LIMITS TO GROWTH

The issue of climate change is ultimately one of sustainability.  Can humans develop systems that allow us to live within the mathematical boundaries of the planet on which we reside?  Can we recognize our environmental constraints and guide our development towards balance with the natural world?

Climate change is serious and immediate, but unfortunately it’s not the only sustainability problem we have right now.  The other big problem is GROWTH.

Chart showing massive population and resource decline brought on by unsustainable growth and consumption.  Source:  The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (2004)

In 1972 a group of systems dynamics professors wrote a book called The Limits to Growth.  The book explored future scenarios through a computer model dubbed World3, which crunched real world data (resource consumption, fertility rates, etc.) in an attempt to predict the path of human civilization.   When finished, what World3 spit out was not very encouraging:  it predicted complete system collapse roughly halfway through this century (see chart above).  Think of this collapse as the Mad Max scenario:  due to dramatic declines in food and resources, the human population plummets as it suffers from starvation, pollution and war.

The culprit?  Economic growth and human consumption.  Every year our economy grows, our population grows, and our standard of living increases.  We consume more and more resources at a faster and faster rate, outstripping the earth’s ability to sustain us.  We’re talking all kinds of resources here…fossil fuels, precious metals, but also fish in the sea, water for drinking, and arable land. Right now we’re in a period of overshoot…think of Wiley E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff.  For a few comical moments he blinks and curiously scratches his head…right before realizing his predicament and crashing down to terra firma.

Don’t look now, but we’re running in midair. 

Science tells us we’ve gone beyond what the system can endure, and so it will change.  I don’t mean that humans will change it, I mean that we’ve hit the physical limits of our environment and so change will be thrust upon us.  If you run a car engine for too long without oil, it will fail and your car will stop (and you’ll ruin your engine).  It’s going to stop no matter how much gas you have in the tank, who’s with you in the car, or how you feel about it.  It’s going to stop because a car can’t run without oil—you ignore these physical limitations at your peril.

Human ecological footprint calculation, from Global Footprint Network, National Footprint Accounts, 2011 edition. Available at www.footprintnetwork.org

So it is with the environment.  If we cut down more trees than we can grow, we run out of trees.  If we fish faster than fish can breed, we run out of fish.  If we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than it can be absorbed, the planet gets warmer and weather patterns change.  These are not controversial statements, it’s just common sense.

Collapse of Water
Gaza water supply on verge of collapse
Drought stymies hydroelectric plants

Collapse of Farmland
Soil degradation
Impact of erosion
Land loss in China

arableLand

Collapse of Fishing
Collapse of Atlantic Cod
Future without fish
Fisheries collapse unnoticed
South Pacific fish stocks decimated
Impact of super-trawlers

Collapse of Fishing

From this already overstretched point we plan to grow the economy – and why not?  Growth is the very drum beat of our economic model.  It’s our panacea for fixing joblessness, poverty, and myriad other social ills.  If we budget growth rates of 3% a year (a very conservative estimate actually…countries try to budget 4-5% and China has been growing at around 8% for a decade) in 2050 we’ll have a global economy three times larger than the one we have today.  That means three times more oil being burned, three times more water needed to drink and grow crops, three times more pollution in the air, three times more paper on our desks, and that many fewer trees to soak up our C02.  When we’re already past the carrying capacity of the planet, asking for three times more from it borders on the absurd.

In 1972 The Limits to Growth exposed this glaring absurdity in detail, causing quite a stir.  Since then, its authors remain busy trying to make people pay attention.  Beyond the original report they have reconvened every ten years to put out an addendum where they compare their projections against observable real world outcomes.  The chart below is one such report (published Scientific American, May 2012).  It clearly shows data tracking very closely to Limits to Growth projections, with little shift towards sustainability.  In short human civilization plows on unheedingly, ignoring plain evidence as it crashes crashing headlong towards certain collapse.

mayan calendar, apocalypse, destruction, global warming, 2012, occupy wall street, arab spring, end of the world

What’s going to happen as the world follows these projections to their logical end?  The first and most obvious result will be that economy will simply not grow.  We’ve gotten a taste of this phenomenon recently.  Since 2008 we’ve seen a period of agonizingly slow growth, and prospects for continued growth seem fairly dim.  Europe’s monetary problems will soon be pulling us down even further.  Of course we’ll try mightily to get things moving again.  We’ll throw everything we’ve got at the problem.  But we will be prevented from making any real progress by limits on resource availability and the physical response of the global ecosystem.

This is happening.  What does it mean?  Two things:

  • It becomes very clear that the system we have now is headed for collapse.  So we need a new system, and we need it soon.  We can either choose this new system, or like the car engine example we can allow the old one to break down and let circumstance choose for us.  I don’t know about you, but for me this seems too important to just roll the dice and hope for the best.
  • Laid plain before us is the lie that we have all internalized but never questioned:  that we can have INFINITE GROWTH on a FINITE PLANET.  It sounds ridiculous when we speak the words aloud, but this the story of our culture.  No one is immune to it, we act out this story every day of our lives.

Now if you’re truly freaking out by this point, don’t.  If we can find the grit and determination to solve climate change, we’ll have all the tools we need to solve this problem as well.  Furthermore, the inevitability of this problem is something I actually find very comforting.  Let me explain.

Like many of us I’ve always had the idea that something was wrong with the world at large, but could never quite put my finger on it.  Call it a feeling…a vague sense of frustration, incompleteness, being a half step out of sync with the rest of the world.   I know I’m not alone in that feeling, because there are entire industries dedicated to peddling the idea that humanity is broken or incomplete, and must be told the right way to live.  Religion wants to save our souls, Dr. Phil harps on your emotional deficiencies, and a never-ending stream of self help books preach total life transformation.  These kinds of “fixers” offer answers to life’s great questions:  what is man’s purpose on earth, what is his place in the natural order, and how can he feel complete and part of something larger than himself?

IKEA catalog

No, you’re not.

At a cultural level, we’re supposed to know these answers already.  Western culture teaches us to find satisfaction in the world of work, to find self expression through consumption, and to pursue success through growth.  Spend your weekdays climbing the corporate ladder, and your weekends picking out the coffee table that really say “you”.    For many of us this narrative falls short…we take little joy from our working lives and defining ourselves through products feels hollow.  This breeds alienation, and we end up asking ourselves the question “what’s wrong with me?”  When stories come along that address this feeling, they resonate with us.  Movies like The Matrix or Fight Club and books like Brave New World speak of this unease and validate the idea that the world you know is wrong.

My question is:  what if you’re right?  What if humans are fine, and it’s the narrative that’s broken?  What if any flaws that we have are not ours but reflections of a flawed system that promotes man’s sole pursuit as boundless growth and consumption?  Even if we can’t speak it aloud, we know that infinite growth on a finite planet is a losing proposition?  That deep down we know that our path is unsustainable and will ultimately lead to our own destruction?

Collectively, this feeling of discontent appears to be taking hold.  Increasingly people are rejecting the drumbeat of identification through relentless consumerism.  Researchers studying the millennials (defined as people born from the late 70’s to the early 2000’s) have dubbed them The Cheapest Generation, as they are more frugal than previous generations and don’t seek to define themselves through traditional big ticket items such as cars and homes.  Why is this?

“They made an ingenuous and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because there were unable to find the bars of the cage.” – Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

Quinn is talking about the counterculture 60’s, but he could well have been talking about millennials or the Occupy movement of 2011.  When I look at charts that expose an unsustainable system, what I see are those bars taking shape, being given mathematical form and substance.  The inevitability of collapse is thus a cathartic revelation.  It validates our unspoken feelings of discontent, and gives them a name:  The Limits to Growth.

NEXT –> Science Pope

  • Reader2

    Very thoughtful, informative and well-written!
    The link at the bottom of limits to Growth – to Science-Pope did not work (took too long) on my iPad.

    • EricKrasnauskas

      Thanks for the heads up, I’ll try some iPad testing…link still works for me on the desktop.

  • Gareth Cox

    Where do they get the line for resources in your first graph? How do they know the resources of today are the same resources of tomorrow?

    • EricKrasnauskas

      Hi Gareth, long time no see! The line for resources in that graph is an aggregate of many different things…ores, fossil fuels, arable land, fresh water, etc. I take your point that tomorrow’s resources are not always today’s…we might use different resources to make things in the future (carbon fiber is replacing lots of older materials, for example).

      But there are no real replacements for things like fish, fresh water or farmland…resources that never go out of style. :)

      • Gareth Cox

        Agreed. We should go play hoops. I could set you straight on some things while teaching you the fine art of the juke.

        The accuracy of the numbers makes a big difference. You’re talking about making policy decisions that will direct resources away from other productive things to conservation, growth reduction etc. There is a point at which more harm is done than good.

        The complaint of free market oriented types is that the knowledge required to know where that point is doesn’t exist. The best way to find it is to the let market find the right balance.

        Your advocaing for Luddism based on a silly graph where every line is unknowable.

        • EricKrasnauskas

          I totally agree with you that numbers matter…we should not undertake actions for which there isn’t ample proof of a problem. The data for the Limits study is solid though, and has been vetted against real-world outcomes since the study was published. The numbers for the 30-year update on it can be found here: http://www.manicore.com/fichiers/Turner_Meadows_vs_historical_data.pdf

          We’re well past the point of doing “more harm than good”…now we’re at
          the point where either we do some harm for the greater good or we let
          human civilization be crushed under it’s own weight.

          While the data is solid, wishing for perfect accuracy in prediction a pipe dream. The world’s consumption, economy and climate are incredibly complex systems, so while we make great efforts to model them we can always admit that they could be better. But similar to election night, while we can’t know the exact margins ahead of time, we have a pretty good idea of who’s going to win and by roughly how much. You have to be able to live with that much uncertainty to address a problem like climate change or the Limits to Growth. Waiting for perfect accuracy will get you killed.

          Individual businesses cannot and will not respond to a problem this endemic. What’s their incentive? What market are they catering to? Whose shareholders would endorse a program of less consumption? Who even has the foresight to recognize this as a problem in the first place? This problem is already exposing cracks in the world economic system. If we wait for the cracks to become collapses then it will already be too late.

          When big problems arise…wars, famines, natural disasters…response comes from governments, not businesses. Shopkeepers didn’t fight the Gauls in ancient Rome, and the industrial barons weren’t the ones enacting plans to end the Great Depression. Waiting on businesses to fix the problems of a growth economy (an economy they depend on to survive, I might add) is a fool’s errand.

          • Jeff Davis

            But government does have a responsibility to the renewable industry to level the playing field so they can compete and people and other business can make better more informed decisions. They can start by shift the oil subsidies (http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/) straight to renewable…. yah that’s a good start.

          • Hey You

            But what is government? From my view, it is a bunch of lawyers who make up a group of people who are rated as a group being composed of the 2nd highest portions of psychopaths of groups in general. These people don’t seem to understand what responsibility entails.

          • Gareth Cox

            Why are you so certain we’re well past the point of doing more harm than good?
            Why do you think businesses and individuals won’t respond to the problem. This seems like econ 101 to me. As demand increases and supply stays the same costs will rise. People will respond to rising costs by consuming less.
            The great insight of Adam Smith is that individuals pursuing their own self interest will act in the best interest of society as if they were guided by and invisible hand. The great flaw in those that want government solutions is believing that there are bureucrats capable of acting in the best interest of all. They simply don’t and can’t have the knowledge to know what the best course of action to take is.

          • Gareth Cox

            As a followup did you see all the news about the US population growth slowing. Apparently mostly due to poor imigrant women responding to incentives.

        • EricKrasnauskas

          Regarding your jukes: you never follow through with that first step, you always pull it back for the crossover…which means all I have to do to play good defense is just remain standing in place. :) But yeah, let’s play soon…I’ve been in a league for a while so my hook shot is still Fresh with a capital F. :)

        • EricKrasnauskas

          I’m not arguing for Luddism, by the way. Where did you get that? The world needs energy, and people are always going to make things. I’m merely suggesting we go about it in a deliberate way that recognizes the Earth’s limitations, instead of pretending we can continue to do whatever we want for as long as we want without repercussion.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnCrapper John Crapper

    A great message but as I witnessed Black Friday this year and saw the hordes of young people shoving and pushing to get into the stores to satisfy their super consuming disease I wonder about how far along we are on any self-realization we are beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. We are in need of a serious readjustment. We suffer from a disease in this country I call consumer diarrhea. Americans are the super consumers of the planet and I see little evidence this disease is anywhere close to being cured.

  • David Brodbeck

    I’m not optimistic about flattening the resource consumption trend line. We have an energy intensive lifestyle in the West, and everyone else wants in on it. I don’t see people in third-world countries being content to stick with their quality of life, nor do I see anyone in the West volunteering to lower their quality of life to third-world levels. Barring some event that wipes out a large portion of the global population, I don’t see a fix for this.