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, July 18, 2022

From Limits to Growth to Regeneration 2030. An Article by Jeffrey Sachs

The 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Limits to Growth," in 1972, continues to generate interest. This is the original English version of the article by Jeffrey Sachs published in Italian on "Il Sole 24 Ore" -- courtesy of Susana Chacon. Above, the cover of the recent report to the Club of Rome, "Limits and Beyond", that re-examines the 1972 study and discusses its relevance for us

From Limits to Growth to Regeneration 2030

Jeffrey D. Sachs   |   May 26, 2022   |   Il Sole 24 Ore

Fifty years ago, Italian business leaders in the Club of Rome gave a jolt to the world in their path-breaking report Limits to Growth.  That thought leadership continues today as Italian business leaders launch Regeneration 2030, a powerful call for more holistic, ethical, and sustainable business practices to help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.  The 50-year journey from Limits of Growth to Regeneration 2030 shows how far we have come in understanding the critical challenges facing humanity, but also how far we still have to go to meet those challenges.
The half-century since Limits to Growth also defines my own intellectual journey, since I began university studies at Harvard University exactly 50 years ago as well.  One of the first books that I was assigned in my introductory economics course was Limits to Growth.  The book made a deep and lasting impression on me.  Here for the first time was a mathematical simulation of the world economy and nature viewed holistically, and using new systems dynamics modeling then underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 
Limits to Growth warned that compound economic growth was on a path to overshoot the Earth’s finite resources, leading to a potential catastrophe in the 21st century.  My professor huffily dismissed the book and its dire warning.  The book, the professor told us, had three marks against it.  First, it was written by engineers rather than economists.  Second, it did understand the wonders of a self-correcting market system.  Third, it was written at MIT, not at Harvard!  Even at the time, I was not so sure about this easy dismissal of the book’s crucial warning.   
Fifty years later, and after countless international meetings, conferences, treaties, thousands of weighty research studies, and most importantly, after another half-century of our actual experience on the planet, we can say the following.  First, the growing world economy is indeed overshooting the Earth’s finite resources.  Scientists now speak of the global economy exceeding the Earth’s “planetary boundaries.”  Second, the violation of these planetary boundaries threatens the Earth’s physical systems and therefore humanity itself.  Specifically, humanity is warming the climate; destroying the habitat of millions of other species; and polluting the air, freshwater systems, soils, and oceans. Third, the market economy by itself will not stop this destruction.  Many of the most dangerous actions – such as emitting climate-changing greenhouse gases, destroying native forests, and adding chemical nutrients to the rivers and estuaries – do not come with market signals attached.  Earth is currently treated as a free dumping ground for many horrendously destructive practices. 

Twenty years after Limits to Growth, in 1992, the world’s governments assembled at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit to adopt several environmental treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity.  Twenty years later, in 2012, the same governments re-assembled in Rio to discuss the fact that the environmental treaties were not working properly.  Earth, they acknowledged, was in growing danger.  At that 2012 summit they committed to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide humanity to safety.  In 2015, all 193 UN member states adopted the SDGs and a few weeks later signed the Paris Climate Agreement to implement the 1992 climate treaty.
In short, we have gone a half-century from the first warnings to today.  We have adopted many treaties and many global goals, but in practice, have still not changed course.  The Earth continues to warm, indeed at an accelerating rate.  The Earth’s average temperature is now 1.2°C warmer than in the pre-industrial period (dated as 1880-1920), and is higher than at any time during the past 10,000 years of civilization.  Warming has accelerated to more than 0.3°C per decade, meaning that in the next decade we will very possibly overshoot the 1.5°C warming limit that the world agreed to in Paris.    
A key insight for our future is that we now understand the difference between mere “economic growth” and real economic progress.  Economic growth focuses on raising traditional measures of national income, and is merely doing more of what we are already doing: more pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, more destruction of the forests.  True economic progress aims to raise the wellbeing of humanity, by ending poverty, achieving a fairer and more just economy, ensuring the quality education for all children, preventing new disease outbreaks, and increasing living standards through sustainable technologies and business practices.  True economic progress aims to transform our societies and technologies to raise human wellbeing.  

Regeneration 2030 is a powerful business initiative led by Italian business leaders committed to real transformation.  Regeneration aims to learn from nature itself, by creating a more circular economy that eliminates wastes and pollution by recycling, reusing, and regenerating natural resources.  Of course, an economy can’t be entirely circular – it needs energy from the outside (otherwise violating the laws of thermodynamics).  But rather than the energy coming from digging up and burning fossil fuels, the energy of the future should come from the sun (including solar power, wind, hydroelectric, and sustainable bioenergy) and from other safe technologies.  Even safe man-made fusion energy may be within technical and economical reach in a few decades.   
On my part, I am trying as well to help regenerate economics, to become a new and more holistic academic discipline of sustainable development.  Just as business needs to be more holistic and aligned with the SDGs, economics as an intellectual discipline needs to recognize that the market economy must be embedded within an ethical framework, and that politics must aim for the common good.  Scientific disciplines must work together, joining forces across the natural sciences, policy sciences, human sciences, and the arts.  Pope Francis has spurred the call for such a new and holistic economics by encouraging young people to adopt a new “Economy of Francesco,” inspired by the love of nature and humanity of St. Francis of Assisi. 
Sustainable Development, Regenerative Economy, and the Economy of Francesco are, at the core, a new way of harnessing our know-how, 21st century technologies, and ethics, to promote human wellbeing.  The first principle is the common good – and that means that we must start with peace and cooperation.  Ending the war in Ukraine at the negotiating table without further delay, and finding global common purpose between the West and East, is a good place for us to begin anew. 

Published in Il Sole 24 Ore for the Trento Festival of Economics, June 4, 2022


  1. "...and finding global common purpose between the West and East, is a good place for us to begin anew.

    This "to begin anew" - is hardly possible.

    Humans are always required to live with what they've got - built and coming from the past..

    It is this - what's coming from the past - has become very little - and diminishing...

    Therefore, today - common-purpose needs to re-invent itself.

    The Limits to Growth was better to start the process of that re-invention - decades earlier.

    Instead, Jimmy Carter has read The Limits to Growth in the 1970s and issued his doctrine - "The Middle East is of a strategic importance to the US, blah blah..."

    Common Purpose needed to tell him then - Stop It, Jimmy - humans, West and East, cannot defy the laws of Physics and how Life works.

    Humans were burning finite fossil fuels in any decade, exceeding all fossil fuels burned in the decades earlier - combined.

    That required humans - billions of them. Killing them requires fossil fuels - and the feedback-loop materialises *.

    Watch here Baghdad last Friday - this is despite Iraq - 8ish million in the 1970s - has been put in vicious war after another - since 1914 - non-stop. Today, Iraq is 40 million - scary.

    "Common Purpose" needs to re-invent itself - "Sometimes; we must do what is required" - Winston Churchill

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most" - and that requires humans - billions and billions and billions of them.


    * All the massive energy-hungry social contract in the US needed to be intact and up-and-running for President Biden to arrive in Saudi Arabia and encourage a 1000 MW/h power connection between S. Arabia and Iraq.
    Iraq needs 100 folds of that power to re-enter the industrial age. Biden stood firm against Iran in that visit, too - as Iran has gained the upper hand in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion of that miserable nation.

  2. Laudable goals Professor Sachs, my only comment on your undertaking is that the truth in all of its manifestations is an important cornerstone necessary to build such an enterprise. We currently live in a target rich environment of the not so truthful. The underpinnings of allegiance to a cause this important require it. Alas, this is an enormous impediment to trust. "Greater good" is a open for debate as to how it is defined, and by whom.

  3. Jeffrey Sachs also sells bridges in Brooklyin if you are interested. Here in Russia is rightly seen as a criminal.

  4. I miss links to where to expand information about this group.
    Mr Sachs (Economics prof.) and Mr Illy (chairman of Illy coffee).

    I don't know. Companies being companies they will end up doing what they do best: profits no matter what. Anything ecological that comes from a big corporation should be regarded as greenwashing.

    I think I'm gonna take a cup of Malongo coffee now...

  5. "The Earth’s average temperature ... is higher than at any time during the past 10,000 years of civilization."

    Nope. The hottest the earth has been in the Holocene was 8000 years ago. There were turtles living in northern Scandinavia. (And it was a lot hotter during the previous interglacial.)

    Here is the graph:

    1. Indeed, the ice core data shows that the Earth's temperatures have varied widely just in the last 15,000 years, from drastically colder to much hotter than today, and all when the human population was insignificant in size, and not burning fossil fuels...

    2. Jeff Sachs failed to note that fossil fuels will be largely exhausted with two generations, at the most, and the human population will adjust to a much lower energy future by shrinking dramatically...Meanwhile, good luck getting our "elites" to stop flying their private jets around...each trip of which uses more energy than than an American household consumes in a year...

  6. "the market economy must be embedded within an ethical framework, and that politics must aim for the common good. Scientific disciplines must work together, joining forces across the natural sciences, policy sciences, human sciences, and the arts"... Three "musts" in one sentence, and each "must" something that TPTB (the powers that be in each area) will not and can not accept without destroying themselves.
    You "must" be kidding. Or dreaming. Sorry.

  7. I have said it a thousand times the LTG calculation seriously under weighed pollution. There are dozens of ways in which we are destroying the biosphere, slowly killing off all life including people with the toxic build up that just keeps getting worse with no thought on how to address it.

    But other than that everything is good!

  8. "The book, the professor told us, had three marks against it. First, it was written by engineers rather than economists."

    I could go medieval on that professor. I think highly of engineers. I may have a bias. I am one. The appropriate criticism of engineers is that they may not see the big picture and become lost in details. Economists, not being men of science can go f*%^#@ themselves. Details they cannot understand. Consequently they have no clues at all.

  9. Ending the war in Ukraine at the negotiating table? Common ground between East and West. Really?. Russia has been trying to negotiate with the West (USA/NATO) since 1991 and increased attempts to negotiate after 2014 and the USA sponsored Maidan coup. What has this got to do with "The Limits to Growth". The Military Industrial Economy of the USA will never promote Human Well-being with its endless wars (none of which it wins btw). The USA banking & economic hegomony will continue to ignore human, economic and environmental well-being in the interests of big finance. Send more HIMARS to Ukraine. Hypocrits.

  10. Look at the second graphic in this article.
    Who are itthey that so desperately need to manipulate us?

  11. "Regeneration 2030 is a powerful business initiative led by Italian business leaders committed to real transformation."

    I can't stop laughing at this line. Your blog has become a perfect negative indicator of the future.