Revised 24 May 2019

Limits to Growth (1972) was updated in 1992 with a further update in 2004. The Limits to Growth (1972) was interpreted by some critics as being a prediction of gloom. This is incorrect. Limits to Growth (1972) was not about a preordained future, but instead was about choice. Limits to Growth (1972) raised questions such as: 

  1. What will happen if growth in the world’s population continues unchecked? 
  2. What will be the environmental consequences if economic growth continues at its current pace?
  3. What can be done to ensure a human economy that provides sufficiently for all and that also fits within the physical limits of the Earth? 

Limits to Growth (1972) certainly contained a warning, but also a message of promise and hope. 

In 1991 the Club of Rome team had a re-look at prevailing environmental data and realised that in spite of the world's improved technologies, humanity had already overshot the limits of Earth’s support capacity. Research independent of that of the Club of Rome and quoted in the Club of Rome’s 1992 edition indicated that resource and pollution flows had grown beyond their sustainable limits. Pollutants affecting the ozone layer was a prime example. There was also growing evidence that the rain forests were being cut at unsustainable rates, speculation that grain production could no longer keep up with population growth, and research had gathered evidence of a trend that the global climate was warming. The conclusions of the Limits to Growth (1972) report were accordingly strengthened in the 1992 edition Beyond the Limits: Global Collapse or a Sustainable Future referred to here onwards as Limits to Growth (1992). The conclusions are as follows:

“1. Human use of many essential resources and generation of many kinds of pollutants have already surpassed rates that are physically sustainable. Without significant reductions in material and energy flows, there will be in the coming decades an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use, and industrial production.

2. This decline is not inevitable. To avoid it two changes are necessary. The first is a comprehensive revision of policies and practices that perpetuate growth in material consumption and in population. The second is a rapid, drastic increase in the efficiency with which materials and energy are used.

3. A sustainable society is still technically and economically possible. It could be much more desirable than a society that tries to solve its problems by constant expansion. The transition to a sustainable society requires a careful balance between long-term and short-term goals and an emphasis on sufficiency, equity, and quality of life rather than on quantity of output. It requires more than productivity and more than technology; it also requires maturity, compassion, and wisdom.” (Meadows et al., 1992, pp. xv-xvi)

In anticipation of further claims of predictions of gloom, Limits to Growth (1992) added the following clarification to the above conclusions: 

 “These conclusions constitute a conditional warning, not a dire prediction. They offer a living choice, not a death sentence. The choice isn’t necessarily a gloomy one. It does not mean that the poor must be frozen in their poverty or that the rich must become poor. It could actually mean achieving at last the goals that humanity has been pursuing in continuous attempts to maintain physical growth.” (Meadows et al., 1992, p. xvi)

In 2004 The Club of Rome published the 3rd edition of Limits to Growth (1972) with the title of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update referred to here onwards as Limits to Growth (2004). The 3rd edition was published in order to “restate our 1972 argument in a way that is more understandable and better supported by all the data and examples that have emerged during the past decades”.

Environmental data subsequent to 1992 further supported the Beyond Limits (1992) message that humanity had already approached overshoot mode.  For example, Mathis Wackernagel et al. (1997) had measured the ecological impact of 52 large countries inhabited by 80% of the world population and compared it to Earth’s carrying capacity. The carrying capacity was expressed in terms of the land area that would be required to sustain humanity at its current level of population and material consumption while both absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and preserving ecological systems and the eco-services that nature is able to regenerate.  Wackernagel et al. concluded that in 1992 the impact of population and material consumption, or humanity’s ecological footprint, exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity by 20%. By 1997, the ecological footprint exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity by 33%. Limits to Growth (2004) concluded:

 “Consequently, we are much more pessimistic about the global future than we were in 1972. Humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but half-hearted, responses to the global ecological challenge.” 

Notwithstanding that humanity is in overshoot mode, Limits to Growth (2004) stressed that “resulting damage and suffering can be greatly reduced through wise policy”, and once again clarified that:


“We do not write this book in order to publish a forecast about what will actually happen in the twenty-first century. We are not predicting that a particular future will take place. We are simply presenting a range of alternative scenarios: literally, 10 different pictures of how the twenty-first century may evolve. We do this to encourage your learning, reflection, and personal choice”.

The three editions of The Limits to Growth reflect a changing understanding of climate change. The 1972 publication showed the C02 curve going up, but the CO2 curve was included primarily to illustrate an example of persistent pollution. Although it was known that CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels is a persistent pollutant which stays in the atmosphere for a long time and that a build-up of CO2 affects the local climate, there was limited understanding and concern about climate change in 1972. Over the intervening years climate change has now become a major over-riding global environmental pressure. Notwithstanding the current global focus on mitigating climate change, climate change is but one of a number of symptoms caused by population growth and growth in material consumption. Climate change and many other global pressures are addressed in detail in sections under the category of Issues of Sustainability.