01 Oct 2009: Opinion

A Timely Reminder of
the Real Limits to Growth

It has been more than 30 years since a groundbreaking book predicted that if growth continued unchecked, the Earth’s ecological systems would be overwhelmed within a century. The latest study from an international team of scientists should serve as an eleventh-hour warning that cannot be ignored.

by bill mckibben

Let’s play doctor. I’m sitting there in a white coat looking at my clipboard and I say: “Hmmm, your cholesterol is going up. If you keep eating this way, you’re going to have a heart attack some day.” You hear that, and you stop on the way home for a bacon double cheeseburger.

But now imagine I’m sitting there in my white coat looking at my clipboard and all of a sudden I whistle, and say: “Your cholesterol is off the charts, man. You’re in the zone where people have heart attacks all the time. You better hope you get it down before the stroke.” You hear that, and you stop on the way home for some Lipitor and a pair of running shoes.

We’ve known for a very long time now that, in some vague way, we were headed for trouble. Limits to Growth was published in 1972, and its assorted charts and graphs made remarkably clear that, as the authors of that seminal book put it at the time, “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

But “the next hundred years” must have seemed a comfortingly long time, because — though Limits to Growth was the biggest-selling environmental book of all time, with 30 million copies sold — it wasn’t enough to divert our trajectory.

I thought of Limits to Growth last week, when Nature published a lead article by a large and illustrious team headed by the Stockholm scientist
People convinced themselves the limits to growth were far enough away they’d be someone else’s problem.
Johan Rockstrom. Titled “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” it set boundaries for nine interlinked planetary thresholds, arguing that if we crossed them we risked destroying the “unusual stability” that has marked the Holocene, which is the name scientists use for the last 10,000 years, the period when civilization arose.

The almost-good news is, we don’t know enough about two processes that lead to crossing those thresholds — the loading of aerosols and particulates in the atmosphere, and the effects of chemical pollution — to know if we’ve already gone too far.

The bad news is, we’re close to crossing most of the rest of the boundaries. The authors estimate that we currently allow 9.5 million tons of phosphorus to flow annually into our oceans, mostly because of fertilizer use, and that past 11 million tons we may well trigger “large-scale ocean anoxic events.” Ozone concentrations in the atmosphere — 290 Dobson units before the Industrial Revolution and 283 at present — can’t dip below 276 without catastrophe, the authors note.

Oh, and the worse news is, we’re already well past three of the borders. We’re removing almost four times as much nitrogen from the atmosphere for human use as is safe, and the result are things like wide-scale water pollution and the addition of heat-trapping gases like nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. The species extinction rate, the authors argue, is probably 10 times the tolerable level of 10 species per million species per year, though they add that they’re less certain of this than other numbers. “However, we can say with some confidence that Earth cannot sustain the current rate of loss without significant erosion of ecosystem resilience.”

Most importantly, they assign a number to the safe maximum value for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million. This was the first of these limits to gain wide public notice. Since NASA scientist James Hansen and his team first broached this number in December 2007, some
Respecting these limits, now that we know they’re there, becomes the central human task.
of us have built a global movement around it (e350.org), which will culminate on Oct. 24 with rallies and events in most all the world’s nations, gatherings designed to drive this particular boundary deep into the public consciousness and hence move the climate negotiations at Copenhagen closer toward the targets science has been demanding. Since we’re at 390 parts per million now, and rising 2 ppm per year, it’s a last-ditch effort — but it’s amazing to see how the number rallies people, how it takes the abstract and makes it real.

In a sense, of course, these numbers are both over-exact (351 is obviously not damnation, nor 349 salvation) and in certain ways superfluous. If you were paying attention last week either to new data (that the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic are melting much more rapidly than expected) or to scary pictures (the giant dust storm that engulfed drought-stricken Sydney), then you already understand at some level that we’re moving quickly out of the stable balance of the last 10 millennia. The photos of record flooding in the Atlanta area seemed particularly powerful to me, because they showed newly built tract homes submerged to the second story. Newly built homes are usually off the floodplain, away from the path of the hundred-year storm — but in this case that didn’t help, because this was bigger than the hundred-year storm. One river rose 11 feet above its previous peak.

Still, the new Nature paper helps enormously. It helps by making clear how interlocked these various phenomena are. Carbon is driving ocean acidification, for instance, just as it’s raising temperature; global warming will accelerate the species extinction that already comes from habitat destruction.

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It helps too by removing the temptation for delay — a temptation that never flags. Only true ideologues or the most oblivious among us thought that we’d never reach the “limits to growth,” but plenty of people convinced themselves they were far enough away that they’d be someone else’s problem. You could hear a bit of that attitude on display at the United Nations last week, as President Obama gave an uninspired speech on climate change, explaining all the reasons that significant progress would be hard (the Congress, the overriding imperative to grow the economy), and admonishing people not to hold out for “the perfect” solution.

But the perfect solution is no longer on offer, as Rockstrom et al make abundantly clear. They’re doing us an enormous service by attempting to isolate the bargaining position of the natural world, a bargaining position that we really might want to respect. If the planet says 350, then it doesn’t matter that the U.S. needs to get out of an economic rut, or that China still has lots of peasants who would like to move to the city. We’re going to have to find non-carbon ways to do those things, because the planet is unlikely to suddenly say, “Oh well, 450 then.” The laws of nature aren’t amendable like the laws of man.

Respecting these limits, now that we know they’re there, becomes the central human task. Just as the man with the high cholesterol needs to think at every turn about his diet, his exercise, his medicine, so we too have lost the right to casual obliviousness that goes with not knowing. If we choose to ignore the warnings, we’re not some 14-year-old smoking because his friends think it looks cool, or even the pack-a-day lifer with other things on his mind. Now we’re the lung cancer patient trying to sneak cigarettes in the ICU.

Yes, it’s hard to change ways of life, and hard to break addictions, and hard to turn your economic systems and political goals away from the constant expansion that have been their target for more than 200 years. But now we know — with the cold precision offered by numbers — that there’s something that’s harder to imagine, which is going on as we’ve been going.

POSTED ON 01 Oct 2009 IN Climate Climate Forests Policy & Politics Central & South America Europe North America North America 


Bill McKibben has been the clarion voice of the climate movement for 20 years, long before it identified itself as a movement. His current passion is to raise the awareness that science is now telling us that we must reduce atmospheric concentrations below their current levels of 390ppm.

This is the most inconvenient truth of all: not only do we need to massively reduce anthropogenic emissions globally, we also need more and better methods to reabsorb CO2 already in Earth's atmosphere.

A decade ago, I recall sitting in a room of eminent policy voices and being the only one in the room saying that stabilization at 550ppm was too dangerous, and that 450ppm or lower was needed. Of course, science since then shows that I was wrong, and stabilizing at even 450ppm will not "avoid dangerous anthropogenic changes to the climate," as the nations of the world agreed in Rio in 1992.

Now Bill McKibben has popularized the 350ppm mantra around the globe, and the youth-run network 350.org is making this truth understood by millions. Watch for actions around the globe on October 24 to raise this awareness; better yet, join an action, or initiate one at www.350.org.
Posted by Michael Noble, Fresh Energy on 01 Oct 2009

Thanks for this piece. It gets at the fundamental point. I was assigned to read the Limits to Growth and write a paper on it by my ECON 101 teacher at an Ivy League college. I found the argument in the book persuasive, and said so in the paper, and I was rewarded with a lousy grade. Obviously I didn't know the first thing about Macroeconomics or I wouldn't have fallen for the book.

We have an enormous problem on our hands. Our global economic system runs on assumption of the desirability and possibility of limitless growth.

It is still mostly an unexamined assumption -- even as we talk of green jobs and a clean energy economy, the assumption persists unseen.

Posted by David Sassoon, SolveClimate on 01 Oct 2009

Bill's post highlights one of the important conundrums we face using environmental writing to motivate changes in policy and personal behavior. The message of "future generations" evokes wide agreement from the American public, but enables procrastination. It's human nature to respond most aggressively to the most urgent situations, and we have yet to figure out how to evoke that effectively when so much of the information we receive uses language like "by the end of this century."
Posted by Eric Eckl on 01 Oct 2009

Indeed, the language must reflect damages in thepresent, which we have in abundance. Extended heat waves, steadily melting ice caps and desertification. Floods: The symptoms of climate change. This is what will spur people to action. 100 years means forget about it.
Posted by Mark York on 02 Oct 2009

I fear we are experiencing a kind of governmental entropy, as the number and complexity of issues overcome our ability to deal with them all, even the most pressing. Obama's lack of a clear, consistent and persistent message on climate change reflects this condition. I hope he makes the second trip to Copenhagen.
Posted by Larry Chamblin on 03 Oct 2009

I honestly don't think we'll actually admit to limits to growth on a collective scale until we hit them. Every single politician in my country (Canada) wants to do everything possible to spur economic growth, whether it be more roads, more hydro dams, more tree-burning "green" electric plants, more industry and exports, more real estate developments. It's as if they are still living in a developing country in the previous century, not even familiar with the term "overshoot" or know how to measure their ecological footprint. And I won't go into the whole seasonal sydrome of "snowbird aviation", except to say it's a "do it while you still can" mentality out there.
Posted by Dave on 03 Oct 2009

I do agree with the above comments. I'm really tired of hearing things like "the effects of climate change will be this or that". The effects are happening right now. Within the last few weeks only I read about extreme droughts in Kenya, India (Punjab), Australia, and California. Add this to melting glaciers and ice caps, noticeably changing weather patterns all over the world, etc. These are all very concrete effects of climate change (even though it's very hard to connect punctual events to a global phenomenon), and that's what reports etc. should insist on.

Also, I just wanted to mention that two updates to the Limits to Growth study were published, in 1992 (under the title Beyond the Limits) and 2004 (The Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update). The message in 1992 was that the limits had already been overshot and that we were better do something to go back to earlier levels. This means that we now have a choice between controlled economic and populational "de-growth" and uncontrolled collapse, with all its consequences and the social injustices it entails. I predict the next update (announced for 2012) will say that collapse has started and its more than time to do something... Infinite growth is not in the realm of the possible (never mind what macroeconomists believe...)

The model used was also validated in 1992 and 2004, as it correctly predicted the general evolution of the system since 1972.
Posted by jps on 04 Oct 2009

Working on convincing "the American public" that they need to change their behavior, or that they need to influence their legislators to support climate change legislation, is the wrong approach. By the time we convince enough people to make a difference, we'll have passed too many of the critical thresholds that Bill refers to. It's necessary in the long run, but not sufficient in the short run.

The key question is: What actions can we take that will give us the most leverage to address climate change in the shortest time? One example is highlighted by Richard T. Stueb in a post to Huffington Post, "Earlier in September, a group of investors from around the world with over $13 trillion under management issued a statement calling on governments to agree at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December to require greenhouse gas emission reductions of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020." We need to identify similar key influencers and determine the most effective way to convince THEM of the urgency of the situation, so that they can leverage their positions of influence.

I don't know all of the leverage points, but am sure that there are enough smart, knowledgeable people in the environmental community to figure it out. I do know that we're spending too much time, money and effort trying to persuade "the public."
Posted by Peter Hess on 05 Oct 2009

Yes, the game of survival is about leverage points, not campaigning as usual for more action. Limits to Growth author Donella Meadows wrote the classic paper on leverage points and would be bemused how little effort and funding goes into this today. This seems to be because our style of thinking about problems is also the way we think when we cause the problems. Essentially we try to divide up problems to make them more manageable (when we should be looking at whole systems), we are satisfied with incremental improvements (when we should be seeking paradigm changes that allow self-correction) and we tend to adopt us-and-them positions (when we should be creating new common ground from new game-rules).

Economic growth is a convenient scapegoat for humanity's failure to act; "it's those growth obsessed politicians". Yet I've never seen any anti-growth analysis that was able to distinguish between the planet-eating way we get growth now and the planet-saving way we could get growth. If only we weren't so obsessed opposing any kind of growth we might remember that growth is just interested in added up financial value and a new paradigm of corrected market prices and corrected world-views could be a new era where economic growth aligns with precisely the scale and speed of action needed to achieve 350 (and reversal of other indivisible global problems).

The link to my name shows new research for the NATO Science Programme proposing a suitable set of leverage points to do the job. Let me know what you think!
Posted by James Greyson on 09 Oct 2009

One day it appears we’ll bring down the industrial economy within the next few months, barely in time to save our species: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qwpkj7yAM4E. The next day, it appears we’re committed to an average global temperature increase of 4 C by mid-century, which spells extinction of our species and so many others: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=48791.

If we are to persist as a species beyond another couple generations, it is obviously necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, to bring the industrial economy to an immediate halt. Bill McKibben, will you please start promoting this morally vital message? It's time to stop marinating in fame while maintaining political correctness. There is no politically viable solution global climate change, but the time to act is now.
Posted by Guy McPherson on 14 Oct 2009

I do not think humanity will give up the current way of doing business until long past any of the tipping points into Armageddon. We, our societies and economies, are just not built to consider anything beyond the next paycheck or quarterly report. Explanations of the potential for disaster in the next couple of decades or centuries simply vanish under the day to day strain of staying alive in the here and now.

When the global climate changes raise sea levels enough that fierce storms flood coastal cities some will say “I told you so” and the rest will flee inland regardless of who is already there. I doubt if we will have the resources to build adequate barriers to keep out the ocean. When the same change brings drought to much of the world some will say “I told you so” and the starving will go to get food. The “Resource Wars” will begin. The rest is obvious. Just think of the worst possible things that could happen and reality is likely to be worse.

We will keep going as we have been until we make much of the planet uninhabitable and drop its human carrying capacity to well below current levels. The Four Horsemen have mounted their steeds and it is just a matter of time until nature opens the stable door.

We should start thinking about how to recover from such a calamity and what sort of society and economy will be able to continue human habitation of this planet for the next millennia.
Posted by Greg Warner on 20 Oct 2009

Good points on "leverage points," and thank you for the lucid article, Mr. McKibben.

In conveying such an important message to "the world," it may be useful to divide the audience into several groups:

1) individuals with influence (i.e. billionnaire investors, opinion leaders)
2) systems with influence (i.e. large corporations, government structures)
3) individuals and systems without influence (i.e. the masses, small businesses)

The first group can be influenced by facts and science. These are, for the most part, clear-thinking, independent individuals. They are the self-centered "prime movers" of Ayn Rand's novels.

The second group can hardly be influenced by facts and science. Rather, systems respond to regulatory changes and political pressure.

The third group, for the most part, follows the first two.

Posted by Rick DeLong on 13 Nov 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
bill mckibbenABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His The End of Nature, published in 1989, is regarded as the first book for a general audience on global warming. He is a founder of 350.org, a campaign to spread the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million worldwide. His most recent book is American Earth, an anthology of American environmental writing. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the "tipping point" for climate change and the climate challenges facing President Obama.



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