The Club of Rome half century after “The limits to growth” and its consequences on today’s world.

(by Ugo Bardi)

Ugo Bardi

We all remember the well known study “The limits to growth” published in 1972 by The Club of Rome. Its memory is often misrepresented from the passing of time and from the many legends that have been built upon its results. Thus, we remember – or we believe we remember – that “The limits to growth” made “wrong forecasts” by saying that we should  have finished this or that resource (oil, gas, copper or whatever) already a long time ago. This is not what happened, of course. But the story was different.

The “The limits to growth” didn’t make wrong predictions, and actually didn’t make predictions  at all. The study was a warning, a series of scenarios to show how the global economy could develop in around one century. In practice, the results depended on the choices we would have done. Two main problems were faced in the report: the gradual depletion of natural resources and the increase of pollution. Neither of the two were sudden changes: “depletion” doesn’t mean that a natural resource disappears all of a sudde; it means that the extraction costs increase step by step since the cheapest resources are extracted first. Pollution doesn’t mean we all die because of contamination; it means that the damage caused to the economic system gradually increase, and the same is true for the costs necessary to limit the damage. The calculations in the study showed that these two factors were destined to have an increasing incidence on global economy, first by slowing down growth, then transforming it in a recession (or “negative growth”, as it is fashionable to say nowadays).

This economic decline was not and it is not an inescapable destiny. “The limits to growth” in 1972 explained how to avoid it: renewable resources, greater efficiency, reuse of waste, closing of the industrial cycle. Nowadays all this looks familiar to us, but unfortunately we decided to ignore it or to adopt “cosmetic” solutions (minor  measures, mainly in order to obtain a clear conscience). What we did was not enough to change the functioning of an economy based on the rapid exploitation of mineral resources and which just doesn’t seem to consider depletion a problem worth considering. For example we think that it is fine to burn waste in incinerators but we don’t care about the fact that it is almost impossible to recover anything from the ashes and the rare and valuable mineral resources that went through the industrial cycle are lost forever. The result is that the global economy is following the worst case scenario identified in “The limits of growth”, as The Guardian notes from the results of a detailed study.

So where do we stand now? If didn’t behave well enough up to now, it doesn’t mean that we can’t change. We can and we have to work on sustainability , meaning that we should use renewable energy, accurately reuse mineral resources, develop a series of technologies that are more sustainable and based on resources that can be reused. For example the transportation sector is all based on fossil fuels. We could reorganize this sector providing more efficiency and using electric motors and batteries, that can be recharged with renewable resources. There is an open way in front of us: The Club of Rome is still existing today and it has been working recommending the right direction over half century. We can still steer towards sustainability: we only need to want it.

Ugo Bardi is a professor at Florence University. He is the author of the recent “Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet” published by Chelsea Green, 2014 (http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/extracted:paperback” title=”chelsea green” target=”_blank”>link)

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