By Donella Meadows
–June 22, 2012–
I’m using the space of a public column here to right a personal wrong, but bear with me. I also want to illustrate a common human quirk and work up to a vital lesson.
In the preface of his new book A Moment on the Earth, Gregg Easterbrook mentions a book I co-authored more than 20 years ago. He says: “The Limits to Growth …, projected that petroleum would be exhausted by the 1990s. Instead, oil prices hover near postwar lows, reflecting ample supply.”
Easterbrook is by no means the only person to scoff at the “failed predictions” of The Limits to Growth. The book is quoted regularly by people who want you to know that its scary forecasts didn’t come true, so other scary forecasts won’t come true either.
For example: “The Limits to Growth overshot; it predicted a much more dire situation than actually came to be.” (Stephen Pyne, New York Times, June 7, 1992)
“The book’s direst warnings failed to come about. Prices for oil and other commodities did not soar, they fell in real terms. And countries like China and India were not reduced to wholesale starvation.” (The Reuter Library Report, May 22, 1992)
“The thesis of the original study was that modern society was doomed to perish by the 1980s if the world continued with economic business as usual. Undaunted by our survival, the authors have offered a new set of predictions for mankind’s future.” (The Cato Institute, 1992)
Statements like these amaze me. Whatever book these people are talking about, it’s not the one we wrote. The Limits to Growth makes no absolute predictions. It gives scenarios — “if, then” statements about the future — some of which are pessimistic, some spectacularly optimistic. Even the pessimistic scenarios did not say that petroleum would be exhausted or that China and India would starve by the 1990s. Nowhere does the book even hint that modern society might perish by the 1980s.
No kidding. You can look it up — something the scoffers clearly haven’t done.
Why do people repeat, decades later, fables about things we never said? The problem can’t be plain bad scholarship. There’s a bias at work here. No one looks at our optimistic scenarios and accuses us of being too cheery.
We seem to have been enveloped in myth in the same way George Washington was, who, historians tell us, didn’t really cut down a cherry tree. Or Chief Seattle, who never gave that rousing speech about the earth being our brother. Or Ronald Reagan, who in fact wasn’t much of a communicator. The myths live on, because we don’t care whether they’re true. We WANT them to be true.
It’s not hard to see why folks would want prognisticators of earthly limits like us to be wrong. It must be tempting to make up a ridiculous prediction, pin it on us, and then ridicule us for it. One person does that, another person repeats it, and off the rumor goes. Trying to stop it is like trying to stop a virus of either the biological or the computer variety. The bug lurks in minds, in print, in electronic memory, ever ready to get picked up and passed on.
Strangely enough, this example of myth-making just reinforces what The Limits to Growth actually did say. Our point was that the world economic system is likely to overshoot and erode environmental limits, because human society gets only delayed, noisy, confused signals about the state of our environment. Not only is our information delayed, so are our responses. Even when limits are obvious, institutions, markets, and technologies cannot stop causing damage instantly. It took 15 years for the world to believe scientific warnings about ozone thinning and 15 more years to stop making ozone-depleting chemicals. Fisheries are crashing all over the world, while we postpone the political pain of calling in the boats.
We can grow ourselves way beyond sustainable limits, not because we can’t adapt to those limits, but because we adapt too late. The scarcest resources aren’t oil, food, water or fish; they are information, time, and political will.
Denial is a sure-fire way to confuse information, waste time, and undermine political will. A growth-obsessed culture that does not want to think about its limits can make up lies about the people who point out those limits. It can fritter away decades ridiculing warnings, instead of adapting to the undeniable fact that resources and dumping grounds are finite, so human needs, numbers, and wastes cannot grow forever.
I wish I could stop the myths about our book, not to clear our names, but to bring back to public discussion the crucial questions the myths obscure. How big a human economy can this planet support? Since we don’t know the answer to that question, how shall we handle our uncertainty? Shall we barrel ahead and discover our limits by exceeding them? What are the risks of that strategy? What are the benefits, who reaps them, and for how long? Where is all this growth heading, anyway? Is there such a thing as enough?
Gregg Easterbrook is one of the journalists who regularly repeat the Limits to Growth fable. A few years ago I met him at a conference and told him about my problem. I’m don’t like being infamous for saying something I never said, I told him, and the rumor does not serve society. What can I do to stop it?
Not much, he said. Journalists use a computerized data base, where they can look up everything that’s been printed about a book or person or event. Whenever a rumor is repeated, it builds another entry, so it strengthens itself. All you can do, he said, is wait for someone to repeat the myth, write a correction, and get it into the data base.
Easterbrook must have forgotten that conversation, but I thank him for giving me the opportunity to follow his advice.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995