The Limits to Growth: Lessons from an ongoing debate
Perhaps never before and never since has a study received as much attention as the one published 50 years ago. "The Limits to Growth", commissioned by the Club of Rome, a nonprofit, informal organisation of intellectuals and business leaders founded in 1968, was one of the first economic studies based on computer simulations. Generally speaking, it simulated the consequence of interactions between the earth and human systems.
"In industrialised Western countries in particular, the critical examination of the development model of continuous economic growth led to a broad discussion about the far-reaching implications of a global economy focusing on growth, on a planet with finite natural resources," the scholars Thomas Döring and Birgit Aigner-Wagner wrote in a recently published tribute.
It is initially apparent that the study attracted attention at the time: the negative consequences of industrial growth could no longer be overlooked. Polluted rivers, smog in the cities, health problems - the dark side of prosperity development became increasingly obvious.
But the study would never have received so much attention if most of the people had agreed on the analysis and consequences. The high level of attention arose because it was easy to argue about the report since the study looked primarily into the future.
So there was no right or wrong, just assumptions on future developments. Are there better conditions to argue about something indefinitely? Some would see their apocalyptic visions of the downfall of humanity confirmed, while others would argue that humans have always found solutions to problems, so it will not be as bad as the simulation suspects.
And what can we say now, 50 years later? How accurate were the simulations? Which side was right?
The surprising answer: We do not know it yet. Because the main predictions of the study made half a century ago are still in the future. Plus, there were different scenarios presented in the study. Most of the simulations found an initially ordinary population and economic growth until the year 2050. And the stock of raw materials still ran short before 2100 in the majority of simulated scenarios.
So we have to wait a little longer. But it doesn't take much imagination to guess it won't turn out that way. Simulations are limited. Conditions have changed. For example, the report itself has had an impact on the behaviour of society.
It shaped and changed the way we see our environment. From today's perspective, the limits to growth are no longer seen primarily in terms of depleting raw materials, but rather as planetary boundaries, with the ecological functioning of the planet being endangered.
However, nowadays we almost have the same discussions as we had 50 years ago.
On the one hand, some assume that human actions per se mean the end of the planet; on the other hand, some progressives believe that sooner or later, every problem can be completely solved. Everyone else is in between.
Everything as usual, you could say. But it is not like that.
Today, we know more than we did 50 years ago. More precisely, the interested public knows more.
We know what systematically causes excessive consumption of resources and environmental pollution and what needs to be done about it. Still, the decisive question is whether the theoretical knowledge can be put into practice worldwide.
So this is what we know.
Progress alone is not enough to get a grip on resource overexploitation and environmental pollution. Because reductions of material or energy are often cancelled by an increase in demand, so-called rebound effects. "Such rebound effects can be explained by lower costs in the purchase or use of goods and services due to efficiency improvements, consequently leading to a higher demand and thus fully or partly cancelling the savings potential of efficiency improvements," Döring and Aigner-Wagner write.
What is needed instead is to focus on resources and the environment itself.
First, the resources. For far too long, resources were used by those who had access first. The faster you were, the better off you were. As a result, fishing grounds were exhausted, and natural resources were mined too quickly. Instead, natural resources should have owners who think long-term. Then fishing grounds were not overfished, and finite resources were not mined as quickly as possible, but when they bring the greatest benefit. Clever politics set the rules in such a way that sustainability and long-term use become not only possible but were for everyone's benefit.
It is the same with environmental protection. Since the beginning of industrialization, the use of the environment had been free. If you let your dirty exhaust air rise up the chimney, you wouldn't have to face any negative consequences. Today it is common sense, a clean future is only possible if we put a price on the environment and measure, limit and reduce the amount of pollution.
The question about the future of humanity does not depend on whether we will have more or less growth in the future. It depends on how we treat our environment. It depends on whether we manage to implement the tools that spread resource consumption over time and reduce environmental impact in such a way that we all have a future.
It has not yet been decided whether we will succeed in doing this. We only know that growth will come as a result. The better we protect the environment and make the best use of our natural resources, the higher our growth will be over the long term.