Revisiting 'Limits to Growth'

Published on April 9th, 2012

“We’re at 150 percent of the global carrying capacity.”

– Dennis Meadows

Environmentalist and scientist Dennis Meadows talked recently about how important the capacity to “develop resilience” will be when there’s no longer cheap energy, permanent climate change and a future that’s unknown. “I am talking about longer-term resilience … what we can do at the individual, the household, the community and the national level to ensure that … we will be able to pass through that period still taking care of our basic needs,” he said.

Meadows is perhaps best known for co-authoring “The Limits to Growth,” a 1972 study turned book that used computer modeling to look at the implications of limited resources and rapidly growing human population. The work was the first report issued by the Club of Rome, an international think tank, and has reached more than 10 million readers. Along with Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” it was among the first scholarly works that talked about how we were approaching limits of sustainability.

Forty years after the book’s publication, the seminal work is being revisited. A symposium last month in Washington, D.C., brought together the Smithsonian Institution, the Club of Rome, Meadows and others, along with new media interest. While at the time the original work was done Meadows had reason to be optimistic about the future, four decades down the line his optimism has faded. He says he was “naively optimistic.”

The need to stabilize population and “shift consumption preferences away from material goods to the non-material part – love, freedom, friendship, self-understanding and things like that” were recognized in “The Limits to Growth.” Yet for all the attention given at the time to the looming crisis, since then global population has nearly doubled and the exploitation of nonrenewable resources continues at record pace.

The original research indicated that if we stayed on the course we were following, humans would overshoot Earth’s carrying capacity by the middle of this century, and collapse would follow. What form that collapse might take isn’t clear, Meadows explains, but given limits of the planet, “there is virtually no chance that freedom, democracy and a lot of the immaterial things we value will be going up.”

Meadows says it has become clear to him that there’s no prospect that we can address “in any kind of orderly way” the issues of overpopulation, consumption and sustainability.

“I think the example of the dot-com bust and later, in 2008, the housing bust illustrated what incredibly primitive understanding and capacities we have for dealing with bubbles,” says Meadows. “‘Limits to Growth’ is absolutely focusing on a bubble, a bubble in population and in material and energy consumption.”

Read Megan Gambino’s “Smithsonian” interview with Dennis Meadows here.

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