In 1972, The Limits to Growth created an international sensation by claiming that if trends in world population, industrialization, food production, and resource depletion did not drastically change, society would not only reach its carrying capacity, but also overshoot it and collapse. Naturally, these frightening scenarios sparked controversy and debate, leading the book to sell over 30 million copies in 30 languages. In Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows updated the original World3 systems dynamics model for the 21st century. Co-author Dennis Meadows reviewed the new edition at an October 14 ECSP meeting.

Too Late to Slow Down

The update yielded a number of interesting changes. First, population has been more responsive to wealth than previously predicted; as wealth increased, population declined. Similarly, the agricultural sector has been more responsive to technological advances, with food productivity increasing at a greater rate than expected. However, the authors conclude that we are still heading towards overshoot and collapse. Meadows pointed out that in 1972 we needed to slow down, but now the challenge is to "get back down."

While the model predicts that decline is more likely than ever before, Meadows emphasized that overshoot and collapse are not inevitable, since global change is not forced upon us. Environmental degradation is produced by the daily habits of billions of people living their lives. Therefore, to fight it, we must develop new habits and behaviors.

Survivable Development

How can we alter this trend? In the United States, Meadows noted, it is "ethically acceptable to alter mortality but unacceptable to alter fertility." However, human population cannot grow forever: either the birth rate will go down or the environment will bring the death rate up.

Is technology the answer? Meadows claims we have the necessary technology, such as Amory Lovins' plans for an oil-free economy. As Meadows pointed out, if we applied best practices and ideas from around the world, we would not face these problems. However, technology is not enough by itself; rather, it is only a tool that reflects society's values:

If you have a society that doesn't worry about the environment, that thinks it's perfectly acceptable for there to be a big gap between rich and poor, and feels that force is the appropriate way to resolve conflict, guess what? That society is going to develop technologies that damage the environment, exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor, and strengthen military capacity. No surprise. If you want a different kind of technology, you don't just stand back and assume it will be produced by the market. You have to think through these issues, decide what you want to achieve, and use technological advances as a tool.

In light of the 30-Year Update's results, Meadows feels that sustainable development is no longer a useful concept or option. Instead he believes we need "survivable" development, which avoids lasting conflict and damage to ecosystems. Survivable development will not prevent the decline predicted for this century, but will avoid massive human and ecosystem disruption.

No Magic Bullets

Addressing these large-scale issues is politically complex, since global problems require action by the whole community. Policymakers, according to Meadows, need to extend the time horizon. "You would never get on a ship where the captain navigated by holding a stick out in front of the bow, such that when he began to feel something he put on the brakes….That would be a lunatic ride but that is precisely what's going on in this country".

When asked whether a decrease in material consumption would lower standards of living, Meadows responded that all human survival needs could still be met, but some egoistic needs would have to change. He pointed out that happiness does not correlate with GNP, but is based upon relative standing. However, television is spreading the West's consumption standards around the globe.

To address these global trends, we need new values and cultural norms. Typically, new norms arise when a few opinion leaders act on a new set of principles. Meadows asserted that it was possible for a relatively small group of people to tackle a problem and make a significant change. Countries, regions, and towns can do this in a way that is not only environmentally sound but also profitable. While he had no magic bullets, Meadows noted that we should not let uncertainty lead to inaction. "Do the best you can, take a step, and realize that you're going to make really serious mistakes, and learn from them….I shifted over to what I call a 'boy scout mentality,' which is to leave your campsite better than you found it. That's your only obligation."

Drafted by Alyssa Edwards.


  • Dennis Meadows

    Director, Institute for Policy and Social Science Research, University of New Hampshire