1972 Report on Climate Was Deemed Too Inconvenient for Capitalism

1972 Report on Climate Was Deemed Too Inconvenient for Capitalism

In 1972, the Club of Rome, an international intellectual organization, used early computer modeling to try to answer one of humanity’s biggest questions: What are the potential consequences of human development? The findings, published in the book The Limits to Growth, put forth a dire prediction for the future. Researchers asserted that civilization could collapse within the 21st century if humanity continues to grow, pollute, and over-extract.

In the context of present-day climate disaster, these findings are uncannily accurate. But in 1972, economists and politicians were hesitant to heed the warning, as it stood in fundamental opposition to capitalism. According to Carlos Alvarez Pereira, Vice President of the Club of Rome, the publication’s initial failure to drive action comes down to fatalistic messaging: "The whole thing was framed as a 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.”

The Club of Rome: What was the message of Limits to Growth?, June 6, 2012.

Nate Hagens: Dennis Meadows | “Limits to Growth turns 50 | Checking In,” March 31, 2022.

Amanpour and Company: Expert Warns of Rise in "Mass Casualty” Events as a Result of Climate Change, July 1, 2022.

Bloomberg: Increasing Risks of Global Hunger, April 7, 2022.

Why This Matters

Fatalistic or not, researchers have been issuing accurate warnings regarding the impending climate catastrophe for years. Today, atmospheric carbon levels are at the highest level in recorded history. Severe flooding, intensified by climate change and rising sea levels, now places a quarter of the world’s population at risk, largely in poorer countries. The total number of climate migrants is expected to exceed 200 million people within the next 20 years, and experts say that, globally, these crises amount to a "new era of risk.”

CBS: Climate change could displace 200 million in 20 years, disaster relief organization warns, June 1, 2022.

Bertelsmann Foundation: A Global Security Threat | Climate Change, February 28, 2022.

Though experts from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predict that the world has only a 50% chance to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would prevent the worst impacts of climate change, Big Oil shows no sign of slowing down. Once the 195 new "carbon bomb” projects on the docket are completed, the world will have blown through its remaining carbon budget, resulting in climate catastrophe.

EuroNews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone,' June 14, 2022.

Reuters: World could see 1.5C of warming in next five years, May 10, 2022.

The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like, October 7, 2021.

50 Years Later

Fifty years after the publication of The Limits to Growth, the messaging still rings true. The difference is that any further delay in action is no longer an option. Pereira tells Wired:

What the system has done, as a mechanism to continue with growth at all costs, is actually to burn the future. And the future is the least renewable resource. There is no way that we can reuse the time we had when we started this conversation. And by building up a system which is more debt-driven -- where we keep consumption going, but by creating more and more debt -- what we're actually doing is burning or stealing the time of people in the future. Because their time will be devoted to repaying the debt.

Researchers now understand that solving the crisis does require a certain amount of optimism. Localized climate awareness and action are critical. "There is an ongoing cultural change often hidden in plain sight,” Pereira states. "Many are experimenting, often at the community level, trying to find their own pathways towards that balance of well-being within a healthy biosphere.”

MSNBC: We Must Pay Attention To 'Urgent Crisis’ Of Extreme Heat Events, May 23, 2022.

IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.

TED: How to Realistically Decarbonize the Oil and Gas Industry | Bjørn Sverdrup, March 3, 2022.

60 Minutes: The "bit of good news" on climate change, October 4, 2020.

SciShow: There's Hope in the Latest Climate Report, August 20, 2021.

Dive Deeper

Watch Limits to Growth (Part I and II), a British TV documentary adapted from the book and released in 1973.