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Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
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158 of 173 people found the following review helpful
In the Authors' Preface, they provide important background information to their "30-Year Update": Published in 1972, "The Limits to Growth (LTG) reported that global ecological constraints (related to resource use and emissions) would have significant influence on global developments in the twenty-first century. LTG warned that humanity might have to divert much capital and manpower to battle these constraints -- possibly so much that the average quality of life would decline sometime during the twenty-first century." Then in 1992, the authors conducted a 20-year update of their original study and published the results in Beyond the Limits. "In BTL we studied global developments between 1970 and 1990 and used the information to update the LTG and the World3 computer model. BTL repeated the same message: In 1992 we concluded that two decades of history mainly supported the conclusions we had advanced 20 years earlier."

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.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 12, 2007
No one likes limits, but they're with us all our lives, from the restrictions our parents place on us as children to the limits that society and Mother Nature compel us to adhere to as adults. The authors do a clear and thorough job of explaining how physical limits affect the Earth and the human society evolving within it.
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.
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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2005
Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is a look at the resources of the planet and how they are being used, using the tools of systems dynamics computer modeling, with an eye to seeing if the current practices of unchecked growth in the use of resources is a viable, sustainable approach to living (an idea that on it's face appears to be an obvious no-brainer). The authors have produced two prior books on these issues, Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits. The central questions are these: Are current policies leading to a sustainable future, or collapse? What can be done to create a human economy that provides sufficiently for all? They quote another researcher who points out that humanity surpassed sustainability in the 1980s, a statement that is congruent with their computer modeling.

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 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?
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2011
I tend to believe that limits to growth must exist, but as a retired atmospheric scientist and software engineer, I need to examine the details. This book relies heavily upon a model which the authors only discuss in words and diagrams (chapter 4). They should have included the mathematical equations in an appendix and perhaps the equations, more model detail, and the model source code on their website. The authors do say you can get a CD of the model at [...], but the CD does not appear to contain equations and source code. Of course, it would also be nice if the model were in some language other than STELLA, which is a proprietary simulation language. One of the hallmarks of good scientist is to publish enough detail so any claims can be examined for validity. The authors of this book have not done that.
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50 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2004
It's been 30 years since the publication of the original LIMITS TO GROWTH, and according to the updated computer model (World3), overshoot and collapse is still the most likely outcome of current trends -- too many humans, consuming too much and polluting too much, are already in a condition of overshoot (by about 20%), and will most likely go charging on until crashing back to Earth, with population and consumption reduced back beneath the carrying capacity of the environment. Using World3 and a mountain of data, the authors show that improved technologies and efficient markets, while necessary, will not be sufficient to prevent overshoot and collapse -- it will also be necessary to radically restructure society to reduce our reckless squandering of the Earth's resources.

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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54 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2004
This is a thorough, scientific account of what mankind is doing ecologically to the planet. There are many charts, graphs and research studies proving that the planet is in danger.
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.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2009
This book is truly groundbreaking. I first read the original version in 1989 when I was a student and it made sense of a very uneasy feeling I had had as a child and which only became stronger the older I got. My uneasy feeling centered on three questions: where does all this stuff we've got come from?; where does it all go when we throw it away?; and will we one day run out of stuff, or places to put used stuff in? This book more than answered those questions. I remember lying in the grass in the late summer sun and having to put the book down every couple of pages or so to digest yet another horrifying revelation. I would then look around at the children playing, mothers shopping and people going about their work and business, and get this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach: they just have no idea, I kept thinking to myself, they just have no idea. The Thirty Year Update is just as fresh and compelling - the only problem is, we've wasted the last thirty years and are now in an even more dire predicement. Nevertheless, as many people as possible should read this book so we will at least have a fighting chance of moving to a more sustainable future. There are a couple of key points worth mentioning against the critics. First of all, the original version did not make any specific predictions about resource depletion or pollution. It simply described the generic properties of a system and explained what the system tended to do under various conditions. This generated a number of possible scenarios and a number of them ended in collapse. For the record, as the authors point out in the preface to this edition, the standard model run of World3 (which does end in collapse) bears a pretty close resemblence to the actual development of the world since 1972. Importantly, the standard run predicts continued growth until the second decade of this century so it won't start to diverge from the business as usual scenarios until about 2010: so even if you treat it as a prediction you won't be able to verify it for another 5-10 years. This brings me to my second point against the critics. The authors have never claimed that natural resources (or pollution sinks) will simply run out. What they argue is much more subtle - that we will run out of something else entirely, namely, the ability to cope. I leave you with the most chilling quote from the book (p223): 'When problems arise exponentially and in multiples, problems that could be dealt with one by one can overwhelm the ability to cope.' I have a hunch that peak oil, climate change, depletion of fish stocks etc. are all not so faint signals of impending limits, and we are getting perilously close to several big limits simultaneously. More and more of our industrial production (that is, our ability to cope) will then be devoted to solving problems we have created until the entire edifice comes crashing down around us. Read this book and change your life.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2012
Apocalypse has been given a bad name. The Seventh Day Adventists are still around. The Nike sneaker cult failed to open Heaven's Gate. The new millennium brought us George W. Bush, not Jesus H. Christ. And everybody's terrified of "drinking the Kool-Aid."

But our species is living beyond its means. If we continue down this path, the planet, our food supplies, our climate, and life as we know it will collapse. If we bring population growth, consumption, and pollution under control, the damage already set in motion will play out for centuries, but complete catastrophe will likely be averted.

Nobody likes to be told that the end might be near. Either it is or it isn't. And the question is resolved by a personal lifestyle choice. Do I wish to be a pessimist or an optimist? Of course, optimist is far more popular. Even most predictors of apocalypse have actually believed they were predicting a good thing. The world was to be replaced with something better. Even our best environmentalists who understand the radical changes needed for survival guarantee they will happen. Harvey Wasserman says he simply believes in happy endings.

Meanwhile, we can barely get half of us in the United States to "believe" that global warming is happening. Of course, we step outside and there's a sauna, but that could just be "natural." So what if the ocean is a few inches higher? The people who've been predicting that for decades have been wrong until now, and now they're only a little right -- if you even believe them. The ocean looks about the same to me. And if they predict exponential acceleration of such changes, meaning that once the changes have become visible it won't be long before they're enormous, well that just proves one thing: they've drunk the Kool-Aid. They're pessimists.

In 1992, governments finally got together in Rio and took some baby steps. In 2012, they reconvened and collectively proclaimed, "To hell with all that. This rock may be doomed, but that's our great-grandchildren's problem. Screw them! This is Rio. Roll down the windows. Turn up the air conditioning. Pass me a drink!" Well, actually, a few scientists and diplomats stood off to the side and muttered, "What we need to save us is a really bad catastrophe." And a 17-year-old girl stood up and blurted out the truth, which made everybody feel really important. Imagine: you were at the meeting that could have chosen to save the planet; how cool is that? Imagine how the judge feels who is sitting in Washington, D.C., deliberating on whether the atmosphere ought to be protected or destroyed. The atmosphere! Of the earth! Now that's power, and the longer you deliberate the longer you can fantasize about possibly even using that power.

In 1972 a group of scientists published a book called Limits to Growth. It passionately urged the changes needed before human growth and destruction exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. In 1992, the same authors published Beyond the Limits. There were by then, they found, too many humans doing too much damage. We were beyond sustainable limits and would need to change quickly. In 2004, they published an update, arguing that we were already 20 percent above global carrying capacity, and that we had "largely squandered the past 30 years." Their warnings grew sharper: "We do not have another 30 years to dither."

The updated book charts the course we've been on these past 30, now 40, years. Population has exploded in less industrialized countries. Many millions of poor people have been added to our species, while a shrinking percentage of the world's population has continued to hoard most of the wealth. The planet has become less equitable through the repeated act of giving birth. Then it has become less equitable still through economic growth that has been made to benefit most those least in need. Meanwhile, nations with high population growth have been least able to invest in infrastructure, being obliged to take care of their people's immediate needs. This has resulted in still greater poverty, triggering higher birth rates in families dependent on children to survive. These vicious cycles can be broken, and have been broken, but not by wishing or hoping. And time is running out.

Sustainable agriculture is being practiced in some places and could feed us all if practiced everywhere and the food distributed to everyone. The problem is not figuring out what to do so much as simply doing it. But we can't do it individually, and we can't wait for those in power to do it on their own.

Corporations will not learn to make more money by behaving responsibly, not to a sufficient extent to reverse current trends. The logic of the market will not correct itself, except in the most brutal sense. If we wait for Wall Street to decide that destroying the Earth is a bad idea, the basic systems of life on Earth will collapse in shortages, crises, and widespread suffering. Instead, we have to enforce change as a society, and we have to do it now. If we'd acted in 1982, write the authors of Limits to Growth, we might have avoided serious damage. If we'd acted in 2002, we also still had a fighting chance. By 2022, it will be too late to avoid decline. We're halfway there.

Limits to Growth offers the crisis of the ozone layer as evidence that humanity can face up to a global environmental disaster and correct it. Of course, we can. We have always had that option and always will. Even beyond 2022, we will have the option of lessening the destruction to as great an extent possible. But slowing the damage to the ozone layer required changes to a relatively small industrial cartel, nothing to compare to big oil. The question is not, I think, whether the world can act collectively on behalf of the Earth. The question is whether the world can act collectively against the organized strength of the fossil fuels industry, its closely aligned military forces in the United States and NATO, and governments far gone down the path of inverted totalitarianism.

For you optimists, I should point out that living sustainably need not mean suffering. We could live better lives with less consumption and destruction. Our culture can grow while our population declines. Our society can advance while our production of waste products retreats. Our mental horizons can broaden while our food sources narrow. Millennia from now, people living sustainably on this planet could look back with wonder at the insanity of the notion that everything had to grow, and with gratitude toward those who gave their fellow passengers an awakening smack to the face.

Here's one small place to start.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This book is neither easy nor pleasant reading. However, it is not the purely pessimistic voice of doom or the rabid environmentalist tract that many reviews described when the first edition came out 30 years ago. Rather, it is a sort of cross between a primer on budgeting and the warning a doctor might give to an overweight smoker. A good budget rests on a few simple assumptions: Resources are limited; you must plan for the future; and if you overspend now, you'll run short later. A doctor's report would say, "You may not have symptoms now, but your habits will eventually cause your body to break down." Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows present such a warning to all of human civilization. They analyze resource consumption, economic distribution, population growth and pollution. Their sobering conclusions amount to an attempt to start humanity on the road to a more equitable, sustainable society. The effort required to read this book comes in part from the writing, which varies drastically in style, tone and organizational choices, and in part from the innate challenges of the material. That said, we recommend it to anyone who wishes to plan realistically for the future, whether you're a CEO who wants to do sustainable business, a national leader who wants to create thriving human institutions, a community member concerned about local pollution, or a parent who does not want his or her children to grow up in a wasteland.
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22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2004
This book proves that our lives of excess fueled by an incessant desire for more, are having serious consequences on the earth and therefore on our own shared well being. Did we ever realize that we were one with the environment and each other or is this saving recognition of truth still to come?

In reality we are still living with our 20th century lifestyles with little regard for even questioning whether we should change. This book proves we need to change our habits and our attitudes toward each other and the planet itself. It's amazing to me that we so readily discount years (30 Years in the this case) of scientific evidence that describes factually our energy, land and resource use, in ways that are overextening the earth's support systems, like air and water. This is further witnessed in our local papers with articles on inner city asthma from ozone and mercury rendering fish inedible, yet we live in denial. When will we accept that the human footprint is bigger than the earth can handle, i.e. unsustainable, and realize that it's only depressing if we do nothing about it?

If someone does not believe we have issues that we need to put governmental, corporate and individual resources toward resolving, I'd hand him this book which also talks to solutions including alterative energy sources and ways of being. Well defined facts and figures can help bring us toward the inclusion of ecological solutions as part of our shared concern for life. We need to achieve a paradigm shift toward sustainability leveraging the following starter tools: visioning, networking, truth telling, learning and loving; by the latter is meant love of humanity and nature and increasing desire for nurture, further emphasis on positive thinking over scare tactics, and the need to respond compassionately to the truth.
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