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Morgan Cockman

February 27, 2017

World3 and Limits to Growth
Student Worksheet


In 1972 a book, The Limits to Growth, was written and published by a team of MIT analysts
(Meadows et al., 1972). The authors used a systems analysis approach using a computer model
called World3 to examine the interactions of five subsystems of the global economic system:


food production

industrial production


consumption of nonrenewable natural resources.

The main findings of research using the World3 model was that continued global population and
the associated economic growth would exceed the available resources of the planet, probably
sometime in the 21st Century] most likely leading to collapse of the population and economic
system. By testing various scenarios on World3, the authors also found that early action,
particularly carefully targeted policy and investment in technology, could avert this disaster.

The Population Bomb, the MIT teams book was immediate sensation with
Like, Paul Ehrlichs,
many supporters and many detractors. It was probably the earliest, and certainly the
best-known effort to link the environment and global economics.

Donella Meadows, one of the authors described the output graphs produced from the World3
model as predictive

only in the most limited sense of the word. These graphs are not exact predictions of the values of
the variables at any particular year in the future. They are indications of the systems behavioral
tendencies only. (Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth, 1972. pp. 9293).

. There are four key elements in World3:

1. The model depends on the existence of feedback loops, both positive and negative. When
positive and negative feedback loops are balanced a steady state outcome results; however, when
one loop dominates an unstable state is the result. This condition should be familiar to you from
your study of systems.
2. The critical function of resources, such as agricultural land, may be eroded as a result of
the economic activity. This is similar to the reduction in carrying capacity due to overshoot in
many ecological models.

3. The third key element is the presence of delays in the signals from one part of the world
system to another. For instance, the impacts that result from increasing pollution levels may not
be affect life expectancy or agricultural production for some decades. This is important because it
means that policy makers need to anticipate bad impacts far ahead of the time that those effects
show up in order to be effective.

4. The world economic system is treated as a sub-systems in World3. When considering the
challenges of an individual sector such as energy or agriculture on its own it is relatively easy to
propose solutions. However, as we have seen elsewhere, changes in one part of the system lead
to unintended consequences elsewhere.

World3 scenarios generated in the 1970s have been compared to current conditions by several
researchers. Most, but not all, have found good agreement with the scenarios that World3


Go to this version of World3 at

Use the slider bars (see red arrow on right of image below) to set the parameter as shown on
Table 1 on page 6 of this worksheet.

Figure 1. Controls for World3 Simulation. . Image is screenshot from
Figure 2. Controls are circled in red to display graphs from model run and to download the image.
Switch panes to show Demographics or Land use data by clicking on the named tabs shown within
the upper red circle. Image is screenshot from

Record the results of your model runs in Table 1 on page 6 to record results.

1. Set the Initial Non-renewable Resources slider at a low point near the left hand side
of the bar. Set the date for the Progressive Policy Adoption slider to a time in 2015. Run
the model and complete a row in Table 1 showing the results.

This scenario imagines a world that already has very low resources, perhaps from overuse
in the past or perhaps just because the population has exceeded the carrying capacity
provided by these resources.

a) Overview pane: Why is the curve for persistent pollution so low in this scenario?

he curve for persistent pollution is so low in this scenario because pollution is influenced by
population, and the world population experienced a relatively early peak as it peaked in 2012
and then decreased again. Persistent pollution also peaks in 2012, so it follows the trend of the

b) Demographics pane: What year does population peak in? Why does this peak occur so

opulation peaks in 2012. This peak occurs so early because population is influenced by the
availability of agriculture and resources, and nonrenewable resources decreased pretty
significantly around 2012, indicating that Earth had reached its carrying capacity and could not
support a larger population.

c) Land use pane: Why does land fertility drop off so dramatically and then recover by
2080 in this scenario?

and fertility drops off so dramatically and then recovers by 2080 because of the drastic
reduction in nonrenewable resources. Since nonrenewable resources were in very low supply,
the population most likely had to turn to the land to keep themselves alive, overusing it and
stripping it of all possible nutrients, and also decreasing its fertility.

2. Set the Initial Non-renewable Resources slider at a low point near the left hand side
of the bar. Set the date for the Progressive Policy Adoption slider to a time in 1970. Run
the model and complete a row in Table 1 showing the results.

All the conditions in this scenario are the same as the scenario set in question 1 except
that the start date for adopting Progressive Policies is set moved back to 1970.

a) Compare the results that this change produces using all 3 results panes.

- Overview Population peaks at an earlier point, and does not reach the level that simulation 1
did. Persistent pollution and nonrenewable resources follow relatively the same trends.
-Demographics Demographics statistics generally follow the same trend as simulation 1,
although population peaks earlier and never reaches the previous level.

-Land Use Land fertility once again drops off very dramatically and then recovers around

b) This is clearly not an accurate scenario but is there some information that might be
useful for policy makers from running this particular scenario? If so describe the
information and why it is useful. If not provide some explanation of why you think that
there is no useful information for current policy-makers in the data from this scenario.

I think there is some information that might be useful for policy makers from running this
particular scenario. Information that could be useful is that nonrenewable resources deteriorate
very quickly when not conserved and used in sustainable ways. Clearly, the populations in these
scenarios used up all of these resources pretty quickly as they suffered a severe depletion, which
caused population to experience a relatively low and early peak. This is useful as it can tell policy
makers that they must implement sustainable methods pretty early on to conserve natural

3. Choose 2 scenarios that you think might provide useful information to policy makers.
Run those scenarios and record the results in Table 1. Then describe what the results
mean and how those results might be useful to inform policy.

My first scenario starts with the two extremes: 5000000000000 initial resources and the earliest
year of policy adoption, 1900. I did this to display the benefits of beginning a progressive policy
early on, and it showed that the nonrenewable resources were depleted much more gradually
than in the previous scenarios. Also, the population grew much more gradually and peaked later
on. There was very little pollution, and the land remained relatively fertile for a long period of
time. This might be useful to inform policy as it can tell policy makers the importance of
beginning sustainable practices early on, when there is still an abundance of nonrenewable
resources. This would help more if Earth could go through a redo and restart with its initial
amounts of nonrenewable resources, however it can also help now as it shows policy makers that
they must adopt a progressive policy as soon as possible.

My second scenario starts with 5000000000000 initial resources and the adoption of a
progressive policy in 2025. I did this to display how adopting a progressive policy later on may be
a bit too late, yet nevertheless it will help. Here, population peaked later on and nonrenewable
resources dwindled much faster than when adopting a progressive policy in 1900. There was also
a significant increase in persistent pollution, which remained even after a population decrease.
Land fertility experienced a drastic drop as it did in the first two simulations. I think this model
demonstrates some of our current situation, as sustainability and renewable practices are
becoming more and more prominent, which will help in the years to come, however we missed a
huge chance by living so unsustainably for so long. I think this will inform policy makers that
changes still need to be made even if it seems like the population and our resources may not last
for much longer; we can do something to help.

Table 1. Results of Scenarios using World3 Model

Initial Resource / Sketch of Results Sketch of Results -

Year of Overview Demographics
Policy Adoption







3. (a)

3. (b)