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Forty years ago, The Limits to Growth  explored what would happen if we allowed the world’s population and industry to continue to grow rapidly. They compared humanity’s use of energy and materials to the globe’s long-term, sustainable capacity, and concluded that urgent action was needed to avoid catastrophic collapses. Were they right?

A retrospective in the New Scientest concludes that they were.

Four decades ago, “few believed that there were any limits to growth – some economists still don’t. Even those who accepted that on a finite planet there must be some limits usually assumed that growth would merely level off as we approached them.” Limits to Growth showed that this was almost certainly wrong. Since that time, other work (such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) have given much more detail of how such collapses occur, and what changes are needed to avoid them. But The Limits to Growth was the pathbreaker.

World population growth has, indeed, slowed since 1972. This has bought us extra time, but has not changed the fundamental clash between a limited planet and our accelerating use of energy, materials and water. Like a long term smoker considering whether to quit, we can still help ourselves through better choices, but some severe consequences are now highly likely. According to the original authors, the New Scientist article:

“”Doomsday book” (7 January, p 38) is one of the very, very few critiques of our work, The Limits to Growth, which clearly states our goal was to understand the dynamics of growth in a finite world rather than simply to predict collapse or provide a litany of various limits to physical growth.

Humanity’s use of energy and materials is now so far above the globe’s long-term, sustainable capacity that collapse of some sort is inevitable. Thus I do not pay much attention these days to discussions about how one or another technology will “save” us. It is nevertheless very gratifying to see our message succinctly and accurately conveyed.”

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