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American Scientist Revisits Limits to Growth

The May–June 2009 issue of American Scientist looks back at the predictions of the landmark environmental work Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, first published in 1972, and finds that its startling environmental warnings were generally right on the money.

The Earth’s population continues to grow at a geometric rate, while the planet’s commensurate increase in food production and standard of living has been made possible only because of our dependence on fossil fuel—a finite resource. In other words, the amount of food produced has only been able to keep pace with population growth because fossil fuels have been propping up our agricultural system. And many scientists believe Hubbert’s peak has come and gone, and that oil production is on the decline. If this doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention.

From American Scientist:

In recent decades there has been considerable discussion in academia and the media about the environmental impacts of human activity, especially those related to climate change and biodiversity, but far less attention has been paid to the diminishing resource base for humans. Despite our inattention, resource depletion and population growth have been continuing relentlessly. The most immediate of these issues appears to be a decline in oil reservoirs, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “peak oil” because global production appears to have reached a maximum and is now declining. However, a set of related resource and economic issues are continuing to come home to roost in ever greater numbers and impacts—so much so that author Richard Heinberg speaks of “peak everything.” We believe that these issues were set out well and basically accurately by a series of scientists in the middle of the last century and that events are demonstrating that their original ideas were mostly sound. Many of these ideas were spelled out explictly in a landmark book called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972.

In the 1960s and 1970s, during our formative years in graduate school, our curricula and our thoughts were strongly influenced by the writings of ecologists and computer scientists who spoke clearly and eloquently about the growing collision between increasing numbers of people—and their enormously increasing material needs—and the finite resources of the planet. The oil-price shocks and long lines at gasoline stations in the 1970s confirmed in the minds of many that the basic arguments of these researchers were correct and that humans were facing some sort of limits to growth. It was extremely clear to us then that the growth culture of the American economy had limits imposed by nature, such that, for example, the first author made very conservative retirement plans in 1970 based on his estimate that we would be experiencing the effects of peak oil just about the time of his expected retirement in 2008.

These ideas have stayed with us, even though they largely disappeared, at least until very recently, from most public discussion, newspaper analyses and college curricula. Our general feeling is that few people think about these issues today, but even most of those who do so believe that technology and market economics have resolved the problems. The warning in The Limits to Growth—and even the more general notion of limits to growth—are seen as invalid.

Even ecologists have largely shifted their attention away from resources to focus, certainly not inappropriately, on various threats to the biosphere and biodiversity. They rarely mention the basic resource/human numbers equation that was the focal point for earlier ecologists. For example, the February 2005 issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment was dedicated to “Visions for an ecologically sustainable future,” but the word “energy” appeared only for personal “creative energy”—and “resources” and “human population” were barely mentioned.

But has the limits-to-growth theory failed? Even before the financial collapse in 2008, recent newspapers were brimming with stories about energy- and food-price increases, widespread hunger and associated riots in many cities, and various material shortages. Subsequently, the headlines have shifted to the collapse of banking systems, increasing unemployment and inflation, and general economic shrinkage. A number of people blamed at least a substantial part of the current economic chaos on oilprice increases earlier in 2008.

Although many continue to dismiss what those researchers in the 1970s wrote, there is growing evidence that the original “Cassandras” were right on the mark in their general assessments, if not always in the details or exact timing, about the dangers of the continued growth of human population and their increasing levels of consumption in a world approaching very real material constraints. It is time to reconsider those arguments in light of new information, especially about peak oil.

To read the whole article, Download the PDF.


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