Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens III

The Limits to Growth



We can say very little at this point about the practical, day-by-day steps that might be taken to reach a desirable, sustainable state of global equilibrium. Neither the world model nor our own thoughts have been developed in sufficient detail to understand all the implications of the transition from growth to equilibrium. Before any part of the world’s society embarks deliberately on such a transition, there must be much more discussion, more extensive analysis, and many new ideas contributed by many different people. If we have stimulated each reader of this book to begin pondering how such a transition might be carried out, we have accomplished our immediate goal.

Certainly much more information is needed to manage the transition to global equilibrium. In the process of sifting the world’s data and incorporating it into an organized model, we have become aware of the great need for more facts—for numbers that are scientifically measurable but which have not yet been measured. The most glaring deficiencies in present knowledge occur in the pollution sector of the model. How long does it take for any given pollutant to travel from its point of release to its point of entrance into the human body? Does the time required for the processing of any pollutant into harmless form depend on the level of pollutant? Do several different pollutants acting together have a synergistic effect on human health? What are the long-term effects of low-level dosages on humans and other organisms? There is also a need for more information about rates of soil erosion and land wastage under intensified modern agricultural practices.

From our own vantage point as systems analysts, of course, we would recommend that the search for facts not be random but be governed by a greatly increased emphasis on establishing system structure. The behavior of all complicated social systems is primarily determined by the web of physical, biological, psycholigical, and economic relationships that binds together any human population, its natural environment, and its economic activities. Until the underlying structures of our socio-economic systems are thoroughly analyzed, they cannot be managed effectively, just as an automobile cannot be maintained in good running condition without a knowledge of how its many parts influence each other. Studies of system structure may reveal that the introduction into a system of some simple stabilizing feedback mechanism will solve many difficulties. There have been interesting suggestions along that line already—for example, that the total costs of pollution and resource depletion be included in the price of a product, or that every user of river water be required to place his intake pipe downstream from his effluent pipe.

The final, most elusive, and most important information we need deals with human values. As soon as a society recognizes that it cannot maximize everything for everyone, it must begin to make choices. Should there be more people or more wealth, more wilderness or more automobiles, more food for the poor or more services for the rich? Establishing the societal answers to questions like these and translating those answers into policy is the essence of the political process. Yet few people in any society even realize that such choices are being made every day, much less ask themselves what their own choices would be. The equilibrium society will have to weigh the trade-offs engendered by a finite earth not only with consideration of present human values but also with consideration of future generations. To do that, society will need better means than exist today for clarifying the realistic alternatives available, for establishing societal goals, and for achieving the alternatives that are most consistent with those goals. But most important of all, long-term goals must be specified and short-term goals made consistent with them.

Although we underline the need for more study and discussion of these difficult questions, we end on a note of urgency. We hope that intensive study and debate will proceed simultaneously with an ongoing program of action. The details are not yet specified, but the general direction for action is obvious. Enough is known already to analyze many proposed policies in terms of their tendencies to promote or to regulate growth. Numerous nations· have adapted or are considering programs to stabilize their populations. Some localized areas are also trying to reduce their rates of economic growth. These efforts are weak at the moment, but they could be strengthened very quickly if the goal of equilibrium were recognized as desirable and important by any sizable part of human society.

We have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the natural delays in the population-capital system of the world. These delays mean, for example, that if Mexico’s birth rate gradually declined from its present value to an exact replacement value by the year 2000, the country’s population would continue to grow until the year 2060. During that time the population would grow from 50 million to 1.30 million. If the United States population had two children per family starting now and if there were no net immigration, the population would still continue to grow until the year 2037, and it would increase from 200 million to 266 million. If world population as a whole reached a replacement-size family by the year 2000 (at which time the population would be 5.8 billion), the delays caused by the age structure would result in a final leveling-off of population at 8.2 billion (assuming that the death rate would not rise before then—an unlikely assumption, according to our model results).

Taking no action to solve these problems is equivalent to taking strong action. Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world system closer to the ultimate limits to that growth. A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse. We cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control of his growth before he will have lost the chance for control. We suspect on the basis of present knowledge of the physical constraints of the planet that the growth phase cannot continue for another one hundred years. Again, because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long.

If there is cause for deep concern, there is also cause for hope. Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities. Man possesses, for a small moment in his history, the most powerful combination of knowledge, tools, and resources the world has ever known. He has all that is physically necessary to create a totally new form of human society—one that would be built to last for generations. The two missing ingredients are a realistic, long-term goal that can guide mankind to the equilibrium society and the human will to achieve that goal. Without such a goal and a commitment to it, short-term concerns will generate the exponential growth that drives the world system toward the limits of the earth and ultimate collapse. With that goal and that commitment, mankind would be ready now to begin a controlled, orderly transition from growth to global equilibrium.

Authors: Donella H. Meadows - Dennis L. Meadows - Jørgen Randers - William W. Behrens III

Posted: November 2019
Category: Essays