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50 Years of “The Limits to Growth”. At Any Cost?

50 years ago, the study “The Limits to Growth”, commissioned by the “Club of Rome”, was published. It became the founding document of the environmental movement and called for a transition from growth to equilibrium.

By Thomas Wagner.

In 1972, half a century ago, Dennis and Donella Meadows and their team presented the study “The Limits to Growth”. The title has long since become a catchphrase among critics of progress. The study was written as a report “on the predicament of mankind” for the non-governmental organisation “Club of Rome”, founded in 1968 by Aurelio Pecce, which called for a sustainable use of available resources. The slim volume of about 200 pages was translated into numerous languages and has sold around 30 million copies.

Haven’t the limits been crossed long ago?

Cover The Limits of Growth
Cover of “The Limits to Growth” © Club of Rome

How do we see today what was described and demanded in the founding document of the environmental movement? Have the limits of that time not long since been exceeded? Were the warnings expressed taken too little seriously? Are the theses still relevant today, as the climate crisis continues to worsen, while at the same time there is a lot of talk about climate neutrality, sustainable production and the conversion to a circular economy? In short, how does critique of growth present itself today? Is the concept of “growth” being questioned because perpetual economic growth is ruining the planet? Or, on the contrary, is growth not being worshipped economically more than ever?

Dennis Meadows himself, in an interview with the magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the occasion of the study’s anniversary, remarked on growth as the cause of all evil: “I have said that the system we have now has produced results that will eliminate it pretty soon. From a longer-term perspective, this so-called civilisation we have in the West is meaningless. The industrial revolution is a very short episode in the history of our species. We somehow think that the present moment is destined to go on forever. That’s silly, isn’t it?” Asked what reactions he expected when he published the study 50 years ago, he replied, “I was 29 years old. I had naively imagined that if we produced new data, people would look at it and come to a new understanding.”

No reaction at the level of national policy

Apparently, Meadows was not the only one to overestimate the enlightening effect of data and underestimate the throwback to mythology associated with the concept of growth. Whether the widespread belief in data today will help here remains questionable, especially when one considers how differently the study was received in different countries. Asked whether he was frustrated by the fact that the book is still very well known today as the basis for further studies, but has had little effect in practice, he said: “Well. The book was much more popular in Germany or the Netherlands than in the USA. And yes, at the level of national policy, I don’t see any reaction at all. There are now first considerations to do something about climate change. But if you look at practical policy, nothing has really changed. But am I frustrated? No. As I said, I am realistic. One of my guiding principles for my life is: play the cards you have instead of wishing for others.”

Competing narratives

One study, one could conclude, is not enough to decisively influence political and economic interests and to change a well-established system, possibly even to make it turn around. As long as not only governments follow common narratives about the necessity of permanent growth or believe stock market wisdom such as that the (money) tide lifts all boats, the limits to growth are more likely to be pushed further than boldly drawn. Moreover, it remains difficult to assess which factors can bring about change in the face of all the complex economic interdependencies and mental determinations. For example, the view that the astronauts of the American moon missions at the end of the 1960s had of the “blue planet” from a distance has been documented many times. Nevertheless, it is difficult to gauge how fundamentally this broadening of the view changed the perspective on “Spaceship Earth” (Buckminster Fuller) or at least contributed to developing a global view of human activity on Earth.

Conclusions of the study

In the spirit of sceptical detachment, the introduction to the study summarises: “The following conclusions have emerged from our work so far. We are by no means the first group to have stated them. For the past several decades, people who have looked at the world with a global, long-term perspective have reached similar conclusions. Nevertheless, the vast majority of policymakers seems to be actively pursuing goals that are inconsistent with these results.”

The conclusions are then, firstly: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” After fifty years, the actual facts prove the analysis right; the conclusions are different: In terms of population and industrial capacity, we are still growing.

Secondly: “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.”

From an optimistic point of view, the possibility still exists; however, due to continued climate change and species extinction, dystopian expectations seem to be increasing. Thirdly, “If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.”

These succinct conclusions, it continues, “These conclusions are so far-reaching and raise so many questions for further study that we are quite frankly overwhelmed by the enormity of the job that must be done. We hope that this book will serve to interest other people, in many fields of study and in many countries of the world, to raise the space and time horizons of their concerns and to join us in understanding and preparing for a period of great transition––the transition from growth to global equilibrium.”

From growth to equilibrium

Moving from growth to equilibrium – as a task or general demand, this seems more topical today than ever before. The anxious question remains, how can this be achieved? Are our abilities to turn back fatally more limited than our belief in permanent growth? It is the nature of the future to be unknown, unfathomable, in short: dark. If we follow the philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann, the limitedness of our ability to look beyond the day into the future is compounded by another factor that makes it even more difficult to orient ourselves in the present with a view to what is to come. Liessmann recalls Hegel’s reflection that “one only knows when something has begun when it has ended”. The historical examples Liessmann gives are telling: “The people who experienced Black Friday in 1929 did not know that it was the beginning of one of the most terrible chapters in modern history. The people who experienced the collapse of traditional banks and car manufacturers in 2008 still do not know which page in the book of history was thus opened”. Which means: If it is only possible to see in retrospect where something is going, what something has led to, the answer to the question of what to do now consists to a not inconsiderable degree of speculation. This does not exactly encourage decisive action, even if such ignorance does not exempt us from it. On the contrary. The fact that consequences are not easy to assess forces us to look more closely and sharpen our powers of discrimination. This is easier to do if one looks at what has happened and what has changed from the forecasts made in the past – and how assumptions, indicators and criteria have changed since then.

Die Grenzen der Vernunft

Humanity, at least as a look back 50 years teaches us, has not lacked information in the past, nor models for classifying and “processing” it. What is apparently lacking is decisive action and effective measures. Which is why, in retrospect, the study on the limits to growth also says something about the limits to reason. As far as a current perspective is concerned, the sociologist Harald Welzer explained in an interview at the end of last year with regard to an economic system in which an end does not seem to be planned and everything is always supposed to grow: “Every six-year-old child understands that this is not possible. And capitalism did not begin with this idea. Growth only came about with Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the early 1930s. In response to the Great Depression, attempts were made to artificially generate economic growth. This requirement became prominent during the Cold War – as a measure of who was better. Which of the superpowers would win the system competition. Since then, this idea has become so entrenched that unceasing, constant growth is considered the prerequisite of capitalism. Economists and liberal politicians can no longer imagine anything else at all, and that is of course absurd for a concept that is only two generations old.”

More about “The Limits to Growth”

The Limits to Growth on the Website of The Club of Rome.

„Der westliche Lebensstil wird nicht mehr lange fortbestehen“. Interview with US-Economist Dennis Meadows in the Magazine of the Süddeutschen Zeitung (in German)

„Autos! Was für ein Schwachsinn. Als ob das zukunftsfähig wäre“. Interview with Harald Welzer (in German)

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