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We are the authors of our decline It's too late to avoid a difficult future

Here we are. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)


March 2, 2022   6 mins

Fifty years ago, the world was put on notice that infinite economic expansion on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster. It came in the form of The Limits to Growth. It wasn’t our only warning. During the heady decades of the Sixties and Seventies, plenty of scientists and scholars explored the ways in which industrial civilisation was backing itself into a corner. But The Limits to Growth defined the high-water mark of that tide of belated common sense — the point at which we came closest to evading the noose that is now tightening around humanity’s neck.

The volume was the result of a research project funded by the Club of Rome and carried out at MIT, which at the time had some of the world’s most sophisticated computers. It was translated into 30 languages and sold somewhere in excess of 30 million copies. Robert C. Townsend, author of the then-famous book Up the Organization, summed up the general reaction in a neat sentence: “If this book doesn’t blow everybody’s mind who can read without moving his lips, then the earth is kaput.”

Of course there was pushback. Within days of its publication, articles denouncing its conclusions started popping up in the media. Books followed, claiming to prove that there was nothing to worry about and infinite growth really could continue forever. Two things made the pushback fascinating to students of human folly. The first is that it so systematically misstated everything that the scientists behind The Limits to Growth were saying. The second was that it succeeded in drowning out what the scientists were saying and replacing it with a caricature that was easy to dismiss.

The same caricature remains glued in place today. Listen to defenders of the conventional wisdom, and you’ll find any number of supposedly serious thinkers insisting that The Limits to Growth claimed that the world would run out of petroleum by the end of the 20th century, or that some other catastrophe would arrive long before now.

It requires no more than a casual reading of the book to discover that these statements are quite simply wrong: The Limits to Growth said no such thing. Yet the lie continues to circulate, because it makes it easier for most of us to avoid asking hard questions about the future of the industrial world.

It is thus worth taking a moment to understand exactly what the book was trying to say. To begin with, it wasn’t offering predictions. It was exploring principles. The World3 computer model used to generate the famous graphs went through dozens of different runs, each with its own set of initial assumptions. The goal of the project was to show how the complex system we call human industrial civilisation unfolds over time. It showed that two crucial factors, both of which behave in counterintuitive ways, set the stage for disaster.

The first of these is exponential growth. Most people have encountered the old story about the Indian sage who challenged a king to a game of chess and asked for a simple gift if he won: one grain of rice for the first square on the board, two for the second, four for the third, and so on through all 64 squares, with each square getting double the number of rice grains as the one before it.

When the king lost the game, he discovered that he had offered the sage an impossible boon: the total amount of rice he owed the sage amounted to more than 210 billion tonnes, enough to cover the entire nation of India with a meter-thick layer of rice.

Most people, when they encounter this story, insist that there has to be something wrong with the maths — that there’s no way a mere 64 doublings could amount to that much rice. There’s something wrong, all right, but it’s not the maths. The human mind instinctively imagines growth in linear rather than exponential terms. There’s probably good evolutionary reason for that — in the world our tribal ancestors inhabited for all those millennia, linear growth was the rule and exponential growth the almost unheard-of exception. But it’s a lethal liability now, when technology has unleashed a whole cascade of exponential growth curves that our minds can’t even begin to grasp without a serious struggle.

That’s one of the two crucial issues that The Limits to Growth anatomised. The other is the impact of delaying factors on the ability of human societies to adjust to change. To borrow a helpful analogy from the book, one of the things that drivers have to take into account is the delay between when they see a problem in the road ahead and when the car can respond to it. That’s why good drivers slow down when visibility is low, or when they are driving in residential neighbourhoods where a child might dart out into the street without warning. The bigger the vehicle is and the faster it’s moving, the more time it takes to swerve or stop.

Delaying factors play an equally challenging role in steering or braking modern industrial civilisation, the biggest and fastest vehicle of all. Anthropogenic climate change makes a good example. Billions of tonnes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases were dumped into the atmosphere from smokestacks and car exhausts before anyone noticed that the planet was warming and climate belts were shifting unpredictably. Most of the climate impacts of the pollution already absorbed by the atmosphere have not yet happened, since the sheer mass of atmosphere and oceans imposes a big delaying factor on them.

In other words, even if we slammed on the brakes now, skidding to a halt is going to take a while — and since it’s still politically possible to ignore the consequences, most nations are still paying lip service to the climate change crisis and continuing to burn fossil fuels as though there’s no tomorrow.

In the real world, exponential growth leads to crisis far sooner than our intuitive models lead us to expect. In the real world, delaying factors make it a lethal mistake to wait until crisis arrives before enacting countermeasures. Combine those two principles and you end up with a stark warning of impending trouble— and that’s exactly what The Limits to Growth provided.

The warning, as we all know, was not heeded in any meaningful way. Talking heads pontificated for a few years, before other topics seized the collective imagination of the chattering classes, and the environmental movement struggled on gamely for another decade or so, before selling out to moneyed interests and turning into yet another set of slick corporate enablers. Most people dismissed the environmental prophecies of the Seventies out of hand, and embraced the conviction that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived. Meanwhile every variable tracked by the MIT study did exactly what the World3 model predicted it would, setting us up for our present predicament.

The close fit between the model and the reality didn’t quite go unnoticed. In 2000, investment guru Matthew R. Simmons published a paper titled “Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?” Simmons assessed the predictions from the MIT study, compared them to nearly three decades of evidence, and pointed out that the World3 model stood up much better than the predictions of its critics: “For a work that has been derisively attacked by so many energy economists, a group whose own forecasting record has not stood the test of time very well, there was nothing that I could find in the book which has so far been even vaguely invalidated.”

In 2014, a study published by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia, headed by Graham Turner, factored in another decade and a half of data and got the same results. Last year, in turn, a study by Gaya Herrington compared the World3 model with empirical data and once again found the model to be impressively accurate. Did any of these findings influence public policy, or even start to clear away the fog of misinformation that surrounds The Limits to Growth half a century after its publication? Not to any extent that matters.

Thus it’s probably wise to assume that a model that yielded accurate predictions of the last 50 years can be expected to yield equally accurate predictions of the 50 years ahead. Here again, misstatements about, so it is worth reviewing what The Limits to Growth actually said about the future:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

The growth trends of 1972 did in fact continue unchanged, and so here we are.

In most of the World3 runs that assumed realistic resource limits and unaltered public attitudes, crunch time arrives sometime around 2015-2030. That’s when pollution begins to cause significant global disruptions, global food supply falters, global industrial output starts a prolonged contraction, and global population peaks and begins to decline as well. If this doesn’t sound familiar, you might want to get out more often.

It’s crucial here to avoid that bizarre astigmatism of the imagination that convinces so many people nowadays that the only possible alternative to business as usual is apocalyptic collapse. Most of the World3 runs, including the ones that match the real world most closely, don’t predict collapse. They predict decline. That’s the future The Limits to Growth traces out ahead of us: a long era of unstoppable contraction in which the exponential growth of the last two centuries or so slams into reverse, and global population and industrial output contract steadily, year after year and decade after decade, until these and other variables finally reach a level that can be sustained over the long term.

From within the conventional wisdom of our time, that long arc of decline is unthinkable. That’s why the warning of The Limits to Growth went unheeded. What too few people were willing to consider back in 1972 is that the future is under no obligation to behave in thinkable ways. Now that the limits to growth are rising up all around us, as global population peaks, industrial output falters, the point at which crisis can be averted is long past. All we can do is try to brace ourselves for a future that will leave the fake certainties of our age in tatters.


John Michael Greer is the author of over thirty books. He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America.


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Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

Whilst “The Limits to Growth” raised some valid points, were the scientists of that time not also coming out with reports that the world would be plunged into a new ice age by the year 2000.

It is pretty chilly outside this morning, but it is hardly an ice age.

We are now living in a world where a minority of people are questioning everything. They cynically wonder whether scientists say whatever the person providing the funding wants them to say.

For years scientists (funded by tobacco companies) came out with research that said cigarettes didn’t damage health.

In recent years scientists (funded by vaccine investors and pharmaceutical companies) have come out with catastrophic predictions that make vaccines for all ages essential.

The same could be set of many sectors who have used ‘the science’ to say what they needed to be said.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could go back to a world where scientists were not in the pocket of their paymasters and so could work independently.

This would help us to uncover some amazing truths, and not just ‘truths’ that met the commervial objectives of their funders.

Kat L
KL
Kat L
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Yes but they aren’t all the same scientists. Did we not just read the same article? The attempts to repudiate the findings failed. Some of these have already started…

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago
Reply to  Kat L

Proof or repudiation are both absolutely irrelevent when you live in a post-truth world, where funding and connections with those who have power and control decide what ‘the truth’ will be. Those who question ‘The Truth’ or offer an alternative to ‘The Truth’ will not be heard or will be cancelled/discredited/defunded. That sounds dystopian and it is, but it is the truth.

Tobias Langley
Tobias Langley
2 years ago

The author served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. How ancient was the order of druids in America? I remember Asterix went there in the Great Crossing but Getafix stayed in Gaul, so it can’t have been founded then.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

More modelling that nobody can prove is correct. Just because two people used the model to get the same result does not prove the model is correct. Show me any prediction that has been correct. The climate models cannot even predict the weather next week. All the pandemic predictions were completely wrong.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

So, in your world, we simply guess? Do you do that in your everyday life, or make some assumptions about savings etc about the future?
If you watched something outside your confirmation bubble – I’d suggest Mallen Baker’s “Dangerously Reasonable” YouTube videos – you might find some detailed information that climate models are actually pretty good. As of course are short-term weather forecasts (climate isn’t weather). But you don’t even need models, look at the Arctic summer sea ice retreat, which is quite dramatic. We’ve known CO2 is a greenhouse gas for 150 years; this isn’t some weird science coming from nowhere. We are emitting huge amounts of it that have been stored in deposits for hundreds of millions of years within a geological blink of an eye.
None of this necessarily means the current Net Zero policies are right, but climate denial is becoming a bit of an embarrassment, and I think will go the same way as those people who denied any link between tobacco and lung cancer.

Amos Farrell
Amos Farrell
2 years ago

“Catastrophe is imminent!”
30 years later:
“Catastrophe is imminent!”
30 years later:
“Catastrophe is imminent!”

See the pattern here?

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago
Reply to  Amos Farrell

Yes, you missed the bit about World3 not predicting collapse: every time.

Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago
Reply to  Amos Farrell

Guess you missed the last paragraph?

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago

What an excellent essay.
It makes the point, cogently, that the question of the contribution of manmade activities to the Earth’s warming is only tangentially related to the wider debate. You don’t need to believe in anthropogenic climate change to be worried about our relationship to this planet’s resources.
I have been arguing for most of my adult life that human overpopulation is the key driver in all this: if we can keep the number to below a billion, other problems simply disappear.
While policy solutions to accelerate population moderation are at first glance unpalatable, once you take into account the alternatives, they emerge as the most humane, indeed the only humane, choice set.
I suspect that in 20 years, this view will have become mainstream. But not before a lot of needless suffering.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

“human overpopulation is the key driver” … lead by example ! Promise to follow

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Croitoru

‘Nessun problema’ as the Pope might say.
Educate women at least to early teens + give these women easy access to contraception and your total fertility rate will drop off the edge of a cliff.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200908170532.htm
Some initial spadework required – enough basic food security to allow female children to be released from the daily grind to go to school and enough hope in a society that educated girls = better life expectancy (to look after Mum and Dad) and the expectation that these girls will be economically benefited by the education (a bit of a no brainer IMHO)

“Leading by example …” Well, a very small anecdote. Of the 20 + close friends of my two 30 something daughters, only 3 have produced children so far. The educated West leading the way – the first in the contraction train ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Yes, education definitely a key part of the solution. But so is the establishment of workable pension systems. After all, many have large families as a sort of retirement insurance policy.
We can also do a lot with the tax systems.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

But that’s the problem. Demographic collapse. Not overpopulation. Particularly in the west. The idea is that immigration fixes that but immigration has its own problems.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

The prospect of demographic collapse is a great problem. In Europe and Japan in particular. Not to mention China where it seems, after the reversal of the drastic one-child policy, young adults are reluctant to have more than one child.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

The educated West leading the way to self-extinction, in fact.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Well we may have depopulation soon enough with war.

If that doesn’t happen, not only is your analysis for 20 years in the future incorrect, it is depopulation or demographic decline that people will be worried about in 20 years. Many are already.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Let’s hope such a war doesn’t happen.
I can’t understand how people can be worried about depopulation, when there have never been more humans on the earth than now.
As for demographic decline, this is a problem that can be fixed with a small amount of policy planning – adjustments to retirement age, automation and some attention to intergenerational fairness will be enough to manage these effects.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Soylent Green policy planning?

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago

No, but perhaps not for the reasons you assume. Old people are sinewy and not very tasty. Babies are tender and much more delicious.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

There are more people on earth for now but populations have peaked in most industrial countries. Only sub Saharan Africa has significant growth rates. Everywhere else populations and the rate of increase are slowing or reversing.

In fact all western countries are going to start declining in actual population pretty soon and the demographic decline will be exponential and not obviously fixable. There’s no solution to always having more people retired vs the working population and generational population decline. Economic growth will be low to non existent. Taxes will be extremely high. For ever. Italy will see its population half by 2100. Then presumably half again or more by 2180. Eventually the country won’t exist.

(Funny enough the west only talks about demographic decline in other countries like China)

In 20 years that will be the worry.

Last edited 2 years ago by Franz Von Peppercorn
Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago

So the prediction of decline will be fulfilled anyway?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

There’s no solution to always having more people retired vs the working population and generational population decline.”
There is. Automation and associated productivity increases will allow for sustainable population decreases.
And while it’s true natural population growth has plateaued in developed countries, the predicted path still sees a global peak around 2050 – at near 11 billion. This is too many, especially when you consider that the developing nations want what we already high – high protein diets, well built homes, gadgets, cars…

Franz Von Peppercorn
MB
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Last edited 2 years ago by Franz Von Peppercorn
Moro Rogers
Moro Rogers
2 years ago

We have never lived on a majority senior planet. I suspect it is going to be extremely unpleasant.

Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Good luck convincing Africa and India, the west and Japan have already started.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Kat L

We’ll need more than luck, Kat. We’ll need consensus and dialogue. We’ll need to arrive at some kind of democratic pluralistic understanding of what must happen.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago

The implicit assumption in the Limits to Growth arguments is that we won’t use technological advances to prevent catastrophes. Please remember that the reason we started drilling in the ground for oil is that we were limited in the number of whales we could harvest for lamp oil. A technology improvement expanded the resources available for lighting.

Anthropomorphic global warming ain’t science. Science has to be verifiable by independent researchers. When Mann and friends said they “lost” their raw data, and refused to show it, their scientific case vanished. Anthropomorphic global warming became strictly politics.

As the world is discovering right now, renewable energy is not ready for prime time. We need fossil fuels to run modern economies. If free countries refuse to produce fossil fuels themselves, they have to buy them from maniacs like Putin, empowering him to invade Ukraine. Isn’t it preferable to allow fracking in your own country?

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

I’ve always thought that the theory of anthropogenic climate change was the ultimate example of hubris.

Marcus Scott
MS
Marcus Scott
2 years ago

A sample of predictions of the year or range of years during which “Peak Oil” would occur in the U.S/world and production would begin its inexorable decline to zero:
1922
1960
1970
1985 to 2000
1965 to 1971
In 2009 the UK Energy Research Centre noted:[36]
“Few analysts now adhere to a symmetrical bell-shaped production curve. This is correct, as there is no natural physical reason why the production of a resource should follow such a curve and little empirical evidence that it does.”
and..
In 2012 the great George Monbiot conceded:
“We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all.”
So that’s the end of that.

leculdesac suburbia
leculdesac suburbia
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcus Scott

I think the concern was energy return on energy investment, or something like that, right?
So Peak Oil was the point at which it would generally be unprofitable to extract new energy because the costs of extracting it (namely, the energy-use costs) would exceed the profit.
IIRC from reading a lot of that until about 2015, some of the theorists felt they’d gotten the “profit” wrong from extraction, because even though there are higher environmental and economic costs to extracting, a lot of that was subsidized by corporate welfare and other systemic thingies that I don’t understand.
So I really, really, really hope that these models are “wrong.”
But what JMG/Club of Rome got right–gets right–for a human population with technology developing exponentially and resource use per capita growing exponentially, is that the risks of proceeding at this rate outweigh the benefits, based on those two principles.
Hard to argue with that, but where I always come back to, after reading JMG, is building community, building personal and family health, building overall resilience, and grounding that in a humble faith in something greater than myself. I’ve learned I can do that w/o reading depressing prognostications every day. What I WISH is that we’d see a growing trend–and we might–of building off-line community resilience, which makes right-wing Christians happy and libertarians happy and progressive folks who buy this science happy. Because what else can we do anyway? Building local community resilience (the Transition Towns movement), or the homeschooling pods arising now, or the parent groups and FAIR chapters who are speaking up against neoliberal identity politics and global corporatism, are all addressing the same harms and building the same strength. What else can we do?

Trevor Law
Trevor Law
2 years ago

So, the predictions that weren’t made have stood the test of time? There won’t be a crisis (just a decline) but the crisis can’t be avoided? A tad confused perhaps?. And, by the way, AGW may well prove to be one of the “fake certainties of our age”

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago

Unherd publishes an article by an authority (in the USA) on the occult, astrology, Freemasonry and Hermentic Occult Spirituality (HOS). An article containing facts and predictions that can be heard any given June 20th at the bar of the Rover’s Return, Stonehenge. What next? David Icke on sunspots or Diane Abbott on perpetual motion?

J S
JS
J S
2 years ago

In NYC while they constantly fret about global warming policy, there is trash and litter everywhere, leaching into the soil and killing us far faster. Here is your metaphor. Abstractions are always more fun.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

It is not infinite growth, but infinite division. Doing more with less. A unending library built from grains of sand, powered by the sun.

Bret Larson
BL
Bret Larson
2 years ago

The planet isn’t finite because people imagine new things all the time.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Agree. Human collective stupidity and ingenuity make it mixed. Out in Singapore. Imperfect? Of course but 5.5m people in small area making it work very well most of the time. They don’t have much use for pessimism.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

But they don’t produce all of the goods they consume.

Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago

Which is key isn’t it?

George Wells
GW
George Wells
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Singapore is amazing.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

“He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America.”
Is that the sound of a barrel being scrapped I can hear

leculdesac suburbia
leculdesac suburbia
2 years ago

He’s got a big following from a lot of intellectuals and PhD’s, but your quick dismissal is noted.
If you never read his 2007 essay, “The Theology of Compost,” it’s your loss.
It’s like the fundamentalist atheists type who mock Thomas Merton or the Dali Llama–their sad loss. The scope of “life” is much richer than playing adversarial textual games with the symbols generated through alphabetic literacy.
God bless. May you one day perceive the sacral nature of compost, before you join it.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

So has Josh Rogan

Ian Wray
IW
Ian Wray
2 years ago

From Thomas Sowell’s ‘The Vision of the Anointed’ (1995) chapter 4:

‘Like most prophecies of doom, the Club of Rome report had an agenda and a vision – the vision of an anointed elite urgently needed to control the otherwise fatal defects of lesser human beings. Long after the Club of Rome report has become just a footnote to the long history of overheated rhetoric and academic hubris, the pattern of its arguments, including its promiscuous display of the symbols of “science” – aptly characterized by Gunnar Myrdal as “quasi-learnedness” – will remain as a classic pattern of orchestrated hysteria in service to the vision of the anointed.’

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

The car and speed analogy, as I so love telling the ex plod who run the speed awareness courses, is entirely fallacious- it is an empirical fact of physics that were any potentially colliding bodies travelling at greater OR lesser speed, collision would be impossible

Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago

You can feel the decline here in the USA…

Lawrence Livingstone
Lawrence Livingstone
10 months ago
Reply to  Kat L

America is sinking. You yanks better put on your life jackets.

Brian Villanueva
BV
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

The “Limits of Growth” posits exponential population growth. This is not occurring.
Look at these 2 graphs: Historical population , Current UN projections
Exponential growth is the rule for an agrarian societies. It appears industrial societies exhibit different patterns. As more of the world has industrialized, the more significant those trends are for global population growth. Best estimates are that we will peak this century between 11B-12B people and will decline thereafter.

This article makes a big deal about global warming risks, but it’s worth remembering that when The Limits of Growth was published, the Club of Rome was actually worried about global cooling. That prediction didn’t hold up too well.

The challenge of the future isn’t resource scarcity. It’s people scarcity.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
Richard Ross
RR
Richard Ross
1 year ago

The *specific* predicted consequences of climate change that the author quotes – decline in population and industrial capacity – are surely happening, but not because of anthropogenic climate change. Materialism and breakdown of the family bond has largely led to a dropoff in Western baby production, and meddling by Covid&Climate-alarmed politicians has resulted in a crippling of our industry.
We can only hope that enough people wake up to the real problems besetting the West, before the Druids et al drag us into oblivion.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

I suppose Unherd has to prove regularly that it’s a broad church, doesn’t it?

Printing nonsense occasionally therefore must be part of the deal.

Franz Von Peppercorn
MB
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Malthusian ideas appeal to a certain type of conservative though, as you can see here.

Moro Rogers
Moro Rogers
2 years ago

It doesn’t get much more conservative than druidism.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Moro Rogers

Well I was talking about the commentators. The overpopulation myth is strong here.