Limits to growth - the 30 year update

nice series of videos - related to concepts from the book Buy the book on amazon

Various quotes from the book

The estimated rates of extinction are now 1,000 times what they would be without human impact.

At present, there is little near-term concern over petroleum supplies... The world's petroleum resources are finite, however, and global production will eventually peak and then start to decline... More conventional estimates suggest that global production will not peak for another decade or two, somewhere between 2010 and 2025.

As the average grade of copper ore mined in Butte, Montana, fell from 30 percent to 0.5 percent, the tailings produced per ton of copper rose from 3 tons to 200 tons.

One hundred episodes of coral bleaching were reported during the period 1980 to 1998, compared with only three during the preceding 100 years.

Overshoots can become catastrophic when the damage they cause is irreversible. Nothing can bring back an extinct species. Fossil fuels are permanently destroyed in the very act of using them.... If the climate is significantly altered, geological data suggest that temperature and precipitation patterns probably will not return to normal within a time period meaningful to human society.

ways to prevent overshoot and collapse.

  • Growth in population and capital must be slowed and eventually stopped by human decisions enacted in anticipation of future problems rather than by feedback from external limits that have already been exceeded.
  • Througputs of energy and materials must be reduced by drastically increasing the efficiency of capital. In other words, the ecological footprint must be reduced through dematerialisation, increased equity and lifestyle changes.
  • Sources and sinks must be conserved, and where possible, restored.
  • Signals must be improved and reactions speeded up; society must look further ahead and base current actions on long term costs and benefits.
  • Erosion must be prevented and, where it already exists, slowed and then reversed.

caution for programmers from the ozone hole surveys:

In May 1985 the historic paper was published that announced an ozone hole in the Southern Hemisphere. The news shocked the scientific world. If true, the results proved that humankind had already exceeded a global limit. CFC use had grown above sustainable limits. Humans were already in the process of destroying their ozone shield.

Scientists at NASA scrambled to check readings on atmospheric ozone made by the Nimbus 7 satellite, measurements that had been taken routinely since 1978. Nimbus 7 had never indicated an ozone hole. Checking back NASA scientists found that their computers had been programmed to reject very low ozone readings on the assumption that such low readings must indicate instrument error.

(the measurements were recoverable, but yeah, 10 years lost.)

(thus) at some point it stops being true that growth will allow an economy to become rich enough to afford pollution abatement. In fact, growth takes an economy up a nonlinear cost curve to the point where further abatement becomes unaffordable. At that point a rational society would stop the expansion of its activity level, since further growth will no longer increase the welfare of its citizens.

Our first insight from these experiments is the realisation that waiting to introduce fundamental change reduces the options open from humanities long term future. Waiting longer to reduce population growth and stabilise productive capital stocks means that population is larger, more resources have been consumed, pollution levels are higher, more land has deteriorated, and the absolute flows of food, services and goods required to sustain the population are higher. Needs are greater, problems larger, and capacities less.

A sustainable society is one that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

Guidelines to restructuring towards sustainability.

  • Extend the planning horizon. (think more about long term costs and benefits than short term ones. Develop the incentives, the tools and the procedures required for the media, the market, and elections to report, respect and be responsible for issues that unfold over decades.
  • Improve the signals. Include environmental and social costs in economic prices ; recast economic indicators such as the GDP; so that they do not confuse costs with benefits or throughput with welfare or the deterioration of natural capital with income.
  • Speed up response times. Look actively for signals that indicate when the environment or society is stressed. Educate for flexibility and creativity, for critical thinking and the ability to redesign both physical and social systems.
  • Minimise the use of nonrenewable resources. (consume only as part of a deliberate transition to renewables)
  • Prevent the erosion of renewable resources (protect soils, surface waters, forests fish (cod anyone??!) AND only harvest at a rate which they can regenerate themselves sustainably.
  • Use all resources with maximum efficiency. The more human welfare can be obtained within a given ecological footprint, the better the quality of life can be while remaining below the limits.
  • Slow and eventually stop exponential growth of population and physical capital. There are limits to the extent the first 6 items can be pursued. Therefore this last item is the most essential. It involves institutional and philosophical change and social innovation. It requires defining levels of population and industrial output that are desirable and sustainable. It calls for defining goals around the idea of development rather than growth. It asks, simply but profoundly, for a larger and more truly satisfying vision of the purpose of human existence than mere physical expansion and accumulation.

"All of humanity is in peril" said Buckminster Fuller, "if each one of us does not dare, now and henceforth, always to tell only the truth and all the truth, and to do so promptly -- right now"

nice responses:

Not: A warning about the future is a prediction of doom.
But: A warning about the future is a recommendation to follow a different path.

Not: The environment is a luxury or a competing demand or a commodity that people will buy when they can afford it.
But: The environment is the source of all life and everyday economy. Opinion polls typically show the public is willing to pay more for a healthy environment.

Not: Change is sacrifice, and it should be avoided.
But: Change is challenge, and it is necessary.

Not: Stopping growth will lock poor in their poverty.
But: It is the avarice and indifference of the rich that lock the poor into poverty. The poor need new attitudes amongst the rich; then there will be growth specifically generated and served to their needs.

Not: Everyone should be brought up to the material level of the richest countries.
But: There is no possibility of raising material consumption levels for everyone to the levels now enjoyed by the rich. Everyone should have their fundamental material needs satisfied. Material needs beyond this level should be satisfied only if it is possible, for all, within a sustainable ecological footprint.

(and lots more of these)

Finally, on mental models

  • One mental model says that this world, for all practical purposes has no limits. Choosing that mental model will encourage extractive business as usual and take the human economy even farther beyond the limits. The result will be collapse
  • Another mental model says that the limits are real and close, and that there is not enough time, and that people cannot be moderate or responsible or compassionate. At least not in time. That model is self-fulfilling. If the world's people choose to believe it, they will be proven right. The result will be collapse.
  • A third mental model says that the limits are real and close and in some cases below our current levels of throughput. But there is just enough time, with no time to waste. There is just enough energy, enough material, enough money, enough environmental resilience, and enough human virtue to bring about a planned reduction in the ecological footprint of humankind: a sustainability revolution to a much better world for the vast majority.

That third scenario might very well be wrong. But the evidence we have seen, from world data to global computer models, suggests that it could conceivably be made right. There is no way of knowing for sure, other than to try it.