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The limits to growth by Donella H. Meadows

The limits to growth (1972)

by Donella H. Meadows, William W. Behrens III, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers

Other authors: Club of Rome

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Reports to the Club of Rome (1)

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A scholarly, technical treatise on the problems facing the world in the future. The authors wisely place their predictions about 100 years in the future, avoiding the pitfalls that faced Paul Ehrlich when some of his predictions failed to materialize within the time frame he had predicted. Most lay readers will be lost in the technical language, but there is a great deal of good information that can be used productively, though much of it is out of date now, and needs to be updated. ( )
  Devil_llama | Apr 18, 2011 |
Signet New York Tables, Appendix Notes.
  macfinleyrsrc | Jul 6, 2009 |
When this book hit the Dutch market in 1972 (was there a market at that time?), i almost immediately bought and read it. Fifteen years old, the only reason i could afford it, was because the publisher priced it at 2,50 Dutch guilders (about a US dollar). This, because it was the fifth hundred publication in the Aula series of Het Spectrum (the publisher). No wonder half of the world sales came from the Netherlands.

And again, fifteen years old, the reason i bought it was because i had read about it in the woman’s magazine Margriet. It did some articles on environmental pollution and the world going down the drain. My motives being a mixture of interest in the possibilities of computer modeling and worry about the environment (mainly the first though, although my über-ich sticks to the second).

Now I reread it. So, is this a readable book? It is actually. It is well written and well composed; rhetoric means well used to make sure that its message hits the fan.

----------------------- Reporting on world dynamics --------------------------------------------------​

--> Exponential growth, feed-back loops and time delays

It begins by explaining the nature of exponential growth. The story of the water lily in a pond that doubles itself every day is central to this. After some time the pond is filled half by the water lily, how long will it be before it covers the whole of the pond?

Four variables like the world-population and industrial production, it is important to see that exponential growth is caused by positive feedback loops in the system. Population growth causes more population growth and industrial growth likewise. They also positively influence each other.

Another important aspect is time delay in the system. E.g. DDT put in the environment yesterday, will only show up in high levels in our food tomorrow, since it has to travel along the whole of the food chain first.
Uncontrolled growth breeds disaster.

Dennis Meadows and his team construct a ‘dynamic systems’ world model that takes five main variables as its focus: production, population, food, non renewable resources and pollution. In fact production is specified in industrial, services and agricultural production and available land for agriculture is an important variable too.

As input for the model they use real-life data and reasonably optimistic estimates to create a ‘standard run’ to see what happens to the variables for the period 1900 – 2100 under the assumption that no changes in policy are made.
The result is shown in diagram 35 of the book.

As non renewable resources are consumed, more investments are needed to exploit them. So less can be invested in future growth. At some point less can be invested than is needed because of deprecation. The system then collapses.
Now this needs some imagination: when industrial investments can no longer be supported, all that’s dependent on it will quickly melt into thin air. After the worst wars are fought, we will be living in wooden shacks again (if there is wood still).

--> Technology is not the answer

After this rather dramatic set-up there follows a section on possible ‘technological’ solutions for this outcome, using the model for ‘what-if’ scenario’s. What if resources are four times as big as the most optimistic predictions, industry gets cleaner and machines more durable, recycling is used? What if there’s a dramatic increase in the productivity of agriculture?

The model runs show that this all leads to basically the same diagrams as in figure 35; it’s the structure of the feed-back loops in the system that is more important than exact figure’s about available resources etc.
So we have to change are values and goals, and stop growing

Now it is time for the grand finale. If in the end technology cannot help us, we have to change ourselves, our values and goals. We have to be prepared to set controls on industrial- and population growth. In fact the growth has to be zero. Putting this in the model shows that it is (only) then that the world system will be in a sustainable situation. The diagram shows ‘flatliners’ for most variables, whereas the resources are only gradually diminishing.

--> And don’t wait too long please

So, only when industrial- and population growth will be zero, disasters like figure 35 won’t happen in the 21st century. But not only that, a further analysis shows that when the worlds waits too long to take these measures, the disasters will take place anyway. In fact, taking them in the year 2000 will already be too late!
• One of the main reasons this will happen is because of time delays; the population will keep growing for about thirty years after installment of the measures. Even having perfect birth control where no one is allowed to have more than two children. In this case, in the end there will be a death for every birth and the population will be stabilized. In the period before that a lot of children get born that will live longer. See also the Demographic Transition Model, which is not specifically about sudden birth control measures however.

--------------- Objective science to effective policies -------------------------------

If ever science was used to get a moral lesson home, it’s here. After all, the main ‘scientific’ message – there’s no way finite systems can support limitless growth – is almost a tautology. This leaves the ‘moral’ message – so stop growing – with some firm footage. And if we add if you don’t want to die, it’s just a matter of enlightened self-interest to do so.
No matter how simple this message, it is far from clear how to get there. The report – which includes a presentation and afterword by members of the Club of Rome itself, does not even begin to suggest this in any concrete way. It just states that we need fundamentally different philosophies for our lives. It also states that customary government systems are failing when confronted with such complex situations.

And the world itself? It would not be to cynical to say that it plunged headway in an orgasmic feast of growth and consumerism by opting for neoliberal economic politics, giving free way to all the forces of darkness that Limits to Growth identifies, not only in its practice but all the more in its ideology. The human being a rational animal? It’s just one more count on the dialectics of Enlightenment.

But to be somewhat less cynical; the report warns against just going after the negative feed-backs. Just fighting pollution, malnutrition and building longer lasting machines, will not get us anywhere in the end as long as industry and population are allowed to grow (exponentially). With all the ‘green’ parties, all effort put in climate conferences and cutting back on environmental pollution, we have just done the less half of what the report told us to do. The most central tenets of the report where disregarded: industry and population growing like never before.

So, do you keep your empty batteries in an old sock? ( )
4 vote freetrader | Jun 5, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Donella H. Meadowsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Behrens III, William W.main authorall editionsconfirmed
Meadows, Dennis L.main authorall editionsconfirmed
Randers, Jørgenmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Club of Romesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Franken, F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Dr. Aurelio Peccei, whose profound concern for humanity has inspired us and many others to think about the world's long-tern problems.
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In April 1968, a group of thirty individuals from ten countries - scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists, and national and international civil servants - gathered in the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome.

The problems U Thant mentions - the arms race, environmental deterioration, the population explosion, and economic stagnation - are often cited as the central, long-term problems of modern man.

All five elements basic to the study reported here - population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and the consumption of nonrenewable natural resources - are increasing.

Chapter I. The nature of exponential growth.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Please do not combine with The limits to growth : the 30 year update by the same authors (2004), or The limits to growth revisited by Ugo Bardi (2011). See also the book's Wikipedia page.
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