History of The Limits to Growth

In the new general sustainability science journal Solutions, sustainability researchers Jørgen Nørgård, John Peet, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir provide their take on the history of the response to the controversial and influential environmental study Limits to Growth in The History of The Limits to Growth:

… In re-examining the analysis and central arguments of [Limits to Growth] LtG, we have found that its approach remains useful and that its conclusions are still surprisingly valid. …

Matthew R. Simmons, president of the world’s largest investment company specializing in energy, Simmons and Company International, read the book a few years ago, after hearing about the controversy. To his surprise he discovered that the criticisms had little to do with the content of the book. “After reading Limits to Growth, I was amazed,” he wrote in 2000. “There was not one sentence or even a single word written about an oil shortage or limits to any specific resource, by the year 2000.” He concluded that LtG broadly gives a correct picture of world development, and he became upset that so many of his colleagues had wasted three decades criticizing it instead of taking action.

The recent renewed interest in the environment and economic development gives hope for a solution. Although it has not yet led to new action, this shift in thinking has triggered a few analyses that recognize possible limits to growth and hence point toward solutions along the lines suggested in LtG. The following examples illustrate this hope.

A recent UK government committee indicates an emerging political willingness to at least challenge the growth paradigm as reflected in the title of the committee’s report: Prosperity without Growth? The report “questions whether ever-rising incomes for the already-rich are an appropriate goal for policy in a world constrained by ecological limits.”

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who had at first rejected LtG‘s ideas about resource shortages, now recognizes that present trends in the world economy are unsustainable. Stiglitz, along with another Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, headed a commission convened by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to investigate alternative measures of social progress to GDP. One of their key messages is that “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.” In their critique of societies’ overreliance on GDP, Stiglitz and Sen are implicitly agreeing with LtG‘s analysis.

Finally, as a sign of renewed recognition of the limits to growth, 28 scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries within which human activities can operate safely. The scientists estimate that humanity has already transgressed three of these boundaries, namely those for climate change, biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle.

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