Limits to Growth: Inconvenient Truth of Our Time

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  • Opinion by Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Hezri A Adnan (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
  • Inter Press Service

Limits used integrated computer modeling to investigate twelve planetary scenarios of economic growth and their long-term impacts on the environment and natural resources.

Emphasizing the material limits to growth sparked a great deal of debate. Written by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, Limits is arguably even more influential today.

Within limits

Limits taking into account trends in population, food production, industrialization, pollution and non-renewable resources from 1900 to 2100.

It admitted: “Any human activity that does not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or cause severe environmental degradation can continue to grow indefinitely”.

In most projected scenarios, growth ended this century. Ominously, Limits warned of likely ecological and societal collapse if anthropocene challenges are not adequately addressed soon enough.

Failure would lead to fewer food and energy supplies, more pollution and a lower standard of living, and even population collapse.

But Limits was never intended as a definitive prediction and should not be judged as such. Instead, it sought to draw attention to the major threats to resources posed by growing human consumption.

Outside the borders?

Gaya Herrington showed three of Limits’ four main scenarios, anticipating the next trends. Two lead to major collapses by mid-century. She concluded, “Humanity is moving towards imposing limits on growth on itself rather than consciously choosing its own limits.”

Limits stressed the urgent need for radical transformation to achieve ‘sustainable development’. The “international community” basically embraced this at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, two decades after Stockholm.

With ever accelerating resource depletion – as current demographic, industrial, pollution and food trends continue – the planet’s growth limits will be reached within the next half century. The ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth is inevitably decreasing.

In front of LimitsOnly a “transition from growth to … a desirable, sustainable state of global equilibrium” can save the environment and humanity.

The report claimed that it was still possible to create the conditions for a much more sustainable future while meeting everyone’s basic material needs. As Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

No other environmental work then, or since, has so directly challenged mainstream growth views. Unsurprisingly, it provoked strong opposition.

The 1972 study has long been dismissed by many as a neo-Malthusian prophecy of doom, underestimating the potential for human adaptation through technological advances.

Much more criticism has been leveled. Limits was accused of focusing too much on resource limits, but not enough on environmental damage. Economists have criticized it for not explicitly including prices or socioeconomic dynamics.

Beyond borders

In Outside the borders (1993), the two Meadows and Randers argued that resource use had exceeded the world’s carrying capacity.

Using climate change data, they emphasized the likelihood of collapse, going well beyond the previous focus on the rapid build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In another sequel, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004), fleshed out their original argument with new data and called for stronger actions to prevent unsustainable excesses.

Dennis Meadows emphasizes that other studies confirm and elaborate Limits‘ concerns. Several growth trends peak around 2020, pointing to likely slowdowns thereafter, culminating in an environmental and economic collapse by mid-century.

Limitscomputer modeling from the early 1970s has been overtaken by improved simulation capabilities. Many previous recommendations need to be revised, but the biggest fear has been reaffirmed.

Limitless?

Two keys Limits‘ arguments deserve repetition. First are criticisms of technological hubris, which have deterred greater concern about the threats, undermining environmental, economic and other mitigation efforts.

As Limits argued, environmental crisis and collapse are due to socio-economic, technological and ecological transformations for wealth accumulation, which now threaten the Earth’s resources and ecology.

Conventional profit-priority systems and technologies have changed, for example through innovation in resource efficiency. Such efforts help delay the inevitable, but cannot extend the planet’s natural boundaries.

Of course, innovative new technologies are needed to tackle old and new problems. But these should be used to increase sustainability, rather than profit.

The LimitsCriticism is ultimately about ‘growth’ in contemporary society. Going far beyond recent debates about measuring growth, recognizing greater output typically implies greater use of resources.

While growth is not necessarily exponential, growth cannot be unlimited due to inherent resources and environmental requirements, even with material-saving innovations.

This earth for everyone

Satisfying, LimitsThe fourth scenario—with significant but realistic transformations—enables a widespread increase in human well-being within the limits of the planet’s resources.

This scenario inspired Earth for everyone – the 2022 Transformational Economics Commission of the Club of Rome – which gives Limits more than an update after half a century. The subtitle – A survival guide for humanity – emphasizes the urgency, magnitude and scope of the threat.

It argues that ensuring everyone’s well-being is still possible, but urgent fundamental changes are needed. Major efforts are needed to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, empower women and transform food and energy systems.

The comprehensive report proposes specific strategies. All five require significant investment, including a lot of government spending. This requires a more progressive taxation, especially of wealth. Reducing wasteful consumption is also necessary.

More liquidity – for example through ‘monetary financing’ and the issuance of more special drawing rights by the International Monetary Fund – and tackling public debt can provide more policy and fiscal space for governments of developing countries.

Many food systems are broken. At the moment it is about unhealthy and unsustainable production and consumption, which creates a lot of waste. All this needs to be reformed accordingly.

Market regulation for the common good is crucial. Better regulation – of markets for goods (especially food) and services, even technology, finance, labor and land – is necessary to better protect the environment.

Limited choice

The report includes a modeling exercise for two scenarios. ‘Too Little Too Late’ is the current trajectory and offers too few necessary changes.

With increasing inequality, social trust erodes as people and countries compete more intensely for resources. Without sufficient ‘collective action’ planetary boundaries are crossed. The outlook for the most vulnerable is bleak.

In the second ‘Giant Leap’ scenario, the five necessary shifts are achieved, improving the well-being all around. Everyone can live with dignity, health and safety. Environmental degradation is sufficiently reversed as institutions serve the common good and ensure justice for all.

Broad, sustainable gains in well-being require proactive governance that reshapes societies and markets. This requires sufficient political will and popular pressure for necessary reforms.

But as the world moves closer to many borders, the looming scenario is terrifying: ecosystem destruction, gross inequalities and vulnerabilities, social and political tensions.

While regimes tend to bow to public pressure, if only to survive, existing discourses and mobilization are not conducive to generating the popular political demands needed for the changes.

Adnan A Hezric is an environmental policy analyst and Fellow of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia. He is author of The Sustainability Shift: Reshaping Malaysia’s Future.

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© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service





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