Limits to Growth: Are we there yet?




From ISE Associate Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero:

In the last few weeks a public debate has flared up between Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman and environmentalist Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. Heinberg insists that reverting global warming and overall environmental degradation is impossible without stopping economic growth. Krugman dismissed his arguments in a September 18 op-ed (1). Heinberg responded with an article titled “Paul Krugman and the limits of hubris” (2).

The debate over ecology vs. economic growth is not new. In 1972 a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists led by Dennis and Donella Meadows published the most widely read and discussed environmental report of all time: The Limits to Growth, also known as the Club of Rome Report (3). Using the most advanced data processing technologies of the time, the report concluded that if current trends in industrial growth and consumption of raw materials did not change, humankind would suffer a catastrophic global economic and ecological collapse sometime in the 21st century.

The document generated much polemic, much was written in agreement and in disagreement with its dire conclusions. Publications like the New York Times and Newsweek published tirades by economists against The Limits to Growth, while ecologists were practically unanimous and universal in their praise.

More than 40 years after its publication, a University of Melbourne team led by professor Graham Turner analyzed data used by the Meadows team and compared them with current data from UNESCO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the US scientific agency NOAA, energy statistics from the BP oil company, and other sources. After studying the correlation between the data utilized by The Limits to Growth and the current data, the Australian team concluded that Meadows and Co. were right, and that the results of the “business as usual” scenario did not change (4). According to this scenario, the global economy and planetary ecosystems would collapse, making it impossible to sustain the current human population, which would plummet drastically to a fraction of what it is today in a few decades’ time, presumably by way of famine, disease and violence. The 1972 report forecast that in the “business as usual” scenario the final collapse of human civilization would start within the period 2015-2030.

The proposal of post-growth economics- decrecimiento in Spanish, decroissance in French- is nothing new. The late Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was talking about it back in the 1970’s. Its leading advocates include former World Bank economist Herman Daly and European professors Joan Martínez-Alier and Serge Latouche, and newcomers include Peter Victor and Tim Jackson, both of whom are inviting us to consider and visualize prosperity without growth.

Post-growth is a direct challenge to keynesian and neoliberal economics, both of them being based on never ending growth. It is one of the central propositions of ecological economics. According to this relatively new field , there can be no infinite growth in a finite system. In other words we cannot have a growing global economy in a planet that is not growing- it is simply an impossibility from a thermodynamic perspective. Progressives cannot afford to waste time in a sterile debate over whether just distribution of wealth is more important than stopping runaway economic growth, or the other way around. Economic justice and environmental protection must go together. Otherwise we are headed to the terrifying “business as usual” scenario that The Limits to Growth warned us about.


Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist, author and environmental educator. He is a graduate of the Institute for Social Ecology’s MA program. He runs a bilingual blog dedicated to news and information of progressive and environmental interest ( His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz. For more information:

1 Paul Krugman. “Errors and Emissions: Could Fighting Global Warming Be Cheap and Free?” New York Times, September 18 2014.


3 Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero. “The Limits to Growth, yesterday and today. ALAI, November 8 2013.

4 Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander. “Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse” The Guardian, September 2 2014.