Forty years later, “Limits to Growth” is as compelling—and controversial—as ever.
The Club of Rome and a Smithsonian consortium co-hosted a daylong symposium this March marking the 40th anniversary of the book, a landmark study of unchecked economic and population growth in a world of finite resources. A few weeks later, in a blog posting that sparked some debate around the Internet, a senior Smithsonian magazine editor quoted a physicist’s warnings that the data of recent decades proved that “Limits to Growth” trend projections were spot on, and that we were heading toward a major global depression by 2030.
The readers’ comments that followed the Smithsonian post, as well as on other blogs and websites that reported the story, reflected the debate that has surrounded the book since its first edition: Is “Limits to Growth” prescient, or alarmist?
When it was first published in 1972, “Limits to Growth” shocked many with its argument that humanity was using Earth’s resources faster than its ecosystems could regenerate them. The MIT scientists who led the study, commissioned by the Club of Rome think tank, did not predict collapse. Rather, they presented a range of scenarios of how the 21st century could play out, depending on how (or whether) we alter growth trends.
But the message was clear: Unlimited growth, be it population or economic, was unsustainable on a planet being drained of the very resources that sustain our economies and support life itself.
The book and its message have had no shortage of critics. When the first edition came out, a number of scientists and economists attacked its methodology and conclusions. Several dismissed the authors as crackpots; some still do. Last month, a Forbes blog called the book and Turner’s warnings “entirely bizarre.” A few readers commenting on “Limits to Growth” co-author Dennis Meadow’s pessimistic interview with a Smithsonian.com reporter were equally dismissive.
“Their doomsday predictions,” reads one comment, “failed to take into account that knowledge about the locations of resources and the technology to use those resources is constantly changing and improving.”
(Paul Gilding and Peter Diamandis faced off on this topic at this spring’s TED talks—see this newsletter’s feature story.)
This is where Footprint accounting comes in. Global Footprint Network uses 67 million data points to track the resource trends of more than 230 countries and territories—and humanity as a whole—since 1961. Rather than speculate, we measure. Has technological advance outbalanced the growing demand? Has it decreased humanity’s ecological overshoot?
The question may not be whether technology can or cannot move humanity out of overshoot. We certainly need technology to get us out of overshoot. We just need the right tools to help us identify how far and how fast we need to go in order to avoid the tightening resource constraints and depletion of our natural assets. Not just to avoid biodiversity loss, but to keep our economies fed.
Global Footprint Network is just weeks away from publishing a major study that explores the links of resource constraints in the Mediterranean region and the ongoing economic crisis. We also have launched a new initiative, Competitiveness 2.0, to build a new economic model for countries that want to remain competitive in a world of diminishing resources (see the Q&A with André Schneider, our Competitiveness 2.0 partner, in this newsletter).
The resource accounting behind the Mediterranean initiative and Competitiveness 2.0 offer leaders the roadmap to a sustainable, and successful, future. We’re engaging with more governments, industry and citizens than ever before. Even many who were skeptics years ago now recognize that we are living beyond Earth’s means.
We see the momentum swinging our way. Join us by spreading the word, giving a donation or partnering your organization with ours. You’ll be glad you did. So will your grandchildren.
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