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The Eco-Worrier Reviews "The Limits to Growth"

THE LIMITS TO GROWTH: D Meadows, D Meadows, J Randers, W Behrens.

Potomac Associates, Universe Books. New York. 1972.

This slender volume of 205 pages was first published exactly 50 years ago. A major catalyst in the rise of the global environmental movement, it is recognised as the biggest-selling book in environmental history. In 2022 it therefore warrants a Golden Anniversary review.

Commentators have described how “It touched a raw nerve in the body politic. Its warnings resonated with the fears of others that there was an emerging environmental crisis”. There had been earlier warnings of humanity’s environmental destruction, most notably Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac both written 20 years earlier. Both expressed wonder at the complexity and fragility of the natural world and highlighted the threats imposed by such blunt, half-understood ‘solutions’ as the use of DDT. But Limits to Growth (LTG) took a more radical approach, questioning the long-term viability of industrial society itself.

LTG dates from the dawn of computer modelling during the same era as the Moon landings. We are awestruck today to hear that the state-of-the-art guidance systems of the Apollo Moon-lander contained around one millionth of the computing power of a modern smartphone. The experts in the new discipline of System Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) used computers of the same era in their even greater challenge of modelling the entire world.

Like people, books are ‘children of their times’ and reflect the issues and priorities of the day. It is therefore necessary to hark back to those boom years in the post-war US, Europe and Japan, while China, mired in the disaster of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’, was in a state of economic collapse. In contrast, the Soviet Union was a thriving economic power and, easily forgotten today, one of the fastest-growing industrial economies of the period was Italy.

One fascinating aspect of LTG is the unlikely background of the pivotal figure behind this book, which was a major factor in the birth of the environmental movement. Far from the bearded, vegan, anti-capitalist, sandal-wearing 1970s stereotype, he was a prominent businessman at the head of Italy’s post-war industrial renaissance. Dr Aurelio Peccei (1908-1984), was a high-level executive in such global Italian businesses as Olivetti (a world-leader at the time for its typewriters and photocopiers) and car-giant Fiat. He had even been deeply involved in setting-up airline Alitalia. Despite these highly-unlikely credentials, he was clearly a deep and highly-original thinker.

At a business conference he met Scottish chemist, Dr Alexander King (1908-1984), who, in a further twist of irony, while conducting research in the 1930s, had been one the first to see the potential of DDT as an insecticide. Because Dr King had later become aware of the side-effects of DDT and they both could see the implications of endless economic growth, in 1968 they organised a conference in Rome. No doubt through Dr Peccei’s position, support from the Fiat-financed Agnelli Foundation enabled them to found the non-partisan Club of Rome. Working with the cutting-edge technologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) and, in yet another twist of irony, sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation, the Club of Rome published LTG in 1972.

At once, and apparently without reading it, the political, economic and media establishment exploded, furiously attacking the book for its ‘forecasts of doom’, clearly worried that it undermined their contradictory faith of endless economic growth on a planet which had limits. In retrospect, their blinkered denial of LTG’s logic looks especially ill-timed in view of the historic ‘Earthrise’ photographs of our solitary, beautiful, fragile, living planet floating in an otherwise lifeless void, which had recently been filmed by Apollo astronauts. Despite the message of those images, in the midst of the post-war economic boom, any thought of constraining consumption appeared near-heretical.

In truth, the most striking message from reading LTG today is its repeated emphasis that it is not attempting to forecast anything, which confirms that its critics may not have read it. Its computer modelling simply extended trends of population growth, resource availability, consumption and pollution under a wide range of scenarios over the timespan of 200 years from 1900 to 2100.

The critical factor which they highlighted was the effect of ‘exponential’ growth on a finite world, as opposed to natural ‘growth,’ which is cyclical. All species, from trees and elephants to spiders (thankfully) reach a natural optimum size, stop growing, then eventually die. Equally naturally, if a population of any species outstrips the carrying capacity of its environment, numbers collapse and, with luck, start to grown again. David Attenborough’s “A Life on Our Planet.” written in 2020, uses exactly the same argument. It would be interesting to know if he deliberately failed to reference LTG in order to avoid the risk of renewed hysterical antagonism from economists and politicians.

The concept of exponential growth is essentially that of compound interest; each unit of growth is added to the original stock, which in turn adds to that rate of growth. Money is the easiest example; £100 left in a bank which pays 5% ‘simple’ interest will, 10 years later, be worth £150 and in 100 years £600. At ‘compound’, or ‘exponential’ interest, the same 5% will have grown to £162 in 10 years, but in 100 years it becomes a remarkable £13150.

LTG was written in the days before Global Warming had become headline news. While there may have been less awareness in 1970 of its disastrous implications for the climate, amongst the book’s many charts used to demonstrate exponential growth is one which tracks CO2 levels from 293ppm in 1860, through the then-current 1970 figure of 322ppm to forecast 378ppm in 2000 (it turned out in fact to be 370ppm). However, if one extends the chart further, its gradually steepening curve was right on track for the actual figure of 415ppm reached in 2020.

It seems to be largely overlooked amongst the chatter about ‘Net-Zero’ that in the 1960-70 decade CO2 levels rose by just 9ppm while during the 2010-20 decade 50 years later they rose by 24ppm. This precisely matched the exponential growth in the world’s consumption of fossil-fuels. What could better confirm LTG’s argument that endless economic growth is inevitably matched by a disastrous acceleration in demand for scarce resources and rising emissions of polluting outputs?

Dr Peccei appears to have been influenced by the works of the Rev Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) whose 1796 “Essay on the Principles of Population” was a major contribution to the great 18th century debate about achieving the “perfection” of society. This exchange of ideas was dominated by famous thinkers of the period. Among them was David Ricardo (1772-1823), whose theories formed the basis of today’s neo-classical ‘free-market’ economics.

Ricardo’s narrow world-view was dominated by finance and his belief that, if only all trade barriers were removed, universal prosperity for an unlimited population would automatically ensue. Of course his perspective was that of a member of a small, prosperous elite in a country which had subjugated most of a world of 800 million, just 10% of today’s population. Democracy was restricted to property-owning males in a handful of countries while much of the globe was still unexplored.

200 years later, just a decade after LTG, similar libertarian attitudes returned to dominate economic thinking; their opponents are more in tune with Malthus who believe that there were wider moral and political issues than money. His concern was that the cyclical growth of the Earth’s production of food would inevitably be overtaken by humanity’s exponential growth; “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for men.” He discreetly attributed the reproductive urge to “…a tendency to virtuous attachment”.

Dr Peccei and his colleagues redefined this problem in the language of more recent times and added another; the consumer society. Since the days of Malthus and Ricardo, the world’s population had increased five-fold from 800 million to almost 4 billion in 1970. In the last 50 years it has virtually double again. The demands which this constantly accelerating growth in human numbers place on the Earth’s resources were dramatically expanded by the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th century such modern concepts as consumerism had been unimaginable to all but a tiny elite. Consumption by even the wealthiest was restricted to building either vast, ostentatious, yet poorly heated, draughty houses without proper sanitation, or ornate, very uncomfortable clothing or jewellery. Their energy consumption was largely confined to firewood for heat and the muscle-power of servants, serfs, slaves and horses. The latter, along with sailing ships, also limited the distance and speed of travel to the same restraints as they had been for countless centuries.

Those great 18th century economic thinkers were perhaps only vaguely aware of the significance of James Watt’s (1736-1813) world-changing flash of inspiration as he crossed Glasgow’s Green Park in May 1765. The resulting vast improvement in the efficiency of steam pumping-engines not only opened up previously unimagined energy in the form of coal, but led to the exploitation of the entire planet’s fossil-fuels and other resources at a low price and on a hitherto-unimaginable scale.

Two hundred years later The Club of Rome were the first to draw the world’s attention to the fact that the combination of Ricardo’s economic theories and Watts’ invention had not only enabled a huge increase in the human population and revolutionary advances in living standards, consumption and mobility, but that they had a darker side which had gone unrecognised for 200 years.

Today, another 50 years later, is a chance to acknowledge the anniversary of this maligned little book and its role, both in making the world aware of the multi-faceted challenges created by consumerism, and its major part in the birth of the ever-growing global environmental movement.

By The Eco-Worrier

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