The Legacy of ‘The Limits to Growth’
9 August 2017
By Dr Kerryn Higgs for Dick Smith Fair Go.
I came across The Limits to Growth by accident just after it came out in 1972. There were a number of scientists who had already sounded related warnings in the 1960s: Rachel Carson in Silent Spring observed that the expansion of the chemical industry was decimating bird populations; Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb drew our attention to the risks of unrestrained human population growth; and a new school of ecological economists began arguing that only a steady state economy would be sustainable into the future—where population on one hand, and production and waste on the other, were stabilised. One of the ecological economists, Kenneth Boulding, warned that the days of the “cowboy” economy of limitless resources was over and humanity faced a new situation which he called “spaceship Earth.”
But it was The Limits to Growth that brought the idea of natural limits on the human economic system into the foreground of public debate. The team who did the research and published the book (Donella and Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William Behrens), were commissioned by the Club of Rome, founded a few years earlier by an Italian industrialist and a Scottish scientist.
As a graduate in History and English, I had only a general knowledge of science and economics when I discovered the book. The economic growth that was accelerating all around me seemed normal and not limited by anything I knew of. As a Gippslander, I had witnessed the destruction of the LaTrobe Valley’s Haunted Hills in the 1950s and 60s, and the arrival of the brown coal bonanza. I felt deep regret when the exquisitely beautiful ferny forest at Gunns Gully was swallowed by an open cut mine, but it was universally celebrated as progress and good for Victoria, however heart-breaking.
The Limits to Growth became the best-selling environmental book of all time, even though it is a rather technical little book which outlines various scenarios that were fed through the Meadows team’s World3 computer program. Data about the many interacting aspects of the economy and the environment were combined with different scenarios about what might change or stay the same.
The crucial limiting factors were tied up with industrialisation and booming populations: the depletion of resources, the pollution of the natural world and the persistence of widespread malnutrition. The standard run, or business as usual, led to collapse around the middle of the current century. Even massive technological advance could not avert this outcome. But there were scenarios that could: Collapse could be avoided if we stabilised population and stabilised the scale and rate of material extraction and waste.
This book changed everything for me and set me off on the journey that required me to study both science and economics and resulted in my 2014 book Collision Course: Endless growth on a finite planet (MIT Press). I assumed in 1972 that Limits would open all eyes and have a huge impact on the conduct of human affairs. At first there were promising signs: President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau both commissioned studies to look further into the implications for their countries and the world. But the enthusiasm was short-lived. In fact, “Club of Rome” gradually became a term of abuse in mainstream economics and politics, as the backlash against ideas about limits gained the upper hand. More on how this was done in a future post.
It’s forty-five years later now and, worldwide, it’s been pretty much business as usual. The models that the Meadows team used in their World 3 computer program were rubbished by their critics, especially mainstream economists: “Garbage in, garbage out” as one put it. But in recent years, several researchers have checked the Meadows projections against what has actually happened. It turns out that the correlation between the standard run (business as usual) and the real world, over the intervening 45 years, is surprisingly close. Charles Hall and John Day could not find “any model made by economists that is accurate over such a long time span.”
So the Limits project was not a case of garbage in, garbage out. The repeated assertion that “the Club of Rome got it wrong,” still heard today, was incorrect.
As we head towards the third decade of the twenty-first century, the multiple crises that worried the Club of Rome fifty years ago have deepened. The Meadows team published two updates on Limits (1992 and 2004); the most eminent scientists of the world, including over half the living Nobel Laureates, told us that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course” in their Warning to Humanity in 1992; James Hansen, the climate scientist, addressed the US Congress in 1989 and warned the world that global warming was already in progress; the United Nations Environment Programme released its Global Environment Outlook (GEO) every five years, telling us in cautious and measured terms that the natural environment is being destroyed—GEO-6 is due later this year. But all of these interventions were mere blips in the main game of decision-makers around the world—the grab for growth that has dominated the era of economic rationalism (also known as neoliberalism) since the 1970s.
So progress has been glacial and insufficient. We are breaching the boundaries of planetary resilience: we’re in danger of heating the planet beyond human survival in many locations, melting so much ice that sea levels obliterate coastal cities and oblige delta and island people to evacuate their ancestral homelands; we are pouring nitrogen and phosphorous into our rivers, oceans and aquifers, killing off water-based life; we continue to eliminate vast swathes of forest, grassland and wetland so we can expand our agriculture, industry and ports (and use the trees for paper and timber); we continue to throw away millions of tonnes of plastic every year and our oceans are now choked with vast areas of floating debris eaten by unsuspecting birds, turtles and fish; at a frightening rate, we are liquidating huge numbers of the individual animals with which we share the Earth—more than half of our fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have been lost since 1970; and more and more species face extinction.
Australian politicians rabbit on about “economic growth” every day, with all parties convinced that economic growth will solve the problems it has created. The same mantra is also heard worldwide across almost all nations and all the international organisations of world business and trade—as well as permeating the well-intentioned branches of the UN itself.
But it is the commitment to endless economic growth (in the physical sense) that underlies all the environmental damage. To the extent that economic growth does not involve further mobilisation of resources and production of wastes, economic growth could well be positive though, clearly, most economic growth has material elements. It’s also clear that large parts of the human world desperately need some degree of physical growth, just to provide basic needs like shelter, clean water, sanitation, food security, basic health and education services and minimal access to electricity, all of which have material dimensions. So it is all the more important that we who are already rich tackle our own growth fetish systemically so we can share the ecological space with them.
It’s been good to see in the last decade or so that a critical approach to growth is gradually gaining attention in some universities and some parts of the media. There’s a long way to go and the situation is urgent, but at least there are signs of serious concern.
Dr Kerryn Higgs is an Australian researcher, author and activist.
She published Collision Course: Endless growth on a finite planet (MIT Press) in 2014. It explores the resistance to ideas about limits, the elevation of growth as the central objective of policy-makers and the mounting influence of corporate-funded think tanks dedicated to the propagation of neoliberal principles and to the denial of health and environmental dangers. She completed her PhD with the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, where she is now a University Associate. She is a Fellow with the Club of Rome and an active member of Climate Change Australia, based on the mid-north coast of NSW.