THE COMPUTER MODELING made it plain: If people continued to overextract finite resources, pollute on a massive scale, and balloon the human population in an unsustainable way, civilization could collapse within a century. It sounds like that modeling could have been done last week, what with climate change, water shortages, and microplastics corrupting every corner of the Earth. But in fact it dropped in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome, an international organization of intellectuals founded in 1968.
The book sold millions of copies and was translated into at least 30 languages, attracting a storm of controversy. It was, after all, very early computer modeling—completed on a punch-card machine at MIT—and a highly simplified simulation of complex global systems. And it was making rather grand and consequential predictions. (As the old quip goes: All models are wrong, but some are useful.) That model spit out scenarios in which humanity either got more sustainable and equitable, and thus flourished, or continued letting capitalists plunder the planet and our civilization to death.
“What came from the simulations is that most of the cases—but not all, and it’s important to say not all—the evolution of a number of variables like population, production, pollution, was showing that around the mid-21st century, we would have a scenario of collapse of human civilization,” says Carlos Alvarez Pereira, vice president of the Club of Rome and co-editor of the new retrospective book Limits and Beyond: 50 Years on From The Limits to Growth, What Did We Learn and What’s Next? “The whole thing was framed into doomsday prophecy. We didn’t succeed in bringing the message that it was not about that. It was really about: We have the capacity to choose. We have, as humanity, the capacity to decide what kind of future we want.”