'Values of our society lead to disaster'

In 1972, Dennis Meadows had co-authored the well-known report, Limits to Growth, along with Donella Meadows and Jorgen Randers. Recently, the same team came out with a sequel, Beyond the Limits. In this interview, Meadows talks about the new insights that mark the book.

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:57:02 AM

JUST a couple of weeks after UNCED, participants from Europe, USA and Japan gathered in Geneva, at the newly-created International Academy of the Environment, to attend a seminar entitled "Beyond the Limits: The Limits to Growth, Sustainable Development and Environment Policy after UNCED". The high point of the seminar was a presentation by Dennis Meadows, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research, University of New Hampshire, on Beyond the Limits. Twenty years after The Limits to Growth, his first report written for the Club of Rome, Meadows claims the same world model, improved and relying on a more complete set of data, is still running quite well. This interview was conducted during the Geneva seminar.

In Rio, US President George Bush stated that contrary to some pessimistic predictions in the 1970s, we know today that there are no limits to growth. This was a clear allusion to your first report of 1972. Were you wrong?
This is an incorrect statement in two ways. Our first report revealed only the difficulties arising from limits to growth after the end of this century. In none of our reports have we suggested there would be any difficulties until the early decades of the next century. Our computer plots, which we published before and again now, show growth continuing and even the basic indices getting better: more food per capita, more social services per capita, growing industrial output per capita.

Some people have been confused by one set of data in the first book which didn't come from our model, but which was used to illustrate certain aspects of our approach. In one table, where we tried to give an idea of the availability of nonrenewable resources, we specified three different numbers for about 20 materials: its availability according to current knowledge; how long it would last at current rates of consumption; and how long it would last if there is an exponential growth in consumption rates.

But we clearly acknowledged in a chart that more of these things would be discovered. In no way did we understand that the exponential life index is a statement about when we will be out of copper or else. We were trying to provide some relative understanding about how much there is and in how short a time it could run out if there continues to be growth in demand. This didn't come out of our model, it was simply algebra.

But some people, who criticise our report because they want it to be wrong, have taken those numbers and said: "There, they said we would be out of oil by 1990, we are not out of oil, therefore they are wrong." This criticism is irrelevant.

Sustainable development is a widely misunderstood concept. What is your understanding of it?
Well, in the book, we cite the definition which came from the Brundtland report: sustainable development is a way of satisfying needs for people today which does not make it more difficult for people tomorrow to satisfy their needs. So, at that level, it's quite clear. But when you translate this into policy making, it becomes difficult.

But we are very clear about what constitutes sustainable development in our model: it is a set of policies and goals which bring an end to the growth of the physical component of the economy and of the population.

What do you think of the argument that technology and market are the solution to environmental crisis?
We need to be very clear about the difference between setting goals and achieving them. The market and technological advances are wonderful tools for achieving goals, but not for deciding what should be our purpose. If we sit back and imagine that somehow the current instruments for setting prices and the current instruments for developing technologies will solve these problems, we head for catastrophe, because the problems we face now were caused by the current mechanisms for economics and technological advance. Why? Because the values of our society are ones which lead to disaster. If we don't respect natural systems, if we think humanity can exist apart from nature, if we don't care about poverty, if we don't care about future generations, if we think that the army is an appropriate way to settle international disputes, then our markets and our technologies will take us in this direction: more armed forces, a bigger gap between the rich and the poor, more destruction of nature.

You mean social and political changes would be more imperative rather than talking only about market and technological breakthroughs?
Well, yes, but when you say that, in some ways it makes you feel hopeless, and it makes you think that you don't have to do anything, because if those damned politicians don't do it, we just won't do it. You see, the damage is caused by behaviour, not attitude. My attitude about flying doesn't use up very much oil. It's only when I get onto a plane that I begin to use oil.

Of course, behaviour reflects attitude. But attitude also reflects behaviour. And when you want to change attitudes, often the most effective way to do it is to change behaviour first.

One of the real insights which comes out of our model is how much power can come from information. I think many of the stupid things we do now are not because we have the wrong attitudes, but because we are uninformed. Ozone is a wonderful example. We weren't destroying the ozone layer because we wanted to, we just didn't realise the damage we were doing to it.

Energy is one of the central issues of the ecological crisis. But here again, some people say thermonuclear fusion could potentially provide an infinite amount of energy.

Any time somebody uses the word 'infinite', you know he or she is either stupid or lying. There is nothing infinite in our world. The only thing about thermonuclear fusion that's infinite is the fuel, not the land, not the capital, not the people to operate it, not the money to build these things. And it does produce radioactive materials. So, I would say let's continue to do research on thermonuclear fusion to keep this option open. But no one should imagine that it will make any significant contribution to the world's energy systems over the next 30 years.

Regarding the energy problem, we know as a scientific fact that the fastest, cheapest and most environmentally safe way to reduce the gap between what you need and what you have is to reduce what you need, not increase what you have. This can be done, first of all, by conservation. If you can achieve 20 per cent saving on power, then we don't need to build nuclear plants for quite some time. Secondly, let's move to some technologies which are really sustainable.

For example?
Many different forms of solar power. Even in the current, hostile environment, where the government gives very little encouragement, the use of solar energy is growing very fast.

You have been working on your World Model for 20 years. What developments are you looking for now?
Two areas interest me -- how the content and the lessons of this model can be made more widely understood and used. There are, let's say, 30 basic ideas in this model which would be useful to any national leader.

Getting people to understand the long delays in the system is very useful. The same goes for an appreciation of the profound implications of deterioration in soil fertility. This is a silent and slow crisis, which has been hidden by dumping more and more chemicals into the soil. But there are some thresholds there. And we are not paying enough attention to this.

The other thing, is to begin moving at the national, regional and local level, translating our insights into the specific policies which have to be undertaken by companies, firms and so forth. Our work provides almost no direct basis for that. But you can't look at the local level until you have some general idea about the possibilities. For example, our findings that the planet can support as many as nine billion people is crucially interesting. I would even say that nobody knew that before. Now it's time for others to take these basic ideas and translate them into local initiatives.

What are the implications of your model for North-South relations?
When the poor nations finally understood the world is finite and there is only so much, then they started to make demands against the rich. I am speaking very simplistically, but in 1972, some of the rich said to the poor: "Look at what he is trying to do to you, you'd better criticise this." Basically, the rich were just afraid that the poor might actually accept what we were saying as a basis for action. In the few places where it was finally understood that the world is finite, like ozone, the poor were able to say to the rich: "OK, you pay, and you pay me too", because there is only so much.

We must also keep in mind the fact that the rich countries will have to adjust to lower standards of living because it is not possible to keep the present material flows going. They are above sustainable limits and causing us to destroy our soils, our air, our water.

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