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."

Friday, June 24, 2022

Limits and Beyond: A Review of Jorgen Randers' Chapter


Ian Sutton is generating a series of reviews of the chapters of the recent report to the Club of Rome "Limits and Beyond."  Here is the one about the chapter written by Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the 1972 report. 

By Ian Sutton

The book Limits and Beyond, edited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alwarez Pereira, provides a 50th anniversary review of the seminal report Limits to Growth (LtG). The following is from the back cover of the book.

50 years ago the Club of Rome commissioned a report: Limits to Growth. They told us that, on our current path, we are heading for collapse in the first half of the 21st century. This book, published in the year 2022, reviews what has happened in the intervening time period. It asks three basic questions:

  • Were their models right?

  • Why was there such a backlash?

  • What did the world do about it?

Our review of the first chapter drew two major conclusions.

  1. There is a “yawning communications gap” between the scientists who developed the LtG model and the public and policy makers. This failure of communication contrasts with the way in which many Evangelical Christians believe in ‘The Rapture’. Yet both LtG and ‘The Rapture’ provide a vision for TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It). Why did scientific communication fail, while religious communication flourished?

  2. Reports such as LtG tend to have a threatening tone. They say that if we do not take action quickly then we are going to be in serious trouble. Yet people generally respond better to a positive message. Had the report described the opportunities that a world without growth offers it may have had a better reception.

Jorgen Randers (1945- )
Dr. Jorgen Randers (1945- )

The second chapter is written by one of the original LtG authors: Jorgen Randers. The chapter’s title is “What did The Limits to Growth really say?”

Decoupling Economic and Physical Growth

He makes the point that LtG was not a prediction of the future. It was, in fact, “a scenario analysis of 12 possible futures of the period 1972 to 2100”, and, “. . . delays in global decision making would cause the human economy to overshoot planetary limits before the growth in the human ecological footprint slowed.”

In other words, either we manage decline in a controlled manner (which we have not done) or else collapse happens to us, whether we like it or not. One option that is not open to us to maintain Business as Usual, i.e., a continuation of material growth that simultaneously expands our ecological impact. In other words, the report did not predict the end of growth — it merely predicted, as its title suggests, limits to growth.

How economic growth could continue without simultaneous physical growth the report did not say — it did not show how to decouple these two types of growth. The experience of the last 50 years shows that the two have remained linked to one another inextricably. It appears as if decoupling is not possible. (At least, there has been no serious attempt to do so.)

The Test of Time

Randers asks, “Has the message of LtG stood the test of time?” His response is that “the real world has evolved as foreseen in LtG”. In other words, LtG has withstood the test of time. The report provides 12 different scenarios, they are all similar to one another up to about the year 2020. Events of the past 50 years have followed what these scenarios forecast.

To summarize,

  1. Economic growth and the use of physical resources are tightly linked. Decoupling does not appear to be a possibility.

  2. The scenarios in LtG up to our time, the present day, have turned out to be reasonably accurate.

  3. We are now in overshoot. Managed decline has not happened; collapse is in our future.

Given this background, it is useful at this point to show one of the scenarios that were presented in LtG. (I have added the date overlays.)

The chart makes for grim reading. It shows that, starting about now,

  • The world’s population increases for the next 30 years (which is why some of the per capita numbers are so unfavorable),

  • Services per capita drop precipitously,

  • Industrial output per capita drops almost as quickly,

  • Available resources plunge,

  • Pollution, which includes greenhouse gas emissions, climbs steeply, but then declines, presumably as a consequence of the rapid decline in industrial output.

  • Food per capita also drops sharply — a phenomenon that is one of increasing concern this year.

It is no surprise that a colleague of mine who is very familiar with climate change issues prefers not to look at this chart.

Technological Fix

A common response to results such as those shown in the chart is that technology will provide “save us”. Randers says that, “many thoughtful observers . . . believe that technology will be able to remove planetary limits faster than the rate at which we approach them.”

The report does not predict whether, “investments in electrification and renewable energy will take place at sufficient pace to halt global warming.” In fact, it seems unlikely that such a transition will happen in the short amount of time available. (Once more, we could have managed such a transition had we acted with resolve 50 years ago — but we didn’t.) We now understand that no source of “green” energy has the unique combination of properties provided by fossil fuels, particularly crude oil. Moreover, the transition to new energy sources will require an immense use of fossil fuel energy. Technology may provide some useful responses, but it is not “the answer”.


In the ‘Final Reflection’ that concludes Chapter 2, Randers points out that LtG was published when “human belief in the power of technology was at an all-time high”. That belief is not what it was fifty years ago.

Moreover, there seems to be no way to establish economic growth while not increasing our ecological footprint. Hence, this chapter leads to the well-worn refrain that we should have taken action, but we didn’t. But we have left it much too late to implement managed decline (even if there were any serious interest in doing so, which there isn’t). Therefore some form of induced collapse is in our future.

Essentially, the message of this chapter is the same as it was for Chapter 1 — it is one of failed communication. We never gained the Name of Action.


  1. "50 years ago the Club of Rome commissioned a report: Limits to Growth. They told us that, on our current path, we are heading for collapse in the first half of the 21st century" - but they never told the World - there is no such thing called Capitalism - the rest is shenanigans and choreography....

    A person today driving an SUV weighing 2 tonnes - is Communism disguised Capitalism...

    The energy the person puts in exchange of all energies - that brought the SUV to existence - is never a match...

    Communism disguised Capitalism - has failed - no matter how finite fossil fuels have been traded cheaper than water - as if looted - until today fossil fuels almost no more...

    We all wished finite fossil fuels never deplete, and they can be found wherever one digs - and Communism disguised Capitalism - never fails...

    So where the Limits of Growth and now Limits and Beyond are miserably failing?

    They tried and trying to mask truth - Energy cannot be looted to be enjoyed

    If energy looted, it turns a curse...

    One cannot keep eating or he dies. He must be doing real hard work, then eats no more than what enables him to do the next day work - max - or he quickly dies...

    Knocking down Iraqis, Russians, Ukrainians, Venezuelans, Syrians, Libyans, Yeminis for their energy resources could be done - but the energy looted turns a curse...

    The curse of fossil fuels - if looted...

    "Surplus Energy Must Be Consumed In Slow Chunks - Or It Quickly Turns a Curse"


  2. Thanks for publishing this review. My overall conclusion is that we have a huge communications gap. Has this book helped close that gap? Were most of the people who bought the book already on board with the message, or were there some people who learned about LtG for the first time? Is the book is just preaching to the choir?

  3. Earlier this year, I did some work for a retired steel executive. When I shared about the LTG and the feasibility of transitioning to renewables he said we started 15 years to late. Fellow said he traveled to Brazil and China for work and has been aware of LTG since the 8th grade.

  4. Born 1941 into a scientific milieu I was taking the LtG-report very seriously. Already in the Seventies in Switzerland we tried with some like-minded individuals to introduce some of the reasonings into political action within the existing political parties. When this proved impossible we founded the Swiss Green party in the early Eighties. We were then a bunch of liberal and scientifically interested people of bourgeois background and we postulated to finance old age pensions with taxes on fossil fuels and emissions, instead of taxing the salaries. We were met with a front of hostile and uninformed reactions of all other parties and the media, we were decried as "leftists" and "communists" and it was impossible to have any fair discussion. After the fall of the Sowjet Union the Greens indeed became inundated by former Marxists who continued to dream about a dictature of the proletariat, now founded on ecology, dreams which blocked any further discussions and actions. In 1991 - then being a Green member of the Swiss parliament - I already became convinced that the cause was lost, because all the developments pointed into the wrong direction. A main reason for this was and still is a failure of the media to really inform and discuss the basic issues. Sic transit gloria mundi...

    1. In Italy, it was exactly the same story!

    2. In a next life I will be coming to work at your institute...

  5. So why does the media fail to inform? One reason may be that anyone who looks into these issues thoroughly recognizes that we are going to have to drastically reduce our level of consumption. That's a message people don't want to hear, regardless of their political views.

    Also, there is the normalization effect. If each year is a little hotter than the one before it we do not see a need for fundamental change. Climate scientists talk about tipping points. I wonder if there might be societal tipping points, which is why I wrote 'Needed: A Tipping Point' at If Lake Mead becomes a dead pool within the next few years millions of people will be without water and power. It would be hard to normalize such an event.

  6. The incentive to acquire personal wealth and wield power by those in the ranks of authority has led us to this precarious place in my opinion. LtG was the perfect wake up call at the right time but society shrugged it's shoulders once more oil was found. It didn't take long for the collective conscience to adopt the incorrect notion that we'll always find more... or even more fantastic - we'll simply invent some new energy source. Alas, unless you can truly cognitively grasp the concepts, maybe understand a little bit about exponential growth and related rates of consumption and depletion v energy... there just isn't a neuron firing that says "fear this path we're on." In my mind this is where real leadership has been rare (academic, political, theological etc.). I suppose the politics of governance coupled with short sighted economic theory all helped to suppress any serious educational efforts as depletion is not as attractive as growth with its monetary inertia providing hope to building investment portfolios. Soon, the dangers will be very apparent. Once the bad news is on the doorstep - then the mass awakening. LOL, still not a mass understanding, but time to start running around waving hands in the air! At least that's how I imagine it will be. With dozens of conspiracy theories to explain it all presented by "experts."

    Now the scary thought to me is what happens after the big realization that "something" is very wrong? So far the use of logic has been scant, so perhaps collapse will be scattered about with some creative narrative about a common enemy so the existing structures can try to stay in place and protect us...

    Interesting times.

    1. Our host's observations to do with Augustine of Hippo provide guidance. As the Roman Empire declined the Roman Church provided leadership. It also provided a theology - an explanation as to how the world works. Scientists (and engineers) in our world have not provided a 'theology for our times'. They say that "we" have a problem, and that someone should do something about it. That is not leadership.

      In my comments on the first Chapter of 'Limits and Beyond' at ( I noted that belief in the "Rapture", at least in the U.S., is gaining ground. Say what you like about the idea, it does (a) accept that the material world is ending, and (b) offer hope of a better world to come.

    2. I agree. I think tipping points will happen, collapse will accelerate and the vast bulk of the population, even in countries with great educational systems, will die thinking that some "other" is to blame, even though the real causes have been known for many decades.

      The ramifications of limits to exponential growth are so obvious that I have always been flabbergasted that the world as a whole didn't try to do everything possible to avoid them. On the other hand, the ramifications of stockpiles of nuclear weapons are pretty easy to understand, too, and that's a much simpler problem to deal with than deliberately limiting economic growth. I fear that humans have a lot of maladaptive traits, the consequences of which will appear very soon.

  7. "The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could."