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I remember the moment when I understood that humanity could destroy itself, not in the blinding flash of nuclear explosions, but by the gradual, almost invisible, buildup of our own waste products, our various forms of pollution.  

I was in junior high, sometime in the 1967-68 school year, in 7th grade science class.  We were learning about the interactions of plants and animals in the biosphere, and discussing the difficulties of setting up a science fair-type demonstration in a sealed aquarium.  It's hard to fit in enough plant biomass to balance the oxygen use of even one fish; but even once you do that it can't be self-sustaining on the kind of scale we could possibly achieve.  Eventually the fish would suffocate in its own waste.

Except for light, heat and other forms of radiation, a sealed aquarium is a closed system.  It was, I suddenly understood, a perfect reflection of the same kind of closed system as our planet.  Various bits of knowledge, about population growth, deforestation, industrialization and pollution came together in a flash of intuitive, gestalt understanding. I suddenly knew that we were on the way towards making the Earth incapable of sustaining our civilization -- maybe even our species.  We were on the way towards destroying ourselves, and we might not even know when we had passed the point of no return until years afterwards, when it would be far too late.  

I remember stumbling blindly out into the hallway when the bell rang, leaning against the wall, numb with shock at the horror of that realization.  I don't remember if I made it to my next class.

I was 12 years old when I had that terrible insight.  It was five long years before I learned that there was anyone else on the planet who understood, who believed, who knew what I knew.

Some of you will already have recognized the book that meant so much to me back then... that still informs my understanding of ecology -- and economics -- even today.  The Limits to Growth.

The Limits to Growth was an odd little book. It was published by Universe Books in 1972, but that makes it sound way too normal. A quote from its Wikipedia entry may help:

The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book about the computer modeling of unchecked economic and population growth with finite resource supplies. [1] Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation [2] and commissioned by the Club of Rome it was first presented at the 3. St. Gallen Symposium. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate [3] the consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems.
Ah, the combination of techno-speak with that casual reference to a mysterious group -- the Club of Rome -- now that's a better reflection of both the strength and the strangeness of this little book.

If you're interested in learning about the Club of Rome and how The Limits to Growth came to be written, there's a good article in The Nation here.

 So how did this book change my life? In a number of ways, actually; but there's one overarching change that probably made the most difference to me at the time.  It took that intuitive, gestalt sense of the planet as a sealed box with far too much waste building up in it, and translated it into a series of data sets and new ways of thinking about that kind of data. That change, which I referenced in the subtitle, took me from what felt like helpless anxiety to a sense that there were ways to communicate about, and potentially even DO something about, the danger that I sensed looming ahead for humanity and the entire biosphere.

Among other things, this book taught me to understand exponential growth. Edward Teller said, "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." He may have been right. But maybe we can find new ways to teach it. For me, it came easily, but that's because of my odd way of thinking.

Most people think primarily either in pictures or in words. I think primarily in the kinesthetic sense. If you talk to most people about a pond, they either think about it in words or get a visual image of it. I get a kinesthetic sense of land sloping down to an area filled with water. The land feels solid. The water is less so, but still has substance -- both volume and mass.  So for me, the metaphor of a pond being filled by exponential increments created an internal feeling of the sudden shift... of how you go for nearly a month with the tiny amounts getting only a little bit bigger, and then, suddenly, in the last 4 days, it's 1/8 full, then 1/4, then 1/2, then BAM! It's full. No more room. When 5 days ago it was almost empty. That solid sense of mass, doubling, and doubling again, totally filling the pond so suddenly has stayed with me for 40 years. I get exponential growth. There must be a way to teach it so that visual and verbal thinkers get it, as well.

Another thing The Limits to Growth did for me was give me a way of looking at economics from a more realistic perspective. I know that infinite growth is not possible, so the focus, as with ecology, needs to be on sustainability.

Oh, in case you're wondering how accurate the book's predictions were, the Smithsonian Magazine took a look at that here.

Spoiler alert: they were frighteningly accurate.

The Limits to Growth taught me to look at our situation as a web of interlocking systems that can be affected not only for ill, but also for good. Yes, it's going to take a while to transition to renewables, but in the meantime Allan Savory is figuring out ways to reverse desertification in ways that can help to sequester both CO2 and methane. The dynamic balance between positive and negative effects of technology, and the building of a movement that is attracting bright young minds, give me hope that we can go a long way towards mitigating the coming disaster. This book gave me the context, the ability to look at all these different elements, instead of just being overwhelmed by the horror of what we're facing.

So the The Limits to Growth changed my life in 1972, and continues to have an impact today. I credit those researcher/authors with the fact that I can see the disaster coming and instead of being overwhelmed by despair I keep looking for what can be done, or invented, or changed, or who can be educated... Because it may be a closed system, but it's a COMPLEX closed system, and everything we do can affect everything else... so it ain't over till it's over.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for this beautifully written diary about (10+ / 0-)

    a problem that affects us all.  It's impressive that at the age of 12 you were able to grasp the ramifications of the closed system in the aquarium and apply them to the larger system of our planet.

    The statement you quoted is chilling:

    Edward Teller said, "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function."
    Sobering in the extreme.  We really, really don't perceive what we're doing to our Earth--or, in the case of those who do perceive it, lack the political power to avert the catastrophe. It's good that you and others are looking for ways to mitigate or avert some of the effects.

    This diary provides much to think about.  Again, thanks for the review--well done!

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 05:13:51 AM PDT

  •  limits on growth is historically a fact as we (10+ / 0-)

    have dozens of civilizations that simply outgrew its ability to feed its population, leading to war, invasions, abandonment of cities and other extreme reactions from Rome to the Mayans to the Chinese and so on.  At some point empires either realize their limitations and stop to live within their means (which is reasonable and hence very unusual) or they attack their neighbors or at least tries to make them vassal states paying tribute.

    In the past, the fall of empires only affected the regions where they were dominant but with a universal, global economy, we are no longer economic islands but instead what affects one, affects all.  This is the reason we now stand able to destroy species by fouling our own nest because we have nowhere else to go

  •  I didn't "get" the concept of exponential growth (8+ / 0-)

    until I was in college.  Before that, I deeply resented math because I just wasn't developmentally ready to learn it and it frustrated me.  In college I was ready to understand math concepts and motivated to learn them to achieve my goal of getting a degree in biology.  

    Like you, I can remember the moment.  I looked at the board as the professor drew the graph of an exponential function.  The curve behaved normally for a bit and then started to rise dramatically before becoming almost vertical as the numbers exploded in size.  Such power in those numbers!  

    I don't think I am unique.  With a few exceptions for gifted students, I think we try to teach higher math far too early to minds that are not ready to grasp the concepts behind the numbers.  I think all adults should take a math "refresher" course about 10 years after high school, after they've lived for a bit and can internalize the personal impact that math concepts have on their lives.  Exponential growth would be understandable to someone struggling to pay off a bill with compounding interest, for example.  Hopefully, they could then be able to extrapolate the concept to the larger environment.            

    Metaphors be with you.

    by koosah on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 06:20:13 AM PDT

    •  What a good idea, koosah, think you're on to (5+ / 0-)

      something here:

      I think all adults should take a math "refresher" course about 10 years after high school, after they've lived for a bit and can internalize the personal impact that math concepts have on their lives.
      I for one appreciate math far more than I ever did in school.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 07:26:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I suspect you're right about (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      marina, koosah, RiveroftheWest

      trying to teach higher math too early, or at least trying to teach it the WAY we do. There may be ways to make the concepts more natural/intuitive, even to non-prodigies.

    •  The best math refresher course for adults (4+ / 0-)

      is trying to help your children with their math homework.

      I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

      by OHdog on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 02:13:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've heard that before. :) Unfortunately (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I don't have any children, so I'll have to think of something else.  Maybe I'll go watch Vihart doodling in math class and hope something sticks:

        •  Fortunately, I don't have any children, because (3+ / 0-)

          I absorbed the Systems Dynamics insights that I saw from the World Model graphs that came my way due to Limits to Growth and associated literature....

          And so I committed myself to not having any children.

          And to doing what I could (including using my gifts in computer graphics and programming) to contribute to deepening, broadening, and perfecting those models.

          And, most generally, to contributing creatively towards ecosystemic health.

          I was 16 when I discovered Limits to Growth. It changed my life. Then as a high school senior I gave speeches about it and talked about it in newpaper interviews that happened because I won a particular kind of scholarship.

          As a college freshman, I analyzed the original source materials and over 80 commentaries on the Forrester World Model / Club of Rome / Limits to Growth global systems dynamics simulation initiatives, and refuted each point of critique via academic paper and in debate against several dozen Economics/Politics grad students.

          I even got to personally host Jay Forrester when he came to our campus.

          Thank you for keeping this work alive, here on the pages of Daily Kos.

          I feel a kinship with you, and congratulate you on absorbing the lessons at an even earlier age :)

          #3: ensure network neutrality; #2: ensure electoral integrity; #1: ensure ecosystemic sustainability.

          by ivote2004 on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 08:23:53 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  thank you for wonderful diary. (4+ / 0-)

    I will read this book.

    Btw, the Club for Rome recently popped up for me when I read Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom. I hadn't heard of them before and now, since I have, they keep popping up more and more, of course.

    There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. -- Robert Hass

    by srkp23 on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 06:30:38 AM PDT

    •  I'll have to read that novel! I haven't (3+ / 0-)

      heard of the Club of Rome in any other context, so I'll be googling them now, to see what I can find.

      If you're going to read the book, you might consider reading one of the updates that are mentioned in a downstream comment.  I'm sorry I didn't think to mention them in my diary. There were 20-year, 30-year, & maybe now 40-year anniversary updated editions, and I think Beyond the Limits may have been an additional commentary, though I could be wrong on that -- it may have been what they called one of the anniversary updates.

    •  The Koch-funded Club for Growth (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Kay Observer2, ivote2004

      is named in opposition to the Club of Rome.

      It's been obvious since the publication of Limits to Growth that the survival of human civilization would me that free-market economics has to go. But the Kochs and other billionaires decided that this message is what has to go. They don't care how many people perish in the dieback -- their families will be shielded by their wealth, and in the aftermath they will have everything needed to rule -- so they plan.

      •  I hadn't made that connection about the Club for (0+ / 0-)

        Growth, but it makes sense. And I think you're right about the Kochs in general. They seem to have no moral or ethical sense at all -- they're just blind parasites who don't care who or what they destroy.

  •  1992, Beyond the Limits (6+ / 0-)

    The Meadows team updated their own work at least once, maybe twice.

    Beyond the Limits appeared in 1992.

    I thought the institute that's carried on their work published something within the past decade as well, but it's not springing to mind.

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience with ecological awakening.


    Most models are wrong, but some are useful.

    by etbnc on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 07:24:29 AM PDT

  •  Exponential can move in either direction (4+ / 0-)

    In terms of biology, exponential functions to our detriment mean persistent rates of population growth. The ever upward exponential function, the "J". Our obsession with the rate the economy is growing, in tandem with population growth, shows us how much we disrespect the physical limits.

    Our primitive understanding of the exponential function tells us that numbers are infinite, and we've tried to break out these intervals of infinity with orders of magnitude. Kilo, mega, giga, tera, peta, exa, zetta, yotta... in terms of things like the amount of energy we consume globally, it is about 500 exajoules. And yet, there's enough heat in the ocean (200 zettajoules, or 400 times our global energy consumption) to cause 3.2 Hiroshima explosions, every second of every day.

    Our optimism as a species may protect us from crippling trauma, and the feeling of hope and wanderlust exists through all nationalities and all classes. Which is partly why the other direction of exponential functions, in the negative direction, may not trigger our understanding so well. Like the decline of Arctic sea ice, which has been on an exponential collapse, especially since 2007. Skeptics and deniers wish so badly, or in bad faith may even believe, that the ice will just magically rebound, thereby bucking the exponential trend. But the problem here isn't statistics. There is no magical "regression to the mean" that can undermine the physics explanation. And indeed, even the mean itself is changing in the downward direction. Our politics move linearly and incrementally, and we expect physics to apparently do the same. And so, using statistics to explain laws of physics is backing into a non sequitur. The laws of physics cannot be undermined by how we numerically analyze its very results.

    Because really, the exponential function of the positive direction must become a Gompertz function in a realistic, physically-constrained world as ours. The population rise will slow, and perhaps even soon decline. Our species must realize that our industrialization and agriculture, blessed by the anomalously warmer global climate after the ice age, was an event with dire unintended consequences.

    Thanks for the reflective diary.

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~Edward Abbey ////\\\\ "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." ~W.E.B. DuBois

    by rovertheoctopus on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 08:40:48 AM PDT

  •  I found your early moment of realization, when you (5+ / 0-)

    knew we could destroy ourselves and not even know it, very poignant.  I know there are kids who at 12 or in their early teens are burdened by secrets they can't tell (maybe alcoholism at home, or abuse, or a different orientation that they don't dare admit).  I don't think of kids having such heavy burdens laid on them in junior high school science class.  Having that gut-level perception of danger to the planet, without having clear ways to talk about it, must have been hard indeed.

    I just wish more adults had "gotten" it, had let the reality in with its full weight and seriousness.  Suppose that back in 1972 we had really listened to "The Limits to Growth," and to the scientists who were already trying to warn us about climate change.  

    How different our situation would be today.

    --------------------- “These are troubling times. Corporation are treated like people. People are treated like things. …And if we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now.” -- Rev. Dr. William J. Barber

    by Fiona West on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 10:02:55 AM PDT

  •  Thank you so much, whoever put this on the (4+ / 0-)

    Community Spotlight list.  I'm honored to be included there.

  •  Limits to Growth, and Paul Ehrlich's (5+ / 0-)

    Population Bomb, were systematically demonized as "doomsters" by Koch-funded think tanks, talk-radio shills, and university economists throughout the '70s - '90s. I imagine more people first heard of the concept of limits to growth through these capitalist spin-doctors than from the original scientists and systems engineers.

    Today, the arguments of the pro-growth crowd are much the same (we'll colonize Space after we trash the Earth!), but with the added twist that since the cake is now baked, we have no choice but to continue capitalism-as-usual.

    The Kochs and other uber-rich families expect to survive the dieback and come out as Princes of a planetary Raj on the other side of chaos. They want the good old days back: slaves building them pyramids for a daily bite of bread (or soylent green).

    •  I was trying to explain the biological imperatives (5+ / 0-)

      of Ehrlich's book in the mid 90's over dinner to a group from a Jacksonville, FL Unitarian Church. Although progressive as they were, I was attacked over even contemplating his hypothesis as being true. People still don't want to accept that we have shit in our own nest for for too long.

      I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

      by OHdog on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 02:23:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, you wil be accused of being a "technophobe" (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        etbnc, Kay Observer2, RiveroftheWest

        if you suggest the existence of limits to human growth. Technology has become our secular religion; you must have faith in its omnipotence. Even scientific consensus about climate change is not enough to shake most peoples' conviction that some technological fix will be found. We will re-sequester the atmospheric carbon underground... or else we will move to Mars. Those who lack faith that technology is omnipotent -- even if they are scientists or technologists themselves -- will be accused of being "Luddites" and "Doomsters".

      •  I agree with what I think is your basic premise -- (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        we've been fouling our own nest for way too long. Still, I disagree with much of the Population Bomb. I agree we need to reduce the population, but I disagree with much of his approach. Maybe that's what they were reacting to. Or, as you say, they may just have been unable to face the truth.

        •  Good point. But they were reacting from having (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Kay Observer2, RiveroftheWest

          a knowlwdge of a "headline" understanding of the problems. And as you know a slavish adherence to the views in that book fueled the great Sierra Club debate over immigration that nearly split the group.

          I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

          by OHdog on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 09:53:51 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Yeah, they really don't seem to care about (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      anything other than money and power.

  •  Thanks so much (4+ / 0-)

    I too was similarly affected by Limits to Growth and its update. I have never found the answers myself. Humans seemed doomed to self destruction. Potts and Hayden give a plausible explanation in Sex-War. I do not see the political will to implement any solution. Until a big die-off, I don't see change happening.

    I appreciate you being out there. I feel less alone.

    •  I'm glad to be able to help you feel less alone. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I hope you will also come to feel less despair. I haven't read the book you mentioned, though I will look for it now. But from my study about the human brain and behavior, I will tell you this: we carry within us the seeds of self-destruction; but we also have the potential to build a truly sustainable society.  Both are there, it just depends on whether we are able to evoke and nurture the right impulses.

  •  I just finished 2052 the other night (4+ / 0-)

    The most recent follow up.  Somehow I managed to miss all of this group's work until just recently.  Randers et al. appear to be true powerhouses in their thinking but as is so often the case, their findings and predictions cause so much anxiety that most people will be unable to tolerate thinking about the issues for long and instead will simply block it out.  I particularly enjoy Randers' personal and emotional responses to being almost perfectly correct thus far, and the genuine sadness he expresses regarding what will be the most likely course for the world going forward.  Still, as is noted in the books, there  is still a large potential for altering the outcomes, even though the inertia may well be largely impossible to overcome in the end.  I guess most of us and our progeny will get to see.

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