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Unsustainable Growth

“The current human trajectory of growing population and rising consumption is simply not sustainable.   Something has to give.”

I had originally intended to end our series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth (the landmark MIT study commissioned by the Club of Rome), on Earth Day. I have so much good material yet to share, and the warnings provided by The Limits to Growth are so important, I’ve decided to extend the series indefinitely. I will now cut back on the frequency of posts to no more than once or twice a week. Incidentally, the Club of Rome is also stepping up the conversation this year about limits. I recommend you explore the Club’s Change the Course website. Today I’m sharing commentary I invited from Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute. Bob is extremely knowledgeable in the population and public policy arenas. His views are published regularly on Huffington Post, and this commentary should also appear there soon.  – Dave Gardner

Unsustainable Growth

by Robert Walker

Here’s an Earth Day thought:  Economic growth, as we have known it, is not sustainable.

In a world with infinite space and resources, we could have perpetual economic growth.  Everyone could have more without anyone having less.  But we live on a finite planet with finite resources. Every day we steadily deplete our limited inheritance of minerals, metals, and fossil fuels.  Every day water tables drop, deserts expand, and soil erosion accelerates.  Every day we lose more tropical forests, reduce more fish stocks, and emit more carbon than the atmosphere can absorb.  Every day thousands of planet and animal species move closer to the brink of extinction.

think-small-white-bg-240x300 The critical, unanswered question is how long can we keep this up?  This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of “Limits to Growth.”  Written by Dennis Meadows and three other MIT researchers, the book caused a major stir in 1972.   Using computers to model increases in crop yields, population, industrial production, and resource consumption, the researchers concluded that resource limitations could curtail economic growth.  They projected, in fact, that by 2030 the world’s economic engine would falter, leading to a sharp decline in global living standards.

But in the first three decades that followed the publication of “Limits to Growth,” food production expanded briskly, and the prices of metals and minerals—despite the increased rate of consumption—declined in real terms.  And while fossil fuel costs jumped following the Arab oil embargo, the price of oil fell to nearly $10 a barrel in 1999.  Critics openly scoffed at the notion of limits to growth.

Over the past decade, however, the global picture has changed, and while the world’s growth engine appears to be back on track again, warning signs now abound.  The prices of grain and other basic food essentials prices have doubled in the past eight years.  Metals and minerals on average have more than tripled.  And oil, of course, is now hovering around $100 a barrel.  Suddenly, the ‘limits to growth’ argument appears to have a lot more validity.  Indeed, the forecast that was made in 1972 is looking remarkably prescient, and climate change makes the scenario frighteningly plausible.

The argument that the Earth’s bounty is limited is without credible dispute.  We live on a finite planet with finite resources, and anyone who denies that is living on a different planet. Technological advances may make it possible for us to reduce our ecological footprint and slow the rate at which we are depleting the Earth’s resources, but the current human trajectory of growing population and rising consumption is simply not sustainable.   Something has to give.

It is commonly hoped that world population will start to decline before things get out of hand, and that technology in the meantime can mitigate and even reverse much of the damage that we are inflicting on the Earth.  The problem with that optimistic take is that it’s entirely conjectural and largely contradicted by recent trends.  The latest UN population projections suggest that population, in all likelihood, will continue to grow for several decades to come.  Fertility rates are not falling as fast as once anticipated. Fifty years from now, world population could easily be approaching the 10 billion mark.  Similarly, expanded production of renewable energy has done little to slow the rate at which we are depleting fossil fuels or emitting greenhouse gases.  While production of conventional oil appears to have peaked, our extraction of coal and natural gas is increasing, and so is the rate at which we are depleting nature’s stock of metals and minerals.

In theory, technology could make humanity more sustainable, but, in practice, the opposite has been true.  It’s not the great savior that we generally make it out to be.  It’s possible that a scientific breakthrough will yield a cheap, clean, and renewable source of energy to substitute for fossil fuels. As welcome as that might be from a climate change perspective, it would almost certainly accelerate the depletion of metals, minerals and forests.

So where do we go from here?  We start, as Growthbusters and other groups are now urging, by thinking small, and not just in terms of population. We find ways of satisfying human needs with fewer resources:  smaller homes, smaller commutes, smaller vehicles, smaller wardrobes, and fewer “things.”  We also need to think smarter: smarter energy grids, smarter communities, smarter businesses, smarter homes, and smarter consumer choices.

Alternatively, we can just go on ‘living large’ and believing in perpetual growth. But for how long?


If you find this information at all compelling, if you’re concerned about the prospects for a civilization hell-bent to grow forever on a finite planet, please take the Think Small Pledge and encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do so. Thank you.

Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner is the director of the new documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which uncovers the cultural forces that keep us pursuing growth in the face of overwhelming evidence we’ve outgrown the planet.

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