reading response 1: limits of growth

So, here’s something that gave me a bit of a shock. This graph was part of a Smithsonian article revisiting Limits of Growth. Here are the first to paragraphs of the article:

Recent research supports the conclusions of a controversial environmental study released 40 years ago: The world is on track for disaster. So says Australian physicist Graham Turner, who revisited perhaps the most groundbreaking academic work of the 1970s, The Limits to Growth.

…[T]he study used computers to model several possible future scenarios. The business-as-usual scenario estimated that if human beings continued to consume more than nature was capable of providing, global economic collapse and precipitous population decline could occur by 2030.

So far, the 40-year-old estimates for our 100 years to intense global crisis are dead-on. If you know me, you’re not at all surprised that this is the portion of the reading I clung to. Meadows’ argument, after reaffirming my fears that a terrifying, fiery Hell storm is just around the corner, eventually circled back to my passion for sustainable agriculture.

When my heart slowed down, the two readings (both Meadows and the Smithsonian’s update) called to mind the introductory discussions in our sustainable development course, particularly the Malthusian trap*:

…[A]s population growth is ahead of agricultural growth, there must be a stage at which the food supply is inadequate for feeding the population.

But so far, we (the Entire World) have never reached a Malthusian check. So far, global trends have seemed to follow John Stuart Mill‘s idea that with innovation, we can maintain a higher quality of life.

These ideas especially permeate agriculture. Digging into these economic concepts called to mind an article I read in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Dubiously titled “The Triumph of the Family Farm,” I allowed myself to get excited before reading this article. (I’ll give you a hint how this goes: The page after the article featured an advertisement for Shell. A few pages later? Dow Chemical.)

This is innovation to date–a chemical process that largely divorces farmers from the traditional husbandry to the land and, as Wendell Berry would say, forces them into specialist roles–into a system that can’t live without petroleum, genetic modification & chemicals. Food production (largely commodity production) has massively increased in recent years… but are we feeding our future? Imagine yourself in your favorite zombie movie. (Come on, there are loads. Surely you’ve seen one.) There are no tractors. There are no seed companies. Where are we? What’s left?

Meadows & the MIT team construct a grid of time & space addressing human perspectives that paints largely the same picture as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But if Maslow & Meadows are right, we’re not yet at a point where we can think beyond the short-term future. Even in places that are developed and  nearer self-actualization–perhaps more in the most developed countries, thus contradicting their charts–the focus is on immediate capital gain rather than a long-term, global approach to resource consumption. So how do we, as a global society, begin pushing for this long-term outlook before it’s too late? How do we divorce ourselves from a dependence on technology?


About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
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6 Responses to reading response 1: limits of growth

  1. John Hiestand says:

    I was thinking about this in class. I don\’t believe their predictions will be entirely accurate. Will the decline in population be a traumatic period of famine like it is inferred here, or will there be a more gradual decline due to economic slow-downs, birth control in developing countries, and one-child like policies. Same with peak oil, we won\’t hit a wall and run out, but the resource might slowly become economically non-viable.

  2. gmckeen says:

    Regardless of the pace, population will decline. Estimated to peak in 2050 at 9.3 billion (I’d have to look up the source on that figure). And you’re right John, in that we will in fact never really run out of oil as you stated it will become too expensive to extract. The drilling will stop when it requires more energy to extract the amount of energy being extracted. Let’s head north, build a seed bank, and get on with survivin’.

  3. Mark Milby says:

    I agree somewhat with John. I believe (more because I feel like I have to rather than what I actually believe) population growth will slow as the world develops. Sure, by the time everybody settles out into a sort of global steady-state, we won’t have most of the biodiversity, wilderness, non-renewable resource stock, or heirloom tomato varietals we have today, but at least we’ll have stopped growing. You’re right, population ecology predicts that we’ll enter into some kind of Malthusian Trap if the population we’ve finally settled on is larger than the planet’s carrying capacity. After a while of repeating growth and decay cycles, we’ll center on an equilibrium, more or less (image:

    But just because I believe this doesn’t mean I’m not creating a stockpile and learning how to hunt with a bow. These readings scare the crap out of me. And as far as divorcing ourselves from technology, I’m still thinking on that one. I’m more immediately concerned with divorcing the guy texting while crossing the street in right of my bike from his iPhone.

    • meganbetz says:

      Mark, I totally agree. Like John, I think it’ll be a gradual backslide to a lower standard of living, but I still think that it will come as a drastic shock to people. And I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing–it seems to take crisis for people to change, so at least when we’re finally running out of resources we’ll get to see cool new things pop up like those crystal palaces from the garden cities (even if that means they’re filled exclusively with corn & the three flowers that have survived).

  4. neil fitzharris says:

    The main reason I agree with John is that 30 years of data matches up quite well with previous predictions, sure. But, there are diversions, and they’re recent. And when it comes to human progress, we’ve always surprised ourselves. Global problems don’t have available answers; we can either wait and see, or we can do something radical.

    • meganbetz says:

      I agree. I honestly don’t think we’re going to be a bell curve, but a dip and plateau at a lower quality of life. I think there will absolutely still be progress & advancement… but I think we’re already AT a point where the technology & “progress” are like U.S. medicine–treating symptoms rather than focusing on prevention. This goes back to Berry, whose thoughts on this I really enjoy, and it goes back to what Prof. Reuveny says about sustainable development all the time. Are we truly MITIGATING, or have we already switched to adapting? Does that make sense? (Summary: I don’t think our innovations will save the Earth. They’ll just sustain our species.)

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