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 Donnella 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 Global 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.
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Donella Meadows, who died unexpectedly in 2001, was a systems analyst and adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College and wrote the nationally syndicated newspaper column "The Global Citizen."Review:
33 Years Later
by T N Ninan / New Delhi
August 06, 2005
Dennis Meadows is a bear of a man. Big-built, bearded, with heavy tread and a gravelly voice and, more important, the kind of intellectual simplicity that lies at the other side of complexity.
The co-author of The Limits to Growth, which the Club of Rome issued in 1972 to spark the sustainability debate, is in the Swedish village of Tallberg, addressing a small group on the original Club of Rome thesis.
Was it right in saying what it did, or are the sceptics right in scoffing at the entire notion that there are indeed limits to what the earth can sustain? Meadows has a short answer: Yes, the Club of Rome was right. And since we have done nothing to address the concerns raised in the 1972 report, we have less time than before to take corrective action.
Up go some slides to prove the point. The global population has grown from around 3.5 billion at the time of the 1972 report, to more than 6 billion today, and will soon grow to more than 7 billion. Industrial production has gone from an index of about 180 (base 1963 = 100) to more than 400.
The index of world metals use has gone up more than 50 per cent. And the concentration of carbon dioxide (which had gone up from about 270 parts per million in 1750 to about 320 in 1972) has gone up since to about 370-- increasing in 30 years by as much as in the previous 220.
The conclusion: mankind's "global ecological footprint" has gone from a sustainability level of about 90 per cent of the earth's capacity, to 120 per cent. In other words, we are already beyond the sustainability point.
Meadows makes two other points. First, we have not realised that we have crossed the sustainability limit because we are now drawing down on nature's bank balance that had been built up over the millennia; and that cannot go on indefinitely because the account will soon be overdrawn.
And second, if you thought that the Club of Rome was wrong because we have not faced disaster yet and so we will not face disaster in the future, you've misunderstood what the original "Limits to Growth" report forecast--which, broadly, was that the current rate of growth and patterns of consumption could continue for another 50-80 years before things begin to go seriously wrong.
And we have already used up something like half that grace period. And while the challenge in 1972 was to slow down (having reached 90 per cent sustainability levels), the challenge now (at 120 per cent) is to back down.
In other words, population must stop growing (it's happening, but too slowly), and we must change our cultural habits of consumption, because we cannot continue to make today's claims on the environment.
As an Indian, this entire thesis goes against the grain of the national development goal: we want to get our income levels up from $600 per capita to (maybe) at least $2,000, at which level one might hope that there is no absolute poverty left if you assume not hugely unequal income distribution; and China of course will want to do the same and more.
If you factor in what that will mean for global energy demand and the demand for other non-renewable resources, it seems pretty obvious that what we have already seen in the markets for oil and iron ore (to take two examples) are a foretaste of what is to come. Indeed, oil may already have reached the level of peak production, and what that means for the global economy is pretty frightening.
Does that mean that India and China should not aspire to what the developed economies have delivered by way of standards of living? It seems a manifestly unfair question when the west is equally manifestly unwilling to change its consumption habits. If neither happens, and even if some technological fixes can be worked out that buy us some time, the message is pretty straightforward. Things cannot go on as before.
Limits to Growth
The premise of Limits to Growth continues on the same theme as the earlier books by the same authors (the original Limits to Growth, CH, Nov'73; Beyond the Limits, CH, Nov'93), but now "there is no question about whether growth in the ecological footprint will stop; the only questions are when and by what means." Using computer simulation modeling to integrate data and theories into possible future scenarios, possibilities range from the disaster of "overshoot" of the earth's limits and a collapse in both population and human welfare, to the opposite vision: a smooth adaptation of principles of sustainability within the earth's carrying capacity. A good, clear, objective explanation of causes and possible effects, this book fits well with current concerns that not enough has been done to halt environmental degradation. Consequences predicted in the 1970s seemed to allow enough time for long-term planning and changes, but now, "Time is, in fact, the ultimate limit." Another update is planned for 2012, when more data should be available to test the realities of exponential growth, depletion of resources, increasing wastes, and diminishing returns on investments in more efficient technologies. Summing up: Highly recommended. All levels.
-S.E. Wiegand, Saint Mary's College
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