The planet’s focus today should be on resiliency rather than on sustainability, says Dennis Meadows, one of the original authors of the 1972 book Limits to Growth. That book was one of the first scholarly works to recognize that the world was approaching its sustainable limits.

Dennis Meadows, one of the original authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, thinks it is far too late to achieve sustainable development as that term is commonly understood.

The Limits to Growth, one of the first scholarly works to recognize that the world was approaching its sustainable limits, turns 40 this year.

Speaking at a joint symposium in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution, Meadows told the audience that we are following the “Collapse” scenario, one of the 10 outlined in the book. This scenario includes a precipitous decline in resource and energy use over the next few decades, the consequences of unfettered economic growth and policies that don’t recognize resource limits or the carrying capacity of the planet.

Meadows made the case that our focus should now be on resiliency, rather than on sustainability. “It is too late to avoid what is coming,” he told the audience, “but we can still adopt policies that will reduce the negative impacts on the values that are most important to us as a society.”

Jørgen Randers, another co-author of Limits to Growth, quoted GE CEO Jeff Immelt when he said, “We know the solution, but we don’t like it.” Randers, a professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School, believes that the problems of planetary limitations are solvable technically — and at a relatively low cost. The challenge is that capitalism’s focus on the short-term results of investments, and democratic society’s focus on legislation that promotes short-term benefits, render us unable to make the decisions that would allow us to, as fellow presenter professor Richard Alley put it, “learn before we burn.”

The occasion was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of one of the first scholarly works to recognize that the world was approaching its sustainable limits. An outgrowth of the pioneering computer modeling work of MIT Sloan Professor Jay Forrester — the founder of system dynamicsLimits to Growth was criticized widely upon publication. (Forrester, now 93, took the train from Boston to Washington to attend the conference with his friends and colleagues.) More recently, however, reality has been aligning closely with the book’s more sobering scenarios, and the authors are busy consulting and lecturing widely.

The full-day program closed with the panel of presenters taking questions from the audience, including several variations of “what would it take to change” the direction in which business and society is heading. The answer that most resonated with audience members — if judged by the volume of applause — was “an event that converts a long-term issue into a short-term issue that stays close to the national agenda over a couple of years” — or longer than a congressional term.

4 Comments On: A Future of Uncontrolled Decline?

  • James Greyson | March 11, 2012

    Yes planetary problems are technically solvable – in general we know the kinds of actions and investments that are needed. However technical solutions evidently don’t add up to a planetary solution. 40 years of planning for technical change produced many positive initiatives but no net shift to sustainability.

    It’s not that we don’t like it. No one (I hope) stands up to argue against the survival of civilisation. The snag lies deeper, that our habits of thinking (which cause the problems) lead us to propose actions that don’t actually add up to a solution.

    Limits to Growth is brilliant but has become encoded into the dna of a sustainability movement in ways that ironically prevent solutions. Limits has become an mindset of limits, used rhetorically to talk about different types of limits interchangeably – with the disastrous effect of limiting our ambitions for change. Similarly growth of different things is blended into a generic anti-growth slogan that can see the limits to economic growth in today’s paradigms but completely misses how it could be rewired to power superfast genuine global sustainability.

    James Greyson

  • peterfollett | March 13, 2012

    James, thank you for that observation.

    Precious time is being lost on the path to ‘Collapse’ and it may be that only with many tangible examples of that will we have generated the level of fear necessary to stimulate a critical mass of change.

    I believe it was Einstein who said something like “The problems that we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them”. Many nations now speak of themselves as ‘economies’ rather than ‘societies’, evidence that they are driven by two dominant socio-economic worldviews: 1) the belief that we should strive for continuous development and advancement in living standards, and 2) the dominant economic principle that improvement in living standards demands economic growth, which relies on continuous population growth.

    Transcendence of these cultural conditions, by overcoming the limitations of those worldviews, will be the foundation for overcoming the unsustainable individual and collective behaviours. However many in the sustainability movement simply reject those views out of hand and are unable to understand and influence those who hold to them.

    Both parties – ‘consumers’ and ‘sustainers’ – believe so strongly in their separate views, that growing beyond them is very difficult – but not impossible! Thank heavens a small but increasing number of people are making that shift to a new ‘level of thinking’ that transcends but includes both ways of thinking.

  • quercus | March 14, 2012

    Interesting view on Forresters system apporach is given in recent BBC documentary: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts.

    http://vimeo.com/29875053

  • James Greyson | March 15, 2012

    TY Peter. After 40 years of tangible examples I’m wondering if the fear that’s generated has done the opposite – leading everyone to cling more tightly to their individual or herd certainties? Might this explain why climate scepticism rises in proportion to the evidence?

    Population growth makes a nice a case study of ‘rewiring growth’ and ‘transcendence’. Trick would be to plan and make incentives for more economic activity (+ higher quality of life) from existing population, for example by cutting unemployment and poverty.

    Another case study is ‘circular economics’, now being planned in China. If this is implemented in markets then the corrections to product prices add to growth and also stimulate investments that build (rather than destroy) the physical resource base for future growth.

    This would be simple enough to do so I hope it will be pursued soon enough to avoid collapse.

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