The Limits of Growth Revisited

This is an interview with Dennis Meadows whose 1972 book, The Limits of Growth, was an early warning of global crisis.

It appeared in Der Spiegel.

Mr. Meadows, you simulated the future of the Earth back in 1972 with less computing power than a Blackberry. How good was your model on the limits to growth?

Amazingly good, unfortunately. We are in the midst of an environmental crisis, which we predicted then. The difference is that we have lost 40 years during which humanity should have acted.

You have been one of those warning about the environment ever since the first publication of your book. Now representatives of almost 200 countries are gathering to tackle the environmental crisis. Are you satisfied?

Copenhagen? I don’t take it seriously. The whole thing is a huge ploy. I am outraged because the situation is outrageous. If we rely on conferences instead of changing our lifestyles then things look bad.

But the world is now looking to Copenhagen, to see if politicians can bring about a solution to the climate problem.

The world? I think 98 percent of humans haven’t even heard the word Copenhagen, not to speak of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change there. If people were to come together there with a fresh mind to achieve something then it would look different. This conference is essentially about doing as little as possible, not as much as possible.

You ask people to make personal sacrifices in order to preserve the environment and resources?

I don’t ask for it but I say if we don’t change our behavior then we will be in serious trouble. People are getting sidetracked if they think that new green technology will solve all the problems. There is no magic button. It is about our lifestyles.

Changing our personal behaviour will make everything better?

When it comes to oil dependency, yes; but when it comes to climate change, I think we are too late. It might have been possible to prevent serious climate change in the 1970s and 1980s, but it isn’t any more. We have pumped enough carbon dioxide already into the atmosphere to cause global warming. We are on a roller coaster at the top of the hill and all we can do is hold on tight.

Then does it make any sense to reduce CO2 emissions?

Absolutely, but that will only limit climate change, not prevent it.

You sound pretty pessimistic.

No. We won’t die out as a species. Humanity has already survived the Ice Age, and now we will survive an age of warmth. I doubt, however, that in the end there will be billions of us flying around the world in planes and driving huge cars.

We will live like today’s poorest people, those who emit hardly any carbon dioxide?

That is not my role model. I lived long enough in a country like Afghanistan to know that I don’t want us to have to live like that in the future. But we have to learn to live a life that allows for fulfilment and development, with the CO2 emissions of Afghanistan.

Is it possible to have 9 billion people on the planet?

No. Even 7 billion is too much – at least if they are all to have an appropriate standard of living. If you think it is acceptable to have a small elite that enjoys a decent lifestyle and a large majority that is excluded from that, then the Earth can probably sustain 5 to 6 billion people. If you want everyone to have the full potential of mobility, adequate food and self-development, then it is 1 or 2 billion.

How does one achieve that?

I have no idea. I am an ethical person and I wouldn’t hurt a fly. The problem is that with our current lifestyle we are hurting the people of the future.

You don’t have a recipe for saving the world?

We don’t have to save the world. The world will save itself, like it always has. Sometimes it takes a few million years until the damage is repaired and a new balance has been established. The question is much more: How do we save our civilization?

How do you deal with the fact that your analyses have failed to bring about any real changes?

A long time ago I thought we would have to achieve a total utopia in order to avoid total collapse. Today I am somewhat more balanced. For me personally it is enough if I make the world a little better than it would have been without me. Everyone should rethink their own lifestyle, their carbon footprint and try to think one step ahead into the future.

What has the reaction been to this kind of advice?

A fashion editor once asked me about lifestyle changes. I asked her how many pairs of shoes she had. It was 18. I advised her that three pairs would be enough. Unfortunately, the article was never published. Many habits are deeply rooted and it takes practice to get rid of them.

How will the necessary changes come about?

Through a series of crises. It is only when there are abrupt climate changes, unpleasant ones, that the willingness will come about to really do something. We have to use these opportunities. We didn’t use them during the financial crisis. The opportunity to change something was wasted, despite the crisis.

Some people might regard you as an angry prophet from the Old Testament.

Nonsense. Our first book had 13 different scenarios for how the Earth and humanity would develop. Of these, eight or nine were catastrophic, the others were not. But no one was interested in the positive scenarios. They weren’t reported upon and people didn’t try to live them out. I am not preoccupied with doomsday scenarios. Most other people, however, are.

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6 responses to “The Limits of Growth Revisited

  1. The smartest line was we survived the Ice Age so we’ll survive the warm age.
    The best way to lower the world’s population is to make everyone rich. South Korea was as poor as Liberia in 1950. Rich people have fewer children.
    The worst way to make people rich is to give them money. The ideas at Copenhagen won’t work; neither does foreign aid. It does make rich people feel better and leaves poor people poorer.

  2. I am lucky. At my age I don’t have to worry. Of course, I am thinking of my children and their children, but nobody expects me to do anything. By the way, I just became a step great-grandfather. In Austin, TX RK

  3. I don’t think he’s a pessimist – I think the Club of Rome was prescient in the 70s, and his current reflections are wildly optimistic. “We won’t die out as a species” for example. I’m old enough not to worry for myself, but when I play with my grandchildren I bleed inside – will they have grandchildren? He’s dead on when he says “We don’t have to save the world. The world will save itself, like it always has.” [Except, of course, he means “as” when he says “like”.] It’s not the planet that needs saving, it’s humanity – the species, the culture, the civilisation, such as it is. And I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.

    • Our civilization a lost cause? No more, no less, than the Sumerians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Rotarians.

  4. I am reminded of the cartoon that appeared at the time of The Limits of Growth – a stereotypical capitalist, top hat and cigar, standing in the pollution his factory had caused (this was before financial capitalism had replaced industrial capitalism), saying to the Club of Rome guy, “35 years? Oh, good, that’s all right then. I was afraid you had said 3 – 5 years!” That was, of course, forty years ago…