ARE THERE LIMITS?
In November 2018, the Trump Administration released Volume 2 of the National Climate Assessment. CNN’s headline was “Climate Change Will Shrink US Economy and Kill Thousands, Government Report Warns” (https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/23/health/climate-change-report-bn/index.html). President Trump, however, continued to insist that climate change was just a hoax and to undo protections put in place under previous administrations.
Almost 50 years ago, in 1972, Dennis Meadows, an MIT social policy analyst, and his colleagues published The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (Universe Books). The Club of Rome was an independent, international group of scientists, economists, humanists, and industrialists who shared the view that traditional institutions and policies could no longer properly evaluate the complex, major problems that the world was facing. The Meadows group used a computer model (primitive by today’s standards) to study five factors that might limit global growth and development: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production, and pollution (which includes excess carbon dioxide). The conclusion was that if current policies of unrestrained growth were allowed to continue, without some conscious effort to achieve a state of developmental equilibrium, the next century would likely see a disastrous decline in population and industrial productivity, resulting from resource depletion and widespread pollution.
In other words, the economy would shrink and thousands would die.
The report was greeted by enormous skepticism. Nobody wanted to believe it. After all, the world had been chugging merrily along for a long time with no problems, and never mind that as early as 1864 George Perkins Marsh, in Man and Nature, had cried that “We are, even now, breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage, and the world cannot afford to wait till the slow and sure progress of exact science has taught it a better economy.” Nothing had changed by 1948 when William Vogt’s Road to Survival warned that environmental and overpopulation problems would in time mean hunger, disease, and even civilizational collapse.
The more extreme critics falsely claimed that Limits to Growth predicted the collapse of civilization. It didn’t, but today some well-known environmentalists are doing precisely that. Sir David Attenborough, speaking to a UN climate meeting, said, “Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon” (https://www.npr.org/2018/12/03/672893695/david-attenborough-warns-of-collapse-of-civilizations-at-u-n-climate-meeting).
People sound surprised at such warnings today, almost half a century after Limits to Growth was published. But they shouldn’t. In 1992, the Meadows group published Beyond the Limits, a 20-year update of the original study using a much-improved computer model. Their conclusion at that time was that future prospects had not improved and that, in fact, “humanity had already overshot the limits of Earth’s support capacity.” In 2002, the 30-year update did not alter that conclusion. Nor did the 40-year update in 2012, Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (A Report to the Club of Rome Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of The Limits to growth) (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). Randers argues that humanity’s ecological footprint (https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/) is too large. That is, humanity uses more resources than one planet Earth can supply. Between now and 2052, there will be efforts to reduce the footprint, but they will be too little and too late, in large part because of short-term thinking by governments and businesses. As a result, economic growth and consumption will slow, and the developed world will decline, but resource and climate problems will not become catastrophic until after 2052. He does not trust technology to save the situation.
In 2008, Dr. Graham Turner, a senior research scientist at Australia’s CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems program, published “A Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality,” Socio-Economics and the Environment in Discussion, CSIRO Working Paper Series 2008-09 (Global Environmental Change, August 2008), and found that the projections and the data show a remarkable match. Indeed, he said, lacking immediate action, global collapse before the middle of this century seems far too likely. The picture had not changed by 2014, when Turner published “Is Global Collapse Imminent?” Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, Research Paper No. 4.
We have known that this day—when collapse might be imminent—was coming for a century and a half. It’s not news anymore. It’s long past the time when we should have gritted our teeth and buckled down to solving the problems.
It’s not all about global warming or global climate change, even though that’s what I started this essay with and it does indeed dominate our current fears. To limit how bad climate change gets we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. That means, among other things, stopping our use of fossil fuels. If we can’t do that, we may be able to use geo-engineering—adding materials such as water droplets or sulfates to the upper levels of the atmosphere to reflect solar energy before it reaches the ground. Unfortunately, we don’t know if it will really work or if it will have horrible side-effects. Further, if we start doing that and we do not stop emitting carbon dioxide, we can never stop. If we do, pent-up warming will hit us all at once.
Is there anything else we can do? Of course, since it’s not all about climate change. There’s population, which is vastly greater than the long-term carrying capacity of the planet. If we could reduce it—or, failing that, if our trashed environment could reduce it for us–our carbon emissions would go down. So would our other environmental impacts. Deindustrializing would have similar effects. These are messages stressed by the Degrowth Movement (https://www.degrowth.info/en/what-is-degrowth/ ).
Many people find the ideas that there are limits to the growth of human civilization, that the way we organize our political and economic systems is fundamentally flawed, that we must reduce population and economic activity, and even–in the name of social justice–redistribute wealth, repugnant. This was already apparent when the original Limits to Growth study was published in 1972. Conservative critics insisted that the marketplace would work to prevent disaster with no need to impose international plans or controls. Liberal critics argued that restraints on growth would hurt the poor more than the affluent. And radical critics contended that the results were only applicable to the type of profit-motivated growth that occurs under capitalism. But later studies using more sophisticated models have reinforced the basic conclusion that growth without limits will ultimately result in disaster.
As a biologist, I do not find the idea that there are limits to growth at all surprising. Indeed, I find economists, politicians, and even religions that insist that there are no limits so blind, so foolish, that they are guilty of crimes against humanity. We cannot increase population endlessly. We cannot turn every scrap of the planet into product. To insist that we can is to doom us.
Yet there is no sign that we, as a species, are about to stop insisting we can continue to do business as usual forever.
Thoughts like this make me happy that I am too old to expect to see the coming disaster. However, I do have a daughter, a son-in-law, and grandchildren, as well as nieces, nephews, and even a grand-nephew. I hope they will all be among the survivors.