books growth sustainability

The Limits to Growth, by Meadows et al

I’ve heard the Club of Rome’s groundbreaking piece of research described as ‘debunked’ more times than I’ve heard it praised, but I thought I’d go back and read it anyway. There are 20 year and 30 year revisions, but I ordered a second hand copy of the 1972 edition and looked at the original claims. I’m glad I did. It’s far more relevant than its reputation would suggest, and most of the criticism it attracts is so unfounded I’ve written a separate post to address the most common complaints.

The Limits to Growth was an attempt to model human development across two centuries. Using a computer model called World3, a multinational team working out of MIT ran projections for population, industrialization, food availability, resource depletion and pollution. What they found is that whatever you do with the input data, no matter how generous you are with resource stocks and technology improvements, there is only one outcome. Industrialisation can only go so far – sooner or later, it overshoots the earth capacity. There are limits to growth, and it is a matter of if, not when, we reach them.

This is a conclusion that nobody wanted to hear, and the criticism flew thick and fast. Nevertheless, the book became an international bestseller. It was translated into multiple languages and its influence is felt to this day.

So what does it actually say? Well, surprisingly little actually. There are just three simple conclusions:

  1. “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probably result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”
  2. “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.”
  3. “If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.”

In short, “the earth is finite”. Those conclusions are presented in the introduction, and the rest of the book explains how they were arrived at. There’s an explanation of exponential mathematics, and they explain their computer model and its many variables. There are page after page of graphs, as the computer model runs different scenarios – what does the future look like if nuclear energy takes off? What if we find double the amount of oil or metals than we expect to? Whatever you do, you end up with steep growth peaking and dropping away some point before 2100 – unfettered growth always ends in overshoot and collapse. So far,

The discussion of what to do about this occupies the later chapters. There is, the authors observe, a culture of “fighting against limits rather than learning to live with them”. For centuries human culture has hoped for technological advances to keep ahead of the limits as they come up. Since we’ve been pretty good at that option, we’ve forgotten the other way – regulating our consumption.

In this the report seems to be well ahead of their time. “Technological optimism is the more common and most dangerous reaction to our findings”, and this faith in technology stops us from taking action to prevent ecological overshoot. This faith is as strong as ever. It’s tragic to see just how much there is about climate change here too, and to realise that we’ve acheived so little in almost 40 years.

In fact, we’ve barely moved on the whole growth debate. Growth still goes unquestioned, and we can’t bring ourselves to even ask if it should be limited. “Such a solution has almost never been acknowledged as legitimate by any modern society.” Tim Jackson says that politicians still ‘physically recoil’ at the title of his book, Prosperity Without Growth.

Still, the offer that The Limits to Growth first made still stands: we can either hit the wall, or we can slow down in ways of our own choosing. We can reduce our consumption, cap our oil use, lower CO2 emissions, slow population growth, and create sustainable economies. But “of the thress alternatives – unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth – only the last two are possible.”

24 comments

  1. I have known the book since my teenage days (in the early 80s), and already back then what struck me most what that I perceived all I read that as perfect common sense. Later I realized that the conclusions of the book have been around for millenia, transported by myths and tales ranging from the self consuming Erisychthon and the gold struck Midas over various insights from eastern religions and all the way to the Faustian myths of modern days. For a scientist the limits of growth should be clear anyway. Island people around the world have been totally aware of their growth limits since the dawn of time, and those who did not follow their own insight nowadays merely are a matter of research for archeologists. The mysterious part is how it is possible to NOT see the issue of growth limits, for the Earth at large is merely an island as well. This observation does not require any mathematical systems theory.

    1. Yes, those that advocate endless growth are the ones talking nonsense. I’m sure that’s why we refuse to have this debate, because it’s blazingly obvious that growth can’t continue forever. Far better to ignore it, decade after decade, and just hope it doesn’t end on our watch.

  2. I agree with Stefan. It’s an absolute no-brainer. I remember when I first learned about economy at school and my first though was, but surely it is impossible to go on growing year after year forever.

    1. We absolutely have to have this discussion. I think we are seeing a mix of reasons why it doesn’t really take off in the main stream, and corporate interests, power and lobbyism are only a part of the equation. Psychological inertia of most people is another important factor. I have realized that in private communication most economists and business people – no matter which political brand they stand for – quickly admit that a perpetual exponential growth economy is impossible. But with equal swiftness they usually resort to platitudes like “the system is not perfect, but it is the best we have”. This is like saying “The ship will sink, if we keep loading, but what the heck – we have to meet a deadline and it’s the only ship we have”. In this case every half witted moron would think “Eh… wait a moment…”. But when it comes to that bigger ship we all sit on we just keep loading and loading and loading. It also is a matter of unintuitive scales – it all is too big, too slow, too much and to complex to be grasped easily. But metaphors sometimes can do the trick. The equations often are as simple as they are ignored. Let’s take climate change. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases drive global warming. A scientifically well established fact. But what drives humans to emit more and more greenhouse gases? The need for ever more energy and resources. Which is in turn driven by…what? Economic growth. Yes. Another no-brainer. And yet it is difficult to find official high level statements pointing out the main culprit. Instead schemes of “carbon trading” were devised that fit into the growth framework. One doesn’t blame ones God for the evil of the world. And “the economy” is the faceless God of our time.

  3. Absolutely, all things bow to the economy. I think one of the big problems here is politics. Because all our politicians want to be re-elected, they say things we want to hear. I bet Gordon Brown and David Cameron know, in their own minds, that endless growth is a complete fiction. But they’re not going to say it. And as long as the money keeps rolling in, it pays to ignore the long term impossibilities.
    It’s a combination of greed and cowardice, in other words, that will be our undoing.

    1. I think this is an extremely interesting thread.. I get frustrated almost daily by the lack of any substantial debate on this absolutely fundamental issue in the mainstream business and political arenas.. I agree with both of your assessments Stefan and Jeremy – there are multiple reasons for this, but the main ones remain as you also suggest: 1) the almighty power of global corporations and their extraordinary influence over national and international politics 2) the fact that the ship and its load have become undoubtedly too big (so very difficult to stir around..) 3) the cultural stagnation that surrounds public discourse on the issue – ie. most people are too set in their own ways; they are too scared/apathetic (eg. an economy based on over-consumption and unlimited growth is all we know and we’ve always been told that this is the best way! if there is a ‘third way’, what will it actually mean to me individually? what sacrifices will I have to make? what about my job, my possessions, my current way of life? etc..). I mean, I think the cultural issue is key: we look around the web and there are more than enough forums, initiatives, events, projects dedicated to finding a ‘third-way’ – but when it comes to the reality of it, the ‘main stream’ has already moved back to ‘business as usual’, and with a vengeance!! and look at young people (20 and below) and the values that they have been accumulating since birth: financial success, status, red carpet life style, living beyond one’s means, etc.. and parents are certainly not helping to change this mindset – it’s all getting worse rather than getting better! There is a desire to break out of the mould, without a doubt, because most people are unhappy with the way things are – but going back to what you know is a far easier option in the circumstances!

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