Fermer Overlay

How the report was disseminated and received upon its release

Roberto Pasqualino

Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (C-ENEERG), Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge

Email: rp747[at]cam.ac.uk


This chapter outlines how the ‘The Limits to Growth’ report, was published, disseminated and how it was received by the wider public, academic community and policy makers. It highlights the motivations and strategies from the founder Aurelio Peccei, the continuous efforts in keeping the publications costs to the minimum, leading to the quick widespread diffusion of its messages. The reaction of the academic community of the time were partially answered in the publication of the second report of the Club of Rome (Mankind at the Turning Point) but still without receiving the relevant attentions until the 1990s. The chapter concludes with reflections on the latest efforts of the Club of Rome of taking this message forward and related work as proposed in ‘Limits and Beyond’ (Bardi and Pereira 2022) and the flagship report Earth4All (Dixson Declève et al. 2022).

The push from the Club of Rome

The need for developing a world model was recognised and actively encouraged by the Club of Rome (CoR) in 1970 (CoR 1970). The CoR is an informal, multinational, non-political group of scientists, intellectuals, educators, and business leaders sharing a common vision and concern for the future of humanity. It was formed in 1968 at the instigation of Aurelio Peccei, an Italian anti-fascist industrialist (Pauli 1987; Meadows et al. 1972). In 1970, the CoR developed its first project proposal, ‘The predicament of mankind’ (CoR, 1970) stating the existential problem of economic growth in a finite planet. Despite creating wealth, economic growth was also generating a number of drawbacks (e.g., widespread loss of human values, accumulation of pollution leading health problems), and the wealth generated was often kept in the hands of a few powerful people, rather than being distributed among all.

After the first meetings with the scientific leads in 1970s, Jay Forrester (Professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) proposed a first sketch of his world computer model and developed the World2 as published in World Dynamics (Forrester 1971a). Given the strong focus on social needs often in line with economic analysis, he secondly named the method as System Dynamics (Forrester 1971b). Phase One of the Predicament of Mankind could formally start. Dennis Meadows was appointed as team lead for the development of the World3 model supported by a team of sixteen scientists under the supervision of Forrester. Despite the model was formed by a system of equations, Aurelio Peccei pushed the team with a precise communication strategy for the wider public. Rather than using the approach of Forrester in World Dynamics that valued the mathematical formulation and technical consistency, Peccei was more interested in discarding ‘equations’ completely from the text, and present that from the angle of the social science. He found that one of the lead authors, Donella Meadows, was the only person who could fulfil such a purpose. It was hers the honour to write the first report of the Club of Rome (Pauli 1987). In March 1972 the research was presented to the Club of Rome committee, and the first report entitled “The Limits to Growth” (1972) was published to the wider public.

In 1972, publishing a book at no-cost was a hard task, but it was partially achieved by the CoR team. After the publication, Aurelio Peccei spent his time travelling the world to explain its findings to different communities of industrialists and policy makers. He engaged with several book editors to translate the book in several languages, at no-margin price for the Club of Rome. Neither the scientific team, nor the Club of Rome made a profit out of the sales of the report. This allowed its quick widespread diffusion leading to three million copies sold by 1980, and translations in twenty-three languages. It accounts for more than twelve million copies sold in forty years since the first publication (Jackson 2016).

How the report was received

Despite the tremendous impact on society, the report was far from accepted by the economics profession. One of the worst criticisms came from William Nordhaus, who is well known today as a Nobel Prize winner while developing his line of integrated assessment climate models (IAMs) under the name of the DICE (Nordhaus 1992, 2008, 2013, 2017, Nordhaus and Sztorc, 2013). Nordhaus (1973) revisited World2 and used it to trigger criticisms to World3. The major ones included (i) not modelling technological progress that could act as buffer to remove all world limits, (ii) the ‘unrealistically strong’ damage functions in pollution and land systems sectors, and (iii) the assumption that resource limits could be a possible constraint to the economy 2100. Nordhaus (1973) removed those constraints, thus allowing the economy of the model to keep growing prosperously. Typical sensitivity analyses were reproposed in line with the standard IAM literature, and ‘System dynamics’ was judged as a methodology far from a scientific method, highlighting the lack of communication abilities of its results and the insensitive approach to policy of their users (Nordhaus 1973).

In addition, Cole (1973), in “Thinking about the Future: A Critique of The Limits to Growth“, enlisted several limitations of the methodology, and above all the lack of inclusion of human decision making and disaggregation across countries. In their words: The major weakness of the world dynamics models is that they illustrate the pessimistic consequences of exponential growth in a finite world without taking account of politics, social structure, and human needs and wants. The introduction of an extra variable – man – into thinking about the world and its future may entirely change the structure of the debate which these models have so far limited to physical properties.”. Their view was that a globally aggregated model was not able by construction to answer the question driven by the interaction between growth and limits. Aiming for regionalizing the model would be a positive addition, but still it would end up in such a level of complexity that could not be addressed with success (Cole 1973).

The following years were characterised by a vivid contrast with the economic profession. The International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) symposium in the 1976 is an example (Meadows et al. 1982). Concerned with the findings of the LtG, IIASA opened a call for global models to different scientific communities as a series of symposiums. The aim was to run a careful comparison between models that were developed based on other paradigms. Such a symposium is recognised as one of the most intense efforts up to that point in global modelling (Sterman 1991).

Other seven models in addition to the World3 Forrester-Meadows model were included in the comparative analysis. One of them represented an opportunity for the CoR to develop new modelling capabilities to answer to the initial criticists to the World3 and World2 models. This was the Mesarovic-Pestel model which formed the basis for the second report to the Club of Rome (Mesarovic and Pestel 1974).

In Mesarovic and Pestel (1974), the CoR returns to his steps by providing its own criticism to the LtG message by stating that: “Viewing the world system as homogeneous, i.e., describing it in reference to population growth in the entire world, the income per capita as averaged over the entire world, etc., as has been done in earlier world modelling effort [World2 and World3] led to an inaccurate representation of the mechanisms how the system operates, and can be misleading.”(Mesarovic and Pestel 1974, p. 39). By clearly differentiating themselves to what they call ‘Forrester-Meadows theses’ their modelling principles resides in (1) “The world can be viewed only in reference to the prevailing differences in culture, tradition, and economic development, i.e. as a system of interacting regions; a homogeneous view of such a system is misleading” and (2) “Rather than collapse of the world system as such, catastrophes or collapses on a regional level could occur, possibly long before the middle of the next century, although in different regions, for different reasons, and at different times. Since the world is a system, such catastrophes will be felt profoundly throughout the entire world” (Mesarovic and Pestel 1974, p. 55).

Their model was proposed as a network of 10 macro regions widespread across the global continents, each modelled with energy, demographics, agriculture, human decision aspect and macroeconomic sectors. The pollution sector, or any climate related sector were not considered. Rather than the wider problem of global growth reaching limits, they:

  1. Stopped the simulation at the year 2025 (no need to cover world limits debate).
  2. Addressed possible problems of inequality among regions proposing policies that could reduce it.
  3. Looked at the possible limits of oil production in different regions and how that could potentially impact inequality.

By neglecting the hypothesis of global limits, their work is today widely forgotten, and limited impact was registered. The full results of the IIASA efforts have been proposed in Meadows et al. (1982) and Meadows (1980), with the basic conclusion that most economists disagree with the paradigm of ‘system dynamics’ because it was different from their own. In the words of Donella Meadows, “those who believed that continued growth was essential to the preservation of Western industrial society and to the improvement of the state mankind attacked the principal conclusions. Scientists and political leaders from the Third World argued that the model was essentially an ideological statement from the developed world. Economists attacked the world view of systems dynamics, which differed fundamentally from their own” (Meadows et al. 1982, p. 24). Greenberg et al. (1976, p. 142) classified system dynamicists of the time as “boy economists.” Casti (1981, pp. 418–419) in “some outrages in the name of modelling” categorised system dynamics as a “toy” and referred to it as “an illustration of the type of senile maundering and immature egocentricity… [that] infests the social sciences like maggots of an organically- grown peach”.

It is worth noting that despite the effort of IIASA and the engagement of different scientific communities in developing new global models, only World3 received such global visibility. With the publication of the Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World (Meadows et al. 1974), World3 became one of the most fully documented among the global models (Meadows et al. 1982) at that time, and also, probably, one of the most criticised models of all time.


After the 1980s, the LtG thesis was back tested with scientific evidence several times. These included the World3 updates in Meadows et al. (1992) and Meadows et al. (2003), and continuous work of the World3 initial development team in creating new work in this direction (Randers 2000, Randers 2012, Randers et al. 2016). The early 2000s were galvanized by Turner (2008, 2012) in comparing the model output with real data, criticized in Pasqualino et al. (2015) and Pasqualino and Jones (2020) while demonstrating that the world economy is today more services dominated than what initially predicted, and strengthen by Herrington (2021, 2022) in demonstrating how still the scenarios of the LtG can be reinterpreted to give value to a global society running towards planetary limits.

Fifty years after its first report (and forty-eight years after the second report), the Club of Rome is still pursuing its initial starting mission of fighting for a world of freedom and equality where populations can prosper in a just global society (Declève et al. 2022, Bardi and Pereira 2022). Five turning points are proposed for triggering the tipping points of chance toward the world that they envision. These are (1) Poverty eradication, (2) Reduce inequality from the rich to the poor, (3) Empowerment via education and basic health needs to women, (4) Support food and sustainable agriculture, and (5) Supporting green technology and more energy efficient infrastructures. According to the evidence in modern data, we are currently on track for the ‘Too little too late’ scenario but can shift towards the ‘Giant leap scenario’ that could create the world envisioned by Aurelio Peccei and his followers over the years. Apparently, the time has not run out yet to make the change required. Let’s do it.


Bardi, U., & Alvarez Pereira, C. (2022). Limits and Beyond: 50 years on from The Limits to Growth, what did we learn and what’s next. A Report to The Club of Rome, Exapt Press.

Casti, J. (1981). Systemism, system theory and social system modeling. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 11(3), 405–424.

Club of Rome. (1970). The predicament of mankind: A quest for structured responses to growing world- wide complexities and uncertainties. Proposal to the Club of Rome, Geneva, Switzerland.

Cole, H. S. (Ed.). (1973). Thinking about the Future: A Critique of the Limits to Growth. London: Chatto & Windus for Sussex University Press, United Kingdom.

Dixson-Declève, S., Gaffney, O., Ghosh, J., Randers, J., Rockström, J., & Stocknes, P. E. (2022). Earth for all-A survival guide for humanity: a report to the Club of Rome, Gabriola Island : New Society Publishers, Canada.

Forrester, J. W. (1971a). World dynamics. Wright- Allen Press, Cambridge, MA, US.

Forrester, J. W. (1971b). Counterintuitive behavior of social systems. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 3, 1–22.

Greenberg, M., Crenson, M. A., & Crissey, B. L. (1976). Models in the policy process. Russel Sage Foundation, New York, US.

Herrington, G. (2021). Update to limits to growth: Comparing the World3 model with empirical data. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 25(3), 614-626.

Herrington, G. (2022). Five Insights for Avoiding Global Collapse, ISBN 978-3-0365-3722-1 (Hbk); ISBN 978-3-0365-3721-4 (PDF), https://doi.org/10.3390/books978-3-0365-3721-4. Accessed on 29 January 2023 at: https://www.mdpi.com/books/mono/6206.

Jackson, T. (2016). Prosperity without growth: Foundations for the economy of tomorrow. Routledge, Oxford, UK.

Meadows, D. H. (1980). The unavoidable a priori. Elements of the System Dynamics Method, 23–57.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., & Randers, J. (1992). Beyond the limits: Global collapse or a sustainable future. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, UK.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., & Randers, J. (2003). The limits to growth: The 30- year update. Routledge, London, UK.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., & Behrens, J. (1972). The limits to growth. Universe Books, New York, NY, USA.

Meadows, D. L., Behrens, W. W., Meadows, D. H., Naill, R. F., Randers, J., & Zahn, E. (1974). Dynamics of growth in a finite world. Wright- Allen Press, Cambridge, MA.

Meadows, D. L., Richardson, J., & Bruckmann, G. (1982). Groping in the dark: The first decade of global modelling. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, US.

Mesarovic, M., & Pestel, E. (1974). Mankind at the turning point. The second report to the Club of Rome. Dutton, New York, US.

Nordhaus, W. D. (1973). World dynamics: Measurement without data. The Economic Journal, 83(332), 1156–1183.

Nordhaus, W. D. (1992). The ‘dice’ model: Background and structure of a dynamic integrated climate- economy model of the economics of global warming (No. 1009). Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University, New Haven, CT, US.

Nordhaus, W. D. (2008). A question of balance: Economic modeling of global warming. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, US.

Nordhaus, W. D. (2013). Integrated economic and climate modelling (Vol. 1). Chapter 16 from Handbook of CGE Modelling. SET. ISSN:2211- 6885. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ B978- 0- 444- 59568- 3.00016- X.

Nordhaus, W. D. (2017). Evolution of Assessments of the Economics of Global Warming: Changes in the DICE model, 1992–2017 (No. w23319). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nordhaus, W. D., & Sztorc, P. (2013). DICE 2013R: Introduction and user’s manual, November. Available online: http://www.econ.yale.edu/~nordhaus/homepage/home page/documents/DICE_Manual_100413r1.pdf (accessed June 2019).

Pasqualino, R., & Jones, A. W. (2020). Resources, Financial Risk and the Dynamics of Growth: Systems and Global Society. Routledge, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Pasqualino, R., Jones, A., Monasterolo, I., & Phillips, A. (2015). Understanding global systems today – a calibration of the world3–03 model between 1995 and 2012. Sustainability, 7(8), 9864–9889.

Pauli, G. A. (1987). Crusader for the future: A portrait of Aurelio Peccei, founder of the club of Rome. Pergamon, Oxford, UK.

Randers, J. (2000). From limits to growth to sustainable development or SD (sustainable development) in a SD (system dynamics) perspective. System Dynamics Review: The Journal of the System Dynamics Society, 16(3), 213–224.

Randers, J. (2012). 2052: A global forecast for the next forty years. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Randers, J., Golüke, U., Wenstøp, F., & Wenstøp, S. (2016). A user-friendly earth system model of low complexity: The ESCIMO system dynamics model of global warming towards 2100. Earth System Dynamics, 7(4), 831-850.

Sterman, J. D. (1991). A skeptic’s guide to computer models. Managing a Nation: The Microcomputer Software Catalog, 2, 209–229.

Turner, G. M. (2008). A comparison of the limits to growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change, 18(3), 397–411.

Turner, G. M. (2012). On the cusp of global collapse? Updated comparison of the limits to growth with historical data. GAIA- Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 21(2), 116–124.