Is it Too Late for Sustainable Development?

Dennis Meadows thinks so. Forty years after his book The Limits to Growth, he explains why

(Courtesy of Dennis Meadows)

On March 2, 1972, a team of experts from MIT presented a groundbreaking report called The Limits to Growth to scientists, journalists and others assembled at the Smithsonian Castle. Released days later in book form, the study was one of the first to use computer modeling to address a centuries-old question: When will the population outgrow the planet and the natural resources it has to offer?

The researchers, led by scientist Dennis Meadows, warned that if current trends in population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continued, that dark time—marked by a plummeting population, a contracting economy and environmental collapse—would come within 100 years.

In four decades, The Limits to Growth has sold over ten million copies in more than 30 languages. The book is part of the canon of great environmental literature of the 20th century. Yet, the public has done little to avert the disaster it foretells.

GRAPH: Australian physicist Graham Turner shows how actual data from 1970 to 2000 almost exactly matches predictions set forth in the “business-as-usual” scenario presented in The Limits to Growth.

To mark the report’s 40th anniversary, experts gathered in Washington, D.C. on March 1. Meadows and Jorgen Randers, two authors of The Limits to Growth, and other speakers discussed the challenges of forging ahead into a sustainable future at “Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet,” a symposium hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and the Club of Rome, the global think tank that sponsored the original report.

I spoke with Meadows, who retired in 2004 after 35 years as a professor at MIT, Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire. We discussed the report and why he feels it is too late for sustainable development and it is now time for resilience.

From 1970 to 1972, you and 15 others worked feverishly on The Limits to Growth. What were your goals at the outset of the project?
Jay Forrester, a senior professor at MIT, had created a theoretical model that showed the interrelationship of some key global growth factors: population, resources, persistent pollution, food production and industrial activity. Our goal was to gather empirical data to test his model and elaborate on it. We wanted to understand the causes and consequences of physical growth on the planet over a 200-year time period, from 1900 up to 2100.

According to the “standard run” or “business-as-usual” scenario, you predicted that we would overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity and collapse by mid-21st century. What do you mean by collapse?
In the world model, if you don’t make big changes soon—back in the ’70s or ’80s—then in the period from 2020 to 2050, population, industry, food and the other variables reach their peaks and then start to fall. That’s what we call collapse.

Now, in real life, what would that mean? It is not clear. In a way, it is like being in San Francisco and knowing that there is going to be an earthquake and that it is going to cause buildings to fall down. Which buildings are going to fall down, and where are they going to fall? We just don’t have any way of understanding that. What we know is that energy, food and material consumption will certainly fall, and that is likely to be occasioned by all sorts of social problems that we really didn’t model in our analysis. If the physical parameters of the planet are declining, there is virtually no chance that freedom, democracy and a lot of the immaterial things we value will be going up.

How do you wrap your head around what the planet’s carrying capacity is?
The issue of global carrying capacity is one that is fraught with all sorts of technical, scientific and philosophical problems. But the best effort to deal with these various problems and come up with concrete numbers is the one that has been carried out by [Swiss-born sustainability advocate] Mathis Wackernagel and his colleagues. Mathis has come up with a concept called the global ecological footprint. In its essence, it converts all of the energy and materials that humanity uses every year from nonrenewable sources [such as oil] and makes the assumption that somehow they would come from renewable sources [such as wood or the sun]. Then, it compares our current consumption with what the earth could generate.


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