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limits to growth

  A phrase introduced in 1972 as a report title by a group called the Club of Rome (Meadows et al., 1972). Researchers for this group used computer modelling of the world system to conclude that humans were likely to overshoot the earth\'s resource capacity (cf. carrying capacity). According to them, avoiding this scenario necessitated immediate action to achieve global equilibrium between human demands and environmental resources, focusing on the stabilization of population and per capita consumption levels (cf. global futures).

The term \'limits to growth\' is derived from the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. In 1776 Smith suggested that a country which had acquired a full complement of riches and could advance no further would at some point in the future encounter limits to economic growth. However, the report Limits to growth is often labelled \'Neo-Malthusian\' because it is based on the Malthusian model\'s incorporation of a geometric or exponential growth rate of population. This model points either to the need for urgent action because \'problems\' are continually doubling or a sense that problems are too entrenched to be effectively addressed. McCormick (1995) discusses the Club of Rome, and other reports of the same era, under the heading \'The Prophets of Doom: 1968-1972\'.

The report examined five basic factors that the authors believed \'determine, and therefore ultimately limit, growth on this planet — population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution\' (Meadows et al., 1972, pp. 11-12). Interested in limits, they recast these five factors as \'five major trends of global concern — accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable resources, and a deteriorating environment\' (Meadows et al., 1972, p. 21). Their report was heavily criticized for its perceived doomsday tone, its methodology and its focus. From a Marxist perspective, for example, David Harvey followed some of Marx\'s original critiques of Malthus\' 1798 Essay on the principle of population, by arguing that questions of overpopulation diverted attention from issues of distribution rather than production and from questions of class. Buttel et al. (1990) claimed that the report\'s only lasting impact is its localization in the form of NIMBY movements and local growth control politics. However, many authors use the idea of limits. Dobson (1996) recognized that acceptance of the limits to growth thesis in some form (not necessarily that of Meadows et al., 1972) is a distinguishing feature between the more radical ecologism, and less radical environmentalism (cf. deep ecology).

In a further report, published twenty years after the first, Beyond the limits: global collapse or a sustainable future, Meadows et al. (1992) maintained that their 1972 conclusions were still valid, but should be strengthened. They emphasized the challenge facing humanity to achieve sustainability. There are many limits to growth, but the key limit in their book was throughput (i.e. the physical flows of energy and materials in extraction, production, consumption and the disposal of waste into nature\'s sinks). But the context has altered significantly from the early 1970s and Meadows et al.\'s radical message appears to have gained little acceptance due to the reformist notion of sustainable development and the backlash by anti-environmental authors. However, the work of Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1996), addressing some of the myths advanced by growth advocates, has highlighted again the importance of limits. Many scientists and other writers now recognize that the earth is finite, and are prepared to consider limits in some form. (PM)

References Buttel, F., Hawkins, A. and Power, A. 1990: From limits to growth to global change: constraints and contradictions in the evolution of environmental science and ideology. Global Environmental Change 1: 57-66. Dobson, A. 1996: Green political thought: an introduction, 2nd edn. London: Unwin Hyman; Ehrlich, P. and Ehrlich, A. 1996: Betrayal of science and reason: how anti-environmental rhetoric threatens our future. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. Covelo, California: Shearwater Books. McCormick, J. 1995: The global environmental movement, 2nd edn. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons. Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers J. and Brehens III, W. 1972: The limits to growth. London: Earth Island. Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L. and Randers, J. 1992: Beyond the limits: global collapse or a sustainable future. London: Earthscan.



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