The 50th Anniversary of The Limits to Growth: Does It Have Relevance for Today’s Energy Issues?

The Limits to Growth was a remarkable, and remarkably influential, model, book and

concept published 50 years ago this year. Its importance is that it used, for essentially the first time,

a quantitative systems approach and a computer model to question the dominant paradigm for

most of society: growth. Initially, many events, and especially the oil crisis of the 1970s, seemed to

support the idea that the limits were close. Many economists argued quite the opposite, and the

later relaxation of the oil crisis (and decline in gasoline prices) seemed to support the economists’

position. Many argued that the model had failed, but a careful examination of model behavior vs.

global and many national data sets assessed by a number of researchers suggests that the model’s

predictions (even if they had not been meant for such a specific task) were still remarkably accurate

to date. While the massive changes predicted by the model have not yet come to pass globally, they

are clearly occurring for many individual nations. Additionally, global patterns of climate change,

fuel and mineral depletion, environmental degradation and population growth are quite as predicted

by the original model. Whether or not the world as a whole continues to follow the general patterns

of the model may be mostly a function of what happens with energy and whether humans can accept

constraints on their propensity to keep growing.