If "limits to growth" was an economic and political catchword of the last decade, "limits to complexity" could be an albatross of the 1980s and beyond.

This was the warning last week of Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, who 10 years ago to the day played an important role in igniting a popular worldwide debate over how long the human race can continue to consume the world's limited resources.

Peccei is the founder and president of the Club of Rome, an informal group of educators, scientists, business executives and government officials from a variety of nations, that was formed in 1968 to foster understanding of worldwide problems.

Ten years ago, at the Smithsonian Institution, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars unveiled the first report sponsored by the Club of Rome. Their book, "The Limits to Growth," immediately touched off controversy because of its dire warning that the earth could not support population and industrial expansion at existing rates for more than 100 years.

Fallout from debate touched off by their book and other warnings about dangers to the earth's environment soon spread to American politics; President Carter spoke of the needs for sacrifices because of resource limits, for example, while President Reagan has emphasized that there should be no limits to economic growth.

On Tuesday, authors of the original work and scholars from throughout the world gathered for a birthday party that was less a celebration than a reaffirmation of earlier concerns. On the optimistic side, some of the former MIT scholars pointed with pride to recent research developments and promised more international gatherings to ponder the problem.

But Peccei was uncompromising in emphasizing his view that progress has been absent. A former president of Olivetti and before that a top executive with Fiat, Peccei told the Smithsonian audience last week that negative events regarding survival of the planet have continued to occur at a rapid pace in the last 10 years: "the air and water are getting fouler . . . deserts are advancing. . .forests are being ceaselessly destroyed. . . thousands of animal and plant species are being mercilessly eliminated or decimated . . . . "

Humans are impairing and reducing the earth's support systems "on a dangerously massive scale, with the result that we are compressing our living space and lowering our limits for expansion still further," he added.

And by relentlessly expanding artificial support systems, "we are also, and even more, increasing their complexity . . . ," Peccei said. Such developments as intricacy, overlapping, tension, crowding and depersonalization have expanded beyond the acceptability of many people when educational systems have not advanced their wisdom, he argued.

Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows, major authors of the 1972 book and currently on the faculty of Dartmouth College, said that developments over the last decade have not caused them to have any doubts about their findings--which were attacked at the time for ignoring what critics contended was mankind's ability to solve resource problems associated with economic expansion.

But Dennis Meadows emphasized that "The Limits to Growth" had not stated that the only future scenario was deterioration of the planet. A second choice facing the earth's peoples is "a deliberate move toward some sort of equitable and sustainable society," and this still is possible, he said.

At the same time, Meadows said that with the benefit of hindsight he and his colleagues should have done a more adequate job in the 1972 book of explaining to people that evidence of physical resource limits shows up in real life: inflation and political or social malaise that now dominate newspaper headlines, for example.

Meadows, a professor of engineering, also said that not enough explanation had been provided to show that the "power and responsibility to respond" to the developing resource crisis lies with individuals and not their leaders. Donella Meadows, who teaches environmental studies, made a similar point in recalling that just a handful of persons started the Club of Rome movement that resulted in their 1972 book and subsequent studies.

She noted that at least 30 computer models of worldwide interaction to various trends exist or are being developed by scholars, governments and other institutions in Europe, Japan, South America and the Soviet Union. The MIT world computer models used to develop "The Limits to Growth" were the first, 10 years ago.

"I personally rejoice" at the creation of these computer models and at regular conferences held by scholars who critique each other's findings, she said.

Meadows added there is "a rising level of global dialogue, more learning," as well as a growing consensus about key issues among scholars with vastly different beliefs--including a finding that in all situations, such as oil-pricing decisions or international food trade, cooperative approaches by nations allow survival, while such competitive practices as trade barriers ultimately have an adverse impact on all nations.

Both Peccei and Victor Urquidi, a Club of Rome member and president of El Colegio de Mexico, placed special emphasis on the role of the United States in future years. "America and its peoples" will be looked to for leadership, "now that the world is reaching some momentous hinges of its history," Peccei concluded.

Urquidi was more critical, expressing concern about "increasingly disquieting" trends in the United States, saying that it seems to "have regressed to older attitudes of open domination," seems to distrust change in developing countries, and hasn't considered what the outcome of military might will be.

"There is too much ignorance or neglect of the global issues" in the United States and the news media play an important role in this situation, he asserted.