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Beyond the Limits to Growth

Déjà vu all over again

A September 1 headline from The Guardian read:  “Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse.” The subtitle elaborated: “Four decades after the book was published, Limit [sic] to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.”

(For those of you who may not know, The Limits to Growth (1972) by authors Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III is an eco-classic “about the computer modeling of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies.” )

Back in March, I covered a similarly-themed Guardian article in my blog post “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” (with apologies to REM). In 2012, I also covered this topic in my review of Jørgen Randers’ excellent book, A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years? – So this does indeed feel like déjà vu all over again to me.

I have some quibbles with this latest Guardian piece. For example, the author writes that the original Limits “predicted our civilisation would probably collapse some time this century,” which it most certainly did not. As the original authors have stated in their responses to numerous attacks against their work since its publication, Limits was not intended to be a prediction. Instead, it was written about a pioneering world economic and environmental computer model, a model that generated a series of “what it” scenarios. The fact that, forty years on, we are tracking quite closely along the disastrous “Business As Usual” standard run is not so much verification of a prediction as proof that humanity is too short-sighted to let up on the accelerator of our economic “car” until it is too late to prevent a collision with a very hard brick wall—the wall representing the physical limits to exponential growth in a finite world.

However, the article does an admirable job of presenting new research from the University of Melbourne that shows just how closely we are following a path that can only lead to disaster. Is there still time to change course? The answer is, yes, BUT…

Yes, we can mitigate some (but probably not all) of the worst effects of increasing population and pollution meeting decreasing resources, as we feel the pinch of peak services, food, and industrial output per capita.








BUT we have waited far too long to make this transition to a “post peak” economy softly. The Limits to Growth outlined ways we could soften these blows, but we should have begun implementing them forty years ago. Expect some of these collapses to be hard falls rather than soft landings. As in the old saying, “the bigger they are, they harder they fall;” the longer we wait, the more painful the fall.

If I might leave you with one bit of potential good news: Although it looks like we could begin feeling (significantly more) economic and environmental pain any year now, beyond the pain lies a future—post peak population—of doing more with less that looks bright indeed.

Those of us in today’s sustainability movement are implementing these much-needed alternatives to collapse. May all your landings be soft.

“The difference between a sustainable society and a present-day economic recession is like the difference between stopping an automobile purposefully with the brakes versus stopping it by crashing into a brick wall. When the present economy overshoots, it turns around too quickly and unexpectedly for people and enterprises to retrain, relocate, and readjust. A deliberate transition to sustainability would take place slowly enough, and with enough forewarning, so that people and businesses could find their places in the new economy.” ~Donella H. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

Kyle G. Crider (MPA, LEED AP ND) is a professional science and sustainability “story teller.” In his spare time he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary (Environmental Health) Engineering and traveling the highways and by-ways of home state with his wife Beverly in search of fact, fiction, and folklore for Strange Alabama.