Are we following the “collapse” scenario predicted 30 years ago?

Dennis Meadows, one of the original authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, thinks it is far too late to achieve sustainable development as that term is commonly understood.

Speaking March 1, 2012 at a joint symposium in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Club of

Meadow's coauthored "Limits to Growth" first in 1972 and then updated again in 2004.

Rome and the Smithsonian Institution, Meadows told the audience that we are following the “Collapse” scenario, one of the 10 outlined in the book. This scenario includes a precipitous decline in resource and energy use over the next few decades, the consequences of unfettered economic growth and policies that don’t recognize resource limits or the carrying capacity of the planet.

Meadows made the case that our focus should now be on resiliency, rather than on sustainability. “It is too late to avoid what is coming,” he told the audience, “but we can still adopt policies that will reduce the negative impacts on the values that are most important to us as a society.”

The Limits to Growth, one of the first scholarly works to recognize that the world was approaching its sustainable limits, turns 40 this year.  The book is considered revolutionary, not only because it challenges society’s growth obsession but also because it uses systems dynamics within a sustainability context.

The book reports on 13 scenarios for the future. The key ideas are:

  • growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion suggest that the biophysical limits of the earth will be reached within th next 70 years.
  • the most probable result will be rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity (“overshoot and collapse”)
  • it is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future
  • a precondition of a sustainable world is that population and capital growth need to be stabilized to avoid reaching and exceeding the limits to growth
  • allowing capital and population growth to find their “natural state” is inadequate, irresponsible and potentially catastropic.

While some thought leaders believe that technology is a substitute for resources, the authors of Limits to Growth state:

“…faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can divert our attention from the most fundamental problem – the problem of growth in a finite system – and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it…”

In the final analysis the authors present a “new concept of growth”.  They say:

What would happen if we measured progress as an increase of quality of life and not a material turnover?  Then humanity can grow for a very long time.  It would grow in terms of security, happiness, stability and sustainability.

The authors have no secret formula for making this transition.  They note that systems transition requires relevant, compelling, powerful, timely and accurate information.  When information flows are changed, any system will behave differently.  They note the role of innovators in perceiving the need for new information, rules, goals, communicating and trying them out.  They highlight something we see very clearly in the world today, that systems strongly resist changes in their information flows, especially in their rules and goals.  As they found during the firestorm of the release of “Limits to Growth” in 1972, such actions take courage and clarity.

Click on this picture to hear an overview of the book.

Finally, in close the authors present additional tools that need to be used to facilitate a new system of sustainability.  As scientists note the discomfort with these soft skills:  visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving.  But in the end, it seems most appropriate.  We are facing a human problem that require our unique human gifts to solve.

Humanity cannot triumph in the adventure of reducing the human footprint to a sustainable level if that adventure is not undertaken in a spirit of global partnership.  Collapse cannot be avoided if people do not learn to view themselves and others as part of one integrated global society.  Both will require compassion, not only with the here and now, but with the distant and future as well.  Humanity must learn to love the idea of leaving future generations a living planet.


Are we following the “collapse” scenario?  It may be too early to tell.  It is clear however that for many of the people on the planet it is still a surprise to discover that we live on a finite planet and that this undeniable fact is having and will continue to have an impact on our goal of continuous economic growth.  In all the scenarios presented in “Limits to Growth” the authors sounded an urgent call for humans to wake up and adapt to this reality.   We still have a long, long way to go.


Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

The Top 50 Sustainability Books. Wayne Visser.


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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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