50 Years from “The Limits of Growth”: Where are we?

By Ludovico Fiorucci

Last week the European Council adopted a general approach that will drive the EU position during the COP 27, which will be held in Egypt from 6 to 18 November. Member States agreed on a common approach to achieving the 1.5° C objective. On the one hand, the pressure to limit investment in fossil fuels and carbon is underlined. On the other hand, in accordance with the ‘Fit for 55’-package, Member States have expressed their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. 

The need to tackle the climate transition in the EU has become a political priority for the Commission, the EU parliament and the Member States. The adoption of the European Green Deal and the green target in the Recovery and Resilience Facility show the importance of the issue. In parallel with a strategy to address climate change, a new relationship between humanity and the environment should be ensured. COP 27 is called on to deliver a global response to the climate crisis. It is impossible to go back to the level of pre-industrialization, so a new approach to the environment is needed. 

The capitalist economic model, based on infinite growth and consumption, enabling jobs and wealth, does not consider the planet’s finite material resources. Nowadays, we are witnessing the consequences of what researchers warned us about fifty years ago. This blog article presents the work of scientists from MIT, written fifty years ago, about the use and limits of natural resources and aims to show why their work is still relevant half a century later. 

The Club of Rome, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising awareness about global issues, presented the report entitled The Limits of Growth in 1972, exactly fifty years ago. The publication raised considerable attention on the exploitation of natural resources and pointed to some issues humanity would face if the prevailing economic model would not change. Political leaders and stakeholders let economic growth prevail over natural resource preservation and sustainable use. Fifty years after the publication, humanity has accelerated planetary deterioration by pushing past four of the nine planetary limits.  

The Limits of Growth-report was the product of an MIT project team and aimed to understand the interdependent components (i. a. social, economic, natural and demographic) that shape the world. They brought new perspectives on global trends and challenges that humanity would be confronted with without proper political commitment. The report went further by proposing some key initiatives to avoid major breaking points.

The researchers pointed out the inherent problem of growth. According to the authors, most people think of growth as a linear process. However, growth in the current economic system is exponential rather than linear. Population, economic consumption, and exploitation of natural resources grow exponentially, putting our planet’s finite resources under pressure.  The researchers highlight several models to explain the exponential growth in consumption and the challenges for humanity. According to the report, if the growth trends persist, the most probable result will be a sudden and uncontrollable population and industrial capacity decline. 

Progress and growth are not without cost in the current system. The extraction of natural resources constantly demands new technical solutions leading to the over-exploitation of the environment.  The obvious outcome of the over-exploitation of the planet is the emergence of problems with no technical solution, like unemployment, migration flows, and rising inequalities.

Against this background, the report points out a condition of ecological, social and economic sustainable life called the global equilibrium. The authors stated that “the state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential”.  

So, where are we now? In 1972, The Limits of Growth-report raised much attention to the relationship between humanity and the environment. According to the authors, the widening absolute gap between rich and poor people would continue to manifest itself because of limited resources. Fifty years after the publication, the current figures reported by the World Inequality Report 2022 confirm these assumptions. “The poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2% of the total. In contrast, the richest 10% of the global population own 76% of all wealth.”

The magnitude of climate change has significantly impacted our societies. We are witnessing the emergence of what, in their report, the researchers called problems without proper technical solutions. A technical solution is defined in the report as “one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”

Technical progress enables humanity to maintain the pressure on natural resources without changing our approach towards environment, however, at the expense of social needs, for example, undercutting the cost of labour, social dumping, destruction of the environment and the local economy, etc. In this context, the widening of the inequality gap between the north and the south and within the richer north is the product of an economic model based on infinite growth.

As shown by the Club of Rome, inequalities foster CO2 emission: the emission share of the 10% richest is 36-49% of the global total. Tackling inequalities should thus be at the core of a comprehensive and bold strategy to address climate change. A clear engagement of governments and international institutions is needed to enable a fairer transition able to address all the issues arising from climate change. 

The current geopolitical situation is a major challenge for the shift to a more sustainable world. However, a transition to a fairer and greener world is possible only with long-term planning to exit the vicious loop of perpetual growth and mindless exploitation of natural resources. 

Lucius Annaeus Seneca once said, “[f]ortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid”. This sentence could very well become a reality if countries continue business as usual. Since the industrial revolution, the economic models have privileged infinite growth without any concerns about the impact on the planet, but the effects of climate change have proven that this cannot continue. 

Although the ambition surrounding COP27 is low and the location seems antithetical, there is a strong demand from civil society for a paradigm shift. COP 27 is called to act and avoid the inconclusive declaration of last year. The fight against climate change is, first and foremost, a fight against deep-rooted economic beliefs. Inequalities and the planet’s degradation are two sides of the same coin that need a holistic approach. The Limits of Growth rightfully concludes that “[t]he crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence”. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: