Why do modern economists reject complexity

Summary of The limits of growth

Big Bang of the modern environmental movement

Progress and industrialization called doubts and critics on the scene from the start: as early as 1845 Henry David Thoreau With Walden the back-to-nature classic, which culminated in the second half of the 19th century John Muirs Fight for the preservation of the American wilderness in the creation of the world's first national park system. Most of the early conservation movements were inspired by backward-looking romanticism. Their influence was limited to the preserves of nature, without fundamentally calling into question the logic of human economic activity.

That changed in the 1960s: Rachel Carsons bestseller The silent spring, which highlighted the disastrous consequences of pesticides like DDT, was a wake-up call well beyond the borders of the USA. In many countries the uneasiness of the self-satisfied belief in progress of the economic miracle generation grew. Together with the strengthening civil rights, peace and women's movements, the environmental movement was increasingly raising the question of the system. For many activists, the root of the evil lay in the growth dogma of the time, and a number of bestsellers spread dire doom scenarios: 1968 prophesied Paul Ehrlich in The population bomb massive famines caused by overpopulation in the near future. Gordon RattrayTaylor asked in 1970 The suicide program in view of the overexploitation of nature, whether it is not long too late for a turnaround, and the socialist environmental activist and later unsuccessful US presidential candidate Barry Commoner coined the phrase "We know the enemy: We are the enemy."


Many saw humanity at a turning point in the 1960s, after an era of rapid progress and growth. In 1968 a group of scientists, diplomats and entrepreneurs founded around the Italian Fiat industrialist Aurelio Peccei the Club of Rome. Its goal: to research the “predicament” and precarious future of humans in a finite world. One of the club members was Jay Wright Forrester, Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founder of system dynamics, a method for analyzing complex systems. In 1970 Forrester proposed that the human condition be researched with the help of the computer models he developed, and invited interested Club of Rome members to take a closer look at the matter at MIT. For the MIT economist, who is just 28 years oldDennis Meadows This was the chance of a lifetime: He recommended the development of a model in the computer language Dynamo, which was supposed to simulate the behavior of the earth system on a mainframe computer - and was accepted. The Volkswagen Foundation in Hanover could be won as a donor. However, the as yet untested method and Meadows ’lack of experience made the Board of Trustees suspicious at first, so that it initially only financed a preliminary study with DM 200,000 before releasing a further DM 775,000.

In the end, 17 researchers from six nations worked on the MIT project. Before they could unleash the complex world model for the future, it had to pass an important test: the variables were set to the values ​​of 1900, whereupon the computer simulated the development up to 1970 in a way that came very close to the actual course of history. The work was done after a good 15 months. Together with his wife and co-author Donella Meadows and the Norwegian Jørgen Randers Meadows submitted the report in March 1972 The limits of growth in front. It was published simultaneously in ten Western European languages ​​and in Japanese.

Impact history

"A pocket-sized bomb," commented The time - and in fact, seldom has a scientific book sparked such a heated debate. The criticism was partly devastating: "A hollow and misleading work", judged the New York Times Book Review. The Economist saw with the study the "high water mark of old-fashioned nonsense" reached and the mirror headlined condescendingly: "Doomsday vision from the computer". Critics accused the researchers of having arbitrarily extrapolated data into the future with their as yet untested method. Many experts dismissed the study as unscientific. The Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul A. Samuelson accused the authors of having committed a neo-Malthusian error by ignoring human innovation and changing values ​​in society. But the book hit the nerve of the times. In 1973 Dennis Meadows and the Club of Rome were awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. The study has been translated into dozens of languages ​​and sold millions of times.

However, the recommendations of the authors soon encountered realpolitical obstacles. When growth rates plummeted as a result of the 1973 and 1979/80 oil crises, the question was: jobs or environmental protection? The answer back then: jobs! Voluntary self-restraint was off the table for now. In 1992 the authors took part The new frontiers of growth after, followed in 2004 Limits to Growth - The 30 Year Update. In it they argued that without a dramatic change of course, there would be a collapse as early as 2030. And 40 years after the publication of the first edition, Dennis Meadows expressed himself pessimistically: People are neither willing nor able to save the world.