A recent newspaper item by a well known Australian economics journalist entitled ‘Hitting the non-existent limits’, emphasises how little-understood are the limits to (exponential) growth. With a vague reference to the remarkable work done by the Club of Rome in the now updated book The Limits To Growth, the author has highlighted the dangers of climate change. Citing the fast growing economies of India and China (about 10% per year or a doubling in size after just 7 years), the article suggests their rapid growth would be impermissible in future years if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.
This is no doubt true. However it is only the tip of the now-melting iceberg. The real strength of the work presented in The Limits To Growth was the modelling of exponential growth under many limits simultaneously. Even a growth rate of as little as 2-3% per year (about the current rate in the ‘developed world’ and approximately that modelled in the book) amounts to a doubling in size of industrial output and population within 23-35 years. The results of the modelling show that if growth is allowed to continue, the world system simply loses the ability to cope. Depreciation begins to exceed investment with increased expenditure on sources (technologies) and sinks (pollution mitigation).
Although heavily publicised, climate change is only one of the indicators that the world system has indeed already reached the limits to growth. Other indicators include; peak oil, the lack of arable land and decreasing land yield, a shortage of timber, the decreasing catch of fish and the need to construct desalination plants at huge expense.