The latest look at a classic global ecological analysis from MIT:
A new study from researchers at Jay W. Forrester's institute at MIT says that the world could suffer from "global economic collapse" and "precipitous population decline" if people continue to consume the world's resources at the current pace.
Smithsonian Magazine writes that Australian physicist Graham Turner says "the world is on track for disaster" and that current evidence coincides with a famous, and in some quarters, infamous, academic report from 1972 entitled, "The Limits to Growth."
Now the new study here isn't the Limits to Growth study, but rather a re-examination of it that finds that we have been tracking what they called the "business-as-usual" scenario. The original work from 1972 presented a number of possibilities, not all of which ended in societal decline. However, the business-as-usual scenario, which projected what would happen if all policies remained the same, did end in decline, and as it turns out, that's the trajectory we're on. (I should note that the authors of the Limits to Growth were painfully careful not to predict or forecast anything, but rather just to model scenarios. However, as it has turned out that we've been following their business-as-usual scenario for 40 years, others have treated that model as an approximate forecast of where we're headed.)
The Historical Context
Let's look at the Limits to Growth. This classic ecological study was a warning, one yet to be heeded, along with the many other more recent warnings (World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, Footprint Study, Overshoot, etc.). The science is telling us that progress as we've known it cannot continue: it's running into the physical, ecological limits of the planet we live on.
To quote the footprint study:
Since the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year.
How have we adapted over the past couple of decades to this scientific consensus? It has ignored the science, or taken the science piecemeal and applied it to political causes when convenient and ignored it when it was inconvenient. Our approach has tended to want to address environmental issues (say, climate change) but at the same time insist that we should still pursue growth (maybe with some euphemisms like "green growth" or "smart growth"). That's better, maybe, than the modern conservative approach of ignoring the science entirely. But not much better. In fact one of the few things you'll find agreement upon between progressives and conservatives is that growth is what we want.
We have yet to successfully reframe the notion of progress within the limits of the Earth---the ecological limits that cannot be circumvented. Or maybe ditch the notion of progress and find something that fits better.
This last part often gets ignored: "ecological limits that cannot be circumvented." That doesn't mean "it would be nice to pay attention to the environment." Unlike many environmental causes of the past few decades (i.e. saving specific species, avoiding specific types of pollution, etc.), ecological limits have to do with the entire ecosystem we live in and depend upon. That includes our economy, which is a subset of the global ecosystem and derives 3/4 of its value from natural processes over which we have no control or input (a fact that almost nobody knows).
We're in overshoot. And any system can stay in overshoot for some amount of time---you can overspend for a little while by drawing down savings in your bank account, but it's easy to forecast that the bank account will go empty at some point and that spending can't continue. And ecologists have been forecasting that our global bank account---the resources we could extract and the wastes we could produce---would start to run dry sometime around now. And we're starting to see it all around us.
Dennis Meadows, 40 years later
Dennis Meadows, one of the lead authors of the MIT study, recently gave a 40th anniversary talk of the Limits to Growth at the Smithsonian Institution:
I highly recommend watching this talk, even though it's a bit dry. Here we have an eminent ecologist and systems researcher reflecting on what he's seen over the last 40 years, and the responses people have had to his studies.
So should we just throw up our hands? No. I think we need to ground ourselves in the "present conditions." In other words, what are these limits we're facing? I've been a bit vague about them, but they're actually quite concrete. As an example (a limited one), here's a figure from the Footprint studies:
Essentially we need to look at the resources we extract and the damage we do / wastes we produce. On the matter of resources, I've written a number of diaries discussing how we've basically maxed out on oil production, and soon on other fossil fuels as well. (I figure it's best to not repeat that information here.)
On the latter question of damage / wastes, the Planetary Boundaries study produced this helpful diagram:
Anything within the green zone is "within limits". Note that two of the pieces haven't been quantified yet.
This brings us back to the limits to growth. That landmark study discussed how growth, which has been intimately tied into our notion of progress, must end. And we're seeing now that it is ending---we're at the point (plus or minus a few years) where growth as we have known it for centuries will end.
We need a new way forward, one that doesn't depend upon now defunct ideas like progress or growth or advancement or other similar ideas. Instead, as Bill McKibben put it in his excellent book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, we need a new vocabulary, one with words like durable that convey what we really need: to weather the storm of the reversal of growth as our bills from our overshoot come due.
This is a conversation that we need to start having. The
growth durability of our nation depends upon it.