Limits to growth The 30-year update
Donella Meadows / Jorgen Randers / Dennis Meadows
In an updated version of an influential 1972 book on the dangers facing the planet, the authors confirm that the earth is taxed and overcommitted. But, as they say, knowing is half the battle.
Editor's Note: 'Limits to Growth' was first published in 1972. 'Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update' has recently been published by Chelsea Green Publishing. Below you'll find an excerpt from the newly released version, preceded by some reflections by co-author Dennis Meadows on the 30-year journey that has brought the book -- and the earth -- to this point.
It has been a unique experience to live with a book and a thesis for over 30 years -- watching the statements of both critics and proponents slowly evolve in response to the changing world situation.
From 1970-72 I directed a project at MIT, supported by an international group called the Club of Rome. My colleagues and I developed a computer model about the long-term causes and consequences of growth in population and the physical economy of the globe. The research produced three books. One of them, Limits to Growth, caused a huge storm of controversy that has continued until the present. The work pointed out that prevailing policies would almost certainly lead to overshoot and collapse of the global society sometime in the 21st century.
One cannot predict the future with any confidence. But our computer model, known as World3, produce a set of scenarios that showed different possibilities for major global trends out to the year 2100. Most of them manifested collapse. Some of them showed the possibility of sustainable development.
The book was translated into over 30 languages, became a best-seller in many nations, and was eventually voted one of the 10 most important environmental books of the 20th century.
It has also been bitterly attacked, right up to the present. For example a recent advertisement in the Wall Street Journal stated, 'In 1972, the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, questioning the sustainability of economic and population growth. .... the Club of Rome was wrong.'
It has been astonishing to me that many politicians and economists can continue to deny the evidence of limits that is announced with ever more frequency and urgency in the daily papers and the evening news. The world's use of materials and energy has grown past the levels that can be supported indefinitely. Pressures are mounting from the environment that will force a reduction. Rising oil prices, climate change, declining forests, falling ground water levels -- all of these are simply symptoms of the overshoot.
It is also a source of sadness for me to see so much energy invested in denial and almost none put into making the changes that would let humanity survive on this beautiful planet in good order more or less indefinitely. For our research clearly points out that feasible changes in cultural norms and goals would let us ease back down to sustainable levels, fulfill basic human needs, and structure an orderly society more or less indefinitely.
Because of the long time horizon involved in our studies, we always realized it would require several decades to get any perspective on the accuracy of our forecasts. Now, three decades later, we are into the 21st century within 20 years of the time when our scenarios suggest that growth will near its end. The basic conclusions are still the same. We have modified our model only a little to reflect some better data about the effects of technology on land yields and birth rates. And we have spent much more time elaborating on the structural features of the global system – delays, growth, and limits – that predispose it to overshoot and collapse.
There have also been losses since 1972. One of our four original co-authors, Bill Behrens, dropped out of science to become a builder and alternative energy merchant in northern Maine. And, more devastating, Donella Meadows, our senior author, died unexpectedly of illness in 2001. The most inspiring parts of the book are hers, and we have recognized her contributions by leaving her as senior author on this third edition.
The first book made an enormous impact. This time we expect much less attention. Iraq, terrorism, and high oil prices are crowding out analysis of longer term issues ?even though they cannot be fully understood unless you see them in the context of an overstressed planet. But there will be widespread use of the book in teaching. And the millions who were educated and inspired by the first edition will find this a useful update.