Environment

“Limits to Growth” predictions borne out, analysis finds  

Eu
21/10/2014

An early 1970s computer model has proved remarkably accurate in predicting developments in the world economy, population and resource consumption, according to a recent study published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

The computer model, known as World3, was at the heart of the groundbreaking 1972 book Limits to Growth, written by sustainable development pioneers Dennis and Donatella Meadows, with co-authors Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III. At the heart of the book was an argument about sustainability - that economic growth and an increasing world population would eventually come up against a crash caused by the rising cost of natural resources and by environmental pollution.

In particular, according to World3, in a business-as-usual scenario, resource constraints eventually lead to more of the world's capital being spent on resource extraction, in order to maintain food levels and economic growth. When the stock of non-renewable resources falls to about half of the original level, extraction costs begin to rise steeply, leading to sharp falls in industrial output. Consequently, less money is available for services, such as health and education. Agricultural yields also fall because of reduced inputs and environmental pollution. The consequence is a rising death rate and population declines that the Limits to Growth authors estimated at about half a billion per decade.

The new MSSI study, published in September, found that the World3 business-as-usual forecasts have been more or less accurate in population, economic growth and environmental terms. Limits to Growth also included more optimistic scenarios in which humanity does a better job of managing resources, but unfortunately it is the least optimistic business-as-usual scenario that has proved the closest match to actual developments since 1972.

Worryingly, the World3 business-as-usual scenario foresees the beginning of “overshoot and collapse” in about 2015. The death rate rise would start about 2020, with the half-billion-per-decade population declines kicking in from about 2030.

The author of the MSSI study, Graham Turner, ominously concludes that “the alignment of data trends with the LTG [Limits to Growth ] dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway,” and “a relatively rapid fall in economic conditions and the population could be imminent.” Turner points to rising global energy and food prices as indicators of increasing pollution and resource constraints. He adds that acting to pre-empt problems might be difficult, because “scientific evidence of severe environmental or natural resource problems has been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces.”

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