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The Limits of Believability

It’s funny how we can finally find time to read things years or decades after we were ‘supposed’ to read them.

I read my way through the canon of classic children’s stories not as a child but as bedtime stories for my kids. I read some of the ‘set texts’ we were supposed to have read before entering architectural education decades later. Similarly I’ve just read the 1972 classic ‘Limits to Growth’ – the top selling environmental title ever published. I’d read numerous references to it over the years and thought I was broadly aware of it’s contents but decided to read it when I found it available as a free download at the website of Parliament’s UK All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Limits to Growth which was set up earlier this year. I’ve also just read the ‘Limits to Growth 30 year update (2005)’ and the Parliamentary Group’s own ‘Limits Revisited’ paper. Once you get started, these titles are so compelling in terms of our current predicament that it’s kind of hard to put them down.

Limits to Growth 1972

Limits to Growth 1972

‘Limits to Growth’ is a genuinely ‘jaw dropping’ read – one of those ‘this book will change your life’ type titles. It looked at the implications for the planet of the continuation of existing growth trends (population, resource use and emissions). In particular it looked at the impact of exponentially increasing consumption against the fixed limits of the planet (natural resources and the capacity to absorb emissions from industry and agriculture). The research that underpinned the work used ‘system dynamics’ to look at how different components of a system interact – often in ‘feedback loops’ or other non-linear ways. The components used were population, industrialisation, pollution, resource depletion and land availability for food.

The conclusion of ‘Limits to Growth’ was that if human behaviour did not significantly and immediately alter then the human race must expect exponential growth to be followed by overshoot and collapse some time this century. This ‘business as usual’ scenario was labelled the ’standard run’. Other scenarios that assumed some change only pushed the date of overshoot and collapse back by a surprisingly short period. A number of scenarios that involved stabilising the human population, restricting industrial output per person and various technological solutions were capable of establishing ‘equilibrium’.

Limits to Growth 1972 World Model - Standard Run

Limits to Growth 1972 World Model – Standard Run

Whilst ‘Limits to Growth’ has been challenged on points of detail nobody can challenge the collision between exponential growth and fixed limits and the long term need for ‘equilibrium’. The question is whether we manage this transition or allow it to happen chaotically. The consensus is that little has happened since 1972 and tragically we are still following the trend curves set out in the ‘standard model’ towards overshoot and collapse.

All the more worrying then, and at the limits of believability in the circumstances, to hear US President elect Donald Trump announce that he is going to ‘make America great again’ by effectively setting the clock back 30 years or more in the ‘rust belt’ states, burning coal and gas and abandoning the Paris climate agreement which is one of the few concrete measures adopted globally to try and start to get a grip on things.  Trump can get away with this because until the limits of growth are reached it will seem to many like business as usual. But the global limits will be reached and when they are those who suffer from things like starvation will be the world’s poorest.

Iain Miller