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Human footprint in the East-African desert (Malawi) A human footprint on dry, cracked desert earth, in Chikwawa District, southern Malawi, during the severe drought and food crisis in East Africa, caused by El Nino.
Population growth affects humans and the planet.

The limits to human development

Can we avoid overshooting the planet’s capacity to support life?

The ‘Limits to Growth’ is a seminal work published in 1972 (Meadows et al.) which modelled the impact of human population, natural resource use and industrial growth. Despite significant criticism, the original argument that we are overshooting the planet’s capacity to support life is widely accepted and, more recently of course, is complicated by climate change.

An expert team used system dynamics theory and a computer model called ‘World3’ to explore 10 potential scenarios of world development over two centuries from 1900 to 2100.

In each scenario, key factors such as population and pollution level were varied, and the impact of change on the system and positive and negative feedback loops analysed.

General conclusions in 1972

The team drew some general conclusions based on the final four scenarios:

  • A global transition to a sustainable society is possible without reductions in either population or industrial output.
  • A transition to sustainability will require an active decision to reduce the human ecological footprint.
  • There are many choices that can be made about numbers of people, living standards, technological investment and allocations among industrial goods, services, food, and other material needs.
  • There are many trade-offs between the number of people the earth can sustain and the material level at which each person can be supported.
  • The longer the world takes to reduce its ecological footprint and move toward sustainability, the lower the population and material standard that will be ultimately supportable.
  • The higher the targets for population and material standard of living are set, the greater the risk of exceeding and eroding its limits

(Meadows et al 2004, Chapter 7 Transitions to a sustainable world, para. 16).

Updated evidence of overshooting

The work of ‘Limits to Growth’ was updated after 20 years and then again after 30 years. In the synopsis of the 30-year update of ‘Limits to Growth’  Meadows et al. (2004) evidence a dangerous state of overshoot and argue change is essential to avoid serious future consequences.

Your task

After reading the 30-year update synopsis think back to Rosling’s video and consider the question, is the issue of population growth intractable or not? Justify your answer including key points made by both Rosling and Meadows et al.


Meadows, D, Randers, J and Meadows, D, A Synopsis: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Donella Meadows Archives, The Academy for Systems Change.

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