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Beyond the Limits
by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers
300 pages, paperback, Chelsea Green, 1992
The authors of Beyond the Limits apply computer modeling techniques to population and economic growth scenarios. They conclude that the global industrial system has already overshot some of the earth's vital ecological limits and could collapse by the middle of the next century--unless we quickly commit ourselves to sweeping systematic changes.
Praise for Beyond the Limits
"When a model has reached the formal perfection of World3, and when so much effort and talent have gone into presenting its methodology in intelligible detail, its conclusions cannot be dismissed without resorting to similar methods and raising new questions to be answered by new models."--Etienne van de Walle, Science
"The earth is finite. Growth of anything physical, including the human population and its cars and buildings and smokestacks, cannot continue forever. But the important limits to growth are not limits to population, cars, building, or smokestacks, at least not directly. They are limits to throughoutput--to the flows of energy and materials needed to keep people, cars, buildings, and smokestacks functioning. The human population and economy depend upon constant flows of air, water, food, raw materials, and fossil fuels from the earth. They constantly emit wastes and pollution back to the earth. The limits to growth are limits to the ability of the planetary sources to provide those streams of materials and energy, and limits to the ability of the planetary sinks to absorb the pollution and waste.
"On a local scale, overshoot and collapse can be seen in the processes of desertification, mineral or groundwater depletion, poisoning of soils or forests by long-lived toxic wastes. Legions of failed civilizations, abandoned farms, busted boomtowns, and abandoned, toxic industrial lands testify to the 'reality' of this system behavior. On a global scale, overshoot and collapse could mean the breakdown of the great supporting cycles of nature that regulate climate, purify air and water, regenerate biomass, preserve biodiversity, and turn wastes into nutrients. Twenty years ago few people would have thought ecological collapse on that scale possible. Now it is the topic of scientific meetings and international negotiations."
"The human world can respond in three ways to signals that resource use and pollution emissions have grown beyond their sustainable limits. One way is to disguise, deny, or confuse the signals: to build higher smokestacks, for instance, or to dump toxic chemicals secretly and illegally in someone else's territory; to overexploit fish or forest resources knowingly, claiming the need to save jobs or pay debts while in fact endangering the natural systems on which jobs and debt payments depend; to search for more resources while recklessly wasting those already discovered; to control prices that are rising in response to scarcity, or to put costs off onto the environment or onto faraway people or onto coming generations; to refuse to discuss population growth because the subject is too politically sensitive. These responses (and non-responses) are refusals to deal with problems induced by limits, and they guarantee even worse problems in the future."
"Exponential growth is the driving force causing the human economy to approach the physical limits of the earth. It is culturally ingrained and structurally inherent in the global system, and the causal structure that produces it is at the core of the World3 model. . . . The surprising consequences of exponential growth have fascinated people for centuries. There is an old Persian legend about a clever courtier who presented a beautiful chessboard to his king and requested that the king give him in exchange 1 grain of rice for the first square on the board, 2 grains fro the second square, 4 grains for the third and so forth. The king readily agreed and ordered rice to be brought from his stores. . . . The tenth square took 512 grains, the fifteenth required 16,384, and the twenty-first square gave the courtier more than a million grains of rice. By the fortieth square a million million rice grains had to be piled up. The payment could never have continued to the sixty-fourth square, it would have taken more rice than there was in the whole world.
"A French riddle for children illustrates another aspect of exponential growth--the apparent suddenness with which an exponentially growing quantity approaches a fixed limit. Suppose you own a pond on which a water lily in growing. The lily plant doubles in size each day. If the plant were allowed to grow unchecked, it would completely cover the pond in 30 days, choking off the other forms of life in the water. For a long time the lily plant seems small, so you decide no to worry about it until it covers half the pond. On what day will that be? On the twenty-ninth day. You have just one day to act to save your pond."
"It is much easier for rich populations to save, invest, and multiply their capital than for poor ones to do so, not only because of the greater power of the rich to control market conditions, purchase new technologies, and command resources, but also because centuries of past growth have built up in rich countries a large stock of capital that can multiply itself yet more. Most basic needs are met, so relatively high rates of saving and investment for the future are possible without impoverishing the present. . . . In poor countries capital growth has a hard time keeping up with population growth for many reasons--because investable surplus is siphoned off to foreign investors, to the luxury of local elites, to debt repayments, or to exorbitant militarization--and because there is too much poverty, technical inefficiency, or mismanagement to generate an investable surplus in the first place. The population is stuck in a pattern of growing bigger without growing richer. The system structure that links together population and capital is such that the most common behavior of the world system is the one captured in the old saying 'the rich get richer and the poor get children.' It is no accident that the system produces that behavior; it is structured to do so, and will continue to, unless that structure is deliberately changed."
"The most common criticisms of the World3 model twenty years ago were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. We knew about technology and markets, of course. We assumed in World3 that markets function to allocate investment essentially with perfection. We built technical improvements into the model, such as birth control, resource substitution, the Green Revolution in agriculture. Possible future technical leaps we tested in model runs. What if materials are almost entirely recycled? What if land yield doubles again and yet again? What if pollution control could be made 4 or 10 times more effective? Even with those assumptions, the model would overshoots its limits. Even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience we can believe possible, if those are the only changes, the model generates scenarios of collapse.
"One lesson from these [computer] runs is that in a complex, finite world if you remove or raise one limit and go on growing, you encounter another limit. Especially if the growth is exponential, the next limit will show up surprisingly soon. There are layers of limits. World3 contains only a few. The 'real world' contains many more. Most of them are distinct, specific, and locally variable. Only a few limits, such as the ozone layer or the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, are truly global. . . . And in an increasingly linked world economy, a society under stress anywhere sends out waves that are felt everywhere. Free trade enhances the likelihood that those parts of the world included in the free trade zone will reach limits simultaneously.
"A second lesson is that the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is in the future to run into several of them at the same time. In most World3 runs . . . the world system does not run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capacity, it runs out of the ability to cope. 'The ability to cope' in World 3 is represented too simply by a single variable: the amount of industrial output available each year to be invested in solving various problems. In the 'real world' there are other components of the ability to cope: the number of trained people, the amount of political attention, the financial risk that can be handled, the institutional capacity, the managerial ability. All these capabilities can grow over time, if society invests in developing them. And at any one time, they are limited. They can process and handle just so much. When problems arise exponentially and in multiples, even though those problems could be dealt with one by one, the ability to cope can be overwhelmed."
"Time is in fact the ultimate limit in the World3 model--and, we believe, in the 'real world.' The reason that growth, and especially exponential growth, is so insidious is that it shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been able to deal with slower rates of change finally begin to fail.
"There are three other reasons why technology and market mechanisms that function well in a more slowly changing society cannot solve the problems generated by a society driving toward interconnected limits at an exponential rate. One is that these adjustment mechanisms themselves have costs. The second is that they themselves operate through feedback loops with information distortions and delays. The third is that the market and technology are merely tools that serve the goals, the ethics, and the time perspectives of the society as a whole. If the goals are growth-oriented, the ethics are unjust, and the time horizons are short, technology and markets can hasten a collapse instead of preventing it."