Important Reading for the Bush Administration

July 01, 2004

Thirty years ago, a book called The Limits to Growth created an international sensation by stating what now -- to most people -- seems obvious: that industrial and population growth would reach real limits in the future, and that global society could suffer severe damage, depending on how we respond to a world of finite resources.

Now a 30-year update of the book, based on massive amounts of new date, provides the most comprehensive analysis of our global future ever assembled. The new 30-year update suggests that the central problem for the next 70 years will not be averting environmental decline -- which the authors view as inevitable -- but containing and limiting damage to the planet and humanity.

It's too late for sustainable development, the authors conclude. The world must now choose between uncontrolled collapse or a carefully planned reduction of energy and materials consumption, back down to supportable levels.

The original Limits was compiled by an international team of experts assembled at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Using system dynamics theory to construct a global computer model called "World3," the book presented 12 scenarios that revealed different possible patterns -- and environmental outcomes -- of world development from 1900 to 2100. Eventually, The Limits to Growth became a bestseller with some 9 million copies sold in more than 30 languages.

The 1972 text was the object of intense criticism by economists of the time, who dismissed it as Malthusian hyperbole. But events over the past three decades have turned out to be remarkably consistent with the 1972 book's scenarios.

The new Limits to Growth, published this spring by Chelsea Green Publishers, presents 10 new scenarios, positing what may happen if certain steps are -- or are not -- taken. In most scenarios, the gap between rich and poor will widen, vital nonrenewable resources like oil will become much more difficult and expensive to obtain, and industrial production in developed countries will decline.

In 1972 the authors found the world's population and economy were still comfortably within the planet's carrying capacity. There was still room to grow safely while we examined longer-term options. Today this is no longer true. In this new examination, the authors cite numerous studies confirming that humanity has dangerously "overshot" our limits, expanding our demands on the planet's resources beyond what can be sustained even for the remainder of this century.

Although the past 30 years have shown some progress -- including new technologies, new institutions, and a new awareness of individual environmental problems -- the authors are far more pessimistic than they were in 1972. Humanity has squandered the opportunity to correct its current course over the last 30 years, they conclude, and much must change if the world is to mitigate the most harmful consequences of overshoot in this century.

The message that current growth trends cannot be sustained is now confirmed every year by thousands of headlines, hundreds of conferences, and dozens of new scientific studies. But these focus on specific problems like global warming, soil loss, extinction of species, and declining tropical forests.

Unfortunately, according to Limits authors Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, all these well-intentioned efforts are destined to fail -- until they are grounded in understanding the entire complex system which governs the world's physical economy, population, materials and energy flows. Limits to Growth is so far the only book to provide that understanding.



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Juli 2004

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