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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.
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 dynamics — Limits 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.