Book Review: The Limits to Growth

The Limits to Growth published in 1972 by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III (The Club of Rome) can be called an intellectual bomb that not only rattled the academic discourse but also transformed the mainstream conception of development. Before this, conventional wisdom suggested that economic growth carried out by industrialization would generate prosperity throughout the globe by trickle-down effect and it remained unchallenged for a long period. The publication of The Limits to Growth turned this discourse upside down by highlighting the limits of the earth’s resources, which, if crossed, would result in the collapse of civilization. The choice for humans got restricted to either civilization or growth. 

Even though the writers didn’t obscure the fact that the book in itself is a mere collection of preliminary views and demands a great deal of exploration, they also reached a consensus on various points namely: (a) If; the present growth trends continue unchanged, the limits of growth on this planet will be reached within a century(b) If certain conditions related to economic and ecological stability are maintained, then this trend can be altered and made sustainable far into the future; c) If people strive for this sustainable path, the sooner they begin, the greater will be their chance to achieve it (page 23-24).

The book limited itself to five elements: population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of non-renewable resources. The book is also based upon a dynamic model called the ‘World System Model, which is used to depict the limits that nature puts in the path of growth and how they interact with each other. The model is based on modern tools of computer simulation. Another underlying principle that governs the book is that of exponential growth. Exponential growth refers to the continuous increase in the total accumulated increase. This is one of the major reasons for humankind stepping towards limits to growth. The authors argue that in order to understand exponential growth we can use positive and negative feedback loops as models. A positive loop can be understood as one which reinforces the basic trend of growth, and, in contrast, negative loops are self-limiting or growth-limiting. The most basic positive and negative loops are birth and death rates, respectively. However, the world model adopted by the book does not believe in a simple relation among the loops but rather a complex relationship.

From a bird’s eye view, the book throughout the spiral of its arguments presents a choice of alternatives that has trade-offs. For instance, whether to control the population by decreasing birth rate or by increasing the death rate while the former is most commonly desired. Such a  choice would also result in increased pressure on the resources which could have been used in industry and hence all the choices humans make are interconnected in some way. Similarly, the exponential increase in the usage of non-renewable resources and the resulting exponential increase in pollution puts humans in a conundrum of choosing alternatives based on tradeoffs. 

While the following chapter dwells more on the interdependence of each element, it should be noted that the model itself wasn’t extremely detailed but considered only broad behavior modes i.e. only one general population, only one class of pollutant, one generalized resource, etc. The resulting behavior mode of the world system as concluded by the book is that of, “Overshoot and Collapse”, which in simple terms means that when the limits are overshot then the system itself collapses. For instance, an industrial expansion that requires huge extraction of resources leads to depletion of mines and subsequently more capital is directed to extract the resource and in that sense affects the industrial and agricultural investment in turn affecting the population. The authors argue even if an optimistic stand is taken and resources are doubled, the system would still collapse due to increased pollution, suggesting the collapse of the system is inevitable if limits are overshot. 

At this juncture the second most principled question of the book is brought to the forefront; Is the world bound to grow and collapse? The answer to that is only if we keep doing business as usual. The next two chapters propose the solutions to such limits which from a reader’s point of view, are the two most interesting chapters of the book. As technological advances led to the transition from pre-modern to modern societies and it also emerged as a counter tool to various hegemonic cultures, it has been viewed by many as a tool to push the limits to growth. The authors rightly acknowledge the potential of technology. They assume a position of an extremely technologically advanced society: with nuclear energy, reduced pollution, and increased food production at the center suggesting all the limits are circumvented by an apparent usage of technology, but even in such an ideal scenario the limits are reached as the world is surrounded by 3 simultaneous crisis i.e. overuse of land leads to soil erosion and food production decreases which are only intensified with increased population and population hence technology alone can only help in prolonging the growth but is not able enough to tackle the limits to growth. The other social problems associated with technology are not even considered in such a conception and in addition to this, the problems with no technological solutions would eventually lead to overshoot and collapse. 

In the concluding chapter, attention is diverted towards a proposed solution, with three alternatives at hand: unrestricted growth, self-imposed limitation to growth, or nature imposed limitation to growth and the authors argue that the only last two are possible. To explain a self-imposed limitation to growth the concept of equilibrium is taken into account. The two ends of the equilibrium in the world system model used in the book are namely population and capital stock. To reach equilibrium these two should be essentially stable but in reality, such a conception leaves a lot of room for variation. The three conditions proposed under the equilibrium,i.e., capital and population are constant, all input and output rates are kept minimum and the levels of capital and population are set in accordance with the values of society, ensuring that the society doesn’t get stuck in stagnation. Once again, an alternative choice is made with tradeoffs, by choosing the world of Non-Growth. While the nature-imposed limits to growth require no more effort than letting things take their course and waiting to see what will happen (page 169). This book, apart from being one of the first to initiate an academic discourse on sustainable development, can also be seen as the first advocate of the capability approach as the onus is put on humans themselves by increasing their freedoms in the non-growth phase. 

While the authors didn’t hide the inherent weaknesses of the book, the book as any other academic work succeeded in brushing some severe criticism under the carpet. While the preliminary nature of the book is acceptable, the ignorance of geopolitical influences in the implementation of any policy is unsatisfactory. Second, the book in its total ignorance didn’t take into account the historical injustice done by the erstwhile colonies, which still dominate the whole developmental discourse. Lastly, the unequal starting point of various nations in the process of development was also missing in the book. For the countries which are late to the process of development this discourse of limits might sound redundant.

In conclusion, the book is an interesting read not only to understand things in retrospect but also to make sense of the contemporary world and its challenges. We live in a world where ‘growth’ still dominates the discourse but there are definite changes as well, for instance, the discourse around growth today runs parallelly with a desire of ensuring sustainability. Such sustainability can only be ensured if we realize the ‘limits to growth and start using the resources more sustainably. 

Rajat Chaudhary is a recent Urban Fellowship graduate from Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

Image credits: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s