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30-Year Update of Limits to Growth finds global society in "Overshoot," Foresees social, economic, and environmental decline
Jorgen Randers, Jay Forrester, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and William W. Behrens III in 1972
What an enormous shift has occurred in our understanding of the global environment over the past three decades! In the 1970s there was little recognition that society could destroy important global systems. Today there is little hope that we can avoid causing profound and permanent damage to natural processes, such as climate regulation and regeneration of marine fisheries.
No book has chronicled this shift in perception better than Limits to Growth. The first edition, published in 1972, created an international sensation and acquainted millions with the fact that industrial and population growth could destroy their own foundations -- confronting global society with the very real prospects of collapse. Now a revised edition of the book, to be published by Chelsea Green Publishing in June, makes the message relevant for a new century.
The first book was compiled by an international team of experts assembled at the MIT Sloan School of Management on a project supported by the Club of Rome. Using systems dynamic theory to construct a global computer model called "World3," the book presented 12 scenarios that revealed different possible patterns -- and environmental outcomes -- of world development over two centuries from 1900 to 2100. The book became a bestseller with over 30 million of copies sold in more than 30 translations.
Later voted to be one of the 20th Century's ten most influential environmental books, the text was the object of intense criticism by economists of the time. They dismissed it as Malthusian hyperbole. But events over the past three decades have generally been consistent with the book's scenarios.
Matthew Simmons, economist and founder of the world's largest private energy investment banking practice, recently wrote, "The most amazing aspect of the book is how accurate many of the basic trend extrapolations . . . still are some 30 years later."
The message that current growth trends cannot be sustained is now reconfirmed every year by thousands of headlines, hundreds of conferences, and dozens of new scientific studies. But these focus on specific problems like global warming, soil loss, extinction of species, and declining tropical forests. Unfortunately, according to the Limits authors Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, all these well intentioned efforts are destined to fail until they are grounded in understanding the complex system governing the causes and consequences of growth in the world’s physical economy, materials and energy flows, and population. Limits to Growth is so far the only book to provide that understanding. And now its message is to be updated.
In June Chelsea Green Publishing will release Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. This major revision reconfirms the original message and elaborates on it by drawing data and case examples from a very diverse set of recent studies.
The new book suggests that the central problem for the next 70 years will not be averting environmental decline -- which the authors view as virtually inevitable -- but containing and limiting damage to the planet and humanity. It's too late for sustainable development, the authors conclude. The world must now choose between uncontrolled collapse and a deliberate reduction of energy and materials consumption back down to supportable levels.
World3 is used to provide ten new scenarios in the update. In most scenarios, the gap between rich and poor will widen, vital nonrenewable resources like oil will become much more difficult and expensive to obtain, and industrial production in the developed countries will decline.
In 1972, the world's population and economy were still comfortably within the planet’s carrying capacity. The team found then that there was still room to grow safely while we examined longer-term options. Today this is no longer true.
In this new study, the authors cite many studies confirming that humanity has dangerously "overshot" our limits, expanding our demands on the planet’s resources and sinks beyond what can be sustained even for the coming century.
Although the past 30 years have shown some progress, including new technologies, new institutions, and a new awareness of individual environmental problems, the authors are far more pessimistic than they were in 1972. Humanity has squandered the opportunity to correct its current course over the last 30 years, they conclude, and much must change if the world is to mitigate the most negative consequences of overshoot in the 21st century.
A striking example of overshoot is the world's fisheries, the vast majority of which have been virtually exhausted or are currently overexploited. In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world's oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.
Another of the many examples provided in this book is global food production. It has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. Yet food production per capita has stopped improving; in Africa it has actually decreased. Population growth has outstripped the food production system's ability to adequately feed populations. Meanwhile the increase in food production has been attained by policies that damage soils, waters, forests, and ecosystems -- a cost that will make future production increases harder.
Exponential growth in population and industrial production are largely responsible for the deteriorating state of the Earth today. Their impact can be seen in many of the warning signs that are described in the new book. Among the symptoms of overshoot in today's society are:
- Growing demand for capital, resources, and labor for the military, to secure resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions.
- Debts as a rising percentage of annual real output.
- Investment in essential human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs or to pay debts.
- Eroding goals for health and the environment.
The authors reject price as an indicator of long-term supply and focus, instead, on the flows of physical capital required to sustain growth. They argue persuasively that as nonrenewable resources are depleted and pollution flows increase, more and more capital will be required to sustain the economy. By the middle of this century, their global computer model typically projects that investment in industrial capital can no longer keep pace with depreciation. The result is industrial decline.
Critics of the Limits thesis believe that technological advance and market-based decisions will automatically avert problems that arise from the growing pressure of population and industry on the planet's resources. A unique feature of this new book is its portrayal of the crucial influence that ethics and cultural norms exert on the direction that technology and markets take consumption. They show why a society that does not value the environment or focus on reducing the gap between rich and poor will develop technologies and markets that damage the environment and widen the gap. A society that values conquest over coexistence will focus its technological programs on enhancing military equipment, not improving agriculture or health services for the poor. Markets and technology can be very important, but they must be guided by drastic changes in cultural norms and social goals if they are to reduce the consequences of overshoot.
Therefore, the final two chapters of the book examine the cultural side of sustainability and describe tools available to all of us for averting the worst effects of the inevitable end to physical growth on this planet -- telling the truth, establishing networks, reestablishing mutual respect, and creating new visions of our species' purpose on this planet.