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The Blue Shock: The Limits of Growth

With knowledge, technical resources and sources of raw materials, everything physically necessary exists to create a new form of human community that could survive for generations. "A realistic long-term goal..is still lacking..Without this goal, short-term desires promote exponential growth and drive this growth to the earthly limits and to collapse." The Limits of Competition is the recent sequel to the Limits of Growth published thirty years ago by the Club of Rome.
The Blue Shock

The Club of Rome's "The Limits of Growth" Appeared Thirty Years Ago

By Jens Honensee

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT 16/2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,

In the beginning was a book, a very different plain book with a gentle novel-like title that caused unrest in the US in 1962 and soon stirred the whole world: Silent Spring. Silent Spring was not a novel or a smooth non-fiction work but a meticulously researched study. In Silent Spring, the American biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) first documented the effects of the uncontrolled use of pesticides in agriculture. In an objective and shocking war, she shoed how pesticides damage seeds, cause cancer and s not only destroy so-called destructive weeds but also threaten "beneficial animals" like songbirds and domestic animals.

Carson's book certainly did not change "the course of history" as former US Vice-president Al Gore wrote in a foreword to the new edition in 1994. Silent Spring was the first bestseller of the international environmental movement that didn't even exist at that time.

The sixties were still marked by the idea of unlimited industrial progress. Critical reflection on creeping environmental destruction was repressed. Warning voices like Rachel Carson were stylized as crackpots, screwballs not to be taken seriously, "enemies of progress" or "unscientific". The success of Silent Spring showed that more and more people were occupied with the problematic. The pollution of the soil increased along with contamination of the air, lakes, rivers and oceans.

Scientists and personalities of public life first spoke out including the Italian industrialist Aurello Peccei, a member of the board of directors of Fiat and Olivetti and president of the business advisory Italconsult. In 1968, Peccei met the Scot Alexander King at a Paris conference of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The latter enjoyed great respect as an economist in Great Britain. Two outsiders met. Both were convinced by all their international experiences that humanity had reached a turning point. The rapid economic and technical progress unmindful of losses and without awareness of the price for that progress had to lead to disaster.

Independent of each other, Peccei and King objected that the governments of industrial states were enthralled with exorbitant growth rates and that the intergovernmental institutions completely failed. These governments were unable or unwilling to consider the consequences of substantial material growth. The Italian and the Scotsman agreed that the problems could no longer be treated in an isolated way beyond the western world but rather as part of a "world problematic". The hour of the Club of Rome struck, a new institution at least in an advisory capacity.

This club was multinational and informal with handpicked members: economists, industrialists, scientists and other personalities of public life, no more than a hundred in number. According to the model of scholarly academies, membership should be incompatible with public office. All cultures, ideologies, professions and branches of science should be represented, united in the common concern for the future of humanity.

Some said this was a council of wise minds; others described the club as a grumpy round of players. Feminine members were rare. A mixed public greeted the club after its founding in 1968. The first project initiated in 1970 seemed to confirm the critics. The vague project was called "The predicament of mankind: quest for structured responses to growing worldwide complexities and uncertainties". "Complexities, uncertainties and present global imbalances should be identified with special emphasis on future development. The forces dominating world events should be described qualitatively and quantitatively." When the project leader, the Turkish economist Hasan Ostbekhan, presented an unwieldy and confusing draft, the club seemed to be at an end. Ostbekhan, a member of the executive committee, was replaced and his proposal rejected. The club wanted understandable conclusions. Who would accept the task?

Jay W. Forrester from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge had developed a cybernetic model a few years before to simulate complex dynamic developments and analyze economic- and urbanization processes. Forrester proposed testing the model. The other 70 members of the club agreed. Only the money was lacking. A source opened up in Germany. The Volkswagen endowment in Hanover assumed the financing. The first project of the Club of Rome could begin. One of Forrester's students was in control, thirty-year old Dennis Meadows.

According to the methods of system dynamics developed by Jay Forrester, Meadows and 17 other researchers from different disciplines and nationalities stressed five important developments with global consequences: accelerated industrialization, exploitation of raw material reserves, destruction of living space, rapid population growth and worldwide malnutrition.

According to Forrester's formulation, the structure of a system often has as great a significance for the behavior of the whole system as the individual factors. With this thesis in the back of their minds, the team of MIT researchers worked out a four-step model. First of all, supported by experienced economists, demographers, ecologists, geologists and nutrition scientists, they identified the decisive causal relations between the five basic developments. As a second step, they defined all the relations between the five developments and described the interaction between these parameters in feedback circles. The relation between two developments could be either positive reinforcing one another or negative. Worldwide data was collected and in the third step fed into the computer. The computer calculated the interaction of the relations over a certain period of time. Lastly, they analyzed the consequences resulting from the calculations.
The team around Dennis Meadows ended its work after only 18 months in March 1972. The researchers summarized the monumental final report filled with data and analyses in a concise understandable text of 160 pages. The book appeared first in English and soon in 37 other languages. Twelve million copies were sold worldwide up to today. The title was as pithy as the contents and became the writing on the wall: Limits to Growth.

Almost simultaneous with the English edition in April 1972, the slim book appeared in Germany and immediately caused a sensation. The first edition was out of print within only three weeks. Five more editions appeared the same year. Up to today 18 editions of the report have been sold in Germany. In 1973, the Club of Rome received the peace prize of the German book trade for the blue book.

What caused the sensation? The study shocked with the thesis that the closed system earth would strike the limits of growth within the next hundred years, at the latest in the year 2100. These limits will even be exceeded if unchecked industrialization is not stopped. A process of rethinking is necessary. Growth restriction was the magic word. In addition, "technological measures" were also vital: reusing wastes, controls on environmental pollution, prolonged useful life of investment assets and other kinds of capital and re-cultivating unfruitful or eroded soil.

The models and exponential growth curves impressed readers all over the world along with Meadow's parable of the lily pond. A French rhyme shows how sudden exponential growth strikes final limits. In a garden pond, a lily grew twice as large everyday. Within thirty days, the lily covered the whole pond and stifled all other life in the water. Before it covered half of the water's surface, its growth did not appear alarming. There was still enough space. No one thought of cutting it back, not even on the 29th day. Half of the pond was still free. However no water could be seen any more on the next day."

The conclusion of the report sounded most frightening. A collapse was inevitable if the exploitation of natural raw materials continued, industry grew uncontrolled, environmental pollution increased and world population expanded. The first raw material crises and famines would occur even before the year 2001.

Critics attack Meadows from the Right and the Left

The researchers from Cambridge did not pretend to be prophets of doom. They raised hopes, pleaded for a new ecological and economic "balance" that was entirely attainable. The state of balance, according to the scientists, meant securing the material foundations of life for every person on earth. Time presses. "Present for a brief period in history, the person possesses the most effective combination of knowledge, technical resources and sources of raw materials, everything physically necessary to create a completely new form of human community that could survive for generations. A realistic long-term goal that can lead people to the state of balance and the human will to reach this goal are still lacking. Without this goal, short-term desires promote exponential growth and drive that growth to the earthly limits and to collapse."

Since its publication, the study was nearly bombarded with criticism. Experts of all kinds and qualities attacked the study from the right and the left. The slogans "future pessimism" and "defeatism" resounded, a "hollow and misleading work", wrote the New York Times Book Review, a book that reaches "the high-water mark of old-fashioned nonsense", mocked the London Economist. Prominent economists like the American Nobel prizewinner Paul A. Samuelson spoke of a tottering database and reproached the study for ignoring technical innovation. Sharp criticism also came from the Marxist side. Whoever disregards all the social and political dimensions cannot design a convincing world model or make plausible prognoses. Enthusiasm was restrained in the so-called Third World. The perspective of "zero growth" hardly appears promising.

A Turning Point in the History of Industrialization

Whoever comes from city hall is wiser, according to many experts who brushed off the study over the years, whether the predictions of the MIT team proved true or not. The raw material prognosis and the predicted drying up of the sources of oil provoked criticism again and again. In the present situation, thoughtless resistance is possible since the proven oil reserves according to data of the international energy agency, amount to 750 billion barrels and are enough for at least another forty years. Still the prognosis was in no way improbable from the perspective at that time. A year later, the first oil price shock of the world showed the weakness of the system of the international oil economy. That hectically developed nuclear power cannot be a real alternative to energy savings was clear 13 years later when the catastrophe of Chernobyl brought Europe to fear and trembling.

The Club of Rome includes 100 members today from more than 50 countries. Prince Hassan Ibn Talai, the brother of the Jordan king, is the chairperson. Since the Limits of Growth and the follow-up reports, there has been silence about the club. In the eighties, there were even repeated calls for its dissolution. The criticism continues and the projects are not supported. The members are over-aged. The name of the club turns up in the newspapers when one of the members dies like the founding father Aurello Peccei in 1984 or recently the ocean biologist Elisabeth Mann Borgese.

The former project director, Dennis Meadows, lives today in Durham, New Hampshire and directs the Institute for Politics and Socioeconomic Research. In 1992, he attempted to resuscitate the 1972 bestseller with "The New Limits of Growth". He is still convinced that his theses are correct. The population explosion has exceeded all prognoses. Environmental pollution and hunger are more frightening today than predicted, according to Meadows' summary.

The main effect of the book was and is important apart from the question how prophetic was the study in all its individual analyses. Previously other authors had taken up the theme in a dramatic way like Alvin Toffler (Future Shock 1970), Barry Commoner (Growth Mania and Environmental Crisis 1971) and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb 1971). However The Limits of Growth accomplished the breakthrough in public consciousness. The debate gained a new standing and standard with this book. This book prepared the ground for global conservation and environmental care.

The 1987 report named after former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland raised sustainable development into a maxim of international economic policy eleven years after the chemical catastrophe of Seveso, ten years after the nuclear accident in Harrisburg and one year after Chernobyl, a turning point in the two hundred year history of modern industrialization.

This recalls another spectacular bestseller with which The Limits of Growth was often compared. The English pastor Robert Malthus (1766-1834) caused a sensation in 1798 with his attempt "On the Conditions and Consequences of Population Growth (and received the first chair for economics in England on account of this 1804 work). Malthus predicted a perilous divergence between the food provisions of humanity and humanity's increasingly fast growth. His assumption that the earth's population grows in a geometrical progression while food only increases arithmetically caused a shock in his time. Malthus' theses were refuted afterwards by the technical innovations of the industrial revolution. The limits conjured by him at that time were never manifest, much less reached.

The prognoses of Dennis Meadows and his research team have also not been fulfilled. Perhaps they have not been fulfilled because they brought many to reflect as the theses of Malthus did or in Meadows' case to rethinking or shifts in thinking.

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