The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome)
Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was just a warm-up for an international best-seller by a group of authors who claimed the prestige of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the novelty of a computer model of world production and consumption. The Limits to Growth: A Report for THE CLUB OF ROME’S Project on the Predicament of Mankind (1972), destined to sell 9 million copies in 29 languages, calculated the exhaustion of a variety of natural resources, including oil and gas, by century’s end. The collision between “exponential growth” in resource demand and “a finite world” led to a confident, dark conclusion:
Although we have many reservations about the approximations and simplifications in the present world model, it has led us to one conclusion that appears to be justified under all the assumptions we have tested so far. The basic behavior mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse.
The prescribed policy to avoid catastrophe was global equilibrium, a state of nongrowth. The book longed for “a totally new form of human society—one that would be built to last for generations.” What was needed was “a realistic, long-term goal [to] … guide mankind to the equilibrium society”—and the powers of government and personal transformation to get there.
Limits to Growth, critics noted, was “Malthus with a computer.” The sponsoring group, an “invisible college” of “intellectual technologists,” reflected the predilections of its founder, Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, who saw a “fundamental imperative” to “transform society” via renewable energy and energy conservation. The “astonishingly young (the oldest was 30), touchingly idealistic, very eager, naive, and bright” authors were true believers. Dennis and Donella Meadows retreated to a New Hampshire farm after completing the book “to learn about homesteading and wait for the coming collapse.” “We definitely felt like Cassandras,” Donella Meadows added, “especially as we watched the world react to our work.”
The study was unveiled to 250 opinion makers, government officials, and environmentalists at the Smithsonian Institution in downtown Washington in March 1972. “We dearly hope that the debate which starts here today will have wide repercussions, opening a new phase of awareness, inquiry, and finally, political action,” stated Peccei. Dennis Meadows, “the soft-spoken 29-year-old director of the project,” as the New York Times described him, pointed to computer-generated graphs hanging from the walls and claimed that even the most optimistic projections about future energy supply could not avert collapse.
One of the chief exhibits was a table showing the remaining years for the “known global reserves” of 19 minerals. Three estimates in consumption years were provided: reserves divided by current demand (“static years”), reserves divided by exponentially growing demand (“exponential years”), and reserves multiplied by five divided by exponential demand (“exponential index”).
Mineral Static Years Exponential Years Exp. Index Years
Aluminum 100 31 55
Chromium 420 95 154
Coal 2,300 111 150
Cobalt 110 60 148
Copper 36 21 48
Gold 11 9 29
Iron 240 93 173
Lead 26 21 64
Manganese 97 46 94
Mercury 13 13 41
Molybdenum 79 34 65
Natural Gas 38 22 49
Nickel 150 53 96
Petroleum 31 20 50
Platinum Group 130 47 85
Silver 16 13 42
Tin 17 15 61
Tungsten 40 28 72
Zinc 23 18 50
Limits to Growth was not derailed by problems that would have discredited less fashionable efforts. Science magazine dissected the unusual Xerox-financed public relations strategy behind the project. The project did not seek or receive any input from the top social scientists at MIT who could have sharpened the analysis—and likely reversed the findings.
One of the excluded, Robert Solow, an economist who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for his work in growth theory, ridiculed the computer model created by Jay Forrester, an engineer, inventor, and professor of system dynamics at MIT’s business school who scarcely understood economics. “‘Doomsday Models’ are worthless as science and as guides to public policy,” Solow argued.
Garbage-in, garbage-out—rephrased as “Malthus in, Malthus out” by one critic—plagued the computer runs behind the dire prognosis of Limits to Growth. Indeed, tweaked model algorithms generated contrary results. A book review in the Washington Post by two scholars at Resources for the Future (RFF) expressed “serious doubts” about an effort jerry-built on questionable assumptions and repeatedly referencing unpublished papers “housed somewhere at MIT.”
A follow-up study by the Club of Rome two years later, funded by Volkswagen, allowed for a modicum of economic growth, a “startling shift” that Peccei explained as an “evolving strategy.” Still, Mankind at the Turning Point (1974), alarmist and shrill, could not duplicate the splash of Limits to Growth. Malthusian studies had become old hat, and the Club’s message had become obtuse. A warning came from a 1976 Club of Rome event, for example, that unsustainable global trends would necessitate “a technocratic version of oriental despotism, of which Stalinism and Nazism have already given us an anticipated view.”
A retrospective on the limits-to-growth debate by Resources for the Future called for a clean break from the Club of Rome’s “fictitious data and dubious methodology,” harsh words indeed. Still, RFF, ever mindful of the middle ground, warned against the “didactic arrogance of the would-be prophets—whether of doom or utopia,” the latter characterized as having an “almost undiluted technological optimism.”
The authors of the original Club of Rome study would be heard from once more in full alarmist cry. The story of the Carter Administration’s swan song, Global 2000, is told in the next chapter [chapter 10: The Dark Decade].