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Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

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In 1972 four young scientists at MIT wrote The Limits to Growth, which shocked theworld and became an international best-seller. Using the World3 computer model,the authors looked toward the future, for the first time showing the consequences ofunchecked growth on a finite planet. Now, armed with 30 additional years of data,these authors sound the alarm on humanity’s devastating effects on climate, waterquality, fisheries, forests, and other imperiled resources.

338 pages, Paperback

Published June 1, 2004

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About the author

Donella H. Meadows

27 books335 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 books31.5k followers
August 23, 2023
8/21/23 Update: Well, California. Heat waves. Intensifying hurricane cycles. Aw, you don't need me to read the news for you or the weather. But the key factor here is that millions of Americans deny there is any problem whatsoever. All fake-science, anti-biz propaganda fueled by Big Oil and Blow It All Up nihilists, filtered through faux news orgs. China and the US have operated forever on a failed Unlimited Growth and Production model that is unsustainable. Today in Chicago the heat index will be 115, though this is nothing compared to Phoenix, where denialists are buying cheap properties with limited access or hope for water. Or many other places in the world, of course. Cassandra-ism? I wish I could admit this is true.

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 Sebastien.
252 reviews291 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?
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.
2,225 reviews211 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.
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
23 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 Elliott Bignell.
319 reviews31 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.
48 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 Ryan.
Author 1 book35 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.
Profile Image for Laura Walin.
1,534 reviews52 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.
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 Mbogo J.
406 reviews28 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.
49 reviews2 followers
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 reviews3 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.
Profile Image for Héctor.
54 reviews171 followers
Want to read
October 16, 2007
"Reading the 30th-year update reminds me of why the systems approach to thinking about our future is not only valuable, but indispensable. Thirty years ago, it was easy for the critics to dismiss the limits to growth. But in today's world, with its collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, falling water tables, dying coral reefs, expanding deserts, eroding soils, rising temperatures, and disappearing species, it is not so easy to do so. We are all indebted to the Limits team for reminding us again that time is running out."

—Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
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 Brenda Haddock.
148 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2023
This was a hard read, as there are so many indicators the earth, the climate, have passed the point of no return; we have ruined the prospect of life on earth. Yet the book ends with hope and a challenge. With visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving, we can meet the challenge. Working together and considering all people/life on earth, we can save both.
Profile Image for Eugene Kernes.
471 reviews22 followers
May 10, 2020
The purview of this book is the physical economy which are constrained by physical laws of a planet. Money economy is a social invention which is not bound to physical laws. Resources and sinks are needed to sustain the ecosystem. Renewable resources do regenerate, but these resources need time to regenerate. Should their extraction rate be faster than the rate they regenerate will reduce the stock. Nonrenewable resources are those which continuously reduce the total stock and will need to be substituted for should the stock run out. New source discoveries can increase the available stock, but the total stock of the resource will still diminish. The environment can recycle pollutants but if there are too many pollutants in the environment can overwhelm and destabilize ecosystem. The authors findings indicate that resources are being used too quickly and that the burden of waste on the environment is already showing negative impacts on health.

The authors created varies simulations based on system dynamics to show potential futures. The models show that resources needed for an expanding population and physical products will have to cope with many problems arising due to varied constraints. More and more capital inputs will be needed to deal with the problems. Eventually, capital will not be able to cope with increased problems thereby making further industrial growth impossible. The authors do not profess to accurately predict events, but they do claim to be able to rule out potentialities given current knowledge. They attempt to properly define expectation of resources use in the future. Their hope is that their predictions will be a catalyst to take action to make their predictions wrong. The authors use their expertise in dynamic systems to elaborate their values. They try to have an internally consistent paradigm which focuses on the changes in interconnections between material and immaterial elements.

The authors express three potential futures which are sigmoid growth, overshoot and oscillation, and overshoot and collapse. Sigmoid growth occurs when limits are respected and the responses to signals are quick and accurate which results in a smooth accommodation to the limits. Overshoot and oscillation occur when limits are surpassed and there is a delay in response. The corrections reduce stress on limits while over time overshooting them again until some equilibrium is set. Overshoot and collapse occur when the there is a delay to overstressed environmental limits which degrade the resource base leading to collapse.

Many systems tend to overshoot due to rapid change, limits to change, and limits in controlling the change. The problem is not with growth but exponential growth. With linear increase, the new stock does not depend on how much has already been accumulated which means that problems can be foreseen more easily and corrected. Exponential increase in new stock is proportional to what is already accumulated which means harder to control, predict interactions, and course corrections. Exponential growth cannot continue ad infinitum as there are only a finite amount of resources and space. With exponential growth, there is less time to take effective action.

Growth oriented policies are favored because they seem to fix a variety of national ailments. The authors favor a sustainable society which has the ability to rectify mistakes and increase quality of life rather than reckless abandon consumption. To rectify many problems will take a structural change in the system, not growth. Current practices need to change to sustain life within the ecosystem. Resources are needed to sustain life but the resources may not be sufficient. Agriculture is able to feed many more people but feed them inadequately. Recent increased agricultural was due to many policies which damaged the very environment needed to produce food.

The book is well written and provide some epistemological references to understanding the model. There are sections of the book which read like a technical manual on resources which at times can distract from the general situation. They provide complexity within the details. They do provide evidence that world change can save devastation with policies such as those which prevented further damage to the ozone layer. Even though this is a 30-year update to the original book, the authors do not give much references any major changes within the predictions and results.

What is needed is a structural change away from growth policies to a sustainable system. Technology can reduce some stress on the ecosystem but it will take social consumption changes to get to the root problem. Within the current economy, there are many techniques which can utilize resources more efficiently thereby providing more time to make other changes. What is needed is more accurate and constant information regarding the various sources and sinks. Transitioning to a sustainable system does not require no economic growth. Economic growth is permissible in the system, but that resources need to be used in a sustainable manner.
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
731 reviews56 followers
August 8, 2013
A very good, if sobering, book.

The original of this book was written in 1972; this is an edition that the authors updated in 2002, 30 years after the original. The book is a discussion of physical limits associated with the expansion of the human population and economy: arable land, potable water, nonrenewable resources, etc. The authors are systems researchers and they make use of a computer model that describes positive and negative feedback loops for a wide variety of things, including demographic expansion, investment and consumption, use of renewable and nonrenewable resources, pollution, etc; they calibrate these to the best available actual data. The model covers a lot of ground, but given that, it seems relatively straightforward.

The authors are definitely "modelers after my own heart." They talk a lot about the strengths and shortcomings of the model, and often describe sensitivity tests they have run when there is a significant amount of uncertainty around a given model parameter. They value parsimony in the model. They exclusively rely on the model to generate conditional and qualitative forecasts, rather than claiming to make precise quantitative forecasts. Best of all, they made the model code publicly available so that anyone could replicate their results or run alternative assumptions.

The argument of the book is quite sobering, though. In nearly all of their simulation runs, the world hits some kind of "wall" at some point in the twenty-first century, followed by a fairly catastrophic decline in average living standards. These take many different forms, including food shortages, natural resource shortages, severe environmental damage, etc. One thing that the authors emphasize is the interconnected nature of these limits--that if one crisis is averted in the model, it tends just to lead to another. This is because any crisis aversion efforts are drawing on a finite pool of capital--the population in the model can't maintain living standards, reduce use of nonrenewable resources, increase the food supply, etc., all at the same time. One useful metaphor that the authors often employ is of a car with unreliable brakes. Problems that are manageable at a low speed become unmanageable at a higher speed; the appropriate response is to slow down, but this is a response that is completely alien to humanity's conception of the economy and development.

The general conclusion that crisis is likely (though not inevitable) rests on a fairly simple set of premises, which remind me in style of the simple premises on which Darwin bases his natural selection argument:

-Growth (exponential growth) in the physical economy is considered desirable.
-There are physical limits to the sources of materials and energy, and to the sinks for waste.
-Signals about the physical limits are noisy and delayed, and responses to these signals are also delayed.
-The limits are erodable when overused; you can exceed the sustainable level of use of some resource temporarily, but the result is often that the sustainable level is decreased going forward. (Think of an overfished fishery.)

These seem more or less convincing to me. The authors do manage to find scenarios in the model in which crisis is averted, but they require two things in concert: improvements in technology, AND a commitment to limit average living standards and population growth. Neither of these things in isolation is enough. And, although the model shows these commitments working if enacted in 2002, they are "too late" if enacted in 2022. Of course, the authors would not hold to this as an exact numeric prediction, but rather as a qualitative finding that there is some limited window of time in which even drastic action can be effective. Being more than half way to 2022, I can't imagine any such commitment happening.

I like the overall style of the book. Along with the discussion of modeling, they intersperse case study discussions, such as the global effort to stop emissions of CFCs to stop damaging the ozone layer, or the lack of efforts to stop fishery collapse. In addition, the authors are not afraid to discuss what Minsky would call their "pre-analytic visions," nor are they afraid to include a section called "Loving" near the end in their discussions of tools to bring us to a more sustainable path.

Great book. Very depressing.
Profile Image for Trịnh Tố Uyên.
15 reviews3 followers
August 11, 2021
I chose this book as a reference for my end-semester essay on a subject called "Environment and Development" in college. I just needed more sources and ideas, but this book just went much beyond my expectations. I was overwhelmed and flabbergasted.

A group of three researchers developed a computer program, which could predict and point out possible scenarios of the Earth under the pressure of environmental problems and their consequences. The authors intricately represented the current states of natural resources in accordance with agricultural and industrial fields. Everything, whether natural or artificial, is so closely connected, that when just one link shoots its limits, the whole chain would easily break down. For example, if clean, usable, and accessible water was short, industrial water usage must be cut down to offset the lack of water in agriculture. This would consequently lead to the setback of industrial capital. Then the services that rely on industrial resources to keep up and running, like hospitals, would be impaired. The human would have to suffer from a decrease in wealth or income. However, this state obviously could not last long. If the water ran out, the string would break, and the world collapsed.

That is just one small fragment in many scenarios that the authors show us. In all of the prospects, there were unrealistic ones (which expose our unilateral thinking and approach); the feasible ones (the dreadful fates we have to face if the changes are not made in time); and the hopeful ones (how we can practically prevent and deal with the problems). From different scenarios, the scientists have carefully shown us how things are tightly connected, and how easily the world would come to an end.

The book emphasizes the concept of "overshooting." In other words, there is a limit to any kind of growth - of physical and wealth expansion. And the important thing is that the growth does not run in a linear line, but exponential. Therefore, we can wrongly predict the trends, the time of the end, and solutions may not be applied in reality, or start to seem effective, in time. Any delays, negligence, and late responses to the signals of the degrading environment could cause overshooting. That is why environmental problems are so tough to deal with - most of us do not have enough insights and visions.

There is not a single unmarred source of nature. Almost every part, if not all, already exceeds or is on the verge of exceeding its limit. These scientists have repeatedly indicated that the core mistakes lie in the whole structural system. As a result, we will need inclusive, holistic, profound alterations in the system. Because technology can trick us with efficiency; the market and GDP have wrongly represented the real value of the environment. Solutions such as recycling and reuse are necessary, but not enough. They can give a respite to the problems, but cannot eliminate them.

The three authors first wrote The Limits To Growth in 1972, then they had already foreseen possible catastrophes and given many warnings to the politician leaders. In 2004 they made an update and published this book. It has been 17 years, yet this book is still very related and convincing. We have forgone lots of chances to make a change. But hopefully, maybe there is still scope for us to continue to grapple with these problems and reverse the trends. "No one will get the credit, but everyone can contribute."

This book is not only scientifically invaluable but also stunningly written. A classic that is worth reading more than once.
Profile Image for Matthias.
30 reviews
March 29, 2020
The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update thoroughly explains the dynamics and flavors of exponential, non-linear growth with a clear focus on resource usage and sustainability. The authors go to great lengths to convey their messages in an easily understandable manner. I'll try to summarize the lessons that have stuck with me and strongly influencing my thinking since.

- Growth processes are fueled by resources and constrained by the intake capacity of sinks for waste.

- All resources are finite, as is the intake capacity of sinks for waste.

- Exponential growth is based on a feedback structure. The baseline responsible for the growth process accumulates the results of the growth process.

- There are delays between taking actions and them becoming effective. This means that - in general - actions have to be taken (long) before they are obviously necessary to have the desired effect in place by the time it is needed.

- As long as there are enough resources to fuel it, and intake capacity to drain the generated waste from the system, growth can continue exponentially.

- The dynamics of any system change in a non-linear fashion when either the resources are depleted or the draining sink for waste is congested. If the constrained resource or sink can recover, the growth pattern will change to an oscillation between growth and decline. However, if one of the factors cannot recover, the system will simply collapse and decline. In the latter case, The growth process will not be able to pick up again.

The original version of The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 pointing out that the rate at which resources are consumed and the intake capacies of sinks are depleted was not sustainable and would sooner or later lead to some form of collapse.
Profile Image for Gregg Wingo.
161 reviews21 followers
October 26, 2016
In 1974, the klaxon of Malthusian limits was heard across the world in the original computer analysis found in "The Limits of Growth" funded and inspired by the Club of Rome. Forty-two years later I decided to pick up and read this 2004 update. I am not a fan of Malthusian theory, in fact, for the most part it has been discredited by the ability of capitalism to innovate. But as David Hackett Fischer proves in "The Great Wave" at times human decision making imposes Malthusian constraints.

Much of this update focuses on these human-imposed Malthusian boundaries. It is not the book's direct intent but clearly its underlining theme. The writers and programmers have worked very hard to overcome the pitfalls of the failure to account for innovation in Malthus - and their arguments and modeling are compelling. Quite simply, our finite resources cannot keep up with our exponential growth in the globalized economy. But it is not the problem of capitalism itself that is the issue with sustainability but rather the rentseeking behavior of established capitalism that is the real issue here. The corruption of our political system for the benefit of legacy industries such as the coal, oil, and gas sector, the pharmaceutical corporations, and agribusiness stagnates humanity's ability to innovate and adapt to the resource crisis that every model run on World3-03 spits out. With the US and other governmental representatives denying science and objective reality at the behest of special interests the authors' critique of the stumbling nature of intervention on these issues is an important aid in the battle against climate change.

There is little beauty in this work but its message is one you should hear and spread to others.

Profile Image for Ali.
77 reviews39 followers
June 24, 2018
A few years ago when a new iPhone released, my friend asked me: for how long do you think this can go on, producing more and more? At time this didn't seem like a serious issue to me, I thought we can substitute different raw materials with scarce ones and we can recycle more. It took me some time to realize that I was naive and most serious limits on planet earth are not nonrenewable resources but renewable ones and pollution sinks.

Authors have considered growth issue long ago. With the prospects for humanity's long-term future in mind, they designed a computer model in 1972 and published the results. This book is the third update to the original work. It is certain that growth and specially exponential growth can not continue forever on a finite planet and will be halted by planetary limits. Authors believe that we have different options facing these limits. They examine different scenarios: "What would happen if population, affluence, and technology trends began to turn around? What about the ways they are interconnected with each other? What happens if the ecological footprint is reduced by technical change, but then population and capital grow still farther? What happens if the ecological footprint isn't reduced at all?"

The best scenario of model is not what a growth-oriented society would desire. The only way to avoid overshoot and collapse is to accompany technological advances with constraints on population and consumption which will require changing structure of the system. This solution may seem out of reach but as authors mention this the outcome of a very optimistic model: "Model has no military sector to drain capital and resources ... wars ... corruptions ... floods ... surprising environmental failures".
Profile Image for Danni.
124 reviews69 followers
September 6, 2014
This is a marvelous book that everyone should read!

Limits to Growth: the 30 Year Update takes a comprehensive look at the original study done by the authors in 1972 and has updated the models to reflect the changes that have occurred since then. Even someone with only a basic high school education will be able to enjoy and understand the topics presented in the work. The authors carefully describe what factors influenced the World3 model. They also take time to explain in depth what the model can and cannot do. The book features wonderful graphs and simple explanations. I've learned so much more about modelling and how much actions play a role in the health of the global society and planet.

Reading this book frustrated me. I can't believe that people knew about the unsustainable nature of our society and choices in the 70s and did nothing more to fix it! There is a potent comparison of making sustainable choices today, 20 years prior, and 20 years in the future. It's amazing the difference 20 years makes. It really inspired me to make more changes today, not wait until I have the money, the time, the whatever that I use as an excuse. I may not have the luxuries that I would have if the world had started working on finding sustainable solutions large scale 20 years ago. Yet, I do have the information to know that the things I do, purchase, and vote for will dramatically affect the kids being born today.
Profile Image for Jen.
47 reviews5 followers
April 25, 2020
A very scientific approach to discuss what factors are limiting our growth as human beings on this finite planet! The four scientists from MIT used the World3 computer model to simulate numerous scenarios of our growth, including sigmod growth, overshoot and oscillation (the scenario we are probably in right now), and overshoot and collapse (hopefully will not be our future), etc.

The book is very interesting to read as it pushes the readers to envision various destinies of human beings like scientific fiction stories - of course, in a very academia tone (not a surprise!)

A sustainable world would not be a society of dependency and stagnancy, unemployment and bankruptcy that the current economic system experiences when their growth is interrupted. The difference between a sustainable society and a present day economic recession is like the difference between stopping an automobile purposely with brakes versus stopping it by crashing into a brick wall.

The COVID 19 pandemic is a delayed signal from our planet. A deliberate transition to sustainability would take place slowly enough and with enough forewarning, so that people and business could find their place in the new economy.
333 reviews18 followers
October 13, 2018
A description of the Earth's Life Cycle (poor) Management. This great overview was certainly possible thanks to the authors' World3 model, which provides a concrete - albeit simplified and not without caveats - synopsis of the dynamics, stocks and sinks of the Earth's resources. The immense damage inflicted by the fishing industry was quite new to me. The need for a new Revolution - of the level of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions - was mind-boggling, as this suggests that a paradigm shift is required to survive. What the world would look like in a new sustainable system, with far reaching consequences at the social, technological and economic levels, is difficult - if not impossible - to imagine. Yet things will change dramatically in the 21st century, for the best or for the worst.
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