The Basic Idea

The concept of limits to growth is an attempt to understand the historical tension between global economic growth and environmental protection.

An important example of this tension is the danger of extinction for whales. For centuries humans have hunted whales, a difficult and dangerous enterprise whose mythical qualities have been highlighted by Herman Melville's tale of Moby Dick. With the expansion of the modern world economy, the catch was greatly increased as more and more ships were put to use with increasingly sophisticated technology. This, however, reduced the total population of whales, and as a certain minimum of whales is needed to secure mating and reproduction, extinction of whales has become a serious risk. It took strong and continued political action by environmentalists all over the world, supported by scientists and enhanced by mass media, to enforce limits on whaling. The tension between economic interests in increased catch and environmental interests in protecting the whales, however, is still there, and it applies to many other species, too.

This kind of situation can be modeled mathematically and the resulting models can be implemented on computers. In 1972, Meadows etal. published a highly influential book where a similar model was used to argue that economic growth should be stopped within a few decades in order to avoid environmental catastrophe.

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