What may grow, what must shrink
“The Limits to Growth”. This Club of Rome report, published 50 years ago, is still one of the most cited, most influential and most controversial publications in the history of environmental policy. It was published in 35 languages with a total circulation of over 30 million. Together with Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring”, it is one of the early classics of the environmental movement.
The analysis then used a computer model called World3 to model the interaction of five stylized variables over the period 1972-2100: population, technology, industrial production, non-renewable resources and pollution. The gross national product, which is generally meant in the concept of economic growth, was not included, but at most indirectly included in the concept of industrial production.
The authors modeled several scenarios that assumed, among other things, different resource availability and different technology developments. Most led to collapse during the 21st century. However, the Club of Rome emphasized that the report also contained a positive message: With forward-looking politics, this collapse could be avoided.
The authors published updates to the report after 20 and 30 years, which basically confirmed the original results. However, resource availability was not the first limit the world system encountered. On the other hand, environmental pollution in the form of non-toxic, at first glance seemingly harmless substances such as CO₂ and now also plastic has proven to be the most stubborn problem to date, which is difficult to get a grip on and unbalances our global ecological systems.
Independent analyzes also essentially confirmed the original results. Yale researcher Gaya Herrington compared 2021 World3 model results with empirical data and found good agreement, particularly with the scenarios assuming increased resource availability (BAU2) and accelerated technology development (CT). However, they both lead to a decline in industrial output from 2040, albeit with very different consequences.
The report was highly controversial from the start, and flagrantly false claims, such as the report predicting a collapse in 1990, were also widely circulated. He generated a controversy that continues to this day. Because in the end there remains a dilemma: our societies have so far been dependent on economic growth – from social security to taxes and the stability of the financial system. Even the investments required for the energy transition generate an impetus for growth. And while the energy turnaround meets with broad approval in principle, it would certainly not be feasible to shrink the gross national product by the magnitudes in which climate protection is concerned.
Ultimately, it must be a question of clearly distinguishing between what is allowed to grow and what must shrink: the use of nature in its various dimensions must shrink radically. The environmentally relevant end values of human consumption (living space per capita, mobility kilometers, etc.) must certainly increase somewhat in the global south, and at least remain stable in the north. And the growth of the gross national product is not the central objective from this perspective, but at best the resultant and possibly a condition for economic stability.
The concept of the Great Transformation, brought into the debate by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) in 2011, also makes an important contribution. The term, which goes back to the social historian Karl Polanyi, first of all emphasizes the processual, dynamic nature of the upcoming change. Usually classified as «social-ecological» as an adjective, it makes it clear that it is not about marginal adjustments to an otherwise wonderfully running economy, but about a fundamental change in the essential systems that determine our way of life: energy, transport, housing, nutrition, industry.
Technological changes are often closely intertwined with lifestyle changes: the change from the car-centric city to an attractive mix of bicycles and e-bikes, networked local public transport and various sharing services – including a remnant of electrified, shared automobility – is beginning to emerge interlocking system of technical innovation, infrastructure and the resulting changes in behavior. From this point of view, the “lifestyle versus technology” debate, which is repeated on many talk shows, turns out to be a false dichotomy.
From the point of view of the transformation of the systems energy, transport, housing and nutrition that are essential for our environmental consumption, life cycle assessments carried out at a single point in time for individual technologies become questionable. For example, the CO₂ balance of electromobility in a coal-fired power system may not be particularly convincing compared to an efficient diesel. However, if you understand the transition as part of a major transformation of the energy and transport system, it makes more sense.
Such a transformation takes many years, even if it has to happen very quickly due to the failures of the past 50 years. There is no panacea. CO₂ pricing, highly praised by many economists, will at best play a supporting role ( see the contribution by Cullenward and Victor ).
In each of the sectors, transformation pathways need to be explored that intertwine technical practices, infrastructure and technologies with behavioral changes, social coalitions for change need to be forged and politically effective in order to square the circle of ambition and pragmatism. The increasing moments of crisis must be used for quantum leaps in the right direction instead of falling back into old patterns.
Technological developments are indispensable, but their implementation can no longer be left to the profit motive alone. Their opportunities must be used to reduce the ecological footprint, not to fulfill our dreams. Whether air taxis or space tourism, supersonic flight and Bitcoin mania: Not everything that is technically possible and fulfills individual wishes or even greed for profit is also of general interest. Because then the growth of desires, not infrequently even greed, drives the world into the abyss. A clever, socially negotiated self-restraint is necessary at these points: Our world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed (M. Gandhi).
In all of this, the Great Transformation will not be linear. History will inevitably zigzag forward. Despite all setbacks and growing ecological crises, it is always about keeping an eye on the goal: the fastest possible socially sustainable transformation of our way of life and economic activity towards 100 percent renewable energies, environmentally friendly land use and a comprehensive circular economy.
We will not get away scot-free as things stand now. The “impacts” are getting closer: Burning forests, thawing permafrost, heat waves and melting polar ice caps are just a few warning signs. Numerous global ecosystems have been damaged too massively, from the climate to the oceans and forests to the soil. But with a great deal of effort, the coming crises can perhaps be used as moments of transformation that will still prevent the collapse predicted by the Club of Rome models in the 1930s to 1950s and at least allow for a “soft landing” (Adam Tooze & Jonathan Barth) can enable.
Solidarity with the most vulnerable in our global society is a prerequisite for this. The best moment to initiate the Great Transformation would have been 50 years ago. The second best is today – and parts of it are already on the way.
Jörg Haas is a consultant for international politics at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.