The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, May 9, 2022

"The Limits to Growth" after 50 years: More relevant than ever


50 years after the publication of the first report to the Club of Rome, "The Limits to Growth," it is time to re-assess the validity of its evaluation of the destiny of humankind. Are we really destined to collapse? Or can we still make the right choices and avoid it? It is discussed in a new report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond."

Can you think of a book published in the twentieth century that we still remember 50 years later? There is one that has left such an important mark that we are celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. It is the report to the Club of Rome published in 1972 with the title "The Limits to Growth".

"The Limits to Growth" was a study of the future of the global economy. Its basic message was that growth could not continue to go on forever on a finite planet. And not just that. It also said that if we continued to exploit natural resources without worrying about depletion, pollution, and overpopulation, things would start to go pretty bad: the economy would collapse. When? Maybe during the first 1-2 decades of the 21st century. 

The message of "The Limits to Growth" was hard to digest in the 1970s, an age of optimism and enthusiasm for technological progress and economic expansion. So, from the beginning, the study was criticized and demonized in every possible way, so much that many people, still today, are convinced that it was "wrong" for one reason or another. Actually, there was nothing wrong with the study: it was only affected by the unavoidable uncertainties in the parameters of the system. But the very fact that it was demonized so heavily means that it said something fundamental, relevant to our survival as a civilization and perhaps even as a species.

But what was so special about that book? Many things: perhaps the most important one was that it was the first study that addressed the problems of the future of humanity in a "systemic" way, that is, using a model that, for the time, was incredibly sophisticated. Let me explain: today there is a lot of talk about "artificial intelligence," but the concept was born in the 1960s. "The Limits to Growth" was part of the concept of using computers as a tool to help human intelligence

One of the problems we face when we try to manage complex systems, that is systems where many factors interact with each other, is that the human mind heavily relies on "intuition." We tend to focus on single parameters and consider them as the only relevant factor. Did you notice how people tend to interpret the world's problems on the basis of single factors? "Overpopulation!" "Climate change!" "Pollution!" "Peak Oil" "The public debt!" and so on. All these are relevant factors, certainly, but none of them is the only problem. But how can we estimate their effect when every single factor interacts with all the others? If you focus on the wrong parameter, you can make enormous mistakes. 

That's where a computer can be helpful. The computer is not intelligent, but for this very reason, it is not swayed by ideology or other kinds of personal biases. So, in 1972, the authors of the "Limits to Growth" created a computer-based model that analyzed the human economy according to various hypotheses on the availability of resources, pollution, population growth, and other things.

It was not a prophecy, not a political program, and not a religious revelation, either. The "Limits to Growth" model was simply an evaluation designed to answer the question, "what will happen if ……?" The results were stark clear. If the economy remained focused on growth at all costs, the global economic system would reach its physical limits around 2010-2020. And it wasn't just a matter of stopping growth. It was much worse: the model predicted the collapse of the system.

Today, given the current situation, we may legitimately wonder if we are finding ourselves at the beginning of the collapse that some of the scenarios of "The Limits to Growth" had seen in store for humankind. Is that our future? Maybe, but let me repeat that "The Limits to Growth" was not a prophecy: there was nothing unavoidable in the scenarios it proposed. And the authors never saw themselves as prophets of doom. The study was conceived as a roadmap to avoid collapse! 

Unfortunately, we didn't put into practice the solutions that the study proposed, such as reducing the consumption of natural resources, slowing down economic growth, and the like. But it is also true that today many things have changed. The revolution in renewable technologies has changed the rules of the game. With renewable energy, in principle, we can phase out fossil fuels and avoid the main causes of the coming collapse: depletion and climate change. Yes, but this does not mean that renewable energy comes for free: we have to invest in it and not a little. Unfortunately, up to now, we have not invested enough, not to mention the bureaucratic obstacles that hinder the new installations. 

Even if we could move toward renewables fast enough that we could smoothly replace fossil fuels, that would not be sufficient to avoid all problems. Never forget that the origin of collapse is its opposite: growth. Already long ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, noted that ruin is rapid after growth: it is called the "Seneca Effect." If we want to avoid the "Seneca Cliff," the rapid decline that arrives after the growth phase is over, we need to recognize the limits of our planet. Growth at all costs is a dream of the 20th century, that we must abandon now.  

So, we are facing difficult times, but we can muddle through if we make the right choices. Meanwhile, there is a new book that re-examines the whole story of "The Limits to Growth" and its relevance for our present and our future. It is titled "Limits and Beyond," a multi-author book that includes contributions from 21 authors, including two of the original authors of the 1972 "The Limits to Growth." It is edited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alvarez Pereira. Already available for purchase! 


  1. The World3 model is a system dynamics model for 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 (1972).

    In this 12_03_30 video Brian Hayes explains the internals.

    Far more accurate predictions are possible with the tools we have for big data. Python could make a better systems dynamics model. I found the video a while back when I wanted to know how the Club of Rome model worked.

    but: “You can’t handle the truth,” -- Jack Nicholson

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Since 2018 I have been digging into this Limits of Growth also via Crash Course from PeakProsperity and I came to different conclusion.

    The problem is not the growth, the problem is that via technology there has been enormous accumulation of wealth and capital into hands of few. The same is for globalization. I don´t really see any ecological reason, why should everything be made in China and imported via thousands of air plains or ships cross ocean. The same is for outsourcing and loosing of jobs. I feel it´s more about fight of power over in advanced economies - yes, we will have less production, less jobs but you are helping to save planet! It´s simply ideology and not really clever one. The same is nuclear energy, if you really wanna use clean energy in short time the nuclear is the best option - but no, you are not advancing this technology but going away from it.

    That´s just not really logical, the same with the covid - wear mask, use our useless vaccine, give us money and obey us. The people just have some logical bias or and that´s what i see more realistic, they only interpret their policy of abuse (rulling ideology) as well-being for others - stay home, recycle, don´t consume much, put the heat lower, it´s not for their benefit, it´s for the one, who formulate the ideology.

    So no, there are no limits to growth. If you wanna phase out fossil fuels, you have to work to do that, not sit home, watch TV, demonstrate, bet on bitcoin, follow your Instagram idol and watch how they outsource everything to third world. No, you need to make exactly the same advances as in 1930 - advance technology and set all resources to make the goal. That´s not happening and I really feel it´s more about weakening the population of country and gaining advantage via drugs, fast food, ideology and tittytainment. You are wrecking your political opponents and gaining grip on country ruling.

    1. Correct. The wealth unbalance was not considered in the model. But it is one of the most important elements of the system. But it remains difficult to model it.

    2. Dennis Meadows stated that including more granularity in terms of countries, or including prices would not be sensible as in the long term they are irrelevant. In the case of price he argues that in the long term it is simply a mechanism to determine allocation of a resource, and in decline there are no resources! See around 23 mins in the talk he gave 3 years ago:

    3. There is basic difference in views between Confucius and Lao Tse. Confucius believes that if we set elaborate and firm rules, everything will be fine. Unfortunately, rules that humans formulate are distorting natural flows of energy in nature. It may look strange but Confucianism is accepted equally in the West and the East. Confucianism is dominant force in human societies around the world, in China as well as in US or EU. (The technology of manipulation may be different but the basic idea is the same) Unlike Confucius, Lao Tse thinks that any human intervention is highly destructive. This is because human intervention is usually motivated by greed, and greed is very difficult to model in a complex system. Greed has no limits and is difficult to quantify. That is the problem we face. Many people in the power structures see renewables as just another opportunity for profit, not as solution to the problem.

  4. Renewable energy sources will not be able to replace fossil fuels completely, mostly because of quantitative limits of required raw materials, which will be needed for building not only the energy sources themselves, but also the fleet of electrical vehicles that should replaca the present fleet of ICE vehicles.

    And btw, trucks, farming and especially mining machinery will keep using fossil fuels

  5. ....the model predicted the collapse of the system. .....The study was conceived as a roadmap to avoid collapse!

    The Limits of Growth has actually been conceived as a roadmap to collapse, an opium injection - forcefully leading humans into Collapse - when it colossally failed to emphasise the future role of finite and severely depleting energy resources.

    That was back in the 1970s when the world's population has been almost half of todays, Ghawar, Russia and Iraq's oil reserves, the US and China's coal reserves were still generously full.

    The Limits of Growth has been part of a military-grade psychological operation to abort and fight any genuine quest to explain to humans - how our Western Civilisation is selfish, short-sighted and mentally-compromised.

    The Limits of Growth has been a cheap attempt to delay the realisation that there is no such thing called Capitalism - the rest since James Watt - has been shenanigans and choreography.

    The Limits of Growth is a striking evidence that Ethics and Morals are properties of Physics - or, humans would have refrained from destroying all fossil fuel reserves, that have taken millions of years for Nature to create and store - in just 300 years.

    The Limits of Growth has been no less than a definite confirmation that humans remain primitive species - having no better IQ than the lowest IQ members of their animal kingdom.

    The Limits of Growth is the title of reason - why humans urgently need to add their right to understand what Energy really is - to an overhauled Magna Carta - going forward.

    Now, Aldus Huxley has got the World swimming in oceans of his Syringes, George Orwell has got the World swimming in his CCTVs, and The Limits of Growth has got their Collapse ongoing - our Western Civilisation has fulfilled all its objectives - and done...

    Humans need to be more conscious and resist our outgoing Western Civilisation forcing them playing an Energy Musical Chairs Game.

    After all - "No system of energy can produce sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.

    Energy, like time, flows from past to future


  6. Hello Ugo et commentariat,

    I think it is one of the classic books. On par with "Silent Spring" by Carson.
    A mind-shifter, at least for myself.

    Your paper in 2013 about mind-sized models was very helpful for me to understand the dynamics. (One of the examples was the World3/LTG model.) I also downloaded OpenModelica to run the World3 scenarios to better understand the parameters of the difference equations. Of course I tried to be a good benevolent dictator and coax the World system to stabilize on a high and prosperous level. In vain...

    A slightly off topic: I think that the title of the book is slightly misleading. It does not show any limits of the derivatives ("growth") but limits to the throughput of society. I think that a more accurate title would be "Limits to Man" (as in the old-school "Man - Conqueror of Nature!") or "Resource Limits for Society". I suspect that the inaccurate title is part of why it has been misunderstood. But then again, most people are not interested in understanding the world. And many people mix "Economic Activity" and "Growth".

    For myself, I try to keep my eyes and mind open and adapt to whatever comes our way. It is hard, but not impossible, to perceive reality behind the noise.


  7. I lost my copy. Luckily it's on the web now,

  8. Hello all Art Deco here see my link above to as anonymous, l can't log in.

  9. Curious why you define "intuition" as the focus on a single variable? I would define intuition in the opposite way: the subconscious integration of multiple variables. It's the part of the mind that builds models.

    By contrast, the conscious mind prefers to focus on single variables and arguably the conscious mind can only consider one variable at a time. The best the conscious mind can do is cycle through different variables.

    1. Good point, Simon. I defined "intuition" the way my intuition told me to define it! Probably there are better definitions than mine, but I would still argue that our way to see the world is based on shutting out the noise and focusing on what we think is relevant -- although it may not be. Conscious or not conscious may not be so different. After all, if there is a sabertooth tiger hiding among the bushes, my subconscious mind will alert me -- hopefully! After millions of years of evolution, I think our mind is pretty good at that.

  10. Me extraña que sabiendo quienes fueron los creadores de este libro puedan creerse algo de lo que dicen.
    No se dejen engañar. Todo viene premeditado.

  11. I ordered the book, along with Friedemann’s ‘When Trucks Stop Running’.

  12. I have written a review of Chapter 1 at 'Limits and Beyond: The Yawning Gap' at

    1. Thanks, Ian. Very interesting review. Just a small correction: the editors are myself and Carlos Alwarez Pereira (not Jorgen Randers)

    2. Thanks — correction made. I am currently writing a review of Chapter 2.

  13. Renewable energies if we think of wind and sun will never replace fossil fuels of the 20th century at the same manner. The energy returned on energy invested (EROI) factor is much lower for renewable compared to fossil fuels of the 20th century. Even still today if we look at saudi oil, its EROI is still quite impressive. Another problem with those renewables, they are fatal energies meaning that you cannot ask for more wind or more sun when the demand is higher or less wind and less sun when the demand is lower. In order to adjust to the demand, you need to store the energy generated by those renewables somewhere. Not impossible of course but additional cost. Another big problem resides on the fact that sun and wind are not concentrated energies: thus you need a lot of raw material to capture this energy in order to compensate and also a lot of km2 specially for wind. If you could use almost directly oil in your car after refining it into gasoline, wind and sun energy is transformed into electricity or hydrogen that are stored into the car battery or tank: more raw material in the case of battery and more energy transformation for both that leads to lower EROI. Living the same life as we use to wont be possible anymore. The best energy of the 21st will not be renewables: it will be the energy we do not consume (I should say we do not transform as energy is never really consumed as it never disappears but is just transformed). Energy savings not only driven by technical innovation but also by strong political laws limiting that consumption (in order to avoid the Jeavons effect) as well as better distribution between the ones that consume more compared to the ones that consume less should be the main answer to this energy challenge. Indeed, everybody talks about energy transition avoiding to talk about the pain that will correspond to somehow limiting energy consumption which in turns means limiting consumption and production as a whole. But this pain as it will be desired, it will be much less harrowing than the collapse itself that would lead anyway to chaos and much much less consumption and production. Anyway, consuming energy in excess is not always for good: it could also cause pain and big pain: just look at wars... This type of savings should in theory be obvious but unfortunately it is not for everybody.

  14. Having read The Limits book when it was published so long ago (it altered my entire life) I've often wondered about the book's appreciation outside of environmental circles. To this end I found and looked through numerous media articles with headings such as: "The 100 Most Important Books That Have Changed Ideas."

    'Silent Spring' is definitely in there and so is Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful'. By contrast the 'Limits to Growth' barely ever gets in there. It was certainly printed and read, but I guess the sciency, less than romantic, way it was written made it a thing of particular interest to people with a scientific head who could handle graphs. It was not bedtime reading.

    More so, I think challenging the God of growth was then – and still is in many quarters – deemed to be tantamount to a secular blasphemy. The Limits to Growth was suppressed not by decree, but because it was too intellectually and morally challenging.

    It still guides my life choices.

    1. I noted exactly the same thing: there are plenty of lists of the "100 most important books of the century"; but I couldn't find one that contains the "Limits to Growth"

  15. What is the response to such comment threads?

    1. I suppose it should be something like, "you are perfectly right, absolutely. Now, calm down and have a little rest. You'll be better in a while."