Friday, May 27, 2005

Review of "Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update"

Change your ways or face the consequences: that is the message from Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. Over thirty years after the publication of Limits to Growth, the authors have revised and updated their World3 model, showing convincing evidence that humanity is heading for catastrophe.

What are the dire consequences that we face if we do not change course? We are already in overshoot, claim the authors. The human ecological footprint, the land and sea area used to sustain humanity through food production, industry, and shelter, exceeds the Earth's ability to support us. In the long term, because we are overwhelming the sources of goods and the sinks for our wastes, we are using more than one Earth and bequeathing the mess to our children.

Central to the thesis of LTG+30 is the idea of sources and sinks: because the Earth contains finite resources and can absorb a limited amount of pollution, human activity can grow beyond these limits. The authors contend that it already has. The earth contains a finite quantity of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and minerals: these are non-renewable resources that are depleted eventually. Humanity can also use up renewable resources like forests faster than those forests can grow back. The authors introduce the idea of regenerative capacity: the amount of a renewable resource that we can use without depleting it. We can also pollute the planet faster than the Earth's sinks can absorb and neutralize them. If we do not reduce our pollution, we contaminate our water, air, and topsoil.

In order to avoid overwhelming the Earth's sources and sinks, we must limit our use of renewables to match the planet's regenerative capacity. We must also substitute renewables for nonrenewable resources. Although this does not mean that we give up all nonrenewables right away, we should not deplete them faster than we can develop alternatives. And we must limit our pollution to a quantity below what the Earth can assimilate (254).

The authors provide eleven models (like most computer programmers, they begin counting at zero), showing possible scenarios for humanity's future through 2100. A common thread in many of these scenarios is overshoot and collapse. As population, food production, industry, and pollution grow unabated, Mother Earth strikes back, reducing food production, available goods, and overall human welfare.

But Meadows, Randers, and Meadows are not doomers. What distinguishes the authors from the "die off" crowd is their conviction that another kind of future is possible. If we learn to live within the Earth's limits, the authors claim, we can reach sustainability and avoid catastrophe.

Sustainability does not require a limit to creativity, technological progress, or human happiness. What it does require, however, is a change in the way we relate to stuff: we must change our consumption patterns and reduce our production of waste. If we are to avoid collapse, the authors argue, we must limit population and industrial output, abate pollution, conserve both renewable and non-renewable resources, and increase land yield while protecting soil quality (244).

The result? In the rosy scenario 9, we avoid catastrophic die off, limit and eventually reduce the human ecological footprint, and sustain human welfare (245). How do we acheive this utopia? The authors give vague suggestions and tools that people may be able to use to get from here to there: the book's prescriptive portion may well be its weakest chapter. They assert that we should, "Extend the planning horizon," in government and industry, focusing on long term success over decades as opposed to mere months or quarters. This change in the ways of leadership seems unlikely given the entrenched habits of those in power.

So how do we get to a sustainable society? Although the authors do not offer specific solutions that government and corporations can adopt, they do provide, "Tools for the transition to sustainability" (265). We facilitate this process through, "Visioning," "Networking," "Truth-telling," "Learning," and "Loving." This vague description of useful attitudes and habits leaves the reader feeling empty, wishing for more specific ideas for what managers, public servants, and citizens can do. Nonetheless, because the authors have done such an excellent job of explaining the problems we face, they can be forgiven their lack of detail in the chapter on solutions.

Having shown where we are today and where we might be going, Meadows, Randers, and Meadows leave the task of fixing overshoot to the next generation (Donella Meadows died in 2001). Coming up with creative ways to preserve human welfare while limiting our resource use is an even larger challenge than assessing and understanding the problem. Are we up to the task?

Work Cited

Meadows, Dennis, Meadows, Donella, and Randers, Jorgen. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004.

Technorati tags: , ,