Limits to Growth

Almost all systems with reinforcing growth loops will eventually be constrained by the Limits to Growth archetype. This archetype is made up of a reinforcing loop (growth) running into resource constraints causing a balancing loop. Initially, This balancing loop serves to stabilize and limit growth, and in some cases, may even lead to the complete collapse of the system.

Here are some examples of limits to growth:

  • Successful high-growth products will eventually saturate market demand, limiting future growth
  • Overfishing will lead to the collapse of the fish population
  • A raging forest fire will continue to expand until it runs out of fuel
  • A virus may continue to spread until it runs out of people to infect
  • An oil-based economy’s growth may collapse without the availability of cheap oil

In the above examples, resources can be split into two categories: renewable resources and non-renewable resources.

Non-renewable resources, like oil, will increase in scarcity and price as the resource is exploited. As the price of oil increases, so do the profits of oil companies, leading them to invest more in oil extraction. This reinforcing loop will continue to exert upward pressure on oil prices. At the same time, since oil is a non-renewable resource stock, the oil company will need to pay more in order to extract that next barrel of oil that now lives deeper in the earth. This decreased stock of oil serves as a balancing loop that will continue to raise extraction costs and lower profits until drilling for additional oil is no longer cost-effective.

Other resource stocks are renewable. In the case of renewable resources like fish, the resource has an ability to repair itself when damaged. If the replenishment rate (rate that fish reproduce) is greater than or equal to the extraction rate (rate that humans catch fish), the system is in a healthy equilibrium. If, however, the fishing industry is slow to realize that the population of fish have fallen to dangerously low levels and fail to slow their extraction rate, the fish population can collapse. And so will the fishing industry.

How to Fight It:

This archetype is best addressed by mapping out the interactions of the growth loops, resource stocks, and potential limiters to growth in the future before problems arise. In the case of overfishing, this may include slowing down growth in the short term in order for fishing stocks to recover. Or in the case of an economy’s dependence on oil, the solution may be to to decouple the limiting factor from the system itself by transitioning to alternative energy sources.

Read essays with the Limits to Growth archetype


Index of Archetypes:

  1. Addiction
  2. Eroding Goals
  3. Escalation
  4. Limits to Growth
  5. Policy Resistance
  6. Seeking the Wrong Goal
  7. Exponential Success
  8. Tragedy of the Commons
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