In 1972, three scientists from MIT created a computer model that analyzed global resource consumption and production. Their results shocked the world and created stirring conversation about global ‘overshoot,’ or resource use beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Now, preeminent environmental scientists Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows have teamed up again to update and expand their original findings in The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.
Meadows, Randers, and Meadows are international environmental leaders recognized for their groundbreaking research into early signs of wear on the planet. Citing climate change as the most tangible example of our current overshoot, the scientists now provide us with an updated scenario and a plan to reduce our needs to meet the carrying capacity of the planet.
Over the past three decades, population growth and global warming have forged on with a striking semblance to the scenarios laid out by the World3 computer model in the original Limits to Growth. While Meadows, Randers, and Meadows do not make a practice of predicting future environmental degradation, they offer an analysis of present and future trends in resource use, and assess a variety of possible outcomes.
In many ways, the message contained in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is a warning. Overshoot cannot be sustained without collapse. But, as the authors are careful to point out, there is reason to believe that humanity can still reverse some of its damage to Earth if it takes appropriate measures to reduce inefficiency and waste.
Written in refreshingly accessible prose, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is a long anticipated revival of some of the original voices in the growing chorus of sustainability. Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update is a work of stunning intelligence that will expose for humanity the hazy but critical line between human growth and human development.
The Club of Rome, where the book originated in 1972 as a report, "selling millions of copies worldwide, creating media controversy and also impetus for the global sustainability movement."
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Reading Limits to Growth, the hardest and most crucial aspect to wrap your mind around is the crux of the book itself, the basis for the title, ‘limits to growth.’ This is: Exponential growth cannot go on forever. Progress is, in fact, finite.
It’s a really hard concept for people to grasp, as we are taught from birth that progress is a given, that humanity will continue to climb steadily higher toward our inevitable Star Trek future. And for sure, those of us lucky enough to have been born in first-world countries have been very fortunate to ride the crest of exponential growth for the past couple of hundred years due to fossil fuel discovery and innovation. However, we cannot assume that will continue. In the 2020 preface to the updated edition, the authors argue
We know absolutely that physical growth on this planet will stop. We do not know precisely when, though our computer scenarios suggest it will happen in this century, probably within the next decades.
As they demonstrate, energy sources such as fossil fuels are finite; no new replacements for these resources are being created, at least not at the rate we use them. Those of you who followed the “peak oil” movement in the 2000s know what I’m talking about. But if this idea is new to you, maybe you can picture it: What happens when all of that black gold, that Texas tea, stops a-bubblin’ up? What will power our cars, our washers and dryers, our home heating systems?
The authors aren’t saying that we’re going to run out of oil tomorrow, or that the apocalypse is imminent. But the problem comes in when the amount of energy required to extract a resource is greater than what can be gained from that resource. This means definite decline, likely sometime over the next century, or perhaps as soon as in the next decade or two. Maybe we’re already seeing it.
From a permaculture perspective, this book is a very important read. The authors walk you through 11 scenarios, from worst- to best-case. In the first one, we’ve done nothing to strike a counterbalance and create a sustainable system for energy consumption and conservation. The result? We hit collapse sometime between 2000 and 2050. “Collapse” means a rather abrupt nosedive off a cliff as industrial output, life expectancy, and quality of life plummet, along with available food, services, and goods per person. Meanwhile, pollution skyrockets, exacerbating the decline.
In the next 10 scenarios, the authors make small tweaks for counterbalancing measures such as population controls, antipollution, agricultural sustainability and yield-increasing techniques, and other methods. Only in the last few scenarios, with early counterbalance interventions enacted, do we avoid collapse.
The worst-case scenario, unfortunately, is now playing out in real time. As Dennis Meadows states in the 2020 preface
I believe that society is nearing the decline portrayed in Scenario 1.
While the book’s darkest element is the tragically missed opportunity, the solutions offered by the authors remain strongly applicable, if not now in order to avoid collapse altogether, then to help us all prepare for it. And I believe that's what permaculture can uniquely offer us all.
I've given the book a more in-depth treatment over a three-part series: