth or an oscillatory way, also as shown below. Or it can overshoot the limit and in the process decrease the ultimate carrying capacity by consuming some necessary nonrenewable resource, as diagrammed below. This behavior has been noted in many natural systems. For instance, deer or goats, when natural enemies are absent, often overgraze their range and cause erosion or destruction of the vegetation.

A major purpose in constructing the world model has been to determine which, if any, of these behavior modes will be most characteristic of the world system as it reaches the limits to growth. This process of determining behavior modes is "prediction" only in the most limited sense of the word. The output graphs reproduced later in this book show values for world population, capital, and other variables on a time scale that begins in the year 1900 and continues until 2100. These graphs are not exact predictions of the values of the variables at any particular year in the future. They are indications of the system's behavioral tendencies only.

The difference between the various degrees of "prediction" might be best illustrated by a simple example. If you throw a ball straight up into the air, you can predict with certainty what its general behavior will be. It will rise with decreasing velocity, then reverse direction and fall down with increasing velocity until it hits the ground. You know that it will not continue rising forever, nor begin to orbit the earth, nor loop three times before landing. It is this sort of elemental understanding of behavior modes that we are seeking with the present world model. If one wanted to predict exactly how high a thrown ball would rise or exactly where and when it would hit the ground, it would be necessary to make a detailed calculation based on precise information about the ball, the altitude, the wind, and the force of the initial throw. Similarly, if we wanted to predict the size of the earth's population in 1993 within a few percent, we would need a very much more complicated model than the one described here. We would also need information about the world system more precise and comprehensive than is currently available.

Exponential reserve index

One key idea within the The Limits to Growth is the notion that if the rate of resource use is increasing, the amount of reserves cannot be calculated by simply taking the current known reserves and dividing by the current yearly usage, as is typically done to obtain a static index. For example, in 1972, the amount of chromium reserves was 775 million metric tons, of which 1.85 million metric tons were mined annually (see exponential growth
Exponential growth
Exponential growth occurs when the growth rate of a mathematical function is proportional to the function's current value...

). The static index is , but the rate of chromium consumption was growing at annually (Limits to Growth, pp 54–71). If instead of assuming a constant rate of usage, the assumption of a constant rate of growth of annually is made, the resource will instead last
(note that the book rounded off numbers).

In general, the formula for calculating the amount of time left for a resource with constant consumption growth is :
y = years left;
r = 0.026, the continous compounding growth rate (2.6%).
s = R/C or static reserve.
R = reserve;
C = (annual) consumption.

The authors list a number of similar exponential indices comparing current reserves to current reserves multiplied by a factor of five:
| Years
ResourceConsumption growth rate, annualStatic indexExponential index5 times reserves exponential index
Chromium 2.6% 420 95 154
Gold 4.1% 11 9 29
Iron 1.8% 240 93 173
Petroleum 3.9% 31 20 50

The static reserve numbers assume that the usage is constant, and the exponential reserve assumes that the growth rate is constant. For petroleum, neither the assumption of constant usage or the assumption of constant exponential growth was correct in the years that followed.

The Limits to Growth has been reported to have predicted that oil supplies would "run out" by 1992. What The Limits to Growth actually has is the above table, which has the current reserves (that is no new sources of oil are found) for oil running out in 1992 assuming constant exponential growth. In Limits to Growth: The Thirty Year Update there are several pages explaining that new resources are found over time and that the current reserves therefore change but that ultimately resources are finite. (Earlier editions did explain this as well, but not in as much detail.) The standard model includes a resource base of double that of what they have calculated, but the book includes model runs where the assumed resources are infinite, but those model runs still result in overshoot and collapse from other factors.

Related books

Many books about humanity’s uncertain future have appeared regularly over the years. Precursors to Limits to Growth included Harrison Brown’s The Challenge of Man’s Future (1956), Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson
Rachel Louise Carson was an American marine biologist and conservationist whose writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement....

’s Silent Spring
Silent Spring
Silent Spring is a book written by Rachel Carson and published by Houghton Mifflin on 27 September 1962. The book is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement....

 (1962) and Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich was a German scientist in the fields of hematology, immunology, and chemotherapy, and Nobel laureate. He is noted for curing syphilis and for his research in autoimmunity, calling it "horror autotoxicus"...

’s The Population Bomb
The Population Bomb
The Population Bomb was a best-selling book written by Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich , in 1968. It warned of the mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, as well as other major societal upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth...


The most notable books to be published after 1972 and up to the end of the millennium included the State of the World
State of the World
"State of the World" is the eighth and final single from American R&B and pop singer Janet Jackson's fourth studio album, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 .Jackson has only included the song on her Rhythm Nation World Tour.-Chart performance:...

 reports issued by the Worldwatch Institute
Worldwatch Institute
The Worldwatch Institute is a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. Worldwatch was named as one of the top ten sustainable development research organizations by Globescan Survey of Sustainability Experts.-Mission:...

 (produced annually since 1984); the influential Our Common Future
Our Common Future
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development was published in 1987....

, published by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development (1987); Earth in the Balance
Earth in the Balance
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit is a 1992 book written by Al Gore, published in June 1992, shortly before he was elected Vice President in the 1992 presidential election...

, written by then-US senator Al Gore
Al Gore
Albert Arnold "Al" Gore, Jr. served as the 45th Vice President of the United States , under President Bill Clinton. He was the Democratic Party's nominee for President in the 2000 U.S. presidential election....

 (1992); and Earth Odyssey (ISBN 978-0767900591) by journalist Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard is an American journalist. His best-known work is On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency , which described the way the Reagan White House "deployed raw power and conventional wisdom to intimidate Washington's television newsrooms".In the 1990s, Hertsgaard's attention...

 (1999), which "reported on eight years of travel all over the globe to observe the demise of Nature and the degradation of the World".

Since that time, the number of similar titles published and copies sold has itself grown significantly, all documenting evidence that the world is "growing dangerously and spinning out of control".


Soon after publication prominent economists, scientists and political figures criticized the Limits to Growth. They attacked the methodology, the computer, the conclusions, the rhetoric and the people behind the project. Yale economist Henry C. Wallich agreed that growth could not continue indefinitely, but that a natural end to growth was preferable to intervention. Wallich stated that technology could solve all the problems the Meadows were concerned about, but only if growth continued apace. By stopping growth too soon, Wallich warned, the world would be "consigning billions to permanent poverty".

Robert M. Solow
Robert Solow
Robert Merton Solow is an American economist particularly known for his work on the theory of economic growth that culminated in the exogenous growth model named after him...

 from MIT
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private research university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT has five schools and one college, containing a total of 32 academic departments, with a strong emphasis on scientific and technological education and research.Founded in 1861 in...

, argued that prediction in The Limit to Growth was based on a weak foundation of the data (Newsweek, March 13, 1972, page 103). Dr. Allen Kneese and Dr. Ronald Riker of Resources for the Future (RFF) stated:
"The authors load their case by letting some things grow exponentially and others not. Population, capital and pollution grow exponentially in all models, but technologies for expanding resources and controlling pollution are permitted to grow, if at all, only in discrete increments."

Critics also argue that the authors of the report claimed to accept that the then-known resources of minerals and energy could, and would, grow in the future, and consumption growth rates could also decline. The theoretical expiry time for each resource would therefore need to be updated as new discoveries, technologies and trends came to light. To overcome this uncertainty, they offered an upper value for the expiry time, calculated as if the known resources were multiplied by two. Even in that case, assuming continuation of the average rate of consumption growth, virtually all major minerals and energy resources would expire within 100 years of publication (i.e., by 2070). Even if reserves were two times larger than expected, they state, ongoing growth in the consumption rate would still lead to the relatively rapid exhaustion of those reserves.

In 2008 researcher Peter A. Victor wrote, that even though D.H. Meadows et al. probably underestimated price-mechanism's role in adjusting, their critics have overestimated it. He states that Limits to Growth has had a significant impact on the conception of environmental issues and notes that the models in the book were meant to be taken as predictions "only in the most limited sense of the word" as they wrote.

In 2011 Ugo Bardi analyzed the The Limits to Growth, its methods and historical reception and concluded that "The warnings that we received in 1972 ... are becoming increasingly more worrisome as reality seems to be following closely the curves that the ... scenario had generated."

See also

  • Attractiveness principle
    Attractiveness principle
    Attractiveness Principle is one of System Dynamics archetypes. System archetypes describe common patterns of behavior in dynamic complex systems. Attractiveness principle is a variation of Limits to Growth archetype, with restrictions caused by multiple limits...

  • Cornucopian
    A cornucopian is a futurist who believes that continued progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by similarly continued advances in technology...

  • Donella Meadows' twelve leverage points to intervene in a system
  • Economic growth
    Economic growth
    In economics, economic growth is defined as the increasing capacity of the economy to satisfy the wants of goods and services of the members of society. Economic growth is enabled by increases in productivity, which lowers the inputs for a given amount of output. Lowered costs increase demand...

  • Ecological economics
    Ecological economics
    Image:Sustainable development.svg|right|The three pillars of sustainability. Clickable.|275px|thumbpoly 138 194 148 219 164 240 182 257 219 277 263 291 261 311 264 331 272 351 283 366 300 383 316 394 287 408 261 417 224 424 182 426 154 423 119 415 87 403 58 385 40 368 24 347 17 328 13 309 16 286 26...

  • Energy crisis
    Energy crisis
    An energy crisis is any great bottleneck in the supply of energy resources to an economy. In popular literature though, it often refers to one of the energy sources used at a certain time and place, particularly those that supply national electricity grids or serve as fuel for vehicles...

  • Energy development
    Energy development
    Energy development is the effort to provide sufficient primary energy sources and secondary energy forms for supply, cost, impact on air pollution and water pollution, mitigation of climate change with renewable energy....

  • The Global 2000 Report to the President
    The Global 2000 Report to the President
    The Global 2000 Report to the President was released in 1980 by the Council on Environmental Quality and the United States Department of State. It was commissioned by President Jimmy Carter on May 23, 1977, and was directed by Gerald O. Barney. It was based on data collected by different institutions...

  • Hubbert peak theory
    Hubbert peak theory
    The Hubbert peak theory posits that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil-producing region to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve...

  • Limits to Growth Wikiversity Course
  • List of countries by fertility rate
  • Malthusian catastrophe
    Malthusian catastrophe
    A Malthusian catastrophe was originally foreseen to be a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth had outpaced agricultural production...

  • Negative Population Growth
    Negative Population Growth
    Negative Population Growth is a membership organization in the United States, founded in 1972.NPG works on overpopulation issues and advocates a gradual reduction in U.S. and world population. NPG believes the optimal population for the United States is 150 to 200 million and that the optimal...

  • Overpopulation
    Overpopulation is a condition where an organism's numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat. The term often refers to the relationship between the human population and its environment, the Earth...

  • Paul R. Ehrlich
    Paul R. Ehrlich
    Paul Ralph Ehrlich is an American biologist and educator who is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology. By training he is an entomologist specializing in Lepidoptera , but...

  • Planetary boundaries
    Planetary boundaries
    Planetary boundaries is the central concept in an Earth system framework proposed by a group of Earth system and environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University...

  • Population Connection
    Population Connection
    Population Connection is an organization in the United States, formerly known as Zero Population Growth. They adopted their current name in 2002.Zero Population Growth was originally founded in 1968 by Paul R...

     (formerly Zero Population Growth)
  • Richard Rainwater
    Richard Rainwater
    -Early life:The son of a wholesale grocer, he grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in mathematics, where he was a member of the Tau chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. He was recognized by the national organization in 1996 as Kappa Sigma Man of...

  • Societal collapse
    Societal collapse
    Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses , as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers...

  • System dynamics
    System dynamics
    System dynamics is an approach to understanding the behaviour of complex systems over time. It deals with internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behaviour of the entire system. What makes using system dynamics different from other approaches to studying complex systems is the use...

  • Steady state economy


  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
    Jared Diamond
    Jared Mason Diamond is an American scientist and author whose work draws from a variety of fields. He is currently Professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA...

  • Beyond the Limits
    Beyond the Limits
    Beyond the Limits is a 1992 book continuing the modeling of the consequences of a rapidly growing global population that was started in Limits to Growth. Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers are the authors and all were involved in the original Club of Rome study as well...

     (1992 update of The Limits to Growth)
  • The Population Bomb
    The Population Bomb
    The Population Bomb was a best-selling book written by Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich , in 1968. It warned of the mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, as well as other major societal upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth...

  • The Revenge of Gaia
    The Revenge of Gaia
    The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How we Can Still Save Humanity is a book by James Lovelock.- External links :* The Revenge of Gaia * , edited extract from The Guardian, 24 March 2006...

  • Steady State Economics by Herman Daly
    Herman Daly
    Herman Daly is an American ecological economist and professor at the School of Public Policy of University of Maryland, College Park in the United States....

  • Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a finite planet by Tim Jackson
  • The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg


  • ISBN 0-87663-165-0, 1972 First edition
  • ISBN 0-87663-222-3, 1974 Second edition (cloth)
  • ISBN 0-87663-918-X, 1974 Second edition (paperback)
  • ISBN 978-1931498586, ASIN 1-931498-58-X, 2004 Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

External links

Video and Audio