Is it Too Late for Sustainable Development?

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Sat Apr 7 00:45:29 BST 2012

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OK all,

Take note: "Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a 
Sustainable Planet", Smithsonian Institute/MIT conference, 1st March 2012.

This MIT/Smithsonian conference in the US seems to have drifted completely 
under to eco-radar over here. E.g., neither The Ecologist, The Guardian nor 
The Independent had any coverage of this conference. Then again, for most 
mainstream environmentalists its content is pretty challenging -- and so it 
isn't going to be a popular story to write.

See the conference write-up and download presentations from --

View the proceedings via the YouTube playlist at --

The main article from Smithsonian Magazine is pasted in the email below.

See other takes on the proceedings at --

What's really significant about the information coming out of the 
proceedings, following on from the recent work like Graham Turner at CSIRO 
in Australia -- -- is that the human 
ecological outlook is pretty grim, irrespective of the climate/carbon issue 
that dominates 90% of the ecological debate! The important criticism raised 
here is that the monothematic concentration on climate change by campaign 
groups is allowing these critical development issues to drift past the 
media agenda. The failure of campaign groups to engaged with a "limits"-
based agenda, and instead focus on corporate- and consumer-friendly 
solutions, is allowing society to head over the prophetic "cliff edge" 

I was involved with the FoE head office during the mid-90s, and worked with 
other leading campaign groups during this time (e.g. Greenpeace, WWF, RSPB 
and CPRE). During the early/mid 90s, following the "bubble" of eco-concern 
post 1989, it was a shame to see the whole "limits"-based agenda of 
environmentalism being junked in favour of a more politically acceptable 
"sustainable consumption" meme. The environment movement has let-go of the 
'limits to growth' critique of modernism to its own detriment, and today 
we're paying the price for that -- not just with the early phases of 
climate change, but more immediately with high resource and food prices and 
rising pollution.


# I think if you look at the conference presentations; and

# The recent background research from the likes of Graham Turner, Ugo Bardi 
and others (e.g. ); 

# You move past the dry, dispassionate approach of the science

- -- then we're left with only one conclusion...

The heads of all the major campaign groups should resign in shame for 
ignoring the truth of our present predicament -- and they should all resign 
together precisely because that will highlight both the failure of the 
movement to engage with the issues openly, and to hold to account the 
political-economic paradigm that consciously ignores any such limit-based 
criticisms of present policy.

Now, I know that some will say that all this is "too negative". I don't see 
it that way. What this evidence tells us is that society MUST now change, 
and no amount of half-hearted attempts to buy our way out of that process 
(e.g. green consumerism, zero carbon strategies, etc.) is going to avoid 
that outcome. Degrowth, for the developed world at least, must be the 
leading edge of the transition. If people have a problem with that then 
they should look to their own personal commitment to ecological change 
versus their enjoyment of a certain kind of affluent lifestyle -- and then 
accept that change from that comfortable and convenient way of life is 

To avoid these truths is to deny your own role in both the problem, and the 
potential downsizing/degrowth solutions that might address the problems 
highlighted by 'Limits to Growth' over the past forty years. Lifestyle is 
the issue that no one dare mention, but tackling the impacts of affleunce is 
the only way we'll deal with this predicament.


Is it Too Late for Sustainable Development?

Dennis Meadows thinks so. Forty years after his book The Limits to Growth, 
he explains why

Megan Gambino, Smithsonian Magazine, 16th March 2012

See also graphic for this article at --

On March 2, 1972, a team of experts from MIT presented a groundbreaking 
report called The Limits to Growth to scientists, journalists and others 
assembled at the Smithsonian Castle. Released days later in book form, the 
study was one of the first to use computer modeling to address a centuries-
old question: When will the population outgrow the planet and the natural 
resources it has to offer?

The researchers, led by scientist Dennis Meadows, warned that if current 
trends in population, industrialization, pollution, food production and 
resource depletion continued, that dark time—marked by a plummeting 
population, a contracting economy and environmental collapse—would come 
within 100 years.

In four decades, The Limits to Growth has sold over ten million copies in 
more than 30 languages. The book is part of the canon of great 
environmental literature of the 20th century. Yet, the public has done 
little to avert the disaster it foretells.

To mark the report’s 40th anniversary, experts gathered in Washington, D.C. 
on March 1. Meadows and Jorgen Randers, two authors of The Limits to 
Growth, and other speakers discussed the challenges of forging ahead into a 
sustainable future at “Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to 
Building a Sustainable Planet,” a symposium hosted by the Smithsonian 
Institution and the Club of Rome, the global think tank that sponsored the 
original report.

I spoke with Meadows, who retired in 2004 after 35 years as a professor at 
MIT, Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire. We discussed 
the report and why he feels it is too late for sustainable development and 
it is now time for resilience:

- From 1970 to 1972, you and 15 others worked feverishly on The Limits to 
Growth. What were your goals at the outset of the project?

Jay Forrester, a senior professor at MIT, had created a theoretical model 
that showed the interrelationship of some key global growth factors: 
population, resources, persistent pollution, food production and industrial 
activity. Our goal was to gather empirical data to test his model and 
elaborate on it. We wanted to understand the causes and consequences of 
physical growth on the planet over a 200-year time period, from 1900 up to 

According to the “standard run” or “business-as-usual” scenario, you 
predicted that we would overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity and 
collapse by mid-21st century. What do you mean by collapse?

In the world model, if you don’t make big changes soon—back in the ’70s or 
’80s—then in the period from 2020 to 2050, population, industry, food and 
the other variables reach their peaks and then start to fall. That’s what 
we call collapse.

Now, in real life, what would that mean? It is not clear. In a way, it is 
like being in San Francisco and knowing that there is going to be an 
earthquake and that it is going to cause buildings to fall down. Which 
buildings are going to fall down, and where are they going to fall? We just 
don’t have any way of understanding that. What we know is that energy, food 
and material consumption will certainly fall, and that is likely to be 
occasioned by all sorts of social problems that we really didn’t model in 
our analysis. If the physical parameters of the planet are declining, there 
is virtually no chance that freedom, democracy and a lot of the immaterial 
things we value will be going up.

How do you wrap your head around what the planet’s carrying capacity is?

The issue of global carrying capacity is one that is fraught with all sorts 
of technical, scientific and philosophical problems. But the best effort to 
deal with these various problems and come up with concrete numbers is the 
one that has been carried out by [Swiss-born sustainability advocate] 
Mathis Wackernagel and his colleagues. Mathis has come up with a concept 
called the global ecological footprint. In its essence, it converts all of 
the energy and materials that humanity uses every year from nonrenewable 
sources [such as oil] and makes the assumption that somehow they would come 
from renewable sources [such as wood or the sun]. Then, it compares our 
current consumption with what the earth could generate.

The reason we are able to go over the carrying capacity briefly is the same 
reason that you can for a brief period spend more out of your bank account 
than you save, if you have come through a long period of thrift. But 
eventually, of course, you bring your bank account back down to zero and 
you’re stuck. That is exactly what is happening to us on the globe. We are 
living off the savings of biodiversity, fossil fuel accumulation, 
agricultural soil buildup and groundwater accumulation, and when we have 
spent them, we will be back down to the annual income.

As the Washington Post reported in 1972, you and your colleagues were 
“dismissed by a lot of people as crackpots.” What were the main criticisms?

We left price mechanisms and therefore the market out of the model. Or, we 
underestimated the rate at which technological advance can progress. I 
would say those are the two principal criticisms. We treated the world as a 
whole and people made the very valid point that the world isn’t 
homogeneous. It has an enormous number of different regions and cultures. 
Those factors are missing from our model. We left them out because we 
didn’t think they made any difference to our central conclusion, but our 
critics thought that they did.

The media fixated on the doom and gloom. But the report also included 
optimistic scenarios that showed a stable, sustainable future. What changes 
did these models assume?

We used the model as a test bed in the same way that you make models of 
airplanes and fly them in wind tunnels in order to experiment with different 
designs. We began to experiment with a variety of different changes to see 
what could avert decline. We started with technological changes that 
increased agricultural productivity, reduced pollution, increased the 
available supply of natural resources and so forth. What we found was that 
technological changes alone don’t avert the collapse. It requires cultural 
and social changes as well. You need to stabilize the population, and you 
need to shift consumption preferences away from material goods to the 
nonmaterial part—love, freedom, friendship, self-understanding and things 
like that.

How optimistic were you about society charting a sustainable course?

In 1972, and for some time after that, I was very optimistic. I was naively 
optimistic. I honestly believed in what I called the “doorstep model of 
implementation.” That is to say, you do a piece of work. You learn the 
“truth.” You lay it on the decision maker’s doorstep, and when he comes out 
in the morning, he finds it and changes his behavior. My whole team worked 
very hard. We wrote other books. We developed teaching materials. Many of 
us went into teaching in an effort to help produce the changes that we 
thought were going to come.

At this point, you no longer think that sustainable development is 
feasible. How do you define that term?

When I use the term sustainable development—which I consider to be an 
oxymoron actually—I am trying to capture the meaning that most people seem 
to have. In so far as I can tell, people who use the term mean, 
essentially, that this would be a phase of development where they get to 
keep what they have but all the poor people can catch up. Or, they get to 
keep doing what they’ve been doing, but through the magic of technology 
they are going to cause less damage to the environment and use fewer 
resources. Either way you use the term, it is just a fantasy. Neither of 
those is possible—anymore. It probably was possible back in the ’70s, but 
not now. We’re at 150 percent of the global carrying capacity.

When did your feelings change about sustainable development?

In the ’90s, it was something that was in my mind. But it has probably been 
only the last four or five years that it has become really clear to me that 
we just haven’t got a chance of dealing with these issues in any kind of 
orderly way. I think the example of the dot-com bust and later, in 2008, 
the housing bust illustrated what incredibly primitive understanding and 
capacities we have for dealing with bubbles. Limits to Growth is absolutely 
focusing on a bubble, a bubble in population and in material and energy 

Instead of growth, going forward what do you think we ought to equate with 

Around the world, people are working to come up with alternative indicators 
of national well-being, which are more sophisticated than Gross National 
Product. Ironically, the inventors of the tool of GNP accounting strongly 
cautioned against ever using it as an indicator of success. But, of course, 
once we had it that is what it became. We need to start looking at other 
factors. The United States, for example, has the highest number of 
prisoners per capita in the world.We have the largest debt. Social mobility 
in this country is lower than many of the other industrialized nations. The 
gap between the rich and the poor is bigger. We have lots of problems, and 
a better indicator of national success would start to pull them in, 
quantify them and combine them in some way.

You stress the need for resilience. What do you mean by this?

Theoretically, resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb shocks and 
to continue functioning. Now, in practice, what does it mean? There is a 
fairly well-developed literature around the issue of psychological 
resilience. The medical community has tried to understand what can let 
somebody experience, for example, the loss of a loved one, a serious 
illness or the loss of a job and continue functioning. There is starting to 
be, particularly since Katrina, a field that looks at community resilience, 
or the capacity of a town or social community to absorb shocks and continue 
functioning to fulfill the needs of its members. I am talking about longer-
term resilience. I am talking about coping with the permanent loss of cheap 
energy or the permanent change in our climate and what we can do at the 
individual, the household, the community and the national level to ensure 
that—although we don’t know exactly what is going to happen—we will be able 
to pass through that period still taking care of our basic needs.

Of the experts talking about growth today and making forecasts for the 
future, who do you think really deserves attention?

I have always found Lester Brown [environmental analyst and author of World 
on the Edge] to be a source of very useful insights into what is happening 
mainly with food systems. He points out that in most areas of the world now 
we are over-pumping groundwater. Some of those groundwater aquifers aren’t 
recharged at all; they are what we call fossil water, and others have a 
rather low recharge rate. So, we are coming soon to the time where our use 
of those aquifers will not be able to exceed their annual recharge. That 
will mean that food that is currently being produced by overuse of water 
will need either to disappear or to come from very different methods. He 
makes that point forcefully.

- -- 


"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burrough, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')

Paul's book, "Energy Beyond Oil", is out now!
For details see

Read my 'essay' weblog, "Ecolonomics", at:

Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN, England
tel./fax (+44/0)1295 261864
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