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"We have lost 30 Years": Dennis Meadows

"We must develop a new concept of economics, one in which people are less interested in accumulating material things. Only then can sustainable growth be achieved.... Humanity has lost 30 years. If we had begun in the seventies to develop alternatives to material growth, we could look to the future more calmly today.."
Dennis Meadows was one of the authors of "Limits of Growth" (1972).
"We have lost 30 years"

Interview with Dennis L. Meadows

More Schools, Fewer cars: Researcher Dennis L. Meadows says Yes to Growth withut exploiting the earth

[This interview originally published in: Die Zeit 02/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2004/02/Meadows_Interview.]

die zeit: Professor Meadows, you have been regarded as an apostle of zero-growth since your 1972 book on the limits of growth. Are you happy in this role?

Dennis L. Meadows: This label was wrongly pinned on me and the other authors of the book. At that time we wrote that an economy can grow almost unlimited in many regards but not in all ways. The environment now sets limits to energy- and raw material consumption. If you want a label that fits me absolutely, you could call me an apostle of qualitative growth or an opponent of stupid growth.

zeit: You confronted humanity with the message that growth leads to ruin or collapse.

Meadows: No, no, we did something else. With our computer models, we developed a dozen possible scenarios for the next hundred years. Some lead to global collapse but not others. We consciously did not predict how the world would actually develop. Our most negative scenarios showed that growth is possible up to the early decades of the 21st century. According to our models, limits to growth will be first noticeable from 2030 as a result of the shortage of raw materials.

zeit: Are you irritated that many raw materials including oil are cheaper today than 30 years ago?

Meadows: Oil- and gas prices will slowly climb. However we never believed that prices are good indicators for the availability of raw materials. Prices are determined politically. Governments distort prices through subsidies or taxes. They cannot change the physical availability of a raw material. For example, gasoline is much less expensive in the US than in Europe. Would you draw the conclusion that gasoline is more abundant in the US than in Europe? Obviously not. Don't stare too much at the prices. Raw materials have really become increasingly scarce in the past 30 years. We need more energy and capital today to discover, unearth and process them.

zeit: Is humanity spinning toward its ruin?

Meadows: How can you have another impression? Most natural scientists are convinced that humanity is changing the climate. Many fish stocks of the oceans have completely disappeared. The forests, the inland waters and the fruitful soil are all mismanaged or run down on all continents of the earth. On top of this, the gulf between poor and rich is becoming greater. Please tell me the reason if you see the future optimistically.

zeit: The air and water have become cleaner in industrial countries. Raw material consumption is uncoupled from economic growth. The growth rate of the world population has fallen.

Meadows: I am really intent on good news. Still your examples do not convince me. The air and water have become cleaner in Europe. At the same time the situation is deteriorating in other countries. Sometimes the rich countries only export their problems. Consumption of oil or steel per dollar or Euro falls. However consumption measured in liters or tons rises. Hoisting a country like China to the level of industrial countries will have catastrophic consequences. Finally, the growth rate of the world population has declined. Simultaneously the number of people in 2000 increased more strongly than in 1972 when we published our book. Thus there is no reason for an all-clear signal. Even the World Energy Council, the worldwide club of energy managers, no longer excludes the possibility that we will make the earth uninhabitable.

zeit: Didn't politicians take your warnings seriously?

Meadows: initially in the seventies, they were very interested in our research. However the growth idea is now enjoying a comeback.

zeit: ... because growth is considered the most promising medicine against unemployment.

Meadows: I regard that as a delusion or misconception. Why does unemployment grow rampantly? Unemployment has exploded because the growth policy has not functioned. The 1990s were a decade of spectacular growth worldwide. Unemployment became a problem precisely in this time. No one now imagines that more growth will solve the problem.

zeit: Do you actually claim that growth doesn't create any jobs?

Meadows: These jobs are short-term. Whether these jobs are lasting depends on what grows. For example, if the education- and health system grow, many jobs arise without damaging the planet. The problem only exacerbates when steel production and auto manufacturing grow.

zeit: Teachers and doctors must be paid - from the sales of cars to keep to your example.

Meadows: The growth fanatics argue that way. But if we stimulate the economy through increased energy consumption, we accelerate climate change and bring ourselves gigantic employment problems one day.

zeit: This doesn't answer the question how jobs can arise in safe or harmless sectors.

Meadows: Yes, but this isn't simple. We must develop a new concept of economics, one in which people are less interested in accumulating material things. Only then can sustainable growth be achieved.

zeit: Do you really believe that governments competing for investors can take steps in this direction?

Meadows: Hardly. Aiming for sustainable growth, for instance with the help of environmental standards or eco-taxes, is harder today than 30 years ago. The integration of the world economy, globalization, is a very negative trend. The world market forces all nations to the lowest common denominator.

zeit: You are preparing the third edition of the book on the limits of growth. Do you have any new insights?

Meadows: We have updated the data and fed our computer models.

zeit: What happened?

Meadows: The most important finding is that humanity has lost 30 years. If we had begun in the seventies to develop alternatives to material growth, we could look to the future more calmly today.

zeit: Still sustainable development is heard everywhere.

Meadows: Sustainable development is a good vision. But much of what is said about sustainable development does the opposite.

zeit: What is sustainable?

Meadows: Firstly, non-renewable resources, for instance the oil reserves in the earth's crust, may not be consumed faster than renewable alternatives like solar energy are developed. Secondly, lakes, rivers, air and soil may not be polluted so they cannot regenerate. Thirdly, more equality in the world is vital. No sustainable development is possible as long as the gap between poor and rich is as immense as it is today.

zeit: What must happen?

Meadows: Expanding the time-horizon of politicians, managers and citizens is most important. People must understand the long-term consequences of their acts and omissions as already happens today in most families. Parents make sacrifices so their children have a better future. This attitude must spread in all areas of life.

zeit: Should a well-meaning dictator or a central planning authority decree what should be done and what should be given up?

Meadows: No. History has shown this does not function. I assume people will act rationally when they are really informed about the consequences of their decisions...

zeit: ... and therefore drive their cars less. But how will the urgently necessary jobs arise?

Meadows: Jobs are not central. People want stable housing, good, warmth, respect, entertainment and so forth. Unfortunately modern societies are organized so that only the one with a high-paying job can have all that. This need not be true.

zeit: Thus much more redistribution is necessary. In truth, you are still an optimist.

Medows: I always hope for the best - and expect the worst.

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