Monthly Archives: July 2015

Growing, Growing, Gone: Reaching the Limits – An interview with Dennis Meadows

growth_limitsThe Limits to Growth, released in 1972, has profoundly influenced environmental research and discourse over the past four decades. Allen White of the Tellus Institute talks with Dennis Meadows, one of its co-authors, about the genesis of the report and its lessons for understanding and managing our uncertain and perilous global future.

The Limits to Growth report [from the Club of Rome] focused on natural resource demands, pollution, and population growth, yet the Club of Rome’s initial focus was more on weapons, nuclear proliferation, and security. What prompted this shift? 

The shift stemmed from Jay Forrester’s insight that the issues about which we were talking then (and still talk about today)—hunger, poverty, oil depletion, climate change—are not in themselves problems; they are symptoms. The problem is continued material growth in a physically finite world.

Continual physical growth of population and economic activity eventually reaches the point where the globe simply cannot accommodate anymore. Biophysical systems press back, whether through disease, scarcity, climate, or other response mechanisms. These pressures are danger signals, indicating overshoot of some aspect of the planet’s physical limits.

It is very frustrating to me to hear people talking about starvation as a problem and then say that the way to solve it is by producing more food. The only way we are ever going to have adequate food is by stabilizing the population. Regardless of genetic modifications, food subsidies, or improved storage techniques, as long as population continues to grow, we will eventually overshoot our capacity to feed the world.

Upon publication in 1972, The Limits to Growth triggered intense discussion and debate in academic and policy circles. How would you characterize this spectrum of reactions?

First of all, one common misconception about our report was and is that we proved the existence of limits. Our model assumed the existence of limits [on a finite planet] and then traced out the implications. Available data, however, were sufficient to identify and roughly quantify such limits.

It is also important to understand the nature of the controversy surrounding the report. At the risk of oversimplification, there are two kinds of people: those who decide which salient facts they like and then try to trace their implications, and those who decide which implications they like and then look for salient facts to justify them. You see this distinction in full display in contemporary debates around climate change.

The economics profession is based on the assumption that continual growth is possible and desirable. Likewise, most politicians have a predisposition for growth because it makes the problems they address—unemployment, poverty, diminished tax bases—more tractable. Instead of having to divide a fixed pie, which gets you in trouble with some constituents, you can grow the pie so that nobody has to make a sacrifice or compromise. So there was—and is—a set of vested interests in the notion of growth.

Economists claimed that we were underestimating the power of the market or technological innovation, and some politicians argued that we were trying to block the development of the poor.

After four or five years, people lost interest in the debate, and public discourse returned to its traditional short-term, siloed form. In 1992, we came out with the second edition of The Limits to Growth, and there was again a brief, but now much smaller, effort to discredit the work.

In light of the early danger signals that had already appeared by then—ozone depletion, oil shortages, toxic loadings—why was the reaction so muted? 

The first edition was published in thirty-five foreign language editions; the second edition, in fifteen. The number of articles referencing or criticizing Limits in the 1970s was probably ten times what it was in the 1990s. The economists and politicians simply felt less threatened by our analysis the second time around. From their perspective, it was not worth their effort to challenge our findings. The time horizon of politicians and economists was shorter than ever, whereas our analysis focused on longer-term issues.

Were there any regional differences in reaction, e.g., between the US and Europe or between developed and developing countries?

Yes. Of course, when we talk about developing countries, we are dealing with a very diverse group. But, viewed together, the developing countries basically said, “You are the ones who caused the problems, and you have to solve them. Our goal is to develop. And don’t use this kind of analysis to block us from causing the same problems that you caused.”

The Europeans have always been more receptive to the type of analysis found in The Limits to Growth. For example, I get many more invitations to speak in Europe than I do in the U.S. The sales of the book were greater in several European countries than they were in the US. You also see this reflected in legislation. The precautionary principle has substantial standing in Europe, but it is typically dismissed in the United States.

A third edition appeared in 2004. What insights did it offer thirty years after the original?  

In the second and third editions, we revisited our findings, looked at how global trajectories were unfolding, and compared them with our forecasts. Generally speaking, our forecasts were borne out. Last year, Graham Turner of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (and formerly of the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation) analyzed the predictions in The Limits to Growth and found that our business-as-usual forecasts for population growth, economic growth, and environmental impacts have been fairly accurate.

Does the current work on planetary boundaries signal the prescience of The Limits to Growth?

I admire very much the research on ecological footprints and planetary boundaries by Matthis Wackernagel, Johan Rockström, and others. They are dealing with these issues at a level of detail that was not possible back in the 1970s.

Our interests, however, are somewhat different, and I would say that there has not been, to my knowledge, anyone who has focused on our core question, that is, the dynamics of growth in a finite world. Although a recent article on planetary boundaries traces out the future dynamic implications of limits, much of the work in that field focuses only on the limits themselves and our proximity to them.

Were we prescient? In the 1950s, Harrison Brown’s books dealt with the issue of limits without using a computer model. Two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus famously projected a clash between population growth and food provision, albeit in a simplistic way. The ancient literature, too, contains references to the limits to growth and consequences of violating them. Our insights were not unique or unprecedented, but our modeling was.

Regarding modeling and future scenarios: Do you see normative modeling or extrapolative modeling as more powerful for inspiring corrective action?

I think we are now in a situation where it doesn’t make much difference what we want to see happen fifty years from now.

White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive. Our society has moved into the rapids phase.

Climate change is an example of this. There was a period where we had some possibility of influencing future climate by our decisions about the use of fossil fuels. I think that time has passed. Climate change is increasingly dominated by a set of feedback loops—like the methane cycle and the melting of Arctic ice sheets—which are beyond human control. They have come to be the drivers of the system. The dominant drivers of the system are not people sitting around trying to reach a consensus about which of several different possible outcomes they most prefer.

Any modeling exercise is rife with uncertainty. Under such circumstances, some lean toward optimism, others—like yourself—toward pessimism. What underlies this divergence? 

Our research and reports are neither optimistic nor pessimistic; they are realistic. In my professional life, I lay out our assumptions, support them with empirical data, and then use computer simulations to trace their implications for the future behavior of the system. When the simulations show that current trends cannot be continued, people with a vested interest in current trends may become pessimistic; I do not. In my personal life, I hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

In the next few decades, if we maintain our current trajectory, we are destined to overshoot multiple planetary limits. In the face of this reality, how do we move forward? 

Conventional oil production peaked around 2006. Unconventional oil production, e.g., fracking and tar sands, has continued some degree of growth, but it is a totally different matter. Conventional oil is inexpensive and yields a relatively high energy return on investment. Unconventionals don’t do that. They are expensive, and the net energy return on investment is quite low.

When you don’t have conventional energy sources like oil, you cannot sustain the kind of economic growth rates that we have seen in the past. As a practical matter, then, there is now very little real wealth generation. Most of the economic activity these days consists of those who have more power getting richer by taking away from those with less. This is why we see widening gaps between rich and poor.

Many of the futurists presume large-scale energy consumption of one kind or another. It is energy intensive to coordinate and motivate large assemblies of people and organizations. Absent abundant, cheap energy, this becomes more difficult. I expect that the trend towards global integration is going to stop and then start to recede.

In my own work, I have shifted from a preoccupation with sustainable development, which is somewhat of an oxymoron, toward the concept of resilience. I think that is the future: to understand how different scales—the household, the community, the school––can structure themselves in a way to become more resilient in the face of the shocks that are inevitable regardless what our goals might be.

You see the climate debate evolving this way. Talk about prevention is on the wane, giving way to talk of adaptation. Adaptation really means resilience. It is about designing actions for dealing with New York City the next time superstorms threaten to paralyze the city or for figuring out what California can do if the current drought continues for many more years, or even decades.

Aspirations and good fortune will get us only so far.  Human survival cannot risk reliance on them alone.

Dennis Meadows is Emeritus Professor at the University of New Hampshire, where he was Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research. He co-authored the pioneering 1972 book The Limits to Growth, which analyzed the long-term consequences of unconstrained resource consumption driven by population and economic growth on a finite planet. Dr. Meadows co-founded The Balaton Group in 1982, an international network of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability, and co-authored updates to The Limits to Growth in 1992 and 2004. 

Source: Great Transition Initiative, June 2015.      <http://www.greattransition.org/publication/growing-growing-gone>

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The Values of Hope and Happiness from the David Suzuki Foundation

Materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.

Materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.

A fight is going on inside us, between two wolves. Which wolf will win? The one we feed.*

Reading the news, it’s hard not to feel a growing sense of unease. The threat of terrorism, growing instability and conflict overseas, and uncertainty about the economy diminish our collective feelings of safety and security. To this we add the looming environmental threats of climate change, pollution, declining ocean health, oil spills and extreme weather.

All of it takes a psychological toll, even when we’re not directly affected. Studies show that when we feel threatened, we isolate ourselves and focus on restoring our sense of security.

Many people attempt to alleviate anxiety by grasping for wealth, seeking pleasure and taking solace in achievement or status. But this strategy backfires. Instead of bolstering our sense of security and well-being, it diminishes it.

Across cultures and regardless of age and gender, people whose values centre on social position and accumulation of money and possessions actually face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. In his book The High Price of Materialism, psychology professor Tim Kasser shows how materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.

People who are materialistic also tend to be less interested in ecological issues, have negative attitudes toward the environment and demonstrate fewer instances of sustainable behaviour. That’s a tragedy for humanity and the rest of life on Earth.

Cross-cultural research in social science has identified a set of consistently occurring human values. Social psychologists refer to one cluster as “extrinsic”, or materialistic. These are concerned with our desire for achievement, status, power and wealth. Opposite to those are “intrinsic” values. They relate to caring, community, environmental concern and social justice.

Although each of us carries both, the importance we attach to one set of values tends to diminish the importance of the other. When power values like social status, prestige and dominance come first, the universal values of tolerance, appreciation and concern for the welfare of others are suppressed.

The U.K.-based Common Cause Foundation is synthesizing this growing body of values research. It offers guidance to social change organizations on ways to engage cultural values to further their causes. Because values are like muscles — they get stronger the more we exercise them — activists can consciously stimulate intrinsic values in communications and campaigns.

Researchers have also discovered what they call the values “bleed-over effect”. Because values tend to exist in clusters, when one is activated, so are compatible neighbouring values. For example, people reminded of generosity, self-direction and family are more likely to support pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success and status.

The forces behind planetary crises are complex. History, politics and economics influence how humans act. Social change requires a focus on individual behaviour, corporate responsibility and government policy. In today’s unstable political environment, values must also be part of the equation.

That’s where we find an important connection between environmental and social justice movements. On a values level, the efforts and strategies to combat climate change and biodiversity loss complement and strengthen those required to bring about greater equality. When environmentalists invoke intrinsic values to increase support for their cause, they also increase support for social justice.

Because values are an important driver of attitudes and behaviour, they are essential to changing social norms. What can we do as individuals? Our social responsibility goes deeper than our consumer habits and voting choices. We need to reflect on what’s important to us. We all deserve to feel secure in our homes and communities, but we can’t depend on the false sense of security that isolation or materialistic pursuits bring. When psychological insecurity is on the rise, we need to stay committed to the values that make us environmentalists and champions of social justice. Instead of retreating to our corners, let’s turn toward one another to re-establish our sense of security and strength.

The good news is that values that support a healthy society and sustainable planet — self-respect, concern for others, connection with nature, equality — also make us happiest in the long term. Each one of us is a value prism, subtly bending the light in a particular direction. Let’s be conscious of where we direct our light.

From our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Public Engagement Specialist Aryne Sheppard.

*An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. “One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. “This same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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Regulating Abortion and Boating: A Modest Proposal by David A. Grimes 

"I Trust Women" bumper sticker from http://www.zazzle.co.nz/feminists+bumper+stickers

The recent avalanche of state abortion regulations (for the sole purpose of improving safety) has had the desired salutary effect. Indeed, thanks to the Republican Party’s preoccupation with gynecology, the risk of death from abortion has over the past decade gone from one death per 100,000 procedures to one death per 100,000 procedures. (The challenge was considerable, since getting lower than one is tough.) After the bevy of new restrictions, abortion today is safer than an injection of penicillin (as it was before the new regulations). Emboldened by their dramatic success in improving abortion safety, Republican-led state legislatures should now direct their medical expertise to non-gynecologic public health threats.

Danger in an abortion clinic?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the past decade the average number of deaths in the U.S. from legal abortion has been about 10 per year. Induced abortion and miscarriage remain the safest possible conclusions of pregnancy. In my home state of North Carolina, no abortion-related death has occurred in decades.

Danger on the high (and low) seas

In North Carolina, 16 persons have died in boating accidents in the first few months of 2015. In 2014, 26 persons died in boating accidents in the state. Most fell overboard and drowned, and most of these deaths could have been prevented had life jackets been worn.

Nationwide, 610 persons died in boating accidents in 2014, for a boating risk of death of 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered boats. Many of these deaths were preventable. Among drownings for which information was available, 84 percent of victims were not wearing a life jacket.

Time for new laws!

As these federal statistics reveal, each year about 60 times more Americans die from boating than from abortion. While the risks are not directly comparable, having a boat is clearly more dangerous than having an abortion. Hence, more boating regulations are needed. Modeled after the highly successful abortion regulation blitz, the following is a tongue-in-cheek legislative agenda for the Republican Party.

Boaters’ Right to Know Act

Because of the dangers involved, women must receive state-mandated counseling about boating safety before launching. A script written by part-time politicians in the state capital will advise boaters of the risks, benefits, and alternatives of boating. The state-scripted counseling must include the following:

  • Boating causes long-lasting psychological distress related to leaving terra firma (dubbed the “post-nautical stress syndrome”).
  • Government-issued nautical charts are unreliable; the earth is indeed flat, and boats routinely fall off the edge.
  • Wearing a life jacket increases the risk of breast cancer from friction with the chest.

Crisis Boating Centers

State-mandated counseling will refer potential boaters to information centers sponsored by golfing organizations opposed to boating. Proceeds from state-sponsored license plates saying “Choose golf” will subsidize these centers, which provide both on-site and Internet information about boating.

Ultrasound requirement

All boats must have an ultrasound transducer (sonar). The boat operator must provide a narrated description of the contours of the bottom of the river, lake, or ocean to women passengers before launching.

Hospital proximity

Boats can only be operated on waters within 30 miles of a hospital in the rare event that hospitalization of a passenger or crew member is needed.

Mandatory waiting periods

Because women boaters are flighty and irresponsible, a mandatory waiting period is required. A three-day wait sounds about right. For example, if a woman decides after work on Friday to take her children fishing, she could receive the obligatory state counseling about risk and then cast off from the dock… on Monday evening. She has the entire weekend to reflect on whether fishing was a prudent plan for her family.

Licensure

Only Coast Guard-licensed captains can operate boats (despite decades of evidence that such extensive training and experience are unnecessary).

Facilities

Since ambulatory surgical centers are (incorrectly) thought to be safer than abortion clinics, similar upgrades are needed for boating:

  • Only Coast Guard-inspected vessels may be used for recreational boating.
  • Boats must be at least 40 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a canvas or hard top for sun protection.
  • All boats must be equipped with a chart plotter, autopilot and radar.
  • Only diesel engines are allowed, since this fuel is less flammable than gasoline used in outboard engines.

Insurance

With state regulation of abortion coverage in health insurance as a model, states will determine which private insurance carriers can underwrite boat insurance policies. Insurance companies need legislative help.

Politics and public health

As Groucho Marx aptly noted, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

Dr. David A. Grimes is the author of Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation. He is the former Chief of the Abortion Surveillance Branch at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Source: Huffington Post 05/27/2015. Follow David A. Grimes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drdavidagrimes

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