Tag Archives: Limits to Growth

Links – reviews

1. Cosma Shalizi discusses recent paper in nature on networks and their controlability, and responses to it.

2. Tom Slee reviews network sociologist Ducan Watts – everything is obvious if you already know the answer.

3. Misha Glenny, author of McMafia, reviews Federico Varese’s new book Mafias on the Move: How Organised Crime Conquers New Territories in London Review of Books.

4.  And not a review of a book, but a model.  Chemist Ugo Bardi has written a book Limits to Growth revisited that reviews the 1973 Limits to Growth study, its critics, its misrepresentation, and its continued relevance.

History of The Limits to Growth

In the new general sustainability science journal Solutions, sustainability researchers Jørgen Nørgård, John Peet, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir provide their take on the history of the response to the controversial and influential environmental study Limits to Growth in The History of The Limits to Growth:

… In re-examining the analysis and central arguments of [Limits to Growth] LtG, we have found that its approach remains useful and that its conclusions are still surprisingly valid. …

Matthew R. Simmons, president of the world’s largest investment company specializing in energy, Simmons and Company International, read the book a few years ago, after hearing about the controversy. To his surprise he discovered that the criticisms had little to do with the content of the book. “After reading Limits to Growth, I was amazed,” he wrote in 2000. “There was not one sentence or even a single word written about an oil shortage or limits to any specific resource, by the year 2000.” He concluded that LtG broadly gives a correct picture of world development, and he became upset that so many of his colleagues had wasted three decades criticizing it instead of taking action.

The recent renewed interest in the environment and economic development gives hope for a solution. Although it has not yet led to new action, this shift in thinking has triggered a few analyses that recognize possible limits to growth and hence point toward solutions along the lines suggested in LtG. The following examples illustrate this hope.

A recent UK government committee indicates an emerging political willingness to at least challenge the growth paradigm as reflected in the title of the committee’s report: Prosperity without Growth? The report “questions whether ever-rising incomes for the already-rich are an appropriate goal for policy in a world constrained by ecological limits.”

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who had at first rejected LtG‘s ideas about resource shortages, now recognizes that present trends in the world economy are unsustainable. Stiglitz, along with another Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, headed a commission convened by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to investigate alternative measures of social progress to GDP. One of their key messages is that “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.” In their critique of societies’ overreliance on GDP, Stiglitz and Sen are implicitly agreeing with LtG‘s analysis.

Finally, as a sign of renewed recognition of the limits to growth, 28 scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries within which human activities can operate safely. The scientists estimate that humanity has already transgressed three of these boundaries, namely those for climate change, biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle.

Dennis Meadows awarded Japan Prize for work on Limits to Growth

Dennis Meadows has been awarded the Japan Prize for his work on Limits to Growth.  The Prize Committee writes:

[he] served as Research Director for the project on “The Limits to Growth,” for the Club of Rome in 1972. Employing a system simulation model called “World3,” his report demonstrated that if certain limiting factors of the earth’s physical capacity – such as resources, the environment, and land – are not recognized, mankind will soon find itself in a dangerous situation. The conflict between the limited capacity of the earth and the expansion of the population accompanied by economic growth could lead to general societal collapse. The report said that to avert this outcome, it is necessary that the goals of zero population growth and zero expansion in use of materials be attained as soon as possible. The report had an enormous impact on a world that had continued to grow both economically and in population since World War II.

The report sparked a great debate worldwide about the value of the zero growth theory that it proposed. The report was extremely significant in that it sounded a loud alarm about global society’s urgent need for sustainable development, and it engendered broad interest throughout the world. Since its initial publication, Dr. Meadows has continued to study the causes and consequences of physical growth on a finite planet. He co-founded the Balaton Group, a famous environmental research network. He has published many educational games and books about sustainable development that are used around the world.

Together with his wife, the late Dr. Donella Meadows and Dr. J. Randers, he has twice co-authored updates to “ The Limits to Growth”, in 1992 and 2004. In these updates, an improved world model was used to point out that the limiting features of the earth’s physical capacity, about which “ The Limits to Growth” had sounded a warning, have continued to deteriorate, and that the time left for solving the problem is growing short; the authors also urged that mankind not delay in taking the measures necessary to address the situation.

This series of reports, especially the first “The Limits to Growth,” presented the conflict between the earth’s physical limitations and the growth of mankind in clear, logical terms, and marked the beginning of mankind’s efforts to achieve a sustainable society. …

Based on the foundations established in “The Limits to Growth” over the past 30 years Dr. Meadows has consistently proposed, through model analyses, efforts aimed at forming a sustainable society. He has continued to exert a large influence on the entire world. This, it is believed, is highly praiseworthy and deserving of the 2009 Japan Prize, which is intended to honor contributions in the area of “Transformation towards a sustainable society in harmony with nature.”

The Prize has posted an interview video on YouTube.

Recently, Graham Turner, from Australia’s CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, published a paper A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years (2008 Global Environmental Change). The abstract states:

…Contrary to popular belief, The Limits to Growth scenarios by the team of analysts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did not predict world collapse by the end of the 20th century. This paper focuses on a comparison of recently collated historical data for 1970–2000 with scenarios presented in the Limits to Growth. The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compare favorably with key features of a business-as-usual scenario called the “standard run” scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century. The data do not compare well with other scenarios involving comprehensive use of technology or stabilizing behaviour and policies. The results indicate the particular importance of understanding and controlling global pollution.