The limits to growth, revisited

Fifty years ago, in 1971, a team of young scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released findings from a year-long study of the capacity of Earth’s natural systems to sustain a rising rate of growth in population and economic activity. 

What they had to say – published a year later as The Limits to Growth (LTG) – opened up a divide that has continued to this day, between people advocating stronger restraints on economic activity and those favouring the status quo.

Dennis Meadows, a member of the LTG team who at 79 is as sharp as ever, believes that population and economic decline are now inevitable. “Whether we retain equity among people and avoid more violent forms of conflict remains to be seen, but sustainable development is no longer an option,” he said in 2019. Resilience was a better strategy.

The LTG study didn’t differentiate between rich and poor people and countries. As Meadows sees it, innovation can enable some peoples to reduce local impacts of contaminated water, soil and air, but will not protect us from the global disruption that our excess has inflicted on natural cycles. “Rich people can buy their way out of food shortages, they can buy clean water, but they’re not going to be able to buy a benign climate.”

In 1972, the overwhelming response of politicians, economists and business leaders to The Limits to Growth was derision. Most of those detractors would now concede that the impact of human activities is beyond question, and getting worse. Yet they all continue to behave as if nothing is wrong. 

There’s a clear logic in this response. All of those detractors depend for their political and commercial power on an ever-rising rate of growth. Despite the growing deployment of renewable energy, we still face expanding use of non-renewable resources by growing numbers of people.

In an interview last year Meadows pointed to this “central problem of our society… that we have developed a set of institutions, expectations and other social mechanisms fundamentally based on and dependent on the assumption of continued growth.”

So what are we to do? Meadows cited a Japanese saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If your only tool is GDP, every problem is an economic one. We need alternative indicators of success, and a vision of future societies that can function without growth. 

This won’t be easy. Population growth is fundamental to the way governments work. Instead of subsidising higher birthrates and such like, leaders will have to envisage living with static populations, where building stock and tax revenues don’t keep rising, and where there’s no steady flow of young people to support pension-age people.

At more local levels governments and population alike will have to reach agreement about the right population for their own communities and how they will get there and stay there. 

We know that humanity can get along without growth because that was always the case until the Industrial Revolution. But as Meadows points out, a future without growth looks like a series of zero-sum negotiations – which no politician would want. Democracies depend heavily on the forward momentum of growth.

Like the public debate around Covid-19, Australia’s debate about the human impact on global systems should always have been about the physical processes involved and the real physical threat they pose to life, human and other. But it hasn’t.

Efforts to suppress the virus threaten economic growth. So do efforts to mitigate greenhouse emissions. On both matters, faced with restrictions imposed by reality, frustrated governments and business interests have driven a rising level of public debate about how far we should compromise growth to tackle the impact of these natural forces.

But the forces we’re up against arise from the growth which that debate has taken for granted. Something has to give, and as climate change takes hold that something looks like a lot less room to move for the decision-makers amongst us. By 2030, for instance, Australian aspirations for a fleet of nuclear submarines may seem even more vainglorious than now.

All that is understood by natural systems scientists like Meadows. Unlike economists they are unconstrained by the boundaries of human systems. It’s their job to go outside the box.

Economic growth happened very recently in humanity’s 200,000 years of existence. Our own First Nations people lived without it for many millennia. But empowered by coal to venture forth and colonise, the British treated them as inferior. That was mistake number one.

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