The Limits to Growth

Over the last little while, I have been writing a short excerpt on The Limits to Growth for part of a collection on predicting environmental futures. The volume is being edited by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, and it looks like it will make a terrific classroom contribution to teaching environmental history and the history of the future. The volume is organized around short excerpts from seminal works on predicting the future of nature, prefaced by a brief essay from an historian, situating the work in its historical (and futurist) context.

I read The Limits to Growth while I was working on the Commoner book. Donella Meadows et al. approached the environmental crisis rather differently than did Commoner (and I seem to recall Commoner being somewhat critical of their findings—in large part because they failed to think about technological production choices in a more complex manner). Coming back to the book in a different light has been fascinating. I’ve enjoyed the re-read and have been thinking about integrating their work on system dynamics and their World3 model more thoroughly into my own teaching and (eventually) research. Here’s an excerpt from the final chapter on equilibrium. Their modeling was based on a radical and unrealistic about-face in population and industrial growth by 1975. They admit to this, but offer the warning:

A society choosing stability as a goal certainly must approach that goal gradually. It is important to realize, however, that the longer exponential growth is allowed to continue, the fewer possibilities remain for the final stable state.

This is the central point of the book, as inferred from the title: that exponential growth is not sustainable (they use that word in 1972!). The book is part of a whole body of literature from the late 1960s and early 1970s that stressed a drastic revision of resource exploitation. It coincides nicely with the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and also represents a definitive point in a larger environmental history of sustainability. By 1972, the environmental crisis is unquestionably a human crisis. Environmentalism or the emerging sustainability had become an exercise in saving civilization from itself, rather than saving nature from civilization. This had been a gradual transition since World War II, but it was complete by the Stockholm Conference and the publication of The Limits to Growth. Meadows et al. continue:

Many people will think that the changes we have introduced into the model to avoid the growth-and-collapse behavior mode are not only impossible, but unpleasant, dangerous, even disastrous in themselves. Such policies as reducing the birth rate and diverting capital from production of material goods, by whatever means they might be implemented, seem unnatural and unimaginable, because they have not, in most people’s experience, been tried, or even seriously suggested. Indeed there would be little point even in discussing such fundamental changes in the functioning of modern society if we felt that the present pattern of unrestricted growth were sustainable into the future. All the evidence available to us, however, suggests that of the three alternatives—unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth—only the last two are actually possible.

Accepting the nature-imposed limits to growth requires no more effort than letting things take their course and waiting to see what will happen. The most probable result of that decision, as we have tried to show here, will be an uncontrollable decrease in population and capital. The real meaning of such a collapse is difficult to imagine because it might take so many different forms. It might occur at different times in different parts of the world, or it might be worldwide. It could be sudden or gradual. If the limit first reached were that of food production, the nonindustrialized countries would suffer the major population decrease. If the first limit were imposed by exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, the industrialized countries would be most affected. It might be that the collapse would leave the earth with its carrying capacity for animal and plant life undiminished, or it might be that the carrying capacity would be reduced or destroyed. Certainly whatever fraction of the human population remained at the end of the process would have very little left with which to build a new society in any form we can no envision.

Representation of one of the many projections of environmental collapse if population growth, resource depletion, and pollution continue unabated. In the text, the authors indicate that 2000 might be a point of no-return.