Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update Paperback – Jun 1 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Updated for the second time since 1992, this book, by a trio of professors and systems analysts, offers a pessimistic view of the natural resources available for the world's population. Using extensive computer models based on population, food production, pollution and other data, the authors demonstrate why the world is in a potentially dangerous "overshoot" situation. Put simply, overshoot means people have been steadily using up more of the Earth's resources without replenishing its supplies. The consequences, according to the authors, may be catastrophic: "We... believe that if a profound correction is not made soon, a crash of some sort is certain. And it will occur within the lifetimes of many who are alive today." After explaining overshoot, the book discusses population and industrial growth, the limits on available resources, pollution, technology and, importantly, ways to avoid overshoot. The authors do an excellent job of summarizing their extensive research with clear writing and helpful charts illustrating trends in food consumption, population increases, grain production, etc., in a serious tome likely to appeal to environmentalists, government employees and public policy experts.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
John N. Cooper, for AxisofLogic.com-
This is a wonderful book. Originally published in 1972 as Limits to Growth and refreshed in 1992 in Beyond the Limits, the authors have now issued a 30-year appraisal [Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN 1-931498-58-X], in which they examine the progress made both in their understanding of the mechanisms underlying the impact of humanity on the world ecology and of steps taken toward remediating the accelerating approach to trainwreck that is mankind's ill-managed and uncontrolled 'footprint' on this planet's environment.
Briefly, humanity has overshot the limits of what is physically and biologically sustainable. That overshoot WILL lead to the collapse of the planetary environment's ability to support not only our species but much of the rest of the biosphere if we do not act rapidly and effectively to reduce our footprint. These conclusions provide reasons for both optimism and alarm: optimism because humanity has demonstrated its capacity to act appropriately in one specific instance; and alarm because thirty years have been largely wasted since the consequences of our failing to act were detailed. There is still time but the need to act quickly and effectively is urgent. The authors demonstrate that the most critical areas needing immediate attention are: population; wasteful, inefficient growth; and pollution. They show how attention to all three simultaneously can result in returning the human footprint on the environment to manageable, sustainable size, while sharply reducing the disparity between human well-being and fostering a generous quality-of-life worldwide. Absent this, the prospects are grim indeed.
The book is divided into three sections, the first outlining in principle the authors' systems analytical approach to understanding the planet's ecology. Their presentation is clear and comprehensible with an abundance of charts and figures that make visualizing the concepts easy. They successfully avoid the pitfalls of many technical presentations by using familiar analogies and largely avoiding professional jargon. As a result readers come away with insights not just into global interconnectedness of inputs, outputs, accumulation and feedback but also the significance of such dynamics in local, even personal, situations.
The second section deals with the authors' updated and revised modeling program, World3, which they utilize to test the plausible effects of changes in human political, economic and social behavior on the environment. Their discussion of World3 focuses on the assumptions for, and results of, a variety calculational scenarios. Details of their latest programming revisions are reserved for an index. Repeatedly they emphasize that their results are NOT prescriptive, but merely descriptive in general terms of likely consequences of humanity's failure or success in rising to meet the issues cited. Again excellent graphics for the various scenarios allow the reader to see at a glance what different approaches toward rectifying past, present and future environmental damage may have.
The final chapters describe options open to humanity that the authors believe have the best chance of avoiding social, economic and probably political collapse in the next century or so. We have a choice: the human experiment, possibly even the biological experiment, that is life on this planet can yet succeed and persist in a sustainable way. But to do so will require our species as whole consciously and deliberately to take immediate, remediating steps, now, seriously and adequately to address the issues we have so far failed to do so effectively. It IS up to us. © Copyright 2005 by AxisofLogic.com.(John N. Cooper)
"In 1972, The Limits to Growth was published as a clarion call to begin changing the way the world worked so we safely made it to 2050-2070. The authors were clear that the path of change needed to begin "now" so we made a course correction within the next 30 years. Sadly, the message they wrote got badly misunderstood and by 30 years later, scores of critiques to the book claimed the authors warned that the world would run out of oil and other scare resources by 1990 or 2000. It is time for the world to re-read Limits to Growth! The message of 1972 is far more real and relevant in 2004 and we wasted a valuable 30 years of action plans by misreading the message of the first book."--Matthew R. Simmons, energy analyst and founder, Simmons & Company International, The world's largest energy investment banking practiceSee all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Mankind has already gone past the level of sustainability. It's not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN the planet will not be able to sustain humanity at the current population level and standard of living.
This book explains about the earth's resources and how we are overusing them. Also about the byproducts of our use of these resources and the pollution it causes. Many examples are given of how people can change their ways of production and resource use.
It is disturbing to think what humans are doing to the planet and what the future will be if we don't change our ways. This book gives the big picture of what is happening ecologically to the planet and what needs to be done NOW to stop the devastation.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
However, BTL (1992) offered one new finding: "...humanity had already overshot the limits of Earth's support capacity. This fact was so important that we chose to reflect it in the title of the book." If you have not already read one or both of the two earlier volumes, these brief excerpts from the Authors' Preface to Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update will suggest a context within which to understand and appreciate the significance of what Meadows, Randers, and Meadows share in this third volume.
If I understand their key point, it is this: Humanity's consumption of Earth's resources (i.e. humanity's "ecological footprint") proceeds at an increasingly faster rate than Earth's available resources can accommodate (i.e. its "carrying capacity"). There must be prudent physical growth constraints on consumption in combination with replenishment of the Earth's resources. Otherwise, over time, "the world will experience overshoot and collapse in global resource use and emissions."
The authors clearly identify the global challenge (page xv), explain their reasons for writing this update (pages xviii and xix) in response to that challenge, and then conclude their Preface with the prediction that "it will take another decade before the consequences of [global ecological] overshoot are clearly observable and two decades before the fact of overshoot is generally acknowledged." They intend to provide another update in 2012, on the 40th anniversary of their first book.
In the 14 chapters which follow, Meadows, Randers, and Meadows explain why it is not only desirable but indeed imperative to
1. increase the consumption levels of the world's poor
2. reduce humanity's total ecological footprint
3. support technological advances (e.g. to achieve #1)
4. support personal change (e.g. to achieve #2)
5. think in terms of longer planning horizons
The authors offer a range of alternative scenarios (i.e. ten different "pictures" of how the 21st century may evolve) to encourage their reader's learning, reflection and personal choice. For me, Chapter 7 is especially valuable. Based on their structural analysis of the world, they offer seven general guidelines to expedite transitions to sustainability: extent the planning horizon (#5 previously), improve the "signals" (i.e. early-warning system for global ecology), speed up the response time to ecological crises, minimize use of nonrenewable resources, prevent the erosion of renewable resources, use all resources with maximum efficiency, and slow -- and eventually stop -- exponential growth of population and physical capital.
In the final chapter, Meadows, Randers, and Meadows briefly discuss the agricultural and industrial revolutions and then assert that the next revolution should respond to the need for sustainability of humanity on Earth. They share their vision of the sustainable society which such a revolution could achieve and even provide a ("by no means definitive") list of its dominant characteristics, urging their reader to develop it further. I agree with the authors that a sustainable world "can never be fully realized until it is widely imagined." Hence the importance of their ("by no means definitive") list...hence the even greater importance of having as many other people as possible also imagine precisely what kind of a world they would much prefer to live in.
There are obviously limits to how much of Earth's resources can be consumed or corrupted, without replenishment or purification, before they are significantly depleted and eventually exhausted. However, I believe that almost all limits on human imagination are self-imposed. If so, then there should be no limits on our collaborative efforts to reduce "humanity's ecological footprint" to achieve global sustainability of our precious natural resources if we can but summon and then (yes) sustain sufficient resolve to do so.
Updating their mathematical model and learning from three decades of experience since the original 1972 study, the authors reinforce their earlier finding that persistently overshooting the Earth's carrying capacity could lead to any one of a variety of unhappy scenarios for humanity. While expressing due respect for technology development and the effects of free markets, they emphasize that these are necessary but not sufficient tools for getting us through the 21st century.
The authors have been criticized as doomsayers whose predictions have proven wrong. Such criticism obviously has come from people who have not actually read their work. They have not produced just a single computer run of their model and then proclaimed, "This is what will happen." They have done hundreds of runs to attempt to illustrate how important variables - such as population growth, industrial production, technological development, and pollution - interact to shape future scenarios in a 100-year timeframe. A thorough reading of this book demonstrates that rather than being disproven, their original scenarios are looking ominously accurate.
Chapter 5 is the book's good-news story, providing a case study on how the world got together to tackle the ozone depletion problem over the last quarter century. This and the final two chapters demonstrate that the authors have not given in to hopelessness.
The most critical shortcoming of the authors' work is one they clearly acknowledge. They address flows of population, materials, energy, and emissions that can be mathematically modeled, but do not include factors such as military conflict, large-scale corruption, natural disasters, pandemics, or severe economic stresses like currency and debt crises. If these things are taken into account, one could view the Limits to Growth model as wildly optimistic. What would this study look like with a non-quantitative social futurist perspective added to it?
The authors have done a remarkable job of clearly explaining concepts such as positive and negative feedback loops and the Earth's sources and sinks as they apply to the model. But the 284 pages of text may be more than can be absorbed and digested by the wider audience this book deserves. Perhaps a condensed version is needed, one that captures the message and its urgency but is short enough to get even policy-makers to read it.
The basic idea is that resource use will exceed resource capacity, a condition called overshoot, which will lead to collapse of many of the institutions of humanity, as we know them. They define a sustainable society as one that `meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' Sounds very similar to the current state of the social security program, which will be bankrupt in the near future, without major changes.
One major limit to the consumption of resources that is often not considered, are `sinks', methods, ways and places of disposing of waste products generated by humanity. The authors make this a focus by using a phrase called `ecological footprint of humanity', defined as `the land area that would be required to provide the resources (grain, feed, wood, fish, and urban land) and absorb the emissions (carbon dioxide) of global society.'
The other major ideas have been described very well in other Amazon.com reviews, so I won't repeat those. I will add that Dennis Meadows in a private email to me described the book thusly: "Our book is about three aspects of society - growth in the physical parameters, growing damage to natural systems, and delays in the response."
The historian Arnold Toynbee studied the collapse of civilizations from another angle. He looked at all the known civilizations in the history of mankind, and noticed that some were able to adapt to what he called "the challenge of stimulus", and some were not. He attempted to understand what characteristics allowed some to adapt, and what caused the others to fail. In fact, some aspects of the chapter "Tools for the Transition to Sustainability" seem to be directly informed by Toynbee's works. (Dr. Meadows professed not to know. That chapter was written by his wife prior to her passing away, and was left largely unchanged.)
Is it possible Toynbee was describing the results of 'overshoot and collapse', or 'overshoot and adaptation to actions within sustainability', only at the regional or civilizational level, not the global? Clearly humanity has not experienced overshoot and complete collapse on the global level anytime in the past. Evidently we have only reached the potential to do this on the global level rather recently in our history. The question is: Will humanity rise to the `challenge of stimulus' of the current global situation, or will the `delays in the response' described by Dr. Meadows lead to our fall as a species?
The book is full of data and analysis, and while not technically challenging, is not easy reading. But LIMITS is required reading for every human on the planet! It is certainly depressing, especially knowing that the message was not heeded in the Seventies, and it is still not being heeded in the Aughts. But despair is no more constructive than complacency -- those of us who have woken up to the crisis have got to act -- CARPE DIEM!
One of the authors, Donella Meadows, died before this third edition was completed. Dana was a tireless and infectious optimist, who never stopped spreading the word that we have to change our way of life if humanity and the other forms of life we share the planet with are to survive.
Read this book, share it with others, and do SOMETHING to promote the needed transition to an ecologically sustainable country and world. Do it for Dana, do it for your children, do it before it's too late.
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