Thoughts on economics and liberty

Utter failure of ‘Limits to Growth’ and Club of Rome. Debunking neo-Malthusians #2

First of all, I’d like to request that you download and browse through this Word version of Simon’s Ultimate Resource II, that I had compiled from material available on the internet. This is not the complete book. If you can, please buy a copy of Simon’s wonderful book from Amazon.

Now in continuation of my earlier blog post, today refuting the green socialist agenda, I’m providing some more points for your consideration.

In the next post, I’ll combine other anti-green socialism views that I’ve written about/compiled in the past.


The best-known doomsday forecast in the last few decades was The Limits to Growth. It sold an astounding 9 million copies in 29 languages. But that book has been so thoroughly and universally criticized as neither valid nor scientific that it is not worthwhile to devote time or space to refuting its every detail. Even more damning, just four years after publication it was disavowed by its sponsors, the Club of Rome. The Club said that the conclusions of that first report are not correct and that they purposely misled the public in order to “awaken” public concern.

With respect to minerals, Dennis Meadows (of Limits to Growth) predictably went wrong by using the known-reserves concept. For example, he estimated the world supply of aluminum to be exhausted in a maximum of 49 years. But aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, and the chance of its supply becoming an economic problem is nil. (Meadows also made the error of counting only high-grade bauxite, while lower grades are found in much greater abundance). The price history of aluminum in Figure 2-2 shows how aluminum has become vastly more available rather than more scarce since its early development in the 19th century. And in the two decades since Meadows wrote, the price has continued to fall, a sure sign that the trend is toward lesser rather than greater scarcity. Figure 2-3 [Prices of aluminum, and early ones from Madigan booklet]

The complete failure of the prophecies of Limits to Growth, and even the repudiation by its sponsor, have had little visible effect on the thinking of those who made the false prophecies. [Source]


[From the Word version of his book]

Everyone “knows” that resources are finite. A prominent example is the Limits to Growth group, who open the preface to their 1974 book as follows.

Most people acknowledge that the earth is finite….  Policy makers generally assume that growth will provide  them tomorrow with the resources required to deal with  today’s problems. Recently, however, concern about the  consequences of population growth, increased environmental  pollution, and the depletion of fossil fuels has cast  doubt upon the belief that continuous growth is either  possible or a panacea.

(Note the rhetorical device embedded in the term “acknowledge” in the first sentence of the quotation. It suggests that the statement is a fact, and that anyone who does not “acknowledge” it is simply refusing to accept or admit it.)

From the Limits to Growth team again, this time on food: “The world model is based on the fundamental assumption that there is an upper limit to the total amount of food that can be produced annually by the world’s agricultural system.”

Nor is it only non-economists who fall into this error (though economists are in less danger here because they are accustomed to expect economic adjustment to shortages). John Maynard Keynes’s contemporaries thought that he was the cleverest person of the century. But on the subject of natural resources – and about population growth, as we shall see later – he was both ignorant of the facts and stupid (an adjective I never use except for the famous) in his dogmatic logic. In his world-renowned The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published just after World War I, Keynes wrote that Europe could not supply itself and soon would have nowhere to turn:

[B]y 1914 the domestic requirements of the United States  for wheat were approaching their production, and the date  was evidently near when there would be an exportable  surplus only in years of exceptionally favorable  harvest…  Europe’s claim on the resources of the New World was  becoming precarious; the law of diminishing returns was at  last reasserting itself, and was making it necessary year  by year for Europe to offer a greater quantity of other  commodities to obtain the same amount of bread…  If France and Italy are to make good their own  deficiencies in coal from the output of Germany, then  Northern Europe, Switzerland, and Austria…must be  starved of their supplies.

The heart of all economic theory of population from Malthus to The Limits to Growth can be stated in a single sentence: The more people using a stock of resources, the lower the income per person, all else equal.

The Limits to Growth, Global 2000, and Their Relatives The Limits to Growth simulation of 1972, in which we breed to the exhaustion of natural resources, is so devoid of meaning that it is not worth detailed discussion or criticism. Yet it is taken seriously by many people to this day, and it is therefore a fascinating example of how scientific work can be outrageously bad and yet be very influential. The Limits to Growth was immediately blasted as foolishness or fraud by almost every economist who read it closely and reviewed it in print, for its silly methods as well as for disclosing so little of what the authors did, which makes close inspection impossible. To use the book authors’ sort of language, the whole Limits to Growth caper was public-relations hype, kicked off with a press conference organized by Charles Kytle Associates (a public-relations firm) and financed by the Xerox Corporation; this entire story, along with devastating commentary, was told in detail in Science the week following the book’s appearance in 1972. (The public-relations campaign may not be a bad thing in itself, but it certainly shows the manner the authors and the sponsoring Club of Rome intended to have their material make its way in the world of ideas.) One strong reason not to put stock in the Limits to Growth predictions is that the model was quickly shown to produce rosy forecasts with only minor and realistic changes in the assumptions. The most compelling criticism of the Limits to Growth simulation, however, was made by the sponsoring Club of Rome itself. Just four years after the foofaraw created by the book’s publication and huge circulation – an incredible 4 million copies were sold – the Club of Rome “reversed its position” and “came out for more growth.” But this about-face has gotten relatively little attention, even though it was written up in such places as Time and the New York Times. And so the original message is the one that remains with many people. The explanation of this reversal, as reported in Time, is a masterpiece of face-saving double talk.

The Club’s founder, Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei,  says that Limits was intended to jolt people from the  comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue  indefinitely. That done, he says, the Club could then seek  ways to close the widening gap between rich and poor  nations – inequities that, if they continue, could all too  easily lead to famine, pollution and war. The Club’s  startling shift, Peccei says, is thus not so much a  turnabout as part of an evolving strategy. In other words, the Club of Rome sponsored and disseminated untruths in an attempt to scare us. Having scared many people with these lies, the club can now tell people the real truth. (I have been waiting in vain since the first edition for them to sue me for libel in that previous sentence.) But it is possible that the Club of Rome did not really practice the deceitful strategy that it now says it did. Maybe the members simply realized that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was scientifically worthless. If so, the Club of Rome then lied about what it originally did, in order to save face. From the outside, we have no way of knowing which of these ugly possibilities is the “truth.”

Is my summary of the reported facts not fair? Perhaps I should use quieter language, because I know that some will find the use of words like “lie” sufficient reason to reject what I am saying. But I have no public-relations firm to magnify my message a million-fold in the media, nor do I have a message that people are waiting breathlessly to hear. So I must use strong language to get this point across. And – is there really anything wrong with calling a documented and self-confessed lie a lie?

Surely this is one of the more curious scientific episodes of recent years. The Limits to Growth authors have not recanted, to my knowledge, even though their sponsors have. But neither did the authors confront and contradict their sponsors when the sponsors recanted. The whole matter seems to have passed with little notice, and The Limits to Growth continues to be cited in the popular press as authoritative. If the shoe were on the other foot, I would surely hear plenty from such organizations as Zero Population Growth and the Environmental Fund.

The Global 2000 Report to the President of 1980, done for President Jimmy Carter in conjunction with the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of State, was a later incarnation of material similar to The Limits to Growth, done by many of the same people. It differs in that it was an “official” document with all the influence that such status automatically confers. Like Limits to Growth, the conclusions of Global 2000 are almost wholly without merit largely because of the absence of the long-run trend data that show that resources are becoming more rather than less available, and that our air and water have been getting cleaner rather than dirtier. Even the authors of the Global 2000 Report agree that such trends are the proper basis for such a study, but they nevertheless relied upon the same old discredited Malthusian theorizing that has led one after another of these studies to make forecasts that were soon falsified by events – as was the case with Limits to Growth and Global 2000. Yet this study, too, was heavily ballyhooed, and became the basis for many policy decisions. The Resourceful Earth, which Herman Kahn and I edited in 1984, presents solid scholarly material on most of the questions addressed by Global 2000, having much in common with the material in this book. In 1992 there appeared a sequel, Beyond the Limits, by the group that produced Limits to Growth. The main message was still very dour, but this time the authors built themselves an intellectual escape hatch. They say they may seem to have been wrong, but their ideas were really correct. They simply erred on the date for disaster. (Imagine your reaction if a weather forecaster asked not to be marked wrong because the snowstorm that s/he forecast for tomorrow was simply misdated by four months.) This is in the tradition of Malthus, who changed almost everything in his second edition except the conclusions that made him famous. The Limits authors now suggest we have a choice. If we change our ways, we can avoid collapse. But “if present trends remain unchanged, we face the virtually certain prospect of global economic collapse in the next century” .


The Limits to Growth (1972) – projected the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury and silver by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993. It also stated that the world had only 33-49 years of aluminum resources left, which means we should run out sometime between 2005-2021. (See Donella Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: New American Library, 1972. [Source]


Here’s what the Club of Rome said on the rear cover of the massive best-seller Limits to Growth in 1972:

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.” [Source]

As I wrote on my blog some years ago:

When I was young, the vast majority of Indians thought that population is India’s great problem and if only we could control it, we would be fine. Not only Indians, but all kinds of Malthusians put out books like The Population Bomb (Paul R. Ehrlich); the Club of Rome issued dire predictions through its report, The Limits to Growth.

When I was young everybody in India was smitten by socialism. While pirated Ayn Rand’s books were found on the footpaths, these were read but not understood, being considered the views of an extremist.

When I was young, superstitions of all types ware rampant (astrology, ghosts, etc.). Astrology was used to set the dates for marriages, to start a business venture, to call elections!

I need not perhaps add that all these “expert beliefs” were wrong. Totally wrong. The truth is slowly triumphing over untruth, but will still take time. [Source]

AND this, today, on FB:

I’ll shortly put out one more blog post, as I said above, to bring it all together.

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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3 thoughts on “Utter failure of ‘Limits to Growth’ and Club of Rome. Debunking neo-Malthusians #2
  1. Charles P

    A great post Sir, but these Malthusians are mot socialists, far from it.

    Marx was Malthu’s biggest critic, and he condemned capitalism for putting systematic limits on growth and development, not for providing too much of this.

    This still remains the case, and the neo-Malthusians provide ideological justification for the anti-growth practices of entrenched economic elites.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Marx may well have been a critic of Malthus, but he went off on a tangent himself.

    Essentially, both are paternalists and collectivists, and want big government. Their economic credentials are close to zero.

  3. Shashi Shekhar

    You should have used the “The economics of exhaustible resource by Harold Hotelling” and how resources while physically finite are economically infinite and the subsequent invention of alternative sources of resources to debunk the myth of drying up resources .
    You article could have also included Erich Zimmermann. In his 1933 treatise, World Resources and Industry, he offered a “functional theory” of resources that argued that resource exist in the mind, not the ground.
    Milton Friedman’s essay “The Energy Crisis: A Humane Solution”also debunks club of rome thesis persuasively.
    You rely on rhetoric just like big government to make your point. Though right, it lacks intellectual rigor and persuasive argument.

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