Posts

The Influence of Donella Meadows and the Limits to Growth

by Rob Dietz

“There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.”

This cornucopian quote sounds like something a Disney character would say, but it’s actually chiseled in stone on a monument in the heart of Washington, DC. These are the words of Ronald Reagan, and they have a permanent home in the atrium of the government building that bears his name. These words also seem to have a permanent home in the economic strategy of the U.S. and just about every other nation.

Reagan’s quote oozes with optimism. His optimistic attitude and his gift for inspiring people formed the core of his popular Presidential style, even if his rhetoric sometimes strayed far from reality. In his quote, he cleverly equated growth (which he championed for political reasons without considering the long-term environmental and social implications) with human progress (which pretty much every voter can get behind).

One prominent public figure was able to match Reagan’s hopefulness and ability to inspire. She was a humble writer and farmer, but first and foremost, she was a scientist who rooted her analyses in the laws of physics and ecology (she certainly never tried to gain support by resorting to fantasy-land notions such as infinite growth on a finite planet).

When Donella Meadows passed away suddenly in 2001, humanity lost a leading light. If you begin reading her Global Citizen columns, it’s hard to stop before you’ve read through the entire 16-year archive. With wit, style, and uncommon insight, she tackled some of the most pressing social and environmental problems, and her writing was so good that the column was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She became one of the most influential people to promote the vision of a sustainable society. In fact, the Post Growth Institute has ranked her at number 3 (right behind E. F. Schumacher and Herman Daly) in their list of the top 100 sustainability thinkers.

Meadows became internationally famous in 1972 as the lead author of The Limits to Growth, a little book with powerful ideas that went against the mainstream grain. She and her coauthors, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens, combined principles from the emerging field of system dynamics with newly developed computer modeling capabilities to assess the implications of ongoing growth in population, food production, industrial output, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable resources. Even the most biting critic has to admire their guts and resolve for undertaking such an ambitious study to build a robust model of the world!

It’s hard to overstate the influence of The Limits to Growth, which was translated into 25 languages and became the best-selling environmental book of all time. That’s a stunning achievement on its own, but it’s all the more impressive for a book that covers such a disconcerting topic by presenting a bunch of output from a computer model.

The book’s level of influence can be demonstrated by three pieces of evidence beyond the sales figures. The first piece of evidence comes from the realm of politics. Jimmy Carter, a scientist and farmer like Meadows, was clearly inspired by her work and that of other like-minded scholars (he even hosted E. F. Schumacher at the White House). In his “Crisis of Confidence” speech (1979), Carter called for conservation of energy, sharing of resources, and pursuit of meaning through channels other than “owning things and consuming things.” That sounds a lot like a practical and hopeful approach to dealing with the limits to growth. But Carter’s political rivals re-branded his speech as the “Malaise Speech.” They successfully undermined his message, which was seen as a threat to corporate power and unchecked economic growth.

The second piece of evidence is closely related to the backlash heaped on Carter, which helped sweep him out of office and set the stage for the era of reckless Reaganomics. The Limits to Growth received the same backlash as Carter, and as Richard Heinberg reports, detractors took such strides to discredit the book that millions of people mistakenly believe it was debunked years ago. This is nonsense — the book’s analysis and its underlying message have held up surprisingly well. In fact, in 2008 the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization took a close look at the book’s scenarios. The findings show that thirty years of historical data compare favorably to key features of the book’s business-as-usual scenario (ominously, this scenario results in collapse of the global economic system sometime around 2050. The fact that The Limits to Growth struck such a nerve and raised the ire of so many critics serves as a potent reminder of its influence.

The third piece of evidence is anecdotal. I bought my own copy of The Limits to Growth (a 1975 second edition) from a used book store a few years ago. The book’s original owner received it as a Christmas present from someone named Rex. In his “Merry Christmas” note on the inside cover, Rex wrote, “I haven’t read this yet, but it’s supposed to contain some interesting ideas on where we are heading.”

Meadows and company summarize “where we are heading” right up front by stating these three far-reaching conclusions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

Detractors of The Limits to Growth clearly had an agenda — they didn’t want any obstacle to impede their quest for unlimited profits and accumulation of wealth. But Meadows and company had an agenda, too. Their agenda, revealed in the second concluding point, is profoundly humanitarian. They were desperate to find a way to maintain human well-being without undermining the life-supporting systems of the planet.

Unfortunately, even to this day, the anti-limits marketing machine continues to churn out propaganda and sway public opinion toward the wishful thinking of infinite growth. We are not going to achieve infinite economic growth on planet Earth. Not only is it physically impossible, but it’s also an undesirable goal to begin with.

We’ve made disappointing progress on the third concluding point of Meadows and company over the last forty years. Even so, their premise still holds. The sooner we begin working toward a steady state economy, the greater our chances of providing a lasting prosperity for all of civilization.

Economic and Environmental Perspective on President Reagan on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

by Brent Blackwelder

Amid all the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, it is important to note that his two-term presidency kindled a philosophy that has undermined governance in the United States, run in the opposite direction from a sustainable economy, and exhibited hostility toward a clean energy basis for the global economy. This was not, however, a strategy shared broadly by the Republican Party at that time.

The bipartisanship in Congress in the 1970s, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, enabled the passage of 30 major environmental laws – laws that established the United States as the world leader in the quest for clean air and clean water.  Congress set a framework of decision making in the federal government to ensure that long-range and short-range environmental impacts were integrated into economic decision making and that alternatives to proposed governmental actions were evaluated.  Other nations looked up to America as a pace-setter on energy and the environmental policy, and they adopted a number of our new laws for their own use.

President Nixon signed the keystone law for environmental protection, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and he appointed as heads of the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality two highly qualified Republicans, Bill Ruckelshaus and Russell Train, who believed in the mission of these agencies.

Had the 1980 election turned out differently, the United States might have become a clean energy pioneer.  And the emerging field of ecological economics might have taken center stage as the producer of policies for a sustainable economy. With the election of President Reagan, however, these hopes were dashed.

America had experienced the oil crisis of 1973, memorable for its long gasoline lines.  As a result of that experience, citizens across the nation were moving forward with innovative measures to save energy and develop renewable energy technologies.  In this spirit, President Carter had placed solar panels on the White House roof.  America, many of us thought, was poised to lead the world in a clean energy revolution.  Reagan had other ideas.  He had the solar collectors removed from the White House and gave the green light for all-out exploitation of fossil fuels.  Reagan’s idea of environmental stewardship was clearing brush and picking up fallen branches.

When Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed anti-environment zealots James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Ann Gorsuch as Administrator of EPA.  Ann Gorsuch carried out a Machiavellian plan to prevent much from happening at EPA as she repeatedly rearranged the office spaces at the agency.  During her 22 months as agency head, she cut the budget of the EPA by over 20%, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, relaxed Clean Air Act regulations, and facilitated the spraying of restricted-use pesticides. She cut the total number of agency employees just as its responsibilities were doubling and hired staff from the very industries they were supposed to be regulating.  Rita Lavelle, an Assistant Administrator of EPA, was convicted on federal charges of perjury related to irregularities and the misuse of federal cleanup money at a big hazardous waste dump, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

But the greatest damage of all came from Reagan’s repeated message to the American people that government is the problem, that government is not good but evil, that government hinders the free enterprise system.  By appointing people who didn’t really believe in government or in the constitutionality of the agencies they were running, he produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reagan fully embraced the economics of Milton Friedman, the antithesis of Herman Daly’s  steady state economics.  Friedman’s economics of deregulation sought to undo the safeguards put in place following the Great Depression, and in so doing, paved the way for the global financial scandal that precipitated the crisis of 2008 and governmental bailouts of the private sector.

Looking to the future, the U.S. government is being confronted by the ironic (for a so-called conservative) legacy of George W. Bush – a massive and growing deficit.  The Tea Party freshmen legislators are fighting to hold the Republican leadership to its promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget; however, getting there is proving elusive for them.  Coming to the rescue in this dire situation is the Green Scissors plan of Friends of the Earth and Taxpayers for Common Sense.  The Green Scissors plan shows how to obtain  $200 billion in savings between 2011 and 2015 by getting rid of government subsidies to the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries, and by scrapping some boondoggle water development schemes of the Army Corps of Engineers and a handful of absurd highway projects.  In contrast to the outrage over some of the proposed Republican budget cuts, the Green Scissors cuts command popular support, because they save money while preventing environmental damage at the same time.  It’s a plan that anyone, except maybe Ronald Reagan and his anti-environment appointees, would support.