Full account: 33 pages.
(For a 3 page summary see thesimplerway/info/LIMITS.3p.htm.)



Our society's most fundamental mistake is our commitment to affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyles and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output, on a planet whose limited resources make these goals impossible.

Our way of life is grossly unsustainable. Our levels of production and consumption are far too high. We can only achieve them because we few in rich countries are depleting stocks faster than they can regenerate, thereby causing huge ecological damage, and because we are grabbing most of the resources produced, which deprives most of the world's people of a fair share. It would be impossible for all the world's people to rise to our rich world per capita levels of consumption.

Most people have no idea of the magnitude of the limits problem and how far we are beyond sustainable levels.

To make matters worse, although present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact are unsustainable we are obsessed with economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, as much as possible and without limit!

Most of the major global problems we face, especially environment, Third World poverty, international conflict and social breakdown are primarily due to this limits problem; i.e., to over-consumption.

The limits to growth analysis means we must work for radical system change from consumer-capitalist society, that is, for an eventual transition to ways of life and to an economy that will enable all to have a high quality of life on far lower levels of resource consumption, perhaps to 1/10 of present rich-world levels. Such ways are available, and attractive, and easily developed -- if enough of us want to adopt them. There is now a global Degrowth movement for this kind of transition.


Since the publication of the book The Limits to Growth (see the end note) in 1972 a huge amount of research and publication has accumulated documenting the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path. We are consuming resources and damaging the environment at rates that cannot be kept up for long. Most of the big global problems increasingly threatening us are being caused by the fact that we have exceeded the limits to growth. Despite this, the supreme goal of all countries is to increase production, consumption and GDP as fast as possible and without limit; i.e., the goal is limitless economic growth. The following discussion is intended to make clear the reasons why many believe that a multidimensional global breakdown will impact within a few decades.

The situation is being generated by the overconsumption by only a few of the world’s people, so it will become much worse as the rest aspire for affluent “living standards”. The amount of energy for instance used in rich countries is around four-fifths of the world's energy production, and their average per capita consumption is about 17 times that of the poorest half of the world's people. It will never be possible for all to rise to present rich world per capita levels.


The resource and environmental impacts we have on the planet (I) are determined by the number of people we have (P), multiplied by their per capita level of consumption or affluence (A), multiplied by the sort of technology in use (for instance heating a house by fossil fuels has a bigger impact than heating by solar passive design.)

This equation shows that affluence is the biggest concern. World population is only likely to multiply by 1.3 as it rises to 9 or 10 billion, but the Australian energy use per capita is 120 times the average in Bangladesh. Thus the main worry is that the dominant assumption that “development = economic growth” is taking us towards global levels of production and consumption that are many times current levels. The Simpler Way perspective therefore stresses the need to dramatically reduce levels of per capita consumption.

The IPAT equation shows that the richest countries are grossly overpopulated, especially Australia. We can support our numbers affluently only by a) importing so much of the world’s resource production, b) putting a lot of resources into exporting to pay for imports, c) exporting products such as coal and aluminium and beef which are creating the greenhouse problem and depleting our ecological capital. If we lived without doing these things we could support far fewer people at our present "living standards".


The most important point to begin with is the magnitude of the problem, the fact that we are far beyond sustainable levels of resource consumption and environmental impact. The evidence below on demand, available resources, and environmental impact makes it clear that we have to face up to dramatic reductions in present levels, probably to the region of 10% of present rich world per capita use rates.

Following is evidence on resource consumption and availability. To facilitate scanning much of the detail has been indented to enable it to be skipped.

GDP per capita.

GDP can be taken to represent the amount of consumption taking place. If 9 billion people rose to the present Australian level of per capita income, around $60,000 p.a., the total world income would be around $54 0 trillion, approaching six times the present amount. Yet the World Wildlife Fund (2019) estimates that the present amount of resource consuming going on is 1.7 times a sustainable amount. (The figure is also given by Bradshaw, Blumstein, and Ehrlich, 2021). This indicates that by 2050 the amount would be over 10 times a sustainable amount.

Resource consumption.

The basic concern in the limits analysis is how long would crucial resources last if all people aspire to rich world "living standards"? Economists often give the misleading impression that resource availability depends mainly on the price we are prepared to pay. Their assumption is that if a resource becomes more scarce its price will rise and it will then be economic to process poorer grade deposits, or to move to substitutes. There is a tendency for this to happen, but the important limits are set by geo-chemistry, e.g., by the quantities and grades of ore and fuels in the earth, and by biology, e.g., by the amount of biomass that could be put into ethanol production. Resource costs fell for a long time until about 2000; since then they have begun to rise significantly. (King, 2015.)

The following notes indicate the big difference between present rich world and poor world per capita resource consumption, showing that if all were to rise to rich world levels total world resource demand would probably be ten times as high as it is now (and ore grades etc. are declining, see below.)

The UN's International Resources Panel reports that per capita material footprint in high-income countries is more than 13 times the level of low-income countries. (Population Matters, undated.)

The organisation Inequality in a Constrained World (2012) arrive at a higher multiple. “…overall, the wealthiest 20 per cent of the world's population consume 80 per cent of resources such as water and land. By contrast, the poorest 20 percent do not have enough to meet their basic needs - and account for just 1.3 per cent of global resource consumption.” This indicates a general per capita ratio of 62/1 for the top and bottom 10%.

Another source estimates the Material Footprint of the low income countries at 2 tonnes per capita and the High income countries at 26.3 tonnes. (Responsible Production and Consumption, 2019.)

Wiedmann et al. (2015, Fig 1) found that the Australian “Materials Footprint” is 9 times that of India. Wiedmann et al. (2014) find that the top 8 iron and aluminium using countries average 14 times the per capita consumption of the bottom 80 countries. The figures given by Soderstein et al. (2020) indicate that the rich world vs poor world per capita consumption ratios are, for biomass 13/1, fossil fuels 7.4/1, metals 7.1 and minerals 6.4/1.

Recent studies have shown that previous measures of Material Footprint can be significant underestimates, firstly because they usually reflect only net quantities used and thus do not take into account the significant quantities of materials that are processed in Third World exporting countries for each unit exported. (Wiedmann et al., (2015.) Secondly previous estimates have not attempted to include the resource costs embodied in the capital-intensive infrastructures that must be built to produce and export materials. Soderstein et al. (2020) have estimated that including these can increase total quantities by up to 162%. Wiedmann and Lenzen (2018) arrived similar findings.

Note that most of the above references have been to present per capita resource use, but these rates are expected to increase significantly. The UN estimates the global average will be over 70% higher by 2050. (Population Matters, undated.) Taking this factor into account would increase the basic multiples given above.

Energy resources.

The wealthiest 10% of the world’s population consumes about 20 times as much energy as the poorest 10% of the world’s population. (Wiggins, B., 2020.) US per capita consumption is 14 times the Indian and African averages. (Akanonu, 2019.) For the world’s population to rise to the present US per capita primary energy consumption of around 330 GJ/y world production would have to be multiplied by almost 5.

If the common estimates for potentially recoverable non-renewable energy resources are added together and we ask how long would they last if 9 billion people each used energy resources at the present rich world per capita rate, the answer is about 30 years.

Most of these energy resources should not be used because they contain carbon, but the above figures indicate the scale of the energy problem. Clearly, even if we doubled or trebled the assumed potentially recoverable non-renewable energy resources it would not be possible to keep up rich world "living standards" for all people for more than a very few decades.

Could renewable energy sources solve the problem? While it is obvious that we should move to these as quickly as possible there is a strong case that they could not sustain rich world energy-intensive societies for all. (See RE3p.htm for a short overview, and RECanDisag.html for a long analysis.) A number of energy analysts do not think 100% renewable systems are feasible, due to the amount of plant needed to deal with the intermittency of sun and wind energy.

The most urgent limits problems are set by petroleum. Our society is highly dependent on liquid fuels. Since 1995 a number of petroleum geologists have contributed to the following set of alarming claims about world supply of conventional petroleum.

- World supply of conventional oil appears to have peaked in 2005. (Several say this, incl. Birol, head of the International Energy Authority, and Higgs, 2014, p. 263.)

- By 2030 supply might be down to half its peak supply. This would enable all people on earth then to average only 1/15 the amount per capita we now use in Australia.

- It is unlikely that the non-conventional petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales will make a major long term difference to the situation. These are difficult to extract, and have a low ratio of yield to energy spent in production effort (EROI). Some estimate that oil EROI has halved in only fifteen years. (See These sources re also environmentally problematic. In the short term unconventional liquid fuel output (e.g., “tight oil” and gas from “fracking”) has boosted supply significantly in the US but a number of analysts do not expect this to last long; fields have been found to deplete fast. Above all, at least over many years the industry has not made a profit and very high debt has accumulated, meaning the price of oil would have to be very high to cover production costs.

According to some measures, at present the world is using oil three times as fast as it is being discovered. Heinberg and Fridley, (2016, Fig. 1.1.) say that between 2005 and 2013 investment in the production of conventional oil almost trebled, but output decreased about 50%. The HSBC Report (Fustier et al. 2016) finds that the rate of new oil discoveries and their quality (EROI) have declined dramatically over the last few decades.

Ahmed (2017) points out that all Middle East oil producing countries are rapidly running into extreme difficulties due to peaking of oil production, falling EROI and declining oil export income, high population growth, intense water land and food scarcity and thus rising import dependency, increasing discontent and conflict prompting more authoritarian government. They are having to use more oil themselves, meaning less to export to rich countries. Ahmed says it is likely that many of these states will collapse in the next decade or so. These trends will impact heavily on rich-world access to oil. (For more detail on Ahmed’s important book see

In 2014 the price of oil surged to the region of $150/barrel. This seems to have contributed to a major decline in the global economy, and in turn to a large fall in the price of oil. Evidently whenever the price of oil has risen above $100 a barrel in the US there has been economic recession. But a price under about $50 is too low for companies to make a profit given the increasing difficulties and costs in producing oil. It is likely that we have entered a period of wide fluctuations in these factors, but that underlying these will be a steadily rising cost of production. Heinberg (2014) says the cost of production is increasing at 10% p.a.

Recent oil and gas sources; fracking.

Since 2010 there has been a boom in US supply of oil and gas from previously untapped shale sources, accessed by “fracking”. It now seems clear that these sources show “…spectacularly high decline rates.” (Ahmed, 2014, Berman, 2013), and that total supply from these fields will begin to fall rapidly before long. Miller and Sorrel (2014) say the global long term potential of “tight oil” might be 10% of conventional oil. Access to European areas for fracking is much more limited than to the US sources exploited so far, due to tighter rules and more dense settlement.

However the potential in other regions of the world is not clear yet. The fact that there seems to have been little exploratory effort suggest that the favourable conditions in the US are not common elsewhere.

It is likely therefore that in the next decade or so diminishing and more costly petroleum supply will begin to impact seriously on the global economy.

The important EROI ratio.

A most important factor in thinking about limits issues, especially energy, is the ratio between what is produced and the effort needed to produce it. So for energy the crucial indicator is Energy Return on Energy Invested, or EROI. When oil was first produced it took one unit of energy to discover and produce oil equivalent to about 100 units of energy. Morgan says in 1990 the EROI for the overall energy supply system was around 40, but by 2010 it had fallen to 15 - 20. (See also Higgs, 2014, p. 267, Clark, 2011.) He makes the important point that quantities in new discoveries are not as important as the likely EROI for getting oil out of them. The EROI for the new shale oil and gas sources is 5, for tar sand oil 3.7, for North Sea oil now 5, and that few conventional oil fields being discovered have an EROI better than 10. (Morgan 2013, p. 74. Clarke, 2011, gives similar values.) These figures reflect the increasing difficulty of finding, drilling and pumping, e.g., in deep oceans, and the increased amount of energy-intensive infrastructure needed. (This is why the trebling of investment has not produced significantly more oil.)

The EROI values for renewable energy sources are low. Hydroelectricity is best and wind is probably around 18, and PV perhaps 8 - 12 (…although some argue it is much lower), but ethanol from corn is around 1.4, meaning that such a great deal of energy (and land and water) has to be invested to produce the fuel that many regard it as not being a viable option.
The minimum overall energy EROI for a modern society is thought (by some, without a strong case) to be around 10. Some have pointed out that below this approximate value there is an “energy cliff”, i.e., a rapid deterioration in net energy available for use. Morgan says that if the overall EROI fell to 5 the economy would collapse.

Nuclear energy?

There are several reasons why nuclear energy is not likely to solve the energy problem and/or should not be adopted even if it could. The basic problem is that its long term safety is not established; until experts agree on this we are not in a position to see whether it is acceptable.

The problems include, too little uranium to fuel the world via today’s “burner” reactors, “breeders” involve Plutonium reprocessing, we would need thousands of reactors, run by operators who never make a mistake, there is no agreed solution for radioactive wastes, large scale handling of radioactive materials enables access by terrorists et al., small emissions occur routinely and can be dangerous for very long periods so we have no idea what the long term accumulated death, mutation and illness effects might be. Reactors take a long time to build and we need climate solutions immediately. And they are far more expensive than coal generators.
We do not need a lot of energy to run a quite satisfactory society, if Simpler Way ideas are adopted.

What about renewable energy sources?

We must eventually move from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy, but there is a strong case that it would be very expensive and probably unaffordable for all to live in energy-intensive societies running entirely on renewable energy sources. (For a detailed case.)

However renewables could enable a Simpler Way society, because it would involve far lower energy demand than present society.

Following are some of the considerations supporting the case against the possibility of running energy-intensive societies on renewables.

The cost of producing one kWh by wind or solar is now quite low, but to do it in a system that has so much back up and storage capacity that it can meet energy demand all the time, even when there is little or no wind or sunshine would require a great deal of redundant plant and storage capacity. It is not clear how much would be needed and what the total cost would be. The most common view is that Australian electricity demand can be met cheaply and reliably, but several analysts find that for the world in general it cannot be done.

Electricity is only about 18% of energy used in rich countries now. Most renewable sources produce only electricity, except for biomass. Where are we to get the other 82%? We will shift as many functions as possible to run on electricity, e.g. battery powered cars; see below. But this will leave a large amount of energy needed in non-electrical form, e.g., hydrogen, and producing this from electricity is quite inefficient and costly.

Transport energy is the big problem. Electric vehicles will make a significant difference but ships and large aircraft cannot be run on electricity, and there are difficulties and costs with medium and large trucks and farm equipment. There are major limits to the use of hydrogen, due to the weight of tanks that would be needed to hold enough of the low density gas, even after high compression. Compressing or liquifying hydrogen is very energy-costly. To run a car on hydrogen produced from wind generated electricity would involve generating four times as much energy as would be needed to drive the wheels.

It is not likely that the world can derive more than about 100 EJ/y of ethanol from the limited amount of biomass available. That would be only 3% of 2050 world energy demand if 10 billion people were to live as Australians do now. However, we should not be using large quantities of biomass for energy, let alone taking more land for energy plantations, partly because land will be needed for food production, and especially because we should returning large areas to nature.

It is at present not possible to store electricity on the required scale to even out the intermittency of renewable supply, especially when there can be periods of intense cold, cloud and calm across the whole European continent lasting for days or weeks. Lithium resources seem quite unlikely to meet the storage need if 9 - 10 billion are to live as Australians do now, and battery costs would have to fall a long way. An attractive storage option is “turkey nest” pumped hydro storage, but the difficulties and costs are not clear and would seem to be considerable. Two studies have found that while there are many possible sites in Australia (ROAM and Entura) most are small and too high in cost.

Note that this has not been an argument against use of renewable energy sources. We must live on them solely before long so it is important to make them as effective as possible. The argument has been that it is unlikely that they can enable a consumer-capitalist society committed to affluent living standards and economic growth. However renewables could sustain a society functioning on Simpler Way principles, because it would require far less energy.


Demand for minerals is rising significantly. In 1970 global use of materials was 31 billion tonnes; in 2005 it was 61 billion tonnes and now it is 100 billion tonnes.

Minerals are becoming scarcer and the trend over the past few decades has been to rising prices. (But price is not a good indicator of underlying scarcity because fluctuations in global economic conditions make a major difference to demand and prices.) The grades of all ores being mined are falling, in general they have fallen by 50% in a few decades. Kazmerski (2012) says that between 1998 and 2009 the average grade for copper went from 0.8% to 0.7%, for Zinc from 6% to 5.4%, and for Lead from 3.7% to 2.5%. Production costs have increased by 75% since 1985. Deideren (2009, p. 23) summarises the situation; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.”

The UN's International Resources Panel reports that per capita material footprint in high-income countries is more than 13 times the level of low-income countries. (Population Matters, undated.)

Wiedmann et al. (2014) find that the top 8 iron and aluminium using countries average 14 times the per capita consumption of the bottom 80 countries. Given their finding that a 1% increase in GDP is accompanied by a 0.6% increase in materials consumption, to raise all people in 2050 to the Australian per capita use rate by then, world resource production world have to be 10 times as great as at present. But global ore grades are dwindling. Again at least a ten-fold reduction is indicated.

The organisation Inequality in a Constrained World (2012) arrive at a higher multiple. “…overall, the wealthiest 20 per cent of the world's population consume 80 per cent of resources such as water and land. By contrast, the poorest 20 percent do not have enough to meet their basic needs - and account for just 1.3 per cent of global resource consumption.” This indicates a general per capita ratio of 62/1 for the top and bottom 10%.
Another source estimates the Material Footprint of the low income countries at 2 tonnes per capita and the High income countries at 26.3 tonnes. (Responsible Production and Consumption, 2019.)

The figures given by Soderstein et al. (2020) indicate that the rich world vs poor world per capita consumption ratios are, for biomass 13/1, fossil fuels 7.4/1, metals 7.1 and minerals 6.4/1.

Recent studies have shown that previous measures of a nation’s Material Footprint can be significant underestimates, firstly because they usually reflect only net quantities used in the country and thus do not take into account the significant quantities of materials that are processed in Third World exporting countries for each unit exported. (Wiedmann et al., (2015.)

Secondly, previous estimates have not attempted to include the resource costs embodied in the capital-intensive infrastructures that must be built in exporting countries to produce and export materials. Soderstein et al. (2020) have estimated that including these can increase total quantities by up to 162%. Wiedmann and Lenzen (2018) arrived similar findings.

Note that most of the above references have been to present per capita resource use, but these rates are expected to increase significantly. The UN estimates the global average will be over 70% higher by 2050. (Population Matters, undated.) Taking this factor into account would increase the basic multiple.

According to Hickel (2018) we are now 60% beyond a sustainable global consumption of materials. If everybody in the world consumed as much as the average person in the high-income countries, we would need 3.8 Earths to sustain us. This multiple is almost four times as bad as that for productive land derived by the World Wildlife Fund.

It is highly unlikely that minerals could ever be extracted from common rock, because of the high energy cost. If energy becomes more scarce or costly, then minerals will also become more scarce. Some deposits that could once be mined economically now will no longer be economic because it would take too much energy to do it.

Again there is no possibility of all the world’s people using the per capita amounts of mineral use we take for granted in rich

Environmental resource limits.

The most worrying limits we are running into are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of the environment. We are seriously damaging the life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends. The World Wildlife Fund says that since about 1970 global ecosystems have deteriorated 30%. The most obvious area of concern is greenhouse gas emissions but there are many others.

            Climate change.

The world releases about 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year, but climate scientists estimate that to have a 70% chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees all emissions must be eliminated before 2050 (below). If 9 billion people were to have the present Australian energy consumption (270 GJ/y of primary energy) world energy consumption would be 4.5 times as large as it is now. Reasons for thinking this cannot all be derived affordably from renewable sources were noted above. This indicates that the solution to the climate problem has to involve dramatic reduction in energy use.

Biodiversity loss.

We are driving specie extinct at such an increasing rate that scientists say the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers and mass of big animals has declined dramatically. Carrington (2014) says, “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half the amount that was there about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)

According to the 2016 World Wildlife Living Planet Report the world has lost more than half of its vertebrate wildlife in just the last 40 years. In freshwater ecosystems the numbers have plummeted by 75% since 1970.That means, “…For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one.”

This huge damage is primarily due to humans taking too much of nature, (for instance Australia is clearing 60,000 ha of bushland every year) and dumping wastes into the environment.

Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

Humans are releasing huge quantities of nitrogen into the environment, mostly through the production of fertilizers for agricultural use, and this is disrupting natural systems. It is not generally recognized that this is one of the most significant impact areas and that we have exceeded sustainable levels.


We are also putting large quantities of phosphorus into ecosystems, again mostly from agricultural use. Phosphorus is crucial for plant growth and there are worries about exhausting supplies within decades, especially as increasing populations will require greater food production.

Toxicity; poisoning the planet.

Large volumes of chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them. This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans, which among other effects is killing sea birds. Toxicity is responsible for much of the loss of species. It is also likely to be a major cause of human health problems.

Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is debatable whether this can be done. Food production trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries. The 1.4 billion ha of cropland on the planet is declining as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming impacts.

The area of food producing land is continually being lost or abandoned, at a rate which Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010), report as 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a. For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to expanding deserts.

Monbiot’s (2017) restates the astounding FAO finding that “…at current rates of soil degradation…the world on average has 60 more years of harvests…To keep up with demand we need 6 million ha/y more land…we are losing 12.”

These are alarming figures. Ahmed (above, 2017) stresses how the rapidly deteriorating water and food situation in Middle East countries is likely to feed into catastrophic breakdown within a decade or so.


There are already serious water shortages in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. A decade ago over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese were being fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia over-use of water has led to serious problems, e.g., salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in the system might be cut to half the present amount. The greenhouse problem will make these problems worse. Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years.


Tropical rain forest is being lost at a rapid rate, perhaps 16 million ha p.a. Pressures from population growth and corporations is reducing tropical rainforests, where most species live. If all10 billion people expected were to use timber at the US per capita rate we would need to harvest from 4 times the world’s forest area.


Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished. World fish catch is likely to go down from here on. The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago.


Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of ocean animals. This plus the heating of the oceans and run off from farmlands is seriously damaging coral reefs. The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)

The “Footprint” Measure: A summary indicator of environmental overshoot.

The Footprint index estimates the amount of productive area needed to provide a person with food, water, settlement area and energy. The global average area available (“bio-capacity”) is 1.7 ha, but the Australian and the US average footprint is in the region of 7 ha. The World Wildlife Fund (2018) emphasizes that humans are already using so many biological resources that we would need 1.7 planet earths to harvest these in an ecologically sustainable way. (Note Hickel’s statement above that for materials use we would need 3.8 planet earths.)

But that is only to do with the present situation. If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do today we would need to harvest from about 63 billion ha of productive land … but there are only about 8 billion ha available on the planet! (…after leaving about one third of it for nature.) And that assumes no further loss of good land, and at present the rate of loss is increasing.

In other words, in 2050 the amount of productive land available per capita will be only about 0.9 ha, which is only 18% of the present Australian per capita use. That means we are using around 6 times the long term sustainable use that all people could have.

Why is there an environmental problem?

The basic reason for this massive damage being done is simply the fact that far too much producing and consuming is going on, causing us to take too many resources from nature and to dump too many wastes back into nature. Even years ago one species, humans, was using the biological productivity of 40% of the land; the figure would be worse now. (Vitousek, et al., 2012.) The weight of that one species is now ten times the weight of all mammals on earth! (Smil, 2013.) How many biological resources would be left for nature if the expected 10 billion people were to live as Americans do? Efforts to conserve and recycle cannot make much difference to the magnitude of the problems while these rates remain so high, let alone if they increase with economic growth. (See below.)

As with energy and materials, rich world responsibility for the problems is masked by the fact that we import so much. Lenzen et al., (2014), found that for each unit of environmental damage we cause within rich countries, another half a unit is caused overseas and mostly in the Third World by the production of all the things we import.


The world's population in 2020 was around 7.8 billion. It is likely to reach at least 9 billion by 2050; some estimates go up to 11 billion. Most of the increase will be in the poor countries.

Over-population is obviously an extremely serious problem, evident in the equation I = PxAxT. Many believe the world is presently far beyond a sustainable population, which might be only 0.5 - 2 billion people. We now feed only about 1.5 billion people well, but we might soon have to provide for 6 times as many.  Indicators of the biological productivity of the planet are falling and many agricultural trends are worrying (e.g. falling water tables, land losses…), even without taking into account the probable effects of global warming. The above discussion shows that there is no possibility of all the people on earth now rising to anything like present rich world “living standards”.

So population is a major problem… but there is a far more serious one… this is the over-consumption on the part of the rich countries…and the goal the rest have of rising to our levels. Population is likely to rise by less than 30% but if all people rise to the present rich world rates of consumption world resource use and footprint will be about 5 to 10 times as great as they are now. So solving the big problems depends much more on reducing consumption than on reducing population, important though that is.

Third World people are often criticised for having such large families when they are too poor to provide for them. However, this fails to recognize that the economic conditions very poor people suffer make it important for them to have large families. When there are no age pensions people will have no one to look after them in their old age if they do not have surviving children. Also when infant death rates are high it is necessary to have many children in order to be sure some reach adulthood. Even very young children can help on the farm.

These are powerful economic incentives to have large families and they will only be removed by satisfactory development which enables aged care and safe water supplies in villages etc. (It is important to realize that satisfactory  development in poor countries does not require economic growth. It requires the conventional approach to development to be scrapped and replaced by Appropriate development.  (For a lengthy account .);


The most important point the above figures drive home is the magnitude of the overshoot, the huge extent to which we are already beyond sustainable rates of resource use and environmental impact. The WWF says at present we would need 1.7 planet Earths to meet resource demand sustainably. The per capita rates of resource use and environmental impact in rich countries are probably 7 times higher than all people expected on the planet could have sustainably.


The foregoing argument has been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. They are too high to be kept going for long or to be extended to all people. But that does not fully represent the seriousness of the problem. Consumer-capitalist society is determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. In other words, our supreme goal is limitless economic growth. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursuing economic growth.

If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2060 we will be producing 8 times as much every year.

If by 2050 all the world's people rise to the living standards we in Australia will have then given 3% growth, the total world economic output will be about 18 times today’s amount! Yet the present level is unsustainable. Yet limitless growth is the country’s unquestioned and taken-for-granted supreme goal. The limits argument is ignored by the mainstream, by governments, economists, media and people in general.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with this “limits to growth” case. It makes clear how absurd it is to pursue any economic growth at all, and it shows that we should be trying to dramatically reduce global levels of production and consumption. Many are now working within the global Degrowth movement to increase awareness of this.

"Those who believe exponential growth is possible in a finite world are either mad or economists."

Professor Max-Neef, quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, Jan.31, 1994, p. 5.


The foregoing notes include reference to the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to access resources. This means it would be a mistake to think about the prospects of raising all people to 2050 rich world “living standards” by reference to the effort needed to produce resources at present. In general the difficulty is likely to be much greater, and the success much smaller, meaning that in effect the totals assumed above underestimate the equalising task.

To summarise, Climate change will greatly impede future access to resources, mineral ore grades are falling, as is the petroleum discovery rate, the energy return on energy invested, EROI, for oil, has steadily declined, the FAO (2020) reports "…all the forests would disappear approximately in 100–200 years”, that there is a serious and increasing problem of global fresh water scarcity, “A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tonnes a year,” (UIA, 2019. See also Millman, 2015), So, many of the conditions and ecological services enabling current levels of natural resource production are deteriorating alarmingly.

The interaction and feedback effects between these kinds of factors are largely unknown, such as the effect of warming on the loss of ice cover reducing the planet’s albedo and methane release from the thawing of tundra, both further accelerating the warming that caused these effects.

These trends will make it much more difficult to secure resources in future, in effect greatly increasing the extent to which current use rates have overshot achievable amounts.


Many scientists and social analysts believe that the planet is heading for catastrophic breakdown within the next few decades. Attempting to deal with the combined effects of the many difficulties will cause immense problems for economies, raising the costs of inputs, reducing access to resources, and increasing the cost of dealing with wastes and damage. These increasing problems will reduce the “living standards” of ordinary people, most of whom struggle even now. The supplies they need to buy will become more expensive. Governments will face increased costs of dealing with the problems, plus increased discontent and demands from publics. Their capacity to deal with these difficulties will diminish, producing accelerating social discontent and disruption. Even now there is a surge in anger and protest in many countries over the costs of basic goods. Ahmed (2017) provides a convincing account of how these effects are leading to failed states in the Middle East, feeding into war and refugee problems and threatening rich word access to oil.


There is now a very strong case that this faith is mistaken. This is the “tech-fix claim that technical advance will enable economic growth to continue while breakthroughs solve the resource scarcity and ecological impact problems. In other words, the claim is that growth can be “decoupled” from these effects. The best known assertion of this position is the Ecomodernist Manifesto, from the US Breakthrough Institute. (Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015.) (For a critique of Ecomodernism.)

The now huge amount of evidence on this issue flatly contradicts the faith. The argument above shows that there would have to be enormous decoupling, reducing resource use to a small fraction of today’s levels, while GDP constantly increased. But in fact there is a great deal of evidence that despite constant effort over the last thirty years the actual decoupling rate achieved has been negligible; if output or GDP increases so do resource use and ecological impacts. (See TSW: Decoupling.) (It is true that in some particular areas impacts are being reduced per unit of output, but it is not happening for whole econonmies.)

The most detailed and impressive recent reports have been from Hickel and Kallis (2019), the European Environmental Bureau (Parrique, et al., 2019) and Haberle et al., (2020.) The second of these lists over 300 studies and the third over 800. It notes that in some instances “relative” decoupling of resource use from GDP growth has been achieved, for instance where GDP rises and use of energy also rises but not as fast. Yet the goal has to be reduction of impacts, that is, “absolute” decoupling on a very large scale must be achieved, and impacts have to go down to a small fraction of present levels. These reviews find that in general absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth is not occurring, and that greater recycling effort and transition to “service and information economies” are not going achieve it. They emphasise that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling in future; in fact the trends are getting worse. Giljum et al. (2014) found that the rate has deteriorated since 2000. They say, “…for the past 10 years not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” (p. 328.)

There seem to have been no studies coming to contrary conclusions. It is therefore difficult to understand why anyone would take the tech-fix claim seriously.

The same problematic claims have at times been made in terms of a “de-materialisation” of the economy as it moves more towards service industries. In fact, services are quite resource intensive, and switching to them from manufacturing might actually increase energy use. (Sorrell, 2010.) Alcott’s review of several studies finds that there is no evidence that the shift to services reduces resource or environmental impacts. (2012.) In fact there is a correlation between the amount of services in an economy and the amount of energy used. Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, Essay 3.)


The limits problem increases all these kinds of difficulties. As society becomes more complex, more resources and time and dollars have to go into just maintaining systems and the net benefit per unit of input declines. Tainter (1988) saw this as the key effect in the decline and fall of empires. For instance Rome reached the stage where most of the effort had to go into maintaining the borders and territories previously conquered, leaving none for expanding any further. Imagine using gravel to make more roads. As the system expands more of the gravel has to be used to repair roads, until eventually all of the supply that can be afforded will be going into maintaining existing roads and there can be no further extension of the system

The diminishing returns effect can be illustrated by the expense we go to where roads cross. In a village there is no problem, but in a modern freeway system an intersection can involve construction of multi-million dollar flyovers etc. Water has to be pumped to high levels in buildings. Long ago there was no need for staff, buildings or expense to care for aged people, deal with pollution or recycle water. Now we have to put great effort into remedying all the social damage being caused, the depression, stress, homelessness, crime and suicide. Tribes need no lawyers, prisons, or welfare workers. They have law but one person can remember it all, whereas our law occupies metres of shelf space and we have elaborate institutions making more law every day. At the global level vast sums have to be spent on arms to maintain access to the markets and resources rich societies must now get. We are having to consider vastly expensive schemes to bury the CO2 from fossil fuel use. Thus as consumption and complexity increase, disproportionately more and more effort and resources have to go into dealing with the problems created. Herman Daly argues persuasively that our economy is well past the point where increasing production adds more to costs to be met than to welfare to be enjoyed.

Tainter and others also point out that systems are becoming more inter-connected and therefore prone to total system breakdown when one component fails. Globalisation has reduced redundancy, robustness and resilience in crucial sectors. Spare parts for a device used all around the world might come from only one factory. Supermarkets have only a few days food supply so if the ships or trucks can’t get through we are soon in trouble. Most spectacularly, the integrated global financial system went down suddenly in 2008 causing disruption almost everywhere. But in earlier times your region would have been dependent only on the local bank which would not have been affected if banks in other countries failed. In rural villages many people would have been able to go on producing food, repairing carts, building houses etc., but now many necessities can only be secured via complex, distant systems requiring specialists, high-tech components, global transport networks and infrastructures.

The interconnections between systems mean that as problems in one sector of the economy develop they create problems in others. For instance as energy becomes more expensive and scarce, minerals do too because it takes a lot of energy to produce them. A breakdown in one area can send bad feedback effects cascading through many others. Redundancy reduces this possibility; if the village plumber was ill and couldn’t fix your tank many handymen could do it.

Morgan (2013b) and Korowitz (2012), explain how the global financial and trade systems are now vulnerable to total, sudden and catastrophic collapse due to the impact of increasing resource limits on these interdependent and fragile systems. Mason (2003) argues that the resulting problems will come to a head in the “2030 spike.” Ahmed’s (2017) explanation of the Middle East situation provides a graphic illustration of these themes … increasingly over-extended, complex, fragile systems, becoming less and less resilient, and threatening global disruption due to the interconnectedness and interdependence on oil.

People in rich countries do not think about the limits problem because it does not yet affect them much; they continue to get most of the dwindling resources. But they are likely to be impacted heavily within one or two decades. It is difficult to believe they will be able to avoid extremely serious breakdown, especially given that they do not yet have any understanding of the situation they are in.


The basic conclusions the limits to growth perspective leads to regarding resources can be summarised as follows.

• Levels of production, consumption and resource use in rich countries and globally are far beyond sustainable. They cannot be kept up for long and there is no possibility that all people on earth could rise to our high "living standards". We can have them only because we are getting far more than our fair share of the world's resources.

• Resources are scarce and dwindling, ecosystems are deteriorating rapidly…because far too much producing and consuming is going on…even though only about one-fifth of the world’s people are affluent.

• Yet the supreme goal of all countries is economic growth; i.e., to increase production, consumption and GDP as fast as possible and without limit.

• It is highly unlikely that technical advance could enable us to solve the problems while we go on pursuing limitless economic growth and rising “living standards”. That goal is an absurd, suicidal, mistake.

• The problems cannot be solved in or by consumer-capitalist society. The only sensible option is to work very hard to shift to ways that enable us to live well while using far fewer resources. That means scrapping some of the core elements in consumer-capitalist society, and developing some kind of Simpler Way.

As Gandhi said long ago,

..or as someone else said,



Most of the big global problems are directly due to the limits to growth … because over-consumption is their main cause.

          a) The environment problem.

The reason why we have an environment problem is simply because there is far too much producing and consuming going on. Our way of life involves consumption of huge and unsustainable amounts of materials and these must be taken from nature and most of them are soon dumped back as waste and pollution.

          b) Poverty and underdevelopment in poor countries.

The facts and estimates given above regarding potentially recoverable resources make it clear that the poorer countries can never develop to be like the rich countries; there are far too few resources for that. And it means that the very few who live in rich countries can have their high "living standards" only because the global economy is so very unjust; i.e. because it allows us to take far more than our fair share of the available resources.

Again there cannot be a sustainable and just world order unless we in rich countries move to ways of life in which we live well without consuming anywhere near as much as we do now, and until the Third World abandons the conventional development goal of affluent living standards and embraces The Simpler Way.

          c) Conflict, war, peace.

If all nations go on trying to increase their populations, wealth, production, consumption and "living standards" without limit in a world of limited resources, then we must expect increasing conflict. There are two major areas of concern.

Much of the turmoil in poor countries, including riots, coups and civil wars, is due in significant degree to unrest caused by ecological breakdown, especially food riots and disputes over access to land, fisheries, water and forests. (Remember Ahmed’s discussion of the Middle East above.) In addition there are conflicts over these resources being devoted to mining and agribusiness exports when local people are hungry.

Secondly, the foreign policies of the rich countries are major causes of international conflict, because they are primarily about securing most of the world’s resources and markets for the rich few. As minerals, energy, water, timber and agricultural lands become more scarce competition for these resources will intensify and the likelihood of resource wars will increase.

Our affluent lifestyles require us to be heavily armed and aggressive, in order to guard the empires from which we draw far more than our fair share of world resources. We cannot expect to have a peaceful world until we achieve a just world, and we cannot do that until rich countries change to much less extravagant living standards.

          d) Social breakdown and the falling quality of life.

"Genuine Progress Indicators" show that even in rich countries the quality of life experienced is either stagnant or falling. Some measures of life satisfaction in the US have not increased since the 1950s, despite more than a doubling in average "living standards". Above relatively low levels, increasing incomes and wealth do not significantly increase happiness or the experienced quality of life.

In addition, just about all our social problems are getting worse; it is difficult to point to any indicator which does not suggest accelerating social breakdown. Consider alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, family breakdown, stress, depression, binge drinking, eating disorders, loneliness, anxiety and suicide. Inequality has increased markedly; many are dumped into “exclusion” while the super-rich are becoming much richer. Stress and depression are at epidemic proportions and are almost the most common illnesses in rich countries.

The Western focus on competitive individualism has intensified, largely due to the triumph of neo-liberal ideology, which legitimises the self-interested quest for more wealth. Over the last generation collectivist values, social responsibility and concern for the public good seem to have deteriorated markedly. There is concern about loss of respect for the political system; hence the rise of “populism”, Trump, right wing extremism, and authoritarian rule etc.

All these undesirable social trends are being made worse by the obsession with increasing production and consumption, wealth, “living standards” and the GDP. Governments allocate few if any resources to developments that might build community and cohesion, social responsibility, concern for the public good, equity and justice, generosity and collectivist values. The dominant neo-liberal doctrine says the best way to improve everything is just to grow the GDP. (For a longer discussion .)


There is no possibility of solving these limits to growth problems in an economy that is driven by market forces, competition, profit maximisation and growth. The supreme goal in this economy is to produce and sell as much as possible, and to increase the volume without end. If growth in output slows there are problems. Yet the basic point the limits to growth analysis makes is that there is far too much producing and consuming going on and a sustainable world requires Degrowth to far lower levels of production, economic turnover and GDP.


If the limits to growth analysis of our global situation is valid we have no choice but to try to move to a society in which:-

• We have relatively simple material lifestyles. A sustainable society cannot be an affluent society. This does not mean hardship or deprivation. It is easy to ensure a very high quality of life on very low levels of consumption.

• There must be an almost totally new economy, a far smaller and steady-state or zero-growth economy, not driven by market forces or profit maximization, and with far less production, business turnover and GDP than at present.

• The basic institution must be the small, highly self-sufficient local economy, so that most of the things we need are produced in farms and factories within our suburbs or close by.

• We have mostly cooperative and participatory ways, so that we share and give things, and we work together on committees and working bees to do many of the things we need in our locality. In other words, we must govern our own towns and suburbs via town assemblies which deal with most of the important issues, leaving few functions for the centralized “state” to deal with, and requiring few paid politicians or bureaucracies.

• We use many alternative technologies, which minimise use of non-renewable resources, including much craft and hobby production, and building houses from earth. This does not mean rejecting modern high-tech systems.

• Some very different values must be accepted, replacing competition, individualism, affluence and greed with cooperation, sharing, working for the public good, social responsibility, generosity, nurturing others and a desire for materially simpler lifestyles and systems.

(For a detailed discussion see TSW: The Sustainable Alternative Society; The Simpler Way. )

The last two decades or so have seen the emergence of the Global Eco-village, Transition Towns and Degrowth movements. Many small communities around the world are working towards the required kinds of new settlements and lifestyles. A great deal depends on whether these movements can grow fast enough in coming decades. There is no possibility of making the transition unless there is a vast increase in public awareness of the limits to growth analysis, of the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path, of the unacceptability of consumer-capitalist society, and of the existence of a satisfactory alternative way. Therefore the task for us here and now is to focus on raising awareness regarding the limits to growth situation and the way out. (For a detailed discussion of how the transition might be achieved.)

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Appendix. A note on the book, The Limits to Growth, by D. Meadows et al., 1972.

This was an extremely important contribution, drawing widespread attention to the issue for the first time. However we now have far more impressive evidence for its basic thesis. For instance it used mineral and fuel reserve figures, whereas we now have estimates of potentially recoverable resource quantities, and evidence on declining grades. We also have “footprint” analysis”, and much clearer understandings of the greenhouse problem, the “peak oil” thesis, and the general energy problem. And there is now vast documentation on the accelerating ecological damage. The book is at times claimed to have been discredited, but in 2008 Graham Turner from the Australian CSIRO published a review concluding that we are on the path to serious troubles that the book said we appear to be on.
In my view the book does not provide a good case. Its general position is correct and it is good that it has been so influential, but the argument it puts forward in support of its basic claims is not very substantial and open to significant criticisms. However a far stronger case can be given now.