Futures Terrible and Terrific

<i> Donella H. Meadows, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, was the principal author of "The Limits to Growth."</i>

As environmental problems make headlines again, people who remember “The Limits to Growth,” a 1972 book, have been asking whether the “predictions” were right--ozone hole, acid rain, greenhouse effect--are these the limits to growth?

“The Limits to Growth” was a report to the Club of Rome based on a computer model of global population and economic growth. It said, in essence, that the kinds and rates of physical growth the modern world is accustomed to cannot go on forever, or even very much longer.

That message raised a surprising ruckus. My co-authors and I were attacked from the left, right and middle. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and investigated by President Nixon’s staff. The Mobil Corp. ran ads saying “Growth Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” Disciples of Lyndon LaRouche and the National Labor Caucus picketed our public appearances. Mainstream economists competed with one another to see who could write the most scathing reviews.

Seventeen years later, the world population has risen from 3.6 billion to more than 5 billion. Tropical forest is being cut at a rate of 26 million acres per year (an area nearly the size of Pennsylvania). The rate of fossil fuel burning is 40% higher than it was 17 years ago, and the carbon dioxide released from that burning is deranging the chemical composition of the atmosphere. No one is sure how much soil has eroded, how much hazardous waste has been dumped, how much ground water has been polluted.


So, are the predictions of “The Limits to Growth” coming true? No, because the book contained no predictions. It showed 12 different futures, all possible, we think, some terrible, some terrific. As we saw it then and see it now, the future is not cast in concrete, to be predicted; it is full of potential, to be chosen. “The Limits to Growth” was not about prediction. It was about choice.

Choice is constrained by planetary laws, of course, and the book did say that some choices are physically impossible. Eternal expansion of the human economy is one of them. Trying to cram more and more people, homes, factories, croplands, vehicles, mines and dumps onto this finite planet will certainly run us into limits.

There are many limits, environmental, economic, social. There is a limit to the amount of oil under the ground and a limit to the amount of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can hold before the planet warms, the seas rise and the climate changes. There is a limit to the amount of injustice people will tolerate. There is a limit to the ability of human beings to manage complex systems.

No one knows precisely where the limits are or which ones come first. But we do understand something about how they work. That is what “The Limits to Growth” was about. It said:

-- One limit may be overcome by conservation, substitution, technical advance or regulation, but if growth continues, another limit will be encountered--or the same one re-encountered. (Cutting pollution per tailpipe roughly in half while doubling the number of tailpipes adds up to no progress on air quality. Since 1972 Americans have spent $70 billion on sewage-treatment plants, but are emitting nearly the same amount of organic waste to streams, because sewage production has grown as fast as sewage treatment.)

-- If problems induced by limits are solved by sweeping them under the rug, into the water or soil or atmosphere, over to the poor or off to the future, those problems have not gone “away.” They will come up again, somewhere, later, harder, often all at once. (High smokestacks transform local pollution into distant acid rain. Sludge that is barged farther out to sea just takes longer to wash back to shore. DDT banned at home but sold abroad comes back in coffee and other imports.)

-- An economy that depends heavily on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, and that degrades renewable resources like soils and forests, is steadily lowering its limits to growth.

-- There are no clear signals to tell us where we stand relative to global or local limits. The signals are complex, noisy and delayed. (Last summer’s drought could be greenhouse warming; it could also be just a dry year.)

-- Even if the signals were clear, we could not act on them quickly. (It took 16 years from the first warning of atmospheric ozone depletion to the first international agreement curtailing ozone-depleting pollutants. It will take 10 years to implement the agreement fully. At that point we will begin to know whether we curtailed enough.)

In short, it is as if we were driving our economy toward a set of barriers an unknown distance ahead. We can’t see clearly, and we can’t brake quickly. There is nothing about our price system, technology, forecasting ability or political wisdom that will guarantee a soft landing. Quite the contrary, they are all encouraging us to accelerate. What we need to do instead, said “The Limits to Growth,” is slow down.

That message offends conventional wisdom, but I think it was valid then and is valid now. We wrote it not to predict doom, but to challenge the myth of growth as the answer to all problems. We wanted to encourage the search for other answers. How can progress be defined in terms other than expansion by a certain percent per year? How can human beings find ways of living that are fulfilling, equitable and consistent with the laws of the planet?

If I would make any change in the book now, it would be to explore further the alternatives to growth--to say more about what a sustainable society could be like. A lot has been learned about that in the past 17 years.

Tens of thousands of farmers in the United States, Europe and even the tropics now get consistent high yields without drenching the countryside in pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and with great reductions in soil erosion. Newly designed appliances, lights and motors can provide the same services with one-half or one-third as much energy (thereby reducing greenhouse emissions, acid rain and urban air pollution). In some places, most notably Europe and Japan, recycling municipal waste is becoming a fine art. Industries are learning to reuse hazardous chemicals they once threw out.

Those are all steps that extend limits. They buy time for the longer-term challenge of controlling growth.

There is progress on that front too. Many countries, from Panama to South Korea to Mauritius to China, are successfully reducing their population growth rates. And many people are finding purposes for life more satisfying and less damaging than endless material accumulation.

The most remarkable conclusion of “The Limits to Growth,” which was based on a computer model made by the System Dynamics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was that the earth could indefinitely support at least 6 billion people, all at a comfortable European standard of living. In 17 subsequent years of working with global resource statistics, I feel more sure of that conclusion now than I did then. I see no reason why a sustainable world need be impoverished, dull, unjust, technically stagnant, tyrannical or offensive to the human spirit. Quite the contrary, I think learning to live in harmony with one another and with the limits and cycles of the earth is a far more exciting and worthy goal than mindless swelling.

I don’t know if we are running into the limits to growth, or if they are still ahead, or if we have surpassed them and are only now getting the signals that we have gone too far. No one knows. The only certainty is that we are closer to them than we used to be. The global warming, the dying trees, the polluted waters are not a surprise, not bad luck, not minor inconveniences that can be quickly fixed. They are powerful lessons about how a finite planet responds to a species that refuses to set its own limits.

That is our choice--to set our own limits rather than have the planet set them for us. A good way to start would be by questioning our vague, sacrosanct goal of growth. Growth of what? For whom? For how long? At what cost? Paid by whom? Paid when?

If we can begin to answer those questions with some specificity and honesty, we may discover what actual desires are unaddressed by the myth of growth. We may begin to define a future we really want. We may discover--I think we will--that there is such a thing as enough.