This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Club of Rome Study Revisited--It Isn't Pretty

As we approach the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the question continues to arise as to whether or not development can be sustained. Forty years ago researchers at MIT concluded that it could not be sustained if we simply went about business as usual. Now James Forrester and his research group at MIT have revisited those old models, and found that their dreary conclusions seem still to hold. The Associated Press reports on an article that is in this month's Smithsonian magazine.
Recent research supports the conclusions of a controversial environmental study released 40 years ago: The world is on track for disaster. So says Australian physicist Graham Turner, who revisited perhaps the most groundbreaking academic work of the 1970s,The Limits to Growth.Written by MIT researchers for an international think tank, the Club of Rome, the study used computers to model several possible future scenarios. The business-as-usual scenario estimated that if human beings continued to consume more than nature was capable of providing, global economic collapse and precipitous population decline could occur by 2030.Turner compared real-world data from 1970 to 2000 with the business-as-usual scenario. He found the predictions nearly matched the facts. “There is a very clear warning bell being rung here,” he says. “We are not on a sustainable trajectory.
This is not to say, however, that disaster is inevitable--it will occur only if we fail to act, which so far we have pretty much failed to do. The original study argued that "unlimited economic growth was possible, if governments forged policies and invested in technologies to regulate the expansion of humanity’s ecological footprint." That is still true, but we have wasted 40 years, watching the population grow and the environment get worse. The computer simulation models suggest that we are headed for the edge of the cliff but are not worried yet about putting on the brakes.


  1. I am curious about the word 'precipitous'. Wouldn't population sort of level off? When I think of precipitous I think of epidemics or huge natural disasters. But today even when 150,000 people die due to a tsunami, it is fraction of a fraction of the world population. What could cause 'precipitous' decline?

  2. This is a good question, and the answer is a "precipitous" rise in the death rate. The original Club of Rome study summarized the results of the computer simulations as follows:Resources are fully exploited, and 75 percent of those used are recycled. Pollution generation is reduced to one-fourth of its 1970 value. Land yields are doubled, and effective methods of birth control are made available to the world population. The result is a temporary achievement of a constant population with a world average income per capita that reaches nearly the present U.S. level. Finally, though, industrial growth is halted, and the death rate rises as resources are depleted, pollution accumulates, and food production declines (1972:147). So, when resources run out, death rates go up, and the population declines quickly.

  3. I would think that rather than population declining quickly that quality of life would decline. I mean, for some people quality of life is about as bad as it can get I suppose. But in the West quality of life has a long way to decline before people start dying. Does this literally mean people starving to death and dying of thirst and freezing and so on? Also, I would expect people whose land runs out of natural resources (like Yemen running out of water) to migrate, which is what people throughout history have done, rather than just die of starvation.

  4. John Weeks - greetings from LA. I am well behind your blog schedule and so this reply is late. Sorry but I just happened to find your 2012 article while looking at follow-up studies to "Limits To Growth".

    You said ... "That is still true, but we have wasted 40 years, watching the population grow and the environment get worse."

    Indeed - you are absolutely correct. We have lost four decades worth of time to make important decisions since the LTG study. We can never get that time back, and the loss is painful. Some small windows of opportunity do still exist for projections and good decision making - but those windows will close in the next 6-8 years.

    In the mean time - can I ask you for an online source on the Web that is easily accessible and has good breakdowns for the world population - by continent and country? Better still if it also has good estimates for birth and death rates.

    Dr. P, Los Angeles

    1. The United Nations Population Division is the best source for such information: and go to Interactive Data/Population Trends.

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  6. John Weeks - thanks very much for that reference to Web-based population stats at the UN. I was impressed!! Someone over there is doing an excellent job at population modeling and providing a diverse statistics on demographics. I downloaded some very helpful data for some modeling work that I am doing.

    So is this UN data the work of one of your former students? HAHAHA!! Whoever it is - they deserve a raise from their boss. :-)

    Dr. P, Los Angeles