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Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

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In 1972, three scientists from MIT created a computer model that analyzed global resource consumption and production. Their results shocked the world and created stirring conversation about global 'overshoot,' or resource use beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Now, preeminent environmental scientists Donnella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows have teamed up again to update and expand their original findings in The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Global Update.

Meadows, Randers, and Meadows are international environmental leaders recognized for their groundbreaking research into early signs of wear on the planet. Citing climate change as the most tangible example of our current overshoot, the scientists now provide us with an updated scenario and a plan to reduce our needs to meet the carrying capacity of the planet.

Over the past three decades, population growth and global warming have forged on with a striking semblance to the scenarios laid out by the World3 computer model in the original Limits to Growth. While Meadows, Randers, and Meadows do not make a practice of predicting future environmental degradation, they offer an analysis of present and future trends in resource use, and assess a variety of possible outcomes.

In many ways, the message contained in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is a warning. Overshoot cannot be sustained without collapse. But, as the authors are careful to point out, there is reason to believe that humanity can still reverse some of its damage to Earth if it takes appropriate measures to reduce inefficiency and waste.

Written in refreshingly accessible prose, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is a long anticipated revival of some of the original voices in the growing chorus of sustainability. Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update is a work of stunning intelligence that will expose for humanity the hazy but critical line between human growth and human development.

338 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1972

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About the author

Donella H. Meadows

23 books314 followers
Donella H. "Dana" Meadows was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She was educated in science, receiving a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton College in 1963, and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard in 1968. After a year-long trip with her husband, Dennis Meadows, from England to Sri Lanka and back, she became, along with him, a research fellow at MIT, as a member of a team in the department created by Jay Forrester, the inventor of system dynamics as well as the principle of magnetic data storage for computers. She taught at Dartmouth College for 29 years, beginning in 1972.

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Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
October 31, 2022
7/22/21: A relevant update: The "Lying flat" movement by young people in China who resist the idea that working more and producing more will be better for each and all of us, and the world:


Updated slightly, 12/1/17 (a few links added, below):

“We must not succumb to despair, for there is still the odd glimmer of hope.” Edouard Saouma, 1993 [And yes, one of my points here is that there remains yet a little hope, as we approach 2018. My other point is that Meadows wrote this in 1993, a quarter of century ago; those odd glimmers of hope continue, but are growing fainter.]

{update October 2022: A lot of nations committed to tepid goals for climate change--minimum standards for saving the human race as we destroy the planet--a couple of years ago, and today, less than 25% seem to be even pursuing these goals. What is inextricably part of this failure? A commitment to economic success over public health, of the survival of the few over the needfs of the many. The commitment to endless "growth" which continues to in reality be a consistent and unrelenting drive to the "Eve of Destruction". No commitment whatsoever to sustainability).

Lyrics to "Eve of Destruction":


In 1972 three MIT scientists developed a computer model for examining current trends in global resource production. They updated their report in 1992, and again in 2004 with this book. I didn’t read it in 2004 though I read reviews of it and executive summaries. I finally read it now. As they have tracked consistently since 1972, the authors show that humans have created a condition they call “overshoot,” (using more than the planet can sustain) which can only lead to global catastrophe. And this is not some little obscure scientific secret; in each version of this report, millions of copies have been sold. The authors aren’t in the practice of making predictions; they show you models for what probably will happen if you do this or that. And we are—some good news to the contrary—doing almost exclusively “this”—leading to global catastrophe, rather than “that,” which is in earnest beginning what they say is absolutely required, what they call “the revolution of sustainability,” the third revolution after the agricultural and industrial revolutions that profoundly changed the planet.

Their point is that there are still (in 2004, 14 years ago) choices to make:

“People don't need enormous cars; they need admiration and respect. They don't need a constant stream of new clothes; they need to feel that others consider them to be attractive, and they need excitement and variety and beauty. People don't need electronic entertainment; they need something interesting to occupy their minds and emotions. And so forth. Trying to fill real but nonmaterial needs-for identity, community, self-esteem, challenge, love, joy-with material things is to set up an unquenchable appetite for false solutions to never-satisfied longings. A society that allows itself to admit and articulate its nonmaterial human needs, and to find nonmaterial ways to satisfy them, would require much lower material and energy throughputs and would provide much higher levels of human fulfillment.”

This book was written before Trump and his unlimited growth climate deniers were elected/appointed. But it's not that crowd's fault. They are a symptom, not a cause, finally. The past fifty years, the authors cite clearly, has shown climate change to be the most terrifying example of overshoot. The ice caps are melting, fresh water is disappearing, species die-off continues unabated, forests are being wiped out, and only small dents into carbon emissions are being made. Consumer/industrial capitalism continues at a steady, ominous pace. The Paris Accord was encouraging in its acknowledgement that the threats to catastrophe are real, but for the major contributors to climate change, only baby steps were taken.

What to do? To make the choices we have not yet fully made will require a Marshall Plan-level of global commitment. After all the charts and models, the authors include a chapter that suggests that in addition to science and technological innovation, certain principles will also be necessary for sustainability : Visioning, net-working, truth-telling, learning, and loving. I don't need to tell you that very little actual "progress" is being made with any of these noble goals.

And the authors insist that strict industrial and corporate regulations will be necessary to enact a sustainable planet. Ah, but you say you don't like big government? In the kind of “post-fact” world where this very week Trump has moved to dismantle many regulations he sees as limiting business growth, it is hard to be optimistic about the future: “Running the same system harder or faster will not change the pattern as long as the structure is not revised.” But today, we don't seem to have figured out how to do that on a global scale. The most powerful nations are the most stuck in the tragic present. Dancing as fast and frantically as we can.

If you look world-wide, there are groups of people and even sometimes entire nations moving in the right direction. The foundation for renewable energy resources is being developed in some places at a pace the authors of this volume might have hoped for half a century ago. This is good news. Too little too late? Probably, I write on December, 2017.

The authors wrote this in their 2004 report. I have no idea if they also said it in 1972, but things were indeed said like this during that decade--the decade of the first Earth Day--about the planet:

“Sustainability is a new idea to many people, and many find it hard to understand. But all over the world there are people who have entered into the exercise of imagining and bringing into being a sustainable world. They see it as a world to move toward not reluctantly, but joyfully, not with a sense of sacrifice, but a sense of adventure. A sustainable world could be very much better than the one we live in today.”

Here is my review of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? By the Worldwatch Institute:


But then there’s now this: 16,000 scientists sign dire warning to humanity over health of planet:


And then there's this. Lake Chad, in northern Africa, was one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, the size of New Jersey. It is now 95% gone. Here's an article, out now, 12/2017 about this very real disaster:

Lake Chad was once the size of New Jersey:

Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,548 reviews1,821 followers
November 10, 2018
This is the book that poses the difficult question of if intelligent life exists on earth. It is an update of the original Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits with a couple fewer scenarios. The scenarios all model the consequences of the pursuit of growth measured in terms of industrial output, food, and services.

The authors describe the assumptions that go into their computer model and observe that the majority of resulting scenarios result in overshoot and collapse the world as an environmental and economic system, and they discuss a couple of possible overshoot scenarios before taking a break to restore some optimism by looking at the measures taken to deal with CFCs.

The following scenarios answer a series of 'what if' questions that allow them to model the potential outcomes of intervention in reducing pollution or concentrating on agricultural production. These also tend to end badly. It might be amusing to notice that most of the scenarios involve human society eventually being overwhelmed by the legacy of pollution and the degradation of the environment except for those which have very optimistic assumptions or in which radical change started in the 1980s, but for the fact that we're all on-board this ship of fools.

The answer and the difficulty of the problem is inherent in the question. A world view, or a set of values that pursues growth through the deployment of Capital and seeks a return on that Capital in the context of exponential growth, delayed feedback, non-linear cost increases and diminishing returns exercised on a global scale will result in overshoot and collapse. Just as a population of herbivores on an island will also cycle through population explosion and collapse as they breed beyond the carrying capacity of the land.

For the authors, the solution is to escape from the prison of the concept of growth. Which is a cultural change potentially as far-reaching as the industrial or agricultural revolutions. When one considers the world and who has power in it and what power is in the world as it currently is and what growth means to those who have power, one realises that the alcoholics are in charge of the bar and the chance of there being any beer left before they all die of cirrhosis of the liver seems small indeed.

Overall the sense of societies expanding beyond their environmental limits, adopting new technologies leading to increased complexity and vulnerability reminds me of Brian Fagan's account in The Long Summer of the collapse of prehistoric and early societies in the face of climate change with the impact of switching to labour intensive food sources or the prolonged shortage of food is left recorded on the skeletal remains.

The first time I read it, I was disappointed by this book, possibly because I was too excited by its reputation beforehand. The second time through though I was struck by the oddly gentle tone of the prose.

It is full of interesting titbits but for me the most significant realisation arising out of the book is that the movement into post peak production will not be announced by Angels at the world's imagined corners blowing their trumpets on that last and busy day. We are already post peak in terms of world copper production (and have been for most of the 20th century) but life goes on, the adaptation to the change is accepted unconsciously.

It leads me back to thinking about the collapse of the Roman empire in Western Europe. It is from a historical perspective that it stands out as a shocking event but as experienced for people alive at the time it was a process that took place over decades. St. Augustine felt the psychic shock of the sack of Rome in far off Carthage but was it an event that made an immediate difference to his daily life?

Recommended for its discussion of systems and the check-lists to spot if your society is close to overshoot.

Update September 2014: research by The University of Melbourne has found that historical trends from 1972 to 2010 have matched the business as usual model developed in The Limits to Growth fairly closely meaning that we are still on trend for a general onset of collapse events. it is good to know that even in our uncertain times that our propensity to over consume can be still be relied upon.

The paper's author suggests that the recent global financial crisis was related to the on set of collapse - which since even the airy-fairy world of international banking is not completely disconnected from actual physical activities sounds intuitively reasonable.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
May 23, 2020
One of the most important environmental books of all time, which I actually read as millions others did in 1972, largely "discredited" by the "establishment" Pro-Growth industry. It was written by a group of several assembled thinkers--scientists and industrialists, working together, imagine that--of the time called The Club of Rome. It was translated into dozens of languages, and in 1979, some U. S. poll had it that while a third of this country was "pro-growth," another third was actually "anti-growth," consistent with E. P. Shumacher's Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, which everyone I knew then also read.

Here's a short summary of what it said:

1. If the trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, water availability and other resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next 100 years;

2. It is possible to be alert to these growth trends and establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his or her individual human potential;

3. If the world’s people decide to strive for the second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chance for success.

The short story, 1972-2016: The economic growth people won and the planet lost.
Profile Image for Amin.
355 reviews323 followers
July 5, 2018
شاید همین بزرگ ترین هنر اثری کلاسیک باشد که بگوید چقدر در دنیای فعلی هنوز معنا و کاربرد دارد. به عنوان یکی از ��ولین آثار با تاکید بر کارکردهای تفکر سیستمی در تحلیل سازوکار مهمترین منابع دنیا و مسائل مربوط به علم پایداری و محیط زیست، به نظرم نوع مدلسازی و تحلیل مسئله و شرح مرزهای سیستم همچنان بسیار درس آموز است. شاید برای کسی که الان بعد از چهل و پنج سال کتاب را میخواند و با تفکر سیستمی و مدلسازی سیستم های پیچیده اشناست بعضی فصلها و مطالب ساده به نظر برسند، اما همین نکته نشان میدهد که چقدر روش بکارگرفته شده در این کتاب فراگیر شده و در مسیر پیشرفت دانش قرار گرفته است

اندیشه ای متمرکز بر تعادل اقتصادی و رساندن سیستم به وضعیت پایدار بجای تاکید بر رشد اقتصادی بعد از این همه سال هنوز هم رادیکال محسوب میشود و صحبت از تاثیر تکنولوژی به شکل تاخیرانداختن در بحران بجای حل آن هنوز هم تامل برانگیز است. اما برای من مهمترین نکته همین نگرش کتاب در توجه به دینامیسم مصرف و آثار درازمدت تصمیمات کلان در زمانی است که صحبت از چنین اندیشه هایی در دوران پس از دوره طلایی اروپا و ظهور بازار مصرف اندیشه ای کلیدی و بسیار آینده نگرانه بوده است.
Profile Image for Xander.
420 reviews141 followers
May 15, 2022
Thought-provoking book, a classic, on the central problem facing humanity: How to curb the exponential growth in population size and industrial production?

The problem is a mathematical one: within a finite system (the universe, the planet) exponential growth will lead to collapse. Due to our success in mastering the world through science, technology and capitalism, and bettering our existence on many accounts, we have created a culture of techno-optimism. That is, we see technology as the solution to all our problems.

This blinds us to the fact that certain problems are insoluble through technological means. Some problems are social problems, moral problems.

The authors of Limits to Growth argue that only by curbing the growth of population and industrial production can we avoid a collapse of the world system. Both processes are intrinsically tied to physical substrates: people need food, production requires resources, and both food production and industry require the Earth to absorb pollution. Land, resources and pollution-absorption are physical, finite factors. That is, they constrain the amount of people and production.

This is inevitable - it's cold hard logic. The only question is: Do we willingly curb our birth rates and material consumption? Or does the planet itself enforce its boundaries on us? In the first case, we can improve society (based on a state of equilibrium instead of growth). In the last case, humanity will suffer a brutal fate.

Ultimately, the problem is a political one. And it requires a political solution. Unfortunately the Left has captured these themes and politicized them heavily, while also acting as guardians for the current destructive model of society. For example, the authors note (correctly) that all increases in productivity due to technological developments have been absorbed by population growth and increased production.

The Netherlands, for example, is a country that has grown by 2.5 million people in just over 25 years - mostly due to mass migration. During this time, wages remained pretty much the same, while productivity soared sky high. And as mentioned, it is the political Left that is actively promoting this mass migration policies.

The lesson, of course, is you can't have your cake and eat it. You can't criticize the political Right for their capitalism and exploitation of common citizens while at the same time acting as guardians of that exact same system.

We need to have fewer people, work fewer hours, consume fewer material goods. At the same time we need to spend more time on our social relationships, on consuming services (such as education, sports and art). This is possible, it's just a matter of political choice. Both Left and Right obviously don't want this improved state of affairs. Why?

To show it is possible, I will quote Bertrand Russell at length (from his In Praise of Idleness). His brilliant insights speak for themselves:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins. Pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all around instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?
Profile Image for Sebastien.
252 reviews287 followers
April 10, 2017
The book Limits to Growth views the world through a systems analysis prism. It looks at where we are at in terms of current and potential future earth resource use and waste creation and what the earth can sustain in these arenas. We are in overshoot mode according to the book (we entered this zone back in the 80s according to their data). This is a dangerous mode to be in especially for long periods of time as it increases probability of a collapse occurring.

How solid are the models and science of the book I can't really say, but the overarching themes and arguments seem logical. Given the vast degree to which we are terraforming the earth (for living space, transportation, food, industry), rates of resource extraction, amounts of waste creation, rate of transitioning (too slow) to more sustainable modes of energy, production, consumption, and how we are affecting the climate one has to suspect we are courting disaster by playing with fire, pushing earth systems to their limits, tempting collapse of broad macro-ecosystems which would be catastrophic for global human civilization in all aspects (social, economic, political).

The debate around the book and concept is interesting. There are various critiques of the book worth reading as well to get a sense of what the debate looks like, but the fundamental concepts and problems advanced by the book work well imo, and I'm fairly aligned with the assessments and conclusions the authors of this book make.

There are three authors: Dana Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers. The quotes, see below, are from the authors' preface. And I hate to say this, I'm normally quite an optimistic person but when it comes to this stuff I come down more on the side of Jorgen and Dennis. Doesn't mean I think we are screwed and can't do anything, in fact there is much we can do. But I think if we don't make monumental changes and shifts in policy the major environmental pressures will keep growing eventually forcing a significant downward shift of global civilization, the irretrievable damage we cause to the planet will fundamentally lower and cap what this planet is capable of providing us in terms of potential average human welfare.

Technology can provide buffers, but without proper policy and management of resources and earth systems it will not save us. Imo the idea of tech saving us is just an excuse for us to continue as is, heedless of future consequences that may be irrevocable regardless of what future tech might accomplish. Of course I do think technology will be part of the answer in helping us create and maintain more sustainable systems and mitigating problems we have caused, but I just don't like the blind techno-utopianism that is willing to give us an excuse to continue in a heedless irresponsible manner. Such belief in future tech as the deus ex machina that solves all the problems we caused today gives us carte-blanche to do whatever, blindly continue the status quo, because we think future tech is our ace in the hole that will pull us back from disaster. It's a very risky assumption, such thinking means one is willing to bet on such an unknown future thing when the stakes are so high, the risks of continuing status quo are massive. It's seductive because it shifts all onus and responsibility to the future and the magic of the future generations to solve the problems we caused and perpetuated today. But some (much?) of the damage we cause today will likely prove irrevocable, so that's a bit of an issue with that argument for me.

Sure it's impossible to predict the potential damage of our current status quo, especially in regards to things like climate change which are such wildcards, it is hard to super accurately predict how damaging climate change will ultimately prove. How much will it change broad macro-ecosystems and climate patterns? what will be the degree and magnitude of shifts? everything is so interconnected that these shifts are quite frightening to imagine, the potential cascades... but I think it's safe to assume that continuing our status quo is incredibly risky and we have embarked on a broad and dangerous experiment.

I do try and feed my optimism while hoping to stay grounded in some sort of realistic assessment of actual circumstances and contingencies. We should try and keep building awareness, pushing solutions, living the change we believe in, and explain the vision of what may be possible:

"We promised Dana Meadows before she died in early 2001 that we would complete the “30-year update” of the book she loved so much. But in the process we were once more reminded of the great differences among the hopes and expectations of the three authors.

Dana was the unceasing optimist. She was a caring, compassionate believer in humanity. She predicated her entire life’s work on the assumption that if she put enough of the right information in people’s hands, they would ultimately go for the wise, the farsighted, the humane solution- in this case, adopting the global policies that would avert overshoot (or, failing that, would ease the world back from the brink). Dana spent her life working for this ideal.

Jorgen is the cynic. He believes that humanity will pursue short-term goals of increased consumption, employment, and financial security to the bitter end, ignoring the increasingly clear and strong signals until it is too late. He is sad to think that society will voluntarily forsake the wonderful world that could have been.

Dennis sits in between. He believes actions will ultimately be taken to avoid the worst possibilities for global collapse. He expects that the world will eventually choose a relatively sustainable future, but only after severe global crises force belated action. And the results secured after long delay will be much less attractive than those that could have been attained through earlier action. Many of the planet's wonderful ecological treasures will be destroyed in the process; many attractive political and economic options will be lost; there will be great and persisting inequalities, increasing militarization of society, and widespread conflict."

What do you guys think? where do you guys stand?
13 reviews
July 10, 2013
A groundbreaking book that is even more relevant today than when it was written.

It was widely criticised at the time and is now often written-off as having been 'widely discredited' - obviously only by people who haven't read the book. As they say many, many times, it is not a prediction - nor could it ever be - but rather an attempt to investigate the "behavior modes" of a connected system of exponential growth and positive feedback loops with finite resources.

No-one can model the future of the entire complex global system with any kind of definitive predictive accuracy, but they can still provide very useful insights into the potential behaviour of a system. No transition can be pinpointed to one time or one place, but a message of caution is still relevant.

Their message was simply this: As the pace of growth increases exponentially, delays in system feedbacks could prove catastrophic as the response time can be too slow to avoid overshoot and an inability to maintain levels of food production, industrial output and capital, and therefore population. No matter how they modified resource levels and technological growth, unchecked growth always ended up with overshoot and collapse.

So far we have managed to avoid all of the limits we've faced collectively, but as the world gets faster and faster, every limit passed simply exposes us to a new one. I compare it to the speed of cars. We have surpassed many of the limits to vehicles in modern times, each capable of higher performance, but yet we have still had speed limits which haven't changed for decades. That is because we recognise that no matter how good the vehicles become, the reaction time and abilities of the driver stay the same. The faster we go, the lower the tolerance for error, and the bigger the mess if anything goes wrong.

It is a sobering read, but it was also a positive one, in that it presented options for how to avoid overshoot. The only problem is that that was 40 years ago. In more recent runs of the model they can no longer find a plausible set of input parameters that avoid overshoot. So let's hope the next limits we encounter are enough of a close call to wake us up to realising that we can't grow materially forever, but not so bad as to be catastrophic.
Profile Image for Hong.
46 reviews14 followers
February 12, 2016
Q: Could you summarize this book?
A: Several scientists built a computer model to forecast the destiny of humanity in 21st century and predict a decline in human welfare (after some decades). This type of overshoot behavior is well-known in any systems that exhibits (i) exponential growth (e.g., ever-increasing rate of resources extraction), (ii) delay mechanism of some sort (e.g., time lag between CFC production and ozone depletion) and (iii) physical limit (earth is finite in size). To avoid societal collapse requires (a) birth rate control, (b) technologies to remove pollution and improve agricultural land, (c) stop material consumerism.

Q: That sounds like bullshit. It's merely a computer model.
A: The authors make no prediction. They are merely pointing out the qualitative behaviors of the system (i.e., human society and ecology). By tuning various parameters (e.g., amount of oil underground), 11 different scenarios were explored. Every scenarios, except one, involves societal collapse. That exceptional case is produced assuming the aforementioned (a)-(c).

Q: I disagree with everything you say. The real world is much more complex than a computer model. For example, when certain resources is getting close to depletion, price goes up, motivating recycling / conservation techs / alternative materials. The world will reach a new equilibrium state anyway.
A: Switching / conservation technologies require time and additional capital. These are considered in the model.
A: No doubt the world will reach a new equilibrium. The question is whether the transition from the current state to this "new equilibrium" is painful.

Q: This is crazy. Why are you giving this book 4 stars?
A: I am interested in the development of human society in the next 50-100 years; this book gives many insights on the problem. It gives me tools to think about human society as a system.
Profile Image for Tuck.
2,223 reviews208 followers
December 19, 2012
oh fuck. these folks were spot on when they wrote in 1972 that our consumption and pollution would catch up with the earth's ability to absorb it without drastic repercussions. while the authors didn't take into account class, politics, capitalism, or violence (they said it was too variable to lump in gross generalizations into their systems analysis so left those out, and made it "a-political", but this really needs to be added in, say for example you are super rich, have a house in tahoe, and manhattan, and feed you dog prime rib and daily doses of valium, and jet set around and drive ROATS, you are impacting earth way more than say if you were an afghan family living in an adobe with no electricity and you ate your pet last winter), they concluded that if us on earth continued polluting and consuming at the 1972 rates, we'd cause catastrophe by 2050. carbon dioxde levels are now 400 ppm and rising, oceans have absorbed so much carbon they are 30% more acidic (causing extinction of little tiny creatures that all the big creatures rely on to eat, and us to eat) so yeah, we're screwed. says dennis meadows, one of the authors, "In the early 1970's, it was possible to believe that maybe we could make the necessary changes. But now it is too late. We are entering a period of many decades of uncontrolled climatic disruption and extremely difficult decline." :(
620 reviews44 followers
March 8, 2010
Serious critique of contemporary technological society

This book is neither easy nor pleasant reading. However, it is not the purely pessimistic voice of doom or the rabid environmentalist tract that many reviews described when the first edition came out 30 years ago. Rather, it is a sort of cross between a primer on budgeting and the warning a doctor might give to an overweight smoker. A good budget rests on a few simple assumptions: Resources are limited; you must plan for the future; and if you overspend now, you’ll run short later. A doctor’s report would say, “You may not have symptoms now, but your habits will eventually cause your body to break down.” Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows present such a warning to all of human civilization. They analyze resource consumption, economic distribution, population growth and pollution. Their sobering conclusions amount to an attempt to start humanity on the road to a more equitable, sustainable society. The effort required to read this book comes in part from the writing, which varies drastically in style, tone and organizational choices, and in part from the innate challenges of the material. That said, getAbstract recommends it to anyone who wishes to plan realistically for the future, whether you’re a CEO who wants to do sustainable business, a national leader who wants to create thriving human institutions, a community member concerned about local pollution, or a parent who does not want his or her children to grow up in a wasteland.
December 22, 2010
One of Cambridge Sustainability's Top 50 Books for Sustainability, as voted for by our alumni network of over 3,000 senior leaders from around the world. To find out more, click here.

As a commissioned report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth uses a computer simulation model developed at MIT to investigate five major trends of lgobal concern: accelerating industrialisation, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable resources, and a deteriorating environment. The book is revolutionary, not only in challenging modern society's growth obsession, but also in its use of systems dynamics within a sustainability context. This approach recognises that the structure of any system is often as important in determining its behaviour as the individual components.

The authors' subsequent updates, Beyond the Limits (1993) and The 30-Year Update, suggest that the goal of a sustainable society still eludes us.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,068 reviews1,087 followers
February 5, 2019
I read this when it was just published, as a 13 year old. It made a haunting impression, and certainly formed my world view. The predictions turned out to be exaggerated, but the tenor was prophetical.
Profile Image for Wayne Marinovich.
Author 13 books247 followers
October 13, 2016
One of the scariest books I have read, and not in a good Steven King kind of way.

It was hard reading due to the sheer number of facts and figures that you need to summarise the plight of our dear planet. But it is 30-year update so was keen to see what progress we have made as humans. In short.... nothing, nada, zip, zero, squat...

Going to be an interesting next 30 years
21 reviews7 followers
May 25, 2020
Quote: "... these five tools are not optional, they are essential characteristics for any society that hopes to survive over the long term. They are: visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving... Many of us feel uneasy about relying on such "soft" tools when the future of our civilization is at stake, particularly since we do not know how to summon them up, in ourselves or in others. So we dismiss them and turn the conversation to recycling or emission trading or wildlife preserves or some other necessary but insufficient part of the sustainability revolution - but at least a part we know how to handle."
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,006 reviews1,116 followers
March 14, 2009
This, with Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and other books about human population growth and terrestrial resource depletion rates scared the shit out of me as a young person. The Chinese two-child policy did reduce the population growth rate curve, but the authors, as I recall, did not predict the global environmental impact of human exploitation of planetary resources.
Profile Image for Matt.
377 reviews5 followers
February 27, 2018
"The planet cannot continue on its current trajectory for another century without collapse."
*Checks to see when book was written.*
*Published in 1972. 46 years ago.*
*Goes ahead and books that ticket to Harry Potter land.*
46 reviews
April 10, 2022
Although the 30 year update to a 1972 MIT systems modelling study may seem extremely niche and irrelevant to most, I genuinely see this book as an unmissable staple for anybody wanting to seriously consider the problem of sustainability on a global scale. The first edition is of relatively strong historical importance and is often quoted in ulterior environmental literature (any JMJ-curious reader ought to check Limits to Growth), but I would say it is well worth reading this updated version instead, as there is a lot of added content and value from 30 years' worth of observations accumulated since the initial publication. It is quite striking in some places, for example when the authors discuss their conclusion that achieving sustainability with standards of living similar to that of Western Europeans was possible for the whole world population still in 1972, but no longer was in 2002 as the pollution and environmental overshoot continued practically unopposed for three decades in the interim.

Before the modelling or its interpretations are even discussed, the book lays basic principles that, although they may seem obvious to some, are fundamental in understanding how sustainability issues arise and how they can lead to collapse - yet are largely absent from public debate. The very principles of exponential growth and its tendency to suddenly turn unmanageable, the issues arising from noisy signals and adjustment delays, and the implication on demographic growth and the rise of environmental impact govern the way human society and its environment interact, and are key foundations that should underpin any political agenda on the matter. The book also does a great job of giving the reader a sense of just how rapid and uncontrolled human growth has been as it lays out dire statistics on land use, deforestation, industrial output, drops in mining yields, and many others - statistics which become all the more ominous when one considers they are now 20 years old -, without falling into the trap of drowning the reader in endless numbers. The numbers the authors do give are concise, relevant, and despair-inducing.

The modelling itself starting in chapter 4 is equally despairing as it shows just how narrow the window of opportunity is - even worse, how narrow it already was 20 years ago - for humans to achieve a society that isn't likely to collapse. The actual graphs and details of the study are completely secondary to their discussion by the authors - including the aforementioned long prefacing section -, which is where most of the book's value lies. In their desire to provide a scientifically robust discussion, the authors employ a language and writing style that may deter some (although this remains very far from the dryness of an academic paper), but which provides invaluable lessons still. In their desire to show the reader glimmers of hope, the authors also do feel a bit overly optimistic or utopian almost in places, especially as the chapters go, which isn't necessarily detrimental to the book but certainly was not my favourite aspect of it.

The Limits to Growth is not a long book. Its first three chapters especially are an essential read. Although it is not at all meant to function as a predictive model, which the authors stress several times in the text, several later works have found a remarkable correlation between reality and the projections of its 'business as usual' model developed to describe what happens when human society does not take efficacious action towards sustainability. Looking at the continuation of the projection makes this a deeply scary thought.
Profile Image for Laura Walin.
1,481 reviews47 followers
February 19, 2023
Alkuperäisen Rooman klubin 'Kasvun rajat' -raportti vietti viime vuonna jo viisikymppisiään, ja olikin mielenkiintoista lukea tämä 2000-luvun alussa nyt välitilinpäätöksenä näyttäytyvä teos. Kirjassa esitellään päivitetty versio alkuperäisestä tietokonemallista, ja kuvaillaan erilaisia skenaarioita maapallon tulevaisuudelle.

Teoksen pääviesti on selvä: taloudellinen kasvu ei ole mikään absoluuttinen luonnonlaki vaan ihmisen tekemä valinta, ja tuosta valinnasta kiinni pitäminen johtaa 2000-luvulla ennemmin tai myöhemmin sekä luonnon että ihmiskunnan kantokyvyn romahdukseen, mikäli ympäristön pilaamisen (CO2, luonnonvarat, saastuminen) annetaan jatkua ilman mitään rajoitteita. Pääviestiä taustoittaa hyvin selkeä systeemisen ajattelun esittely.

Luettavaksi tämä kirja on aavistuksen verran puuduttava, sillä siinä käydään läpi kaikkiaan 11 eri skenaariota, miten Maailma3-malli voi kehittyä erilaisten parametrien vallitessa. Tämä synnyttää teokseen melko lailla toisteisuutta. Ymmärrän kuitenkin valitun muodon: kirjoittajat pystyvät näin perustelemaan argumenttinsa hyvin vakuuttavasti. Kun tietää, kuinka hitaasti ympäristönsuojelun asiat etenevät, hieman voimaton olo kirjan lukemisen jälkeen tulee.
Profile Image for Elliott Bignell.
316 reviews30 followers
August 16, 2016
This was the third and so far last decadal update of the work famously done for the Club of Rome in 1972. One of the authors died before the volume reached the presses, and I presume that advancing age prevented the remaining, original team of systems scientists from issuing another update. Bardi did a book-length assessment in 2012, however, leaving this version slightly dated, and I will certainly be reading the later derivative, as the subject matter seems to be becoming more relevant by the year.

The work encountered a great deal of controversy and has, in my opinion, been widely misrepresented both by neoiiberals, who regard it as heretical, and by environmentalists, some of whom regard it as a work of prophecy. As the authors take care to explain, what they produced were not forecasts but model scenarios. Eleven key scenarios were run on their model and scores of others in compiling their work and validating the model. One of the scenarios is known as "infinity in and infinity out" and reflects the fantasy world of neoliberal economics, where resources are unlimited, markets efficient and information instantly available. This scenario, needless to say, comes out pretty rosy.

The others presume certain limits, latency in information feedback and development, certain responses by the world's decision makers and the emergence of certain levels of technological capacity, in quite general terms. The most optimistic entail us limiting children to 2 per family, investing effort early in technology to improve efficiency and reduce pollution, actively pursuing improvements in biotechnology to improve cropping and reducing our aspirations of limitless consumer goods. If we had started this way in 1982, the future would still be pretty rosy, although it would not offer levels of consumption typical of the modern West to all of humanity. However, it would offer a stable population, a high human-welfare index and plentiful food, services and goods. If we had started in 2002, it would offer basically the same but less of all the good stuff. Interestingly, merely reducing fertility only makes only a marginal difference to the ultimate peak population, as this is driven as much by the coming peak in women of child-bearing age as by fertility, most of the world being committed to a demographic transition anyway.

All the other scenarios lead to collapse some time in the second half of the 21st Century. The work, therefore, offered us a choice of a positive road to follow in order to avert collapse rather than predicting doom and gloom. Doom and gloom is simply a result of no-one having listened. There may still be a third scenario reflecting the two mentioned, or the model may be fatally flawed or some game-changing technological advance may render it moot. These are all speculative. whereas the model runs represent at least a rigorous attempt to analyse our choices. Going by recent environmental news, the level of conflict emerging in the world, the symptoms of want in the form of demagoguery and the projections of population now exceeding ALL the CofR scenarios, I fear that collapse may be a foregone conclusion. The "standard run" in 1972 suggested that problems would start to be discernible around 2015, which seems to me to be the case.

At any rate, this is the last account rendered by the original team of researchers, so it is of unique historical import whether you want to paint a placard reading "The End is Here" and stand on Speakers' Corner or whether you want the study burned for blaspheming against the Market. If the latter, you'll find little comfort here because the authors explicitly endorse the market and reject centrally-planned failures like the Soviet Union. But either way, you might want to be familiar with the content. There is an interesting study of a signal success in international cooperation, the series of protocols on ozone-destroying chemicals, which required no world government, have saved businesses billions in costs which they would not have saved of their own accord and have this year for the first time yielded a measured recovery in the ozone layer. This could still be a model for our salvation, perhaps.

The book is accessibly written for the lay reader, perfectly clear, and not at all pessimistic in its thrust. It really did offer a way forward. But we didn't take it. So I suspect we are all buggered.
Profile Image for Ryan.
Author 1 book36 followers
January 31, 2015
A classic in environmental literature, the tremendous debate and controversy generated when it was first published back in 1972 makes this one of the most famous publications the world has ever seen. For the first time it set a time, albeit a broad range in which our global civilization could collapse as we overshoot the Earth's limits. Basically these can be classified as source limits and sink limits, the former being the natural resources at hand from fossil fuels to raw materials and land, while the latter refers to the planet's ability to absorb the pollution from human activities, be it air, water or land pollution, or greenhouse gases. We will likely run into either the first or second kind, sooner or later, if we continue pursuing perpetual economic growth.

Despite the debates that ensued since the first edition, the world has unfortunately not acted on its dire warnings since then, and this latest edition shows that we are now past the time when action could have easily made a difference to the future. 30 years of dithering and business-as-usual have made the situation more urgent than ever, making our choices and their effects much more limited than if the world had changed its path 20-30 years ago.

The analysis is very systematic and clear, the conclusions convincing. This should definitely be made mandatory reading for every student today, and maybe all politicians as well! The more than ten scenarios run by the model at the heart of this book shows that only if we combine policy, technological advances (such as in efficiency and negating effects of pollution) and the active WILL to curb our desire for more will we even have a small chance of averting disaster. It is therefore difficult and perhaps even idealistic to be optimistic about our future, but there is no other way than pushing on with even the faintest glimmer of hope I suppose.
10 reviews
October 8, 2021
While this book can be a chore to read at times with all the figures we're painfully aware of their general existence, I'm glad I read it to the end, as I think it's very important in two aspects:

(1) Structuring my thoughts on growth in academic terms, specifically from a systems science perspective.

(2) The historical context of this book. Reading it today in 2021, it feels a bit superfluous at some points, and the content is something that most of us would take for granted. However, the first edition came out in 1972, and it was derided at the time by economists, academics, and politicians, with Ronald Reagan speaking out against it, and stating that "there are no such things as limits to growth." So much of the same criticism is still abound today, criticism that largely misses the point of the book. And while time has given some validation to this work, it is also a reminder of just how much time we have wasted in the 50 years since the first release of this, and how little international dialogue has progressed in this time span.
Profile Image for Jacob.
20 reviews5 followers
May 20, 2010
I'm kind of obsessed with the 21st century and what lies in store for humanity in the next 100 years or so. I've read numerous books that predict the overshoot of the Earth's carrying capacity, but this is the first book that looks at the problem with statistical systems approach. The mathematics and profound analysis are what make The Limits to Growth stand out from the crowd. The authors explain (within the confines of their statistical model) exactly what needs to change in order to prevent a environmental and population crash.

As a engineering major, I would have personally liked to see a more in-depth explanation of the mathematics behind the data presented and less ideological discussion. There are other books and authors far more capable of influencing my ideology and motivations. The data speaks for itself.
Profile Image for Shivam Agarwal.
25 reviews11 followers
January 30, 2016
The book which explains real problems we face today. The world model helps in understanding that technological advancement alone will not save humanity from making inhabitable conditions. The suggestions described in the book are something to think about.

Very interested to read the next book - Limits to growth 30 years update.
4 reviews
February 19, 2020
This book gives you a little insight into the environmental problems we are currently experiencing and examines the limitations of exploiting resources that our society depends on. Unfortunately, the book was written in 2002, so the data used at the time of writing this review were already 20 years old. 10/10 would read an updated version.
Profile Image for Mbogo J.
397 reviews27 followers
May 28, 2018
The decision to read this was driven more by personal factors rather than the need for information. A while back I had read The Collapse of Complex Societies and gotten the idea to build a model that can predict the collapse of a complex society during my free time. I had hoped to use bio-mimicry of colony collapse in bees and see if it applied to complex societies. Before I had started to jot down research notes, I came across The Limits to Growth and was pleasantly surprised that several decades back a team of researchers had come up with a model to predict the trajectory that global civilization might take and the probability of collapse. Naturally, I was curious and decided to have a look.

The most outstanding contribution of this book and more so its original run published in 1972 was bringing to the fore front the idea of environmental impact due to our actions. These days nearly every government has an environmental ministry to keep watch of industries and our way of life, how it impacts the immediate environment, remedies, fines et al. Unfortunately for me the good ends there.

I had a few qualms with their model and how they were freely making 100 year predictions when we know a good model has three good years, 5 may be for the most robust and beyond that initial conditions have changed materially that you need a new model. If that applies to micro models the effect will surely be more pronounced in macro models.... Lets not even go into how the effect of emergent phenomena and complexity might affect global trends. Bottom line is that these criticisms in addition to others raised by other researchers during the initial run of the book call into question the usefulness of the model. It also did not help that they offered very few solutions and the idea of "sustainability" does not hold water. It sounds simple but is very complex in practice. It requires one to come up with peak operation and decide that this level is the sustainable one and future actions should seek to maintain it. This goes counter to human nature which likes progress and abhors stagnation. I could go on and on but I think other writings on the World 3 provide a better analysis compared to my rantings.

On the sum of things, it is not a good idea to shoot the messengers, their idea that our consumerism is putting the planet in peril pleads its own course. It is unfortunate that several decades later advertising companies still attract the highest valuation. As usual in complex topics such as these we always argue that more should be done but what should be done is the harder question.
Profile Image for Sandeep Nair.
38 reviews1 follower
January 4, 2021
There are only a handful of books ever printed that have stirred a revolution for better or for worse. The first edition of this book released in 1972 was one of them. I would argue, for the better.

In this updated version, with 30 years of additional data and computing power, the authors present a few scenarios of what the world could look like in terms of human existence and welfare in response to various resource management behaviors using systems dynamics modeling.

The model projects a path to long lasting and "happy" human existence given some actions are taken with urgency. The model also projects that all paths with inadequate action lead to collapse. The assumptions made and the interplay amongst model components that are shown clearly are hard to refute. The model output which directly follows the quality of input is compelling and eye opening!

Complementing the model outputs, there are real-life examples of when actions led to positive change (as in the case of saving the ozone layer) and inaction led to collapse (as in the case of many local fisheries).

Critics claim the book portrays Malthusian pessimism and does not account for technological progress. They feel vindicated as the projected doomsday scenarios have not materialized (yet). But one could argue that these doomsday scenarios were averted (or delayed) by actions taken by activists, technologists, and policy makers who were inspired by the 1972 version of the book.

Reading the 2002 version in 2020, I feel concerned. Markets and technology have progressed but not enough to avert disaster. In fact, in 2020 the nerve-center of tech (SF Bay Area) lit up like the set of 'Mad Max' from the neighboring wildfires, disdain towards science has left 1% of the world population infected with a deadly virus resulting in 2 million fatalities, tech hubs like Bangalore have their lakes spewing chemical froth, while citizens of the US - the richest country - got violent over toilet paper!

Hope more people read this book and adopt an "active optimism" instead of consumerism with a lazy attitude towards sustainability.
Profile Image for Marta Petrychkovych.
22 reviews2 followers
July 21, 2021
На власному досвіді переконалася, наскільки складно вести сталий спосіб життя у світі, який очікує від нас споживання, який нав’язує і заохочує його. І все ж, навіть окрема людина може бути більш свідомою у своєму споживанні, а потім твої сусіди такі стають, цілий район і твоє місто (буде скоро так;)

“Стале суспільство - це таке суспільство, яке задовольняє потреби сучасності і свого комфорту, не ставлячи під загрозу здатність майбутніх поколінь задовольняти свої потреби.”

Стале суспільство не означає бути нудним, одноманітним чи суворим, воно просто змінює наш підхід до споживання, перевикористання та переробки. Це є обмірковуване підвищення якості життя, а не на бездумному розширенні матеріального споживання та нагромадження фізичного капіталу.

Наш екологічний відбиток більший, аніж екологічні можливості планети. Споживання перевищує можливості природи із 1980-х років, а зараз становить на 40% більше!

Економіст Герман Дейлі запропонував три прості правила, які допоможуть визначити межі:
1)для відновлювальних ресурсів-ґрунту,води,лісу,риби-сталий рівень використання не може бути більшим,ніж швидкість відновлення
2)для невідновлювальних джерел-викопного палива,ґрунтові води. Сталий рівень використання не може бути більшим, ніж обсяг відновлюваного ресурсу, що використовується стало, та яким можна замінити невідновлюваний. Наприклад, нафта буде використоввватися стало, якщо частина прибутку постійно інвестуватиметься у зелену енергію (вітрову, сонячну і тд)
3)для викидів сталий рівень не повинен перевищувати швидкості, з якою поглиначі можуть їх поглинути та знешкодити.

PS: 1 німець створює у 10 разів більший екологічний відбиток, аніж мешканець Мозамбіку, тоді як 1 росіянин використовує стільки ж ресурсів планети, скільки й німець, навіть не забезпечивши себе при цьому гідним рівнем життя.
192 reviews
March 17, 2017
Great study/research and this is almost 50 years old. I am reminded of Small is Beautiful: Economoics as if People Mattered.

Apparently, we as a society, have chosen to continue to push toward the limits of growth. I mean, shit, we just elected Donald Trump and he is already rolling back environmental regulations that weren't even good enough to begin with. His administration is all about ethnocentrism and manufacturing more. America needs to manufacture less. This economy is more service oriented than it was 50 years ago. Also, we need to work with other countries rather than protect ourselves. As Americans, we tend to be selfish and I think it is difficult for us to imagine a life of real poverty or a life of overcrowding. We need more empathy. It is inhumane to shut out the rest of the world. Capitalism is inherently immoral and that is why we need regulation.

The book examined different models accounting for undiscovered non-renewable resources and technological innovation but it still predicted some sort of growth exceeding capacity before 2100. One thing it didn't discuss is mining asteroids or colonizing other celestial bodies. That could allow for more growth in population and provide more resources/capital. I should've read the 30 Year Update but I was interested to see what their thoughts and recommendations were back then. I might check the update out anyway. One thing I didn't like is they took several pages explaining exponential growth and feedback loops at the beginning. Chaos theory is fun stuff. Dr. Ian Malcolm would agree.
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