By Donella Meadows
–September 9, 1988–
In 1972 I co-authored a book called The Limits to Growth, which raised what was to me a surprising ruckus. The book was based on a computer model of global population and economic growth. It said, in essence, that the kinds and rates of growth we’re accustomed to cannot go on forever, or even very much longer.
Politicians, economists, corporations did not like that message. We were attacked from the left and the right. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and denounced by President Nixon’s staff. The Mobil Corporation ran ads saying “growth is not a four-letter word.” Disciples of Lyndon LaRouche picketed our public appearances. Somewhere in my attic I have a six-foot pile of book reviews, many of them scathing.
Now, 16 years later, there are headlines about the ozone hole, garbage barges, polluted beaches, drought, the greenhouse effect. People are asking me, “Were your predictions right? Are we running into limits to growth?”
The first question is hard to answer, because we didn’t make predictions — we don’t even believe in them. The future is not cast in concrete, to be foreseen, it is full of potential, to be chosen. The Limits to Growth was not about doom, it was about choice.
But it was about choice constrained by physical laws, and the book did say that some choices are simply impossible. Eternal growth is one of them. If we try to put ever more people, factories, croplands, vehicles, mines, and dumps on this finite planet, we will run into environmental limits. No one knows precisely where those limits are. But The Limits to Growth made several points about how they work. It said:
- We may overcome one limit by conservation, substitution, technical advance, or social regulation, but if growth continues, another limit will be encountered — or the same one re-encountered. (Cutting pollution per tailpipe in half but doubling the number of tailpipes is no way to make progress on air quality.)
- If problems 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 will come up again, later, harder, often all at once. (High smokestacks transform local pollution into distant acid rain. Landfills change surface water pollution into groundwater pollution. Sludge that’s barged farther out to sea just takes longer to wash back to shore.)
- An economy that lives on nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels, and that degrades renewable resources like soils and forests, is LOWERING its limits.
- There are no clear signals telling us where we stand relative to global or local limits. The signals are complex, noisy, and delayed. (This drought could be greenhouse warming; it could also be just a dry year. We’ll know ten or twenty years from now.)
- Even if there were clear signals, we could not act on them quickly. (It took 16 years from the first warning of atmospheric ozone depletion to the first global agreement to curtail ozone-depleting pollutants. It will take 10 more years to implement the agreement and 15 years after that to see the effect in the upper atmosphere. At that point we will know whether we curtailed enough.)
In short, we are driving toward a set of barriers an unknown distance ahead, not able to see clearly, and not able to brake quickly. Our policy is to accelerate. Better policies, said The Limits to Growth, would be to look farther ahead, to speed up reaction times, to extend limits by conserving and enhancing resources, and, above all, to slow down.
That message was valid then and is valid now. The Limits to Growth was written not to predict doom but to challenge people to find ways of living that are consistent with the laws of the planet. I believe that a sustainable society need not be desperate, dull, unjust, technically stagnant or tyrannical. I think it could be more satisfying than a society that mistakes mindless swelling for progress. If there is any change I would make in the book, it would be to say more about what a sustainable society could be like. A lot has been learned about that in the past 16 years.
Tens of thousands of farmers now get high yields without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Appliances, lights, and motors can produce the same services with much less energy. In some places recycling municipal waste is becoming a fine art. Industries are learning to use hazardous chemicals they once threw out.
In many countries, most spectacularly China, people are controlling the growth of their numbers. And some individuals — not whole nations, but people in many nations — are defining how much wealth is enough and finding purposes for life more fulfilling than endless materal accumulation.
Those are good trends, but they are not dominant ones. In the 16 years since The Limits to Growth was published, the world population has risen from 3.6 billion to over 5 billion. The rate of fossil fuel burning has gone up by 50 percent. About 400 million acres of tropical forest have been lost and 200 million acres of desert have been created. No one is sure how much soil has eroded, how much hazardous waste has been dumped, how much groundwater has been polluted.
Are we running into the limits to growth? I don’t know. We are surely closer than we used to be, and we’re still accelerating. This summer’s drought, dying trees, and polluted waters may be a small hint of what planetary limits are like — enough of a hint, I hope, to get us to ask some hard questions about growth. Growth of what? For whom? For how long? At what cost? Paid by whom? Paid when?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988