Videos of talks given at a symposium last March held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of publishing the Limits to Growth (LtG) – hosted by the Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution – are available online: http://www.youtube.com/course?list=EC2817969CA87E5B47. Aside from a highly entertaining talk given by American geologist Richard Alley on climate change and energy, and other well-known sustainability thinkers (e.g. Lester Brown), talks are given by members of the original LtG team: Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers. Thus, the talks provide a chance to hear their reflections on LtG and how/if their thinking has evolved over recent decades.
Dennis Meadows argued that it is now “too late to achieve sustainable development”. (That is, if the term sustainable development is used to mean “we get to keep what we’ve currently got [I assume this centrally means present lifestyles and levels of affluence in the West], and the poor can come up to our level, and we get to keep doing what we’re doing only it won’t have as much impact on the environment”). Linked with this, he argued it’s no longer possible to “slow things down and come to an equilibrium” as the global system is far above carrying capacity and “what lies ahead is a period of uncontrolled decline”. In describing the original LtG study he emphasised that the study did not prove there are limits to physical growth (which is how they study often seems to be viewed); instead the researchers “assumed that there were limits on a finite planet and then we began to try to understand the nature of social growth within those limits”. The resulting LtG book is “an exercise in thinking for those who recognise limits and want to know about their consequences”. Meadows also noted that their modelling focussed on five main physical parameters: population, industrial productions, food, non-renewable resources, and persistent pollution.
A few key comments stood out in his remarks. First, he contrasted easy problems with difficult problems as follows. Easy problems are those in which actions that improve things over the longer term are also beneficial in the short-term. In contrast difficult problems are those which require sacrifices over the short-term in return for receiving benefits later on. Meadows argued the market and politics only deal well with easy problems but that achieving sustainability mainly requires addressing difficult problems. Second, he asserted that many issues currently confronting the Western world today are a manifestation of physical limits (similar to Paul Gilding’s analysis in his recent book The Great Disruption). Third, he argued we also need to focus on resilience in order to prepare for the coming period of “uncontrolled decline”. He also claimed that oil production is now in a period of permanent decline, although recent reports of a large upsurge in oil production capacity questions the validity of this statement (e.g. see this study and article).
Jorgen Randers reflections were titled “Lessons from forty years of promoting the limits to growth”. His reflections centred on his learnings regarding ‘decision delay’ problems and the associated capacity for democracy and capitalism to address global sustainability problems. He believes we need a fundamental paradigm shift in national and international governance.
Randers stated that he now views the limits to growth problem as a decision problem. He doesn’t believe we have a technological problem, meaning he thinks most of what is needed in terms of new technologies currently exists (e.g. energy technologies). Randers asserted that “decision delays in society is what causes overshoot” which he argued is principally caused by short-termism. Linked with this the core message of his remarks was that democracy and capitalism are currently unable to address global sustainability problems. That is, he asserted that politically it has been shown to be impossible to introduce necessary policies and regulations – with politicians responding to the short-termism of their citizens – and that business preferences those options that are most profitable in the short-term, which in effect creates various sustainability impasses. The European Commission and China provide examples of positive action on climate change but were also seen to support his claim that required change isn’t possible via democracy. (This is obvious in the case of China, but European Commission climate policies are introduced by a supranational body via delegated, i.e. non-democratic, authority). Finally, Rangers argued that the most important aspect of the LtG study was its articulation of the threat of ‘overshoot and collapse’.
To better address climate change he proposed expanding the remit of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This could involve the IPCC also advising governments on what national policies should be adopted (similar to the role of the OECD), or involve transferring money raised via climate-related taxes to the IPCC which it then is authorised to spend globally on climate-related action. This would be involve shifting power towards “semi-authoritarian government over the heads of government” (those are Randers words). He gave the analogy of the “benign dictators” which run central banks, which aims to disconnect decision-making from politics.
Reflections on their reflections
Considered together their core messages are: ‘uncontrolled decline’ is our future, our current social and economic systems are incapable of creating alternative futures and some form of eco-dicdatorship is urgently needed. It doesn’t exactly fill one with hope!
What seems most important to me are some interconnected aspects of their arguments: the problem of decision delays, and focussing on short-term interests preventing action to achieve longer-term goals (Randers); and the argument that markets and politics cannot address the difficult problems of global sustainability which – they both argued – pit short-term interests against long-term interests (Meadows). Similarly, in Our Dying Planet Peter Sale contends that decisions about our future “must be based far more on long-term communal benefits and risks” rather than “focus on short-term gains and losses”. It’s a common view. It would have been useful to hear more thoughts about how these issues might be addressed without resorting to more authoritarians forms of governance (as per Randers examples of China and the EU).
Another sustainability thinker, Paul Gilding, has argued that the tendency towards short-termism is what will drive rapid changes and major sacrifices during a (future) big crisis. His main hypothesis is that “the end of growth will be enough to get us really focussed on doing something and achieving significant change”. He argues “we won’t respond until the economy is in trouble”.
Personally, I agree that we cannot “leave it to the market” but I think we should question whether some form of post-growth “eco-dictatorship” is the only viable way forward. This is a common argument made by the ‘Survivalists’ (see John Dyzek’s model of environmental discourses) like Meadows and Randers who argue that hierarchy – i.e. management and control by elites – is necessary. This is especially clear in Jorgen Randers proposed expansion of the powers and remit of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change.
I’d like to see greater attention on the institutional, psychological and policy-making issues that create “decision delay” problems and associated barriers to change. Rather than throwing up our hands in despair and throwing out the ‘baby’ (liberal democracy) with the ‘bathwater’, as it is tempting to do, are their alternatives? Perhaps a more meaningful and productive debate concerns the role of the State? For example, Anthony Giddens has argued that climate change requires a return to stronger state interventions and state planning (as occurred in the mid-20th century). Whilst this presently looks unlikely – to say the least – perhaps we need to be having a conversation about the role of government, rather than about abandoning liberal democracy?
Additionally, there are times when political and business leaders do take the long-view and pay short-term costs to secure perceived long-term interests. Perhaps we need to learn more from these examples? A controversial example is detailed in Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal. He suggests green-tech advocates can learn from the history of nuclear power in the USA. For example, nuclear advocates were able to convince political leaders that future energy requirements would continue to grow over coming decades and that major costs had to be borne by governments in the short-term to help enable nuclear power. (This was also linked to perceived foreign policy advantages from helping to enable nuclear power). Additionally, many developers of nuclear power technologies such as General Electric adopted a “loss leader” strategy (selling products at below cost) in the hope of creating a future market.
Finally, Dennis Meadows reflected on Jay Forrester’s development of new techniques such as system modelling for integrating economic, social, technical, environmental and other areas of knowledge into “a coherent theory” to guide action. Perhaps we’re learning that quantitative modelling practices are only one way to achieve this and perhaps not the best way?