8. The Limits to Growth (and the 30-Year Update): Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William Behrens III 1972 and 2004

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.3 Books
Page
1.3.8

Despite ‘Limits to Growth’ being published nearly 50 years ago, I am constantly amazed at how accurate their predictions and models have been, especially as it was achieved at a time of very limited computing power, and of patchy scientific data on the state of the natural world and of our activities upon it.

As Kerryn Higgs points out (Books # 4), its performance is better than any economic modelling – ever – and perhaps this is due, in part, to the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ that their central premise is irrefutably right, but this, of course, has not meant that it has in any way been accepted by the mainstream, or given the credit it deserves for its sharp perspicacity and the chance it gave the world to save itself, and life upon it.

In fact, not only has ‘Limits’ been ignored by those in power, it has been relentlessly attacked because it challenges the core belief of the new global religion: growth. PR agencies, advertisers, think tanks, business councils, media outlets and politicians have been queuing up to attack its carefully constructed truths with a mixture of deception, displacement, and downright appeals to magic (e.g. claims for growth for another 2,500 years, a population of 3.5 trillion, and infinite resource substitution as, resources are, apparently, only limited “in our minds”! Higgs p. 272).

Despite the above, more objective analysis, such as by Graham Turner at Australia’s premier scientific organisation – CSIRO – has found that the observed historical data from 1970 to 2000 closely match the simulated results of the ‘standard run’ limits of growth model for almost all the outputs reported. “The comparison is well within uncertainty bounds of nearly all the data in terms of both magnitude and the trends over time.”3 In other words, not only are the models correct, they confirm that when actual data from the present day is fed into them, that we have been tracking consistently at the worst-case-scenario level warned of by Meadows et al: that is, ‘business as usual’. For a person who has spent his adult life working for the environment, the failure to make any significant impression at all on our behaviour and impacts is deeply depressing.

 

1 Meadows, D. et. al. 1972. The Limits to Growth. Universe Books, New York, USA.

2 Meadows, D. et.al. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, USA.

3 Turner, G. 2008. A Comparison of ‘The Limits to Growth’ with 30 Years of Reality. Global Environmental Change, 18. Elsevier, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Explore More Books

1.3.1. The Overstory

Age and hubris led me to believe that I would not have my fundamental understanding of the natural world changed significantly at this stage of my life - wrong! Richard Powers’ brilliant novel, ‘The Overstory’, well and truly punctured my conceit....

1.3.2. The Principles of Political Economy 

At the height of the Industrial Revolution and of British colonial power, when the world was awash with human triumphalism, only a truly independent genius could have the intellect and courage to stand apart and say: “It is scarcely necessary t...

1.3.3. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

‘Cod’ brilliantly charts the remorseless discovery, exploitation and decline of Cod fisheries around the world and across the ages. Once one of the most numerous fish ever to live in the sea, now reduced to a sorry remnant of its former abundance,...

1.3.4. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet

Anyone with a remotely serious interest in the environment must read this book. I can think of no other work that so completely and thoroughly charts the development of our current predicament, so carefully follows the trail of the world-dominatin...

1.3.5. Blueprint for a Green Economy

Kerryn Higgs and others see growth as the ultimate problem for the environment, as well as the absolute core of the capitalist machine; so much so that no amount of tinkering will make it ‘work’ for a healthy, diverse and sustainable future. By co...

1.3.6. Foxspell

Now for something completely different (with apologies to Monty Python). ‘Foxspell’ has that somewhat stultifying categorisation of ‘Young Adult Fiction’, but don’t be put off by that, nor that it is a novel with doses of magical realism. It is...

1.3.7. Kindred: A Cradle Mountain Love Story

Tasmania is a marvellous place and Cradle Mountain is one of its jewels. Gustav Weindorfer and Kate Cowle were amongst the first Europeans to explore the area and to introduce it to the outside world. Dragging scraps of wood and tin (and baths!) i...

1.3.8. The Limits to Growth (and the 30-Year Update)

Despite ‘Limits to Growth’ being published nearly 50 years ago, I am constantly amazed at how accurate their predictions and models have been, especially as it was achieved at a time of very limited computing power, and of patchy scientific data o...

1.3.9. Among the Elephants

I read ‘Among the Elephants’ when I was 18 and I so wanted be Iain Douglas-Hamilton, or Oria Douglas-Hamilton, or even their newly-born daughter, Saba! They lived this impossibly exotic life, literally among the elephants, at Lake Manyara National...

1.3.10. The Books of Cormac McCarthy, Tim Winton and Carl Hiaasen

I realise it is a cheat to have three authors and numerous books as the last inclusion at #10, but I couldn’t split these three, nor pick out any one book in particular, as their excellent ‘environmental’ writing pervades all that they do. Much...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...