Limits of Limits to Growth

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Limits of Limits to Growth

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The book, Limits to Growth,[1] deals with limits that affect economies bound exclusively to Earth. Space faring economies can alter the situation by providing increased energy to Earth with practically zero pollution from space based solar power stations. Space habitats could be built with lunar and Martian resources. Large structures built from materials already existing in outer space could reduce the cost of reaching orbit from Earth to the point that massive emigration from Earth could be practical. The difficulties in establishing industrial facilities to take advantage of the materials on the moon and the sunlight energy in free space give rise to the idea that humanity may not be able to cope with this difficulty if the current technological civilization suffers serious decline. This sort of decline is discussed in Limits to Growth, but the time and severity of such a decline is not predicted with much accuracy. There is not much data on which to make such predictions and the factors that determine the outcome during a decline in population typically act in a chaotic fashion.

The Great Famine of 1315 to 1317, perhaps the worst famine in the history of Europe, killed about 10% of the population. It was followed by the Black Death which in turn killed perhaps 45% of the people. The famine may have been a contributing cause of the plague because malnourished people are more susceptible to disease. After the plague the population of Europe rebounded. Cathedral cities remained cathedral cities. Language and culture was passed on. When Mycenaean Greece collapsed the language and culture was lost. We do not know the details of population decline in response to shortages but numerous ancient cultures collapsed and were not heard of again except in the archeological record. Population decline is not likely to be as smooth as population growth. Fights for resources can show themselves as religious wars. People use religion as a way of choosing sides, but the underlying motive can be the taking of land by war. The breakdown of the intricate web of trade in a world economy would in itself cause shortages of all sorts of goods. The producers would no longer be assured of getting the raw materials for production or spare parts for broken machines. Central factories could loose the ability to distribute their production to a sufficient customer base and be forced to stop production by lack of economic support. In short, there are numerous mechanisms by which economic failure can cause further economic failure. There is a potential for an avalanche-like failure but the timing and extent of such economic catastrophes are beyond reliable prediction.

An industrial colony on the Moon could make humanity immune to shortage induced cultural collapse for several centuries, if it is completed soon enough to avert critical shortages. The initial industrial colony would provide increased resources to Earth. Eventually space habitats could be built and the means to emigrate to them. People would gain access to the resources of the whole solar system.

We do not know just when critical shortages will occur but they seem ever more likely as the population of the Earth continues to increase.

See Also


  1. Limits to Growth by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III; (c)1972