Book review: Limits to Growth, the 30‐year update

Book review: Limits to Growth, the 30‐year update, By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

Review by Alex Coulton

The content of the 30 year update is well researched and rich in detail. The scrupulous approach aimed at achieving complete transparency clearly illustrates the boundaries of the arguments and theories advanced. Today we have irrevocable proof that limits to growth do exist; fish stock depletion, hole in the ozone layer, depletion of conventional oil reserves and Climate Change are but a few examples. Whilst reading this book I had a recurring feeling of three scientists, who are tired of repeating themselves, tired of hearing the same criticism and frustrated by the inaction of world’s leadership. Looking back in time, the amazing success of the original publication is made clear by the vehement criticism that is received (Eastin, J & al, 2010; Turner G. 2008; Wendy, B. 1998, Aligica, P.D. 2009). It seems that the critics are split in two categories. Most were based on an incorrect portrayal of the content of the book and revolved around short‐term validation of predictions (Eastin, J & al, 2010). For others, Limits was an attack on the existing paradigm and became a deep ideological struggle.

What was very clear to me was that this book and the World3 model are an exercise in futures studies using predictions based on what the authors perceive as being critical trends. This has often been used by critics to discredit the theories put forth in the book. In response, the authors refute that they make any predictions. Wendy, B (1998) highlights this beautifully: ‘The authors of Limits struggled mightily to objectively justify their conditional predictions even as they denied that they were making predictions’ even though he refers to the original publication, this still holds true today. What is more important to me, and a belief to which I abide, is Wendy, B’s (1998) explanation that validates the use of predictions as a necessary and unavoidable tool in futures studies and that these predictions cannot be taken as factual. ‘To test the accuracy of a prediction by whether or not it turns out to be true is often misleading as an indicator of the validity of a prediction.’ Hence even though the book does make broad predictions these are not to be taken literally. They are an indication of the plausible future; they highlight trends and their possible outcomes. Another common critic is about the choice of boundaries. The highly aggregated nature of the World3 model lumps a lot of parameters in five key categories: population growth, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, pollution generation and agricultural output.

Additionally, no effort was made to model other factors such as politics or international relations and for instance makes no allowance for wars, regional or cultural differences. The authors highlight all these ‘caveats’ and the reasons for their decisions in depth. I will pursue my argument along other lines. In Scenario Planning it is critical to identify: the driving forces and the trends that respond to the precise questions that you are exploring (Lindgren, M., Bandhold, H. 2003). This process is limiting, it is not designed to be all encompassing or all knowing, on one hand because that is not possible and on the other because it would make the scenarios too complex to build and communicate. So as system scientists, the Authors and modellers have very astutely and successfully identified key trends and key driving forces in order to explore human growth. I personally support this approach for another reason. Complexity rarely brings clarity; the IPCC’s climate change model is not more able than World3 in predicting the future (even though, as we have seen above, the aim is not to actually predict the future) and the IPCC’s work has come under much criticism as well. By limiting the scope of the World3 parameters that affect our growth the authors have to clearly communicate the notion of exponential growth, and the underlying problems it represents. Foresight, scenario planning and other such techniques are now widely used by government, corporations and institutions and I feel that understand these tools adds a lot of credibility to the Authors’ approach revealing much of the criticism to be nothing more but detraction. This distortion of the Authors’ message by critics as well as proponents was illustrated when ‘Ecologist Paul Ehrlich wagered with economist Julian Simon that, with 1980 as a baseline, by 1990 market prices for cooper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungstend would dramatically increase, while Simon predicted that they would fall. Ehrich lost the wager (…)’ (Eastin, J & al, 2010).

The problem with my ‘world view’ is that although it is closely aligned to ‘Limits to Growth,’ I am very detached from the Authors’ realities and consequently the struggle that they have been involved in over nearly 40 years. Aligica, P.d. (2009) allowed me to gain a better understanding of the ‘competing perspectives’: The bi-polar ideologies held by the Limits to Growth Authors (Neo-Malthusianism movement) and the ‘free market supporters’ amongst who’s ranks Julian Simon’s figures prominently. Aligica, P.D. (2009) states: ‘With it [Limits to Growth] a new tradition was born. And in this respect it is no exaggeration to say that Simon [James] (…) with authors such as Herman, Kahn, created a counter-tradition by reaction systematically to what they considered to be the errors and even fabrications (…).’ Two points are worth highlighting here. The ‘systematic’ nature of the criticism and the reference to traditions. Lines were being drawn in the sand and you were either on one side or the other. Suffice to say that it does not set the scene for an objective analysis of the issue and therefore did not promote a constructive debate. This does great injustice to all the great minds involved. In many ways one could equate the ‘counter-tradition’ as a repeated misinterpretation of the message and vice versa. A positive feedback loop? ‘The limits to growth’ discourse about resources and population has been dominated by the concept of fixity or finiteness of resources (Aligicia, P.D 2009), in this Simon James is correct. The discourse has been dominated by resources limits however; this was only a small part of a much larger message which mostly got lost in the entrenchment. The authors of Limits to Growth do not suggest that humans do not have the creativity to overcome the stated limits (that are more than just resource based) as James suggests, but that within the current system structure they will not have time to overcome these due to the nature of the speed of exponential growth rates and the inherent delays in the system. To put it simply, market penetration of new technologies is measured in decades as does, for example, brokering international agreements to tackle pollution problems. Hence our Authors are indirectly rooting for many of James’ theories by advocating for time for them to prosper. Another key contention surrounds the ‘free market.’ James’s views are again well portrayed by Aligica, P.D (2009): ‘many people resist the idea that markets are the best mode of coordination and social distribution’ and these inadvertently link back to accusations of Marxism. Ironically, Karl Marx’s just so happened to be one of the most vocal critics of Malthus (Schoijet, M., 1999). Our Authors do not dismiss markets as the best mode for coordination and social distribution. Markets are an integral part of their strategy however they were, and still are, incapable of safeguarding us from the relationship between exponential growth rates and system delays that create overshoot. As our Authors highlight, even economists have been clamouring for many years for ‘internalizing the externalities’. Again, we can see that the opposing factions have much more common ground than they themselves perceived or where maybe willing to admit to. Another point of critique was the proposal of a ‘preferable’ future. This is unavoidably a subjective process which in the words of Wendy B (1998), ‘it (Limits to Growth) is an effort to better the human condition, to help create a human future more desirable than the future that probably would occur if humans keep doing what we were then doing.’. This introduction of values into the scientific method was highly criticized by James who says ‘Science, in the measure it deals with facts and nor with values, can hardly decide where there is a case of overpopulation or one of under-population (…) whether the growth rate is too fast or too slow’ Aligica P.d. (2009). It is unlikely that objectivity can ever be reached in the context of social sciences however putting forth a ‘preferable’ future is part of the ‘futures’ exercise (Wendy, B. 1998)!

Finally, Ekins, P. (1992), states ‘one of the most comprehensive rebuttals came from a team at Suisse University’s Science Policy and Research Uni (Cole et al., 1973). They criticised the relationships in Meadows’ model, the assumptions on which model was based and the emphasis on purely physical parameters.’ I would argue that in doing so they inadvertently validated the work of Limits to Growth, a work that did not just attempt to put forth a new vision for the world but to stimulate debate and reflection about how we intended on pursuing our futures. The Suisse team mitigated the limits to growth with ‘exponential increases in available resources (through discovery and recycling) and the ability to control pollution’ (Ekins, P. 1992). Recycling and introducting pollution control measures is vindicating the need to mitigate against uncontrolled growth again, time is the issue. Evolution? The incompatibility of the perceived message of Limits to Growth and the ‘free market’ proponents were brought together in the Brundtland report and the concept of ‘sustainable development.’ In my view the actual message in the 30 year update advocates for just that and so it seems did the original book (even though the terminology did not exist at the time). One could have imagined that this middle ground, a combination of sustainability and development, would settle the matter. This has been far from the truth. The ideological divide was brought into the very definition of ‘Sustainable development’. Schwarz, P.M & al. (2009) do a brilliant job at highlighting these entrenched views whilst Wilson, E.O. (2002) depicts the rift between environmentalists and economists. These deeply entrenched views are well ingrained in society and have been shaping the world of politics since the first publishing of Limits to Growth but are in fact part of a much larger debate.Today the climate change science denialists who dominate the Republican Party in the United States are the latest development in this war. In a recent article entitled Capitalism vs. The Change, Klein, N. (2011) reports that for the Heartland Institute’s president Joseph Bast ‘Climate change is the perfect thing…its the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway’ revealing the bigger picture in which this struggle is set.

Concluding remarks.

The first edition of Limits to Growth has had a deep seeded impact on society. On one sidethere has been a gradual shift in society’s perception towards a long term reflection on our actions as the principle of ‘sustainable development’ gains ground. On the other, the rift between the Authors (and their proponents) and their critics could hardly be more dramatic. Klein, N. (2011) highlights this wonderfully in the following sentence: ‘Many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations (…) This is the crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real world implications of those facts’ and although this is specifically about climate change, the arguments are one and the same. Hence, those who oppose it, oppose it despite the clear and concise argument because they are emotionally predisposed to disliking it even though as we find more and more evidence that limits do exist resistance to change only intensifies. Because of this, the 30 year update completely falls short of its aim although this does not reduce the importance of the Author’s message or their impact on society.