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Limits to Growth Published Forty Years Ago

by Larry Rasmussen and eco-socialist pamphlets Tuesday, Jul. 18, 2017 at 5:15 AM

The MIT scholars under Dennis Meadows came to four core conclusions: 1) there are limits to economic growth on finite planet, 2) the economy and population are growing exponentially, 3) exceeding limits will lead to collapse and 4) collapse could be avoided by turning from growth


Where is the World Today?

By eco-socialist pamphlets

[This publication by the Sozialistische Zeitung journal is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The book "Limits to Growth" was published in the spring of 1972. It appeared almost immediately in around 30 languages with an enormous resonance. The title was also the central declaration of the book. The economic system of the western world that relies on unlimited material growth and increased raw material consumption was put in question. The publication had a run of 30 million and was deeply engraved in the collective consciousness of the world population.

A research project carried out by 17 young scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the basis of the publication. Dennis Meadows was the leader of the research group. The impulse for the study started from the so-called "Club of Rome," a circle of personalities from science, politics and the economy. They accepted a 1968 invitation to journey to Rome of the Italian businessman and humanist Aurelio Peccei to discuss the future of humanity.

The MIT scholars under Meadows came to four core conclusions in their computer-based study:

On the finite planet, there are limits to economic growth.

The economy and the population are now growing exponentially. The limits of the system were reached in the 21st century.

Exceeding the limits will lead to a collapse of industry, agriculture and the population.

An orderly withdrawal is possible and collapse could be avoided through a radical turning away from the economic growth course.


Although the scholars did not put the capitalist system in question, the rulers held the published theses were not compatible with the capitalist economic order. In Newsweek, the study was described as "irresponsible nonsense" and the New York Times Book Review called it an "empty and misleading work." Spiegel published a mordant criticism titled "Vision of World Destruction from the Computer." Meadows and his team were called "prophets of doom" and "prophets of the threatening overkill."

The critics argued the MIT-researchers under-estimated the world resources and that an optimized use of resources was not considered. Later critics claimed Meadows predicted the drying up of individual raw materials in the 20th century which did not occur. All these critics only revealed a lack of understanding for the methods of the study.


From the start, Meadows and his team realized they had a poor data base on resources. Therefore they designed scenarios with different estimates on raw material supplies and developmental dynamics. The study was set up on a computer as a flexible simulation model. This was a new procedure at that time and reflected the state of knowledge that would be augmented with today's advanced computer technology.

The study was based on five variables: industrial production, population, food production, resources and environmental pollution. The interactions between these realities including repercussions and possible time delays were formulated as mathematical dependencies. Simulation runs with different assumptions were carried out with the model. For example, a simulation was carried out under the assumption of a resource volume five times greater than was known in 1972. Nearly all simulation runs ended with a predicted collapse by the middle of the 21st century. Only a limitation of growth could bring the world system into a stable condition.

Together with his wife, Meadows published two subsequent reports on "Limits to Growth." They were published in 1992 and 2004 and used a clearly improved data base compared to 1972. The basic statements of the first report were confirmed. Resources are limited and unbridled growth leads to collapse.


Today's situation shows the report to the Club of Rome was very far-sighted. Industrial growth continues unchanged. Besides the US, Japan, and Europe, new actors are arising on the world markets like China, India, and Brazil that contribute to a high growth dynamic. Resource consumption is growing again in western industrial countries. An artificially reduced product lifespan and constant fashion changes ensure an unrestrained glut of products. As a result, more raw materials were used up in the first 20 years of the new century than during the whole 20th century. Metals like Gallium, Lithium, and Neodymium necessary for batteries, solar cells, and electrical equipment are rapidly running low.

The unfettered consumption of resources represents an increasing ecocide because every product causes additional strains on the environment through reduced raw materials, processing, use, and disposal.

Meadows predicted, "the triggering moment for the collapse probably lies in the food system"… The soil is being ruined. Soil fruitfulness is actually declining globally. Acreage is now lost 16 to 300 times faster than it can be restored… The best black earth in Germany once had 7-14% humus share. Today it is 2%.

According to Meadows, global food production will peak in 2020 and then will shrivel. Higher energy prices will contribute to that since today's industrial agriculture is massively dependent on fossil energy. So the production of one food calorie in this system requires an average 10 calories in fossil energy.

The production of conventional oil reached its peak in 2006. Since then the growing demand can only be fulfilled with a lot of effort by adding oil from risky and expensive deep sea drillings, from the environmentally harmful treatment of tar-sands and so-called bio-fuel. The International Energy Agency warns of an oil crash. The IEA chief economist Faith Birol expressed this in a convoluted way. "To remain at the current level, we have to bring three new Saudi Arabias into production in 10 years. The last large oil fields were discovered 40 years ago – which Birol doubtlessly knows.

Climate change is very critical. To prevent the worst consequences of climate change, greenhouse gases must be reduced 90% by 2050 in industrial states. However harmful carbon dioxide emissions increased 30% in the last decade despite the Kyoto Protocol.


Was it clear to the Meadows team in 1972 that their predictions would come true 40 years later? Obviously not. They believed "humanity" could be shaken so they could free themselves from the "faith in growth." In a 2011 visit before an Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag, Meadows said: "I was incredibly naïve to believe the important people to whom we gave the report would do what is right."


Meadows is a gifted scholar who used a mathematical simulation procedure for the first time to show ecological developmental tendencies. But he never had awareness about capitalism. Still today he believes only voluntarist interventions in the capitalist economy can reach the responsible decision-makers. Economic growth is actually inseparably bound with capitalism. In a system of free enterprise competition, only those businesses survive that can regularly increase their productivity and lower their prices. To keep profits at the same level, production must be constantly expanded. Without this growth, the capitalist economy is unstable and its continuance is impossible.


Other middle-class ecologists have thoroughly understood this economic mechanism of capitalism. In their helplessness, they propagate today the uncoupling of growth and resource- and energy consumption. Maintaining economic growth – and keeping capitalism stable – while simultaneously reducing the use of energy and resources are possible. Meadows is not one of those proponents. "Seen empirically, there is not a single case demonstrating this is possible," he said to the Enquete Commission of the German government.

So a "modest" growth of 1.8% as Germany achieved on a yearly average in the last two decades led to a GDP increase of 43% in 20 years. However, all possible small savings in energy and resources are eaten up again with that. In the current sustainability report of the German government, we read "the increased speed of resource efficiency in the last five years was not enough to reach the savings goals. The auto industry shows how it is done. The motors were developed again and again so they are more efficient today than ever before. At the same time, the vehicle weight increased 50% in the last 25 years.

The talk of energy- and resource efficiency is a pure ideology that obscures reality. Industrial production output must be massively reduced. This necessitates a farewell to individual transportation, an extended useful life of industrial products, development of repair- and recycling capacity and a de-globalization with fewer transportation miles. This way can only be taken against capitalism, not with capitalism. Findings like those formulated in 1972 in "Limits to Growth" are political foundations for this change alongside Marxism.


By Larry Rasmussen

[This article published in Junge Kirche 2/2017 is translated from the German on the Internet. Larry Rasmussen is a professor for effects at Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

[Larry Rasmussen is one of the leading thinkers of US eco-theology. The following article is an abridged version of his address in June 2016 at the conference "A Green Reformation? Dawn of Ecological Theology in the Planetary Crisis" at the Evangelical Academy in Hofgeismar.]

The World Council of Churches (WCC) had a program with the title "Come Holy Spirit, Renew your whole creation." This motto emerged again at an ecumenical meeting in Greece in March 2016 under the title "Manifesto for an Ecological Reformation of Christendom." The authors of the document saw the 2017 Reformation Jubilee as the right moment for an ecological reformation. The Manifesto is an urgent appeal to Christians from all regions of the world who have become vulnerable to the influences of economic power in the Pacific, Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Minorities in Europe and North America were also represented. When one hears the voice of churches in the North who recognize ecocide as the consequence of their consumer lifestyle and the papal encyclical "Laudato Si," That becomes a common cry for an ecological reformation as loud, clear and empathic as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. This reformation is necessary to avert disaster. But that does not mean it will occur. As in Luther's time, a reformation needs a certain constellation of events and forces together with a new technology (for Luther, it was printing). All this combined at a favorable moment in history. Are we at this moment now? The Trump administration with its narcissist, nationalist, white male guidelines spurred with fossil fuel is a hard blow against any ecological reformation.

Nevertheless, we live in this hard planetary reality as our daily companion. The prophetic voices are sharp and clear. I turn to three of these voices: science, ethics, and theology. From them, I formulate a plea for an ecological reformation. […]


The second voice is that of ethicists. The Brundtland Report of 1987 "Our Common Future" was a milestone. In this report, we read: "Our earth is unique but the world is not unique."

An eco-reformation can only begin with the realities that we find as Luther died. "The earth is one." This represents both a scientific and a biblical truth. "But the world is not one." That is also true. How can we respond to the narratives that lead us? How do we do this with regard to our anthropocentric power? Two factors demand attention.

The first is the narrative that produces the planetary state of emergency, the story of domination. The change of the climate system and climate injustice is only a chapter in the epic history of oppression, the oppression of people and the rest of nature inevitably together. The reasons for that are not ignorant persons or subjugated nations. This oppression "is largely the work of persons with lofty academic titles, awards, and degrees" (David Orr). It is the result of domination that has its basis in a highly differentiated combination of scholarly knowledge, technological controls, and narratives that eulogize western societies as "legitimate" administrators of natural and social processes. The subjugation of nature is the logical consequence of forms that organize and maintain the so-called advanced industrialized civilizations and arose out of the illusion that we can control what we created. The change in the climate system proves the opposite. The origins of domination lie in the European and neo-European cosmology, conquest, colonialization, trade, and Christianity – all together proclaimed as the higher civilization with a mission: the mission of rescuing and bringing modern development to others. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this was called "the triumphant advance of progress." In the 20th century, it was baptized "development." Now it becomes "sustainable development" and the "economy of the green consumer society" based on the scientific and technical discoveries of the global North over the global South. The global multinational corporations are the locomotives.

Yes, great advances were made: the abolition of legal slavery, universal human rights, and attaining social justice in the struggles with the industrial barons and the financial world. However, today's institutions are still deeply rooted in the persistent power of their origin, in white superiority, patriarchy, and capitalism. The people in the administrations and in the global supply chains need not be white and paternalistic. But their institutions and their practices are. The domination model threatens with destruction from all sides and is openly decried as not sustainable.

The stage is set for the politics of refusal, rage, backward steps, and fear of the threatening others. All this fits in the normative stories of US arrogance and "greatness." People act because of stories, not on account of data and facts. We harvest the storm of a history that has produced a threefold crisis: the crisis of morality, the crisis of democracy, and the crisis of the planetary economy and the environment.

How will we now plan our days? The best way to tackle the injustices of the Anthropocene is to dismantle white privileges, male privileges, and wealth or class privileges because these drive the human economy to harm the economy of nature and the well-being of billions of people. I am afraid this agenda is old and worn out and not fresh and passionate. The way forward, at least for most whites, is repentance, renewal, and restoration. How can we move forward to feasible moral ideas and practices?

Let us begin with social justice. This is more urgently necessary than ever. Social justice cannot be maintained if it is not expanded to include creation justice. Human health on a damaged planet is a contradiction. "We are only as alive as the earth is alive" (Salish). This means changes in our elementary conduct. The obligations to the family and to democracy remain. But we cannot fulfill these if we do not change our principles regarding industrial civilization, as Thomas Berry has done. He says: "Planetary health is in the first place; human well-being is derived from that." Planetary health has priority since human well-being is derived from that. In the same way, the first law of the economy is the preservation of the economy of nature. The human economy is derived from that.

Let us reflect on the ethic of our values. Traditional values remain and are unabandonable: honesty, trustworthiness, solidarity, love, and sympathy. But we cannot escape the deadly arrogance of our domination and the rest of nature will remain enslaved if they are not accompanied by a feeling of astonishment (as with Maya Angelou, Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, and Martin Luther), growing reverence, and humility.


We have heard the voices (of science), ethics and theology. What does "The Manifesto for an Ecological Reformation of Christendom" urge so the collateral beauty surpasses the collateral damage? A certain chutzpa is necessary as Jean Chittister formulates: "Life comes from death. The present arises out of the ashes of the past. The future is always possible for those ready to create it anew. If you are not ready for death and resurrection, you had better not join in."

Secondly, this includes new relations to the planet and people for us persons marked by industrial civilization. While we as persons cannot avoid being limited, we also cannot only be limited. We must always be there for others and they do not need to be our enemies. The possibility of apartheid that makes people into "the others" is over.

Thirdly, part of a new relation to the planet and its people is an ecological reformation that goes far beyond our recycling does, saying "green prayers," calls for creation responsibility and a regained theology of creation.

This reformation requires a new reading of the canonical biblical texts, a criticism of the influence of certain canonical texts on the environment, regaining historical insights, numbers, and practices, a new consciousness of the important symbols, a renewal of the Christian community, and a change of the office and mission of the church. An ecological reformation of Christendom is all-embracing in its range and must include the whole church life: Bible studies, catechism, instruction, liturgies, hymns, Christian art, pastoral care, office, and mission. This reformation will include resistance and polemics. If you don't like both of these, then throw away Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Simons, Fox, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and Pope Francis. Reformation means theological and moral resistance and polemics against white superiority, patriarchy, our kind of economy, and the related cosmology, theology, and morality. Resistance must accompany the rebuilding. Therefore cooperation with the civil society and governments is important even if this is stressful. We learn the hard lesson from Bonhoeffer: living in a world full of nasty problems means everyone who acts becomes culpable. Learning from Niebuhr means: the integrity of our compromises is crucial, not the question of the purity of our motives. Learning from "Black Lives Matter" means: the content of our character plays a role but the character and content of our institutions is more important,

The ecological reformation also includes common joy. This reformation is a "common life" (Bonhoeffer). One may not like Luther's coarse humor… Still, we need companions, parties, songs, and celebrations. That is the law of the Reformation.

This reformation has the motto: Veni creator spiritus. Come Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation. You can plan your day around that prayer.
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