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Examining the limits to growth

The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, was a landmark publication when first released, one of the first studies to link the world economy with the state of the environment. In this podcast, Dr Graham Turner talks about his recent study that validates one of the book’s key scenarios. (7:30)

  • 11 November 2008 | Updated 9 August 2013

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The book ‘The Limits to Growth’, grew from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study commissioned by world think-tank The Club of Rome to model scenarios for the future global economy and environment and recommend far reaching changes to the way we live to avoid disaster.

The Limits to Growth became the best selling environmental book in history, selling more than 30 million copies in 30 languages.

A new study from the CSIRO examines the then ground-breaking modelling used for the book, which forecasts a global ecological and economic collapse coming up in the middle of the 21st Century, and finds the forecasts to be on-track.

In this podcast, CSIRO researcher Dr Graham Turner talks about his recent report, ‘A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality’.

In his study, he finds that 35 years after its publication, Limits to Growth remains relevant to a number of our contemporary issues of peak oil, climate change, and food and water security, all of which resonate strongly with the overshoot and collapse displayed in the book’s ‘business-as-usual scenario’.

Read more about Reducing consumption key to a sustainable future (Media release 11 Nov 08).

Transcript

Chris Kennedy:   Welcome to CSIROpod.  This is Chris Kennedy.  Limits to Growth was a landmark publication when it was released in 1972.  Produced by a team of American researchers it modelled the consequences of growth in world population, industrialisation, and pollution, in association with the issues of food production and resource depletion.  It was one of the first works to link the world economy with the environment.

Thirty-five years later the work still attracts interest and controversy.  CSIRO research scientist, Graham Turner, talks to us about his recently published study that supports one of the key scenarios from Limits to Growth.

Graham Turner:  Well I’ve gathered data spanning three decades, data to do with the global economy and environmental changes over that time, and I found that it matches one of the key forecasts – we might call them a scenario – and one of the key implications from this comparison of the data and model is that it can help tell us something about the future, the way the world might unfold, and whether it’s sustainable.

And I found that the data match surprisingly closely to one of the key forecasts, and that is something we call business as usual, or if we kept growing the economy in the same way as we have in the past and doing the same things.  And the implication of this is that somewhere in the century we’re in the modelling predicts that there will be a collapse or a crash of the environment, and then subsequently the economy, and then even the numbers of people.

Now the collapse that occurs in the business as usual scenario happens because the pressures on the earth increase faster and faster, and influence each other in the same way that you might imagine someone squeezing a balloon from many different directions, and then eventually the balloon would burst.

Chris Kennedy:   A number of key economists have discredited Limits to Growth over the years.  What made you take another look at it?

Graham Turner:   I have an interest, my research is in looking at the sustainability of the Australian economy, and so anything that tells us about the sustainability of the global economy is of key interest.  And so in my research I came across references to the Limits to Growth quite often, but many of these references actually asserted, falsely as it turns out, that the Limits to Growth predicted we would have run out of resources by the year 2000, and the economy would have collapsed by then.  So they then say that the Limits to Growth was wrong.

This turns out not to be the case.  The Limits to Growth never said that at all.  And so as I got into it I realised that the data that I was using to compare to their model could tell us some important things, and one thing is that the economy was growing strongly, at least back in the year 2000, and that we weren’t immediately running out of resources.  And then another important thing is about us checking models, we would say validating models, and so by comparing the global data with one of their forecasts we can basically test the model independently.

Chris Kennedy:   How likely is the collapse that’s predicted in this business as usual scenario, and are there alternatives for us?

Graham Turner:   Certainly my data that I’ve collected doesn’t say directly whether there will or won’t be collapse.  Really it’s in the comparison of the data to the different scenarios that the Limits to Growth people used and created.  As we’ve already discussed, the data compares well to a business as usual which does lead to a crash in things midway through this century, but there are potentially alternatives, and one of those, a scenario, was if we were to use even more technology to clean up pollution and so on.  I find that the data doesn’t compare well to that scenario at all, and maybe that’s a good thing, because while that scenario delays the crash for maybe some decades, the resulting crash is even worse, it’s sharper.

Another alternative is to do with if we use technology, but combine that with changing our lifestyles, so the Limits to Growth people modelled what would happen if we moved away from a materialistic lifestyle and use technology, and they found that we could then live sustainably.  But the data I’ve collected show that we haven’t been tracking on that path either.  So it seems to indicate that we’re still on this trajectory heading towards some sort of global/glocal crash.

That said, there’s always uncertainty about these things, so we don’t know precisely how things will pan out, but on the other hand I guess we don’t want to wait to find out, either.  And so perhaps the best we can so is for the science to help inform policy making, decision making, and then hope that we make a judgement that doesn’t put our lives, and the lives of our children, at risk.

Chris Kennedy:   We’re currently looking at a global financial crisis, as well as serious issues to do with climate change and the loss of species, is what we’re looking at now predicted in the Limits to Growth forecast?

Graham Turner:   I’d have to say yes and no to that.  On the financial crisis the Limits to Growth modelling didn’t actually deal with financial things, with money.  They modelled physical things, basically our dependence on the environment.  So the financial crisis at the moment may be at least irrelevant to the modelling, however it could be relevant to the way our future pans out, clearly, in an environmental sense.

For instance, it could be that by slowing down the economy and consuming less, and in polluting less, we may ease the pressures on the earth and on the environment, and it may give time for people to change to a different lifestyle.  On the other hand it could be that we try even harder to recover the economy, and to recover growth, and end up polluting even more.

Just a final observation on the financial crisis is that historically data would show that they’re relatively short lived, even though they’re painful for many, many people, they’re relatively short lived compared to environmental changes.  And also the data show that they don’t necessarily have a big impact on the use of resources, or the amount that we pollute.

Chris Kennedy:   That was Graham Turner.  His report A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with 30 Years of Reality is available from the CSIRO website at www.csiro.au.

Graham M. Turner. A Comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change 18 (2008) 397-411. Accepted 13 May 2008, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.