‘Limits to Growth’ Author Honored for Once-Ridiculed Warnings

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If world leaders had listened to Dennis Meadows when The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, humanity might not be in the climate fix it’s in today. Instead, the MIT professor’s warnings about resource depletion and environmental damage were initially ridiculed.

Thirty-seven years later, Meadows is being awarded the prestigious Japan Prize by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan for his efforts to open society’s eyes to the threats to sustainability.

Washington is finally wising up, as well. But Meadows isn’t as optimistic as he would like to be about the future. He has written two updates to The Limits to Growth, in 1992 and 2004. There will not be another, he told us:

In another 10 years, it will no longer be possible to find policies that still produce attractive outcomes in our model. Resource depletion, population growth, and environmental deterioration will have grown too far.

By 2014, the logical time to write the next report, it will be quite clear whether or not collapse lies ahead. There will be little use in writing about it.

The global growth models that Meadows and his colleagues used to write The Limits to Growth were never intended to be forecasts. They didn’t include all of the powerful self-reinforcing loops that can intensify damage, such as interrelationships between trust and lending in the stability of the financial system, and how the warming atmosphere increases Arctic sea ice melt which increases the temperature, which increases sea ice melt further. Still, they provided a picture of what could happen.

The models should have been warning flags about our very real chances of overshooting the limits to sustainability in five critical areas: global population, food production, resource depletion, industrialization and pollution. Meadows, his wife Donella Meadows, and their co-authors, Jorgen Randers of Norway and William Behrens III, used those five variables to show how changes in each and the interplay among them could affect the sustainability of human society in the future.

They wanted to show how policies could lead toward either sustainability or collapse, Meadows said.

Politicians should have paid attention. Creating sustainable systems doesn’t happen overnight. It requires looking ahead decades. Meadows uses the analogy of a drunkard to explain the concrete and psychological effects: You can tell a drunkard that he will better off if he stops drinking, but he will know that when he quits, he will feel worse over the next few days and weeks. It will take several months for him to feel physically better, get a job and establish social relations that aren’t based on alcohol.

Likewise, Meadows said,

If you tell a society that is addicted to growth that it will be better off giving up growth, it will laugh at you, unless it has a time horizon of decades. Because over the next few months or years, giving up growth causes many more problems than it solves.

In 1972, global population and consumption were still below the planet’s long-term carrying capacity. It was only necessary to slow down and then stop. Now, they are far above, about 35% above according to Wackernagel’s Global Ecological Footprint analysis, and the problem is to figure out how we can get back down below the sustainable limits.

The impact of unchecked industrialization and pollution are evident in today’s rising carbon dioxide levels and their greenhouse effect’s impact on glaciers, sea ice and storms. At this point, Meadows said, even immediate emissions cuts won’t prevent centuries of deterioration:

The conclusion most relevant here is that overshoot and collapse is the most likely future behavior of the global system. … The future will look like one of our collapse scenarios, not one of our equilibrium scenarios.

There will still be an Earth millions of years from now. The question is whether the human society is sustainable.

Jorgen Randers, Meadows’ co-author on all three editions of The Limits to Growth and a professor of Climate Strategy at the Norwegian School of Management, has also watched human society losing its grasp on sustainability. As he puts it: “We have postponed too long pushing the brake in a world system with a very long braking distance. The precipice is getting uncomfortably close.”

We are a decade or two too late at this point to have a problem-free future, Randers said, however he believes that immediate action can pull us back from the edge. If the promises that President Obama has made to fight climate change are put into action, then the period of noticeable climate damage in the middle of this century will be shorter, he said. Still, he said, human society’s sustainability outlook would be much, much better if policymakers had listened back in 1972.

Meadows’ work and the system dynamics models underlying The Limits to Growth have contributed “a better recognition of the smallness of the globe – of the stark limitations of the human home,” Randers said.

Meadows, 66, will receive the Japan Prize, worth about $550,000, on April 23 in Tokyo. He plans to put much of the money into a small, non-profit foundation that supports sustainable development and invest a portion in making his own home much more energy efficient. Then, he said, he intends to focus on his latest project: creating educational games that can help adults better understand resource depletion and sustainability.