Facing the Limits to Growth
Donella H. Meadows and Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows
June 18, 2004
Limits to Growth
The Next Revolution: Sustainability
In an updated version of an influential 1972 book on the dangers facing the
planet, the authors confirm that the earth is taxed and overcommitted. But, as
they say, knowing is half the battle.
Editor's Note: 'Limits to Growth' was first published in 1972. 'Limits to
Growth: The 30-Year Update' has recently been published by Chelsea Green
Publishing. Below you'll find an excerpt from the newly released version,
preceded by some reflections by co-author Dennis Meadows on the 30-year journey
that has brought the book ─and the earth─ to this point.
It has been a unique experience to live with a book and a thesis for over 30
years ─watching the statements of both critics and proponents slowly evolve in
response to the changing world situation.
From 1970-72 I directed a project at MIT, supported by an international group
called the Club of Rome. My colleagues and I developed a computer model about
the long-term causes and consequences of growth in population and the physical
economy of the globe. The research produced three books. One of them, Limits
to Growth, caused a huge storm of controversy that has continued until the
present. The work pointed out that prevailing policies would almost certainly
lead to overshoot and collapse of the global society sometime in the 21st
One cannot predict the future with any confidence. But our computer model,
known as World3, produce a set of scenarios that showed different possibilities
for major global trends out to the year 2100. Most of them manifested collapse.
Some of them showed the possibility of sustainable development.
The book was translated into over 30 languages, became a best-seller in many
nations, and was eventually voted one of the 10 most important environmental
books of the 20th century.
It has also been bitterly attacked, right up to the present. For example a
recent advertisement in the Wall Street Journal stated, "In 1972, the Club of
Rome published Limits to Growth, questioning the sustainability of
economic and population growth. .... the Club of Rome was wrong."
It has been astonishing to me that many politicians and economists can
continue to deny the evidence of limits that is announced with ever more
frequency and urgency in the daily papers and the evening news. The world's use
of materials and energy has grown past the levels that can be supported
indefinitely. Pressures are mounting from the environment that will force a
reduction. Rising oil prices, climate change, declining forests, falling ground
water levels ─all of these are simply symptoms of the overshoot.
It is also a source of sadness for me to see so much energy invested in
denial and almost none put into making the changes that would let humanity
survive on this beautiful planet in good order more or less indefinitely. For
our research clearly points out that feasible changes in cultural norms and
goals would let us ease back down to sustainable levels, fulfill basic human
needs, and structure an orderly society more or less indefinitely.
Because of the long time horizon involved in our studies, we always realized
it would require several decades to get any perspective on the accuracy of our
forecasts. Now, three decades later, we are into the 21st century within 20
years of the time when our scenarios suggest that growth will near its end. The
basic conclusions are still the same. We have modified our model only a little
to reflect some better data about the effects of technology on land yields and
birth rates. And we have spent much more time elaborating on the structural
features of the global system ─delays, growth, and limits─ that predispose
it to overshoot and collapse.
There have also been losses since 1972. One of our four original co-authors,
Bill Behrens, dropped out of science to become a builder and alternative energy
merchant in northern Maine. And, more devastating, Donella Meadows, our senior
author, died unexpectedly of illness in 2001. The most inspiring parts of the
book are hers, and we have recognized her contributions by leaving her as senior
author on this third edition.
The first book made an enormous impact. This time we expect much less
attention. Iraq, terrorism, and high oil prices are crowding out analysis of
longer term issues ─even though they cannot be fully understood unless you see
them in the context of an overstressed planet. But there will be widespread use
of the book in teaching. And the millions who were educated and inspired by the
first edition will find this a useful update.
Limits to Growth
To overshoot means to go too far, to go beyond limits accidentally ─without
intention. People experience overshoots every day. When you rise too quickly
from a chair, you may momentarily lose your balance. If you turn on the
hot-water faucet too far in the shower, you may be scalded.
The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal
to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there
is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely
go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that
strive to keep the system within its limits. These three are necessary and
sufficient to produce an overshoot.
Overshoot is common, and it exists in almost infinite forms. The change may
be physical ─growth in the use of petroleum. It may be organizational ─an
increase in the number of people supervised. It may be psychological─
continuously rising goals for personal consumption. Or it may be manifest in
financial, biological, political, or other forms. The limits are similarly
diverse ─they may be imposed by a fixed amount of space; by limited time; by
constraints inherent in physical, biological, political, psychological, or other
features of a system. The delays, too, arise in many ways. They may result from
inattention, faulty data, delayed information, slow reflexes, a cumbersome or
quarreling bureaucracy, a false theory about how the system responds, or from
momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly despite the best
efforts to halt it. For example, delays may result when a driver does not
realize how much his car's braking traction has been reduced by ice on the road.
Most instances of overshoot cause little harm. Being past many kinds of
limits does not expose anyone to serious damage. Most types of overshoot occur
frequently enough that when they are potentially dangerous, people learn to
avoid them or to minimize their consequences. For example, you test the water
temperature with your hand before stepping into the shower stall. Sometimes
there is damage, but it is quickly corrected: Most people try to sleep extra
long in the morning after a late night drinking in the bar.
Occasionally, however, there arises the potential for catastrophic overshoot.
Growth in the globe's population and material economy confronts humanity with
this possibility. It is the focus of this book. The potential consequences of
this overshoot are profoundly dangerous. The situation is unique; it confronts
humanity with a variety of issues never before experienced by our species on a
global scale. We lack the perspectives, the cultural norms, the habits, and the
institutions required to cope. And the damage will, in many cases, take
centuries or millennia to correct. But the consequences need not be
catastrophic. Overshoot can lead to two different outcomes. One is a crash of
some kind. Another is a deliberate turnaround, a correction, a careful easing
down. We explore these two possibilities as they apply to human society and the
planet that supports it. We believe that a correction is possible and that it
could lead to a desirable, sustainable, sufficient future for all the world's
peoples. We also 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
Any population-economy-environment system that has feedback delays and slow
physical responses; that has thresholds and erosive mechanisms; and that grows
rapidly is literally unmanageable. No matter how fabulous its technologies, no
matter how efficient its economy, no matter how wise its leaders, it can't steer
itself away from hazards. If it constantly tries to accelerate, it will
By definition, overshoot is a condition in which the delayed signals from the
environment are not yet strong enough to force an end to growth. How, then, can
society tell if it is in overshoot? Falling resource stocks and rising pollution
levels are the first clues. Here are some other symptoms:
Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the
loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for
example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood
control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the
preservation of species).
Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to
exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources.
Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more
dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone.
Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution.
Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so
there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived
Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the 176 World3:
The Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World military or industry to gain access
to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer,
more remote, or increasingly hostile regions.
Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed
in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to
Debts a rising percentage of annual real output.
Eroding goals for health and environment.
Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources or sinks.
Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the
price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford.
Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are
used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a
declining resource base.
Growing chaos in natural systems, with "natural" disasters more frequent
and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system.
Do you observe any of these symptoms in your "real world"? If you do, you
should suspect that your society is in advanced stages of overshoot.
The Next Revolution: Sustainability
It is as impossible now for anyone to describe the world that could evolve
from a sustainability revolution as it would have been for the farmers of 6000
BC to foresee the corn and soybean fields of modern Iowa, or for an English coal
miner of AD 1800 to imagine an automated Toyota assembly line. Like the other
great revolutions, the coming sustainability revolution will also change the
face of the land and the foundations of human identities, institutions, and
cultures. Like the previous revolutions, it will take centuries to unfold fully
─though it is already under way. Of course no one knows how to bring about
such a revolution. There is not a checklist: "To accomplish a global paradigm
shift, follow these 20 steps."
Like the great revolutions that came before, this one can't be planned or
dictated. It won't follow a list of fiats from government or a proclamation from
computer modelers. The sustainability revolution will be organic. It will arise
from the visions, insights, experiments, and actions of billions of people. The
burden of making it happen is not on the shoulders of any one person or group.
No one will get the credit, but everyone can contribute. Our systems training
and our own work in the world have affirmed for us two properties of complex
systems germane to the sort of profound revolution we are discussing here.
First, information is the key to transformation. That does not necessarily
mean more information, better statistics, bigger databases, or the World Wide
Web, though all of these may play a part. It means relevant, compelling,
powerful, timely, accurate information flowing in new ways to new recipients,
carrying new content, suggesting new rules and goals (rules and goals that are
themselves information). When its information flows are changed, any system will
behave differently. The policy of glasnost, for example ─the simple opening of
information channels that had long been closed in the Soviet Union─ guaranteed
the rapid transformation of Eastern Europe beyond anyone's expectations. The old
system had been held in place by tight control of information. Letting go of
that control triggered total system restructuring (turbulent and unpredictable,
Second, systems strongly resist changes in their information flows,
especially in their rules and goals. It is not surprising that those who benefit
from the current system actively oppose such revision. Entrenched political,
economic, and religious cliques can constrain almost entirely the attempts of an
individual or small group to operate by different rules or to attain goals
different from those sanctioned by the system. Innovators can be ignored,
marginalized, ridiculed, denied promotions or resources or public voices. They
can be literally or figuratively snuffed out. Only innovators, however ─by
perceiving the need for new information, rules, and goals, communicating about
them, and trying them out─ can make the changes that transform systems. This
important point is expressed clearly in a quote that is widely attributed to
Margaret Mead, "Never deny the power of a small group of committed individuals
to change the world. Indeed that is the only thing that ever has." We have
learned the hard way that it is difficult to live a life of material moderation
within a system that expects, exhorts, and rewards consumption. But one can move
a long way in the direction of moderation. It is not easy to use energy
efficiently in an economy that produces energy inefficient products. But one can
search out, or if necessary invent, more efficient ways of doing things, and in
the process make those ways more accessible to others.
Above all, it is difficult to put forth new information in a system that is
structured to hear only old information. Just try, sometime, to question in
public the value of more growth, or even to make a distinction between growth
and development, and you will see what we mean. It takes courage and clarity to
challenge an established system. But it can be done.
About the Authors
Donella Meadows, who died unexpectedly in 2001, was a systems analyst and
adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College and wrote the
nationally syndicated newspaper column “The Global Citizen.”
Jorgen Randers is a policy analyst and President Emeritus of the
Norwegian School of Management. He lives in Oslo, Norway.
Dennis Meadows is a professor of Systems Management and director of
the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New
Hampshire. He lives in Durham, New Hampshire.
[Note: the "Synopsis" of "The Limits to Growth:
the 30-Year Update" is on the MFS
* Courtesy of AlterNet.org.
See original at < http://www.alternet.org/story/18978/ >.
Facing the Limits to
Growth, Donella H. Meadows and Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows
Chelsea Green Publishing. May 27, 2004.
The book is available at Chelsea Green Publishing < http://www.chelseagreen.com/2004/items/limitspaper