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Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update Paperback – June 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

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
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

(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 practice


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing; 3 edition (June 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 193149858X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1931498586
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Donella H. Meadows was a pioneering environmental scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world's foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth. She was Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, the founder of the Sustainability Institute and co-founder of the International Network of Resource Information Centers.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

160 of 175 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 21, 2004
Format: Paperback
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").
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By James A. Vedda on August 12, 2007
Format: Paperback
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.
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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful By PeacefulJeff on February 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
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.
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