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Have We Reached the Limits to Growth?

The Club of Rome’s landmark 1972 report warning of the potentially catastrophic consequences of exponential economic growth was widely dismissed by mainstream economists at the time. Had that not happened, The Limits to Growth would not be required reading today.

BERLIN – Fifty years ago this spring, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century was published. Written for the Club of Rome by Donella Meadows and colleagues at MIT, The Limits to Growth used new computer models to forecast an uncontrollable collapse in the global population and economy if prevailing patterns of environmental resource use and pollution continued. Exponential economic growth could not go on forever; at some point in the next 100 years, it would inevitably run up against Earth’s finite environmental limits.

A half-century later, with a climate and environmental crisis upon us, the debate triggered by The Limits to Growth has returned with a vengeance.

In 1972, the book came under immediate fire from economists who claimed that its authors failed to understand basic economics. If a resource becomes scarce, its price will rise, they pointed out. Other resources will then be substituted for it, and it will be used more efficiently. Technological innovation will lead to new, cleaner methods of production. Far from leading to social collapse, economic growth was thus self-correcting – not to mention the only way for countries to develop out of poverty.