A limitless myth

One of the most persistent myths is that The Limits to Growth was a gloom and doom book that predicted that we would run out of resources in a few years.  The most recent claims about the book is in Facts not Fear by Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw.  

1.  The missing conclusion.

There are actually two summary conclusions, but Sanera and Shaw (page 28) only included the pessimistic one.  Here is the conclusion that was left out (Meadows et al. page 24):

It is possible to alter these growth trends and to 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 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.

2. The call for more government

Sanera and Shaw (page 28):  "The authors urged massive international government intervention." I could find nothing in Limits to Growth that was anything close to this.

3.  Those pesky predictions.

Sanera and Shaw are not the first to make the claim that Limits to Growth predicted that we would run out of nonrenewable resources in a few years.  In Eco-Scam:  The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse Ronald Bailey (page 67) wrote that "In 1972, The Limits to Growth predicted that at exponential growth rates, the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993."  Facts not Fears repeated part of this list (page 28) "The world did not run out of gold by 1981, or zinc by 1990, or petroleum by 1992, as the book predicted."  

The reference for these claims is table 4 (pages 56 to 59) in Limits to Growth.  There are three sets of numbers in the table.  One was the static reserve index, how long the known reserves would last at the present (in 1972) rate of consumption.  The exponential reserve index was how long the known reserves would last at the exponentially increasing rate of consumption.  It is these numbers, the smallest ones, that were added to 1972 to come up with the "predictions". Recognizing that there would be more discoveries of resources, improvements in mining, etc., Meadows et al. included a third list of figures, how long five times the known reserves would last at an exponentially increasing rate of growth.  If anything qualified as a prediction in the table, it would be these numbers.  But these were not the numbers used by Bailey and by Sanera and Shaw. (The lowest number in this column, for gold, would have the world run out in 2001.)  But even here, Meadows et al. note that these are not actual predictions (page 63):

Of course the actual nonrenewable resource availability in the next few decades will be determined by factors much more complicated than can be expressed by either the simple static reserve index or the exponential reserve index.  We have studied this problem with a detailed model that takes into account the many interrelationships among such factors as varying grades of ore, production costs, new mining technology, the elasticity of consumer demand, and substitution of other resources.   

Update (October 1998)  These myths take on a life of their own.  This statement is from "The greening of the classroom: Do kids learn junk environmentalism in schools?" by Michael Chapman, from the September 29, 1998 Investor's Business Daily:

In '72, a group of global leaders called the Club of Rome published ''The Limits to Growth.'' It warned that the world would run out of gold in '81, mercury in '85,  tin by '87, zinc by '90, oil by '92, and copper, lead and natural gas by '93.

Update (December 1999)  The first fifty pages or so of Alan AtKisson's Believing Cassandra:  an Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World is a reexamination of The Limits to Growth.  AtKisson (who is a good friend of some of the co-authors of Limits.and so may not be totally objective) notes that the book was intended to show the results of a computer simulation and was never intended to be a set of predictions.    

Additional reading

NEW What was there in the famous "Report to the Club of Rome" ?


AtKisson, Alan,  Believing Cassandra:  an Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World, Chelsea Green, 1999.

Bailey, Ronald, Eco-Scam:  The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, St. Martin's Press, 1993

Meadows, Donella, et al., The Limits to Growth:  A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Universe Books, 1972.

Sanera, Michael and Jane S. Shaw, Facts not Fear:  A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment, Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1996.  Now in a second edition.


Written by Jim Norton

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